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!

 

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30 Day Anime Challenge Cosmic Anvil
Anime, Comics, Manga, Pop Culture

30 Day Anime Challenge: Day 0 (Introduction)

To promote our Kickstarter campaign to get the first volume of our comic book series printed, me and the creative team at Cosmic Anvil will be taking part in the 30 Day Anime Challenge over at the Cosmic Anvil Blog. Scroll down for the Day 0 Introduction post, and please also be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign too – every pledge (no matter how small) will help us massively!

The Cosmic Anvil Blog

Over the next month starting from today, the Cosmic Anvil team are going to be undertaking their greatest challenge yet: a 30 Day Anime Challenge running alongside our Kickstarter campaign, which is aims to raise enough money to get the very first collected volume of Age of Revolution printed. This is a little different to our normal review posts, but don’t worry – we will also try to keep our regular content such as ‘N00b Reviews‘ going as well.

Here’s the list of challenge topics that we – Jess, Huw, and Hannah – will be posting about over the next 30 days:

Day 1: Very First Anime You Watched
Day 2: Favourite Anime You’ve Watched So Far
Day 3: Favourite Male Anime Character Ever 
Day 4: Favourite Female Anime Character Ever 
Day 5: Anime You’re Ashamed You Enjoyed 
Day 6: Anime You Want to See But Haven’t…

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

Wicked Wiles: Robin Hood (1973)

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

First published on the Fanny Pack blog on 12th September 2015.


Wicked Wiles Synopsis

Taking inspiration from a mix of British history and folklore, Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) reimagines the classic tale of the notorious morally-minded outlaw who robs from the rich to give to the poor during the reign of Prince John (1199 – 1216), set in – yes, you’ve guessed it – Nottingham. In this version, Disney chose to reinterpret the entire Kingdom as anthropomorphic animals: Robin Hood and Maid Marian are foxes; Little John is a bear; Friar Tuck is a badger/mole (I honestly couldn’t work out which one…); Prince John and King Richard are Lions; the Sheriff of Nottingham is a wolf; Sir Hiss (aide to Prince John is a snake); Lady Kluck (Maid Marian’s Lady in Waiting) is a hen; and other characters include dogs, rabbits, mice, and even a tortoise.

Robin Hood: Foxy.

Robin Hood: Foxy.

This version – filled with a strange mixed cast of both British and American voice talent – follows Robin and Little John on various escapades to recover the money that Prince John has heavily taxing his subjects for – leaving most of them destitute. (In reality, this was to fund the Prince’s war with France, but the film chooses to simply chalk it up to greed alone.) However, the thread that weaves everything together is actually the reuniting of Robin with his childhood sweetheart, Maid Marian. After returning to her uncle’s (Prince John’s) castle in Nottingham, both she and Robin long to see each other. Prince John – eager to capture the outlaw who continually makes a mockery of him – stages an archery tournament with a kiss from Marian as the Grand Prize, knowing that Robin wouldn’t be able to resist showing off his skills.

Robin enters in disguise and is of course victorious; at which point the Prince’s guards jump on him. Robin manages to escape execution thanks to Little John’s help, and elopes with Marian to Sherwood Forest. Furious once again, Prince John captures Friar Tuck – a loyal ally of Robin’s – and announces his public execution to lure Robin out again.

Wicked Wiles How many female characters are there?

There are 6 female characters with speaking parts:

  • Maid Marian
  • Lady Kluck
  • Little Rabbit girl
  • Rabbit mother
  • Elderly owl
  • Church mouse

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

There are no female villains. In fact, none of the female characters have any villainous or unfavourable character traits at all. This could be seen as positive as none of the female characters are portrayed in an actively negative light, but on the downside, it also means that none of them actively contribute to the driving of the plot.

Wicked Wiles How do they female characters interact with each other?

As all of the characters are animals, the animators sometimes felt the needs to make their genders unmistakeable by exaggerating some elements of their design. The little girl rabbit, for example, is flagged out as a girl by a cute dress, long eye lashes, and a massive pink bow (despite having no hair).

