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31 December 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 10: Beauty and the Beast

For who could ever learn to love a beast?

The "Beauty and the Beast" story is, indeed, a tale as old as time. The myth of Cupid and Psyche, "The Girl Who Married a Snake" from India, and A Midsummer Night's Dream are some of the early precursors to the French versions with which we are more familiar. The French "Belle et la Bête" was first written by Madame de Villeneuve, but the condensed version which is more popularly used and adapted was edited by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. Interestingly, this is to date the only fairytale Disney adapted which is most popularly attributed to women writers; though, of course, most if not all of the Grimms and Perrault's versions were told to them by women, the names of these women are largely lost to history. "Beauty and the Beast" retains its link to female storytellers, and to this day it is one of the most often-used fairytales in feminist retellings, such as Angela Carter's "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride," and Emma Donoghue's "The Tale of the Rose."

I think by and large Disney's adaptation of "Belle et la Bête" is their best fairytale adaptation. While it isn't as widely criticized as The Little Mermaid, it definitely has its detractors. There are some definite advantages to the primary source material being written by a woman, so I think this film had a bit of a head start compared to the Grimms-, Perrault-, and Andersen-based movies. But I also think that what Disney tried to portray with the characters in this film was truly excellent and well-executed to boot. That isn't to say it's perfect, but for me, it is definitely the closest to perfect of all Disney's fairytale adaptations.

Let's start with our heroine. In the various fairytale versions, Belle (also called Bella or simply Beauty) is the youngest of a number of children (some versions condense this to three daughters, others simply have "numerous" sons and daughters), and most beloved of them all. Her father, a merchant, leaves on some business reason (again, each version varies) and his children ask him to bring them back all sorts of fancy and expensive things. Belle asks for nothing but a single rose. On his return journey, the merchant rests at what appears to be an empty castle, but runs into the Beast when attempting to take a rose from the garden for Belle. At this point in some versions the Beast tells the merchant he may go but must return with the first thing he sees upon returning home (which, of course, is Belle, running out to greet him), but in the Villeneuve and Beaumont versions, the Beast insists that whichever of his children he brings back must come willingly. This is echoed in the Disney version when Belle volunteers herself in her father's place as prisoner, despite her father's protestations. Disney choosing to use the version in which Belle makes the decision highlights one of the most important aspects of her character, both in the film and the early French versions: her bravery. In fact, in the Villeneuve version, it is repeated several times that Belle is "brave and cheerful" and that she "bravely answer[s] that she will stay." Belle's very posture in the scene in the dungeon shows that she is steadfast and courageous, and that she is making this decision herself. This is a common trait in the Disney Renaissance princesses, in stark contrast to the early princesses.

Belle's steadfastness also manifests as stubbornness, but this is not portrayed as a flaw, per se. At the Beast's brusque and gruff treatment, she refuses to see him or interact with him, despite his angry threats. Belle does not put up with this treatment from the Beast and it is not until the Beast changes his behavior that Belle chooses to interact with him. Belle did not put up with Gaston's behavior, nor does she put up with the Beast's. The difference is that the Beast changes, with much nudging and assistance from Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts.

Many adaptations do focus on the Beauty learning to love the Beast as he is, which is where the Stockholm Syndrome accusations come in. If the Beast continued to treat her the way he did at their first meeting and she "learned to love" him despite him bursting into furious tantrums when she refuses to eat dinner with him, that accusation might have some merit. And indeed, in other versions of the story where the Beast changes absolutely nothing about himself and the heroine is expected to just change her mind about him and learn to deal with his atrocious behavior, that diagnosis rings truer. But Disney actually took the right route here, having the Beast be the one to learn to be gentle, kind, patient, and loving. This is the kind of behavior to which Belle responds. Does this still kind of imply that Belle is a reward for good behavior? Sure, and that's troubling. But I think it is way more commendable to portray the Beast changing his behavior than simply the Beauty changing her mind. Both versions have fairytale precedent, and Disney chose the right one.

Disney's version also includes many other female characters, notably the Enchantress and Mrs. Potts. The Enchantress is an interesting case, as I've discussed before. We don't see much of her in the film at all, and her moral alignment is a matter of debate. In Villeneuve's story, she is referred to as an "evil fairy." (Beaumont leaves out the character entirely and refers only to the "terrible enchantment," not the enchanter.) I've seen some speculation about the Enchantress being Belle's mother in disguise, making sure her daughter's future husband was worthy of her, and I've also seen speculation that the Enchantress was just plain evil, putting this curse on a young boy who didn't know better (or was just not allowing strangers into his home, which - fair enough). I can't say I much care for the headcanon of the Enchantress being Belle's mother, creative though it is; reliance on fate and destiny in storytelling tends to bore me. But as we have very little canon to go on for Disney's Enchantress, it is interesting that people are debating it so much. Other female characters such as Mrs. Potts and Babette get more screen time but aren't really fully-developed characters. Mrs. Potts in particular is instrumental in the Beast's journey, of course, but this makes her more of a plot device than a completely realized character.

This being a Disney film, ultimately the Beauty and the Beast, of course, end up with each other, the Beast having transformed to avoid any untidy bestiality implications. Interestingly, some adaptations either leave the Beast as he is or have the Beauty disappointed when he turns into a human. Neither of those would have worked for a family film, though. As mentioned previously, it is troubling that the prince is essentially rewarded with Belle, and that is something direct from the fairytale itself. Women as trophies for good behavior is a trope that's - wait for it - old as time, and fairytales ending in romantic togetherness is pretty much something that happens across the board. Belle is a strong and admirable character - I'm biased, obviously she's my favourite - but the journey here is the Beast's, not hers. She saves him, she is truly the heroine, but it's not her story, really. Disney's story is about the Beast learning to love himself as well as others, and it's a wonderful story well-told with funny, interesting, lovable characters. I don't think Disney's done as well with any other fairytale adaptations, and though I hope for more in the future, sentimentally this one will always hold the highest place in my heart.

01 December 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 9: The Little Mermaid

But who cares? No big deal. I want more.

The trope of silenced women in folklore and fairytales is one with a very long history. Women's speech in general has long been denigrated, talkative women reduced to gossips, demanding women to nags, even the term "old wives' tales" that goes hand-in-hand with folklore and fairytales is often used to dismiss fantastical or unbelievable stories as simply the talk of women, unimportant and unworthy of regard. In the 16th century play, "The Old Wives' Tale" by George Peele, a woman who says "A woman without a tongue is as a soldier without his weapon," ends by being struck mute, much to the delight of her husband. Women's words are feared, loathed, and generally found annoying and/or unnecessary.

Arguably the most talked-about aspect of The Little Mermaid is the loss of the mermaid's voice. In the Disney film she loses it by magic, but in the Hans Christian Andersen original story her tongue is actually cut out, removing the possibility of regaining her voice altogether. Were this a much earlier story, say, a contemporary of "The Old Wives' Tale" or things of that ilk, this sort of thing would be played for laughs, but Andersen's tone suggests deep sympathy and tragedy. Andersen isn't laughing at the little mermaid, nor do we laugh at Ariel.

