Beauty and the Beast, Belle and Gaston
Cartoons, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: How Feminist Is Disney’s ‘Beauty & The Beast’?

fanny pack feminism gender disney wicked wiles equality analysis pop culture princess film animation

This article is part of the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series examining the positive and negative messages on gender that Disney Princess films impart to their target audience – girls. If you haven’t already, you can check out the introduction here, and search for ‘Wicked Wiles’ at the top of this page to catch up with the series.

Originally published on Fanny Pack, 26/05/2016.


Synopsis

Based on the classic French fairy tale and the 1946 French film, ‘Le Belle at la Bete’, Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) is one of the most critically acclaimed and universally loved in the Princess catalogue. The story revolves around the titular ‘Beast’ – a vain and selfish Prince who is transformed into a monstrous animal by an enchantress as punishment for his flaws – and Belle (the ‘Beauty’), a kind and intelligent girl whom he imprisons in the hope that she might help break the spell put on him. Despite his poor anger-management skills (and inability to use cutlery) Belle slowly begins to tame the Beast’s temperament and work her way into his heart. But, before she can return his feelings and make him human again, an angry mob from her village led by the villainous Gaston – desperate for Belle’s hand in marriage – threaten to destroy everything.

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well?

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well? Source: Disney Wikia.

As usual, I’ll be using six key questions to filter the film’s feminist/anti-feminist messages through and ultimately give it a ‘Positive’, ‘Neutral’ or ‘Negative’ stamp on it at the end. So without further ago, let’s see how Disney’s sixth official Princess movie holds up.


How many female characters are there?

  1. Belle
  2. Mrs. Potts
  3. The old beggar woman/enchantress
  4. The feather duster maid (called ‘Babette’)
  5. The Wardrobe (called ‘Madame de la Grand Bouche’, which translates to ‘Madame Big Mouth’. Nice.)
  6. The Triplets (called the ‘Bimbettes’… Hmm.)

Total: 8 principle female characters (with speaking parts) compared to 11 principle male characters (with speaking parts).


Is the villain female, and if so what are her motivations?

In a word, no. And this is a good break with tradition, as nearly every Princess movie so far from ‘Snow White’, to ‘Cinderella’, to ‘Sleeping Beauty’, to ‘The Little Mermaid’ have had female villains motivated solely by vacuous jealousy.

Although the Prince/Beast is the perceived villain to begin with in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the real villain is Belle’s relentless pursuer, Gaston – clearly the more beastly of the two, personality-wise.

Gaston: 'Belle is mine!'

Source: Giphy.


How do the female characters interact with each other

Apart from Mrs. Potts, who acts as a surrogate matriarchal figure to just about everyone, Belle disappointingly has very little interactions with any other female character. All of her close allies – her father, the Beast, Cogsworth and Lumiere – are male, through a combination of circumstance and choice.

This serves subliminally to reinforce Belle’s ‘otherness’ as she seems unable and/or unwilling to maintain relationships with others of her gender. Unfortunately, this is also reflected across the rest of the film’s female characters, with the tightest bonds of friendship being between men: Gaston and LeFou; and Lumiere and Cogsworth.

Lumiere and Cogsworth: Pucker up, Cogsy.

Pucker up, Cogsy. Source: Tumblr.


Who drives the plot?

For the final two-thirds of the film the answer to this is Belle, with her father, Maurice, keeping things barrelling along through the first act. Yet, even when Belle does become the driving force of the plot, she doesn’t actually attract the majority of the viewer’s emotional investment. That’s because most of this investment is funnelled into the Beast’s quest to regain his humanity instead.

Belle: 'I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.'

Source: Tumblr.

At the start of the film, Belle flitters around a field belting out a song about “wanting so much more than this provincial life”, yet her unfalteringly charismatic character doesn’t develop one bit throughout the story. Geographically-speaking, she also only ends up living what can’t be more than a few miles away from the home she dreamed of travelling far away from. Meanwhile, the Beast’s character enjoys a dramatically shifting arc that also bears the weight of the entire story’s moral as an added bonus. In this respect, Belle – the eponymous princess of this supposed Princess-orientated movie – is effectively side-lined in her own film.


How do the male characters treat the female ones

If toxic masculinity took cartoon form, it would look like Gaston. Whilst Belle is a flawed but emphatically feminist heroine, Gaston is a perfect send-up of laddish, brutish and gross chauvinism. His interactions with her are all deliberately sexist, offensive, vile and stupid – i.e. The perfect counter-balance to Belle’s pragmatism, wit, and intelligence. Gaston’s attraction to Belle is based firstly on her obvious good looks, and secondly because her constant rejection of him turns his failing courtship of her into a game, and as a proud hunter who “uses antlers in all of his decorating”, you know that Gaston basically just sees her as little more than anther deer to chase, shoot, sling over his back and carry home to become another trophy over his fireplace.

During his solo song (sung in that flawless baritone), we’re given a handy checklist of things to have and achieve before any self-respecting ‘man’s man’ can be counted as worthy of the appendage swinging between his legs:

  • Body hair. A lot of it.
  • Spitting. Be good at it.
  • Hunting. Do it often.
  • Using animals as decoration. Everywhere.
  • Eating 4 dozen raw eggs to become the “size of a barge”.
  • Drinking. All the time.
  • Chess (although because being smart is basically useless, the only way to win is by slapping the board away from your oppenent.)
  • Stomping around in boots. No, really – go out and buy some, now you pussy! (Gaston’s words, remember, not mine.)

With his square jaw, bulging muscles and operatically-deep voice, Gaston is kind of like a Disney prince gone wrong. And Belle, with all her well-developed intellect, seems to be the only person to call this out. Even her father says that he “seems handsome” and suggests Belle should give him a chance in the romance department. The rest of the town – especially his loyal lackey, LeFou, and the horny triplets – treat Gaston like the village hero, never questioning his judgement, and happy to attend an impromptu wedding for he and Belle (before she’s even agreed to it) or sing an ode to his chest hair in the tavern, or later on be led blindly on a witch hunt to kill the Beast he showed them in a “magic mirror”.

Belle and Gaston: None of it. That's what Belle's having.

None of it. That’s what Belle’s having. Source: Disney Wikia.

The Beast on the other hand, with his anger problems, selfishness and emotional unavailability is someone who starts off in a similar place to Gaston – albeit minus the gushing self-confidence. He doesn’t even call Belle by her name to begin with, just “the girl”. The difference between he and Gaston is that rather than forcing himself upon her, the Beast allows himself to be changed for the better by Belle, thus turning himself into a man worthy of her love. As Gaston becomes more and more incensed and crazed to the point of trying to blackmail Belle into marrying him, the Beast learns to control his anger and becomes more docile and open to the needs of others until he earns rather than wins her affections.

Belle and the Prince: Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast?

Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast? Source: Disney Wikia.

The ultimate proof of his transformation comes when he allows Belle to leave the castle to attend to her sick father at the expense of him being able to break the spell. (Although, seeing how close the town and castle seem to be, there’s no reason he should have assumed Belle couldn’t have popped back to the castle later on…)


Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role

Most of Belle’s characteristics fit the usual wish list for Disney Princesses we’ve encountered so far: beauty, charm, kindness, a good set of pipes, and a touch of wistful longing for ‘something more’ than the life they’re trapped in. But Belle has another trick up her puffy dress sleeves: intellectualism. Like our previous heroine, Ariel, Belle is curious about the world around her. The difference here is that Belle has been able to satiate her curiosity with books, turning her into an imaginative, ambitious, sharp-witted, and worldly heroine.

Belle and books: Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card!

Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card! Source: CDN.

As I mentioned previously, the downside to all this glowing perfection is that Belle seems to have done all her character development off-screen, but she also has another severe weakness: Her heightened intelligence has given her one hell of a superiority complex.

At the start she sings about her “little town, full of little people” and is bored by the routine of everyone else’s lives. She laments that no-one reads and imagines more like she does. Similarly, the rest of the town look down on her for being intellectual and “weird”.

Belle realises the whole town is staring at her. Hmm, my ears are burning...

Hmm, my ears are burning… Source: LoveLace Media.

