It’s so great to see “Annie” revitalized with an African-American girl in the title role. In the first scene of the movie, a white, red-haired girl is reading a report to her class. Turns out there’s another Annie in the room. Quvenzhane Wallis goes on to give her oral report and steal the show. Daddy Warbucks is now Will Stacks played by Jamie Foxx, that’s right America– a black guy billionaire businessman and a dad.
It’s sad that in 2015 I have to go on and on about the rare, rare, RARE female protagonist of color in a children’s movie. This whole blog is dedicated to gender equality in the fantasy world and girls of color shown front and center is almost non existent in kidworld. “Annie” was produced by Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, and Jay Z. It is no coincidence that people of color with money use it to create movies that star people of color. So you know what we need, more women and people of color with $$$$. Unfortunately, the people that run Hollywood are white men, thus the stars of the “fictional” narratives are…white men! This has been going on since men wrote the Bible, I mean since men wrote the Greek Myths, I mean since men started writing and not letting women write, or go to school, or publish books, or be pictured in media coverage of stories about censorship. But, I digress. Back to “Annie”: Pathetically, the black girl front and center, starring the show, does not even manage to dominate the clothing line sold at Target. Here’s the ad:
To protest this racism, there’s a petition you can sign.
In the movie, I also liked the role of Grace played by Rose Byrne. She is an employee of Stacks but not a secretary. (Can you imagine that sentence about a male character? “He’s an employee but not a secretary, isn’t that wonderful?”) Grace is a high level employee who he respects and listens to. (He listens to a woman. Wow.) Also, Grace doesn’t take on the mother role for Stacks. There are instances in the movie where instead of letting Grace step in as “the soft touch,” Stacks takes control, having the talk required with Annie, telling Grace he’ll take over, not letting her do it for him. Stacks does ask Grace to help Annie get dressed, but that makes sense to me in the plot. It’s that dress in the Target ad that Annie wears.
I’m tempted to only give “Annie” two H’s because I really don’t like the Miss Hannigan character played by Cameron Diaz. She is washed up at 40, a desperate alcoholic who is looking for a man, any man. If I were remaking “Annie,” what would I do with this character? Do you all have any ideas? While I wouldn’t do a boy-crazy woman, she’s got to be mean and pathetic enough to rip off an orphan. Maybe a gambler? She was great at cards but now she’s hard on her luck…
I’ve always hated The Little Mermaid’s Ariel for being one of the weakest female protagonists in Disney’s history. So I was fascinated by this paper written by Stephanie Stott, a student in my sister Kim Magowan’s gothic lit class at Mills College. The assignment according to Stephanie “was to write a 20-page paper on gothic elements in anything. Books read in class were obvious fodder, but TV shows/teen lit/recent releases were fine so long as we could convincingly argue their association with the gothic.”
Stephanie Stott is a Masters Candidate in English Literature at Mills College. She double majored in English and Education at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she rediscovered a passion for teaching. Upon graduating, she hopes to bring feminism, critical race theory, and a love of literature to middle school Language Arts.
I hope you enjoy Stephanie’s paper as much as I did.
The Little Mermaid: Our Favorite Gothic Villain
It’s a common criticism to condemn Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid as the least feminist of the Disney Princesses. The argument goes something like: Ariel is a misogynist patriarchy’s dream girl because she alters her body, forsakes her family, and gives up her voice for a man she doesn’t know, a man who has the nerve to save her! And, without a voice, she can only attract Prince Eric with her appearance and cannot actually give consent to be kissed. However, I argue that the Little Mermaid is among the most feminist of the Disney Princesses because she exerts taboo forms of agency and is ultimately rewarded for these un-princess-like methods. Though cast in the position of damsel in distress, Ariel as a character exhibits all the trappings of a gothic villain (by which I do not mean to suggest that she is evil, but rather active and assertive, as such villains are). In this way, she is the first Disney heroine to have her cake (use her sexual, intellectual, and entrepreneurial agencies) and eat it, too (attain her own happy ending).
Even before we examine Ariel’s audacious agencies, her potential villainy is immediately obvious in her status as a siren, a paranormal being. Unlike in other Disney Princess movies, where the hero and heroine must overcome gothic forces in order to reach their resolution, this princess is part of that gothic world. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, the Beast and all the castle’s inhabitants shed their gothic forms upon the movie’s resolution. Even more striking, their castle is “madeover” from distinctly Gothic (grey stone, gargoyles, black rooftops) to Rococo (sandstone, angels, red rooftops). This final alteration is unnecessary (they could live happily ever after in a Gothic castle) and seems to imply that all things gothic—the architecture as well as the curse—must be eliminated for a happily ever after. An analogous ending in The Little Mermaid would be tragic, involving the destruction of the mer world and Ariel, as a prime representative of that world.