The Disney film has garnered criticism (possibly more so than the fairytale, but that's debatable) for suggesting that women should be silent if they want men to like them, but I don't think that's really something the filmmakers were trying to say. What The Little Mermaid is "really" about has been the subject of some debate, and theories have included an exploration of Andersen's depression (I haven't studied Andersen himself yet nearly as much as I'd like to, but my understanding is that Andersen definitely suffered from some form of mental illness, probably depression, possibly depression in conjunction with other things - any Andersen scholars out there feel free to correct me!), an illustration of Andersen's struggle with unrequited love, and expanding on that last one, an illustration of Andersen's struggle with his sexual orientation. I find this last one the most compelling argument and the best explanation of the muted mermaid; his letters reveal several infatuations with men that don't appear to have gone anywhere, and it's likely Andersen felt unable to speak of his deep sadness in these rejections. Andersen writing the mermaid as himself would seem to make sense: the pain in every step, the inability to make his thoughts and feelings known, the consistent love of people who never love him back. If Andersen indeed wrote the mermaid as a self-image, it's not likely he meant to use the silenced woman trope to make any comments about women (though, again, I'm not as much of an Andersen scholar as I want to be, and if Andersen had any strong feelings on the status of women in the patriarchy, they are as yet unknown to me, so please feel free to enlighten me). The fact remains that it is a trope, and, whether or not he intended to, he did contribute to a certain depiction of women. I do think it's worth noting, though, that it's unlikely Andersen was either trying to say women should be silent if they want men's attentions or that it's a tragedy that women have to be silent if they want men's attentions. The crux of the debate over the Disney film seems to be over that matter, and I think that's something that doesn't have a basis in the original fairytale for us to fall back on.

Moving onward, Ariel herself is an interesting characterization of Andersen's mermaid. In the fairytale, the unnamed mermaid is the youngest of six sisters, each of whom are allowed to go to the surface on their 15th birthday. The youngest loves everything about the world up there far more than her sisters and demands details and stories from them every time they return from the surface. When it's finally her turn, she goes to the surface, sees the prince, and immediately falls in love. Like this mermaid, Ariel is also established as a lover of all things outside the sea before even meeting the prince, although it is the prince that provides the impetus for becoming human. Ariel is often criticized for giving up her life with her family just for the prince, and while that is a mostly valid criticism, we do see that Ariel wants more than what she has in her life under the sea even before meeting Eric. There's also some blame to be laid at Triton's fins (I'm funny), as Ariel might not have been stirred enough to visit Ursula had Triton not yelled at her and destroyed all her belongings. The king in the story has no fear nor hatred of the upper world, so this is solely a Disney invention. Triton's treatment of Ariel is absolutely terrifying, and not just to the audience; after Ariel gets her voice back and Ursula drags her back underwater, Triton confronts Ursula and Ariel is visibly terrified, her voice shaking as she says, "I'm sorry, Daddy, I didn't mean to." Had Triton been gentler with his daughter, talked to her instead of yelling at her and destroying everything she had, or, better yet, been open with her from the beginning negating the necessity for her to hide all her things, would Ariel have made a different choice? It's hard to say and barely worth debating. But it is worth noting that Ariel is a 16 year-old whose father's treatment of her actually terrified her so to put all the blame squarely on her shoulders is to miss a large influence on her decision-making.

One character missing from Disney's adaptation is the mermaid's grandmother, to whom the mermaid seems closer than she is to her father. Andersen's mermaid's mother is dead, as is Ariel's, but Andersen's mermaid still has a maternal figure in her life whereas Ariel does not. The mermaid talks to her grandmother about the differences between merfolk and mortals, and her grandmother says it is much better to be a merperson and advises her granddaughter not to pursue change. But, of course, we know she doesn't heed her grandmother's advice. That maternal presence doesn't seem to make a difference to the mermaid's choice, and thus it's hard to say what Ariel's mother's presence might have done for Ariel, if anything. She might have been able to temper Triton, but that's speculative.

Ursula is more of a departure from Andersen's sea witch than Ariel is from the mermaid. Andersen's sea witch has no agenda, no beef with the sea king, she doesn't pursue the mermaid nor try to convince her to become human. In fact, Andersen's sea witch does more to try to discourage the mermaid than goad her into it. She tells the mermaid what a terrible idea it is, that it will bring her nothing but misery, but the mermaid is determined so the sea witch does what is asked of her. When the mermaid's sisters beg the sea witch for some way to save their sister, she again complies. She's more of a neutral character than a villain. Ursula, on the other hand, has been banished from Triton's court for some unknown reason and seeks vengeance on Triton by using Ariel. Ursula speeds along Ariel's failure by putting herself in the place of the prince's love in the fairytale - quite different from the sea witch making one last attempt to save the mermaid through her sisters. Though Ursula's very different from her fairytale counterpart, she's fascinating in her own right. I recognize my bias in that women with revenge narratives are across the board my favourites, but the desire for a Ursula's backstory seems to be pretty widespread.

The Little Mermaid marks the beginning of Disney's return to heavy reliance on fairytales and the revival of the Whole Princess Deal. In many ways it's one of the most interesting fairytale adaptations Disney's done, even glossing over the tragic ending as they did. Ariel is also a leading lady in a way that previous fairytale princesses in Disney movies really weren't; Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora really didn't do a whole lot when you look at them in comparison to Ariel. Ariel is strong-willed, determined, curious, and brave, if hot-tempered and not very thoughtful. But Ariel is definitely a different breed of Disney princess than her predecessors, and the princesses after her are more in her vein. The success of The Little Mermaid gave rise to a new kind of Disney heroine, one we continue to see to this day.

Note: Wow, it's been just under two months since I last updated. Sorry! I work in retail so November got pretty hellish. But there were 30 years between Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid so it's...thematic...in a way...? Anyway, Beauty and the Beast is up next, it's my very favourite and I'm very excited to write about it. Hopefully it won't take quite so long!

06 October 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 8: Sleeping Beauty

You'll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream.

It's interesting to look at which fairytales are the most popular, the most enduring, and the most adapted. When there are stories all over the world of women and young girls fighting forces of evil and magic, saving themselves and their families with their intelligence, strength, cleverness, and steely resolve, why are the ones with passive female protagonists so popular? And particularly, what it is about sleeping beauties?

The history of folklore is absolutely full of women in long and/or enchanted sleeps awaiting men to awake them. Some of the oldest are Brynhildr of Norse mythology and Sittukhan from "The Ninth Captain's Tale" in The 1001 Nights. Giambattista Basile's "Sole, Luna, e Talia" or "Sun, Moon, and Talia" very clearly influenced Perrault's "La Belle au Bois Dormant," which the Grimms cleaned up considerably for their version, "Briar Rose." Basile's story begins with the already-married king raping the sleeping princess, Talia, who awakens after the birth of her twins. The king stops to check in on them later, finds Talia and the twins, and returns home, speaking of them often. The queen jealously demands her servant find and kill the children and feed them to the king, but the servant cannot bear to kill the children and kills goats in their stead. The queen decides she must have Talia dead, too, and prepares a fire in the courtyard in which to burn Talia to death. Naturally the king appears at the last moment to save Talia, they discover the children still alive and well, and the queen is herself burned in the flames. Perrault's version changes the king's first wife into the king's mother, because cannibalism and rape are acceptable, but adultery is where we cross the line. Interestingly, the Grimms have a fragment story, "The Evil Mother-in-Law," which includes Perrault's queen mother, but the heroine, not the cook, suggests serving animals instead of the children. The story was not finished and never published.