During this opening number we see a woman struggling with a comical amount of children – literally juggling babies in her arms – whilst desperately trying to buy some eggs. Meanwhile, Belle sails past on the back of a cart, smiling and singing about the joy of reading – unburdened by the troubles of being a working class mother. This is the best insight we get into Belle’s P.O.V: All sweetness and pleasantries on the outside, but internally judging the other women around her who have slavishly ‘given up’ on any hope of independence or self-empowerment.

Mother struggling to buy eggs while Belle rides by in the background. "I need six eggs!"

“No ma’am, a baby is not acceptable payment for eggs.” Source: Tumblr.

Belle’s quest for self-betterment is both her greatest strength and weakness. She is presented to young girls watching the film as a woman ahead of her time – a model early feminist before the term was even invented who dreams of living life beyond her designated place in society. Yet, by doing so, she can’t help but dole out pity to the other women around her who were not able to choose to live their lives in the way that she has so luckily been able to. In some ways Belle is the epitome of some of the feminist movement’s problems: white, elitist and judgemental. And also kind of a hypocrite – after all, let’s not forget that the only two books we see Belle actually engaged with are romance stories – one (pictured below) she reads a passage from referencing “Prince Charming” and the other is ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. Maybe her desires aren’t quite as wildly different from everyone else’s as she might wish.

Belle reading a romance book: "Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come. I-I mean, I'll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff."

“Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come… I-I mean, I’ll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff.” SourceLost In Drawers


wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

Yes, I know. How can one of Disney’s foremost feminist heroines be merely a ‘Neutral’ in terms of gender representation? Hear me out.

The core philosophy of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is to love what’s inside of someone rather than just what’s on the outside. This makes it the first time a Disney Princess film has broken the nonsensical ‘love at first sight’ BS that has been at the heart of every previous story – and this is where most of its plus points come from. Belle saves the Beast – not just physically by breaking the spell, but emotionally and psychologically by changing his behaviour and smoothing his sharp edges. He begins as a self-loathing, literal monster, and ends up as a well-rounded man who literally and figuratively reclaims his humanity thanks to Belle. Belle, meanwhile, is rewarded with the one thing she (secretly) always longed for: someone who truly understands her. Both of them begin as loners and societal misfits, but they end as the perfect fit in each other’s lives.

Belle and the Beast in the snow

Source: ImagesMTV

However, this nice, mushy message comes at a cost: Belle’s agency as a character. As I’ve established, when we are introduced to Belle she has no more growing left to do in this film other than learn to be less of a judgemental bitch and find a suitable husband. In fact, I was left feeling a little cheated by the end. The opening, uplifting number makes us anticipate the journey of a modern woman ready to go globe-trotting… only to lead down the same well-trodden path of her finding the nearest castle and Prince to hook up with and stay put in his library for the rest of her life.

In the end, Belle is actually demoted to the usual passive ‘Prince’ role – a one-note hero who swoops in to save the day in the nick of time, leaving  the Beast fulfilling the lead, active ‘Princess’ role. This, ultimately, is why what should have been a ‘Positive’ film for gender representation, has sadly balanced out into a ‘Neutral’ one instead.


 

Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: ‘Aladdin‘.

Advertisements
Standard
wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: Little Mermaid (1989)

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES. YOU CAN READ THE INTRODUCTION HERE.

wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

Based loosely on the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid tells the story of 16-year-old Princess Ariel, a mermaid who lives under the sea with her father – King Triton – and six sisters. Restless and adventurous, Ariel constantly collects human objects she salvages from shipwrecks until her obsession finally rests on one human in particular: Prince Eric, who she rescues from drowning when his ship capsizes in a storm. Eric awakens to the sound of Ariel singing to him, but she swims away before he can see her properly.

The Little Mermaid Ariel

Princess Ariel

Furious that she made contact with a human, Triton forbids Ariel from returning to the surface, pushing her into the lair of Ursula – the ‘sea witch’. In exchange for her voice, Ursula grants Ariel legs for three days on the condition that she must make Eric give her true love’s first kiss within that time, or she will belong to Ursula forever.

wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

There are 9 female characters with speaking parts:

  • Princess Ariel
  • Ariel’s six sisters: Princess Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella, and Alana.
  • Ursula
  • A maid in Eric’s castle.

wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender disney

Yes, Ursula the ‘sea witch’.

Ursula the Sea Witch

Ursula, the ‘Sea Witch’.

Ursula is clearly motivated by her desire to dethrone Triton and take his power for herself, which she does through plotting to ensnare his daughter in a deal she think she can easily win. Even before hearing her deliciously maniacal voice, it’s immediately obvious in her character design that she is the villain as she’s completely oppositional to Ariel and the other merpeople. Rather than being half fish, she’s half octopus; her colour scheme is the classic Disney combo of black and purple; she’s not conventionally beautiful, and wears so much make-up she looks like a bit of a drag queen (which is probably intentional considering she was supposedly inspired by iconic drag queen actress Divine). Although brilliantly effective, it’s a design that once again falls into the trap of equating unattractiveness in women with villainy, and Ursula – although impressively powerful –  overall comes across as bitter and desperate.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism

Considering there are nine female characters with speaking parts, and Ariel herself has a mainly female family, it’s odd that there’s hardly any real interaction between all of them. In fact, the film works hard to set them all as far apart as possible.

Ariel's Sisters

Ariel’s sisters performing a musical number for their Father, King Triton.

At the start of the film Ariel – the youngest – is meant to be making her musical debut with her sisters in a show for their father, except when her moment comes… she’s not there. Instead, she’s exploring a sunken ship with her fish friend Flounder, which shows her sisters to be obedient ‘good’ daughters, whereas Ariel comes across as more individual and rebellious preferring the company of male companions, and this is also visually represented through her unique colour scheme: red hair and green fins.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism disney

Ariel and Ursula drive the plot together, with Ariel being in control in the first half, and Ursula taking over more in the second as she realises that Ariel may come out on top from their deal. Ariel is a headstrong character that gets to make a lot of her own choices in the film, both good and bad, but unfortunately this seems to come across as one of the ‘quirks’ of her character rather than something that should be a given for any protagonist of any gender.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

As previously mentioned, Ariel interacts with male characters far more than female ones with the sole exception of Ursula. Although this lack of female camaraderie is negative, the bonds she has with the central male characters –  Triton and Eric – are probably the most endearing parts of the film.

Ariel and King Triton embrace on her wedding day.

Ariel and King Triton embrace on her wedding day.

It’s clear that despite their differences, Triton is a deeply loving single father to his troublesome teenage daughter. Although he comes across as overly tough at times due to the stress of his job and Ariel’s bouts of rebellion, in the end when it comes down to Ariel’s life being under threat – he chooses to sacrifice his own power and freedom for hers, and ultimately he learns to relinquish his control over her to allow her own autonomy to flourish like any good father would.

Eric and Ariel meet face to face.

Eric and Ariel meet face to face.

Eric – although strangely pretty happy to fall in love with a mute girl he found on the beach after three days –  seems pretty well matched for Ariel. Like her, he is curious, adventurous and not interested in being part of the traditional stuffy ruling elite. This relationship ultimately provides the central emotional crux of the film: both Eric and Ariel are missing something in their lives that nothing from their own worlds can adequately fill until they find each other, and this is what makes their romance seem to have a stronger foundation than Disney’s previous Prince/Princess dynamics.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack gender feminism

From an early point in the story Ariel is shown to be completely disinterested in her traditional Princess role, preferring to go salvaging junk from a shipwreck rather than appear in her father’s concert with her sisters. She’s curious, adventurous, and absent-minded – perhaps supposed to be on the quirky-side, as she’s completely different from her rule-abiding sisters.

Ariel singing Part of Your World gif

Ariel singing “Part Of Your World.”

Lyrically, ‘Part of Your World’ could be more multi-layered than you might think. On the surface, it is about a teenager’s dream of running away from home, sick of her father’s stifling rule. However, closer examination could provide deeper meaning relating to gender. Ariel laments in the song that although she has a massive hoard of “neat” stuff from her treasure hunts, she still feels unfulfilled. “Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl who has everything?” A privileged princess surrounded by material wealth and a big, close-knit family should be happy, right? But the only thing that Ariel thinks will truly make her happy is “to be where the people are.” You could argue that she’s after another physical thing – legs, but really she’s after something that can’t be stolen, found, or bought – she’s wants change, to be part of a different kind of society – or in her case, species.

“Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women” by Susan Faludi (1992)

The 1980s – when this film was released – was an uncertain time for women as the huge momentum that the women’s liberation movement gained through the 1960s and 1970s was somewhat stunted by a joint political and media backlash. According to writer Susan Faludi, this backlash was designed to pin the blame for women’s socio-economic struggles on feminism for forcing them to feel pressured to “have it all” – an unachievable dream. In this context, “Part of Your World” could represent the disillusionment of women in this decade – sick of being told to settle with their lot and placate their dreams of true liberation with capitalist consumerism; in the same way that Ariel has been forced to satiate her true desires with meaningless trophies by her father’s patriarchal subjugation.

Ariel surveys her trophies from the human world.

Ariel surveys her trophies from the human world.

“Betcha on land, they’d understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters; Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand”.

Keep on dreaming, Ariel.

Of course, this being a Disney romance, it isn’t long until the “Your” in the song’s name becomes specific to one person – a man. You could surmise that rather than fulfil her original dream of exploring the surface world like she has the sea, Ariel instead chooses to pass from under the rule of her father’s kingdom to Eric’s. Rather than obsessing over ‘stuff’, she obsesses over Eric, both of which could be seen as distractions from real freedom. This is all highly subjective, of course, but the pieces seem to fit.

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

This one was tough to call. Although there is a lot to celebrate in terms of positive gender representation in this film – the high female character count; the female-driven plot; the positive treatment of female characters by male ones; and Ariel’s character being fully fleshed out beyond that of just beauty and a great singing voice – there is also a lot to criticise. Yes, Ariel is the first overtly rebellious Disney Princess, but her lust for freedom is quickly tempered into teenage romantic obsession. Ursula, though an outrageously brilliant villain and fearsomely powerful witch, is weakened by the comedic value of making her look like drag queen; and despite there being the highest female character count yet, with the exception of Ariel and Ursula, none of these female characters really interact with each other.

Conclusively, The Little Mermaid is a Disney Princess film that has all the pieces in place to make a truly gender-positive film, but doesn’t quite fit them together properly.


Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: Beauty and the Beast!

 

Standard
wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

This article is part of a series. You can read the introduction here.


Aurora

 ‘This is the 14th century father, you’re living in the past!’

wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

Based on the fairy story by Charles Perrault, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a Princess named Aurora who is cursed by the Evil Sorceress Maleficent as revenge for being snubbed by her parents – the Royal Family. The curse dictates that Aurora will grow in beauty and grace, only to be pricked in the finger by an enchanted spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and die. Luckily, three good fairies counteract the curse by altering the death clause to an ‘eternal sleep’ to be broken only with ‘love’s first kiss.’ Despite hiding Aurora in the woods to raise her as their own for 16 years, the good fairies cannot stop the curse from being fulfilled, and the only way to save Aurora is to send the kingdom to sleep with her and find her true love –who just happens to be the Prince she is unknowingly betrothed to.

cinderella wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

  • Sleeping Beauty – Princess Aurora
  • Queen Mother (Princess Leah)
  • Maleficent
  • The three Good Fairies – Mistress Flora, Mistress Fauna, and Mistress Merryweather.

wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender disney

Yes – Maleficent.

Early in the film Maleficent crashes the party to celebrate Aurora’s birth, offended she wasn’t invited. For this discrepancy, she curses the baby princess after two of the three good fairies have blessed her with magical gifts, and whilst there definitely seems to an unspoken history between her, the royal family, and the fairies, the sole motivation we are given for Maleficent’s villainy is this particular story is her exclusion from the celebrations alone. Is killing a baby an appropriate response for not getting a party invite? Not sure I can sympathise with her on that.

Despite her weak incentive, Maleficent is by far one of the most memorable and powerful Disney villainesses. Even the good fairies say her powers are ‘too great’ which is presumably why they can’t completely undo her magic, and even after all their efforts to prevent it, Maleficent simply hypnotises Aurora towards her doom. While the three good fairies have power in sisterhood, Maleficent derives power from isolation, with only her pet raven and goblin army for company in the ‘Forbidden Mountains’ where she rules as ‘the Mistress of all Evil.’  Her animalistic design – horned headdress, grey hued skin, yellow eyes, and black ragged cloak – casts a bat’s silhouette, and hints at her incredible transformative abilities later in the film.

maleficent wicked wiles disney princess fanny pack gender representation

STAY BACK PEASANTS!

She’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, but is she a positive female role model? On the one hand you could argue Maleficent’s fierce power and dominance, but her adversarial aggression towards every other female (and male) character casts her more negatively to me, as her independence can be more easily read as maniacal supremacy.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism

The three good fairies – true to their kind and ‘cuddly’ appearance – treat Aurora’s wellbeing as their top priority for the entire film to protect her from Maleficent’s wrath. And between them, they also provide the first positive examples of true sisterhood in the Princess catalogue so far. Whether they’re actually related or not, they definitely act like a real family – bickering and all – and it’s genuinely endearing.

They also have refreshingly distinct personalities from each other – Flora is the ‘leader’ and the bossy one, Fauna is the middle child and the more sweet and mild one, and Merryweather is the younger, grumpier one that argues Flora constantly. This affects their difference of opinion concerning Maleficent as well, as Merryweather is determined to use her magic to get revenge, but Fauna doesn’t think she’s ‘so bad’ and points out they can only use their magic for ‘good and happiness’.

wicked wiles sleeping beauty three good fairies disney princess gender representation

(Left to right) Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather

There is also an obvious parallel with nature as their names all have connections with plants, animals and weather, which is perhaps where their powers stem. As they debate where to hide the princess, Flora suggests turning her into a flower, but Fauna – logical as usual – points out that ‘Maleficent would send a frost to kill it’ implying that Maleficent’s powers might be rooted in nature also. We could even surmise from this comment that the fairies might be connected to spring, and Maleficent to winter, deepening their opposition to one another. It also means that Maleficent might be a similar creature to a fairy – but obviously not a good fairy, which the good fairies use to their advantage as they say she cannot understand ‘love and kindness’ – exactly what they use to hide Aurora.

In the woodcutter’s cottage that they raise Aurora in, the fairies induct her into their family by renaming her ‘Briar Rose’ (another plant reference like ‘Flora’ and ‘Fauna’.) Aurora seems happy enough living with her ‘aunts’, but complains that they treat her like a child, as she is not allowed to be truly independent – a typical frustrated teenager, really. And like a typical Disney Princess, she also confides in her animal friends that she dreams of meeting her prince to remedy her loneliness.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism disney

Maleficent’s curse and her pursuit of fulfilling that curse drives the fairies to protect Aurora by raising her in the woods for 16 years, meaning that Maleficent and the good fairies supply the motivation, development, and resolution of the story, and making the plot driven almost entirely by its female fairy cast. Most of the film feels really like a battle between the fairies and Maleficent with others simply caught in the crossfire.

Even in the final battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in her fiery dragon form, the good fairies are there to help him flee his prison in the Forbidden Mountains and summon the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue (‘weapons of righteousness that triumph over evil’) to his aid. Flora even says an incantation to help his sword fly true into the dragon’s heart.

disney princess wicked wiles gender representation fanny pack

RAWR.

But sisterhood is also a key positive driving force here. After all, are they doing all this just to get Phillip a wife? Or to thwart Maleficent once and for all? Nope. It’s all for the sake of their maternal bond with Aurora and putting her happiness before their own.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

The male characters are:

  • King Stephen – Aurora’s father
  • King Hubert – Phillip’s father (Stephen’s old friend)
  • Prince Phillip
  • Samson (Prince Phillip’s horse)

 ‘Fondly had these two kings dreamed their kingdoms would unite.’

The male characters have little interaction with the female characters, or influence on the plot for that matter. The most significant event is that Phillip and Aurora are arranged to be married by their parents at the very start of the film, and this sets their playful romance in motion. The next time they met – 16 years later – they have no idea that either of them are royalty, but are drawn together through a kind of ‘magical’ bond of destiny.

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

‘Hey there, handsome…’

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

‘I preferred the owl.’