But why do I say the undersea world is gothic? After all, to Ariel (and to us viewers because we identify with her), it is “all she’s ever known.” I argue the mer world is a gothic space because of its status as feminine and mysterious in relation to the masculine and rational world on land. As Laura Sells points out, Disney renders the mer world in “…sweeping seascapes which resemble Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, rich with the female imagery of sea shells and cave openings” (178). Sells intensifies the undersea world’s “othered” status when she describes its relationship to the human world in terms of mainstream and marginalized systems:
The Little Mermaid establishes the world on land and the world under the sea as two contrasting spaces, one factual and one fictive, one real and the other imaginary. In this dualistic and hierarchical construction, the human world can be aligned with the white male system and the water world situated outside that system. (177)
The opening scene of the film illustrates the gothic status of Ariel’s home. Though the first shot features animals of the sea (seagulls and dolphins) frolicking on the waves, a giant ship soon enters, literally displacing these creatures, and with it comes a hearty sea chanty: “I’ll tell you a tale of the bottomless blue, and it’s hey to the starboard, heave-ho. Look out, lad, a mermaid be waiting for you in mysterious fathoms below.” It is human sailors who set up the story, characterizing the undersea world as “mysterious” and warning a “lad” (Prince Eric? A young sailor?) of dangerous mermaids. Undermining the validity of the mer world from a different angle, Grimsby (uptight fatherly advisor to the prince) tells Eric to “pay no attention to this nautical nonsense.” Both groups—the superstitious sailors and the learned landlubbers—challenge the legitimacy of Ariel’s world, one by emphasizing its dangerousness, the other by writing off its existence entirely. Hers is a mythical, unknowable world.
However, a topic no critic seems to want to broach: Ariel is dangerous to mortal men. She possesses a voice that bewitches its hearer. Upon his rescue from the shipwreck, Eric appears principally concerned with the voice of his savior: “a girl…rescued me. She was singing. She had the most beautiful voice.” And in his next scene, again on the beach: “[Sigh], that voice. I can’t get it out of my head. I’ve looked everywhere, Max. Where could she be?” Yes she was attractive, yes she saved his life, but most importantly, she had a pretty voice. We know it is the voice that holds power over him because it instantly bewitches him a second time, despite the fact that it issues from Ursula-as-Vanessa. Of course, the way Disney animates this scene makes it appear that the voice bewitches Eric because it issues from Ursula-as-Vanessa: tendrils of yellow light snake their way out of the sea witch’s nautilus and into Eric’s eyes, as though it were the yellow light—not the siren’s song—that bewitches him. However, Eric’s affections already tended toward whomever possessed the voice: first Ariel when she sings him awake, then Vanessa as she sings along the shore. Yellow light or no yellow light, the fact remains that whoever gets Ariel’s voice seems to get Ariel’s man. This little mermaid has some powerful assets, more powerful than either Disney or critics want to admit.
But Ariel’s status as siren goes beyond her dangerously good singing ability; it also means she’s half a fish—and significantly—from the waist down. As the site of female orgasms, childbirth, and other “unladylike” bodily processes, a woman’s nether regions are mysterious, mythic, dangerous (just as the gothic is sexual and feminine, so female sexuality is gothic). Slapping on a fishtail in place of legs—and, significantly, what lies between those legs—is only replacing one female mystery with another. Mermaids are ultra-gothic because they are ultra-feminine/-mysterious/-mythic/-dangerous.
Of course, the figure of Ursula takes this argument even further. As Elizabeth Bell observes, Ursula’s “octopus tentacles physically manifest the enveloping, consumptive sexuality of the deadly woman” (117). Adding to this, Sells gives us Roberta Trites’s claim that “Embedded in gynophobic imagery,[a] Ursula is a revolting, grotesque image of the smothering maternal figure” (181). If fish fins are an indictment of the dangerous vulva, octopus tentacles most definitely are. Both Ariel and Ursula, if only because of their paranormal bodies, have the makings of gothic villains.
…there are strange likenesses between us, Harry Potter. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike…
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Doubling with Ursula
And the fun doesn’t stop there! Ariel further resembles a gothic villain in that she doubles with villainous Ursula in many ways. To begin with, the color palette in which Ariel is animated does not match that of her friends, her father, or her lover—all of which might be expected—but that of the sea witch.[b] The mermaid’s breast shells are the same color as Ursula’s earrings; her hair brings out Ursula’s lips; her fishtail matches Ursula’s eye shadow. I argue that this visual doubling is not mere coincidence but implies kinship and succession, as visual similarities do in the real world. According to Bell, the physical similarities we see in the wicked stepmothers may be read as portents of the princesses’ future; these young ladies will someday be the active, assertive villains who are currently making their lives miserable. After all, bullies are born from being bullied.
To take the matter of succession one step further, Ariel could plausibly be said to have begun the takeover already. If the battle between princess and stepmother resolves itself either through the escape of the young woman (as in Cinderella) or through a kind of matricide (as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid), Ariel’s lack of mother could be read as evidence of an earlier succession. As the seventh and youngest daughter to King Triton, Ariel might have caused the queen’s death through childbirth, and might thus already be guilty of matricide.
While I don’t mean to suggest that Ariel will one day be a voluptuous sea witch herself, I do mean to suggest that villainous (i.e. active, assertive) tendencies are in her blood, are part of her birthright (and, as I will argue shortly, that she has already started cashing in on that birthright).
