Excerpt from The Animators: The Kotex Commercial

I am brought a copy of this month’s Animator’s Digest. They did an interview with us right before the panel discussion. We are photographed in the studio, Mel in oversized flannel and Docs, nineties-style, feet cocked up on the desk, a pencil between her teeth. I am positioned behind her to hide my gut chub and double chin. The version of me who could walk and talk and feed herself, who could cry with both sides of her face.

          I keep thinking about that picture as the MRI takes me into the tube, its machinery sliding me into the dark. Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses in their studio, Brooklyn, NY.

          Our Kotex commercial airs the same week the article is released. We were hired to design something “pad-centric” when Nashville Combat was in postproduction and we were subsisting on lentils and six-packs of PBR. We were instructed to steal some thunder from tampon usage with a “fun, lighthearted spot” showcasing the company’s new Super Light Close-to-You sanitary napkin. “Isn’t that a Carpenters song?” Mel said after they approached us.

          We like to work backward, usually starting with a character’s essence—the look, the feel, the sound. The shit they’d say. The way they walk—is it a swagger? A tiptoe? A duck shuffle? Do they have an inner-ear infection, a bum knee? Only then, when they have a body, do they make it to the lightboard. Some imagine themselves quickly, with slippery ease; they cannot wait to be born. Others, not at all. This is a tough one, because it’s a thing—or, moreover, a product—we have been hired to sell.

          When we’re stuck, like we were with Kotex, we talk it through. We retreat to the far end of the studio to toss a dirty pink Spalding ball Mel bought from a bodega back and forth. There’s something about watching the ball’s arc through the air, feeling its contact with the hand, that does something for thought. Ideas seem to come easier, the underlying wisdom of process and
plan appearing in flashes, silver minnow bellies in the waters of distraction.

          Mel tossed the ball in the air, let it drop, swooped down to cradle it. “I don’t know if I want to do this,” she complained.

          I clapped my hands, held them up to make the catch. “It’s thirty thousand.”

          “Dude, we just finished a fuckin movie. I’m tired. Come on.”

          “We need the money.” I wound up, then threw it soft, a perfect parabola. “I need you to want to.”

          She caught it, kept it. Jumped up and down. Rubbed her eyes. “What do they want,” she bleated.

          “You know what they said. Glorify the Kotex. They said empower the Kotex, if memory serves.”

          “So basically we’re trying to market a half diaper for grown-ass women here.”

          “Exactly. So think. How do we empower pads?”

          Mel turned. Tossed the ball against the wall. It thocked, came back. “Make em fight.”

          “I’m not sure we should make them living things.”

          “Or should we? Dude. Vampire Kotex.”


          “Or this. Ladies and gals, on their cycles, in a brawl. Wearing super-absorbent Kotex while throwing down.” She winged the ball up the wall again, harder. “One of em swinging a chain around like, YAAH! Kotex: Soak Up the Rage!”

          “Softer tagline, maybe?”

          She ran a hand through her hair, squinted into the middle distance. Said slowly, “Kotex: As Tough as You Are.”

          And there it was. We blocked the commercial quickly, posting a fierce little storyboard in a night, pacing out the images. Me rearranging the frames to form a tiny, ten-second arc ending with the tagline in voiceover, hovering over it for a couple of hours before calling it good. Mel started inbetweening the next morning and I joined in, letting the sketches pile and multiply.

          Later that week, Mel called a bunch of people over to record sound, Surly Cathie directing, me feeding them cues and beer. Making the sound of a shitstorm is no big deal with equipment as bad as ours; for the purposes of a fight, with feedback slicing in and out, working with crap really paid off. For some of the scenes, we piled into our closet to yell and punch against our winter coats. Surly Cathie and Fart and the interns got loaded and made war cries at each other. The night ended with Fart putting his nutsack through an uncooked pizza crust, flashing the interns, and almost breaking our lightboard by flicking the button on and off and screaming, “It’s a disco inferno!” All in all, one of the quickest, cleanest projects we’ve ever

          And now the commercial is airing late-night on Cartoon Network. Mel flaps around, an unlit cigarette tucked behind her ear, and gathers some nurses together to watch: It’s a girl-ongirl gang fight in squiggling, exciting neon, loud and short and sharp. Lots of big hollering,vermilion yelling mouths, magenta tongues. It’s good. Short but precise, clean, alive. Kotex: As Tough as You Are. Everyone claps.

          It hits me how badly I want to get back to work, how much I’ve been missing it. The anticipation before a new project. Envisioning it in the confines of your own head, intangible, a whiff of itself, two steps from a daydream. Then, through work and love and sheer fucking will, it becomes real. If you’re lucky, what you’ve made will be better than anything your flimsy
imagination could have put together.

          I want to see Mel work again. The way she looks at a sketch when it’s done—raking her hands through her hair, cracking her knuckles, muttering, “All right. Next.” I live for that moment. Live for the way seeing her work makes me want to work, and work more, work better, work more deeply.

          I suddenly miss it so fiercely my stomach cramps. My eyes start to water. Mel leans in. “What is it?”

          I shake my head.

          “Are you on your cycle? Wanna fight?” She crumples her empty soda can in her fist, wings it gently at me. Says low, “Seriously. You okay?”

          The nurses file out, patting me on the shoulder, agreeing that it was unlike any other Kotex commercial they’ve ever seen.

          Mel waits until we’re alone. Looks hard at me, says, “You sure you’re all right?” I nod. She takes a deep breath, and for a moment I’m positive she’s going to ask about the List, request that I tell her just what the hell she found, exactly, and what it means. What I’ve been doing.

          But she doesn’t. She gives me a soft noogie instead and, closing the blinds, leaves to let me go to sleep.


From the book The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker. Copyright © 2016 by Kayla Rae Whitaker. Publisher by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved. To purchase your copy of the book, visit Carmichael's Bookstore. 

To read our interview with Kayla Rae Whitaker, click here.

KAYLA RAE WHITAKER’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lenny, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, and others. The Animators was named a best debut novel of 2017 by Entertainment Weekly and a best book of 2017 by NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and BookPage. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and New York University. After many years of living in Brooklyn, she returned to Kentucky, her home state, in 2016.