Right from the start, Phillip is given far more personality than the previous two Princes we have seen in Snow White and Cinderella, as we see him wrinkle his nose with genuine childish ‘ickiness’ at the sight of the baby Aurora when presented to her. Even into adulthood, he remains cheeky, charming, and adventurous evidenced by his play fighting with Samson in the woods. His courtship with Aurora, however, is typically short – a quick dance in the woods, a few exchanged words, and that’s it: true love.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack gender feminism

The good fairies deep desire to protect Aurora is a familial one, but it may also stem from their connection to her magical properties, which are hinted at throughout the story. We are told by the narrator that Aurora is a ‘miracle’ baby that her parents wished for, and her name even means ‘dawn’, linking her irrevocably to that magical time between day and night. Her stereotypical Princess characteristics of beauty and a great singing voice are also ‘gifts’ from the good fairies’ spells cast after her birth. This makes the disgusted expression that young Phillip pulls when peeking into her crib before the spells are cast all the more interesting. What did Aurora look like before she was given the gift of beauty? Even as an adult, Phillip also comments when he hears her voice in the woods that it sounds ‘too good to be real.’ Aurora seems to have entirely engineered virtues. What would she have been without these conjured qualities, I wonder? What would Merryweather’s spell have given her if she’d been able to cast it before Maleficent turned up to cast her curse? Intelligence? Super strength? Laser vision?

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

‘Ugh.’

In terms of her Princess role, Aurora spends most of the film unaware that she is royalty, but still possesses the beauty, charm, and ability to communicate with animals that a true Disney princess should have. We also see her cooking and cleaning in the cottage in the woods for her ‘aunts’, meaning that they have brought her up to do her fair share of domestic chores similarly to Snow White and Cinderella – the main difference being that she does those jobs wilfully.

When the fairies reveal her true identity to her, they expect her to be delighted, but instead she rejects her princess role upon learning that she cannot marry the random stranger she danced with in the woods as she is already betrothed to a Prince and must fulfil her responsibilities now that she is 16-years-old.

the importance of family and responsibility, and the accepting or shirking of it. Aurora and Phillip have preordained paths that they want to escape as young adults, and even though she doesn’t know it, Aurora is also trapped by Maleficent’s curse that the fairies are trying to help her escape from. In the end, they are both forced to follow these destined paths but to a happy ending, which makes these flirtations with defiance ultimately empty threats.

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representationConsidering that Snow White and Cinderella were classified as negative, Sleeping Beauty makes significant strides in the right direction in terms of positive gender representation. The film is almost entirely female driven; the villainess is a powerful bad-ass; the good fairies have a strong sisterly bond; and the Prince is given an actual personality compared to his bland predecessors in the Disney films before it. It teaches that women can indomitable forces of nature – both good and bad; independent and communal.

Equally the film unfortunately suffers from the same negative problems as the previous ones – lack of real motivation or empathy for the female villain; the titular Princess has little control of her own destiny or of the plot, and possesses very few distinctive characteristics beyond the typical Disney Princess ones – beauty, charm, and grace (even if these are revealed to be completely artificial). There is a lot more to praise than the previous two Disney films, but a lot of the same problems remain, which is why – as much as I wanted to – I couldn’t give it a positive classification.

Please not that I have not taken Maleficent (2014) into account in this analysis. 


Next up in the Wicked Wiles series – Robin Hood!

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.

Standard
wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles – Cinderella (1950)

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.

This article is the third in a series. You can read the introduction to Wicked Wiles here.


Cinderella wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

“A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”

Cinderella wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Disney’s Cinderella (1950) is set in a ‘far away land long ago’ where a girl named Cinderella lives happily with her family. Sadly, this doesn’t last. Her mother dies and Cinderella’s father remarries a woman with two daughters, who turn out to be cold and cruel. Upon his death, they force Cinderella to become their maid. Meanwhile in the royal castle, the King – longing for grandchildren – plans a ball for his son the Prince to find him a suitable bride. Invitations are sent to every eligible lady in the land, and Cinderella begs her stepmother to let her go. With the help of her mice friends, Cinderella fashions a beautiful dress to wear, only to have her stepsisters tear it to shreds and her dreams of happiness destroyed.

Luckily, Cinderella’s laments are heard by her Fairy Godmother, who whips up a new dress, a pumpkin carriage, and some glass slippers that will last until midnight. Cinderella charms the Prince at the ball but is forced to run away prematurely as her curfew approaches leaving only a glass slipper behind. This forces the King to send out a search party to try the glass slipper on the foot of every woman in the land in the hopes of finding its mysterious owner.

cinderella wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

The film’s character are mostly female, consisting of:

  1. Cinderella
  2. Cinderella’s stepmother (Lady Tremaine)
  3. Anastasia (stepsister)
  4. Drusilla (stepsister)
  5. The Fairy Godmother
  6. An unnamed female narrator at the start of the film.

cinderella fanny pack feminism gender disney

Yes – Cinderella’s stepmother and her two daughters.

Jealous of Cinderella’s ‘charm and beauty’, her stepmother forces Cinders to become a servant. This also kind of makes financial sense as she presumably cannot afford to employ actual servants after squandering her late husband’s wealth – as the narrator reveals at the start. Just like Disney’s previous Princess film – Snow White – the jealousy of a bitter stepmother provides the only villainous motivation. The difference this time being that Cinderella’s stepmother is not an evil Sorceress. She’s just plain evil.

Anastasia and Drusilla are described as ‘vain and selfish’ by the narrator and are not forced to do any work around the house due to their mother’s favouritism. The stepsisters aren’t exactly ugly, but certainly plainer and ‘less feminine’ compared to Cinderella. During the fitting of the glass slipper scene, for example, the mislaid slipper barely covers either of their feet – implying both sisters lack the aspirational feminine trait of small and dainty feet, which by default Cinderella must have. This also follows the Disney tradition of personality dictating appearance.

cinderella step sisters disney fanny pack wicked wiles gender feminism

Anastasia & Drusilla.

In the case of the step-family, however, this rule seems unbalanced as their personalities really are worse than their looks. Upon receiving the invite to the ball, Cinderella’s stepmother agrees she can attend on the condition that Cinderella completes all of her chores and has a suitable dress. When Anastasia and Drusilla object she repeats her condition: ‘I said if.’ Obviously she has no intention of letting Cinderella attend, but clearly gets some sick pleasure out of dangling hope in front of her unfortunate stepdaughter so she can rip it away from her; a metaphor that turns out to be literal when she manipulates Anastasia and Drusilla into tearing Cinderella’s dress to shreds.

This glimmer of hope is both a fantastical and tangible thing for Cinderella as the narrator tells us that the kingdom is ‘tiny’ and she can see the castle in plain view from her bedroom window. Yet, I would go so far as to say that if you look a little closer than the film would want you to look, that glimmer of hope is a thematic thread for all of its characters, including the villains, and provides their real motivation.

cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism

The iconic Disney castle.

This realisation struck me when Anastasia and Drusilla complained to their mother that they had no new clothes to wear to the ball, and I remembered that narrator explained that the stepmother had married Cinderella’s father for his money – all of which she and her greedy daughters spent. The implication is that the stepmother is a ‘gold digger’ – yet another demonising female quality. Having sucked one source of income dry, she is now forced to set her sights on marrying a daughter off to the bachelor Prince in that oh-so-visible-castle-from-the-window to sustain the opulent lifestyle they have become accustomed to.

But let’s consider the social context of this: In the not-so-long-ago times when either a rich father or husband was the only means for a woman of status to survive, what other choice did the stepmother have? To Cinderella, the castle represents freedom from her oppressive stepmother, but to her stepmother the castle represents financial freedom in an oppressive society. And whilst she cannot be excused for it, perhaps her cruel treatment of Cinderella is a venting of frustration upon the remnant of a marriage she hoped would afford her security, and an added burden of an extra mouth to feed with money she has (stupidly) frittered away.

The motivational jealousy she feels at Cinderella’s ‘beauty and charm’ is because those natural qualities that Cinders has been gifted with mean she could easily find an affluent husband… if she is ever allowed out of the house.

cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism

From start to finish, all of the interactions between the film’s central female family members are irrefutably negative. As the maid, Cinderella is unquestionably submissive to her rude and demanding stepmother and stepsisters, with the exception of bravely asking her stepmother’s permission to go the ball.

cinderella step mother disney fanny pack wicked wiles gender feminism

YOU SHALL NOT GO TO THE BALL.