Another instance of doubling between the sea witch and the mermaid is their common tactic of changing appearance, and those appearances’ commonalities. Ariel “only” gets legs, but Ursula gives herself a full-body makeover, complete with new identity as Vanessa. However, apart from a dye-job and a different parting in her hair, Vanessa could be Ariel.[c] Of course, it’s easy to say that the art department only had one template for “pretty girl” and that the visual doubling was an effort to save money, but a more interesting explanation is that Vanessa’s false exterior calls into question Ariel’s. Disney shows us that Ariel is good by making her beautiful, but Vanessa has the same exact kind of beauty, and she is bad. We viewers find ourselves asking: is Ariel like Vanessa, or is Vanessa like Ariel?
Which is where the mirror device comes in. To reassure viewers that “what you see is what you get,” Vanessa’s true identity (Ursula) may be seen in the young woman’s reflection.[d] However, this mirror scene mirrors another, earlier on in the movie. When Ariel first meets Ursula, she sees her (Ursula) in a mirror.[e] If mirrors reveal one’s true identity, then on some level Ariel is Ursula. What we see, then, in the later mirror scene is not actually reassuring, but reminds us of the earlier instance of doubling, and that this Ariel look-alike is, on some level, actually like Ariel.
All this is mere circumstantial evidence, however, to my argument that Ariel is a gothic villain in the role of Disney damsel. What makes her truly villainous is not what she looks like, but how she acts. And that she acts. Earlier Disney Princesses fulfilled the feminine ideal of silent victim, what Coventry Patmore christened “the Angel in the House.” Gilbert and Gubar describe how this is done: “…it is the surrender of her self—of her personal comfort, her personal desires, or both—that is the beautiful angel-woman’s key act, while it is precisely this sacrifice which dooms her to both death and heaven” (25). Though Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella could each be described as such a selfless martyr, Ariel in no way fits this description. The little mermaid tirelessly chases her dreams, from her very first scene. Indeed, Ariel appears to represent the opposite of the Angel in the House:
a witch or monster, a magical creature of the lower world […] is a kind of antithetical mirror image of an angel. […] as a representative of otherness, she incarnates the damning otherness of the flesh rather than the inspiring otherness of the spirit, expressing what—to use Anne Finch’s words—men consider her own “presumptuous” desires rather than the angelic humility and “dullness” for which she was designed” (Gilbert 28).
Ariel unashamedly indulges her desires, for which “presumption” she is more monster/villain than angel. And she shares this penchant with other villains: “the Queen [in “Little Snow White”], as we come to see more clearly in the course of the story, is a plotter, a plot-maker, a schemer, a witch, an artist, an impersonator, a woman of almost infinite creative energy, witty, wily, and self-absorbed as all artists traditionally are” (Gilbert 39). Like other Disney villains, Ariel is a mover and shaker, not a moved and shaken.
If agency is inherently villainous, sexual agency most certainly is. It makes sense, then, that Disney has thus far only depicted “the vain, active, and wicked woman of folktales [as] the femme fatale, the ‘deadly woman’ of silent film and of Hollywood classic film” (Bell 115). According to Colette, such a woman is “characterized by décolleté, a ‘clinging black velvet dress,’ and weaponry. She catches the spectator in her gaze, ‘sinuously turns her serpent’s neck…and—having first revealed enormously wide eyes, she slowly veils them with soft lids’ (qtd in Bell 115). As the most sexually agentic of the evil stepmothers, it makes sense that (officially, at least) Ursula was modeled on Sunset Boulevard’s femme fatale, Norma Desmond.
That Ariel has plenty of sexual agency has not escaped notice. The most popular explanation for this unexpected expertise is that she got it from Ursula:
In Ursula’s drag scene, Ariel learns that gender is performance; Ursula doesn’t simply symbolize woman, she performs woman. Ursula uses a camp drag queen performance to teach Ariel to use makeup, to “never underestimate the importance of body language,” to use the artifices and trappings of gendered behavior” (Sells 183).
However, Ariel was “performing woman” before she ever met Ursula. (And is this really surprising, when she has six older sisters?) The morning after Ariel saves Eric from the shipwreck, her sister Andrina announces that Ariel has been in the bathroom “all morning.” When Ariel emerges, she grooms herself in front of the mirror, and in the next scene, tucks a flower in her hair; stereotypical feminine mooning.
But more than understanding sexuality as performance, Ariel is distinctly sexually agentic in her interactions with Eric (and his effigy). She objectifies Eric (and in so doing, subject-ifies herself) after saving him from the shipwreck and again later when she sees his statue. After the rescue, she takes the liberty of stroking his unconscious face, saying wonderingly, “He’s so beautiful.” It does not appear to occur to her that he is also a human being who can think and talk and that he hasn’t given her permission to touch him in that way. (This may remind viewers of Ursula’s presumptuously stroking Triton’s trident later on.[f]) Just then, he’s only a pretty face. Ariel becomes the sexual subject, the admirer, giver, doer; Eric becomes the sexual object, the admired, receiver, done-to.