What the Grimms did publish, however, is much closer to the Disney film of 1959 than Perrault's version. Where Basile and Perrault have their heroines wake up closer to the beginning, maybe just a little before the halfway mark of the story, Briar Rose's awakening is the climax of the Grimms' version. Briar Rose as a story seems to fit better with the Disney formula for fairytale movies; obviously they weren't going to have a cannibalistic queen or mother-in-law gleefully devouring her rival's children or her grandchildren. The Grimms also have Briar Rose awakened by a kiss, which was not, in fact, common to sleeping beauty stories; Talia and Sittukhan were awakened by the piece of flax being removed from their fingers, and Perrault's heroine awakes after 100 years, with the prince conveniently already kneeling before her. While Basile's story involves literal rape, the Grimms' story is often credited with introducing the unsavoury sexual aspect to the story. All things considered, the kiss is a lot less unsavoury than its predecessors, but it does introduce the idea that Briar Rose's story is one of sexual awakening rather than just growing up in general. And it is noteworthy that Disney, despite claiming Perrault to be their primary (well, secondary - they claim Tchaikovsky's ballet as the basis for the movie, but the ballet claims to be based on Perrault while actually depicting more accurately the Grimms' version) influence, used the Grimms' awakening device and the Grimms' shortened story.

You'll notice there hasn't been much discussion of the evil being in the story, and that's largely because she mostly does not matter in the fairytales. Maleficent's prominent villain status in the film is largely original to Disney. In the fairytale versions, occasionally there are wise men or women who prophesy the princess's death due to flax or hemp, but the ones that directly inspired Maleficent were the tales involving a number (ranging from 3 to 13) of fairies, all but one of whom were invited, and the uninvited one showing up and cursing the princess. Unlike Maleficent, however, after the curse, they disappear. They do not hound the prince attempting to rescue her, they do not search for her during her adolescence, they do not appear in the story at all, not to gloat, not to turn into dragons, nothing. Of course, that makes for a pretty boring villain in a film, so Maleficent was given a much bigger role. There is not much in the fairytale past on which Disney was drawing, though. It's even hard to draw parallels between Maleficent and the cannibalistic wife/mother of Basile/Perrault. The fairytale women were motivated by jealousy of usurpation in the king's love, which is really not a concern of Maleficent's (consciously ignoring the 2014 film). Maleficent in the 1959 film seems to draw more on a much more ancient tradition in folklore and mythology of the actual devil or an actual demon being the villain of the piece: evil itself as the opponent. Maleficent, the mistress of all evil, she and all the powers of hell: she is the ultimate evil, the ultimate opposition, she has no superficial motivation, she is just bad. She and Chernabog from Fantasia are, unless I am forgetting another one, the only times Disney has used the actual devil as the villain, and Chernabog doesn't have the story or, you know, speaking role that Maleficent has. Maleficent is fascinating, as a character and as a device in the film. But talking about "Maleficent in the fairytale" is just false on its face. There is no Maleficent in the fairytales. But damn, that would've been something.

On the topic of devices, though, that's really all Aurora amounts to. While Cinderella had much more of a personality to her than Snow White, Aurora feels like a small step back. Aurora barely has any lines, and we don't learn very much about her as a person. We skip all of her growing up. We see she can be a little cheeky, she's definitely curious (something common to all sleeping beauties, which often results in their initial demise), but the biggest thing about her is her beautiful voice and her physical beauty. That's why Philip goes after her, that's why she gets saved. And that's why the story gets so much feminist criticism. Perrault is particularly, unsurprisingly, pointed in his moral of "La Belle au Bois Dormant:"

A brave, rich, handsome husband is a prize well worth waiting for; but no modern woman would think it was worth waiting for a hundred years. The tale of the Sleeping Beauty shows how long engagements make for happy marriages, but young girls these days want so much to be married I do not have the heart to press the moral.

Yeah, those wacky kids not wanting to wait 100 years to get married. Things were better in the days when women were content to sit around doing nothing waiting for their husbands to appear! SIGH. It's more or less impossible to defend sleeping beauty stories, particularly the ones popular since and including Disney's film. Their continued popularity is baffling. Stories that so clearly uphold patriarchal gender expectations do not speak to modern times or modern people. These stories do not reflect the world we have, nor do they reflect the world we want. Perhaps it's merely nostalgia? (Legitimate question. I have no idea. That is my only guess.) In fact, at the time Sleeping Beauty was not a great success for Disney, and the next time they'd return to fairytales wasn't until 30 years later with The Little Mermaid.

07 September 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 7: Cinderella

If you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.

I don't know if it's just that there are more versions of Cinderella out there or if that's just what I've stumbled upon most, but I've definitely read more versions of Cinderella than any other fairytale. The oldest recorded Cinderella-type stories we have are the Greek/Egyptian "Rhodopis" and the 9th-century Chinese "Yeh-Shen," and Cinderella stories can be found in almost every culture around the world, many almost as old as Yeh-Shen. Cinderella is also one of the most-used fairytales in modern reimaginings and revisionist fairytales; a quick run through your local bookstore's young adult section will probably turn up no less than 20 Cinderella re-writes, including but not limited to Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, Malinda Lo's Ash, and Marissa Meyer's Cinder. And in this world absolutely saturated with versions of Cinderella from China to Scotland to Russia to Mexico to India, Disney chose the unarguably most boring version of Cinderella to adapt.

Okay, perhaps that's a bit harsh. I should note as a disclaimer I really don't like Perrault. But the heroines of Cinderella-type fairytales tend to be my very favourites, and Perrault's is a distinct exception to that rule. The heroines of other Cinderella stories tend to be very self-reliant, resourceful, witty, mischievous, and in many cases, really funny. The English Cap O'Rushes secretly goes to the ball and returns home before the rest of her family, and when they tell her that she missed the most beautiful lady at the ball, who was, of course, Cap O'Rushes, she professes over and over how dearly she would have loved to be at the ball and see this wonderful lady. The heroine of the Middle Eastern "The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold" convinces her father to marry the nice woman who turns into her evil stepmother, and when the heroine realises this, she says, "I picked up the scorpion with my own hand; I'll save myself with my own mind." These sorts of Cinderellas are the architects of their own escapes and their own stories, and their happy endings come from their own work. Perrault's Cendrillon is put to work, but she doesn't manufacture her own escape and her story relies on other people pushing it forward for her.

Many Cinderellas do have some things in common with Perrault's Cendrillon, however. The story "Little Gold Star" is attributed pretty much everywhere from New Mexico to South America, and the heroine of that story is rewarded for her obedience and gentle nature. The Grimms' "Aschenputtel" and the Russian "Vasilisa the Beautiful" feature heroines who obediently follow their mothers' dying wishes for them to be good and kind. Perrault makes much of Cendrillon being "a good girl," quietly and patiently enduring all manner of unkindness and never saying so much as "boo" to anyone or anything. It's another Snow White situation; while kindness is certainly something we want to have, there comes a point where unfailing kindness leads to putting up with horrific abuse - a situation which is made much clearer in Cinderella than in Snow White.

Disney's Cinderella does at least have more of a personality than Snow White did, but she's still more or less the same as her fairytale counterpart. Cendrillon is rewarded for putting up with abuse silently and not allowing her situation to shake her kindness. She relies on her fairy godmother to get her what she wants. She doesn't have a whole lot to do in Perrault's version. Perrault leaves explicit morals at the end of his stories, and Cendrillon, in fact, has two:

Beauty is a fine thing in a woman; it will always be admired. But charm is beyond price and worth more, in the long run. When her godmother dressed Cendrillon up and told her how to behave at the ball, she instructed her in charm. Lovely ladies, this gift is worth more than a fancy hairdo; to win a heart, to reach a happy ending, charm is the true gift of the fairies. Without it, one can achieve nothing; with it, everything.

Another Moral
It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, well-born, sensible and have other similar talents given only by heaven. But however great may be your god-given store, they will never help you to get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or a godmother to put them to work for you.