The only positive interaction Cinderella has between another female character is with the Fairy Godmother who is basically everyone’s ideal Grandma – lovely, huggable, and quirky. She comforts Cinders and works her magic to restore her self-confidence and get her to the ball. She even has the foresight to allow Cinderella to keep the remaining glass slipper after her magic fades, enabling Cinders to prove later on that she is the true owner of the shoes when her stepmother ‘accidentally’ smashes the other.

cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism disney

Cinderella is light on plot and high on filler, and by filler I mean lots of animals in clothes faffing around for too long (in my opinion). This makes answering this question tricky, but arguably it is the King who sets everything in motion to achieve his goal of having grandchildren, and the entire story revolves the ball.

The stepmother contributes only by blocking Cinderella’s opportunities to escape her control, and these are opportunities that are given to Cinderella rather than creating opportunities herself. The only time she asserts any kind of influence is when she asks to go the ball. In fact, Cinders is so lacking in drive that even after the ball when the magic wears off she shrugs her shoulders and trudges back home obediently instead of seizing her opportunity to run away for good.

cinderella disney wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

The male characters are:

  • Prince Charming
  • The King
  • The Duke (the King’s aide)
  • Various animals that live in Cinderella’s chateau

The King states that he has no interest in which woman the Prince picks as his bride; as long as she can provide him with grandchildren: ‘What’s love got to do with it? Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions.’ The Prince also has no interest in any of the women at the ball – stifling a yawn as they are all introduced to him. That is, until he spots Cinderella entering at the back of the ballroom.

Obviously taken by her looks, he rushes over to meet her, and the pair spends the night walking and talking through the castle gardens. We never get to hear what they are saying (other than a weird telepathic duet) until Cinderella suddenly tells him she must leave as her curfew approaches. This is also the last we really see or hear of the Prince, as it is the Duke who is tasked with searching the Kingdom for the mysterious maiden that the Prince stupidly failed to get the name of his new crush despite all those hours of implied conversation.

cinderella step sisters disney fanny pack wicked wiles gender feminism

“I have absolutely no character!”

I mentioned earlier that the castle represents hope, and this is also true of the Prince. He is a sadly tokenistic character – known only as ‘Charming’ – serving purely as wish fulfilment for the female characters; therefore a surprisingly weak male presence despite his narrative importance.

cinderella disney wicked wiles fanny pack gender feminism

Just like Snow White before her, Cinderella’s skills are enforcedly domestically based. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella – although born into wealth – has to marry to attain Princess status and we don’t get to see what kind of Princess she becomes. (Although, if the King got his way, she’d most likely be spending most it popping out kids and little else.) Otherwise, she possesses natural beauty and charm, kindness, and the ability to communicate with animals – typical of a Disney Princess.

fanny pack cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism

Unfortunately under my criteria it’s another negative Disney Princess film in terms of gender representation. Here’s why:

  • Cinderella barely influences the plot.
  • Negative interactions between nearly all female characters.
  • Cinderella is given the opportunity to follow her dreams but only to satiate the King’s need for grandchildren. He doesn’t care who she is, he just wants a woman – any woman – to marry his son and produce heirs.
  • The film missed opportunities to give depth to the stepmother and stepsisters’ jealousy – some kind of social context might have made it more balanced and more interesting.

Overall Message:

Positive –

  • The animals help Cinderella because she helps them, which shows that if you are nice to others they will return this kindness.
  • There is also a positive message about working hard and being rewarded, except Cinderella’s opportunities happen mainly by chance.

Negative –

  • Unfounded jealousy is the only motivation for female villainy.
  • Marriage is your only chance at happiness/means to financially support yourself, with no option to become self-sufficient.
  • The film is critical of women who marry for money alone, yet offers no context/solution to this problem.
  • Male characters are depicted negatively – either talking about women as baby-making machines, or treated as nameless and voiceless tokens.

Next in the Wicked Wiles series: Sleeping Beauty!


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in unconventional and unique illustrations. Check out her website here to see her portfolio.

Standard
wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Wicked Wiles – What Do Disney Princess Films Teach You About Being a Woman?

This article was first published on the Fanny Pack Blog. Read the original post here and follow Fanny Pack to read updates on this series before they are published here.

Introduction

Disney’s iconic Princess catalogue of fairy-tale inspired films began right from the company’s cinematic debut in 1939 with Snow White – the first ever animated feature-length film, and it’s first critical and commercial success.

74 years later, the runaway success of Disney’s latest addition to its signature genre – Frozen – has proven that the allure of being a Princess hasn’t lost its shimmer for the latest generation of Disney-weaned audiences. Despite being a very specific brand, Disney Princess’ official website summarizes its intentions quite broadly:

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Analysis Gender Politics Fanny Pack iwantedwings

Nothing in this mission statement is purposefully negative or harmful, just as none of Disney’s films are. And yet, as open and expansive as it encourages young girls to be, there is also an inhibiting factor straight from the offset – this is a gender specific genre according to Disney, and as such, limiting to both genders. Little boys have apparently nothing to learn from watching them and are almost always stereotyped as the strong, courageous, adventurous men. Whilst little girls must seek guidance and inspiration from them in the form of ‘happily ever after,’ dreaming of a handsome prince, perfect wedding days or coming to the realization that almost every princess is white, with long blonde hair and blue eyes.

Laura Bates from the ‘Everyday Sexism’ book, talks about one of the “earliest manifestations of childhood sexism is in the almost surreal segregation of children’s toys” and this also transpires into the films. Laura acknowledges the “attempts to subvert the stereotypes in recent years with Tangled and Brave, showcasing strong female heroines rather than the typical ‘damsel in distress’… however they remain stubbornly problematic.”

Looking at theses films and toys in isolation, it may seem a little over the top. So what if girls like fashion, makeup and boys? But, as Laura Bates says, “the sheer saturation of tween culture with these characters and images creates a powerfully dictatorial consensus about who girls should be, what they should be interested in and how they should look.” The question is how is this influencing the way our daughters, sisters etc. see themselves, and how does it impact their future choices?

This being the case, just what do little girls learn about their gender from 74-years worth of Disney Princess films? And, is that lesson a positive, negative, or neutral one?

Over this series of blogs, I hope to discover the answers to these questions by watching each film in the Princess genre in chronological order of release and analyzing each one using my own criteria:

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Analysis Pop Culture Gender Politics Fanny Pack iwantedwings Feminism Is the villian female, and if so, what are her motivations? 3 How do the female characters interact with each other? 4 Who drives the plot? 5 How do the male characters treat the female ones? 6 Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role?

At the end of each article, I will give the film a ‘Gender Representation Classification’ stamp – Positive, Negative, or Neutral – in a similar way that films are rated for age. It is important to add that my criteria has nothing to do with whether each film is cinematically ‘good’ – these questions are specific to whether each film has good gender politics; although I suspect there might be a point of correlation between the two. I should also add that I – like most – am a HUGE Disney fan, but I will be trying my absolute best to forget any preconceived opinions about each film before watching it so as it be as unbiased as possible.

The final note is the list itself. Now, there is an official Disney Princess roster that I will be using, but I have also made my own additions. This includes any animated or partly-animated Disney Studios film (including Disney/Pixar) that prominently features a female character (human or non-human) that is either a Princess; becomes a Princess; or of Princess status equivalence – i.e. Pocahontas is included as she is the daughter of the Chief of her tribe; Nala is included as she is part of the Pride’s royal family and [SPOILERS] becomes Simba’s wife.

Here is the list I will be writing about in the next few months. (in chronological order of release):

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Princess: Snow White

Cinderella (1950)
Princess: Cinderella

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Princess: Aurora

Robin Hood (1973)
Princess: Maid Marian

The Little Mermaid (1989)
Princess: Ariel

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Princess: Belle

Aladdin (1992)
Princess: Jasmine

The Lion King (1994)
Princess: Nala

Pocahontas (1995)
Princess: Pocahontas

Mulan (1998)
Princess: Mulan

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Princess: Kida

Enchanted (2007)
Princess: Giselle

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Princess: Tiana

Tangled (2010)
Princess: Rapunzel

Brave (2012)
Princess: Merida

Frozen (2013)
Princess’: Elsa & Ana

Coming up next in the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

Standard
Comics, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

Superman Returns & Man of Steel: Man vs. Myth

alex-ross-s

“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Regions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic magic ring of myth.”