She objectifies him a second time when she applies the same logic to him that she applies to all the other objects in her cavern. She reasons that her artifacts’ delightful appearances must indicate that they come from a delightful world, that appearance equals reality: “I just don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things, could be bad.” Similarly, she decides that the ludicrous statue of Eric (featuring him in the stereotypical knight-in-shining-role, striding upward, one metal-clad arm in front as if to shield him from onslaught, the other arm grasping a sword) “looks just like him!” whereas both Eric and his dog Max are rather nonplussed when the first see his statue. Ariel objectifies him by substituting the statue’s outward appearance (a knight in shining armor) with Eric’s inward reality. As Ariel puts her man in the role of object, she puts herself in the role of subject. And if part of the femme fatales’ allure is their “living and thinking only for themselves as sexual subjects, not sexual objects” (Bell 116), then Ariel falls into this category, even before meeting Ursula.
In enacting a romantic encounter with Eric’s statue, she again displays her sexual agency. Hands clasped, feigning surprise, she says to his effigy, “Why Eric, run away with you?” Then, leaning her head on his shoulder, lowering her eyelids and dropping her voice, she murmurs, “This is all so, so sudden…” Ariel doesn’t just know the moves, she could write the book!
Of course, it is after she has lost her voice and swapped her fins for legs that everyone remarks upon her sexual agency. Bell cites her sexy poses in “sailcloth rage” to Scuttle’s “accompanying wolf whistle” as evidence of her feminine wiles (114). No one misses, either, the grin she throws her fellow conspirators, upon stumbling and “falling” into Eric’s arms. Though moments before she had even us viewers fooled, the sidelong smile lets us know her “damsel in distress” is an act.
What are less often cited are the even cleverer stunts the mermaid pulls in her efforts to lure Eric in. Ariel allows him to “catch” her watching him from the palace window, managing thus to communicate both her admiration and modesty as she shyly ducks back into her room. In letting him see her in the window, Ariel takes on the role of the good queen from “Little Snow White,” the Angel in the House who begins that story “framed by a window” (the next, bad queen will also be framed by glass, but hers will be a mirror) (Gilbert 37). In Andersen’s version, the little mermaid actually is an Angel in the House: “Many a night she stood by her open window and looked up through the dark blue water where the fish waved their fins and tails” (Andersen). Though Ariel is much more a monster/villain, she frequently takes advantage of the angel/damsel cliché in her efforts to win her prince.
Ariel again feigns innocence to attract Eric, this time when the two are in a rowboat together. Ariel claims not to hear her fellow conspirators’ pointed song encouraging Eric to appreciate her beauty and kiss her, when—if he can hear it—she certainly can. In doing so, she manipulates him into believing the lyrics are his internal thoughts, and pretends an innocence she does not have. This pretending in order to get her man points to her understanding of and her willingness to use her sexuality.
Evidently the rowboat scene is the site of her greatest sexual agency for it is here, too, that she throws Eric her sultry look. As he leans in for the kiss, Ariel gives him a sly, come hither glance from beneath her lashes, a look reminiscent of Ursula-as-Vanessa’s sly, self-satisfied smile when the sea witch’s engagement to Eric is announced.[g] The two sea women have more in common than we might at first think, certainly in terms of sexual agency.
While Ursula gets credit for being masterfully manipulative (and rightly so!), Ariel deserves a share in that glory. It is undeniable that the sea witch is a slippery salesman—for one thing, she was conceived as such: “Pat Carroll, Ursula’s voice actress, envisioned the character as ‘part Shakespearean actress, with all the flair, flamboyance and theatricality, and part used-car salesman with a touch of con artist’” (italics imposed) (“Ursula”). The lyrics to her musical number employ all the patented, Psych 101 techniques: “I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day” (Scarcity of Time), “It won’t cost much—just your voice!” (Low-Balling), “I admit that in the past I’ve been a nasty” (Establishing Credibility). Like the best of femme fatales, Ursula manipulates the victim into digging their own grave.
However, Ariel, too, proves adept at manipulation. In her very first scene, she uses good old peer pressure and fear mongering to goad Flounder into accompanying her onto the sunken ship. When her fish friend asks if they can leave now they’ve glimpsed the vessel, Ariel grabs his retreating back, saying (not unmenacingly), “You’re not getting cold fins now, are you?” leaving Flounder with two options: appear cowardly by admitting he wants to leave or save face by continuing on. Which of course he does, until they reach a porthole, at which point Ariel must use a new strategy to induce him to enter: “Alright. I’m going inside. You can just, stay here and, watch for sharks.” By implying that sharks lurk outside the vessel, she makes entering the ship appear the safest option. And finally, after having used the possibility of sharks as a device for inspiring fear, she makes fun of her fish friend for believing such tales: “Flounder, don’t be such a guppy” which only makes him want to prove: “I’m not a guppy!” Like her villainous aunt, Ariel is good at controlling others.
Coveting a Crown
Though by no means the most important way in which Ariel is villainous, it bears mentioning that both she and Ursula have similar ambitions. Ariel is after the love of a human, but as Ursula says, “not just any human—a prince!” Very little is made of this fact in the movie, but Ariel is effectively gunning to be queen (because Eric, without any parents, is arguably king) of a world not hers. Which is precisely what Ursula wants, too.