Remembering that Perrault's audience was upper-class French society and the court of Louis XIV, we can at least see why he advocates "charm" in the form of quiet, obedient, kind, inactive women. That does not excuse him, especially remembering that his predecessors and contemporaries still managed to write strong Cinderellas. The second moral is particularly egregious, and seems to be a direct response to the hordes of intelligent, brave, sensible Cinderellas. Perrault seems to be even advocating against those heroines, encouraging talented women not to try to do anything for themselves. I'm not saying Perrault has a deep-seated fear of strong women, but...

Speaking of that fairy godmother, Disney's version, just like Perrault's, kind of pops out of nowhere. She makes more sense in other Cinderella stories where she's either explicitly or implicitly a magical reappearance of the heroine's dead mother. In "Aschenputtel" she takes the form of a hazel tree, in "Vasilisa the Beautiful" she's a doll, in "The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold" she's the fish, etc. etc. The dead mother reappears to aid her daughter from beyond the grave, which is still kind of a deus ex machina mechanic but at least makes more sense than a random fairy godmother popping out of nowhere. Some stories have no supernatural element coming in to help the heroine; Cap O' Rushes merely cleans herself up and puts on a nice dress (the origin of which is unknown). The theme of motherly love and devotion even from beyond the grave is a sentiment probably introduced to comfort children who had lost their mothers, which was certainly a much more common occurrence in the past.

Step-families were also a common occurrence, as they remain today. Losing a wife in childbirth was common, and so was re-marrying. I talked more about the evil stepmother trope in Part 2, so I won't rehash that here too much. In pretty much every version of Cinderella, the evil stepmother is trying to prioritise her own children over the heroine, presumably to secure her own legacy or to raise her family out of poverty or just to raise them socially because being royalty is a sweet gig. The ideal stepmother would have included the heroine in this goal, and had Cinderella been included in her stepmother's scheming, would we see the stepmother as evil? Would she just be a mother who wouldn't stop at anything to secure a future for her family? It's possible. But her exclusion of her husband's children is what makes her cruel, and I don't suppose there's much of a story if Cinderella is treated as one of her stepmother's children, so it's all speculative.

Disney's sequels to Cinderella explore the idea of one of the stepsisters being secretly kind-hearted, which is actually something that has precedence in the fairytales, if just barely. Perrault's Cendrillon is initially called "Cinderbritches," but the younger stepsister, "who was less spiteful than the older one," softened it to Cinderella/Cendrillon. In other versions of the story, the stepsisters' point of view is not really explored and the stepmother is the main villain of the piece. While they go along with their mothers' wishes, we don't always see them really acting out on Cinderella. Sometimes the stepsisters do give her cruel nicknames and lots of chores, but often it's just the stepmother. The stepsister in "The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold" never says a word, but through her mother's machinations, she ends the story with her hair falling out and smelling like "lifting the cover off a grave." Aschenputtel's stepsisters obey their mother and hack off parts of their feet to fit in the shoe, and their obedience is rewarded with having their eyes pecked out by birds at Aschenputtel's wedding. "Little Gold Star" has her stepsisters growing donkey ears and cow horns out of their foreheads. Perrault's unfailingly kind Cendrillon invites her stepsisters to her wedding and fixes them up with "great lords." The stepmother rarely gets such gruesome ends. Perrault doesn't mention what happens to the stepmother, nor do the Grimms. Little Gold Star's stepmother even gets invited to the wedding. On the other hand, Vasilisa's stepmother gets turned into a pile of ash by a fiery skull, so she didn't always get off so easy.

Disney's Cinderella is a bit spunky, has a bit of a sense of humour, and is certainly kind and gentle. There's more to her than there was to Snow White, but she's not a heroine in the way we like to think of our heroines. She doesn't really do anything. We feel sad for her being forced to work as a servant for her cruel and abusive step-family, and we rejoice with her when she gets the happy ending for which she dreamed. But it's hard to really identify with her as a person (as opposed to identifying with her situation). She's so unfailingly good, it's pretty unrealistic. And we almost don't want to be as kind as her, knowing it'll get us stepped on and our generosity abused. I doubt it'll happen, but I would like to see Disney tackle another version of Cinderella, because those are some heroines I would love to see in a Disney film. As far as what we have now, both Disney's fairytales up to this point in history have made a big deal of unfailing kindness without really talking about what that can lead to, and heroines who don't have a whole lot of personality to them. (It may have been a little unfair to do The Princess and the Frog first, because how could anyone follow the force of nature that is Tiana? But man, in comparison, Snow White and Cinderella are pretty boring.) On the bright side, things will get better! But they're gonna get worse before they get better.

28 August 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 6: Snow White

Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.

Among tales of cannibalism, violent murder, and all manner of unpleasantries, the Grimms brothers' "Schneewittchen," literally "Little Snow White," manages to stand out as a rather gruesome tale. The Disney adaptation, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is largely pretty bright and happy, though some of the grittiness of the source material made it in. 

The earliest versions of the story feature no stepmother; in the 1810 and 1812 editions, Snow White's own mother grows jealous and fearful of her daughter's growing beauty in contrast to her own waning attractiveness. The prologue including the mother's death and the introduction of the stepmother was added in the 1819 edition in order to preserve the sanctity of the mother figure. Evil stepmothers weren't exactly unheard of; higher mortality rates, particularly in childbirth, meant lots of widowers taking subsequent wives, and those wives often prioritized their own children and themselves over their new husbands' old families in order to secure their own futures. But evil mothers were also (and are also) not unheard of. It just wasn't pleasant to think that one's own mother could be so cruel and ruthless.

Disney's Evil Queen (unofficially known as Grimhilde, which I'll use here) is entirely superficially motivated. Her focus on beauty is essentially all there is to her. This is partly because the characters to whom she is a reactionary figure in the Grimms' story are missing in the Disney film, the Huntsman aside. The mother in the early Grimms' versions and other versions from various parts of the world is jealous of her husband's (sometimes wildly inappropriate) attentions to the child. In one of the versions collected by the Grimms, a count and countess find a child on the road and the countess, seeing the count begin to ignore her in favor of the child, makes several attempts to leave the child alone in the woods or kill her outright. In some much earlier variants, the husband's lust for the child is made much more explicit, which motivates the wife's jealousy of the beauty the child has, which the wife no longer has or is quickly losing. Invariably, the woman dies at the end. In the Armenian "Nourie Hadag," the mother dies of shock when she finds out her daughter is still alive and more beautiful than her. The Grimms' queen dances to her death in hot iron shoes at her (step-)daughter's wedding feast. Disney's Grimhilde falls off a cliff and is crushed by a boulder. However it happens, she does not survive. She is unarguably the Bad Guy here, and she cannot win. And when we only see the superficial motivations, that makes sense. Her persecution of a child is never excusable, to be sure, but when her livelihood and future depends on a man who has the hots for said child, it's a little easier to understand why she's upset. One wonders why she wouldn't take it out on her husband rather than the child, but the male editors of fairytales and the patriarchy as a whole benefit more from pitting women against other women rather than women against their oppressors. As in many fairytales, the men are excused their horrible actions while women are often gruesomely punished for their own equally horrible actions. Again, not to excuse what Grimhilde does, because murderous jealousy and abuse of a child is never excusable. But Disney's Snow White's father is absolutely nowhere to be found, and in many versions of the fairytale he either disappears unscathed, dies unpunished, or lives happily ever after after raping a 7 year-old.