–       Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

A few years ago I got a book for my birthday from my parents about the life and work of the comic artist Alex Ross. It was called Mythology. They are both great art fans, so I presume they picked it because of the fine art quality of his illustrations, or perhaps because it had been favourably reviewed in whichever left-leaning broadsheet they were reading at the time. Whatever the reason, I remain eternally grateful that they made that probably random purchase as that biography came to fundamentally change not only my view on what comic art could or should be, but what the entire concept of superheroes means to pop culture and our society in general.

Through the eyes of a child, these characters and stories feel very much ‘of the moment.’ Incidental and individual. I used to travel back and fourth from my local library borrowing as many comics as I could. It didn’t matter who the character was, who the writer or artist was, which year it was from, which publisher it was, or even if they were age-appropriate or gender-targeted. It was just the love and curiosity of discovering a new world for the first time, but a world that I felt was somehow aimed at me alone. Mythology changed everything. Suddenly, the bold and zappy characters I loved from the DC, Marvel and Dark Horse universes had a weight behind them: a sense of history, a sense of evolution, a sense of myth. Like the fables and fairy tales of old, I discovered that these characters had been passed down through generations of storytellers charged with the task of keeping their legends alive and preserving their histories.

Alex-Ross-Art-11

 “A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance – And the myths that actually touched you at the time – not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses and Aeneas – but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman.”

–       Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Although Ross has worked for nearly every publisher out there, Mythology focuses on his work for DC, whose characters sparked his initial love for the industry as a kid (same for me, too.) Whilst Marvel comics’ universe can be broadly characterised by modern, witty, street-wise and usually ‘accidental’ heroes, DC’s universe – as the only publisher with claim to the originals – is populated by characters of inherent myth, purpose, and God-like stature.

Superman, more than any other character in the DC or any other comic book universe, embodies these qualities. He is our modern-day Hercules. He is biblical, mythological, and iconic. He is the original, the most enduring, and without parallel. No surprise then that he is also Ross’ favourite. 

“I very much wanted to create the new standard by which Superman should be drawn […] Of course, that didn’t happen […] Superman should never reflect any fashionable trend or other affection of a specific era – hairstyle, speech patterns, etc. He is beyond that. He is out of time.”

–       Alex Ross, Mythology

Superman

 With all this in mind, let’s turn to his cinematic appearances. I must confess first of all that I am a huge Christopher Reeves fan, and he will forever cast a very long and caped shadow over any actor having to follow in his red-booted footsteps. This is both impressive and unfortunate for subsequent films. Even if you are not fond of the original Superman films in the 1970s – 1980s that he starred in, I don’t think you can deny how brilliantly Reeves portrayed not only Supes, but also his alter ego Clark Kent. Bumbling, awkward, but deeply well meaning and sweet, Reeves pitched his performance as the Daily Planet reporter with superb comic timing. It also made his transformation into the man of steel that much more dramatic. Right down to the little greased curl of hair on his forehead and that glint in his blue eyes, he was completely believable. The first two of that series of films certainly capture the spirit of the comics faithfully whilst expanding their appeal out to the wider less comic-literate audience. They set the benchmark right from the start to which all superhero movies should strive to reach.

christopher-reeves-clark-kent-superrman

Now let’s skip forward to 2006 and the release of Superman Returns. I have to say I felt negatively about this film before it had even been released. It took director Bryan Singer away from the X-Men movie franchise that I loved so much, and the result was an unforgivable mess of a finale to an otherwise great trilogy. However, when finally seeing the film, I understood why he had chosen to jump ship. Returns is bright, bold, and…apparently controversial. I have had countless arguments with friends and seen many, many angry reviews about it, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. I really love that film, and while everyone is of course welcome to hold his or her own opinion, I almost get a little tired of continually having to defend it. The hatred for it seems to be grounded in several things: one is that it pays homage to the original film series too much; another is the casting of Brandon Routh as Supes, but perhaps the biggest complaint is the love-triangle between Supes, Lois Lane, and Lois Lane’s husband Richard, as well as with their son. And by ‘their,’ I very much mean all three characters, as the film would have us ponder over.

As a fan of the original series (well, the first two at least…) I wasn’t bothered by the unmistakable nods that Singer gave to them. After all, there is a significant gap between 2006 and 1987 when Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released (the less said about that one, the better) so I don’t think it was unreasonable to remind the audience of not only the history of the character, but also of his history as a pop cultural icon. In our postmodern landscape, self-referential stories are as much about depicting the context of a myth as they are about its content. As for the casting, I will begrudgingly agree that Routh is unfortunately too youthful-looking for the timeline that the film sets itself in. This is a film that is a sequel, not a reboot, as the premise is that Superman has returned to Earth after he left to search for rumoured remains of Krypton at the end of Quest for Peace. Therefore, this is the same Superman from the Reeves movie-verse. It is also true that Routh is eerily similar looking to Reeves…I mean, like, spookily similar. However, the themes of returning, of time passing, of change, and of maturity, calls for a slightly more weathered and older-looking Supes, which Routh’s pretty-boy face just doesn’t possess. That being said, this is merely a cosmetic weakness. I genuinely thought his performance as Supes was believable and empathetic whilst still retaining that inherent weight of otherworldly strength, wisdom, and conviction that we associate with the character. In fact, with the exception of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (ugh), the rest of the cast is also stellar – especially Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, and Parker Posey as his comical sidekick with her sneering red lips and yappy fluffy puppies.

373272.1020.A

That leaves us with the final controversial element: the plot. How can there be a Superman movie where Lois is married to another guy? How can Superman have a son? Again, I find myself referring back to Mythology:

“Writer Jerry Siegal and artist Joe Shuster’s creation was nothing less than the Golem of their time – an all powerful mythic being brought into our realm to solve our injustices, to defend the defenceless. In this sense, Ross takes the next logical step by rendering him in what appears to be actual flesh and blood […] The effect was like finally meeting someone you’d only ever heard about.”

–       Chip Kidd, Mythology

AlexRossSupdesk

In this quote, and in the plot of Returns, the interesting tension between myth and man is revealed, as well as the overarching rule in storytelling that a myth must always evolve or be re-examined to survive. How do we connect with a man who is essentially a God? By giving him human frailties. In flesh and blood Kal-El is an enhanced Kryptonian warrior, but in spirit and emotion, Clark Kent is a sensitive and loving human. He is an alien immigrant living the life of an American man, and as such, it makes sense that his cultural heritage and destiny conflict with his sense of adopted human purpose. His militaristic call of duty forces him to abandon his human life with Lois, and in the intervening years, like a war widow, she is forced to move on and continue with her own life – not unreasonable, really. Upon his return, Superman finds that his world is not as he left it. He has lost a companion, yet gained a son. I found this idea radical and refreshing and would have loved to see where Singer would have taken it should he have had the chance to helm a sequel. ‘The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,’ Routh as Superman whispers to his sleeping son, echoing the words of his birth father, Jor-El. This is very much the heart of the film: the preservation and transference of legacy.

images (1)

supe-lois-kiss

Whilst I have been speaking of the ‘weight’ of his myth, that is not to say that the world of Superman is a particularly ‘heavy’ one. On the contrary, Metropolis is a city of gleaming urban modernity from the 1930s, and Superman – who draws power from the sun – is a being of supreme lightness in every sense of the word: Both in his charming charisma and unwavering belief that humanity is a species capable of great and good deeds, and, physically, in his soaring and effortless movement through the clouds. In Superman Returns, through Singer’s signature vibrant palette, snappy dialogue, and tentative inter-character relationships, this lightness undeniably shines through.

yellowsun

This leads me on to the comparatively darker tones of 2013’s Man of Steel. First of all – I enjoyed this film. Unlike Returns, this film was very much a reboot of Supes’ cinematic legacy, and I was certainly very excited for it before its release, especially knowing that Christopher Nolan would be heavily involved in its production. It’s almost a given that everyone is a Christopher Nolan fan. The man is a master of the cerebral blockbuster, which sadly cannot be said for his partner on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder. Certainly though, Snyder is a great stylist, and luckily their partnership on the film seemed to work well – Snyder’s lightening-fast and heavily-saturated visuals tempered by Nolan’s Arthouse sensibilities in storytelling and mood. Again, it does well in establishing the mythic qualities of him as a superhero and counterbalancing them with the relatable qualities of him as a real man.

file_176865_0_man_of_steel_poster_3_-625

I recall the trailer – a young boy racing through the cornfields of Smallville with a red cape fluttering behind him. It was so subtle and so poignant that I distinctly remember a fluttering in my stomach akin to what I felt during that after-credits scene in Iron Man when Samuel L. Jackson uttered the words ‘Avengers Initiative.’ I also really loved the opening act set on Krypton – we have never been able to really spend a long time on his home planet in his cinematic outings, so this was a real treat for hardcore fans.