Unlike Snow White’s need to clean, Aurora’s knack for picking berries, or Cinderella’s mouse clothing line, Ariel’s hobby is somewhat unsettling. Like gothic villain Egaeus in Poe’s “Berenice” or the duke in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” Ariel is a fetishistic collector. She is a possessor of forbidden knowledge, like the controlling patriarch (the Beast) in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Hers is not a preoccupation, but an obsession. She has created a shrine for her fascination like a religious fanatic, and her crowning piece—the ultimate site of her mania—is the statue of Eric, which she is thrilled to “have.” Mingled with the awe that viewers experience upon first seeing this sixteen-year-old’s cavern is a sense of trepidation at the unwavering commitment that such a collection must have required over the years.
In addition to her sexuality, manipulation, ambition, and mania, Ariel is an unusual princess in that she is a risk-taker. Unlike other Disney heroines who end up in their tricky situations out of bad luck (Snow White’s father marries the wrong woman, Cinderella’s father marries the wrong woman, Aurora’s father messes with the wrong woman, Belle’s father messes with the man who messed with the wrong woman), Ariel seeks out this wrong woman.
And we know all along she will because, unlike other princesses (but very like other villains), she warns the viewer that she will do whatever it takes to get what she wants: “Watch and you’ll see, someday I’ll be part of your world.” Compare her definitive announcement with Belle’s “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell.” There are many “I want” statements but no “I will’s.” However, villains from the Wicked Witch of the West (“I’ll get you, my pretty!”) to Ursula (“Well, I’ll give them something to celebrate soon enough.”) to Gaston (“Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife.”) have been making definitive action plans (“I will” statements) for decades.
Once there, in Ursula’s cave, Ariel again exercises her agency and (questionable) decision-making ability. However inadvisable it might seem, Ariel signs the contract with the sea witch knowing full well the terms and conditions and, what’s more, that she need not go through with it. We know she has considered her options because she reasons aloud, “If I become human, I’ll never be with my family or sisters again.” Unlike other Disney heroines, she knowingly and intentionally deals with the devil.
And I want to emphasize that her contract with Ursula is a deal, a gamble; it is not a straight-up gift or “sacrifice.” She is not losing her voice forever; she is losing it until she wins Eric. According to Sebastian, “she [Ariel] won’t say a word, and she won’t say a word until you [Eric] kiss the girl”. The little mermaid goes double or nothing on her own ingenuity, and this points to a fount of inner strength the likes of which we have not seen in previous princesses. Ariel gambles her voice on her own ability to achieve self-fulfillment, a move no angel/damsel would attempt, but which a gothic villain would be more than capable of (“Common Criticisms”).
We don’t like to say it, but I think everyone can agree that the little mermaid is a bit of a stalker. She watches Eric every chance she gets: on his ship, on the beach, beneath her window. It is one of the wonderful qualities in her that reminds us of aunt Ursula, who, of course, is watching Ariel watch Eric.[h] It is the two sea women’s unabashed gazes that remind us of their status as dangerous women. Before Ariel came along,
The evil women of Disney films [were] the only female characters rendered in close-ups. Moreover, they [were] the only characters who address[ed] the camera directly, both advancing the narrative diegesis and confronting the spectator’s gaze with their own. But Disney enlarge[d] the cinematic code for the face of the femme fatale with a special effect: the face and background fade to black and the eyes are painted as gold, glowing orbs, narrowing tightly on the intended victim/heroine.”[i] (Bell 116)
Though Ariel does not get a fade-to-black with glowing eyes like Ursula does, she is the first princess to gaze directly into the camera, the glowing going on around her.[j] This new, direct-address gaze is evidence of a new, agentic, watching heroine. Ariel lusts after Eric just as Ursula hankers after Ariel (and just as we viewers have always yearned after all the Disney Princesses).
That The Little Mermaid features a protagonist who not only gets away with exerting her agency, but gets rewarded for it, would seem to be excellent news for subsequent Disney Princesses. However, while Ariel may be said to have inspired greater agency in her younger peers, none are really femme fatales like she is. They are definitely active and assertive, but gone is the sexual agency. Disney has largely ceased production of Norma Desmonds in favor of Joan of Arcs—and that’s okay, because it has simultaneously reinvented its existing Norma Desmonds to be protagonists in their own right. Frozen and Maleficent are obvious examples of this shift in perspective, each telling the story of an agentic femme fatale with whom the viewers can identify, and who gets a happy ending! The previously opposite tropes of angelic heroine and monstrous villain are gradually colliding to form a new, stronger, more realistic leading lady.