Snow White herself is largely regarded as rather dull. She hardly gets any personality in either the Disney film or most of the fairytale versions. What she is, though, is unfailingly good-hearted and kind. The Huntsman finds himself unable to kill her because of her "innocent heart," she happily helps the dwarfs by doing their housework, she lets in the witch even after being warned it might be the queen in disguise simply out of the kindness of her heart. She is trusting and seems to want to help everyone in any way she can. In discussions of what positives we find in the Disney princesses, Snow White's one positive aspect is often listed as her kindness, and I don't think anyone would argue that kindness in and of itself is not something to which one should aspire. However, Snow White's downfall is her kindness. Snow White's kindness lets the witch into the dwarfs' house and leads to her death. We advocate kindness even as we illustrate that it can open one up to terrible harm. It feels a lot like being told we should smile when harassed on the streets, be friendly and cheery to people who assault us, be kind and loving to stalkers who feel entitled to our time simply because we are women. How do we find the middle ground between Snow White's kindness and Grimhilde's self-preservation?

The men in the story are the only middle ground between the two extremes portrayed with Snow White and Grimhilde. Snow White is gentleness and Grimhilde is outrage, while the Huntsman is mercy and the dwarfs are sensibility. There isn't a woman in the story who occupies that middle space on the spectrum. The dwarfs tell Snow White not to trust any strangers who come by, as they might be the witch, and if Snow White had only trusted them, she might not have died. The Huntsman, much like the father in Hansel and Gretel, refuses the (step-)mother's horrifying demands, and serves as the tempering device for her outrageous cruelty.

The kiss at the end of the film is a departure from the published Grimms' versions, but a hearkening back to the much more sexual overtones of the older variants. In "Schneewittchen," the prince has the coffin carried off, and in the process the carriers trip, the apple piece dislodges from Snow White's throat, and she wakes up. It's more by chance that she wakes up rather than a plan by the prince. Whether that's more or less disturbing is entirely up to your interpretation. But Disney at least gives us text in the story that Snow White actually wants to go away with the prince; in the Grimms' version, she's more or less stuck with him once she wakes up. In Emma Donoghue's "The Tale of the Apple" in her collection Kissing the Witch, Snow White runs away from the prince upon waking up. Perhaps that gives us some insight to Snow White's possible take on the prince.

Going from The Princess and the Frog all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, while a chronological hiccup, really illuminates how far we've come in representation of women in Disney fairytale films. I actually do enjoy Snow White, all evidence to the contrary: I think it's a beautiful film, the songs are cheery and Adriana Caselotti's voice is gorgeous, the animation is stunning. But it's nice to see that Disney's women, while still not perfect, are at least improving from the origins of 'one side of the spectrum or the other.' Fairytales and folk tales come from real people trying to tell stories that speak to their audience. It's hard to really identify wholly with either Snow White or Grimhilde because they're both caricatures, not real people or even believable representations of real people. I think that's why we find so many more people identifying with modern princesses like Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Tiana, and Rapunzel than the older princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. And we'll get to all of that, with Cinderella up for next time!

12 August 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 5: The Princess and the Frog

There is no way in this whole wide world I would ever, ever, ever, I mean never kiss a frog.

Disney's The Princess and the Frog is loosely based, foremost, on E.D. Baker's The Frog Princess, which in turn is based on the Grimms' story "The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich," known more recently as "The Frog Prince." (For those playing at home, the German title is "Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich," which I include because it is really fun to say and I would not keep that from you.) Though the movie is a few steps removed from the Grimms' tale, there are still elements present in the movie that can be traced back to the story.

There are two different routes that "The Frog Prince" stories take with their heroines. Some of them have a strong-willed heroine who at first despises the frog, and the rest have a sweet-natured heroine who submits to the frog's requests without protest. Tiana is derived more from the former type. Later Grimms editions had the latter type of heroine, but the first few editions kept the Tiana-type heroines. In those earlier versions, the princess loses a ball in a deep pond, and the frog offers to fetch it for her in return for eating at her dinner table and sleeping in her bed beside her. She agrees, but once she gets the ball back, she flees. The frog follows her, and she at first shuts him out, but her father, the king, demands she honor her promises. She continues to be disgusted by the frog until eventually, when he tries to sleep next to her, she becomes so revolted she flings him against the wall, which is what turns him back into a prince.

The kiss is a much more modern invention, in fact more modern than even the later Grimms editions; the sweeter heroine, who needs no commands to allow the frog to do as she promised he could, receives her prince simply by allowing him to sleep in her bed, no kiss required (although...it might be implied that there's...a bit more...than that). In a Scottish version of this tale, "The Well of the World's End," the girl chops the frog's head off. The Polish version of the story uses a snake rather than a frog, and the princess tears the snake in half. In the Lithuanian version, she burns the snake's skin. The toad in the Korean "The Toad Bridegroom" asks his prospective bride to cut his back open with scissors, but rather than being violently disgusted by the toad, the Korean heroine had offered to marry the toad in order to save her father's fortunes. Some Anglo-American versions have the frog tell the princess they must be married to break the spell, as a way to gloss over that earlier bed incident, but those stories also usually involve the sweeter heroine. The strong-willed ones are the ones who are generally performing some act of violence which unexpectedly breaks the spell, whereas the sweeter heroines do whatever it takes because they know what will happen when they do this.

Tiana, of course, knows what will happen when she kisses the frog (or at least, what's supposed to happen), but that doesn't stop her repulsion. Throughout the story, Tiana is determined, resolute, and tenacious: much more reminiscent of the strong-willed heroines flinging frogs across their bedrooms. Interestingly, though some of the frogs explicitly require a princess to break the spell, many (particularly international versions) are just normal girls, like Tiana. Disney's choice to use a girl who wasn't a princess at the beginning highlights one of the running themes in the movie: no matter where you're from or who you are, you can achieve your dreams.

I really appreciate that Disney took it in a different direction from the fairytale; the moral the Grimms seem to be trying to put into the story is that the woman owes the frog for doing her a favor. We hear this over and over with men complaining about being in the "friend zone," as if being nice to someone obligates them to have sex with you. While it is surely a good lesson to keep your promises, the frog's repeated insistence on getting into the princess's bed is really, deeply unnerving to a modern audience. I find myself recoiling in horror at this particular passage: "The princess began to weep, for she was terrified of the clammy frog. She didn't dare touch him, and now he was going to sleep in her beautiful, clean bed. The king grew angry and said: 'You shouldn't scorn someone who helped you when you were in trouble.'" Very often in Disney's fairytale films they have to flesh out the story quite a bit; most fairytales aren't more than 10 or 12 pages long, so there's necessarily going to be some creativity with the story. Sometimes this is more successful than others, and I think The Princess and the Frog was a really successful adaptation, even though it had some help from a longer young adult novel.

The enchantment of the frog isn't actually discussed in more than passing in the Grimms' story. It is mentioned that the frog is enchanted, sometimes an enchantress or witch is referred to, but rarely is it mentioned why he was enchanted. Later stories usually say the frog insulted the witch, but more often than not, the frog was a perfectly good guy who just happened to get in the way of an evil witch. In The Princess and the Frog, we get the carefree and clueless Naveen and the scheming Dr. Facilier.

