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Hey! I'm still here. Let's talk about fairytale re-tellings. The stories we know as fairytales and folk tales have been a part ...

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 Froschk√∂nig 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.