 Because I won’t actually touch on this point in my argument, I will set the record straight here: Ariel does not, in fact, seek to alter her body for the prince (though Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid does). Ariel wanted to have human legs before she met Eric, and upon meeting him, replaces that goal with simply wanting see him again, legs or no legs. It is Ursula who insists that to do one, she must do the other: “The only way to get what you want is to become human yourself.” (“The Little Mermaid is a Feminist Film”)
 As I said in the above footnote, Ariel was ready and willing to see Eric again with fins still attached (thus remaining a part of the undersea world). What ultimately forced Ariel to choose between the world of her family and that of her desire was her father’s explosive reaction to her previous encounter with said human. If anything, Ariel’s resorting to more dangerous means should be read as an indictment of Triton’s parenting; if he had not dismissed her out of hand, she would not have gone behind his back (“Common Criticisms”).
 Eric does save Ariel, but Ariel also saves Eric. In fact, the score stays even: first Ariel saves him from drowning, then Eric saves her from being pitchforked, then Ariel saves him from being blasted, then Eric saves her from being blasted.
 I do not mean to downplay the importance of speech in building a relationship, but Ariel does, in fact, get pretty far with body language, and for good reason: though the live action models for previous princesses were classical ballerinas, Ariel’s model, Sherri Stoner, “ was a member of the Los Angeles improvisational group, the Groundlings [and was] chosen from the group for her expressive face and small frame” (italics imposed) (“Somatexts”). Ariel might not be able to get into philosophical discussions without a voice, but she can emote a personality.
 No rebuttal—Eric should not have assumed he could kiss her without her consent, mimed or otherwise.
 And were this a more traditional gothic fairy tale (along the lines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, or Beauty and the Beast), Ariel and her world would be the opponents requiring conquering and Eric (the handsome orphaned princeling) would be the protagonist. This scene would mark his introduction to the possibility of sirens, and a brief glimpse during his birthday celebrations would serve as his first encounter with the dangerous maidens. Soon, he would come across a naked, speechless woman on the shore and begin to wonder at her dark secret.
 Unofficially, and “according to the directing animator, Ruben Acquine, Ursula was modeled on the drag queen Divine” (Sells 182).
 “During her song about body language, Ursula stages a camp drag show about being a woman in the white male system, beginning ‘backstage’ with hair mousse and lipstick. She shimmies and wiggles in an exaggerated style while her eels swirl around her, forming a feather boa. This performance is a masquerade, a drag show starring Ursula as an ironic figure” (Sells 182).
“100 Disney Things #5: Common Criticisms of the Little Mermaid.” Chachusa. 11
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Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer in the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale U, 2000. 1-44. Print.
Sells, Laura. “‘Where Do the Mermaids Stand?’ Voice and Body in the Little
Mermaid.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 175-90. Print.
“The Little Mermaid is a Feminist Film.” The Black Ram. 24 June 2013. Web.
I LOVED THE MOVIE “WILD!” I already blogged a review of the book Could “Wild” be the antidote to “Gone Girl?” and I’m happy to tell you that the movie is EVERYTHING I hoped it would be. “Wild” is Reese Witherspoon’s best movie since “Freeway” (a film nobody seems to recall while they keep saying it’s so unusual to see Witherspoon swear, shoot heroin, and not play the good girl.)
Here’s a list of 10 things about “Wild” that I thought were great. After each item, say to yourself: How often do you see that in a Hollywood movie?
1. Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich are quoted in the first 10 minutes.
2. There is male frontal nudity but no female frontal nudity.
3. Reese Witherspoon’s character, Cheryl, says: “I am a feminist.”
4. Witherspoon/ Cheryl wears no make up, a loose shirt, hiking shorts or pants for almost the entire movie.
5. Withesrpoon is a 38 year old playing a 26 year old.
6. Two women– Witherspoon and Laura Dern– get top billing
7. Flannery O’Connor is quoted.
8. There’s an great, accurate depiction of harassment when a slimy guy tells Cheryl she looks good in her pants. When she doesn’t reply, he says defensively, “That’s a compliment!”
9. The movie is about a woman who travels alone and likes sex, yet she doesn’t get raped.
10. This quote:
What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d dome something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than it was what I wanted to do and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was also what got me here? What if was never redeemed? What if I already was?
Thank you to Reese Witherspoon for making this movie, to Witherspoon’s daughter Ava for inspiring her to depict powerful women, and to Cheryl Strayed for living and writing her story.
My 11 year old daughter and I loved “Beyond the Lights,” a movie about a young singer’s rise to fame.
Though I’ve see this story many times– young, talented artist runs into trouble from controlling managers and bad love interests, my daughter was born long after MTV’s “Behind the Music” series. The narrative is brand new to her. She’s also into singing, and she ate this movie up. It stars a woman of color, Noni, played by Gugu Mbatha Raw (who starred in “Belle” earlier this year, another movie I loved and that’s good for kids.) Most of the parts in the movie, with the exception of the singer’s momager, played by Minnie Driver, are characters of color. I was excited for my daughter to see a movie where the major roles are not white people and also the minor roles including crowd scenes and characters like newscasters and politicians. In this movie, it’s normal to see white people in the minority. I was a little uncomfortable with the sexual costumes and dancing at the start, but the clothing and poses are an important part of the narrative. One thing I hate, hate, hate in movies is when the girl gets a makeover, she takes off her glasses, loses weight, and bam! Her life is great, she gets the guy and anything else she ever wanted. Noni does the opposite. She becomes herself, loses her weave and the pasties, gains her real voice, fame, and the guy she loves. Tell me, is ‘Beyond the Lights’ the first rise to fame movie to feature a makeunder? I wish I could post a picture of Noni’s physical transformation but I can’t find one. I highly recommend you take your kids– tweens and up– to see this rare and beautiful movie if you’re OK with some suggestive clothing, dancing, and a couple brief make out scenes.
