Mavis Beacon taught the world to type.
Starting in the late 1980s, a software program featuring the eponymous instructor drilled computer users on their keyboard skills, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide. But it often comes as a shock to find out that Beacon never really existed. A triumph of the advertisers’ art, the typing teacher was an entirely fictional creation. And the image of Beacon that resonates most deeply, the photo of a Black woman in business attire that appears on the packaging, actually belongs to Renee L’Esperance, a Haitian model who was paid a measly $500 for her work and didn’t get to share in any royalties from the game’s success (she’d later sue when her image was altered on subsequent editions).
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Decades after the program debuted, Beacon’s outsized influence is being reexamined in “Seeking Mavis Beacon,” a documentary that premiered last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. In it, director Jazmin Jones and associate producer Olivia McKayla Ross explore the creation of the influential marketing campaign, as well as the impact that Beacon has had on tech history. Real or imagined, she did have a symbolic significance. People still try to book “Mavis” for speaking engagements, and there’s a cottage industry of deepfakes that show her getting shoutouts in Halle Berry’s Oscar acceptance speech or receiving honors from President Obama for her trailblazing work.
Initially, Beacon’s appeal, particularly in terms of L’Esperance’s appearance on the boxes of the program, was complicated. It varied depending on the consumer considering buying a copy of the typing tutorial.
“Her Blackness was a part of the marketing,” Jones notes. “And the company’s main goal was to get people to pick up the game in stores. And that worked in different ways. For some people, she was a sign of upward mobility of Black folks at that time, where it’s like, ‘We’re in a colorblind society. This Black woman is the best.’ But also if you wanted to have Black people in subservient positions, it was a comfortable fit, right? It’s actually perfect. Regardless of where you stand politically or in terms of identity politics, you could latch on to something with the game.”
The movie is structured like an e-detective story, with Jones and Ross working to track down L’Esperance, who has declined interview requests over the years and doesn’t maintain any kind of social media presence. But it becomes something richer and knottier than a simple cinematic investigation into an elusive subject — Jones and Ross struggle over the morality of violating L’Esperance’s privacy. After all, she chose to retreat from public view, so shouldn’t her decision be respected?
“I was really worried,” Jones admits. “I didn’t want to encourage other crews who maybe aren’t as concerned about ethics to just continue knocking on people’s doors and shoving cameras in their faces. It’s a landmine. It can be nice to help people tell their own stories. But you also have to know when to back down if that is not what they want.”
And the people that Jones and Ross encounter along the way, programmers and marketers involved in the development of the software and the creation of its landmark marketing campaign, don’t always have a good answer for why L’Esperance didn’t get to profit from the success of “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.” It essentially boils down to “Well, that’s a shame” or “A contract is a contract.”
“When I speak to people on the street and tell them about how Renee modeled for the game and it only paid her $500, instantly everyone gets it,” says Jones. “It’s like, no matter where you’re coming from, no matter if you know the game, you’re just like, ‘Oh shit, what’s going on with that?'”
Neon, the indie distributor behind “Parasite” and “Triangle of Sadness,” backed “Seeking Mavis Beacon” and will release it in theaters.
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