Four of a Kind: Mad Queens Who Rule

It’s been several weeks since Game of Thrones, the biggest television phenomenon of this century (so far), wheezed to its ignominious close.  While there are some who claim to be satisfied with the way showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chose to end things, the larger consensus appears to be that the final season was an underwhelming cacophony of haphazard choices ill-befitting a series that was, for much of its run, so praised for both its character work and its long form story telling.  The internet will argue endlessly about the specifics, but it seems undeniable that the rushed and poorly plotted conclusion of Game of Thrones simply didn’t deliver on the six seasons of fastidious construction (and one season of expedited setup) that helped make the show the juggernaut that it was.  While we could discuss the blithe abandonment of skeins of story threads that had been teased as being significant, or the way the writers chose the dumbest possible option in almost any scenario (Arya Stark, Kingslayer being one of few notable exceptions), the worst sins of the final season have to do with the characters.  The characters were always the lifeblood of the show in all their flawed, complicated, three-dimensional glory, and most of the troubles are linked to the inexcusable decision to scrap years of rigorous development in favor of convenience, logic and continuity be damned.

The once brilliant Tyrion Lannister turning into a Ned Stark level honorable dunce?  Appalling. Ser Brienne of Tarth, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, sobbing in her nightgown and begging a man not to leave her?  Ridiculous. There’s a list of characters who were forced to act in ways that were either antithetical to years of establishment and growth, or else completely idiotic in order to achieve the end game that Benioff and Weiss had set on.

And of these numerous disappointments, most egregious and divisive of all was the destruction of Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen.

I’m not here to go into detail about exactly how horrendously Daenerys was handled.  Other writers have already covered that territory and spoken all of my thoughts and feelings on the subject.  You can read some of my favorites here or here. It’s not the lack of the “fairy tale ending” that angers us (a condescending line that I got tired of hearing almost immediately); we were all giant fans of this messed up show; we were all watching and paying attention and receiving the same information.  What gets us is that her flip to Mad Queendom was done badly, through shoddy and poorly justified writing, and lacking the years of actual buildup that would be necessary to make such a shift feel like an organic development of Dany’s character rather than a last minute assassination carried out to hit some bullet points on a storyboard.  To paraphrase a friend, foreshadowing is no substitute for a solid foundation.

Mad Queens have enormous potential.  Whether they start off as villains or become them, a Mad Queen story handled well can be riveting stuff.  In the context of the plot they’re a kinetic force of forward propulsion, and as character studies they’re often fascinating profiles on what power, or the pursuit of it, will do to a person.  Long before the sloppy slide of Daenerys Targaryen had us banging our heads on the wall, television gave us some great specimens to hold up as much stronger examples of this trope. So, let’s shuffle the deck and start with…

Jenny Humphrey, Gossip Girl

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Seduced by the shimmer of riches…

Jenny, you see, was always ambitious.  Though raised in the humiliating squalor of an expansive Brooklyn loft owned by her rockstar-turned-galley-owner father, she always had her eyes fixed on the grander, more glittering world of the Manhattan elite, and was singularly intent on chiseling out her own place within it.  When first we meet her, she’s trying to win her way in as the dutiful handmaiden of Constance Billard Queen Bee, Blair Waldorf. Later, cast out of Blair’s inner circle and disillusioned, she determines to use her talent for fashion design to subvert petty high school politics and rocket to the top of society as a renegade creative wunderkind.  And when failure forces a return to prep school, where she is now an object of open ridicule, Jenny mounts a social coup in a bid to Break the Wheel; to destroy the system of Queen Bees and Mean Girls and make a better, fairer, kinder prep school experience for all the lowly and oppressed of the Upper East Side!

A noble goal that holds firm for roughly five seconds.  Unfortunately, Jenny’s fierce crusade happens to overlap perfectly with the moment that her father marries ludicrously wealthy old blood society fixture, Lily van der Woodsen, rendering Jenny a Park Avenue Princess in her own right, and giving her the means to fully commit to a descent into the dark side.

She had been flirting with it all along, after all.  Jenny may seem like a sweet, scrappy underdog, but even from the early days of her story arc there was steely glint to her focus.  Nothing could ever really shake her ultimate desire for the power, the prestige of the Society Queens. A consummate social striver, no matter how many times she is laid low by hubris or error, no matter how often she professes to see the error of her ways, Jenny can never renounce the game for long.  She is inevitably drawn back on a sparkling string, each round of play showing a gradually intensifying resolve to succeed, and a correspondingly increasing willingness to step over anyone, be they family, friends, or professional associates, who would impede her goal.  

Small sins written off as adolescent judgement flubs weed organically into spiteful scheming; an early tendency to disregard the inconvenient feelings of her loved ones coalesces into thorny, narcissistic antipathy.  With her place on the figurative throne of Constance Billard and endowed with all the privileges of wealth, Jenny’s worst self flourishes unchecked. By the time she is audaciously and deliberately sledgehammering her way through all the relationships around her (including plotting to destroy her father’s marriage), the rebel who so passionately argued to Break the Wheel exemplifies the worst excesses of the people she railed against.

Yet none of it feels out of step.  In the context of the show, that is, Gossip Girl having reveled in sudsy plot arcs so over the top that they bordered on camp.  Jenny’s progression from doe-eyed Cinderella into Manolo’d Mad Queen unfolds over the course of three seasons, her devolution marked by established character traits and a repeated reluctance (or outright refusal) to deny the toxic influences that bring out the worst in her.   Rather than learn from her mistakes, she doubles down on them, each step of her journey marked by a new level that she is willing to sink to if it will gain her the society tokens that she covets. Jenny’s loathsome descent rendered her one of the least sympathetic characters on the show, but her shift from misguided good girl to vicious bad seed was cogently developed by the writers who followed to her logical ends a character who has never, not once, flinched from doing anything to get her way.   

Azula, Avatar: The Last Airbender

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A cudgel held in a velvet-gloved hand.    

As the teenage daughter of the power mad Fire Lord Ozai Azula is not the formal Big Bad of Nickelodeon’s criminally under-recognized Avatar: The Last Airbender, but she is its most dangerous and interesting antagonist.  

Unlike the other entries in this post, Azula has no illusions about who she is.  Azula, a prodigiously talented fire bender and martial artist who is as certain of her own supreme importance as she is her hair color, knows that she is a villain and revels in it.  She takes pride in her psychopathic cruelty. Derives all her joy in life from hurting other people whether it be physically or emotionally. This is well established from her earliest introduction where she seeks the assistance one of her oldest companions and implies an ongoing campaign of psychological menace (ending in potential bodily harm of the severe variety) if that girl should refuse her.  Azula unabashedly, even gleefully, leverages fear to control everything and everyone in her orbit.

It worked well for her.  Until, suddenly, it didn’t.  In the latter half of the show’s final season Azula is shocked to find that the emotional bond her two stalwart lieutenants (and only friends) have to other characters outweighs the intimidation that has kept them loyal to her.  Betrayed and alone even as she reaches a peak of personal triumph, being entrusted with the throne of the Fire Nation as her father ascends to rule the world at large, Azula’s mental state quickly begins to unravel.

It’s a snap to be sure, manifesting over the course of the series’ last four half hour episodes, but it doesn’t come flying in from left field either.  Though her Uncle Iroh had observed almost in passing during the previous season that she was crazy, the series didn’t break Azula just based on third party scrutiny.  Rather, in the two seasons she featured as a character on the show, the writers layered together a personality who could believably be capable of both devious cunning and an abrupt downward spiral into madness.

Notably, Azula doesn’t seem to start out anywhere near crazy.  A psychopath, unquestionably, but not crazy. Azula is meticulous, strategic, she is goal-oriented and cool-headed, and above all Azula is disciplined.  Almost too disciplined…

From the start her perfectionist streak is made conspicuous.  One of her first scenes in the series shows how she is unwilling to accept a self-performance that is anything less than flawless; even a single hair out of place is impermissible.  If I can say anything for Azula it’s that at least she holds herself to the same standards she requires of her subordinates. However, in the flashbacks to her childhood we see how her father’s affection (and apparent preference for Azula over her elder brother Zuko) was based around her virtuosic natural talent as a fire bender, and deeper implications of Azula’s perfectionism become evident.  

Feeling rejected by her mother, who correctly intuited that her daughter was a monster, Azula turned solely to her father, another psychopath and narcissist, for approval, an approval that was very much conditional. Securing it was the driving impetus behind Azula’s entire development.  This almost certainly magnified the abusive tendencies to which she was naturally prone, as Ozai himself intuits strength and superiority in brutality, but it also encouraged a pathological drive to outmatch everyone around her, to win at all costs.  Perfection is the metric by which her father’s love is earned, so Azula will be the most perfect of all.  And for perfection, one requires control. Absolute control.

What’s truly impressive about Azula is how varied and successful her methods for control really are.  Though she is one of the most talented benders on the show, she notably saves her firepower for when it is strictly necessary.  Instead Azula prefers to manipulate. She is a skilled politician, able to dissemble and doubletalk with the best of them until even the viewer isn’t completely sure where her loyalties lie at times.  She has an uncanny ability to analyze her opponents and pick out their weakest emotional points, whether it be Long Feng’s impostor syndrome or Sokka’s deep emotional attachment to the imprisoned Suki, and she cracks them wide open to her own advantage.  An innuendo here, a silky-voiced threat there, when mixed with the unrelenting intolerance for opposition that Azula wears like a second skin, she is an overwhelming force that few characters can successfully challenge.   All before she starts shooting lighting from her fingertips.

However, when her two best friends turn against her suddenly Azula feels for the first time as if her position is precarious.  A seed of doubt chafes away at her fraying mental state; nobody loves her, after all.  Fear is what has bent people to her will, but if they no longer fear her enough to obey her then what will become of her?  What will become of her longed-for reign? No. Finally granted stewardship of the Fire Nation, the ultimate mark of favor from her father, Azula cannot countenance any semblance of failure.  It is simply not an option.  And so in desperately tightening her grip, she begins to lose it.  With the shield of her self-certainty cracking, all of her insecurities and inadequacies are finally allowed to bubble up to the surface.  A pernicious self-doubt gnaws away at the tethers of Azula’s sanity, leaving her to slide down into acute paranoia and prompting her ferociously unhinged final stand.

Azula’s snap is a wild pivot and yet it still feels like the character we know.  In spending ample time on the explicit and implicit crafting of her psyche, the writers of Avatar: The Last Airbender gave us someone who is plausibly in total control while simultaneously just inches from losing it entirely.   Like so much of the character development on this series, it was a beautifully done bit of work.

Octavia Blake, The 100

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Her heart was in the right place to start….

Octavia did not seek to be a Queen.  She has evolved through several iterations over the course of The 100’s five (and a half) seasons, from her introduction as the newly liberated teenager lusting for life, to the apprentice warrior, to the grief-rent loner turning her inward pain into outward brutality, and finally to something even darker still.  And yet as she traveled that path, each twist precipitated by life in a ceaselessly antagonistic world, she never sought to lead anyone else down it.  It was not power that motivated her steps, only a search for belonging, or alternately the anger at being denied it.

It’s unsurprising that a deep-seated desire for community would be the gateway for Octavia’s transformative journey given her life prior to membership among the titular 100.  Born in defiance of a resource conserving one-child policy, she spent the first sixteen years of her life in heavy isolation, first hidden under the floor of her family’s space-station apartment, and then, after she was discovered, in prison lockup awaiting the adjudication of her case.  Despite a strong relationship with her devoted elder brother, Octavia was nothing short of starved for human contact at the time the 100 hit the ground as the first people to occupy Earth since the nuclear holocaust of nearly a century prior.

Except that Earth had never actually been fully depopulated.  And among the tribes descended from the Armageddon’s original survivors, Octavia forms a connection with a young warrior named Lincoln.  The Grounder instantly sees in her the deep reserves of strength that she had yet to recognize in herself, and as they fall in love with each other his acceptance of and confidence in her, gives the erstwhile Girl Under the Floor the nudge she needs to pursue her own identity with gusto.

Independent minded by nature, and always feeling somewhat out of place among the 100, Octavia of all the “Sky People” is the one to foray deepest into the culture of the Grounder clans, even eventually convincing Lincoln’s own mentor to train her in their warrior tradition.  She has a talent for it, a natural ferocity and a dogged commitment that wins her begrudging respect among Lincoln’s people even as it baffles her own. Yet she never quite fits among the Grounders either.  Increasingly split in her loyalties, Octavia treads the uncomfortable ground between two uneasy factions, loving and respecting member of both but belonging to neither.

So when the world ends again, she is perhaps the only one in a position to do what is truly fair.

It’s not that Octavia had been so saintly to begin with.  Though possessed of a strong sense of justice and fairness, she also tended to be obstinate and single-minded.  Once Lincoln, the love of her life, was lost, collateral damage in one of an endless upswell in tensions between their two peoples, she also turned exponentially more violent, relying primarily on her ability to kill as her means of relating to a world that had failed her.  Her stubborn streak turning uncompromising, her world view bending towards nihilism.

And yet for as angry as she was with the entire planet, for as alone and miserable as she felt, she could never quite abandon her friends and allies.  Even at her lowest point, Octavia had to help where she saw that she could. Perhaps even more so because of losing Lincoln. Buried under her fury and her grief is an existential exhaustion with the constant fighting all around her.  If she has the power to end it, to force into existence a world where she and Lincoln could have lived happily together, maybe that’s worth saving the human race.

Having won control of a life-saving bunker through her martial talents, Octavia refuses to prioritize the Sky People over the Grounders, and offers each of the thirteen contingents represented an equal number of the limited places available.  Most will still die, but no one clan will find itself shut out of survival entirely.

The 100 as a series is marked by these kinds of impossible moral conundrums, and in the six years that the last vestiges of humanity are sealed in the bunker Octavia, as a somewhat unwitting Commander, confronts a constant barrage of them.  With resources being tighter than anticipated and a general distrust of one another inflaming tensions, she quickly discovers that a moderating approach will not be enough to hold the brittle peace that she has established. She must forge the people of the bunker into one tribe; unity is the only chance for survival, and Octavia, already irreversibly altered by her tragic experiences and disposed to violent means of discourse, must do whatever is necessary to preserve it for the good of the collective.

Her desire to do what is best for her people is genuine.  However, six years of hard rule in ever-dire circumstances slowly strips her of her temperance, warping Octavia’s good intentions into a ruthless, intractable authoritarianism.  

Eventually the headstrong teenager who worked so hard for peace is completely unrecognizable in the reckless, power mad despot known as Blodreina (Red Queen).  Yet Octavia is still believable as a study in the effects of power on a person with a righteous cause, especially when the stakes are so high.  Keeping order morphs into quashing dissent, real or perceived.  Compromise is increasingly regarded as a sign of weakness. A severe but just code of law gradually grows gratuitously bloody.  Confidence in her ability to rule hardens into an almost religious belief in her own singularity.  Each step, each impossible decision erodes Octavia’s humanity just a little, subsumed in favor of an ever more impervious ego.  She alone was able to save the human race, and without her they will surely perish. So for the good of humanity she must retain her supremacy, no matter how severe or cruel her methods must become.   

At the climax of the fifth season, as Octavia Blake is willfully endangering the last habitable space on the entire planet Earth, we can see clearly that she has gone completely off the rails trying to maintain her power.  And even though her spiral happens over the course of a single season (thirteen episodes), we can fully understand exactly how she got there from a place of only the most laudable intentions based on the series-long arc of her character; who she was to begin with, what she lived through, and how she adapted as a result. From a principled savior into a bloody tyrant. It’s a master class in the exact kind of arc that Game of Thrones planned for Daenerys and desperately failed to execute.  

And finally…

Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones

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As In: Let’s call a spade a spade and be honest about who the real Mad Queen of Westeros is.  

What’s most vexatious about this entire thing is that Game of Thrones had already proven that they could do a credible Mad Queen arc in the fascinating tale of Cersei Lannister.  A tale that they inexplicably chose to end with a literal whimper as opposed to giving the true villain of the series an ending befitting her modern icon status, but, alas, another rant for another day.

Interestingly, many of the charges leveled (either erroneously or by the gross application of double standards) against Daenerys’ fitness to rule are explicit in Cersei’s development across the length of the series.  Bone-deep entitlement complex based on a family name? Check. Unwillingness to compromise, to heed counsel, or to consider alternative perspectives?  Check.  Narcissistic disregard for others leading to a predilection for violence, a sadistic sense of retribution, and a nonchalant willingness to literally burn the world down regardless of who may become collateral damage?  Such checks. ALL the checks.

When Cersei Lannister, grim in all her newly-crowned triumph, seated herself on the Iron Throne as the ruins of King’s Landing smoldered outside the walls of the Red Keep it was a chilling culmination on six years of character building.

Like Azula above, Cersei starts off as one of the bad guys of the series, but unlike the Fire Princess she is not necessarily evil at first.  An unpleasant, self-centered individual, certainly, and not up to the lofty Stark standards of moral rectitude, but really no more vile than the many others filling the moral gray areas of the Game of Thrones universe.  In some ways she even exemplifies those gray areas, contrasting callous selfishness with certain sympathetic grace notes in her backstory.

As the daughter of one of the most powerful great houses in the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei may not have had as rough a go as many other women in her world, but she is still as powerless as any of them.  From early childhood she was little more than a pawn to be shuffled around her father’s various political schemes. At the time we meet her she is approximately fifteen years into a deeply unhappy marriage to the profligate boozebag King Robert Baratheon, a man who has spent nearly two decades pining over a dead girl and who has never hesitated to humiliate his wife through flagrant and repeated infidelity.  Under the circumstances her bitterness is completely founded, as is her frustrated yearning for her own power. It’s even sort of, kind of, possibly- if you squint- understandable why she has spent her entire marriage having an affair with her own twin brother, beyond her pervading narcissism, anyway.  Perilous though it is, it’s the only sort of agency her life affords her (but also the narcissism).

It’s also the sort of reckless behavior that will come to mark Cersei’s entire arc within the story. Haunted by an ominous prophecy from her girlhood and mother to three incestuous bastards, she is driven by a primal instinct for self-preservation above all things.  Unfortunately, it’s not accompanied by the sort of big picture sensibility that defines masterminds like Tywin Lannister, Petyr Baelish, or Varys, arguably the show’s most successful power brokers. Though it must be accounted that Cersei did once show an ability to manipulate her circumstances with a certain calculating aplomb, engineering her husband’s death to look like a hunting accident and out-maneuvering high-minded Ned Stark to secure her hell spawn Joffrey’s place on the Iron Throne (which isn’t actually a huge accomplishment, Ned having had about as much guile as a Teletubby).  In one fell swoop she disposed of the immediate dangers to herself and her family, and placed herself in a position of substantial authority.  However, unbound of the need for subterfuge and discretion, her future gambits would be far less shrewd.

Cersei was never as smart as she fancied herself, and her first season success only serves to bolster her worst impulses.  As her power expands so too does her already considerable sense of herself, but with it a lifelong wariness of non-Lannisters begins to balloon into a fog of paranoia.  In another classic symptom of narcissism, she projects her own feelings outwards, seeing everybody around her as jealous, conniving, and bent on her destruction. And if they will stop at nothing to lower her, Cersei will stop at nothing to neutralize them; she will strike at their throats before they can even draw their knives.  In her own mind her power is hard won and richly deserved, no cost is too high to retain it.

Of course, that power was the pursuit all along.   Cersei may have said (and even at one point believed) that everything she did was to protect her children, but her actions make it increasingly apparent that it is supreme authority Cersei has coveted, not simply the security that it engenders.  After all, Margaery Tyrell and her family didn’t pose a threat to Joffrey (or Tommen, or Myrcella). Indeed, their alliance with the Lannisters gave much needed political and financial ballast to his kingship.  No, Margaery with her own Queenly ambitions, was a threat only to Cersei’s position in the reign of her son. And Cersei would burn half a city to the ground, murdering thousands in cold blood, just to stop Margaery from displacing her.  There is no grander cause or higher calling with Cersei, there is only herself.

It’s why she is indelibly prone to make ruthlessly stupid decisions.  From packing her Small Council with toadying yes-men, to empowering religious extremists, to rupturing alliances, to making dangerous financial gambles, Cersei is first and foremost hubristically short-sighted.  She neither sees nor cares to see the larger implications of her actions, but only concerns herself with her own most immediate needs. Nothing penetrates her ever-narrowing focus, not the people, not realm, not even the human race writ large.  Cersei would happily reduce the world to ash if it served her personal satisfaction (a fact that she both stated repeatedly and then finally demonstrated). She is not the continuation of Tywin Lannister, brilliant strategian, but rather a petulant and destructive egomaniac who upends the chessboard entirely rather than see an opponent advance.

And it works. It works beautifully because the show took the time to evolve Cersei from Desperate Housewife to Mad Queen.  Years were spent taking her on that journey, one that was handled with deftness and clear-eyed intent. When she blew the Sept of Baelor into oblivion it was a shocking moment, but also an organic crescendo in a character symphony that had been ominously building for six years.

THAT is how you Mad Queen.  When comparing the seasons of painstaking work that went into Cersei’s arc with the half-baked heel turn that was shoehorned into Daenerys’ eleventh hour it is hard not to be a little insulted by the creators of Game of Thrones.  They are capable of doing better.  They just couldn’t be bothered to.

 

A Century of Windsor Weddings

This time last year the world watched breathlessly as a divorced bi-racial American actress stood at the altar of Saint George’s Chapel Windsor Castle to marry the grandson of the Queen of the United Kingdom.  The event itself was genuinely remarkable; not only was the bride a commoner, a foreigner, and less than Wonderbread white, but once upon a not-so-long time ago royals who fell in love with divorced people kicked off crises of constitutional proportions.  A lot of old taboos were dissolved by this very public and widely celebrated marriage.

Yet despite the paradigm shifting nature of this particular wedding, the public enthrallment with the proceedings was as traditional as the myrtle in the bouquet.  Weddings have that power, a celebrity wedding more so, but a ROYAL wedding? Most of us seem varying degrees of powerless against that draw. The very thought of one made Fred Astaire break the laws of physics once.  We could ascribe the why to any number of cynical reasons (that would not be without a grain of truth), but at the heart of it we’re all just more influenced by fairy tales and Disney movies than most adults would like to admit.  It’s almost escapist as we watch these lavish, solemn affairs, especially for us Americans who have no proper equivalent to royalty and can’t help but be fascinated by it. Whether we acknowledge it or not, those ancient titles and all the glittering trappings that come with them put a moat of fantasy around a royal couple that makes them seem to exist in a story apart from the rest of us.  Just similar enough to imagine ourselves in their place, but impossibly, to borrow a term from popular parlance, Extra. Not even the biggest celebrity in Hollywood can compete with the mystique of royalty.