After writing numerous blogs about the sexist penguins of Madagascar, I finally saw the movie today. I don’t think my 5 year old stopped laughing once during the first 20 minutes, a period of time in which also featured almost no females, just like the rest of the movie. I deduced this sad ratio from the preview (not to mention the 3 previous Madagascar movies.) What I didn’t know was that Eva the owl, the Minority Feisty in the North Wind group of 4 males– not to be confused with the Penguin group of 4 males– would be the love interest of Kowalski. He goes ga-ga when he sees her for the first time just as Emmet does when he sees Wyldstyle in ‘The Lego Movie.” At the end of the movie– surprise, surprise– Eva and Kowalski kiss. Typical of a new trend I’ve noticed with Minority Feisty, Eva has the impressive title of intelligence analyst, but we don’t see her actually use her skills much at all.
Why couldn’t the head of the North Wind, a male fox, have been female? Half the members of the North Wind? All of the members?
Why couldn’t the villain, an evil scientist octopus, Dave, have been female? What about all of his octopi underlings who also had male voices?
Technically, Eva is not the only female. There are a few others in the long line of penguins at the beginning of the movie. There are 3 mermaid penguins who have a small part, shells covering up where I suppose their breasts are supposed to be. These mermaids are so insignificant, I can’t find a pic of them on Google images to post here. There a couple human girls and women with tiny parts. As far as gender stereotypes, the best thing I can say about this movie is that evil Dave is purple, a girl color you know. That’s something my 5 year old pointed out to me, telling me that at least I could blog about that. So there you have it.
I just saw ‘Interstellar’ with my 11 year old daughter, and we both loved it. There is not one but two brilliant female scientists in this movie. Even better for kids, part of this movie shows the genius mathematician as a curious, smart 10 year old.
When Murphy is a child, and when she is an adult (played by Jessica Chastain) she is never once denigrated for being a female. In both incarnations, she wears a shirt and pants, her hair in a messy bun. Her gender is a non issue in Interstellar’s dystopia. Do you know how rare this is? Let’s just say it’s almost unheard of and unseen in Hollywood movies for both children and adults.
The other female scientist, played by Anne Hathaway, is also not sexualized for the most part in costume, posing, dialogue, or narrative structure.
Yes, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain are Minority Feisty (I use ‘feisty’ as a singular or plural, like you’d use ‘fish.’) Most of the characters are male including great roles played by John Lithgow and Matt Damon. The robots have male names and voices. The protagonist of the movie is Murphy’s father played Mathew McConaughey. Murphy’s sister-in-law is so subservient to her husband, I rolled my eyes a few times. So the gender representation in ‘Interstellar’ isn’t a perfect triple H, but the movie exemplifies such spectacular storytelling, that it’s sexism is sidelined instead of the female characters. The narrative structure is so compelling, so well done, I want to see the movie again, just to study how the dialogue and scenes all build on each other, each shot leading to the next, brilliantly balanced like a house of cards.
Need more to recommend this movie? The special effects are outstanding. Visually, ‘Interstellar is not only gorgeous but depictions of a black hole, other planets, and the dimensions are fascinating to see.
Finally, the movie asks all the big questions, and will get your children to ponder them as well, such as: Why are we here? What will become of us? What is our destiny? What is the meaning of love? I’ve seen so many disaster/ end of the world movies, as I’m sure you have too, but never once have I seen the apocalypse portrayed as the human species going on to our next stage as explorers and pioneers.
I want to thank a real life genius, Lea Verou, for recommending I take my daughter to see ‘Interstellar.’ I don’t know Verou, but she follows me on Twitter, and her comments to me were so interesting, I Googled her (and now follow her along with 50,000 plus others.) I don’t even understand her bio, so I’m, pasting it here, because maybe you do.
My name is Lea Verou (Lea being short for Michailia or Μιχαήλια) and I’m a computer scientist / web standards geek / front-end developer / web designer / speaker / author, originally from Greece. I’m currently a Research Assistant at MIT CSAIL, in David Karger’s Haystack group and an Invited Expert in the W3C CSS Working Group.
It goes on for a few more paragraphs. I’m writing about Verou here because clearly she is the kind of visionary that I hope more of our daughters will grow up to be. I think movies like “Interstellar’ will inspire them. My daughter looks lit up right now.
You always ask me what age is good for the movies I recommend, and I always tell you it depends on the kid. There are no sexual situations (no sexual situations!) in ‘Interstellar.’ There is no gore (no gore!) Yet in no way does the movie feel sanitized or whitewashed or “for kids.” (The theater was packed full of adults except for two teen girls.) Death is a theme, but woven through the narrative in a way that I think is beneficial for children to ponder. Personally, I think my 8 year old would be confused by the plot, so I wouldn’t prod her to go, the way I cajoled my 11 year old this morning. But if she wanted to go, I would take her, curious to see what she gets out of it.