Man-of-Steel-image-8_crop

The cast is also strong: Henry Cavill is powerful and convincing, yet weakened and emotional where he needs to be; Amy Adams (who I adore) makes a pretty good Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are believable as Kal-El/Clark Kent’s fathers. Michael Shannon is perfect casting as General Zod: cold, imposing, and unforgiving, he wears that Kryptonian armour like he was born into it. (The only thing that lets him down is some occasionally clunky dialogue.) What I was surprised about in terms of the audience’s reception of this film was how uncontroversial everyone seemed to find it.

Man-of-Steel-General-Zod-armor

Unlike the waves of animosity aimed towards the ‘secret son’ plot of Returns, the most controversial part of Man of Steel – the death of Zod – has not attracted any of the same kind of hatred that I expected it would. This is not the first time Superman has been forced to take a life in his character’s long history. However, it still shocked me to see it. After an epic and ridiculously destructive brawl, a quick and brutal snap of the General’s neck ended it all. Superman let out a cry of anguish and dismay at what he had done, and what he had had to endure. It haunted me for days after seeing it. Not because I am hyper squeamish or adverse to violence, but because I couldn’t work out how I felt about it. Or about Man of Steel in general. Was it totally brilliant or just had moments of brilliance? Was it the right direction for a reboot? Clearly, the decision to bring Nolan on to supervise proceedings was due to Warner Bros.’ trust in him to produce a great superhero film after the phenomenal success of his Dark Knight trilogy, and what made this trilogy so spectacular was his ability to rightly ground Gotham in gritty reality without losing the comic book larger-than-life punch of the characters. Stylistically, the Arthouse aesthetic he brought to the Batman films was something he was expected to bring the Man of Steel, and evidentially did.

man-steel-controversy-sequel

Personally, I see no problem with DC films to start being more stylistically linked as this enables the audience to connect the dots between different character’s universes better, as well as separate them from the colourful and witty Marvel style. It is almost as though the two are attempting to create differing auteur personas in their approach to on-screen adaptations, which makes sense from a marketing perspective. My only issue with this being done to Superman and Batman is specific to their characters as a duo.

I wrote a blog a while back entitled Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity in which I discussed why these two opposite sides of the same superhero coin are both inextricably linked by their polar disparity. To summarise: whereas Batman is a being of darkness and unflinching realism, Superman is a being of light and romantic fantasy. Every single subsequent superhero ever created is an ancestor of one of them. In this respect, I feel that Nolan’s darker brushstrokes didn’t fit as well into the mythology of Superman as they way that they fit with the mythology of Batman. In recent years there has been a resurgence in all things gothic and existential, which – with the dark knight as my favourite superhero – I am a great fan of. However, there is an often-misplaced expectation that if something is ‘dark’ it must be automatically more mature and intellectually weightier than something comparably ‘light.’ Compared to Superman Returns, the action in Man of Steel is more brutal, the characters seem older and more grounded, and the style is faster and bleaker. The whole thing is heavier and grittier and the level of devastation to both Metropolis and Superman’s usually sunny disposition is far greater. The idea that Superman is forced to take a life to save the innocent is supposedly a more mature theme that what has come before. This is how Snyder and Nolan think that his myth must stay relevant in the current zeitgeist.

2344962-227445_180498_superman__batman_super

But, although lighter in temperament and aesthetic, the theme of eternal struggle between myth and man and the wedge that this drives between Clark and Lois, as well as the painful estrangement from his son, should not be discounted as an equally mature and logical evolution of the Superman franchise and of his character. The love triangle dynamic of that film is realistically tense and complex, with no ethically right or wrong way to solve things. Lois’ heart is split both ways, and Clark must bitterly respect this as the noble personality he is. The glimmer of hope comes from the revelation that her son is also his. Even if they cannot be together romantically, they are bonded forever by this physical result of their past relationship. This subplot, to me, is incredibly adult and oddly domestic for what we expect from most superhero films. It is the interruption of modern life in an otherwise romantic and soaring myth. The neck-snapping moment from Man of Steel is still shocking and interesting, but it is just that: a moment.

alex-ross-superman-02

“I often wonder, Clark: Do you know what you are? You are the original myth. The one we’ll always believe. What would we ever do without you?”

–       Batman, The Trust, Chip Kidd & Alex Ross

Myth vs. man, the fact is, one cannot live without the other – Superman cannot live without Clark Kent. The myth of the God-like saviour collides with the myth of the American dream. This was one of the great successes of Reeves’ portrayal: he understood and embodied both the polarity and unity of Kal-El’s alter egos. Alex Ross also understands this. In his unique, hyperreal painterly style, we can see every wrinkle on Superman’s forehead, every fold in his cape, and count the lashes around his eyes, and yet, the sweeping dynamism of him in flight, the proud way he holds his head up, the clenching of his wrists as he bursts through metal, and the effortless strength he uses to rescue victims from beneath fallen buildings also shines through. We believe in him as a man and we believe in the myth and fantasy he exudes. If one is overplayed at the expense of the other, something crucial is lost. This is the balance that any live-action interpretation should strive to achieve, and I look forward with baited breath to the next instalment.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

Standard
Pop Culture, Sci-Fi, Visual Cultural Theory

Godzilla vs. MUTO vs. Humanity: Who are the real monsters?

 SPOILERS AHEAD.

Ye have been warned.

 godzilla-poster-2

I love the Fantasy genre and I love the Sci-Fi genre.

But….Sci-Fi holds a special place in my heart. This isn’t because I think it is inherently better than Fantasy, it’s a personal opinion. A personal opinion that I think stems from the general but fundamental difference between them: Fantasy is usually rooted in the past – in pre-technological worlds than are either alternate or parallel to our own. Sci-Fi is rooted in the present or future with a heavy preoccupation on technology and the quasi-scientific grounding of the seemingly impossible. Both are fuelled by highly creative imaginations. But Sci-Fi, which endeavours to predict or forewarn the future, for reasons I can’t explain, captures my imagination far more, and lends itself to highly conceptual and deeply philosophical human quandaries far better than Fantasy seem to.

(Again, this is my opinion. I like The Lord of The Rings and I like The Matrix trilogy. It’s just my genre-bias makes me predisposed to like The Matrix a little bit more even though I concede that LOTR is a more solid film trilogy.)

250px-Godzilla_1984

WmFVQei

Godzilla is an icon of cinema in the same way that Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse are. You don’t have to have seen any of the films that they appear in to recognise them instantly or know something of their origins. Unlike the latter two, Godzilla is seen also as a Sci-Fi icon. That being said, there are certainly touches of the Fantastical about him – the monstrous, ancient, and the mythic. Indeed, the films of his franchise are so old and loved that they have passed into pop cultural lore – the modern equivalent of myth and legend. Gareth Edwards’ latest reboot understands this, which is one the reasons I enjoyed it so much. The title sequence plays ingeniously with both the footage of the 1954 original version (Gojira) and the true events that it was inspired by – the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as well as other subsequent nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s – and skews them with added SFX to present a ‘real’ covered-up version of events to provide the set-up for the new film.

10402717_10202533415515231_1943081157103757454_n

Despite this, upon discussing the 2014 version with someone recently I hesitated before describing it as Sci-Fi, which caused me to wonder why. On paper, it seems to tick all the right boxes – giant monsters fuelled by radiation, humanity’s impending destruction, questioning human arrogance etc., etc. However, on closer inspection it is not in fact very ‘high’ Sci-Fi – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. As I stated earlier, an almost self-defining rule of Sci-Fi is preponderance on technology – normally futuristic – but the raison d’être of this film seems to be the obliteration or redundancy of technology.

‘It’s going to send us back to the Stone Age!’ Bryan Cranston’s character shouts at us.