Once that mystique existed at a hefty distance from we common folk, but with the ever-expanding capabilities of technology that has changed.  The world first started to become privy to royal weddings in the 1920’s with photojournalism and newsreel footage, and in the following decades we have been able to press closer and closer to the metaphorical glass with each successive affair.  Then in 1981 Prince Charles, heir to the throne, wed Lady Diana Spencer and things hit a whole new level; royal weddings are not just points of interest anymore they are full-fledged Media Events on a par with portions of the Olympic Games.

And what is the centerpiece of all this hoopla?  The most speculated about element? The most enduring visual?  That’s right, it’s the dress.

What will the bride be wearing?

Since the days of Queen Victoria, royal bridal attire has been captivating the world and inspiring the fashion choices of countless other contemporary brides (although in the case of Victoria, we are still shackled to her choices; in the 179 years since she made white the go-to choice for wedding dresses the trend has proved harder to budge than a stone wall).  So on this, the first anniversary of the most noteworthy British royal wedding in modern history, let’s take a journey through all the Windsor weddings gowns of the last century, from the ones that haven’t held up with time all the way to the ones that still take our (my) breath away.  Into the tulle time machine we go!

I should note that this is all in fun, and totally subjective.  All fashion is subjective. People are certainly entitled to an opinion different from mine.  I only mention it because sometimes people get tetchy defending famous figures that they like.  Anyway. Let us begin.

11. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother

Groom: Prince Albert (created Duke of York, later King George VI)

Date: April 26, 1923

Venus: Westminster Abbey

Designer: Madame Handley-Surrey, royal dressmaker

 

 

 

 

To be fair to Elizabeth the fashion of the time was not doing her any favors.  It wasn’t doing anyone any favors in the bridal department, come to that. Though works like The Great Gatsby have cemented the fashion and lifestyle of the “Roaring Twenties” into our collective imagination as impossibly chic and glamorous, I have yet to see a 1920’s bridal ensemble that didn’t look at least a little bit frumpy.  

This gown was designed as a confluence of modern and traditional, with a medieval influence in mind, and I actually can see that.  The detail at the waist and down the skirt clearly evokes the girdle belts of that era. That said, the short sleeves are a bit odd (and one would think chilly in the traditionally reluctant English spring), and the fit of the bodice is blousy and unflattering though, unfortunately, on trend for the era.  Where it really goes wrong is with the very 1920’s chaplet veil, which bears an unfortunate resemblance to the bucket hats of the nineties and flatters exactly no one ever.  The Queen Mother was a very impressive woman, but she had the misfortune to be married at a time in which the styles of the day were all working against her.  

10.  Princess Diana

Groom: Charles, Prince of Wales

Date: July 29, 1981

Venue: St. Paul’s Cathedral

Designer: David and Elizabeth Emanuel

 

 

 

 

According to designer David Emanuel the silk taffeta runner carpet of a train tailing Diana’s world famous wedding gown totaled at twenty-five feet because he had discovered that the longest recorded train to sweep down the aisle at St. Paul’s Cathedral had been twenty feet long.  I remember him telling this anecdote in a documentary interview, speaking in a conspiratorially jovial tone about how he and Diana arrived at the same idea at the same time, to top the record holder just for the sake of saying they did so. That right there encapsulates the entire design philosophy that seems to have informed this dress: Over the Top and Over Again.  Because We Can.

In some senses this is another example of the contemporary fashion sensibilities working against the hapless bride; Diana’s cream puff dress is the More is More ethos of the 1980’s made manifest.  However, Diana was only nineteen at the time of her engagement, and in this design that she actively collaborated on we are reminded of just how young nineteen really is. If her wedding gown communicates anything it is her belief in the fairytale narrative that had been spun like candy floss around her whirlwind relationship with Prince Charles; it positively screams of a little girl’s idea about what a princess bride should wear at the moment of her Happily Ever After, and correspondingly reflects a little girl’s lack of restraint.  Everything is happening here. It has bows, it has lace, it has frills, it has embroidery, it has beading, it has sparkle, it has POOF, and all on a bombastic scale that positively overwhelms even the tall (5’10”) frame that Diana had to work with. The sleeves alone are more than twice the size of her head; even Anne of Green Gables would look at them and say, “It’s maybe a bit much.” A rounded natural waist only compounds the juvenile effect of the gown, and when combined the with a fabric that looked like crumpled tissue after having been unceremoniously jammed into a coach designed for the comparatively modest silhouettes of the late Victorian period the best that can be said of this dress is…it was memorable.    

9.  Anne, Princess Royal

Groom: Captain Mark Phillips

Date: November 14, 1973

Venue: Westminster Abbey

Designer: Maureen Baker

Princess Anne

I have to say that this dress has always struck me as a very odd mishmash of elements, an impression that was confirmed when I looked up the official description, which mentioned “Tudor Style” and “Medieval sleeves.”  The sleeves, the most distinguishing feature of the dress, are indeed a kind of hybrid of both those decidedly separate periods. They look a little strange on an otherwise unmemorable 1970’s wedding dress, and I can’t say there’s much other “Tudor” style in evidence (unless you count the hair, which skews Elizabethan).  Interestingly, the gown’s designer, Maureen Baker was the head of a ready-to-wear label, not a high fashion one, and there is something very sporty in the sleek look of the body of the gown. That’s not a negative, in my opinion. For Anne, who was a highly decorated equestrian athlete and later competed for the UK in the 1976 Olympics, I actually think that’s a very good direction to take.  I only wish they’d embraced the idea of it more fully. As it is I just feel like the elements are not only mismatched, but a little out of balance. A high neckline with full length sleeves on a monochrome gown inevitable creates a bit of a wall effect, and this is no exception. However, I will give credit where credit is due: The fit of the bodice is immaculate, and her makeup is on point.  Anne’s face looks absolutely beautiful, major kudos to her makeup artist.

8.  Camilla Parker-Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall

Groom: Charles, Prince of Wales

Date: April 9, 2005

Venue: Civil Ceremony, Windsor Guildhall

Designer: Antonia Robinson and Anna Valentine, hat by Philip Treacy

Camilla PB

As a second marriage for both parties, and with no small amount of drama surrounding their decades long star-crossed love, Camilla’s wedding gown reflects the low-key nature of the private event (a far cry from Charles’ first).  The silvery coat dress is becomingly understated, while the glimmer of gold detailing adds a nice touch of visual interest.

It’s nice.  It’s a nice, elegant, flattering dress, and she looks lovely in it.  I don’t have much else to say about this look except that she loses points with me for the plumage.  I’m not a fan of Philip Treacy hats; I feel like his creations make their wearers look like Burton film escapees more often than they don’t.  I will say that this is one of his less offensive efforts, and it is in nice proportion with her hair, but I just can’t work all the way up to liking it.

 

7.  Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex

Groom: Prince Harry (created Duke of Sussex)

Date: May 19, 2018

Venue: St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

Designer: Clare Wright Keller for Givenchy

Meghan Markle

It may be divisive to rank this so low, because it is so recent and because Meghan Markle is so popular, so I will begin by saying that I have no personal issue with the Duchess of Sussex.  She seems like a smart, capable, gracious lady; I admire the numerous barriers that she single-handedly smashed in joining the royal family, and I wish her all the best in the world when it comes to her marriage.  

It does not change the fact that,to me, this is the plain yogurt of wedding dresses.  It’s not even Greek yogurt with that zippy little kick on the end, it’s just a mass of plain, bland, unadorned whiteness.  There’s nothing offensive about it, and there are even people that like it that way, but it does undeniably lack flavor. That’s not saying that a royal wedding

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Detail of the veil design

dress must take the Marie Antoinette route in terms of decoration, but just a narrow belt or a touch of lace somewhere could have made a huge difference in breaking up the monotony of the whiteness.  It’s doubly disappointing in contrast to the absolutely stunning veil. It was a custom designed lace that featured floral motifs representing all the Commonwealth countries as well as Meghan’s home state of California. What a fantastic idea! I wish that that cleverness and detail had come into the design of the gown somewhere.

Of course, as with plain yogurt, there are people who love a  minimalist dress, and even to my differing sensibilities minimalism can be to stunning effect…if the fit is impeccable.  Unfortunately, this one does not have tailoring to save it. The boat neck is quite elegant, but the sleeves are a little longer than is flattering, and the bodice is noticeably large on her.  There’s understated and then there is underwhelming, this wedding gown is very much the latter. However, again, credit where credit is due, the Art Deco tiara she chose is gorgeous, and I like the relaxed approach to the chignon that is her hairstyle.  

Ultimately the woman is far more remarkable than her clothing, which is as it should be.

6.  Sarah Ferguson, former Duchess of York

Groom: Prince Andrew (created Duke of York)

Date: July 23, 1983

Venue: Westminster Abbey

Designer: Lindka Cierach

 

 

 

 

Okay, so the marriage may have ended in disaster, but it started nicely.   The eighties are still evident in this dress with the shiny satin and the aggressive shoulder pads, but the scale of Fergie’s dress is far more manageable (and flattering) than Diana’s, and the personal touches in the details really make it special.  Both Sarah and Andrew are present in the design of the beadwork, not just in their entwined initials on the train, but in the anchors and waves which allude to Andrew’s Naval background, and in the bumblebees and thistles which are taken from Sarah’s family heraldry.  There was also a neat trick with her headpiece, where she entered the church wearing a garland of flowers and then switched it out mid-ceremony and exited wearing a tiara, signifying her transition from commoner to royal. As someone who appreciates well-executed symbolism, I think that was a nice flash of showmanship.  The overall look is one that is still unmistakably of its era, but the relative restraint and the way it compliments Sarah’s figure helps it age better than others.

5.  Sophie Rhys-Jones, Countess of Wessex

Groom: Prince Edward (created Earl of Wessex)

Date: June 19, 1999

Venue: St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

Designer: Samantha Shaw

Sophie of Wessex

Sophie, Countess of Wessex keeps a pretty low profile as a royal, and started that trend with her wedding.  Compared to the lavish public ceremonies of Queen Elizabeth’s other three children, youngest son Edward’s to Sophie was almost modest, a private family affair with little fanfare and minimal media.  Heck, they told their guests not to wear hats. Not. To wear. HATS. For the British aristocracy that’s the BBQ Casual of dress codes.

Sophie2Sophie’s dress reflects this toned down sensibility; a simple silk crepe column under a fitted coat dress of a light silk organza, and sparingly embellished with rows of pearl and crystal beading.  It’s extremely hard to find a good picture of the details on this dress, but they appear to have been laid down in a faintly art-deco linear pattern, going straight down the front and then angling off the bodice to create a flattering bias effect.  Bridal minimalism was having a moment at the end of the nineties, and this dress is an apt reflection of that trend, but if we’re looking at what dresses say about a bride, then this one, elegant, unfussy, and comfortable paints the picture of a woman who is at home in her own skin and feels no need to show off for anyone.  

4.  Queen Elizabeth II

Groom: Prince Philip Mountbatten (formerly of Greece and Denmark, created Duke of Edinburgh)

Date: November 20, 1947

Venue: Westminster Abbey

Designer: Norman Hartnell

Queen Elizabeth II

It was 1947.  The most brutal war in human history had ended, the world was as peaceful as possible, and in the United Kingdom, still in the throes of post-war austerity, the people rallied to celebrate the marriage of their beautiful young princess to her handsome, war hero prince.

Considering the way that brides-to-be across the country donated their own precious QE2ration coupons to help Elizabeth get her dress (she had to return them by law, but Parliament loaned her enough all the same) it becomes clear that this royal wedding was about far more than just the two people at its center.  It was an affirmation of life and hope and all the bright wishes for the future of the world.

In that spirit it seems poetically appropriate that court designer Norman Hartnell took his inspiration from Botticelli’s painting La Primavera.  The ivory silk gown is embellished with a veritable garden of pearl and crystal flowers: orange blossoms for the trim, while garlands of star QE3flowers, roses, jasmine, lilac, and smilax festoon the skirt, bodice, and train.  The gown does feature some markers of its time. The silhouette, fitted sleeves, and pleated bodice were very popular in the 1940’s. So too was the sweetheart neckline, but I love the scalloped edging that gives Elizabeth’s gown a more unique touch.  What really stands out, though is the quality and beauty of the craftsmanship. They truly don’t make dresses like this anymore; in some ways it was the last of an older style of royal bridal attire; a fairy tale dream of Happily Ever After, and yet to look at it today it is still beautiful to the modern eye.  For a dress that was meant to represent all the optimism of a post-war future it really says something that it holds up almost seventy-five years after the event. Norman Hartnell considered this one of the most beautiful things he ever created, and I have to agree that the man really nailed it with this gown.  

3.  Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon

Groom: Anthony Armstrong-Jones (created Earl of Snowdon 1961)

Date: May 6, 1960

Venue: Westminster Abbey

Designer: Norman Hartnell

 

 

 

 

If Norman Hartnell hit a home run with Elizabeth’s dress then he smashed it out of the park with her younger sister Margaret’s.  This silk organza masterpiece, which featured the nipped in waist and full skirt popularized by Christian Dior during the 1950’s, was hailed worldwide for its chic simplicity in 1960, and could be just as stylish and lovely going down any aisle in 2019 (which just reinforces my firm belief that the 1950’s gave us some of the best fashion trends in history, and one can never go wrong in referencing them).  This is a gown that truly exemplifies what it is to be timeless.

It also set a standard for sophisticated minimalism that several royal brides have tried to match in the years since, none of them really achieving the same effect, notably, as we have already discussed, Princess Anne and Meghan Markle.   However, where both of their dresses had a bit of a white wall effect, Margaret’s, offering more coverage than Meghan’s and only a skosh less than Anne’s, avoids the trap with the slightly sheered out fabric overlay on the bodice. The outer v-neck draws the viewer’s eye to the sweetheart underbodice and when combined with the delicate texture shift of the lighter fabric it creates just enough visual variation to make the gown distinctive.  It also benefits from the razor-sharp tailoring, fitting her figure like it was sewn straight on her body. This wedding gown is refined and eye-catching, it’s regal and yet it also reflects an undeniably modern sensibility all of which is emblematic of the best of Princess Margaret herself.

Margaret had a rough go of things, feeling adrift as she moved further down the line of succession, and being denied her first choice of husband.  So it’s kind of nice that we can acknowledge her big win in the fashion department, even if her marriage itself didn’t end up as spectacularly as her gown did.  

2.  Princess Eugenie of York

Groom: Jack Brooksbank

Date: October 12, 2018

Venue: St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

Designer: Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos of Peter Pilotto

 

 

 

 

The most recent royal wedding gave us a wedding dress so beautiful that I almost don’t know where to start with it.  It’s suitably modest for a religious ceremony, while offering just the right balance of skin with the wide deep V of the neckline, an element attractively mirrored on the reverse of the dress as well.  It’s also the perfect hybrid of traditional and modern, with the classic full A-Line silhouette and the gorgeous architectural detail on the back. The lovely pleating draws the eye down to a folded detail that then sweeps into the length of the train.  It’s a clever contemporary take on a bow sash or even a bustle, and it creates a stunning bit of visual interest (one which also lends itself well to photographs; gotta love a smart designer). The lace at the folds of the neckline and then scalloped across the skirt is also fantastic touch.  It’s subtle enough that it doesn’t even show up in some pictures, and yet it adds the perfect amount of texture to the dress, catching the light ever so slightly as well as creating a different from every angle sort of effect.

And that pop of color from the York Tiara?  Gorgeous. Love it.

Eugenie might not be the most famous member of the royal family, but this woman has clearly developed some excellent taste.  When she walked down the aisle in October of 2018 she was every inch a princess for the modern day; elegant, classic, and yet just different enough to make you want to look twice.  Or three times. Or a million if you’re me. I have no problem admitting that this is my personal favorite of the modern era royal wedding gowns.

1.  Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge

Groom: Prince William (created Duke of Cambridge)

Date: April 29, 2011

Venue: Westminster Abbey

Designer: Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen

Catherine of Cambridge

Kate Middleton, now Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge, was born into an average upper middle class British family, and at the age of eighteen went off to college as so many girls just like her do every year.  However, unlike most of those other girls, Kate shared her freshman dorm with an heir to the British throne. The next year she walked down a charity fashion show runway in a sheer dress, and said royal…noticed. The rest, as they say, is history.

When Kate Middleton married Prince William in 2011, people around the world were enthralled by the fairy tale nature of her story.  A beautiful but normal girl who won the heart of the handsome prince and rose from obscurity to royalty, now poised to eventually become the first ever common-born Queen of the United Kingdom.  It’s a great story, and man did Sarah Burton (for Alexander McQueen) make the perfect dress to reflect it.

Kate’s bridal look is undeniably classic, and seems to be strongly inspired by the 1956 wedding gown of Grace Kelly.  There’s something aspirational in that. Grace Kelly, another commoner, rose from popular movie star to full blown icon after she married into the royal family of Monaco, and in referencing her gown both Middleton and Burton seemed to be saying that a princess is more than any royal pedigree.  One could imagine in it a statement of identity that was simultaneously subtle and crystal clear.

There was also a lot of thought put into the combination of traditional and modern Cate2elements in the gown.  Another stab at the idea that inspired the Queen Mother’s bridal dress all those years ago, but infinitely better executed.  The silhouette is enhanced by slightly padded hips and a deliberately tapered in waist which is meant to allude to corsetry (a hallmark of the Alexander McQueen label), the design of the lace is one taken directly from a nineteenth century pattern, while the back of the dress with its high neck, row of buttons, and bustled train is a symphony of Victorian elements.  There’s also a callback to Princess Margaret’s wedding gown in the bodice, with the open V-neck over a sweetheart underbodice and hint of skin through the differing fabric, though I can’t say whether or not that bit was deliberate or just a happy accident.

Yet for all that historical referencing, Victorian nineteenth century, 1956, 1960, nothing about the gown looks dated.  For one thing, the proportions, the super fitted sleeves, and flawless tailoring, are sleekly contemporary (if you can’t tell, fit, in my book, is about 90% of the success of an outfit).  And something about all of these influences together in one dress creates a look that is at once traditionally minded and yet distinctly modern. It’s another keen bit of symbolism in establishing its wearer as a new breed in an old institution.

This dress tops the list because of its instant icon status.  Yes, it is unquestionably recognizable, and it had an immediate impact on bridal trends worldwide.  However, it is more than just a look. This is not simply a gown; this is a very intelligently designed and thoughtful statement about both the person wearing it and the implications of the event around her.  Women know better than anyone, when you’re making history you need to do it in style, and Kate Middleton and Sarah Burton rose to the challenge spectacularly.

Plus, I don’t think anyone can deny that this is going to age FAR better than Diana’s.

Horror Thy Name Is…

 

*Spoilers Ahead, assumes prior knowledge of plot*

Halloween is upon us.  All Hallow’s Eve. Samhain.  The one night of year on which the veil between the mortal and spirit realms is so thin that ghosts and other supernatural entities can pass clear through it and walk among us.  It’s no surprise that in the thousands of years we humans have celebrated this holiday no end of spooky stories have proliferated through our various cultures.

In the modern era this mostly takes the form of movies, running the gamut from the silly (Scooby Doo and the Ghoul School, anyone?) to the truly gruesome.  However, one of the most horrifying Halloween haunts is one that camouflages itself as cheerful good fun.  One that wears an innocent guise to distract from the true carnage at the very core of its makeup.

Adapted from the classic cartoon series it’s 1995’s Casper.

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Whoa!  Hey! Stick with me here.

Trauma comes in many forms, and while Hollywood is bursting with stories of hapless everymen and women terrorized by psychotic serial killers, stalked by supernatural horrors, and mutilated in the most sadistic ways imaginable by both, most are actually metaphors for various forms of mental and emotional trauma.  Therein lies the gore that the majority of people out here in the real world are most familiar with. Casper merely dispenses with the symbolism, and instead couches its tale of several individuals veritably hemorrhaging from their emotional wounds behind a gossamer curtain of gently charming PG antics.

Okay, so I’m being a touch hyperbolic.  But just a touch.

The most obvious avatar for Casper’s darker themes is Bryan Denton’s Bill Pullman’ Dr. Harvey.  In the wake of his beloved wife’s tragic demise, the talented psychiatrist abandoned conventional practice in order to service a…less lively clientele, all as part of a mad quest to find the ghost of his late love.  Though he stolidly maintains that his mission is to help the “living impaired” find their way to peace (and thus allowing them to cross over into whatever awaits beyond), Dr. Harvey is in a state of denial so deep that not even the delta flood would wash him ashore (Like that?  That’s a little bit of geographical humor for you). In his refusal to accept his wife’s passing, his single-minded obsession renders him a living ghost, all but totally detached from the concerns of the living world.

He’s not alone either.  His counterpart some one hundred years prior (I think…there’s some real issues with establishing timeline and continuity in this movie) is the brilliant inventor, Dr. McFadden, previous owner of the decrepit mansion that acts as the setting for the movie.  Likewise incapable of coping with the loss of his young son, the good doctor cloistered himself in his lab and turned his brain power on the fanatical search for the “cure” for death, a repudiation of mortality that would make Victor Frankenstein salivate with envy.

However, while McFadden’s grief ultimately drove him to an early grave (before he could test his invention, in a cruel twist of fate) as a widower who had lost his only child his madness could hurt no one except himself.  The same cannot be said of Dr. Harvey, whose all-consuming quest has completely blinded him to the effects that it may be having on his thirteen-year-old daughter, Kat.

Kat’s wounds are a little harder to see, but there is a deep loneliness and a prolonged mourning that defines her life.  Not for the actual loss of her mother, whom she misses but whose death she seems to have mostly come to terms with. No, Kat’s mourning is for virtual loss of her father, a fact that she reckons with on a daily basis.  Dragged from one place to another, pulled in and out of schools, unable to make friends due to her peripatetic life and Dr. Harvey’s reputation, and all but unseen by the father she depends on, Kat feels utterly alone in every sense.  Her own band aid comes in the form of an emotional detachment that could easily be mistaken for that patina of patented nineties cool, but deep down her scars are every bit as raw as her dad’s.

Maybe Casper recognizes that behind her pretty face when he catches sight of her on a local newscast’s human interest piece.  Casper is intimately familiar with despair. Prior to the arrival of Kat and Dr. Harvey, our titular hero was trapped in the pitiful existence of a pre-slipper Cinderella, a slave to three elder ghosts whom he calls “Uncles” for lack of any better term.  Actually, given their regular habit of casual physical and verbal assault the better term would be “Abusers,” a fact not mitigated by their terrible treatment of anyone who crosses their paths, but a frank acknowledgement of a child living an eternity of vicious domestic abuse is a hard sell as a family film.   

Desperately lonely in spite of his famously unwavering friendliness, Caper sees in Kat someone who might understand him, someone who could even…love him.  And they do indeed have a connection. A connection as solid as Casper, regrettably, is not. That’s a sticking point. Friendship is one thing, but Casper clearly longs for more, and, barring a miracle, that seems unlikely to happen.

But then!  Fate! Kat takes a break from mooning over her junior high hottie (The Mighty Ducks’ own Guy Germaine!) to surprise Casper with his old possessions, which had lain crated and forgotten in the attic.  Suddenly long dormant memories of his human life are triggered again, and with breathless excitement he suddenly remembers his father’s invention, languishing away in the bowels of the mansion.  It’s all going to work out!