Facilier sees Naveen and Lawrence and sees an opportunity to get rich. He mentions in passing to Lawrence his frustration with the rich elite of New Orleans (Big Daddy and the like) and his mistreatment at their hands, and while this isn't touched on much at all in the film, even that brief mention shows that Facilier is motivated by more than just being evil like the witches/enchantresses in the fairytales are. Naveen and Lawrence didn't personally do anything to Facilier, but he sees Naveen as part of the system he loathes, and Lawrence as a fellow disgruntled lower-class denizen. It's really a great use of the witch/enchantress character from the story and one that gently prods at the entire royal and upper-class system that we generally don't question in the realm of Disney films.

It is worth noting, however, that the use of voodoo was not the most tastefully done thing. Louisiana voodoo is based in large part on west African religious traditions adapted by slaves, and the perception of it as magic or even evil magic is a very troublesome viewpoint. Seeing ceremonies and religious imagery we aren't familiar with can read as magic or evil magic, but that doesn't mean that's what it is. That's not to say there aren't loads of people in New Orleans capitalizing on that view of voodoo, but perpetuating the portrayal of a religion belonging largely to marginalized people as "evil" is a very ishy thing to do.

All that said, The Princess and the Frog is one of my favourite Disney movies. I appreciate that they had the creativity to take a fairytale and set it somewhere outside the author's country of origin, and to make it a more modern story than they usually do with fairytales. I think the story is excellent and the characters are interesting and lovable. The setting, the artwork, and the music are all beautiful. I would truly love to see more Disney fairytale movies in this vein.

07 August 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 4: Heroines

Um, sorry it's been almost a month since my last post in this series. Part of the reason it took me forever to get this post out was that I wasn't really sure if I wanted to talk about each heroine in her own movie/fairytale post or if I wanted to talk about them all collectively in one post on the character type. I kept writing half a post and then going "nahhhh I'll do it the other way" and rewriting a new one and then changing my mind again over and over. All of which is to say I've decided to do both, so I'll talk a bit today about fairytale heroines in general, and Disney fairytale heroines and the concept we have of them independent from their individual stories. I'll talk more about the characters themselves in the upcoming posts focusing on one movie at a time.

When we think of women and girls in fairytales, we don't often think "heroine" is the term for them. Princesses, sure, victims, almost definitely. The fairytales that probably come first to mind aren't fairytales in which women or girls save the day. We think of them being rescued by knights, brothers, fathers, princes, etc. but we don't usually first think of them saving themselves. That is not because there aren't heroic women in fairytales; in fact, there are probably more heroic, brave, strong, resourceful, clever women in fairytales and folk tales all over the world than there are princesses or women who fit this idea we seem to have formed of helpless girls in need of rescuing. But those fairytales don't come to mind first.

The reasons for this go back, once again, to the Grimms and Perrault, mainly. The stories popularized by them don't tend to feature heroines, and their collections are the big ones referenced today. Though the most popular fairytales today are the ones told in Disney films, Disney took those from the popular Grimms and Perrault tales; that's not to let Disney off the hook, because clearly the tales they chose from the larger set of Grimm/Perrault tales are the most popular, but Disney probably wasn't going to adapt "Princess Amaradevi" or "Molly Whuppie" before "Cinderella" or "Sleeping Beauty." So the heroines' stories take a little more digging to find, but they are there - just not as prevalent in the Western canon.

In large part, the Grimms and Perrault were telling stories intended to promote certain behaviors in their readers. Looking at the women in these tales, we can tell what those behaviors were for girls: obedience, loyalty, humility. The stories of women being tricksters, stories of girls saving their families and themselves, stories of disobedient girls who still manage to wrangle a happy ending for themselves: these stories by and large did not make it into the Grimms' collections, and even fewer of them made it to Perrault. World folklore is full of these women and girls, though: brave huntresses in North American and African lore, witty princesses outsmarting their husbands and suitors in India and the Middle East, trickster goddesses and helpful female spirits in Polynesian mythology. They are everywhere. The elements of characters like these are reintroduced to the fairytales we hear most often by modern fairytale retellers like Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue, which is really interesting as an exercise. We think of these sorts of retellings as thoroughly modern when often the character elements they're introducing are aspects of older fairytales that we've lost along the way.

Heroines aren't completely absent in Western canon, though. The Grimms' "Little Brother and Little Sister" features a heroine saving her brother and their "The Singing, Soaring Lark" also stars a courageous lady on a quest. Gerda in Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is another standout example. But these aren't the stories we hear told as often as "Snow White" and "Rapunzel," and it's worth noting that they aren't told as often because the collectors of fairytales didn't deem them worth telling.

The Disney Princess, as a concept, isn't generally thought of as a heroine. Many are their own heroines, many of them save the day, themselves, and/or their families, but the criticism leveled at The Disney Princess is generally along the lines of them being passive, in need of rescuing, following the Grimm/Perrault rules for obedient, blindly loyal, ambitionless objects, essentially shells of characters rather than full-fledged people in and of themselves. And the elements of that present in the characters, to whatever extent, is more or less directly traceable to the Grimms and Perrault. But the heroines in those stories did pick up elements of their forgotten sisters, and those elements are also present in The Disney Princess: conviction, kindness, courage. Princesses can be heroines, and arguably many Disney princesses are. Both the criticisms and defenses of Disney princesses have canonical support, because the princesses contain both the positive and negative elements of the characters on whom they are based. We'll get into more of that in later posts, but for now it's worth bearing in mind that the reason The Disney Princess is so hotly debated is because both sides are right, and the fairytale princesses from whom The Disney Princess came have both positive and negative elements to them as well.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, there is a LOT more to discuss on this topic, but with the next post in this series I'll start getting into each film individually, which will either be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if I decide to go chronologically, or The Princess and the Frog because I finally found a cheap copy on Amazon Marketplace and when that gets here you bet I'm watching it right away, so it'll probably be fresh on the mind.

24 July 2014

soldiers in petticoats: a disney ladies fanmix

I didn't write a Disney, Fairytales, and Women post this week, but I have an excuse! I made this enormous beast of a fanmix with 62 songs, each one for a different Disney lady.

Tracklist behind the cut!

13 July 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 3: Witches and Magical Beings

"Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
 - The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Not long ago I was listening to a review of Brave in which the reviewer said he didn't like that he didn't know if the witch was good or bad. In Disney, of course, witches are almost always evil, and if they're good, they're called something else (hence the title of this installment). In folk and fairytales, witches are often neutral or even helpful, though of course bad witches still exist. In fact, there's a pretty even mix of alignments in magical beings. Simply expecting a witch to be either "good" or "bad" is something that's almost entirely Disney's doing, as even in the more modern editions of the European fairytales from which Disney movies come the magical beings come in all points on the morality spectrum.

When you think of a Disney witch, you probably think of the evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film version of the Queen after her transformation is the exact image we have of a witch, solely minus the broom. In the Grimms' tale, the queen is not explicitly stated to be a witch, and her first attempt to kill Snow White involves lacing her into a corset too tightly to stop her breathing - no magic at all there. Her second and third attempts use "all the witchcraft in her power," and she creates a poisoned comb and finally the famed poisoned apple. Despite her use of witchcraft, she is not called a witch once in the story. In the film, Grumpy refers to her as a witch once, and Doc refers to the queen's witchcraft, but otherwise she is referred to as the Queen. Nevertheless, she clearly reads as a witch, and a very, very evil one at that.