This seems to widen the story out from pure Sci-Fi into the broadly Fantastical, which is perhaps refreshing given that blockbusters still seem so rigidly intent on remaining ‘in genre’ these days.

The general plot centres on primordial forces that have been wrongly resurrected out of their own allotted time period and inadvertently (I’ll go into my use of that word later) threatening to destroy hundreds of years worth of careful and daring human technological progress in the blink of an eye…or the crash of a giant moth-leg. All of our current most powerful weaponry – which is nuclear based – is quite literally food for continued devastation. We are rendered powerless by the sheer size and brute force of these creatures. These are creatures which predate us, and it seems that the reverence and fear of the ancient – for all of our modern innovations – stills holds powerful sway over us, both for the version of us on-screen, and as members of the audience.

Godzilla

Another interesting debate I found myself having with someone about the film was the overall message of it. Now, without seeing the original Japanese Gojira you might think of the franchise that it spawned as not taking itself all that seriously. And with titles like Godzilla vs. King King, Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla I wouldn’t really blame you. As I mentioned earlier, the original was in fact an allegory for Japan to convey the terror of the traumatic and horrific nuclear weapons assault in 1945 without fear of censorship post-WWII. It is a surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking watch with very sympathetic and believable human characters at its centre, and I would highly recommend you watch it if you liked the 2014 reboot, which has clearly chosen respectfully to carry the essence of the original through into its own new storyline.

Godzilla-Alternative-Movie-Posters-2

 

ultraman_godzilla_kaiju_posters_3

Having said that, it is also careful not to ignore the other integral components of the franchise as a whole, which – however ridiculous – have become part of the monster’s enduring lore. Those components being all those bizarre and laughable sounding titles I mentioned. As much as fans of Godzilla love and respect the serious anti-nuclear message of his origins, we also really love seeing him beat the crap out of other monsters. In Gareth Edwards’ version, his monstrous nemeses take the form of a male and female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). Fans will undoubtedly spot the resemblance between the MUTO and Mothra (or Kaiju) a recurring Godzilla foe who is basically a giant Moth from the Amazon. (Godzilla’s design, incidentally, is a combination of a Gorilla and a Lizard.) This is a both a strength and weakness of the film. I knew this version would be big and loud, and so I chose to see it on the most appropriate screen possible – at the BFI IMAX in London (boasted as the biggest in Europe, the slightly nervous announcer told the audience before the film started). It didn’t disappoint on either of these fronts. It was most certainly big and most certainly LOUD. So much so, that the one and only time I flinched (as the 3D did bugger all to do that, as usual) was when Godzilla first opened his mouth and let out that iconic battle cry.

With not one but three giant monsters on offer you would expect to be shrinking down in your cushioned cinema seat frequently. However, I have to say that even though I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was impressed by the look and feel of it, I never felt threatened. This is a significant weakness for a film that has one giant Lizard foot quite clearly placed in the apocalyptic genre of storytelling, and with large parts of Hawaii and San Francisco being spectacularly eradicated. Trying to determine the cause of this, my explanation came down to the simple fact that none of these creatures were specifically targeting humans for attack – they were targeting each other. The wanton chaos that ensued around them came from them merely stomping around and, well, being very big whilst doing it. The MUTO prey on nuclear weaponry, not the blood of the innocent, and Godzilla in turn preys on the MUTO. Humans are merely accidental casualties of their sparring.

godzilla-japanese-poster2

So what is the message of this reboot? Why does Godzilla target the MUTO? Who are the real monsters?

Godzilla began as a metaphor. Then he became a myth. Myths survive by their continual retelling and also their continual re-contextualising. Slowly, they are twisted and adapted to suit whichever zeitgeist they have been passed into. Today, the analogy of Godzilla I’ve heard seems to be that of a ‘tragic hero.’ He seems far more rooted in the myth of the lone Samurai warrior than atomic arms. There is certainly a sense of unsung nobility about him in the 2014 version that seems almost more human than the human characters themselves. It seems stupid to say it, but the real star of Godzilla is Godzilla himself. Towards the climax, this is brought out by paralleling his actions with those of the titular human character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. As he falls, so does Godzilla. As he battles, so does Godzilla. United by a common enemy. There is a lovely moment when they both seem to stare into one another’s eyes and an unspoken understanding of the other seems to form. In the climactic end to the battle, it is left open as to whether Godzilla purposefully saves Taylor-Johnson’s character and his mission or whether his intervention (and WHAT an intervention it is) is coincidental. Godzilla, for all his monstrous qualities, is extremely likeable. Perhaps it is his slightly chubby stature, his T-Rex-like arms, his lumbering movement, or his amazing RAWRRR, but he somehow emits a surprisingly empathetic personality. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he is a beast we can connect with. I suppose that seals him as a true Sci-Fi icon.

godzilla-sxsw-mondo-poster

If Godzilla is the hero of the story, then that surely make the MUTO the villain, right? Well, let’s examine their villainous credentials: They do look big and scary. Their insect-like appearance makes us predisposed to dislike them the way we are predisposed to dislike spiders and other creepy-crawlies. Their origins are that they lay dormant underground until our deep mining disturbed them. First a male, and then a much larger, female emerged. When we found that they could not be destroyed, we instead tried to contain one of them, feeding it nuclear energy until it let out an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) wiping out all electronic devices within its radius, which enabled it to escape. It then began hunting first for nuclear devices to consume – in Russian submarines, for example – and then its female mate to reproduce with.

godzillavskingghidorah

Let’s recap: humans wake up two ancient hibernating animals who then fly off, eat stuff, and then have freaky bug sex. True, they cause a lot of inadvertent damage to human cities, but that’s the key word here – inadvertent. They are animals. They are nature. As an advanced species, we have for quite some time considered ourselves to be separate and even above the rest of the natural world. Our consciousnesses’ have long since outgrown our constricting flesh. In this separation, we increasingly see nature as either an enemy or an alien entity by default. We live artificially dependant lives. Yet as I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the natural and the ancient still inspires us with both fear and wonder. The MUTO are not villainous because they are out to kill us (intentionally, anyway); they are villainous simply for existing in our world.

gojira_poster

 

Polish Poster

Ken Watanabe’s character – the scientist tasked with studying and destroying the MUTO – is instrumental in feeding us these ideas. At one point, he tells the military commander guy (I can’t remember his name…) that Godzilla is supposed to restore ‘balance’ and perhaps rather than fighting him or the MUTO, we should simply stand back and let them slug it out as they are intended to do so. There are multiple ways to read this as I was debating with the friend I previously mentioned. You could see the message being simply that humans shouldn’t meddle in nature and are being punished for doing so; a theme that runs right through Sci-Fi from Frankenstein and further back than that to the story of Prometheus, from which Frankenstein takes his subheading. My friend’s view was that the message was more complicated than that: we – humanity – are the implied imbalance to be re-balanced, and perhaps that Godzilla was targeting the wrong enemy. If the MUTO were here first, she argued, then they can’t be the imbalance. My own reading was that the imbalance had been caused by the MUTO surviving beyond their own time period – a time when the Earth was still radioactive, as Watanabe’s character explains. Cranston’s line about being ‘sent back to the Stone Age’ also echoes the idea of timelines being misaligned. The MUTO are also referred to as ‘parasites,’ which has inherent negativity, and also backs up the idea that they should no longer exist as the environment that sustained them no longer exists. Certainly, our creation of nuclear devices also contributes to the imbalance that has enabled them to continue to feed and breed. Godzilla seems to have magically awakened to fix our mistake.

historique-affiche-poster-godzilla-film-cinema-13

You could go so far as to argue that a comparably neutral force scooping up the world’s nukes might not be such a bad thing, too. It might have even been the answer to a lot of long-lying global political problems.

In the tradition of great Sci-Fi, Godzilla asks ‘Who are the real monsters?’ and then turns a mirror slyly towards the audience. Human progress is continually scrutinised as arrogant, destructive, but always necessary in our constant pursuit to speed up evolution. For reasons that are never made clear, Godzilla fights – on this occasion – for us. A champion we did not nominate, or call upon, nor could we find a way to thank in the end. As much as nature threatens and baffles us, it seems to have our back too, whether we deserve it or not.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve also enjoyed the classic Godzilla posters I chose for this post 🙂 I love great movie poster art, and Godzilla has inspired some of the best.

Standard