And here’s where the movie gets downright sadistic.  The machine is there, it does work, there is one vial of the serum that allows it to function.  But as Casper is sailing into the chamber, a new ghost arrives on the scene: the be-spectacled and be-cardiganed spirit of the recently departed Dr. Harvey, who, after a night of binge drinking, had ended his mortal life falling down a ludicrously placed construction pit (Seriously?  NO ONE thought it was a bad idea to put a massive hole right outside a bar?!). Kat is nearly hysterical with devastation, and Casper knows what he has to do. He nobly, selflessly sacrifices the only thing he can ever remembering wanting in order to give Kat her father back.

But wait, it gets worse.  

As a jubilant Kat heads off to host her school’s Halloween dance, Casper is visited by the spirit of Amelia Harvey, who has apparently gained some impressive super powers in death.  For his gift to her daughter and her husband, Amelia grants Casper his wish and brings him back to life…for what amounts to ten minutes.  Just enough time for the erstwhile ghost to manage a single dance and one brief kiss with the girl he loves before he is reverted to his spectral state.  And though the film closes happily with Kat, Dr. Harvey, Casper, and the merry trio of jerkoffs dancing around the empty hall, as a viewer the cruelty of the ending is hard to ignore.

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If we’re being honest, some of the cruelty was in having him played by dreamy young Devon Sawa, in a film moment that would be key to many a pre-adolescent heterosexual girl.  “Can I keep you?”  *SWOON*

Casper will now have to go on eternally longing for someone he can never have.  He will watch Kat grow older, he will see her fall in love with a living man, and eventually Casper will be left behind with nothing but the memory of a ten minute reward for an act of true heroism that would see him transformed into a damn prince if this movie were fair.  Kat and Dr. Harvey may have found the catharsis and closure that have allowed them to rejoin the land of the living (in the literal as well as metaphorical sense), but it is at the expense of true happiness for Casper, the one who made their salvation possible in the first place. In a century of a desolate and abusive existence he will have briefly brushed happiness only to spend the rest of his days forced to watch the one he loves moving forward as he is forever suspended between life and death, unable to change, unable to leave.

Tell me that’s not deeply traumatic and truly horrifying concept to contemplate.    

For all of the sweet friendliness on the surface of Casper, the violence and cruelty directed at its protagonist, an unflaggingly good soul who only wishes the best for everyone around him, is easily on par with anything that the Saw franchise ever did.  And worse, because all he ever did is act from love, and for that his torment will be unending.  

There’s no two ways about it.  Fun, family friendly Casper is nothing shy of an emotional snuff film.

And I mean that in the most loving way possible.

Happy Halloween.

Smartly Dressed and Smartly Written, Mrs. Maisel is Marvelous and More

On Monday September 17, 2018 the Amazon Prime original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel had huge night at the Emmy awards, netting best actress awards for its lead Rachel Brosnahan as well as for Alex Borstein in a supporting role, and both writing and directing awards for creator Amy Sherman Palladino (who also won for music supervision of the series in September 9th’s Creative Arts ceremony).  And of course there was the big kahuna, the award for Best Comedy series also went home with the Maisel crew.

It took less than an hour for the backlash to start.

By the next day the snark proliferated like mushrooms in the blogosphere.  There was no shortage of that now-patented hipsterish sneering about the success of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, lightweight fluffy pap, its success nothing but another symbol of the Emmys’ retrograde sensibilities, and having stolen the accolades from more deserving, harder hitting comedies.

I don’t know where to start.

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Exhausting.

Is it the mind-numbing frustration in our culture’s tendency to express admiration for one piece of work only by tearing down its peers?  Because that’s infuriating. Remember when La La Land was the favorite to win the Oscar over Moonlight? In the run up to the ceremony the discourse about the former became increasingly nasty, with it being blasted in much the same way that Maisel is currently experiencing, framed as empty spectacle with no artistic merits of its own (there are, in fact, many for both La La Land and Maisel).  Or when Shakespeare in Love beat out grim and gritty Saving Private Ryan?  For which it is still being relentlessly flogged twenty years later despite being a beautifully designed and performed film with an exceptional script.  Mired as we are in a digital environment that tends to strip away such antiquated concepts as nuance and perspective too often culture is reduced to a zero-sum game.  If one piece of work is excellent then all the others, particularly the ones that may best it in awards races, are shallow, useless, vapid, and undeserving of any and all love; their acclaim is an insult to the truly SUPERIOR, TRANSCENDENT work that the writer favors.  So by that logic if Atlanta is great then The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel must be a ludicrous fraud; moldy trash camouflaged by a heavy layer of whipped cream.   There is no circumstance under which they can both be understood as praiseworthy.

It could be the dismissal of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s own groundbreaking achievement. emmymilestones Being the first woman to win for both writing and directing is no mean feat, especially when you consider that those awards combined with the Best Comedy win are a recognition of her capabilities as a showrunner.  A female showrunner.  For all our talk about needing more women at the table we sure don’t seem willing to celebrate it when a woman (and an unconventional one at that) not only sits at said table, but runs it.  It’s hard to take seriously the earnest lip service paid to intersectional feminism when the landmark achievement of Jewish woman whose considerable writing talents have gone far too long without their proper acknowledgement is waved off as a footnote.

The fact that Judaism in and of itself is not considered a marker for diversity is also a bit exasperating.  It’s true that there are a lot entertainment industry professional who are Jewish, but you’d be hard pressed to think of many lead characters who are.  When Jewish characters do appear they tend to be supporting, and in any case their religion only comes up by way of making the occasional and utterly predictable joke, a means of temporarily highlighting their “otherness.”  The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the first instance I can think of that makes the Judaism of its characters into a strand of DNA within the larger show.  It is not something that defines the story or the characters, per se, but rather a factor that informs their reality and gives the show some of its shading.  An everyday and often unremarkable part of the world they inhabit, not unlike the nominal and assumed Christianity that proliferates the majority of the television landscape.  Traits of Jewish people (and Jewish parents) that have (for good reason) become stereotypes presented with subtlety instead of schtick, a menorah with unlit candles just visible in the background of a scene, a mezuzah presented with no explanation for the goyim.  It might not seem like much, and yet the utter normaliziation of a character’s Judaism is highly unique.  And it is more refreshing than I can begin to describe.

Then there’s the general propensity to denigrate work that is perceived as more traditionally feminine and thus less interesting and less worthy of serious consideration than their “edgier” (re: more masculinely influenced) counterparts.  Womens’ stories across all genres seem to have a harder time gaining traction and when they do they’re often either couched inside stories that are split with or subsumed by male narratives, or they feature women juxtaposed with plot lines that have traditionally been the provenance of male characters.  But a woman’s story set against a stylized backdrop and swathed in beautiful clothes?  It can’t possibly me more than trivial escapism; the viewing equivalent of downing bonbons on a silken couch.

 

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Evening gown, nightgown, no one takes me seriously!

There’s an unmistakably snide tone to the way Maisel’s production design is mentioned, always as the leading feature of any piece discussing the show.  Writers describe the show as “frothy” and “fun,” they talk about the bright candy colors of the fantasy 1950’s New York, and though it all seems complementary there is the prevailing sense of something demeaning in the sugar-soaked imagery; an implication of insubstantiality, as if the appeal of the packaging dilutes the quality of the material.  Which is ridiculous, but as most women know it’s not uncommon either.

It’s also an actual theme addressed by the show.  Midge Maisel is a dynamo. She’s bright, witty, fantastic with people, and utterly dauntless in the face of a challenge.  A consummate problem-solver. With her boundless self-motivation and initiative she could conquer the world given half a chance, and she would do it in heels.  Yet Midge, impeccably dressed and unapologetically feminine (if not always willing to play “ladylike”), is routinely dismissed by practically everyone around her.  In the comedy world where she is making her first exploratory inroads her polished Upper West Side pedigree renders her an oddity, among her own social circle she is a figure of pity as her most important identifier, that of a happily married wife, is ripped out from under her, in society at large she is nothing more than a pretty housewife whose boundary testing is as quizzical as it is untoward.  Her own parents don’t even take her particularly seriously. In fact, of all the people around Midge only a tiny minority see past the image of a comely JAP to the brilliant and talented young woman with heaps of potential for greatness.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s detractors, many of whom consider their sensibilities to be right on the cutting edge of popular culture, would, in the height of irony, fit seamlessly in among the book cover skimmers that make up Midge’s world.

There.  THAT is the most frustrating thing about the Maisel backlash.  That in their rush to roll eyes over the aesthetics critics haven’t bothered to actually WATCH the show, not in any meaningful sense.  Because to see past the shiny, colorful New York that never was* is to find a very interesting story, a parade of strong characters, and a whole spectrum of subtlety lurking in those beautiful “candy” colors.

Maisel 2I could talk about Alex Borstein’s lovably abrasive Susie, a Greenwich club manager who is often the butt of jokes for her masculine appearance, but who is also Midge’s fiercest advocate and her savvy guide into the world of comedy.  In Susie’s zeal there is also the sense of someone trying to legitimize herself to a world that frequently dismisses her as a punchline, that she feels the stakes are just as high for herself as they are for her new client. Perhaps this pathos will be further explored as the series continues, but here in the first season it gives a dash of intrigue to a comedic character.

I could talk about Joel, the self-sabotaging Mr. Maisel.  It would be the easiest thing in the world to reduce him to a one-dimensional schmuck, taking off after his cute secretary because he can’t appreciate what he has in his marriage.  The thing is that Joel knows exactly what he has, but mired in his own self-esteem issues he runs from it all the same, certain that he can never measure up to the person he has convinced himself Midge wants him to be.  And he realizes his mistake almost instantly. Over the course of the season we see Joel wrestling through his quarter-life crisis, trying to reconcile his dreams with his responsibilities as well as coming to terms with the consequences of his impossibly stupid impulsiveness.  He never quite makes it to “sympathetic,” but he is a far more interesting character than a lesser writer would have allowed him to be.

There’s an iceberg quality to many of the characters on the show that makes the overall ensemble magnetic, and I could happily talk more about that…but this is, after all, Midge’s story.  So let’s focus on the marquee name.

Midge isn’t suffering at the outset of the pilot.  She doesn’t feel like her life is lacking, she doesn’t yearn for more.  This is no Betty Draper hiding her discontentment behind a wan smile, this is a woman who feels like she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be and all is right in the world.  She’s got her junior executive husband, her two young children, her Classic Six in the same building she grew up in, and she’s got the Rabbi for Yom Kippur. It’s all roses. Until one night when her husband suddenly declares that he’s leaving her.

It’s in the ensuing rubble that Midge starts to discover herself.  Having played by the rules her entire life, now she has to confront what it means when someone throws the playbook out the window.  And walking in a Manischewitz fog right into an impromptu stand-up rant at a Greenwich Village club the first sparks of rebirth begin to flicker up from the ashes.  Yes, she’s utterly devastated by the loss of her husband and their life, but Midge doesn’t need rescuing. There is a brisk pragmatism to the way she navigates her new circumstances.  She does not go without wobbles or emotional fallout, yet there is also a growing sense of invigoration as Midge discovers the real firepower of her brains and ingenuity. Freed from the constraints of the path most travelled by women of her era, she isn’t scared by the question, “Is there something more?” but increasingly exhilarated by the prospect of finding out.

Perhaps it is the lack of existential angst that also nettles critics.  After all, since the 1999 debut of The Sopranos we have become conditioned to define the worth of prestige television by the amount of turmoil roiling behind the furrowed brow of some gritty anti-hero.  That said, the buoyant spirit of Midge Maisel shouldn’t be taken as a lack of internal conflict. It’s unmistakably there, it’s just that a woman hanging on by her fingernails usually doesn’t look the same way that a man in a similar position does.  Because many women don’t find themselves in a position to just dissolve into a spiral of self-destruction. For Midge the only way that she’s keeping herself in one piece is to turn her natural Energizer Bunny tendencies to the establishment of a life outside of her marriage, to her first ever job, to new friends, and to her burgeoning comedy career.  It may all seem very bright and bubbly, but as much as an exciting new exploration of self this new leaf is a coping mechanism, her way of maintaining some semblance of a grip on a life that was so unceremoniously upended.

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The show doesn’t suffer from a lack of external conflict either, but here again the condescending estimations of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have failed to account for the details at hand.  While the newly strained dynamics of Midge’s relationships with her confounded parents are readily apparent, the wider societal stressors require a keener eye.  Rather than throw a spotlight, or an evocative highlight on the many inequalities of 1950’s America, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel rather cleverly folds them into the story to the extent that they are barely noticeable…presumably as they would have been to the people living under those constraints.  Most crate-trained dogs learn to accept their confinement as just another norm, after all. They’re there, the comments that raise our hackles now, the institutional prejudices, the social assumptions, but rather than draw neon arrows to them, the writing weaves these elements into the fabric of larger scenes leaving the viewer to go, “That’s such BS,” before our attention is directed elsewhere by the on-rolling plot.

In this our experience as a viewer mirrors Midge’s gradual awakening.  Plenty of things about her world stick her as ridiculous, but it’s only when the dissolution of her marriage leaves her space to ruminate that she starts to realize how much she is bothered by the way society looks at people who don’t, or can’t, follow “The Rules.”  And it all starts to come out in her stand up. What if she likes having a life outside of her husband’s household? What if she’s a disinterested mother? What if she thinks inappropriate thoughts, and enjoys sex, and has way more to offer the world than a perfectly made brisket?  Midge’s comedy routines become the lens by which she starts to come to terms with the idea that she might not have been as content as she sincerely believed that she was. It’s undeniably smart writing from Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also seems to have deliberately borrowed the halcyon aesthetics of 1950’s and early ‘60’s popular film to further underscore her point.  There is something brilliantly subversive in effectively superimposing such modern character sensibilities into a medium where they never would have existed originally. What IF Send Me No Flowers gave Doris Day the realization that the potential inversion of her white picket fence life was as much opportunity as crisis?*  The contrast is subtle, but very engaging.

By the final episode of the first season Midge seems to have taken the disruption fully in stride, come whatever chaos may ensue.  In a comedy landscape where, as a beautiful young woman, she’s expected to either sing, or adopt a schtick, or be the “Dizzy Broad” Maisel 1on the arm of some charming male comic, Midge realizes that she isn’t willing to be anybody other than the perfectly imperfect person whom she has discovered in the ruin of her picturesque former life.  Clad in a black sheath and pearls, she leaves her audience with a triumphant, “I am Mrs. Maisel, thank you and good night!” It’s not a fairytale ending. We know, and Midge knows, that there are plenty of challenges ahead. The world rarely makes things easy for trailblazers and originals. However, here at the end of the first chapter in her story the self-assured abandon with which Midge embraces herself truly is marvelous.  As a viewer you can’t wait to see her tackle whatever comes next.

So yes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is beautiful, and fun, and set in a squeaky clean fictional New York straight out of an MGM musical, but to look closer is to see a much more complex image.  The aesthetics grab your eye, the powerhouse performances from the immensely talented ensemble keep your attention, and if you really watch the show that’s being presented to you, there’s a whole lot being said in and between the snappy text.  There in the patter and the shine is a complex feminist message building up a terrific head of steam. I don’t know where it will take us next, but I do know it will be an interesting and defiantly stylish trip.

Season Two please.  Now, if you don’t mind, Prime.

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Where you lead, I will follow.

 

*I am, as some may have discerned in my other writing, a huge history nerd, and as a result I myself often get worked up about lack of correct historical representation in media.  I am that person you really don’t want to watch costume pieces with unless we know they’re going to be done well, because I will sigh and scoff at every idiotic mistake choice the director and or designer made, and then I will tell you WHY it’s incorrect, and what it should be.  It’s really a miracle that no one in my family has smothered me yet (except that they’re history fanatics too and I come by this behavior honestly).

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There are instances where I not only suspend my self-appointed history police badge, but to so happily.  Because sometimes there really is a deliberate artistic aesthetic at work (one that goes beyond “We didn’t use the actual fashion from that period because I, the twenty-first century man directing this movie, don’t find it to be sexy in a modern sense, and thus it is garbage”).  I don’t at all mind a stylized version of the past so long as it is A. Consistent and B. Purposeful. Also, it helps if the story is hung on mostly to entirely fictional characters; I get way more prickly about gross misrepresentations of actual people (Looking at you, Greatest Showman).  The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel checks all my boxes for approval.  

*Spoiler for Send me No Flowers: He didn’t die, he was never dying, he’s a hypochondriac who believes he’s going to die shortly, and the comedy in the movie centers on him trying to set up his wife (played by Doris Day, and whom he doesn’t tell about his imagined condition until the fourth act) with a suitable second husband  because he doesn’t think she’s responsible enough to handle her own life when he’s gone, and he wants to make sure she’s taken care of. So sweet. It actually is a pretty funny movie but it definitely reflects another time and a wildly different set of cultural norms.

The Five Most Unfairly Underrated Disney Animated Films

Greeting, friends, today we’re going back to our school day peer-critique exercises:   For every criticism there must also be a compliment. When last we met I was full of peppery criticism for the current and future direction of Walt Disney Pictures, and I stand by all of it.  But I wasn’t mad. Not really. Just disappointed. Oh, Disney. Correspondingly though, in this outing I will now reassure the Mouse of my affections by turning the spotlight onto some of the studio’s most excellent previous work.

This is not the usual slate of list-makers though.  There’s no Beauty and the Beast here, no Lion King or Aladdin or Frozen.  While some Disney films stay on the forefront of our collective consciousness year after year, going on to be held up as jewels of both the canon and the genre, others inexplicably fall through the cracks once their initial marketing blitz has abated.  It’s not that these movies don’t contain examples of greatness (or that they aren’t wholly great in their own right), sometimes they simply fail to imprint on the larger culture; sometimes the studio has no interest in continuing to promote them. We have to face it, the fairytale lineup is always going to be an easier sell than a dark-toned social justice piece based on an incredibly depressing novel, no matter how much of a masterpiece the result may be.  So absent the studio’s backing it is up to we fans to remember the truly exceptional unsung work in their vault, the dusty treasures that are of no less value for their lack of real-estate in the figurative trophy case. To that end I give you:

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*Castle Icon*

The Top Five Most Underrated Disney Animated Pictures

  1.  Treasure Planet (2002)

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What better way to bring in the new millennium than with the marriage of the old world and the new?  Having tackled a straight adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal adventure novel, Treasure Island in 1950 (and topped themselves by inserting Muppets into the equation in 1996), Disney’s animated version quite literally aimed for the stars in reimagining Jim Hawkins’ quest to find storied pirate riches as a vaguely steampunk (Candlepunk?) space voyage.

The movie marked a new high for Disney’s artistic achievement.  With a creative concept as a jumping off point, the animation team let loose all of their collective brilliance in innovating a truly beautiful looking hybrid of a film where traditionally hand-drawn characters interacted seamlessly with digitally rendered three-dimensional sets.  The resulting depth and richness of the images is impressive, sometimes even dazzling. In particular, the spaceflight sequences stand in a class apart as exemplars of the very best of Disney animation skill up to that point in time.

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Montressor Spaceport

While the seductive visuals hold the viewer’s eye, James Newton Howard paints the film into their mind with the aural brushstrokes of his beautiful score.  The masterfully layered motifs, the valiant orchestral primary, the wistful Celtic lilts, the well-placed rebellious guitar riff, they all weave together as an evocative and heroic soundtrack that goes straight to the most visceral parts of the brain’s thrill centers.  To hear the music is to long to be swept off on an adventure of one’s own; to jump on a solar surfer and seek out the horizon.

Now, the movie is not without its faults (thus its rank on the bottom of the list).  In the original novel Jim Hawkins dutifully helps his mother run the family inn (his father having died shortly before the events of the story) while dreaming of adventure.  That is, of course, a well-worn cliché. However, Treasure Planet’s Jim (Joseph Gordon-Levitt!), a surly spacepunk who, having been abandoned by his father some twelve years prior, enacts his ongoing hurt and frustration through petty acts of juvenile delinquency, is not exactly an original substitute.  Holden Caulfield was obnoxious to the extreme in his initial incarnation; his trope does not grow more charming with increased exposure. Fortunately, Jim improves measurably once the central voyage is underway. Aboard the RLS Legacy the crisp Captain Amelia (delightfully voiced by Emma Thompson) and the one-legged cook, Long John Silver are able to give him the purpose and the encouragement he has been missing, and the young man begins to flourish.  In the movie, as in in the novel, Jim increasingly looks to Silver (here translated as a garrulous cyborg) as a surrogate father figure. The relationship between them is the film’s emotional sweet spot, its progression rendered in endearingly organic fashion, and it provides the audience a genuine point of connection to the characters.

The most egregious misstep is undoubtedly Martin Short as Treasure Planet’s resident castaway, BEN, who is exactly as entertaining as a cocaine trip ever is from the bystander’s point of view.  It was a cool idea to re-envision the novel’s half-mad maroonee, Ben Gunn as a navigation robot with a missing memory circuit, but Short’s performance is a gratingly manic appeal to the youngest viewers that not even an adorable jelly-blob of a sidekick named Morph can really make up for.

Still, criticisms aside, Treasure Planet is a beautiful, pioneering piece of animation with a strong cast and with superb production elements.  Its relative obscurity is disappointing given the important step that it represents, not just for Disney, but for the progression of the animated medium as a whole.  Plus, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, guys.

  1.  Hercules (1997)

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Greek Mythology doesn’t generally strike one as a rich source of family-friendly entertainment, being heavy on things like murder, rape, incest, and bestiality.  Then again, I suppose it doesn’t really offer anything much more horrifying than any number of the fairytales that Disney has adapted into cheerful musical films (nothing takes the ick out of necrophilia like cuddly animal helpmates, don’cha know).  With that in mind it’s not surprising that eventually they would get around to plumbing the depths of Classical mythology for inspiration.

Enter Hercules (we wanted Herakles, but that guy rarely makes appearances anymore).  Of all the stories in Greek mythology his is probably one of the best choices Disney could have made.  Once you strip away the antics of jealous Hera and the resulting uxoricide (I have a new word!), the core narrative of young man determined to prove his worth through various acts of heroism is pretty fertile adaptational ground.

So much so, in fact, that the Hero’s Journey has become one of the predominate tropes in all of storytelling, and so if you’re going to get people interested in another retread of that material you had better have a fresh approach.  Disney’s answer to that concern is, in fact, the element that elevates the movie. Operating on the theory of balance through opposing elements, they adopted an anachronistic irreverence in their tone that proved to be just the right approach to an ancient story that had already long-proliferated western culture.