In Tangled, we don't really see Mother Gothel as a witch. She's never referred to as a witch, she doesn't really engage in witchcraft or magic (the flower business isn't really any of her own doing). Versions of the Grimms' "Rapunzel" alternately refer to her as the enchantress or the witch. Later editions give her the name Mother Gothel, but the 1812 edition solely names her the enchantress. However, despite being explicitly called an enchantress, she doesn't perform any enchanting in the story. We're not told how the tower was built so perhaps there was some magic there, but we don't know for sure. She never enchants Rapunzel, she never casts a spell on the prince (the prince's eyes are pricked by thorns when he is pushed from the tower). But we're clearly supposed to read her as evil, as a thief of a baby, as the enemy of Rapunzel's and the prince's happiness. In Tangled, Mother Gothel is clearly evil, and despite being coded as a witch in a few shots (see above picture), we really don't think of her as a witch. Both the Queen and Mother Gothel are evil; the Queen is a witch despite never being called one, and Gothel is called a witch despite not really being one. "Witch" in this situation is a synonym for "evil."

I mentioned Mother Gothel is referred to as both a witch and an enchantress in different versions of "Rapunzel," and I think on that note it is interesting to think about this character from Beauty and the Beast. Credited as "The Enchantress," we first see her as a "hag," or a witch. She isn't referred to as an enchantress until her transformation. Whether or not she's evil depends on your interpretation of the tale, and recently I've seen her almost exclusively referred to as evil. Compare this to the Queen from Snow White, who is beautiful before her transformation, but her witchcraft doesn't really come into play until her transformation. When we first see the enchantress from Beauty and the Beast, she's coded as a witch and referred to as a hag which is often used as a synonym for "witch." We know she's a witch by the time she transforms. With the Queen we could probably suspect she's a witch before she transforms, but the Enchantress is the opposite: the beautiful Queen becomes an ugly evil witch, the Enchantress is an ugly witch who transforms into a beautiful and possibly evil being.

Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent is not a witch; she and Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather are all fairies. Maleficent is obviously an evil fairy, while the latter three are collectively referred to as the Three Good Fairies. In Perrault's "La Belle au Bois Dormant," they are referred to as fairies, but in the Grimms' "Briar Rose," they are Wise Women. In both cases, all are good except the sole evil one who curses the princess. They are all magical beings, not really witches, but the imagery of the witch is still used to differentiate good from evil. The film Maleficent has a witch's familiar: her raven Diablo. Her green skin tone evokes another famous witch who was her predecessor (The Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, and Sleeping Beauty was in 1959). Marc Davis's beautiful character design incorporates lots of evil imagery, but there is some definite influence in there from the popular images of witches. The Three Good Fairies and Maleficent are all fairies, but it's immediately recognizable which ones are good and which one is evil.

The Three Good Fairies are joined by another good fairy: Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. Though all are clearly good magical beings, the Three Good Fairies aren't as crucial to the plot as the Fairy Godmother. Flora and Fauna's gifts of beauty and song just aren't as important to the story as the Fairy Godmother's gifts to get Cinderella to the ball. Merriweather's gift changing Maleficent's curse of death to a long sleep is clearly important, but I don't think it's fair to say these characters are on the same level. Cinderella's Fairy Godmother fills the role of a helper, which is a commonly-used folk and fairytale role. In fact, I would put the Fairy Godmother in the same category as two other characters that may not be apparent at first glance:

In their respective Disney films, the Fairy Godmother is a good "witch" (using the term loosely here), Brave's witch is a neutral witch, and The Little Mermaid's Ursula is a bad witch. However, they all fill the same role in the story. What comes immediately to mind to me is the character Mouse Woman used in several Native American folktales. She isn't necessarily good or bad; she helps good characters, who still fear her, knowing her powers, and for bad characters she will sometimes do nothing and sometimes get in their way. Overall, though, she's neutral. The Fairy Godmother is clearly seen as a good character in the Disney film, but in the Cinderella stories that involve a magical being, she is probably most accurately called neutral-good. Perrault's version aside, Cinderella is usually the heroine of her own story, and while the magical being helps her, it's Cinderella herself that does the heavy lifting, so to speak. Brave's witch, likewise, simply gives Merida the assistance for which she came; the way Merida puts it into use causes havoc, but the witch herself didn't curse her or Elinor, or directly cause anything truly bad to happen. In the end it turns out well, thanks to Merida, but the witch was more or less a plot device to get things moving.

Ursula in The Little Mermaid is, obviously, the villain of the piece (sidebar: I wish we knew exactly what it was that she did to get banished from the court. Triton is actually awful and I bet Ursula pointed that out in one way or another and Triton kicked her out for that. This is NOT a plea for a woobifying Ursula spin-off a la Maleficent, please dear God no. I'm just saying I would probably hang out with Ursula. She knows what's up.), but in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," the witch isn't present past changing the protagonist into a human. She warns the titular mermaid in no uncertain terms that it is a terrible idea and it will be awful, but the witch herself isn't evil or even doing any harm; she does what the protagonist asks of her. And it turns out exactly as the witch said, and those familiar with the story know how tragic it is, but the witch herself is neutral. All three of these helper characters simply do what is asked of them. You could make an argument that Cinderella didn't technically ask for what the Fairy Godmother gave her in the movie, but in most of the fairytale versions she does at the very least ask for the dress. But these witches, to answer Glinda's quote up there at the top of this post, are neither good nor bad. Not all characters have to be either good or bad, and indeed that would be really boring. Disney has a tendency to make these characters either clearly good or clearly bad, but going back to the fairytales gives a more nuanced story.

07 July 2014

womp womp

I intended to post the next part of my Disney, Fairytales, and Women series today but I forgot to take my meds last night and I feel absolutely wretched. Learn from my mistakes, kids. I'll have it up either tomorrow or later this week. In the meantime, have an apology photo:

Got the rose horse. I am the champion.

30 June 2014

Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 2: Mothers and Stepmothers

I think I had a mother once.
What was she like?
I forget.
- Peter Pan (1953)

Mothers in fairytales are often absent, dead, or missing without even a mention of them being gone. Considering mothers are pretty much everywhere, their absence is glaring to the audience. A major impetus for many fairytale plots is the death or absence of a parent, which accounts for many of the missing mothers, but many of them are hiding in plain sight; in subsequent editions of the Grimm brothers' Kinder- und Hausmärchen, cruel and abusive mothers were often changed to stepmothers to avoid depicting mothers as capable of doing harm or evil to their children. Victorian fairytale anthologies kept these changes, and most modern fairytale translations and adaptations continue the stepmother trend, and of course the Disney fairytale films are based on modern editions, not the originals.

In the Grimms' 1810 and 1812 editions of "Schneewittchen," the heroine's own mother is the queen pursuing her death. It isn't until 1819 that the prologue includes the death of Snow White's mother "shortly after the child was born," followed by the king's second "beautiful...but proud and domineering" wife.

Some stepmothers, like Cinderella's, seem to have always been stepmothers rather than converted mothers; the high rate of mortality in childbirth meant stepmothers were just as much a part of life for many children as mothers for other children, so their inclusion in some fairytales was in the story to begin with. As far as I can tell, Cinderella's stepmother was always a stepmother, and in fact many versions of Cinderella actually include the mother, albeit dead, as a supernatural guide to the heroine. Disney's Fairy Godmother comes from Perrault's "Cendrillon," along with the rest of the movie, but the Grimms' "Aschenputtel," the Russian "Vasilisa the Beautiful," and many other versions have the dead mother's spirit guide the heroine from a tree, a doll, a fish, etc. etc. (The Fairy Godmother in both Perrault and Disney is not mentioned as having any connection to the dead mother - whether or not that was the intention is up to the audience, but the prevailing notion is that without explicit mention of the mother, that is not the intent. I would argue Disney's is definitely not intended to have anything to do with the mother, and while I think a case could be made for Perrault's, I don't think the godmother is related to the mother.) The second wife in all these stories, however, is definitely cold-hearted.