Wicked Wiles Robin Hood Disney

I guess her ears were getting in her eyes..?

Despite these cosmetic issues, I actually really enjoyed the tight bond that Maid Marian and Lady Kluck shared. Maid Marian is a classic – if not the classic – ‘damsel in distress’ archetype, and as such could have easily been portrayed as little more than just another object to steal from Prince John for Robin’s trophy collection in this version. However, for the first quarter of the film we see her only interacting with Lady Kluck and a little gaggle of children from Nottingham who stumble into the castle gardens to retrieve an arrow they accidentally shot over the walls.

As the children sneak through the bushes – terrified of running into the short-tempered Prince John – we hear whoops of laughter and shouts from the two ladies, until we see what they’re doing: playing badminton together. Later on when they are alone in Marian’s chambers, they gossip and giggle together about her romance with Robin, and Klucky assures her – as a good friend would – that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Although Robin does unfortunately occupy the majority of their conversations, I still found it pleasantly surprisingly that the film would take so much time to build up Marian’s relationship with another female character, especially one as relatively minor as Klucky. It leant Marian’s character a little more weight and independence; and Klucky – voluptuous, eccentric, feisty, and inexplicably Scottish – is a very easy character to fall in love with.

Wicked Wiles Robin Hood Maid Marian Lady Kluck Disney

BFFs.

Wicked Wiles Who drives the plot?

The plot is driven mainly by Prince John as he devises most of the major events in the story, such as the archery tournament and Friar Tuck’s execution. Moreover, even though Robin Hood is the titular character, it’s Prince John’s constantly unreasonable tax escalations that fuel his escapades. None of the female characters significantly contribute to the driving of the plot.

Wicked Wiles How do the male characters treat the female ones?

Robin and Little John seem to really love playing dress-up in this film. Less hardened bandits than happy-go-lucky conmen, the first we see of them in ‘action’ is interestingly them scampering through Sherwood forest pulling on various items of women’s clothing. Disguised as fortune tellers, they intercept Prince John’s carriage, knowing that he would never suspect women to rob him: “Female bandits? Poppycock. Whatever next!”

Neither Robin nor Little John seem even vaguely embarrassed or uncomfortable playing up to their gender-bended disguises – Robin comically modulates his voice as he pretends to see the Prince’s fortune in his looking glass; whilst Little John even sashays around flirtatiously teasing the guards outside.

Disney Wicked Wiles Robin Hood Little John

Possibly one of the strangest Disney screen caps ever.

Even domestically, the pair seem no strangers to more ‘feminine’ pursuits. John wears a frilly apron as he hangs washing out to dry on a line whilst Robin absent-mindedly stirs a pot of stew, dreamily thinking about Maid Marian. The stew starts to boil over, and Little John scolds him as he tries to salvage their dinner. These Disney bachelors seem a lot more maturely developed than the dwarves of Snow White who lived in squalor for fear of taking up ‘womanly’ chores. The tone, however is still frustratingly unclear: Are Robin and Little John progressively comfortable enough in their masculinity that they can easily affect traditionally female activities? Or are these scenes – complete with emasculating filly aprons and fake breasts – played for laughs?

Something more troubling though is Prince John’s character. Other than the decimation of the working class, his villainous quirk is that he is a “mummy’s boy”. Clingy, babyish, squeaky-voiced, and easily wound-up, he wails and sucks his thumb every time his late mother is mentioned, which he is mocked for, of course. He is the complete opposite of his brother Richard “Lionheart”, who we see later as a large, strong, and deep-voiced character – and well-loved by his people.

The oppositional twinning of Prince John with weakness and King Richard with strength sheds John’s close bond with his mother in a negative light as it reinforces the negative stereotype of boys’ who identify more with the mothers as being “feminised”, and therefore weak.

Robin Hood Disney Wicked Wiles Prince John

Prince John curls up with his riches.