This ain’t your ancestor’s Hercules, and the intention to loosen things up a bit is announced loudly in the first minutes of the film.  We open in a hall of Greek sculpture, Charlton Heston solemnly intoning a stately monologue about the nature of heroism when, suddenly, he is unceremoniously interrupted by a quintet of muses (union regulations prohibit the use of all nine at any one given time unless for charitable functions).  Bored by his rendition they immediately assume narrational duties, launching into a Gospel-infused exposition number. Just like that the tone is set. These Motown Goddesses will be the film’s throughline, a nod to the tradition of the Greek Chorus with a distinctly modern sound and feel, and the rest of the movie will follow closely in their footsteps (as one should always follow the muses, come to think of it).

Hercules strikes a great balance between its earnest hero’s central plot line and a more humorous delivery than has traditionally been typical of Disney animated pictures.  The script is full of sharp quips, clever references, and blink-and-you’ll-miss it sight gags, only a couple of which have gone slightly dated over time. However, the absolute best features of the film’s approach are in the conception of its two most important supporting characters.

Hades is the villain of the piece here and, I would argue, one of the most enjoyable Disney has produced.  My approval does not come without caveats; Evil Hades ™ is a lazy misrepresentation of that character, depicting a tired western conflation of the Greek afterlife (all of which is subterranean) with Christian Hell, and Hades with the Devil.  However, if he must be cast as malignant, then his iteration in the Disney movie is probably as good as it gets. A vengeful Lord of the Underworld might imply a grandiose cliché, but James Woods’ vocal characterization of the role is gleefully original (the man is a horrendous person, but I can’t deny that he’s good at what he does).  This Hades is a scheming conman sporting a massive pita chip on his shoulder; patient and cunning with a true Machiavellian’s long-game sensibilities, and a stand-up’s sardonic wit.  Very rarely are we allowed to glimpse the true menace at the core of the character, but make no mistake, lurking just under that slick affability is one deeply dangerous deity.

Not to contradict resident mentor, Phil, but it is, in fact, the villain, not the weapon, that makes the hero.  By that metric Hercules has fantastic potential.  Hades is almost the best thing about the entire movie.  

Almost.  

Were it not for Meg.  

While Hades is one of Disney’s great villains, Meg is, in my estimation, the best heroine the studio has ever produced.  Sassy, sultry, self-sufficient and even *gasp* implicitly sexual, Meg is no mere Obligatory Love Interest.  She is a complicated lady who serves a complicated purpose within the story.  Distinctly, her agency is never in dispute once. When first we meet Meg she is in the literal clutches of a centaur with nefarious intentions as Hercules comes rushing in to save the day.  To his surprise, she is neither excited nor relieved at his arrival, but merely gives him a cynical once-over before delivering the greatest introductory line of all time, “Keep moving, junior…I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this.  Have a nice day.”

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Pictured: Not here for your patriarchal nonsense

You see, Meg is used to taking charge.  Prior to her on-screen debut she had sold her soul to Hades to save her boyfriend from the afterlife only for the ungrateful Minoturd to immediately run off with another woman.   Now tied in servitude to the Lord of Death, the deeply jaded Meg has no choice but to do his bidding (albeit with a certain patented snark), including, to her chagrin, seducing and sabotaging Hercules at Hades’ behest.  Of course, things don’t exactly go to plan. Meg is stunned to discover that Hercules really is pretty swell, and it’s not long before his genuine goodness has chiseled right to the gooey center of her hardened heart.

Notably, however, where love makes Hercules vulnerable, it reawakens reservoirs of strength in Meg.  Hades is quick to leverage her complicity in his plotting to break the hero’s spirit, and the resulting shock nearly does unravel Herc completely. Meg, on the other hand, is not having it. She is quick to own up to her role (witting or not) in the impending apocalypse, and goes charging into the danger zone to rally Hercules with no thought to her own safety.  Her courage is ultimately what allows him to discover his true strength, and to save the world from the forces of darkness.

It’s Hercules’ movie, true; he is a hero, and a pretty lovable one at that, but the movie excels and endures in large part because of its exuberant willingness to subvert expectation.   The gods can have soul, and the hero can do slapstick, the villain can be funny, and the damsel can absolutely be the one to manage her own distress.  Here’s to Hercules for taking the Renaissance approach to a Classical classic and finding some new perspective.    It’s a pretty nice view.

  1.  Meet the Robinsons (2007)

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The aughts were a dark time for Walt Disney Animation.  Having grown used to the rapturous adulation lavished on the work of the ’90’s Renaissance, they were shaken when their next wave of films (most of which were based off of original story ideas rather than adapted from existing content) produced much more varied responses.  Animated production noticeably scaled back, and the studio would spend the better part of the decade wandering directionless through the wilds of mediocrity, only occasionally producing work that lived up to the standards of their former glory. Yet here in the midst of that Millennial slump we find Meet the Robinsons, a brilliant but almost universally overlooked movie that achieves its emotional heft through a perfect, saccharine-neutralizing blend of candid sentiment and gentle wackiness.

This is the story of the orphaned Lewis, an aspiring inventor with no shortage of big ideas, but a spotty record of successful execution.  When his one hundred and twenty fourth adoption interview goes pear-shaped as a result of a backfiring creation, Lewis abandons all thoughts of the future in order to chase the past.  Specifically, unlocking the

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The face of evil

memories stored deep in own hippocampus in order to discover the identity of the mother who abandoned him as an infant. Alas, thwarted by an evil bowler hat (yes, really), and press-ganged into aid by the time-hoping Wilbur Robinson, Lewis soon finds himself on a chrono-surfing adventure beyond his wildest dreams.

This is a movie that could win hearts and minds by virtue of its cleaver goofiness alone.  The humor zips along on sudden hairpin turns, never devolving into mania, but rather drawing the viewer in with its unexpected charm.  In that our journey mirrors Lewis’ in a way. Removed from the mundane world where he is just a misfit kid, in Wilbur’s future Lewis finds himself thrust into a wonderful new version of reality where unconventionality and quirk are prize virtues.

Indeed, this is best exemplified in the titular Robinsons themselves.  Who wouldn’t be delighted by Grandpa with his glasses (or possibly just his body) on backwards and a woodchuck dangling off his arm?  By Uncle Gaston delivering pizza in his flying saucer, or Uncle Art food-fighting his kung-fu master sister with his beloved meatball-shooting canon?  Who couldn’t love the adorable weirdness of a family that just accepts the marriage of one of their members to a cranky hand puppet (not nearly as kinky as it sounds…at least…not that we see in the movie)?  Or that is regularly entertained by the all-amphibian swing band conducted by their matriarch? Among the Robinsons idiosyncrasy is encouraged, innovation is celebrated, and failure is just a step to future success.  It’s easy to fall in love with them as Lewis does.

The true resonance of the movie comes in through and around the zany Robinson ethos.  Acceptance of self, shortcomings and all, a refusal to dwell on the disappointment of the past, and an optimistic eye to the future, these are the things that grow us and keep us moving forward.  There’s also some wonderful (if slightly more subtle) themes about being able to define oneself, and how family is something that forms in a number of ways unrelated to biology (a particularly endearing inclusion for me, as the daughter of an adopted child).

In a way Meet the Robinsons is the most overt and loving tribute to founder, Walt Disney that the studio has ever produced, but it’s also one of the most intelligently written movies of the post-’90’s Renaissance era.  In fact, its approach is very suggestive of partner studio Pixar (unsurprising given John Lassiter’s producing credit, and the full Disney acquisition of Pixar the previous year): the inoffensive eccentricity of the characters disarms a viewer only for the plot to then creep in and grab them right by the feels.  I would even argue that Meet the Robinsons was an important bridge project in developing the voice Disney would exhibit in later movies like Tangled, Wreck it Ralph and Big Hero 6.  However, both for what it is and what it may have inspired, Meet the Robinsons in all its sweet loveliness deserves far better than the cultural oubliette to which it has been consigned.   

  1.  The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

It’s not that Disney hadn’t done funny before.  I mean, we just discussed two movies that made ample and effective use of humor in creating tone.  However, at the pinnacle of humorous Disney, high above any other competition, as if, perhaps, atop the Andes peaks, sits one film alone.

It’s The Emperor’s New Groove, ya’ll!

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Boom Baby!

Kuzco is the eponymous Emperor of a vast Inca-inspired civilization, supremely powerful and supremely spoiled, dancing through life with a blithe disregard for everyone around him.  At the center of his court is Yzma (Eartha Kitt in a career topping performance), an equally narcissistic old sorceress who has an annoying habit of trying to rule the empire in his place.  Kuzco duly fires her in the first minutes of the movie, but Yzma isn’t about to go gently in retirement. She retreats to her secret lab to concoct a poison that will clear the way for her to resume control over the affairs of state.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which jerk you’re rooting for at this point), Yzma doesn’t label her vials very clearly, and her sidekick, Kronk slips Kuzco the wrong elixir, resulting in the young Emperor transmogrifying into a llama rather than kicking the proverbial huaco.

It’s kind of like the setup for Beauty and the Beast, but with darker intentions and sillier outcomes.

Now stuck in camelid hooves, Kuzco finds himself dependent on Pacha, a peasant whom he recently intended to screw out of his ancestral home, and on a race to regain his human form.  Of course what he will really gain on the journey…is his humanity *Studio Audience: Awwwwww*

This may be the only animated Disney movie ever that is first, foremost, and almost purely comedic.  The script is a non-stop barrage of laugh-out-loud one-liners and brilliant physical comedy, bolstered by comprehensively excellent performances from a cast of seasoned comedy actors.  David Spade, John Goodman, Wendy Malick, and Eartha Kitt are all fantastic in their respective roles, but the movie really belongs to Patrick LGL1Warburton’s good natured Kronk, an interpretive-dancing, spinach-puff -making, squirrel-speaking fount of hilarity who seems to have fallen into the evil henchman trade more due to his imposing size than any particular ideological inclinations (his internal conflict exemplified in a recurrent joke where his shoulder devil and shoulder angel argue the best course of action with him).  I defy anyone to get through his “Theme Music” sequence without at least cracking a smile. Can’t be done.

Yes, Kronk is Disney’s greatest sidekick ever, and his every contribution to the movie is memorable gold, but it is worth reiterating that he is the strongest link in an already exceptionally strong chain.  The Emperor’s New Groove leans giddily in to a prevailing sense of ludicrous fun.  It’s the kind of movie where they openly address an inexplicable plot twist before acknowledging that there’s no logical explanation for it and simply moving along.  Silly is the feature here, not the bug, yet it’s all concocted in a notably clever way that is, one might argue, even more appealing to older viewers than to younger ones.  There’s a Monty Python-esque quality at work; the same goofiness that is at once sharp and free-wheeling, the same endless quotability, the same rewatch payoff. All the makings of a cult favorite.

It is for this reason that, perhaps, The Emperor’s New Groove might not need promotion quite so much as some other entries on this list.  It has an avid, if comparatively small, band of fans who will happily admonish others to “Beware the groove,” who know that being turned into a cow is a perfectly legitimate reason for taking off work, and who regard life’s desperate moments (like careening down a raging river of death while lashed to a log in a rescue attempt gone horribly awry) with a simple “Bring it on.”  Still, despite the love of its devotees, despite its myriad strengths, and despite a refreshing departure from traditionally Euro-centric sources of inspiration The Emperor’s New Groove rarely finds its way into examples of Disney excellence. This is less a shame than a minor travesty.  The movie is easily one of the most original ever created by the studio in terms of tone and scripting; its only sin is not easily fitting in with its more conventional brethren.  That quality that has made it so difficult to categorize, that has likely caused a large part of its neglected status, is precisely what makes The Emperor’s New Groove outstanding.  Disney’s kooky oddball child succeeds because of its eccentric qualities, not in spite of them.

  1.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

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Where I have spoken at length about why the other entries on this list are worthy of far more love and glory than they tend to get, I would not argue that any of them were, say, top five material.  That is why The Hunchback of Notre Dame stands above them all at number one.  Because not only is it one of the most overlooked films in the Disney canon, but its status is particularly outrageous considering that it is one of the greatest films the studio has ever created, period.  I consider it to be the equal of my personal number one, Beauty and the Beast, and superior to Disney’s most celebrated creation, The Lion King.

It’s also one of the trickiest adaptations the studio has ever pulled off.  They’ve never exactly shied away from problematic content, but Victor Hugo’s 1831 tale of a deformed bell-ringer, Quasimodo, his sanctimonious guardian, Judge Claude Frollo, and their mutual obsession with the dancing girl, Esmeralda, requires a particularly deft hand.  Though the most disturbing parts of the narrative are trimmed (attempted rape and general sexual violence, unapologetic racism, and a veritable trail of corpses), The Hunchback of Notre Dame is notable for embracing the shadows in the story rather than sanitizing them away.

The end result is a spectacular, layered masterpiece of a film.  The Disney team used Hugo’s original novel, where the major themes were more about free will and class disparity, as a springboard for an extrapolated story with deep modern resonance.  Through the treatment of both the misshapen Quasimodo and the brown-skinned gypsies, the movie sends a central message about the humanity of people who seem different, and the necessity for tolerance, kindness, and inclusion of those seeming outcasts that children can easily grasp, however, the sub-themes on the nature of corruption and virtue offer a level of intellectual complexity that is often rare for family-targeted entertainment.

Judge Claude Frollo is the vehicle through which the film examines the sordid, contradictory nuances of moral hypocrisy.  As a figure of enormous power Frollo, with his dour and unyielding standards of righteousness, is quick to cast a sneering, steely eye over all who fall short, justifying his merciless nature with hardline piety.  Of course, like most that use their religious fanaticism to sit in judgement over their fellow men, Frollo’s sanctimony is merely a mask for his own corrupted soul.

Despite his vehement proclamations about the nearness of damnation and the necessity for repentance, Frollo is mostly incapable of recognizing his own moral failings, choosing instead to frame his sins as the result of the clearly degenerate people around him.  His psychosexual obsession with Esmeralda is because she is a temptress, not because of any true weakness of his own. His murder of Quasimodo’s mother (on the steps of Notre Dame, no less, in the movie’s inciting incident) was because she ran from him, which she surely would not have done unless she was guilty of something.  Paris in general is suffering as a result of the depravity of the brown-skinned minority population, and not because of his cruel policies. If he could only crush out this hateful and ungodly people then he and all the good Christians would be saved. It is not really salvation that Frollo wants, though, as with most religious hypocrites his truest desire is control.  It is for his own glory as the uncontested voice of earthly and heavenly law. It is for the entire world to bend to his narrow idea of what it should be. Anyone who stands in the way of that ambition (up to and including Quasimodo, whom Frollo raised from infancy) must be eliminated by any means necessary.

It’s actually frightening considering the themes here and realizing how pertinent Frollo is to many of the current debates raging in our popular discourse.

The movie offers no paucity of more uplifting elements as well.  The artwork is nothing short of spectacular, and the soundtrack by Broadway’s Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, among others) features some of the most goose-bump inducing music Disney ever put on screen.  Female protagonist, Esmeralda (who wins the Most Improved from the Source Material award hands down), is a strong, audacious, compassionate lady overflowing with mettle, who was a harbinger of the studio’s next big step up the girl-power ladder.  Meanwhile Quasimodo is the kind of protagonist whose relatability both wins and breaks hearts, and Phoebus, also receiving a massive upgrade from his original iteration, is a feminist-inflected Classic Hero who is, refreshingly, secure enough to play a supporting role in the actual heroics.  All the pieces fit themselves into a magnificent whole piece of cinematic excellence.

It is the themes though, the willingness to embrace the darker ideas couched in the story, that makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame the standout that it is.  Woven into the narrative as they are they sink seed-like into one’s mind, gently rooting there over time.  Art of any medium that can stay with a viewer for years afterwards in that way is an exceptional piece of work. It is, in fact, that resonant quality that elevates a creative endeavor to the level of true art in the first place. No one would argue that the Mouse’s fairytale movies aren’t wonderful, but Hunchback shows what the studio can do when freed from the conventions of that genre.  They can create something a depth and durability, something that prevails not because of happy nostalgia, but because of deeper truths found in thornier premises.  Acknowledged or not, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a shining example of the very best that Disney is capable of.

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A Whole New World…of the Same Old Same Old

The other morning I logged on to Facebook, as one does.  I scrolled through my feed catching up on news headlines, and funny pictures of my friends’ pets, when suddenly something pulled me up short:

BaB

 

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Oh God.  Substitutiary 70’s hairstyles.

My reaction was immediate and, I must admit, possibly a bit stronger than necessary (I believe the words, “Oh f*** no!” were uttered).  Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) is a movie dear to my heart, and one of the most underrated in the entire Disney canon.  It has a bit of an unfortunate history concerning gross mishandling from the studio, but when the movie is seen in its entirety, the way its creative team envisioned, it is, in my opinion, if not equal to Mary Poppins then at least a very close companion.  The idea that it might be subject to a soullessly glossy CGI remake was almost offensive to me (as is the idea that Kate Winslet would have the exact same hairstyle as Angela Lansbury in the original).

Now, mercifully, the poster proved to be simply a fan art piece that had been caught up and mistakenly circulated by the internet.  There are no current plans from the studio to remake Bedknobs and Broomsticks.  Unfortunately, if Disney’s output blueprints any indication it’s a fate that may well be inevitable, not just for this particular movie but, eventually, for everything that has ever run its title sequence behind the Cinderella’s Castle logo.   

When Walt Disney launched into feature length animation with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves it was a bold move bordering on madness, so the conventional wisdom went.  Animation was a fun novelty niche in filmmaking, good for shorts, but unlikely to take off as its own fully fledged genre.  Now it’s eighty years later, Disney practically owns the world (Because to our legislators Antitrust law is more a quaint suggestion as opposed to necessary policy), and their animated movies are so deeply emblazoned on our society that they have come to border on mythic status.  For decades the studio has been at the forefront of creativity and innovation, which is why their slate of upcoming and “In Development” features is a bit…depressing.  Scratch the bit. It is depressing. Depressing, uninspiring, creatively bankrupt…

Because with the exception of a bunch of “Untitled” projects for both Disney and Pixar, the majority of the films that we can expect in the future are a never-ending litany of sequels, reboots, and remakes (including some for properties that the film-going public has already clearly signaled they have no further interest in, like a SIXTH Pirates of the Caribbean installment- Ironic for reasons I’ll get into one of these days).  Where once Disney took source material from books, from fairytales, from folklore, imbued the stories with their own magic, and made truly special films, they have now settled for the relative ease of simply ripping off themselves.  The studio seem to be less interested in making much stand-out work anymore, rather they have sunk back into their own comfortable corporate entropy and doubled down on an endless future of surefire money spinners.

No film in their recent history is more to blame for this bleak future than the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast.  While previous forays into live action remakes like Maleficent (more of a prequel and expansion than a straight remake), Cinderella, and The Jungle Book had all been well received by audiences and critics alike, Beauty and the Beast was a bonanza success of stratospheric proportions.  And what did the audiences of the world turn out in droves to see?  A film that was little more than a shot for shot remake of its animated predecessor, hoping to hide its utter unoriginality behind lavish production design and a star-spangled cast.  It worked apparently. The movie made $1.264 billion worldwide, proving that not even a warmed over rehash and mediocre leading lady could diminish the audience appetite for name recognition wrapped in dazzling spectacle.

Why would you put yourself through the aggravation of developing new work and risking the financial embarrassment of a flop when your public has told you loud and clear that they’ll settle for a fancy CGI coat of paint on a beloved old chestnut?  In today’s film industry, you wouldn’t.   The business model, predicated on expensive productions and massive payoffs, simply doesn’t support the chancy endeavor of the unknown.  Never mind that Disney’s recent original work has been massively successful, the rules of the game that they have helped to create dictate as many sure bets as possible packed into the release calendar.

So what can we look forward to in the coming years?  Well there’s the planned straight live action/hybrid adaptations of Dumbo, Peter Pan, Mulan, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, The Sword in the Stone, a presumably less fox-y Robin Hood, Pinocchio (*shudder*), and finally Snow White, because if nothing else Disney knows how to marry symmetry with a kind of clueless irony.  They will also be pillaging their distributing relationships for live action versions of Kiki’s Delivery Service, and James and the Giant Peach, returning to the world of villain origins with Cruella (despite already having done so to “meh” effect on Once Upon a Time), spinning off popular sidekicks with standalone Tinkerbell and Merlin projects, revisiting previously adapted material with another swing at Oliver Twist, and expanding on hitherto unexplored aspects of old films.  I mean, who wasn’t clamoring for a whole movie about the giant horned demon and his undead army in that one segment of Fantasia?

Most dispiriting of all is the fact that though Disney will make the fortune they seek on all these remakes/reboots/reconstitutions of reheated retreads, they don’t need it.  As arguably the biggest player in the entire worldwide entertainment industry Disney already makes its own vault-diving Scrooge McDuck look like a pauper.  They command a stable of properties that includes, not just their own endlessly marketable icons, but most of the Marvel superheroes, and the entire far-away galaxy of Star Wars.  They have music production, they have book publishing, they have a theatrical producing entity.  They have retail, and gaming, and theme parks, and hospitality. They completely or partially own a number of television networks.  And with an impending acquisition of 21st Century Fox they stand to control an even bigger slice of the pie- Oh my GOD, ANTITRUST, people!- and the work of many former competitors including, most bitterly, the creations of Don Bluth, a former Disney animator who went rogue over dissatisfaction with the studio’s process, and the distribution rights to FernGully: The Last Rainforest, a film that Disney’s once-head of animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg allegedly tried to kill repeatedly.

The point is that Disney seemingly owns everything at some level; the upstart little studio that built its name on a mad artistic venture has grown into a looming titan with unprecedented power to steer their industry.   Yet with their bottomless coffers and their endless scope Disney has settled into a path that is both deeply cynical and contrarian to the legacy they claim to protect. When the producer of Fox Searchlight’s artsy and eerily beautiful The Shape of Water stood on stage of the Golden Globes pleading for Disney chief Bob Iger to remember the value of making such films he did so with good reason.  The importance of daring, original movies should be indisputable, but in recent years the Mouse has shown little interest in anything that can’t be blown up into a billion dollar extravaganza, and merchandised half to Hell.  And they don’t show any signs of diverting themselves.

No, instead they will remake every beloved classic in the vault, they will expand the Marvel Universe to the inevitable Big Crunch, they will churn out spin off after spin off of Star Wars until we’re all wistfully reminiscing about the good old days of The Phantom Menace.  Vampire-like Disney will determinedly suck the lifeblood from their own legacy until all that’s left is a series of very visually attractive husks.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Disney has returned from the creative doldrums before, and they have produced some truly excellent original work in the last decade.  With gutsy new princesses like Tiana, Merida, Moana, Anna, and Elsa (a Queen, actually) they’re giving new generations of kids some kickass heroines to be inspired by.  They’ve expertly mined pop culture for Big Hero 6 and Wreck it Ralph, and through the emotionally and artistically gorgeous Pixar collaboration, Coco they have delved into new wellsprings of inspiration. It’s clear that there are still talented people at the studio who want to innovate, to explore, and to keep Disney on the forefront of artistic advancement within the medium, people who have proven that it’s possible to do so while also being highly profitable.  The concern is whether those voices will ultimately triumph over the siren-song of ginormous dividends earned with minimal effort.
Looking at the planned slate the odds do not seem to be in their favor.