Fairytale stepmothers' cruelty has been attributed to jealousy: either jealousy of the father's attention to his daughter or jealousy of youth and beauty in general as epitomized by the daughter. It's interesting in many cases that the father disappears or dies after marrying the stepmother. In both the Disney films, the father dies. In "Schneewittchen," the father is never mentioned past the sentence introducing the stepmother, but Cendrillon's father still seems to be around; Cendrillon "dared not tell her father" about the stepmother's cruelty, and though that is the last mention of him, it's implied that he is around but not intervening because he doesn't know it's happening (which...okay, dude, she's wandering around in rags and sleeping in the fireplace? pay attention). At any rate, in these stories the father is out of the way and more or less incidental to the story. He's needed to facilitate the stepmother's appearance, and after that, he is useless and discarded accordingly.

Of course, this saves the father from suffering a moral ending. If the father was turning a blind eye to Snow White's plight, if he was dead, if he never wondered why his daughter had disappeared mysteriously and his new wife was happily eating boiled liver for dinner, whatever it was, he has no ending. Disney's Cinderella was based on Perrault's "Cendrillon," not Grimms' "Aschenputtel," and Cendrillon's father simply disappeared. Aschenputtel's father, however, is present throughout; he tells the prince at the end that he does have another daughter to try the shoe, but she cannot show her face because it's "much too dirty" - and that's the last we hear of him. Aschenputtel's stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves (fun!) but there is no specific mention of the father's or stepmother's fate. Ignoring Disney's sequels to Cinderella, we don't really hear the end of the Tremaines in the movie, although Cendrillon invites the stepsisters (not the stepmother) to live in the palace with her. Essentially nothing awful happens to Cinderella's stepmother other than not getting what she wanted, but Snow White's stepmother isn't so lucky. Which is not to say either of them should be lucky - obviously both are guilty of terrible child abuse, and in Snow White's stepmother's case attempted murder. The lesson to act more like Snow White and Cinderella - kind, compassionate, helpful, patient - is reinforced in "Schneewittchen" and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the death of the evil stepmother and in "Cendrillon" and Cinderella by the happy ending for the heroine. Different kinds of endings, but the same moral lesson in the end.

I'm going to talk more about Mother Gothel in a later post, but I didn't want to leave out Rapunzel's mother, who, though silent, is one of the only Disney fairytale mothers we actually see. Tangled is a large departure from the Grimms' "Rapunzel," in which the girl is traded for stolen herbs rather than stolen herself. In the Grimms' version it is actually the father who trades the child in order to procure the herbs his pregnant wife desires, and the wife's reaction to her newborn being taken from her is not mentioned in the 1812 edition or any subsequent editions. We know nothing about her except she had pregnancy cravings for rampion; we don't know if she cared that her child was traded away, we don't know if she was happy to be rid of the child or if she was devastated by the loss. Rapunzel's mother in Tangled has even fewer lines than in the Grimms', but she is portrayed as a loving mother devastated by the loss of her child, holding an annual ceremony in her daughter's memory, and eventually being overjoyed at her return.

I think the depiction of Mother Gothel in Tangled was actually very well done, though I've read a lot of commentary that missed why it was so good. Gothel is consistently shown in Tangled to be addressing Rapunzel's hair, the power for which Gothel kidnapped her, when seemingly speaking lovingly to Rapunzel herself. She refers to Rapunzel as "flower," emphasizing again the power for which Rapunzel was kidnapped. Gothel's isolation and containment of Rapunzel is selfishly motivated and indicates no regard whatsoever for Rapunzel as a person; she's keeping her prize in a locked box for her own use, as it were. She does not love Rapunzel, she feels no motherly feeling toward her, she does not care about anything except continuing to use the flower's power to keep her youth and beauty. In the fairytale, Rapunzel has no magic powers which the enchantress or witch is attempting to protect or keep for herself; the witch simply keeps her locked up. Though some tellings suggest the witch kept her for help with housework, most mention no housework or anything of the like and simply say the witch has no motivation for keeping Rapunzel locked away; she's just evil. Tangled brilliantly masked Gothel's indifference to Rapunzel as a person in her loving language directed solely at the magic power Rapunzel possessed. It's a great use of a villain in its realistic depiction of an emotionally abusive parent.

This one is the most fun. It's also awful. You can't say I didn't warn you. But stick with me, it's really great.

Oddly, the opening credits to Disney's Sleeping Beauty attribute their source material not to a fairytale but to Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. The 1959 film almost definitely used Tchaikovsky for their primary source, but the interesting tidbit is that Tchaikovsky claimed to base the ballet on Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormant" while instead more accurately depicting the Grimms' "Briar Rose." Normally the Grimms have a bloodier ending and Perrault's is cleaned up, but in this case the exact opposite is true, and any Sleeping Beauty that claims to be based on Perrault's but does not end with cannibalism is in fact based on the Grimms, not Perrault.

Yes, cannibalism. Stick with me, it's just getting good.

The Grimms' "Briar Rose" is the Sleeping Beauty with which you're already familiar: the long-wished-for princess is cursed to die by an evil fairy, the good fairy changes it to a long sleep, prince wakes her up with a kiss, they live happily ever after. It is the Disney movie from beginning to end. The queen is only mentioned twice: once giving birth to the princess, once falling asleep as the princess does. While this mother is present and, as far as we can tell, good, there's really nothing to her. She's necessary to give birth to the protagonist but she's otherwise ignored.

The real motherhood plot comes in with Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormant." But the sleeping princess's mother is not the primary mother nor even the secondary mother in the story.

Perrault's Sleeping Beauty begins much the same as the Grimms', though rather than waiting for a prince's kiss, she will be awakened in 100 years when a prince approaches her castle. She awakens when he enters the room and kneels before her, not waiting for the kiss. However, instead of taking her back to his own kingdom, he weds her secretly and keeps her hidden away from his own parents. During this time, Sleeping Beauty has two children, a boy named Day and a girl named Dawn. When the prince's father dies and he succeeds his father as king, he reveals his secret family, much to his mother's dismay. His mother, an ogress, attempts to kill and eat Sleeping Beauty and her children when the new king is called away to war. The cook hides the children away instead of cooking them, and the king returns just in time to see his mother preparing a pot to cook Sleeping Beauty in. The mother throws herself in the pot, and everyone else lives happily ever after.

So now we have two very different depictions of motherhood in Sleeping Beauty and her mother-in-law. Sleeping Beauty is a very loving mother. When she is brought to the cook to be killed for her mother-in-law's dinner, she cries out, "Once more I shall see my children, my poor children that I loved so much!" On the other hand, we are told that even the king fears his own mother and we see he has good reason. Her jealousy of her daughter-in-law and her fear of being supplanted in her son's life lead her to attempt to literally consume her enemies.

Disney's Aurora clearly bears no resemblance to Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, though Aurora's mother is a similar non-entity to Sleeping Beauty's mother. Philip's mother is never seen nor mentioned in the Disney film, but it's probably a safe bet Disney didn't intend her to be a baby-eating ogress. Not that we have any other mothers-in-law in Disney films to base that on. Call it a hunch.

Overall, Disney sticks with the fairytale tradition of evil mother figures being stepmothers and good or neutral mother figures being actual mothers. Absent mothers are prevalent in Disney's films, fairytale-based or not, much like the many absent mothers in fairytales. The mothers we do see, though, are generally kind, loving, and good, while stepmothers are selfish, conniving, and abusive.