Seeking Mavis Beacon Pulls the Curtain Back on an Online Legend
The Sundance doc explores the mystery of Mavis Beacon, the woman who taught a generation to type before disappearing forever.
If you came of age somewhere between the late ’80s and the mid-’90s, it’s likely you owe a debt of some sort to Mavis Beacon. The face of the typing program Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing! is known today as an unsung icon for Internet Babies. She was one of the first Black female avatars in cyberspace, and has since become a fixture in the zeitgeist. Her impact cannot be overstated, even if she’s... not actually real.
“Mavis” was actually the creation of Software Toolworks, a then-minor tech company that later became famous for their accessible, anthromorphized teaching program. Her likeness was borrowed from Renée L’Espérance, a Haitian-born woman discovered behind the cosmetics counter of a Saks Fifth Avenue. Software Toolworks co-founder Joe Abrams, along with chairman Les Crane, commissioned her to model for their new course. One photo shoot and a flat fee of $500 later, Mavis Beacon was born.
But what of L’Espérance? According to a decades-old piece in The Seattle Times, she’s never collected any residuals. She hasn’t been seen in over 20 years, not by any of Software Toolworks’ founding members, and certainly not by anyone who’d been deluded into thinking that Mavis was a real person — despite the persistence of our collective memory. A sort of Mandela effect has grown around the character since. Some claim to have encountered her at typing conventions. Others say she runs a successful school. More still are shocked to learn that, like Aunt Jemima or Betty Crocker, she was never actually real. But does that make her any less significant, or L’Espérance any less deserving of recognition?
It’s these questions that director Jazmin Jones and producer Olivia McKayla Ross hope to answer in Seeking Mavis Beacon, an unconventional documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Jones and Ross have dedicated the past five years to uncovering the mystery behind Mavis Beacon. Their efforts began as a grassroots investigation, complete with missing person flyers, a Mavis Beacon Tipline, and rituals designed to reach L’Espérance from the spiritual plane.
Seeking follows the pair of “e-girl investigators” on their quest for the truth, but it’s a bit more than a straightforward documentary. At points, Seeking takes on the qualities of a vlog or Tumblr post, following Jones and Ross as they assemble their headquarters in a defunct Oakland office space, recording their respective screens as they FaceTime, and superimposing some of the internet’s most iconic reaction videos in place of personal statements. The latter serves as an excellent shorthand for the filmmakers’ mental state, broadcasting the toll of their investigation as their quest grows more quixotic and unearths uncomfortable truths about identity, tech, and emotional labor.
That Mavis was one of the first Black faces in AI is not lost on the filmmakers one bit. If anything, it’s what drew Jones and Ross — and a handful of their interview subjects — to the character in the first place. “It was nice to see a familiar face, and that’s priceless,” one Mavis fan explains in the film. “With [Mavis] being Black, I feel like I’m at least being engaged in conversation and there’s space for me to think about what’s happening.”
As Jones told Mashable in 2021, Mavis’ very existence allowed the Black girls of the aughts to project their own bodies into a liminal, online space. Early iterations of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing featured her pixelated hands typing out commands on screen. It might have been the first use of a Black avatar in any sort of computer program. “You couldn’t even get that in Pokémon games,” Jones stated. “It’s a real visualization of my body in this realm, and it’s so seamless.”
Mavis’ existence is personal for so many, and Seeking goes to lengths to contextualize that connection. Jones describes their investigation as a “wellness check,” but it’s also an effort to confront the less ethical implications of her legacy. Jones and Ross interrogate Mavis’ surviving creators about L’Espérance’s discovery and subsequent rise to fame, questioning the ethos of their intentions. Why choose a Black woman to be the face of this program?
Developer Walt Bilofsky describes Mavis’ creation as a “right place, right time” situation. “I would like to claim that back in 1987, we were totally woke,” he admits. It was Les Crane who suggested a Black female model “as a marketing thing” — and it’s that choice of words, however well-intentioned, that leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
From there, Seeking dives into the complicated, often exploitative role that Black women have played within tech and without. Ross worries that Mavis takes after the Mammy archetype, one of the earlier examples of “servile fembots” that have since been deconstructed in pop culture staples like Westworld. For all our efforts to bridge the gap between the “real” and hyperreal, however, Black female subjects are still no more removed from our most dehumanizing tropes.
That revelation is mirrored in the lives of our filmmakers, as Jones struggles to preserve the dignity of her mission and Ross grapples with chronic illness. As their search trudges on, it becomes less a question of whether L’Espérance is still around and whether she actually wants to be found. It’s not an easy actuality to come to terms with, especially after investing so much into the search for this missing woman.
Jones describes her journey now as “humbling,” while audiences may find the results of their search a bit anticlimactic. But as Seeking pulls its scope further and further back, to focus on the inner lives of its documentarians and their personal feelings, it becomes something truly special. It becomes more of a portrait of a community. It takes great care to balance Jones and Ross’ inner internet worlds with the one outside. They speak to real people about Mavis’ impact and their own autonomy, not just academic with an interest in online footprints, or theorists with their own opinions on Black figures in AI — though Seeking does an amazing job depicting both. It results in a genuinely thought-provoking intersection of internet culture and minority studies, and one of the most interesting docs in years.