But maybe I’m overreacting.  I mean, at heart the Mouse just wants us all to be happy right?  It may look like the Disney sparkle is increasingly just a thin patina for a shameless cash farming operation, but that’s just a misconception.  It’s Magic that they’re about over at Disney.  Magic and Wonder, and you can’t put a price on either.

On an unrelated note, did you know they have a fancy, interactive new Star Wars hotel opening up?  It’s an unprecedented opportunity for fans to live the Magic and Wonder of their favorite space opera firsthand, and it can be YOUR adventure for the entirely reasonable estimated price of $500 per person per night (park tickets still sold separately).

*Filed Under: I rant because I care

An American in Paris: S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’…a Bit Squicky on the Rewatch

I was about ten or eleven the first time I ever saw An American in Paris.  The 1952 Academy Award winner for Best Picture tells the love story of Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly, also the film’s choreographer), a former GI turned struggling painter in, you guessed it, Paris, and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron, in an excellent debut performance), a nineteen-year-old French shop assistant torn between an old attachment and a new attraction.  With its iconic musical numbers set to the equally iconic music of George and Ira Gershwin, and the breathtaking cinematography of the film’s climactic ballet I was utterly charmed by An American in Paris.  It has, after all, myriad charms to offer, and there is good reason why it has maintained its status as a beloved classic of the American cinema.

However…

Well, it’s undeniable that times have changed since the early 1950’s.  While we have sadly lost the fabulous fashion, we have also gained a much more nuanced view of gender relations, female agency, and personal boundaries.  At least, we have academically, progress is frustratingly slow on actual execution.  As society has made this slow, sometimes reluctant trudge forward, the movie has, by virtue of the very nature of film, remained forever frozen in a time when our collective mores and social norms were in a very different place. For all the enduring cultural value that An American in Paris indisputably bears, it is also undeniable that to the modern eye the story presents some problematic tropes.

You know how it is.  You’re out with some friends at a crowded nightclub when you notice a handsome guy is trying to catch your gaze.  The chatter and the music and the clink of glasses, it all seems to fade away as your eyes meet across the room. He smiles slowly, invitingly, and you…turn away because you’re not interested.  Such was the very first interaction between our protagonist, Jerry Mulligan, and his love interest, Lise Bouvier. However, in the film, as in the real world, Jerry is simply not willing to take the hint, and so, undeterred by Lise’s indifference, he boldly strides across the club and physically pulls her up out of her seat.  Oh he babbles some ruse about how he hasn’t seen her in forever, and how his wife misses her (to make it sound respectable, because he’s considerate that way), but then without giving her a chance to decline him he whisks Lise out onto the dance floor.

Okay, that’s invasive, but she must be flattered by his initiative, right? Women love a take charge man, don’t they?

“You’re certainly not without your nerve!”

“Don’t get angry.  This was perfectly harmless.  I haven’t been able to take my eyes off you since I walked in.”

“I only let you do this because I didn’t want to make a disturbance…Now please, I would like to return to my table.”

“In a minute…Lise, I swear this is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, at least as a civilian.  I just had to meet you.”

“Look, Monsieur, I don’t know what kind of girl you think I am but I’m not, and now I would like to return to my friends.”

“I thought you were bored with them.  You sure looked it.”

“You should see me now.”

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Above: Not Amused.

Is there anything the least bit ambiguous about this interaction?  No. There’s not. Everything from the words that Lise is saying to the expression on her face to her rigid posture  communicates that she is not only not interested in Jerry, but pretty pissed off at his presumption. And yet he STILL doesn’t back off.  As Jerry finally deposits Lise back at her table with her friends he returns to his previous ploy, saying that he will have his “wife” call her to catch up, and asking to be reminded of her phone number.  With a practiced smoothness that is depressingly familiar to many women a stony-faced Lise rattles off a string of numbers only to have one of her companions (the man, obviously) correct her inversion of two digits.  

That’s a wingman fail, dude, of a huge scale, and yet another case of a man not reading the crystal clear nonverbal cues a woman is giving out, but there’s really no excuse for the other woman at Lise’s table not to home in on her discomfort.  Get better friends, Lise.

As for Jerry, he has won this first battle, and so, smiling in that maddening self-satisfied way, he finally returns to his own party, secure in the knowledge that he can now get at Lise at a more convenient time (like when there are fewer witnesses around).  

See, while it would be easy to write this movie off as purely the product of a very different time, one of the things that really starts to rankle watching it now is how recognizable that scene is to many modern women.  The guy who won’t hear no, the invasion of personal space, the instinct on the part of the woman to defuse and not make too big a fuss..Because what if he gets angry? What if he gets violent? What if he follows you home?

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Is he still there?  Oh man, just hold very still and maybe he’ll go away.

Or to work, in Lise’s case.  Yes, that’s right. Jerry telephones the next day only to be told, yet again, and in no uncertain terms that Lise IS NOT INTERESTED and does NOT APPRECIATE his attention (“Leave me alone and don’t call me again, ever” are her exact words).  So of course what that means to Jerry is that he just has to make a stronger case for himself. He uses the phone number to find her place of work, a perfume shop, and insinuates himself into an interaction between Lise and a customer, helping her to make a sale by giving his manly manly man’s opinion of sexy perfume.  

This is all supposed to be okay because the AUDIENCE knows that Jerry isn’t a serial killer, just a vigorous young man who knows what he wants.  It doesn’t matter that Lise doesn’t know he isn’t a psycho, because she would if she’d just loosen up and give him a shot, geez. Lise should clearly be honored by the attention of someone so handsome and charming.  Ultimately that’s what’s supposed to mitigate his invasive behavior, and yet to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of this kind of situation even Gene Kelly’s good looks can’t erase the ickiness of watching it played as romantic.  

But there it is.  Romance. I don’t know if it’s Jerry’s persistence, or his mad perfume sales skills, but something causes the previously adamant Lise to pull an astonishing 180 and agree to go out with him.  Her prior disinterest and anger melt away in the face of his refusal to respect her wishes, and even her engagement to another man is no longer the obstacle that one would think it should be.

Oh yeah, that’s right.  Lise is actually engaged to another man, which was probably her main reason for spurning Jerry’s advances in the first place (not that she needs a reason not to want to go out with someone).  It’s cool though because she doesn’t REALLY love her fiancé, it’s just that they’ve known each other for forever, and she couldn’t ever disappoint him because he, like, totally sheltered her in his home while her parents were off resisting the Nazis, so to break his heart would make her super ungrateful.  Lise’s lack of agency is not limited to Jerry, come to think of it.

Unfortunately, Lise is also not the only woman to get some shabby treatment by the writers of An American in Paris.  Arguably even more ill-used is the savvy and statuesque Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) who sweeps onto the scene in a gust of self-assured moxie only to run afoul of the trip-wire that is 1950’s gender expectations.  

Milo, an art collector and patron to aspiring talents who notices Jerry’ s sidewalk studio setup, is a very different kind of woman.  As an heiress (from Baltimore, so in the grand tradition of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Wallis Simpson you know she’s probably trouble) she is completely self-sufficient, and as a fully grown woman in her late twenties or early thirties she has a well-developed sense of herself and her goals.  No wide-eyed waif needing guidance or salvation, Milo is a well-heeled tornado of proactivity. And that, the script makes clear, is unforgivable.

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More like Nina FOX, am I right?  You WEAR that white dress, lady.

Jerry is initially just fine with Milo’s interest when he thinks she only wants to throw down some serious cash for his paintings, but several hours later she has him in her posh hotel suite talking dealers, and exhibitions, and the bright future she sees for him, and Jerry’s fragile masculinity starts to feel a bit threatened.  When she snaps at him for his behavior at a nightclub (more on that coming) he starts to feel controlled. When she arranges for a beautiful studio workspace and sets a date for his debut show he is outraged that she would do such a thing without consulting him. In short, Jerry becomes increasingly frustrated feeling like his own wishes are not being considered.  

Well gee.  Yeah, that WOULD be annoying, wouldn’t it, Jerry?

But where Jerry can do this to Lise and it is romantic, Milo is a woman, and so her behavior is considered pushy and presumptuous; she is not allowed to take control without suffering the grave consequences of romantic failure for her lack of proper femininity.

Jerry, good guy that he is, tries to signal this to her early on.  When he intuits that her interest might not be purely in the paint, he immediately moves to reclaim the steering wheel.  Jerry absolutely insists on taking Milo out, and to a place that he can afford to pay. Damned if he’s going to let some woman buy HIM dinner, even if, as a potential patron talking business interests, it would be entirely appropriate for Milo to foot the bill.

But whatever.  They go out. It is in that smoky little jazz club that Jerry first locks his targeting mechanism on Lise, and we already know how the scene plays outs from there.  What we didn’t mention before is that despite KNOWING that Milo might have a personal interest in him, and despite being the one to suggest that HE take HER out, Jerry makes no secret of his instantaneous preference for the French teenager (he nearly dislocates his neck trying to listen in on the conversation at Lise’s table so he can learn her name), and promptly abandons Milo to go accost Lise.  Which precipitates her rather sour mood on the ride back to her hotel. Of course, the way the movie plays it Jerry has done nothing wrong and Milo is the demanding bitch here. She’s the disconcertingly forward one who goes around trying to boost men’s careers and thinking that she can just initiate relationships with them; Jerry’s simply teaching her that maturity, independence and confidence could never possibly be as attractive as a shy and openly resistant teenager.   Milo really should be thanking him.

Thing is though, Milo (unlike Jerry) pretty much takes the hint.  After that unsatisfying outing she keeps their relationship confined to its professional sphere, focusing on bringing Jerry’s work to the attention of various art world notables, and on figuring out the next steps in his career development (which, as mentioned, Jerry takes issue with).  Oh it’s clear that she still fosters hope that someday their patron-artist relationship might bloom into more, but she is able to temper her expectations in the present and keep their involvement strictly business.

It doesn’t matter though.  While her own friends have gently chided her for her habit of pursuing artists, it is Jerry’s best friend Adam (a misanthropic concert pianist who dwells in a permanent state of semi-depressed self-loathing that would have netted him his very own movie had this character been conceived a couple decades later) who is meant to provide the voice of the culture at large in his sneering estimation of Milo’s audacity.  Before ever having met her he makes several snide remarks about this woman who wants to financially support his friend’s artistic efforts.  Adam himself has survived on scholarships and private patronage, but I guess all his check-writers were men, which makes it completely different. When they’re finally face to face at the climactic Art Student’s Ball, Adam scornfully tells her that she’s making a fool of herself and that she has more money than sense.

What is foolish exactly?  Is it that Milo wants to use her privilege to support art and artists that she believes in?  Is it that she feels a romantic attraction to Jerry? No, what is foolish is that Milo as a woman has failed to understand her proper place.  Sure, she can support the arts all she wants, but she should never presume to think that she should take an active role in shaping a career. She can fall head over heels (like any woman obviously should in Jerry’s presence) but she can’t let him know it; she’s supposed to wait for him to chase her down, to win her over.   The initiating steps at any stage in the relationship must be his, and to invert those roles is to surrender any hope of romantic fulfillment. Milo is a fool because she believes herself to be a human instead of merely a female; the enterprising nature that would make her so admired as a man marks her as an oddity and a failure as a woman.  For that she is doomed to be mocked, pitied, and relegated to romantic also-ran while the protagonist gazes eternally after the much more appropriately prey-like love interest who continues to elude him (until he wins her in the end, because of course he does).

As a glorious celebration of music and dance An American in Paris is a true jewel, and eminently worthy of its many, many accolades.  The particulars of its plot, however, those have tarnished in the light of our ever-evolving understanding of gender in society and the romantic mores that accompany it.  Its questionable treatment its two featured women cannot simply be written off as “another time,” not when it has taken so long for us to start really examining the underpinnings of a culture that continued to thrive long after Vincente Minnelli called, “Cut!”  Not when so many of us have had experience so similar to those of Milo and Lise. I will never stop enjoying An American in Paris, but watching it now is certainly a much more complex, scrutable experience than it used to be.  That’s not a bad thing. Art must continue to elicit engagement to remain relevant. While the movie now does so in ways that its creators probably never imagined, nearly seventy years after its release An American in Paris still gives us plenty to talk about.  

And the dancing really is awesome.  

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  • On a personal note, as a shy, inexperienced, and sometimes awkward teenager (and early college student, let’s not let me off the hook here), I may have pulled some Jerry-like behavior of my own.  I chalk it up to, again, inexperience, and an over-reliance on movies for my understanding of romance and courtship.  I’m sorry about that, guys I may have weirded out.  Trust me, I am now FULLY aware of how that must have come off at the time.

Adventures in Feminism: How do the Disney Heroines Stack Up Against Their Original Counterparts?

Disney movies hold a special place in most of our hearts.  They have been delighting and engaging audiences for eighty years now with endearing characters, groundbreaking art work, infectious songs…Most remarkably they have managed to intrinsically capture the spirit and cultural ethos of their respective periods, becoming across the decades something of an ever-evolving time capsule of American culture.  However, this means that ingesting them becomes an inevitably more complicated process as time progresses and values change.  The feminine ideals projected by the early princesses are not generally the ones that most of us encourage in little girls now, and the plot devices surrounding them can spark no end of conversation about topics like gender roles or sexual ethics.  But these stories didn’t spring fully formed from the skull of Walt Disney.  Almost every Disney movie is an adaptation of an existing story, most broadly from the fairytale genre, which is famously pretty un-feminist in its own right.  As the plots are taken apart and put through the Mouse machine to make an original new product lots of elements change from the inspiration piece to the finished film, including and especially the heroines.  So how does Disney stack up when it comes to adapting the ladies and their adventures?  Let’s unpack some of the big ones.

Snow White

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The Movie You Know:

An orphaned princess touted as “The Fairest of them All,” is targeted by her murderously jealous stepmother, the Evil Queen (Fun Fact: She does actually have a name, and it is Grimhilde.  Kind of understand why she doesn’t use it much).  Eventually, Princess Snow White takes refuge deep in the forest keeping house for seven dwarves, until the day that a mysterious old woman stops by to offer her some fruit.  Long story short it was actually the queen in disguise, and this ends poorly for our heroine.  So, Snow White having been successfully murdered, the heartbroken dwarves interred her in a glass coffin.  In the Disney movie they’re there when the prince (who shared a really annoying love song with Snow at the beginning of the movie) shows up, they clue him in on the curse, he kisses it better and then he and his child bride (according to Disney canon she is only fourteen or so) ride happily off into the sunset.  The age of our heroine is a bit questionable here, but otherwise everything checks out as standard Happily Ever After fare.  Please note that kissing is not ever the appropriate antidote to a poisoning.  

In the Original

The dwarves don’t know that Snow White is cursed as opposed to actually poisoned, so they don’t say otherwise when the prince arrives.   For his part he just sees a hot girl in a glass box, and is so turned on by her seemingly dead beauty that he orders her coffin carted back to his castle so that he can stare at her whenever he wants (Seriously).  En route they hit a rough patch and the poisoned bite of apple jostles free of Snow White’s esophagus, breaking the curse, and allowing her to wake up (this is also not a reliable antidote to poisoning).  After presumably covering his disappointment as smoothly as possible, Prince Dahmer proposes to marry the newly enlivened maiden (way to hedge there, buddy), who, for some reason, is not at all creeped out by the circumstances surrounding their meeting.  Scene.

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“Who are you?”  “Oh.  You’re alive.  This is awkward…I mean Neat-o!  You’re alive!”

Feminist Rating?

Better.  Oh SO much better.  I mean, an essential central conceit of the story is still that a fairly passive character becomes housekeeper for a group of bachelors, and lord knows she doesn’t do much to affect the direction of her story (besides being soooooooo pretty), but at least she was given a smidge of agency in her love story.  She actually met the guy in question and reciprocated his interest in her before all the crazy cursed fruit business, so he had nominal reason to think she would be okay with him kissing her awake.  Eliminating the necrophilic undertones was a good move too, because there is absolutely no way to make that seem okay.  

Jasmine: Aladdin

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The Movie You Know

Jasmine, princess of the fictional sultanate of Agrabah, has exactly one future on her horizon: An arranged royal marriage to occur no later than her sixteenth birthday.  Angered by prospect of being forced into a corner, as it were, Jasmine impulsively runs away from home, and out on the mean streets of Agrabah a chance encounter with a handsome young pauper named Aladdin changes both of their lives forever.  Aladdin is the hero of this story; his instant love connection with Jasmine will be the impetus that motivates his adventures thereafter, from finding a magic lamp to taking down the evil royal vizier Jafar.  Jasmine is at his side to help as he saves the day, and as reward for their valor they are granted royal permission to marry in spite of Aladdin’s lack of genuine princely pedigree.  Their magic carpet sails off into the firework-spangled sky, and two movies later they get around to enjoying wedded bliss.  

In the Original

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Her name is Princess Badroulbadour, daughter to the Sultan of…China.  Yeah, I guess that’s a thing.  Notably, subsequent versions of the story moved its location to Persia, which makes slightly more sense.  Anyway, Aladdin sneaks a peek at her while she’s walking to the baths and falls in love with her beauty.  The original story from the 1001 Arabian Nights is pretty similar otherwise.  Aladdin meets the genie, wishes to become a prince, marries the princess, fights off an evil Sorcerer.  As in the Disney movie the princess helps a bit at her husband’s behest.  In some versions she uses her “feminine wiles” to trip up the baddie, in others she cuts right to the chase and poisons him.  It’s nice when your spouse can bring something useful to the table, isn’t it?  

Feminist Rating?

So here’s the thing: Jasmine is alone in the ranks of the Disney Princesses in that she is the only one of them who is not a main character of her story; at best she’s second supporting behind Genie.  So while she shows some strong independent tendencies, her role in the narrative is still to be a part of the heroic spoils that Aladdin wins as the protagonist of the tale, and she has no sphere beyond that in the story.  Ultimately she’s only slightly more developed than her Arabian Nights counterpart, and I can’t really say that Jasmine is better than  Badroulbadour.  Their plotlines follow most of the same beats, and while both ladies are totally willing to help defeat the villain, they only provide supplementary service to Aladdin’s bigger daring rescue plan, and only after he asks them to.  I like Jasmine, she’s all kinds of fabulous, but I think this one falls more or less in the lateral category.   

Tiana: The Princess and the Frog

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The Movie You Know

In Jazz Age New Orleans a waitress named Tiana works her butt off 24/7 with a dream of buying an old mill and turning it into the best restaurant south of the Mason-Dixon.  Meanwhile, (broke) playboy Prince Naveen is in town to find a wealthy heiress when he runs afoul of the creepy Dr. Facilier.  One super spooky musical number later Naveen has been transformed into the frog that makes up one half of the titular duo.  Desperate to find the kiss that will change him back, he mistakes a costumed Tiana for a princess and convinces her to pucker up.  To the surprise and consternation of both the kiss only compounds the curse, amphibianizing Tiana as well, and binding their fates together in the bayous of Louisiana.  Now, naturally they dislike each other initially, but as their misadventures progress they learn to see past their differences, as one always does in these kinds of stories.  Tolerance turns to fondness, fondness inevitably grows into love.  When the moment comes for Naveen to break the curse he chooses not to so that he can spend his life with Tiana, even if it is a life as frogs.  Of course this act of true love turns out to be the conduit through which the curse is actually broken, and both Tiana and Naveen are returned to their human forms, joyfully married amidst family and friends, and set on the path to a happily ever after.  

In the Original

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A beautiful princess drops her precious golden ball into a pond, or maybe a well, and starts crying.  Drawn to the sounds of her sorrow a talking frog hops up beside her to chivalrously offer his aid…in exchange, that is, for her promise that she will take him back to the castle and feed him from her plate.  She says, “Deal,” and he duly retrieves her tchotchke, but no sooner is it in her hand then the princess goes sprinting back the castle and slams the door on the frog.  He’s not be deterred though.  Nope, Froggy takes the whole story straight to His Royal Fatherness, the King.  Interestingly nobody, not the king, not the guards, not the courtiers, seems perturbed by a talking frog seeking an official audience.  Kind of makes you wonder what kind of crazy stuff people in Fairytale Land are used to seeing.  Anyway, the King agrees that his daughter has behaved badly; a princess should always honor her word.  He forces her to uphold the bargain, which she does, begrudgingly, in hopes of putting the whole episode behind her.  However, the frog is not satisfied.  After supper he follows the princess to her room and insists on being allowed to sleep beside her on her pillow.  This is a bridge too far for the princess.  She hurls him against her wall in (I would say not unjustified) disgust when, to her amazement, she suddenly finds, not a slimy frog sitting slumped there, but a handsome prince.   Pretty standard stuff after that: Ticked off a witch, nasty curse, happy kiss, big wedding.  No-longer-Froggy doesn’t seem to mind that his hot wife is a total brat, and she likewise forgets about her now dreamy husband’s serious boundary issues.  

Feminist Rating?

There is no doubt that Tiana, a hard-working, independent young woman with a dream of business ownership is light years better than a generic spoiled princess.  What’s more, she remains strong, proactive, and goal-oriented over the course of her adventures, with a happy ending that is not solely bound up in landing a handsome prince.  True, the relationship between Tiana and Prince Naveen (who is also a far better character overall than his be-webbed predecessor) is still the central point of the story, yet the happy ending comes not just from a fairytale wedding, but from the achievement of Tiana’s dreams (which are not abandoned in favor of the proverbial M.R.S), and the implication that their union going forward will be as much a partnership as a romance.  Though the overall movie The Princess and the Frog may meander the middle road too much to be really great (it comes SO close, it kills me that it falls short), Tiana is an amazing character and little girls are lucky to have her in the princess lineup.  

Pocahontas

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The Movie You Know

The free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan dreams of adventure while she stands dramatically atop the coastal Virginia cliffs, her silken mane of raven hair billowing behind her.  Her tribe may be wary of the pale skinned invaders who have just arrived on their shores, but Pocahontas is curious, defying her father to seek out and learn the truth about them.  Enter John Smith, a handsome, if charmingly cynical, career explorer out to conquer the wonders of the New World.  Through a handy bit of spirit magic the two are able to communicate perfectly, and as Pocahontas shows him the natural splendor of her home Smith comes to realize that there is so much more than material wealth to be mined from the human experience.  However, these two people have the benefit of being attracted to each other to speed along their cultural compromise, which is not an advantage that either of their respective camps share.  Fighting breaks out between the two sides, blood is spilled, retaliations are planned, and Smith, a captive of the Powhatan tribe, is slated for execution.  At the last possible second Pocahontas valiantly throws herself between Smith’s head and her father’s club, delivering an impassioned speech about how we’re all not so different, we can live together peacefully, how fear and hate only lead to destruction (Yoda would be so proud)…only to be immediately ignored by de facto one-dimensional baddie, Governor Ratcliffe, and his itchy trigger finger.  It’s okay, John heroically takes the bullet, everyone realizes that it really IS all fun and games until someone is bleeding out, and they hastily declare a truce so that John can be taken back to England for medical treatment (It’s worth risking the months-long voyage and possible blood poisoning if you can get home to a proper English doctor).  Pocahontas professes that, though she loves him, she must stay behind to guide the peace process between their two peoples.  She bids a theatrical goodbye from the top of the cliff, as Smith’s ship sails off into the East.