In terms of the physical treatment of female characters by the males ones, the story seems mainly predicated on Marian and Robin’s romance, and as I mentioned earlier – Marian is by no means completely sidelined. As she and Robin make their escape from his capture and near-execution at the archery tournament, she does her best to fight alongside rather than hinder him. I’m not saying she’s a feminist icon by any stretch of the imagination, but Disney could have done a lot worse by her. Klucky, of course, is the stand-out performer in this scene:

Wicked Wiles Does the Princess have characteristics beyond her princess role?

Although Marian is not technically a Princess, her familial status as King Richard and Prince John’s niece, coupled with her being the object of the heroes’ affections puts her in the ‘might as well be’ category.

Aside from performing her duties at the archery tournament and generally living the lifestyle of a Princess, Marain’s main function in the story is to abandon these duties to elope with Robin. And although he is absolved of his crimes once King Richard takes back the throne at the end, she is still the most consciously rebellious Princess we have seen so far.

Disney Wicked Wiles Neutral Classification

As much as I wanted to give this film a positive stamp of approval, there were certain negative factors I couldn’t let slide:

  • No female characters significantly drive the plot.
  • The majority of Maid Marian and Lady Kluck’s conversation focus on Robin.
  • The tone of Robin and Little John’s “feminine” escapades is unclear.
  • Little John’s intrinsic weaknesses as a leader are implied to be rooted to his close relationship with his mother.

But, there were enough positive elements in the film to balance it out to a neutral classification:

  • Maid Marian is allowed to make the decision to rebel rather than wait to be rescued.
  • She also has a close bond with another female character, in this movie the female characters are not pitted against each other.
  • Despite still being defined mainly by her relationship to Robin, Marian is given a fair amount of screen time on her own.
  • Lady Kluck doesn’t fulfil conventional beauty standards in the way that Marian does, but is still shown as a positive character: vibrant, funny, independent, and loyal.

Next up in the “Wicked Wiles” series: The Little Mermaid!
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We are not things mad max fury road
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory

What Is The Real Feminist Message of “Mad Max: Fury Road”?

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.


Before 2015, when you thought about director George Miller’s Mad Max film series, you probably wouldn’t associate it with words such as ‘Feminism’ or ‘Female Empowerment’ as much as you would with ‘Cars’, ‘Motorbikes’ or ‘Mel Gibson.’

Skip forward to today, however, and you’ll find that Mad Max: Fury Road – the fourth installment of the long-running franchise –  has proven to be a surprisingly divisive film for anyone interested in gender politics, hailed as either an instant Feminist classic or reviled as “propaganda” ruining a traditionally male-focussed franchise. I totally side with the former, and whilst it is not without fault from a Feminist perspective, I was incredibly uplifted to see such a big-budget blockbuster not only follow in the footsteps of female-lead action films of the past like Alien, Terminator and The Hunger Games, but also sport a very clear anti-Patriarchal stance. There is no subtext or subtlety about it: Fury Road is a bloody and biting call to arms for women everywhere with it’s unofficial tagline:

‘WE ARE NOT THINGS.’

Misogynists everywhere have been very vocal in their criticism of it, but after sifting through all the negativity lobbied against the film, there’s one in particular that bugs me the most. Men’s Rights Activists’ such as Aaron Clarey in his review on popular MRA blog Return of the Kings have popularised the idea that titular character Max [Tom Hardy] is criminally sidelined in his own film, leaving co-star Imperator Furiosa [Charlize Theron] to steal the show.

“Charlize Theron kept showing up a lot in the trailers, while Tom Hardy (Mad Max) seemed to have cameo appearances […] And finally, Charlize Theron’s character barked orders to Mad Max. Nobody barks orders to Mad Max.”

The irony of this statement is that once I started to unpack all the ways Clarey was wrong, I inadvertently started to realise that the Feminist lifeblood of Fury Road runs far deeper than just the superficial ‘strong female character’ stereotype.

Throughout the Mad Max franchise, Max has always been characterised as a nomadic figure, drifting from one post-apocalyptic madness to the next. Fury Road’s narration consolidates this by quoting this from The First History of Man: 

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”

Mad Max Ending Scene

Tom Hardy as ‘Mad Max.’