In the Original

As in, in history, because this is definitely no fairytale.  And it’s a different story entirely.

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On a personal note I just have to start with one thing.  My family’s go-to vacation spot for my entire life has been Williamsburg, VA (Not the Busch Gardens theme park mind you, but the Historic Triangle.  Yes, I’m from a whole family of nerds).  I have been in and out of the area around Jamestown for decades.  It’s a coastal plain, which means it looks like this:

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Notice something?  Like a lack of waterfalls and dramatic cliff faces?  That’s because we don’t have them in that part of the state.  They didn’t have them in 1607 either; it has pretty much always been a flat, marshy landscape be-treed by low, scrubby pine.  From the very first time I saw Disney’s Pocahontas that particular error has annoyed me more than any other.  Just had to mention it; getting back on topic now.

There are a lot of errors in this movie, but for the sake of staying on topic, we’ll focus mainly on the heroine.  Lets begin with the fact that “Pocahontas” (real name Matoaka, Pocahontas being a nickname) was still a child of roughly eleven years old when the settlers showed up in 1607, while John Smith was a bad-tempered former mercenary at least sixteen years her senior.  Whatever their relationship was (and accounts differ, with possibilities ranging from a respectful friendship to an uneasy, sometimes antagonistic, alliance) it was 100% not a romance.  However, Smith did recount his first contact with the Powhatan tribe, where he was, seemingly, to be executed until “Pocahontas” threw herself over him in a protective gesture.  In the wake of that experience “Pocahontas” then became a frequent presence in Jamestown, bringing in supply parties which staved off starvation in the brutal early years of the colony, and fostering the (initially) peaceful, cooperative relationship between the local tribes and the settlers.  Alas, eventually relations soured (white entitlement gets to everyone at some point), “Pocahontas” was kidnapped, pressured to convert to Christianity, married to an Englishman named John Rolfe (who agonized about the moral repercussions of marrying a “heathen”), and brought back to England where she died of smallpox, or pneumonia, or TB, or some other nasty illness that her immune system was not prepared to repel.  These latter events are highly fictionalized and very much glossed over in the animated Disney sequel.  

Feminist Rating?

I’m going with worse.  

True, the Disney version is absent a lot of the indignities (and possible horrors) that the actual “Pocahontas” suffered, and features a very nineties style kumbaya message of acceptance and tolerance, but I still think that it pays poor tribute to the actual historical figure it depicted.  

Again, remember that “Pocahontas” did everything she did, from potentially saving John Smith’s life (it may have just been a tribal ritual in which Smith was in no actual danger) to trying to smooth the path between the natives and the settlers, as a tweenage kid.  A child even by the standards of her culture.  Somehow this girl decided to throw herself between her own people and the foreign invaders, and broker a peaceful coexistence.  That bespeaks a courage, maturity, and wisdom that is so far beyond what most children of that age (in any era) are remotely capable of.  It is so much more inspirational than some bland hippie platitudes and a cross-culture love story.  Doing things for love is fine and all, but it’s well-worn territory in storytelling to the point of nearing cliché.  Such a rehashing is doubly disappointing when the real story is not only more interesting, but infinitely more remarkable.  A young girl stood between uneasy factions and tried to help create a world in which they could all flourish together.  And for a time she succeeded.  How often has that happened in history?  If Disney wanted to tell a feminist-leaning story about a courageous female leader they would have done so much better sticking closer to the actual historical facts.

Fun Fact: Disney once had big plans for a history-centric theme park in Northern Virginia, not far from where I spent my adolescence.  Pocahontas (details of which had leaked out in the development phase) was one of the many examples that the considerable local opposition used to build their case against the venture.  Like, literally, Disney has already proven how badly they suck at history, and shows no signs of improving, do we really want to give them a multi-million dollar arena to further miseducate people?  Yeah, we take history kind of seriously in the commonwealth.   

Also our famously horrendous traffic.  If we’re being honest it was the traffic more than the history thing that defeated Disney in the end.  

Sleeping Beauty

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This is the closest to a date that any Princess is going to get for decades.

The Movie You Know

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Princess Aurora has unwittingly fulfilled the curse made by the overly sensitive Dark Fairy, Maleficient on the day of her christening and stuck herself with the spindle of a spinning wheel.  Now trapped in an eternal slumber from which only True Love’s Kiss ™ can awaken her, Aurora lies in state at the top of the highest tower of the castle.  Thankfully the humble woodsman she fell in love with five minutes after meeting him just happens to be her betrothed, Prince Phillip, who capably slays Dragon Maleficent, climbs the tower, and plants the Smooch of Salvation, awakening Aurora and saving the birthday/engagement/welcome home party that her dad laid out all that money for.  Everybody celebrates, except her fairy guardians who still can’t settle on a color for her ballgown.  This debate will go on to live in infamy (It’s blue.  Team Pink is entitled to their wrong opinion, but blue in unquestionably superior.  Disney only sticks her in pink for so many official appearances because Cinderella wears blue too).

In the Original

Aurora’s curse extends not just to her, but to her entire Kingdom, and so when she pricks her finger everyone within its bounds is thrown into the same enchanted slumber.  One hundred years pass, the castle is semi-reclaimed by nature, and everyone pretty much forgets about that one time an entire population and its ruling family just vanished.  One day a royal dude is riding by when he intrepidly decides to explore the creepy dilapidated ruin.  There, in the topmost tower of that surely condemned building he discovers the sleeping princess, preserved at the bloom of her sixteenth year for all time and…Well…In gentler tellings of this story he kisses her, the spell is broken and she agrees to marry the total stranger on the spot because knowing anything about your spouse happens AFTER the wedding, silly.  However, there are variations of the story in which this guy is so taken by the beauty of a possibly dead, definitely comatose girl that he rapes her and takes off.  I mean, what would he stick around for?  After you’ve had your way with a corpse the excitement and mystery is just gone; on to the defile the next gravesite!  However, he did manage to leave our cursed heroine pregnant so that nine months later it is the pain of childbirth that finally awakens her from her slumber.

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“Oh baby, you’re so cold…Hot.  I meant hot.  Hot is good, right?  Hot is the less creepy one?”

Feminist Rating?

Again, SO MUCH better.  Like in Snow White, allowing the (passive, one-dimensional) heroine to meet and become attracted to her love interest restores some of the agency that the original fairytale robbed her of.  Also like Snow White the horror movie elements, in this case implicit necrophilia and explicit rape, are wisely erased from the story.  Again, there is no way to spin that original ending as a good one.  

Ariel: The Little Mermaid

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The Movie You Know

Ariel, a mermaid princess obsessed with the human world, falls in love with a handsome prince when she rescues him from drowning.  Unable to shake her passionate interspecies feelings for a total stranger, and at odds with her staunchly anti-human father, Ariel accepts an offer of help from Ursula the Sea Witch, agreeing to trade her voice for human legs.  However, there’s a catch: If she can’t win Prince Eric’s heart in three days she will return to the sea and be cursed to spend her life as one of Ursula’s…I’m actually not clear on what they are.  They look a bit like some kind of sentient seaweed.  Not the sort of thing you want to spend life as, though.   It’s all moot; even without her voice Ariel wins over Eric (sort of, I mean, there are obstacles, and Ursula gets all wily but, you know, eventually…).  After an epic sea battle and a sweet reconciliation with her father Ariel, voice and legs intact, returns to the shore and marries her heart’s desire.  Passing over the fact that the wedding night will probably be horrifying to a girl who spent sixteen years with a very different lower body configuration, it’s all good.

In the Original

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Firstly, it’s important to remember that Hans Christen Andersen was a depressed man who had immense trouble with personal relationships, was rejected by every person he ever fell for, and died feeling utterly alone.  He often regarded The Little Mermaid as semi-autobiographical. With that in mind…

The mermaid, nameless in the original story, so we’ll call her TLM, does rescue and fall for the human prince, and does solicit help from the sea witch, who does offer to trade legs for a voice.  Here’s where we diverge.  It’s not just a matter of coaxing a glowing ball of music out of the mermaid’s throat, no, the sea witch simply cuts out her tongue.  The legs that TLM receives in return function perfectly and all (she’s quite the dancer once she’s human), except for the fact that every step she takes on them feels like walking on knives.  Oh, and if she doesn’t win the Prince’s love and marry him then she will be turned into seafoam (which is doubly bad, because it means that she will lose her immortal soul, and never ascend to heaven).  Not since Shylock traded on a pound of flesh has anyone agreed to a worse deal, but there we are.  Still, TLM finally meets the prince, he is attracted to her sans tongue and all (it seems that Disney’s Ursula called that one, “You’ve got your looks, your pretty face…Men up there don’t like a lot of blabber.”), and everything seems to be going well…that is, until he falls head over heels for the princess from the next kingdom over.  A Royal Wedding is announced at once.  Now forgotten by her only love, TLM is contemplating suicide when her sisters appear, having traded their hair to the sea witch for a solution (what the sea witch is using all this stuff for is never specified, but that’s probably for the best): TLM has only to murder the prince and let his blood splash across her feet and she will be a mermaid again.  No muss, no fuss.  Of course she ultimately can’t do it, because she loves him too much, so TLM flings herself into the ocean as the sun rising, and dissolves into seafoam.  That’s not the end of the story though!  No, she ascends into the clouds where she is transformed into an air spirit and is told by her pneumatic comrades that because she strove so hard for an immortal soul that after three hundred years of doing good deeds for humanity as a spirit she will be allowed to enter heaven.  So…yaaaaaaay.

Feminist Rating?

You know, I don’t get why Disney bothered to so severely alter this story.  What with the mutilation, the masochism, the unrequited love, and the multi-century indentured servitude imposed on a girl who just wanted to be loved, I don’t know how they didn’t see that this story just screams Family Friendly Feel Good Movie of the Year!  

Hans Christen Andersen may have had some hang ups…

Yeah, the Disney version is a huge improvement, and, more importantly, represents the studio’s first real overtures to feminism.  It’s true, Ariel makes some poor decisions is pursuit of a boy, but she was the first Disney princess to be truly proactive in her own story.  She initiates action, she goes after what she wants, and she exhibits an independent streak that would make the Original Trinity clutch their collective pearls.  So yeah, it’s all for some guy, but in 1989 Ariel still represented a monumental step forward.  

(By the way, for those of you playing the home game, the original story was written in 1837, which means that TLM is only a little more than halfway through her 300 year sentence.  Good stuff.)

Anna and Elsa: Frozen

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The Movie You Know

You know how it is.  Your ice magic gets out of control, you freeze your entire kingdom in an eternal winter, and then you have to flee to the mountains in shame.  Elsa, newly crowned queen of the Nordic land of Arendelle, is in just such a fix.  Possessed of powerful wintery magic from birth but unable to control it she has lived in fear of it ever being discovered, hiding away from the entire world including her beloved little sister Anna.  Anna herself has led a lonely life in a closed up castle with only the servants for company, and is eager to get out into the world and fall in love.  However, her own plans are derailed when she must trek into the mountains surrounding her home fjord to retrieve her sister.  In the end the two girls save each other.  Sacrificing her own life, Anna thwarts the villainous Prince Hans (her would-be-fiance) in his attempt to murder Elsa and seize Arendelle as his own, and through love for her sister Elsa is able to bring Anna back from the brink of death.  In the end she finds that self-acceptance is the key to mastering her powers.  The kingdom is saved, Summer is restored, and the royal sisters finally find the happiness that they have both so longed for.

Oh, there’s also a supporting cast comprising a ice man raised by trolls, his reindeer sidekick, and a magical snowman, all of whom play a significant role in the above.  They are charming.    

In the Original

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Hans Christen Andersen’s 1844 fairytale (yes, that guy again) The Snow Queen centers on two children, Kai and Gerda who live next door to each other and keep a window box garden in the space between their two roofs.  When Kai is enchanted and abducted by the Snow Queen, Gerda undertakes a daring quest to save her friend.  Traveling great distances alone, overcoming many obstacles through a mixture of gumption and oddly placed religious messaging, she finds the Snow Queen’s frozen palace (where the Snow Queen is…not in residence, apparently), rescues Kai through the power of her love, and, with the help of some obliging reindeer, brings him home safely.  When they arrive they discover that not only has Summer has returned, but that they are now grown up (kind of a strange thing to miss).  Kai’s grandmother reads the Bible, and everyone lives…happily ever after?  We’re not told otherwise, so I’m going to assume so before Andersen can throw in any depressing twists.  

Feminist Rating?

Lateral.  

Frozen bears almost no resemblance to the story that inspired it but there is a strong feminist tone present in each.  The Snow Queen is unique among fairytales in that it sends a little girl off alone on a heroic quest to save a boy.  The boy himself plays an almost entirely passive role.  There is no romance in the equation (at least, not initially, it’s kind of hinted at having developed at the end), just a little girl’s courage, conviction, and platonic love for her best friend.   I can’t think of another fairytale story that allows a female, particularly a young one, to occupy such a strong role.  

Frozen does integrate a love story into its narrative, but the central relationship, the one by which the entire story turns, is the one between the two sisters, and from start to finish it is made clear that no bond can be more important than that one.  The movie even has a good time turning old Disney tropes on their heads by openly calling out the nuttiness of being willing to marry a complete (if handsome) stranger.  I mean, you don’t know if you’re even compatible, or what kind of guy he really is!  He might have terrible taste in music, he also might try to murder your sister and mount a palace coup.  Dating is an important step in the process, girls.  

Anna and Elsa also prove to be worthy successors to enterprising Gerda.  Anna is adventurous, spunky, and big-hearted, while Elsa is all quiet strength,wisdom, and, ultimately, powerhouse confidence.  People over the age of six might be a little fed up with the Frozen mania that swept in with the movie; I think it’s a story that’s going to age well, and I am glad to have both this adaptation and its dual heroines in the official Disney canon.  

Cinderella

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The Movie You Know

Rich girl is reduced to house maid when her father abruptly dies leaving her at the mercy of a classically “Wicked” stepmother.  Several years later the local royal family announces a mating ritual in the form of a grand ball and, with the help of a Fairy Godmother, a clutch of rodents, and a shapely gourd Cinderella attends in disguise, instantly capturing the heart of the handsome, if dimwitted, prince.  Alas, the stroke of midnight marks the end of the enchantment.  Facing the imminent demise of her clothing Cinderella bolts with such haste that she loses one of her distinctive glass slippers.  Though the Prince had not thought to make introductions at any point during the night, he is at least able to surmise that if they can find a foot to fit such a bizarre, eccentrically impractical shoe then the girl attached to it just might be his mystery love.  A door to door campaign proves the theory correct; Cinderella is rescued from a life of drudgery (by the Grand Duke, not the Prince, because connecting the dots about the shoe exhausted just about any mental capacity he had, and a complex search operation was beyond him), and wedding bells sound across the kingdom.  

In the Original

Actually it’s not super different, give or take a couple tiny details in alternate tellings of the tale.  It’s nigh impossible to alter this story significantly; just about every culture in the world has some version of it and they’re all eerily similar.  Sometimes there are a series of balls instead of just one, sometimes the makeup of Cinderella’s animal squad is a bit different, sometimes the stepsisters…hack off their toes and heels to squeeze their feet into the unrealistically dainty glass slipper…

Oh yeah.  

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Rendered in black and white to minimize the impact of gory puddles everywhere

Really, people shouldn’t have been startled by the French bloodlust displayed during the Reign of Terror, their fairytales provided ample proof that they had lizard brains every bit as gruesome as their German neighbors (Blue Beard, anyone?).  Yes, you see in the original Charles Perrault telling of the story Cinderella’s stepsisters, raised their entire lives with the single minded obsessive goal of making a royal match, are so desperate to get into that glass slipper and win the prince that they are willing to brutally mutilate themselves in hopes of achieving the feat (HA!  Feat!  ‘Cause it sounds like…Never mind).  I lay the blame solely on their mother, who has clearly driven her daughters to psychosis after a lifetime of pounding her unrealistic expectations into them.  This is why it’s important to raise little girls with personal goals other than finding a guy.  

Feminist Rating?

It should be lateral if we’re dealing solely with the heroine- I mean it’s still the story of a girl who slaves away for her stepmother, her sweet nature undiminished by years of abuse, until a Fairy Godmother and a handsome prince rescue her from an endless cycle of laundry, cooking, and housework (the life of most women in any era, actually, so at least we know where the fantasy comes from).  However, I’m going to score Disney in the improved column based on the treatment of the much maligned stepsisters- they may SEEM awful, but what chance would you have of being an empathetic, functional human being if you’d been raised by their mother?  I mean, self-mutilation stemming from a severe mental illness linked with a desperate fear of inadequacy is a REALLY dark fate.  I appreciate Disney’s judgement of this particular story element as just plain unnecessary.

Meg: Hercules

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The Movie You Know

Meg, the obligatory love interest to the titular hero, had previously sold her soul to Hades, Lord of the Dead to save the life of a boyfriend, who then turned out to be a cheating μαλάκας (I confess I relied on Google Translate for that epithet, it may be wildly inaccurate, and/or grammatically incorrect).  When our wholesome demigod arrives on the scene, thwarting her master’s plans for cosmic domination at every step, it is Meg who is sent to distract him and emotionally sabotage his heroics (you have to admire the sophistication of Hades’ tactics here).  Of course it doesn’t work.  Herc’s unimpeachable goodness melts Meg’s cold, jaded heart, they fall in love, and it is Meg who provides the motivational oomph as well as the incentive for him to actually save the world (proving to quite heroic in her own right, by the way).   When rewarded with immortality, Hercules turns it down on the spot to return to Earth and live out his days with Meg.  The muses sing a celebratory song, and everybody goes home happy.  

In the Original

Hercules murders her.

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“Oops.”

 

Yup, straight up slaughters Meg and their two children in a frenzy of madness inflicted on him by Hera.

Oh yeah, she’s not his loving mom here.  Zeus wasn’t what one would call a stickler for fidelity.  In mythology he spent a lot of time running around on his wife, siring hundreds of children with his mortal paramours.  This, rather understandably, put Hera’s back up, and a number of Zeus’ illicit offspring became a target for her jealousy over the years.  Her relationship with Hercules is a particularly extreme case.  She spent years messing with him to one extent or another, until she finally cranked it up to eleven and drove him to massacre his family.

Feminist Rating?

Better in every possible way.  In Meg Disney gave us one of their greatest heroines ever; she is gutsy, sassy, sexy, and absolutely overflowing with moxie.  This as opposed to a myth (from a not particularly lady-friendly ancient culture) where she has no development or role other than “Wife of Hercules,” and exists purely to die tragically.  No, there is no question that Meg is one of the biggest improvement over her original counterpart in the Disney canon.  Plus, I mean, most of Hercules’ myth doesn’t exactly come across as Family Friendly, and opening a film with the devastating destruction of a family is just not part of the Disney vision.

That’s Pixar’s job.

Mulan

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The Movie You Know

With the Huns threatening China’s borders the Emperor needs every man that can be spared to defend the country.  He sends a proclamation across that land that every family must supply one to serve in the Imperial army.  Unfortunately for the Fa family, the only man they have to send is their patriarch, an aging war hero who already bears persistent wounds from his previous service.  His daughter, Mulan, does the only thing she can think of: Dressed in her father’s armor she assumes a male identity, and rides off to join the army in his place.  After a bumpy start Mulan begins to excel in training, showing a talent for both leadership and combat; by the time the Huns are upon her ragtag unit she is ready to do some serious damage.  Though the discovery of her true gender is a momentary setback, Mulan, undaunted, takes on the imperial city and the villainous Shan Yu with a daring, improvised plan, ultimately saving both her Emperor and her country.  After politely refusing the Emperor’s offers of power and riches, Mulan returns to her home secure in the only thing she ever really wanted: To bring honor to herself and to her family.  It also helps that she secured the heart of her hottie hot hot commanding officer, Captain Li Shang.  Cue the super nineties 98° /Stevie Wonder collaboration, and roll the credits.  

In the Original

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Believe it or not, she’s actually MORE badass.

The contours of the story are all the same.  China is in danger, every family has to send a man to serve in the army, Mulan’s father is too old and infirm to go, and her brother is a small child (Yeah, she has a little brother in the folktale, I guess to assure ancient Chinese people that Mulan’s mother wasn’t a total failure as a woman).  Mulan takes up her father’s armor and, with the full knowledge and support of her family (who let her study martial arts, swordplay, and archery growing up), rides off into battle in his stead.  Where she serves for twelve years, acquitting herself as a hero again and again.  Also, she never bothers to hide her real identity.  She fights openly, and kind of nonchalantly, as a woman, though her comrades in arms are painted as rather dim, since they don’t notice that little detail until after Mulan has retired and started wearing (female) civilian clothes.  When they realize that their fierce friend is, in fact, a woman, the conversation goes something like this, “Wait, you’re a chick?”  “Yeah.  Duh.  Now hand me my spear.”  “Oh.  Cool.”  It’s actually kind of incredibly progressive for a folktale originating in an ancient, famously patriarchal society.  Now, there is a version that dates from the seventeenth century that backpedals some of that (there’s more tragedy, suicide, and sexual harassment), but we’re going to ignore that one for purposes of smashing the patriarchy and whatnot.  

Feminist Rating?

Points to Disney for their great movie, but, improbably,  the ancient Chinese actually smoked you here.

It’s hella impressive that there’s an ancient story that is MORE feminist and kickass than the very feminist, kickass Disney movie that was adapted from it.  

Rapunzel: Tangled

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The Movie You Know

When a girl is possessed with a mane of hair that has magical healing powers, she just can’t be too careful.  Alas, raised in total seclusion at the top of a tower by an overprotective “mother,” Rapunzel only wants one day of freedom to find the source of the floating lights that appear in the sky every year on her birthday.  Flynn Ryder only wants to steal a fortune and retire to a private island.  When he breaks into Rapunzel’s tower she and her handy frying pan press gang the smoldering thief into service as tour guide, and with her reluctant new friend in tow she finally sets off on the adventure she has always dreamed of.  There are emotionally complex ruffians, chase sequences, lively street festivals, and, of course, eventually there is the bloom of young love, but it can’t all be sunshine and daisies.  Rapunzel’s “mother,” actually a centuries old witch who kidnapped the infant (Spoiler: Princess) Rapunzel for her magic hair, pulls out every nefarious trick in the book to regain control of her human fountain of youth, even attempting to murder Flynn Ryder.  It all works out okay though, the witch is foiled, falls out of the tower and explodes into dust, Flynn is saved by Rapunzel’s Fawkes the Phoenix healing abilities (Further Spoiler: Even though her hair loses its power after its been cut, there’s a handy deus ex flora revealing that her tears will still do the trick), and the heroine is reunited with her birth parents to the jubilation of all.  Happily Ever After.  

In the Original

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If Rapunzel had any strong desire to get out of that tower it doesn’t really come up.  She kind of just passively accepts that she lives hidden away from the rest of the world, with her only human contact coming from the witch that she hoists up once a day using her obscenely long hair.

This isn’t because of any magic powers, or special defining features of Rapunzel’s, by the way.  It’s solely and entirely because the witch caught Rapunzel’s dad stealing cabbages from her garden (for his pregnant wife) and decided to take his child as payback.  I understand that people get very protective of their gardens and all, but…I mean…wow.  How does one make the jump from “Get off my lawn,” to child abduction?  It’s a big jump, is all I’m saying.

So there’s Rapunzel, hanging out in a tower, singing to herself, not bothering to develop any personality or interests, when a passing prince is entranced by her voice, and convinces her to pull him up.  Being the first man she’s ever met, it doesn’t take long for the hormones to take over, and soon Rapunzel is in love (and in bed) with this rando.  They’re planning to elope when the witch discovers them.  Not pleased is an understatement.  She defenestrates the prince, shears off Rapunzel’s hair, and casts the girl that she has raised for 16-18 years into the wilderness.  Because, as established earlier, the witch has exactly two modes of operation: Regular and ballistic.  It’s not so bad though, the prince didn’t die.  He broke his fall with a thorn bush.  And his face. So he’s just blind.  He wanders around as a sightless beggar until he stumbles upon Rapunzel and the TWO CHILDREN HE KNOCKED HER UP WITH living out in the wastelands, and the couple are joyfully reunited.  Luckily, Fairytale Rapunzel ALSO has Fawkes-like powers; her happy tears restore his sight allowing the prince to take his poorly-socialized young love and their twins back to his kingdom to live out their days in uncloistered happiness.

Feminist Rating?

Disney wins by virtue of taking a story full of simple-minded idiots (or lunatics in the case of the witch), and making them into fully fleshed people with personalities and motivations.  That’s always going to make for a better story, but it took Disney a little bit to really figure that out when it came to their classic fairytale love stories (Beauty and the Beast, notably, is not a part of the same canon).  Glad they finally made it, though.  Their Rapunzel is a sweet, caring, brave girl who definitely has eyes bigger than her narrow world.  She is utterly charming, and serves as a nice bridge character between the traditional princess model and the wonder women of some other movies, providing another shade in the ever broadening spectrum of female types represented by the Disney animated features.  

Belle: Beauty and the Beast

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The Movie You Know

Belle is a beautiful, brainy girl with big dreams who is trapped in a provincial town when her father’s sudden disappearance leads her to a mysterious enchanted castle. The master of the house is a towering man-beast with a volcanic temper, who is keeping dear dad in a tower prison as a punishment for home invasion.  At the young woman’s insistence he agrees to take Belle as a hostage in exchange for her father’s freedom, which hardly seems like the basis for any kind of positive future association.  However, after saving each other’s respective lives, relations between Belle and the Beast begin to warm, each lonely individual finding in the other an acceptance that they have never known from anyone else.  Despair fades, hope flourishes, the Beast’s temper and selfishness melt away to reveal his better nature, and against the odds the pair gradually fall in love.  Though the Beast is nearly murdered by a Belle’s no-doesn’t-really-mean-no suitor, Gaston (and the village mob he has riled for good measure) her last second confession of her feelings saves his life, and breaks his curse.  A shimmering rain pours down on the castle revealing the Beast to be the handsome Prince Adam, the castle and its occupants are freed from their enchantment, and the pacified villagers (feeling very silly, I’m sure) flood into the ballroom for a grand wedding.

In the Original

The basic plot is similar while the specifics differ; some parts of Beauty’s narrative arc are oblique, most are not.  Her courage at least is very much in evidence.  In the original version her father, a formerly-wealthy merchant fallen on hard times, runs afoul of the Beast trying to cut a rose in the garden of his enchanted castle as a gift for Beauty.  The Beast goes berzerk for reasons that the fairytale never makes clear, and tells the merchant that he will keep him as prisoner unless he agrees to bring one of his daughters back to the castle in his place (the merchant has a few in the original version).  To the merchant’s credit, he doesn’t initially plan to actually follow through on his agreement with the Beast, but Beauty, worried about what might happen to her father, insists on returning to the castle to fulfill the bargain.

However, that brave integrity is the only one of Belle’s admirable film qualities that’s in evidence in the original story.  She’s definitely not the feisty bookworm that she was in the Disney movie, and her life at the castle is fairly passive.  She lives in enormous luxury (which the fairytale makes clear that she is unimpressed with), and sees the Beast once each day at dinner, when he proposes to her.  Every.  Day.  Starting from day one.  Now, the Beast comes off better in this one than the Disney film, because, the original conniption over the rose aside, he is never anything less than a perfect gentleman, but Beauty still doesn’t particularly want to marry him.  Each time he proposes she refuses, only to dream that night about a handsome prince.  Her days are spent searching the castle for him because she is convinced that the Beast is hiding him somewhere.  Still, we the reader are told that she is happy with her life in the Beast’s household, despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much to it.  Eventually, though, Beauty gets homesick and begs the Beast to let her go visit her family, which he allows in exchange for her promise that it will only be for a week.  He gives her a magic mirror and sends her on her way.  At home Beauty’s sisters are jealous of her exquisite clothes and the luxurious life she leads, and pretend to be devastated by her upcoming departure so that she will break her promise to the Beast and he will retaliate by eating her alive (And you thought your siblings were petty).  Alas, Beauty does overstay the agreed upon week, but, riddled with guilt, she uses the mirror to check in on the Beast and finds him lying in the garden dying of a broken heart.  She immediately returns to him, tearfully tells him that she loves him, and *poof* it turns out that he was the handsome prince in her dreams all along.  Her sisters are turned into statues, and birds eat their eyes.  

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“We’re being just a touch dramatic here, don’t you think?”

Feminist Rating?

I’m actually torn between whether or not the Disney adaptation is a lateral or positive move.  The LePrince de Beaumont version certainly leans pretty feminist for the time that it was written; as in the movie it inspired it allows its heroine to be the savior of several characters.  Both versions also give ample time for the titular couple to become acquainted and to fall in love organically, which is almost unheard of in classical fairytales.  (Though yes, we must acknowledge that both versions feature a dubious beginning to the romance with Beauty/Belle choosing to join the Beast’s household under coercion.*)

However, as mentioned above it is impossible not to prefer Belle’s personality to Beauty’s.  While Beauty is brave, and honest, and gracious, Belle is all that with a feisty independence, and voracious intelligence on top.  She spends her days in the Beast’s castle cultivating friendships with everyone from the master of the house to the sentient footstool, and tearing gleefully through the INCREDIBLE library (that scene is nothing short of bookworm porn; I get the tingles just thinking about it).  While LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty does spend some time teaching the Beast to read, it comes with a bizarre commentary about book learning not mattering as much as, like, purity of heart or something (shouldn’t we teach children that ideally one should be both educated AND good?), and her main pastime at the castle is hunting for her dream prince who may or may not actually exist.  Of the two Belle is definitely who I’d want to spend time with.  

I kind of want to class this movie as latero-positive.  The Disney heroine is ultimately better, stronger, and more feminist in the modern sense, but the story structures supporting her, while different, are comparable.  So…latero-positive?  Can I do that?  Can I just make that up?

Of course I can, this is my post, and I’m Queen here.  

* Okay, it has become popular to glibly refer to the relationship that develops between Belle/Beauty and Beast as Stockholm Syndrome, but I think that that ignores the context of the original, and the complexity of the adaptation.  

As to the former: Remember, most fairytales were supposed to teach lessons to children (Don’t accept food from strangers is a big one in the genre), Beauty and the Beast, written in the eighteenth century, was very much targeted at girls who would likely face an arranged marriage in an attempt to help lessen their potential anxiety.  It tells them to go into this situation that they have little or no control over with an open mind and a sense of  their filial duty; given time love and happiness can follow.  It’s quite depressing to the modern mind, where we tend to see the ideal marriage as a romantic love match between soul mates (a trope that can be damaging in its own right, by the way) but in a world where most upper class girls had their spouses chosen for them, and eventually left their families to move in with a man who who was essentially a stranger, it’s not the worst message to give them.  

Regarding the latter: The Stockholm Syndrome identifier disregards the fact the Belle and the Beast are developed in that movie as opposite sides of the same coin.  They have both lived life as lonely, misunderstood outcasts, desperate to be a  part of a wider world in some sense.  Their love develops from the realization that at heart they are far more similar than they are different; two odd puzzle pieces finding an improbable match.  And yes, the Beast’s temper in their initial encounters is a bit of a sticky point, but if we’re being fair we have to take into account that this is a guy beset by a terrible fate (which he may not have actually deserved given some eyebrow-raising revelations in the later prequel), who has been living in heavy isolation with only the furniture for company for a very long time.  Ten years for his despair, his anger, his guilt to gnaw away at him relentlessly.  By the time Maurice and Belle show up the window for salvation is closing rapidly, and he has reverted almost entirely to a bestial internal state that mirrors his appearance.  It really is remarkable that he has ANY socialization left, or that it takes so little (comparatively) to bring him back from the brink.  Notice that after the near-disastrous consequences of his untamed rage in the West Wing he is able to pull a total 180, and become a much more measured, moderated individual practically overnight.  To look at the Beast’s actions in isolation, yes his behavior is inexcusable, but when put in the context of the backstory and experiences that put him where he was at the top of the movie a much more nuanced picture of depression emerges.  When put in concert with his nearly instantaneous commitment to changing for the better I think it becomes grossly unfair to examine the story and character in such black and white terms.  

Full Disclosure: Beauty and the Beast is, to this day, my absolute favorite Disney Princess movie, and in my all time top five Disney films.  I allow for the possibility that I may have a blind spot where it is concerned, but I have also spent A LOT of time thinking about the complexities of the story.  I try to be fair in my assessments.  

Also: I gave Disney kudos for treating Cinderella’s stepsisters better in their movie than Perrault did in his fairytale, but I’m not doing the same for saving Beauty’s sisters by virtue of omission.  Nope, Beauty’s sisters had no reason whatsoever to be the jealous bitches that they were.  They tried to get their sister murdered for having better clothes than them; let those birds eat their eyes.   

Esmeralda: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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The Movie You Know

The gypsy Esmeralda is one impressive lady.  She can dance, she can sing, she can handle herself in a fight, and when the misshapen bell ringer Quasimodo is attacked and tortured by a drunken mob she leaps to his defense without a second thought.  As a gypsy she is familiar with injustice, and she will fight it wherever she finds it.  Unfortunately this particularly stand sends some trouble her way.  Namely, trouble takes the form of Judge Claude Frollo, a gypsy-hating racist in a position of enormous power who develops a psycho-sexual obsession with Esmeralda thereafter, and tries to burn Paris to the ground to get to her (the implication being that he either wants to rape her or execute her, possibly both…Disney went dark on this one).  However, with a little help from her friend Quasi and from her strapping love interest, the heroic Captain of the Guards, Phoebus, Esmeralda helps ensure that Frollo gets his just desserts (plummeting from the top of the cathedral into a river of flaming oil, which is absolutely the way to handle sexual predators of his ilk).  The three heroes burst triumphantly from the cathedral of Notre Dame to where the city population is waiting, ready to embrace a new era of acceptance and tolerance in Medieval Paris.  

In the Original

It takes a lot of mental effort to deal with this character in her original form.  Okay.  Deep breath.  Here we go.  

To begin with, much is made of the fact that Esmeralda may LIVE with the gypsies, but she is not HERSELF a gypsy.  No, she’s a beautiful white girl originally named Agnes, who, as an infant, was tragically stolen from her mother (a fallen woman seduced to sin by a philandering nobleman) BY the gypsies.  So.  No worries about sympathizing with some dirty brown-skinned heathen or anything, book readers, the heroine of this piece is a lily-like victim of circumstance through and through; sympathize away.

It’s not that she hasn’t got some proactive traits, mostly motivated by a compassionate nature.  Though she is deeply disgusted by him, Esmeralda does approach the pilloried Quasimodo to offer him a drink of water and ease his suffering.  When a lost poet mistakenly wanders into the Court of Miracles Esmeralda agrees to marry him on the spot to save him from execution.  So, yeah, nice girl.  And I do mean girl; she is fifteen years old in the novel.

However, I would argue that her true purpose in the book is purely to show just how twisted everyone around her really is.  Did I mention that when Quasimodo was in the pillory it was as a punishment for attempted kidnapping?  Of Esmeralda?  Yup.  Frollo sent the bell ringer to snatch her off the street for him.  It wasn’t TOTALLY traumatic though.  Esmeralda DID get to meet hunky Captain Phoebus during that particular misadventure.  What girl wouldn’t want to meet a babe in shining armor like that?  Phoebus, like his boss, was not blind to the physical appeal of the dancing girl.  He might have been engaged and not looking for anything “serious,” but that’s no reason to pass up such a hot little piece.  Far less gallant than his film counterpart, Phoebus seduces the girl (through a galling dose of emotional manipulation that is textbook Fuck Boi), and he’s just about to get up her skirt  when…Frollo bursts in from where he’s been watching behind the door.  Seriously.  Now he does Esmeralda the favor of stabbing douchebag Phoebus, but then he frames her for attempted assassination, so…

Oh, and as if she weren’t already dealing with a lot, at this point Esmeralda has also been accused of witchcraft by Phoebus’ pissed off fiancée, and has all kinds of trouble looking for her.  Sounds like a girl could use some sanctuary right now.  If only there was a giant church nearby.  

Indeed, like the Disney movie, Esmeralda does seek refuge in Notre Dame, where, moved by the kindness of her former would-be kidnapper, she finally overcomes her revulsion to Quasimodo and forms a friendship with him.  It’s actually kind of a nice, quiet life the two have got going for a little bit…until Frollo tries to rape her.  Yeah, he didn’t take the church’s stance on sanctuary as a deterrent so much as a challenge.  Quasi is there to save the day, but things really do go downhill after this (because they were going so well before).  Esmeralda’s sweetly naïve husband, Gringoire is manipulated (by Frollo) into storming the Cathedral with a crew of gypsies in a bid to liberate his embattled wife, and Quasimodo, believing that they are coming to hurt his only friend, turns all his attention to fighting them off.  In the confusion Gringoire is able to spirit Esmeralda to a waiting boat, where she passes out, only to wake and find that her husband has vanished and that she is alone with the boatman, who is actually…Frollo in disguise, because DUDE, ENOUGH ALREADY!  Under these circumstances it is 100% understandable that, when offered the choice by Frollo to stay with him or to be handed to the mob and executed, Esmeralda asks to be hanged.  Frankly, that’s the first truly rational decision that a main character has made in this book.

Hey it’s not a TOTALLY depressing ending though.  Once Quasimodo learns what Frollo has done he throws him from the top of Notre Dame, which is nice.  Of course then the heartbroken bell ringer tracks down Esmeralda’s corpse whereupon he lies in the street clutching it until he dies of starvation.  Centuries later their intertwined skeletons are discovered, and Quasi’s bones crumble to dust when they are separated.  

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Victor Hugo is another one who may have had some issues.

Feminist Rating?

Oh God, is this even a question?  Better.  Better, better, better, better.  A thousand times better.  

Don’t get me wrong, book Esmeralda is particularly relevant to our modern world.  She’s a poignant avatar for the very extremes of the #MeToo movement: a young girl, just living her life until she is destroyed by the men who were filled with an obsessed desire to possess and control her.  A victim of violence, intimidation, and injustice at every turn.  Even in death she is not accorded the dignity of her own personhood; she is quite literally in the possession of one of those men until he turns to dust, which he feels justified in doing simply because he desired her so much in her life.  No thought is ever given to Esmeralda’s feeling in return, either by the characters themselves or by the author who created all of them.  It’s just REALLY depressing the more you think about it, but, as I said, deeply relevant.

The feisty, fiery, independent woman who is able to fight for and define her own fate is a far more inspiring character.  So, good job there, Disney.

In Summation:

Yes, it’s undeniably true that some of Disney’s heroines and the stories they occupy raise a feminist eyebrow, as well as plenty of debate and new exploration (which I think is fantastic; society can and should constantly reexamine itself through the lens of both past and present culture).  However, I feel confident is saying that the overall trend of their work is very positive.  Each film has represented a step forward for female representation in the genre, and nearly all have taken an existing heroine and improved her depiction in degrees small (Snow White) and great (Esmeralda).  These days the studio gives us its boldest ladies yet, characters like the newest princess, Moana, a strong, driven young women whose story features hefty heroics and exactly zero romantic subplot, and there is no reason to believe that equally inspiring young heroines won’t follow her.  Because the undeniable truth that is evident at the heart of the Disney creative vision is an impulse for progress, for reinvention, for uncharted territory.  Also for world domination.  Strong women help their cause on both accounts.  

Five Groan-Inducing “Romantic” Movie Staples, and What You Should Watch Instead

For some reason the air waves this last week have become choked with no end of romance movies.  Romantic comedies, romantic dramas, romantic dramas that come off more like comedies…I’m less concerned as to why they are proliferating my viewing experience and more concerned with the ones that seem to be the top go-to films when our culture goes looking for some fictional lovin’.  Now some of them I am more than willing to get on board with, but there are others, ones that, especially in my generation, are often pushed to the forefront of cinematic romance that I can’t help but roll my eyes over.  What are they, you might ask?  And what would I recommend instead?  Why, I’m so glad you asked!

  1.  What you’re watching:

 

The Notebook

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An elderly man tells his Alzheimer’s-inflicted wife the story of Noah and Allie, two crazy kids from opposite sides of the tracks who fall in love over Summer vacation in early 1940’s South Carolina.  Of course her parents don’t think he’s good enough and separate them.  A world war passes, and a lot of water goes under the bridge; when they are finally thrust together again, Noah and Allie will find out once and for all if their long-burning passion is meant for more than a rosy memory.  

No thought is spared for the happily ever after of James Marsden, mind you.  James Marsden stands forlorn and forgotten in a corner.  That poor, beautiful man.

What you should watch instead:

Ever After

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An elderly noblewoman tells the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle de Barbarac, the daughter of a wealthy French merchant who tragically dies just after bringing home his noble-born second wife and her two daughters.  The Edict of Fontainebleu is passed, and a lot of water goes under the bridge, and years later we find Danielle reduced to servitude in her own home as her stepmother squanders the riches of the manor.  When a chance encounter puts her in the path of Henry, the heir to the throne, the unexpected attraction that sparks between them will have to withstand an obscured identity, the political maneuvers of the kingdom, and the machinations of Danielle’s wickedly ambitious stepmother if they’re going to find a happily ever after.  

Similarities?

Both films are historical fiction (pre and post World War II in the coastal American South, and Renaissance France respectively), and both are framed as a story within a story.  Both feature pairs of lovers who are nearly torn apart by misunderstanding and family interference.  

Where they Differ

Well.  Danielle and Henry’s relationship begins when she tries to bail an old family servant out of jail and ends up arguing Utopian ideals with the prince, who happened to be passing by.  Noah and Allie’s starts when he threatens to kill himself if she won’t go out with him.  When Danielle vanishes, Henry goes to a lot of effort asking around about her.  When Allie vanishes Noah writes a whole bunch of unreturned letters, because no one had a phone in 1940s South Carolina.  And there were no buses.  Or trains.  Danielle and Henry develop their romance by going on a trip to a magnificent library, debating intellectual convictions, and gently teasing each other.  Allie and Noah get into smack down, drag out screaming matches, because they’re so “passionate.”

I think The Notebook hits a lot of people’s sentimental spot because of the framing device with the elderly couple, and it certainly gets a boost from the superlative cast, but ultimately Nicholas Sparks’ saccharine-drenched piggy bank is a cliche-heavy portrait of two ill-suited personalities who spend years separated for reasons that really boil down to laziness (also a world war.  I’ll give them some leeway for the world war).   

Basically, Ever After is the story of two people who fall in love with each other’s minds, ideals, and principles, while The Notebook is the story of two people who are super attracted to each other despite not being compatible in any other significant way.  Ever After jumps off from the most famous of fairytales and gives us a lush, romantic reimagining with two main characters who find their true match in each other.   The Notebook…lets us ogle Ryan Gosling for a couple hours.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Twilight

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shy and klutzy Bella Swan moves to the tiny town of Forks, Washington where her novelty renders her the hottest thing on two feet.  Despite her sudden popularity she is instantly, magnetically drawn to the one boy who seems to be trying with all of his might to avoid her, the mysterious and beautiful (though often chagrined) Edward Cullen.  Through some obsessive sleuthing Bella soon deduces that Edward is, in fact, a vampire; when confronted he admits that her blood is more powerfully tempting to him than any he has ever encountered.  Undeterred by predatory appetites, the concerns of Edward’s vampire family, or the threat of a rival vampire with a similar nose for Bella’s blood, the two fall into the throes of virginal teenage love and a franchise is born.    

What you should watch instead:

Stardust

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shopboy Tristan wants nothing more than to win the heart of Victoria, the village beauty.  When a falling star lands on the other side of the town’s mysterious, never-to-be-crossed Wall, he embarks on an adventure in a hidden fantasy world, determined to bring the star back as a gift for the young lady.  However, remarkably, the star is less star-like and more cute-girl-like than our hero had imagined, and, with the addition of several other interested parties seeking the star, Yvaine, getting her back across the Wall proves to be far more challenging than initially anticipated.  Undeterred by cannibalistic witches, bloodthirsty princes, or snooty English gentry (and with a boost from some awesome sky pirates), Tristan and Yvaine fall into the throes of (not so virginal) post-teenage love and a great adventure is had.  

Similarities?

Both are supernatural/fantasy love stories wherein only one party is human.  Both feature quirky small towns, and at least one villain whose greatest desire is to eat one of the main characters.  

Where they Differ

Bella is a self-absorbed sad sack with no personality and no interests- except for classic literature, and her vampire crush.  Edward is a controlling stalker (he hides in her bedroom to watch her sleep.  Hides.  In her bedroom.  To watch her sleep) who, though rightfully disturbed by his primal urge to drain his new girlfriend of her blood, is not at all concerned by the fact that he is about 86 years older than the delectable morsel.  Half the movie is spent on the irritating will-they-won’t-they-I-want-you-but-I-can’t dance, one quarter goes to some truly humorous attempts at romance (hard to tell what’s more comic, the actions themselves, or the god-awful special effects around them), and one quarter goes to the outsider vampire threat.  Throw in two leads who seems to be actively trying to sabotage the movie with their eminently mockable acting choices and what we have is one hilarious spoof.  Too bad this was earnestly meant as an epic romance.  