It’s true that the story of Fury Road could have easily happened without him, but by no means does this fact make him redundant as a character, and the entire course of the story would have been irrevocably different. The fact that Max is thrown by accident into Furiosa’s plans is also completely in-keeping with his status as an adventuring wanderer. After all, Furiosa may rightly call the shots in the first act of her bid for freedom, but it is Max who takes control in the second act of the film when he instigates their daring plan to recapture the Citadel where women are imprisoned, and Max who revives Furiosa with his own blood when she is critically wounded. They adapt to working together when they realise that a united front is the only assurance of freedom, and as such contribute equally as co-pilots to the steering of the plot.

These themes of cooperation, reinvention, and reclamation actually run deeper into the matrix of the film than you might think.

The primitivism of a world that has seemed to suffer a technological and biological man-made apocalypse in Mad Max is laid bare in the absence of plants, water, or urbanised environments. This planetary devolution has also seeped into human society as any scrap of hard-fought social changes have been stripped back to the patriarchal foundations our civilisation is built on. And the chosen few are not just surviving – they’re thriving.

Mad Max Warrior Women

Warrior Women.

Furiosa yearns to return to the place of her birth – the fabled all-female ‘green place’ that is just a distant memory to her now. This parallels the traditional affinity of women with plants and nature; juxtaposed against the dominant patriarchy who rely solely on machines and artificial materials. They are as much the adversary of nature as they are to the opposite sex.

This juxtaposition is then flipped on its head when you realise that to reach the ‘green place’, Furiosa and the liberated women must rely on a massive man-made behemoth of smoke and oil, fully customised with extra fuel, water, and… milk? Yes, you read it right. At one point in the story, Max – injured from a battle – washes the blood from his face using breast milk from one of the truck’s pumps. This milk is ‘farmed’ at the Citadel as an alternative to water. “Redemption is symbolized through human milk,” Coleen Martell explains in her article Sweet Nectar of the Matriarchy: Breast Milk in Mad Max: Fury Road. “‘Mother’s Milk’ anoints Max’s face after his first proactively selfless act in support of Furiosa and the ‘Five Wives.’” It seems that the truck has been secretly converted from a weapon of war to a nurturing body.

Furiosa truck mad max fury road

Furiosa with her Truck.

This body shares a bond with Furiosa that parallels the one she strikes up with Max. Her missing arm is replaced with a mechanised one that connects her directly to the driving mechanism; she even smears herself with its oil as war paint. More than a horse is to a knight; Furiosa’s steed gives her freedom, shelter, and life.

Furiosa, despite being born as woman of nature, has not only adopted the mechanised world of men, but she has repurposed and reclaimed it as a true Cyberfeminist would to use against them.

In the end, the women’s choice – aided by Max – to return and reintegrate themselves into society on their own terms seems far more victorious and satisfactory to me than finding peace in a separatist female utopia, which so many of the negative reviews would have you believe. This, to me, is the real Feminist message of Mad Max: Fury Road. Empowerment and freedom doesn’t always have to be fought for in blood, sweat and violence; it can also be won with unity, sympathy and nurture.

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Pop Culture

6 Kids Cartoons Adventure Time Fans Should Be Watching

The Cosmic Anvil Blog

It’s a cartoon special this week! Thirsty for more adventure? More wackiness? More epicosity? This week we’re taking a break from the world of comics and manga recommendations to count down our top 6 (because 5 just wasn’t enough…) kids cartoons – other than Adventure Time – that you should really be watching right now:

Bravest Warriors Bravest Warriors

  1. Bravest Warriors

Channel: You Tube/Cartoon Hangover

Creator: Pendleton Ward

If you’re already an Adventure Time fan, then Bravest Warriors is a pretty easy sell when you realise that they share the same creative talents of Pendleton Ward. Set in the year 3085, the show revolves around Ward’s version of the Teen Titans as they travel around weird and wonderful parts of the universe having weird and wonderful adventures. Although it is aimed at a more mature audience than Adventure Time – with references to beer and a cheeky elf named, um, ‘Wankershim’ –…

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