By contrast Stardust is a delightful fairytale very much in the vein of The Princess Bride.  It is clever, deliberately funny, and quite sweet in its depiction of the growing regard between the two leads.  Both Tristan and Yvaine begin as intelligent, strong-willed individuals, and both make substantial personal strides as they journey across the land of Stormhold together.  When they finally face the villains it is as a team, fortified by their own individual strengths and bonded by the love that has organically developed between them.  Vibrant with adventure, excellent characters, a taste of danger, and the sparkle of fantasy magic, Stardust is a marvelous (sadly underrated) story that delivers a good deal of genuine warm-fuzzies, even as it always keeps a bit of tongue in cheek.  

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This is a thing that happens in this movie.  If Stardust were a bad movie, this element alone would save it.

  1.  What you’re watching:

Annie Hall

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A neurotic New York nebbish falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his couldn’t last.  

What you should watch instead:

(500) Days of Summer

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An idealistic Los Angeles greeting card writer falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his dream girl didn’t feel it for him.  

Similarities?

The brief synopsis above should give you insight into how similar in theme and concept both movies really are.  Both story lines jump between present and past.  Both feature meditations on the nature of love, what it is, why it happens.  Both feature a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl as the love interest (though in the case of (500) Days of Summer this characterization seems to come more from Tom’s inability, or refusal, to truly acknowledge the reality of Summer).  

Where they Differ

I KNOW that Annie Hall is considered a great classic.  I KNOW that it shows up on all these “Best of” lists.  I KNOW that a lot of people really love this movie, and that this entry is probably the most divisive one on this list.  

But come on.  I can’t be the only one that finds Woody Allen completely insufferable, can I?  Except for Midnight in Paris (which I do really love) I have yet to see a Woody Allen movie that didn’t irritate me with Allen’s fetishistic enshrinement of his own neurosis.  

(500) Days of Summer features a main character, Tom, with more than his fair share of issues, especially in his idealistic approach to romance, and to the girl who is the object of his desire.  However where Annie Hall’s Alvy is unable, or unwilling, to confront his shortcomings (preferring, instead, to wallow in them), Tom makes an active effort, after a lot of mourning, moping, and raging, to get his life together and try to make some positive personal changes.  It is really refreshing to see a male lead get his heart smashed into pieces and eventually come to the place where he’s able to say, “Hey, maybe I am partly to blame for what happened.  Maybe I can try to be better…”  And then go out and BECOME better.  You know, grow as a human being.  What a concept.  

Also, (500) Days of Summer’s expectations vs. reality sequence is one of the most strikingly true depictions of unrequited feelings I’ve seen played out on screen.  The whole movie is creatively and evocatively shot, the story is intelligently portrayed, and Joseph Gordon Levitt is infinitely more pleasant to spend two hours with than Woody Allen.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Titanic

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Poor-little-rich-girl Rose Dewitt-Bukater and Bohemian expatriate artist Jack Dawson meet on the stern of the most hubristic advertising scheme in history as she contemplates throwing herself into the ocean.  In their brief time together he teaches her how to live life to the fullest, she teaches him that gorgeous naked women wearing massive diamonds are the best portrait subjects, and then the ship sinks.  Jack dies.  Rose ditches her mother and cartoonishly terrible fiance to embark on a life of artistic self-fulfillment.  None of this should have been a spoiler to you.  

What you should watch instead:

Atonement

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Content little rich girl Briony Tallis harbors a secret crush on her family housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, oblivious to the Cambridge student’s own secret passion for her older sister, Celia.  When Briony witnesses a series of encounters between the pair her jealousy and confusion lead her to falsely accuse Robbie of a terrible crime, resulting in his incarceration and Celia’s estrangement from the family.  Years later, in the midst of World War II, the young lovers struggle to find a way back to each other as Biony, riddled with guilt, is forced to finally confront the full weight of her childish actions.  

Similarities

Both are tragic love stories of passion found only to be ripped away by unfair forces beyond the control of the lovers involved.  Both are well-costumed historical dramas set against the backdrop of vast human tragedies.  Both will deliver you a tear-jerking finale that isn’t so much emotionally satisfying as brutally bittersweet.  

Where they Differ

Mostly in terms of the quality of the writing and the stories.  Titanic was a landmark film, unparalleled at the time of its release in terms of its scale, its visual richness, and its technological achievement.  The story though…well, story has never been James Cameron’s strong point.  Between hackneyed dialogue (that ONLY plays without being COMPLETELY ridiculous because Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are damn fine actors), cliched story beats, and characters reduced to ham-fisted caricatures Titanic is very heavily style over substance.  

Not to mention the fact that no matter where you land on the “Door Debate,” Jack totally could have survived if Rose hadn’t gone leaping out of a perfectly good life boat like a moron.

In contrast, Atonement is an exquisitely written AND exquisitely shot masterpiece of a film that relies, to some extent, on the viewer’s ability to connect some dots on their own.  With a creative approach to the structure of the story, a fascinating central character in Briony Tallis, and a truly devastating final reveal, Atonement is the gut-wrenching romantic tragedy that your soul really needs.  In fact, far beyond just being a story of a tragic romance, it becomes a wider meditation on guilt, on the nature of love, and on the importance that stories hold on a personal as well as public level.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Fifty Shades of Grey

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Narcissistic billionaire stalker Christian Grey meets narcissistic clueless klutz Anastasia Steele, and their mutual fascination quickly evolves into the early stages of a text-book abusive relationship (the nature of which has exactly NOTHING to do with Christian’s BDSM fetish) in a blatant plagiarism of another terrible “romance” series.

What you should watch instead:

10 Things I Hate About You

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High school bad boy Patrick Verona is paid to woo the school shrew, Kat Stratford as part of a wacky scheme to help the sweet-hearted Cameron get a date with Kat’s popular younger sister Bianca in a modern (far less problematic) retelling of Williams Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Similarities?

They both…take place…in Seattle?

Where they Differ

Seriously?  Well one is about a terrible human being who takes his need for control to psychotic levels, and the terrible human being who allows him to strip her of her agency, her independence, and any vestiges of self-esteem that she might have had because he’s hot and rich.  It is a stunningly accurate depiction of a deeply unhealthy abusive relationship with a narcissistic sociopath, while also being (from what I understand) a stunningly INaccurate depiction of responsible BDSM behavior.  Despite the much-touted kink, somehow the sex scenes are not even sort of hot.  This might have something to do with the fact that the two lead actors don’t actually seem to like each other.  At all.  But it’s probably also due to the fact that this is a movie based on a book by an idiot Twilight fan girl who has no concept of good writing, American vernacular, or why so many women are so viscerally repelled by the psycho that she’s been selling as God’s gift to orgasms.  The fact that there is ALSO a large contingent of women who consider Christian Grey to be their ideal man is very, VERY troubling.  

Then there’s 10 Things I Hate About You.  The anti-Fifty Shades of Grey, if you will.  If Kat Stratford ever met Christian Grey, Bobby Ridgeway’s testicle retrieval operation would look like a day at Disneyland.  Smart, tough, and fiercely independent, Kat Stratford would have NO tolerance for Christian Grey’s bullshit.  Kat Stratford needs no one’s approval, let alone their permission, she just needs them to get out of her way while she blazes her path as the brilliant badass that she is.  The man who pursues her heart, Patrick Verona, is able to make inroads precisely because he meets her on her own level and appreciates her exactly as she is, sharp edges and all.  Kat and Patrick, in their matching Doc Martens, and having brought out the best in each other, would kick Ana and Christian’s ridiculous asses all the way to Vancouver.  

10 Things is sharp and funny and feminist (despite the classic ’90’s setup device for all the romantic action).  10 Things is all ABOUT a strong female lead.  10 Things will make you glad that you are alive.

The One Big Reason Why You’re Not Watching The 100, and Five Reasons Why You Should

Avast, matey, minor spoilers ahead!

Let me set the scene for a little television show called The 100.  

On a dilapidated space station 97 years after the nuclear ruin of Earth a scarcity of resources has rendered any and all crimes, no matter how minor, punishable by execution.  Juvenile offenders are locked up pending a case review on their eighteenth birthday.  Clarke Griffin is several months short of that date when she is suddenly marched out of her cell and boarded onto a drop ship with 99 other young offenders (making up the titular 100, in case you didn’t catch that).  They are returning to the Earth.  If it is finally survivable the rest of their station will follow them, if not…well, they probably weren’t going to live long anyway.  

However Earth, as it turns out, IS survivable; a feral, unpopulated Eden of natural splendor just waiting to welcome humanity back from whence it sprung.  Except that it’s not…actually…unpopulated.  And the locals are not exactly pleased with the new arrivals.

Don’t you hate it when thousands of people survive the nuclear holocaust and forget to tell you?  

Suddenly the 100’s original fact-finding mission becomes a battle to survive against a much larger hostile force, the natural disasters of the ground, and a shadowy threat only ominously alluded to as “Mountain Men.”  Meanwhile, back in the sky, the space station’s life support is on life support and the people on board must face their own fraught decisions if they are going to see the back end of three months.  

Now, I don’t know if this little summary has piqued your interest.  It may have, or it may have just sounded like the fairly typical post-apocalyptic fare that is so en vogue these days.  However, for those of you who like this kind of story but have never tuned in to The 100 I’m willing to bet I know the biggest reason you’re abstaining.  Because it’s the biggest reason that I almost didn’t bother with it back when it premiered in 2014 (and I honestly don’t remember what swayed me, but I’m very glad it did).  

The 100 airs on the CW.  

Yes the station has had a good run of nerd cred lately with shows like Arrow and iZombie, but the fact is that its programming slate has been dominated for years by teentastic dramedies so soapy that they should come with a rinse cycle for the credits.  I spent my teen years rolling my eyes at the likes of One Tree Hill and 7th Heaven, briefly got on board with Gossip Girl as a guilty pleasure until that spun off into insane territory about three years in, and was ready to devil-egg the network headquarters after the history-rage-inducing debut of Reign (you may have caught the Gilmore Girls reference there, a show that ran on WB/CW, but I only discovered and came to enjoy it once it hit syndication on ABC Family, so for me personally I’m not giving the CW a total win on that account).  

HOWEVER.

I am here to tell you as someone more than slightly prejudiced against the CW that The 100 is not reflective of its traditional programming.  In fact it’s not typical of anything on network television (not that I’ve seen, anyway).  If you feel even a flicker of interest for the premise of the show, but aren’t watching because of the network that hosts it I have five reasons why you should allay your misgivings and start watching immediately (on Netflix.  Where the first three seasons are available in their entirety.  Don’t just jump in mid-stream on the current fourth season).  And if you’re NOT at all intrigued by the premise, then these are five reasons why you should spare The 100 a chance.  

5.  Impressive, Immersive World-Building

It’s a tricky business throwing an audience into a world that is not their own.  They have to be initiated into the rules, mores, and institutions of the story, but doing so in a way that doesn’t feel ham-handed and expository is a hurdle that has thwarted storytellers across all mediums.  

In the case of The 100 the world of the story WAS ours, and so it bears some familiarity (especially among the denizens of the Ark), but after a massive nuclear disaster, and nearly a century’s struggle to preserve the species the rules of the game have definitely changed.  The 100 communicates this, with the exception of a little voice over at the top of the pilot episode, through a method that is more heavily show rather than tell.  The reactions that characters have to an event or a piece of information says everything necessary without attempting to spoon feed to the audience.  When important details are directly presented they are often integrated seamlessly into plot-specific dialogue rather than thrown out for the sake of explicitivity.  History and backstories come to us in bits and pieces as they relate to the situation at hand.  This refreshingly assumes a level of intelligence in the viewership that is sadly lacking in so much network television; “Here is the world: Listen, watch, keep up.”  

And what a world we are presented with.  Our stage is set with a dying space station known as the Ark, and a post-apocalyptic Earth returned to a state of nature.  How would humanity navigate such a stage?  Thus far we have seen three very specific factions seeking to demonstrate how, all with their own specific cultures that have grown up around their circumstances.  The main characters, of a faction later known as the Skaikru (Grounder speak- literal meaning: Sky People.  No one said Grounders were creative), hail from the the Ark.  They have spent their lives in orbit, functioning on severely limited resources but with advanced technological amenities.  Everything they have looks slightly worn, handed down many times, used and repurposed until it cannot possibly serve any further function.  They have survived through ingenuity and sheer willpower, and so, while ultimately pragmatic, as a group they tend to be more idealistic than their ground-side counterparts (“If we just think about this some more we can discover a solution that works for everyone”).  

Ruthlessness is often the name of the game when it comes to the humans who were left to survive on our decimated planet.  The Grounders, though distinct in the specifics of their twelve clans, share the same general culture, one carved out of humanity’s desperate struggle to survive post-nuclear holocaust.  In that culture we see the ruin of ours (sometimes literally); old remnants of the world as we recognize it integrated into a new pre-industrial tribal society.  Listening carefully the audience will even recognize some of our modern vernacular reshaped into the Grounders’ unique language, while recognizable items of clothing, furniture, and crockery appears throughout their settings as salvaged goods.  Their mores are also familiar, albeit more archaic to the modern eye; they are a violent society, more formal and ritualistic, heavily honor based, and holding firm to a strong sense of balance and retribution.   

Meanwhile, in a sealed underground bunker, a faction of humanity nearly identical to that of modern America continues to exist.  Our pre-nuclear world literally entombed for a century; preserved by methods far more brutal and amoral than any we see enacted by the other two primary groups.  

As much as we are given to digest on screen, one gets the sense that there is infinitely more to see and know.  The 100 has created a future that feels as expansive as present reality; a viewer can easily imagine a richly developed, complex world that extends far beyond the frame of the television screen.  However they don’t need to reach out and wave at their audience.  By the simple act of leaving the door open they invite us in, trusting that it won’t be long before we are lost in their world amongst them.  

4.  Diversity as the Rule

Did you know that when human beings start intermarrying regardless of race or ethnicity, most of us wind up being some shade of brown?  Also interesting?  When your species has been nearly annihilated your chances of saving are vastly improved when you don’t get stupidly picky about the pigmentation of your procreative partner.  

The 100’s showrunners did nothing more radical than embrace the logic of their story construct, and they did it in time when a commitment to diverse casting policies could be seen as progressive in the most matter-of-fact sense.  In a day and age where producers are starting to have to get really creative to defend non-inclusive casting choices, the team over at The 100 simply didn’t bother trying.  Their principal cast features several caucasian actors, yes, but also Bob Morley (half Filipino), Christopher Larkin (Korean American), Henry Ian Cusick (half Peruvian), Ricky Whittle (of West Indies descent), Lindsey Morgan (Mexican American), and Isaiah Washington (African American).  Similarly, the supporting players and ensembles of The Ark, the Mountain, and the Grounders are filled with people of all shades; the factors that divide The 100’s people into their various camps are primarily geographical and never racial.  It’s almost like humanity is actually just a big melting pot and that race is more of a social construct than anything (the luxury of which would be hard to justify when you’re just trying to ensure the survival of the species overall).  

Also encouraging is the total lack of any kind of sexual politics in the story.  Characters who are homosexual or bisexual simply…exist…as a normal part of the human landscape; if anyone ever comments about the romantic and/or sexual relationships of other characters it’s never because of the genders of the people involved.  Since we, out here in the real world, can’t seem to get over our bizarre Puritan inclination to police everybody’s bedrooms it’s frankly refreshing to experience a fictionalized version of humanity’s future where no one spares a second thought for anyone else’s sexual preferences.   I would really like to believe that, even if humans can never get away from our seemingly instinctual tendency to destroy each other, one day we might just realize that we have more important things to focus our concerns on than who does what with whom and which naughty bits.  

3.  Subversion of Tired Character Tropes

You’re watching a show whose primary cast is all super-attractive twenty-somethings  meant to be in their late teens.  Boy meets Girl, Boy and Girl work to lead their peers in a bid for survival, Boy and Girl fall for each other, oops, Boy already has a Girlfriend (okay, one that he thought he’d never see again), Girlfriend suddenly shows up.  We all know what happens now, right?  There will be a love triangle, confused Boy will ping-pong between the two of them, and then will come some passive aggressive contests of will devolving into outright bitchiness as Girl grapples to win Boy away from Girlfriend, who in turn tightens her grip on him in equal measure.  They will hate each other forever after.  Right?

Wrong.  When the above scenario was teed up in early-mid Season One I braced for the cliche impact that never came.  Girl immediately backed off, with some tension and awkwardness she and Girlfriend moved forward as allies in the greater struggle, each with great respect for the other’s abilities, Boy’s emotional confusion was met with a resounding, “We have more important stuff to deal with,” from both ladies.  

Not one but TWO young women, on a network TV show, who understand that relationship drama is a petty distraction when you’re most immediate hurdles are things like acid fog and murderous adversaries?  TWO young women who maturely put their emotions aside to focus on the precarious and dangerous circumstances around them?  Am I dreaming?

Nope.  Not dreaming, and thrilled to find it so.  This was not the very first time that The 100 swerved from the expectations of a CW drama, but it was the first one that really caught me as a viewer.  This was the point at which I really started to take the show seriously.  They had proven that they were more committed to telling a complex, interesting story (with similarly complex and interesting characters) than going for easy plotting on the back of tried-and-tested genre tropes.

This is a commitment that the showrunners have reaffirmed again and again in the three seasons of the show, both in terms of actual plot points and the pawns that enact them.  Character are allowed to be multi-dimensional and to act in ways that are messy and human;  while their reasoning is usually clear (and mostly comes from a desire to do right) they screw up in huge ways, they make bad choices, and we as an audience are not always asked to like them, or the things they do.  Actions have very real, and sometimes very permanent, consequences.  Damage alters their character makeup.  Most uniquely, it stands apart from a lot of other teen-centric programming in that none of the character development ever feels like it’s coming from a need to create drama, but rather arising organically from the never ending onslaught of impossible circumstances our cast must contend with.  

In short: You, as a viewer, may not agree with (or even like) some of these people, your opinions on them may shift back and forth a dozen times…but you will always be interested to see where they are going.

2.  Female Agency as Far as the Eye Can See

          If you’re looking for strong, kickass, Bechdel-test-acing women on your TV screen then The 100 is your one-stop shop for some serious girl power.  Where to begin with this show?  There’s the central figure of Clarke Griffin, a medical student before her arrest, who shoulders the burden of leadership ground-side and faces one shattering decision after another in her ongoing efforts to protect her people.  There’s Octavia Blake, Warrior Princess, a second child born illicitly in defiance of the the Ark’s oxygen-conserving one child policy, and subsequently hidden away under the floor of her family’s quarters for fifteen years.  Once freed Octavia’s development takes her from giddy butterfly-chasing girl to bona fide sword-wielding badass as she stakes her claim on her own independence.  There’s Raven Reyes, the brilliant mechanic with a no-nonsense attitude, and seemingly limitless brain power that is integral to the continued survival of the Skaikru.  There’s Lexa, the fierce and pragmatic Commander of the Twelve Clans, and Indra, the fire-eyed Trikru general, and Luna with her remote pacifist enclave.  There’s Abby, and Maya, and Hannah, and Anya, Emori, Dr. Tsing, Harper, and Charlotte…it’s such a long list and every one of them brings a new and enriching layer to the show.  Even more importantly, while many of these women do have love interests those aspects of their stories are rarely central to their arc, or their role in the story, but rather a little meat of the side (no…pun…intended?) to give more dimension to already complex characters.  

Best of all is how many of these women hold significant leadership positions where they are respected by the men around them.  Now I heard some grumbling on the message boards back in the first season about how realistic this was really, especially when it came to very young women like Clarke and Lexa who are the driving voices among their respective peoples despite their youth.  I’m here to say that I think it actually makes perfect sense considering the realities of the world in The 100  (and also to point out that no one rolled their eyes about Bellamy Blake, a similarly young and less experienced guy, being accepted and respected as a leader).  

Among the Grounders, whose lives are harsh and seemingly short (very few elderly Grounders ever appear, even in non-combative villages) skill is the only metric that matters.  If the pretty teenage girl is the one who Samurai’d her way through all her (heavily armed) opponents to claim the top job in the land…well yeah, in an extremely violent and fractious society that’s probably who you’d want to follow regardless of her age or her sex.  Of course, when she’s also got the military and political acumen to unite the twelve clans for the first time in living memory that would only cement her authority.  

On The Ark, where age, formal training, and seniority carry more weight, brains and skill are still recognized, and rewarded, for their own inherent value.  Raven may have been junior on the engineering team’s totem pole technically, but everyone acknowledges her mechanical genius.  Clarke, with her cool head and diplomatic instincts, was a steadying presence when the original 100 first hit the ground and established a rapport with the Grounders that uniquely positioned her to work as a mediator between the two sides.  And Octavia?  Well lots of people on The 100 are pretty dismissive of Octavia.  Then she rolls her eyes, does what she wants, and usually ends up playing an important part in saving some detractor’s butt.  

Indeed, The 100’s entire approach is very much like Octavia’s.  They don’t bother questioning whether someone is unfit for their position of authority based on age or sex, instead they show you why they are exactly the right person for the job regardless of the above (and, believe me, if they’re not suitable they’ll show you that too, usually with devastating consequences for everyone involved).

  1.  Juicy Moral Conundrums

As you may have surmised by now, The 100 doesn’t deal in easy.  Nothing about the world or the people who populate it can be boiled down to black or white; every choice, every motivation, every event is sketched out in myriad shades of grey.  There are no right answers, only less wrong ones, and the less wrong is often heavily dependent on the perspective of the character making the call.  

When the person you love commits a truly horrific crime do you protect them?  Or do you deliver them to justice?  What is more important, your alliances, or your own people?  Can you rightly sacrifice a few to potentially save many?  These maddening, impossible questions (and many more like them) throw both audience and characters into devastating moral quagmires on a non-stop basis over the course of The 100’s three seasons.  As a result it is likewise impossible to truly discern heroes from villains.  As everyone scrambles for survival in a harsh and merciless world 99% of the people we encounter in The 100 are acting out of a genuine, passionate desire to make life better for the ones they care about most.  

Basically, The 100 is not here to reassure its viewers.  Its most relentless message is that life is hard.  It’s complicated, it demands sacrifices, and when the struggle for your own survival is on the table you will be forced to reckon, again and again, with which parts of yourself you are willing to lose in order to live.  The true struggle is in maintaining your humanity, fighting the urge to devolve into the worst form of our species.  Trying to find the bigger picture even in the most ethically fuzzy circumstances.  The questions that the show forces a viewer to confront are thorny, wrenching, and deeply riveting, a veritable feast for thought both in terms of the story line and in the broader debates of moral relativism.   

However, fascinating commentary on humanity (both present and future) aside, the thing that keeps us watching is the characters who form the heart of the story.  As much as we as viewers relish all the elements that make this show interesting, our most immediate concerns are ultimately with these fictional people that we have been allowed to know and care for.  

How will these characters ever make it to the peace they so richly deserve?  

Do they actually deserve it at all?

 

The 100, having just debuted Season Four, airs Wednesday nights at 9pm EST on the CW