I’ve written a few blogs about the Penguins of Madagascar, to summarize:
* In the upcoming spin off movie (like so many spin-offs) there are even more males than in the original 3 (yes, 3) Madagascar movies which magnanimously included a Minority Feisty girl hippo, Gloria played by Jaden Pinkett Smith. “Penguins of Madagascar” coming out for Thanksgiving stars 4 brothers.
*In the preview for “Penguins of Madagascar” there is just one female voice who comes in at the very end, saying:”Where’s the sound?”
*The Penguins make sexist jokes as show in this video/ preview for “Madagascar 3″ where one chides the others “You pillow fight like a bunch of little girls.”
Now, Mecano comments on my blog:
The Penguins of Madagascar TV show on Nickelodeon is esp annoying. In this the 4 male penguins live in a zoo along with many animals.Only one of the zoo animals is female (Marlene, a female otter) .She appears in many episodes (but not all) All other animals (around 20) are male.We also never see any female Penguins. What’s more one of the penguins,Rico, has a plastic doll as a “girlfriend” .He calls her “Mrs. Perky” .In some episodes this doll is the only female “character” we see! Just…sad.
Look at this image:
Mrs. Perky? This picture shows pretty much everything bad about gender and children’s media. I Googled “Mrs. Perky” and found this on Wikia.com (she is alternately referred to as Miss Perky and Ms. Perky):
The doll was given her name and temporarily a voice in the second season episode Hello, Dollface. But, by the end of the episode her voice-chip was removed.
I already hated these penguins, but WTF? And these guys get their own movie? Why doesn’t Gloria the hippo and her sisters get their own movie?
Do you want your children– girls and boys– to be entertained by sexist jokes? Do you want a new generation to learn to expect and accept a world where females are marginalized, sexualized, and sidelined if they get to exist at all?
After a depressing day of girls gone missing at the movies, it was great to see Katniss in the lobby of the Metreon in all her glory. I cannot wait for “Mockingjay,” nor can my 11 year old daughter who devoured all of the books. The Hunger Games trilogy remains one of the only fantasy worlds where gender equality exists, and it’s a dystopia.
There are no females starring in these movies. While this is sadly not unusual, it is striking that “Penguins” stars 4 brothers while Minions stars 3 male, um, what are they, clones? Are there any female minions at all? A minionette? They don’t show up in the preview.
In the “Despicable Me” 1 and 2, I remember the males dressed as females for laughs, one in a maid costume ha ha ha. Can you imagine a movie marketed to boys and girls starring 4 sisters, not a male in the preview? Can you imagine a franchise built on hundreds of all female yellow banana goggle cyclops creatures? How do they reproduce?
Before I saw ‘Big Hero 6′ I wondered what the title meant. I’d only seen posters with the balloony white creature and the boy. So now I know. There is a new superhero franchise made up of 6 characters. And guess what? The team is led by a Hiro, a scientist wonder boy and his BFF a healer robot, also male, named Baymax. The whole human team are techies including 2 girls, one in a pink suit but at least the other is in yellow. Typical Minority Feisty ratio.
Before I go on about gender issues, I want to be sure you know I really enjoyed this movie. It’s no doubt one of my favorite animated films this year. The narrative deconstructs what a hero (Hiro is a cool play on words) is in a compelling way that children can understand. Though I would love a gender flip, Baymax is super appealing. His mission is to heal, which includes not only tending to cuts and scrapes, but matters of the heart. When Hiro’s brother dies, at the beginning of the movie, Baymax urges Hero to get lots of the hugs and the support of friends. That sounds kind of chesey when I write it, but the prescription doesn’t come off like that in the movie because Baymax’s character is so well done. He is giant and round with stumpy legs. Watching his body squeeze through obstacles and give hugs is fascinating. Just seeing him move is entertaining. There is no way you cannot like this guy but…
how I wish he had been a she! Before all of you write me that Baymax challenges notions of masculinity, that kind of boundary busting is standard in children’s animation. In “Book of Life,” the movie I just reviewed the bullfighter chooses to be a musician instead of a macho man. (Can you even imagine a narrative based around a female choosing careers– should I fight bulls or compose music– instead of focusing choosing husbands?) When I’ve complained about the lack of females in Monster University, Planes,How to Train Your Dragon, practically every male centered, male dominated movie I review, I always get the reply: well, it’s great to show a geeky, smart, sensitive, artsy, fill in the blank male. You know what would really challenge standard notions of masculinity? Seeing half of children’s films star female protagonists and feature as many females as males in the cast. The icing on the trope cake was the damsel in distress scene. I was super disappointed to see ‘Big Hero 6′ squeeze in that storyline.
In case you’re wondering, I would’ve been thrilled if Hiro had a been a girl as well. And had a older sister inventor-mentor instead of a brother. And if the villain had been female.
I’ll end on positive note. I was so into the mythical San Fransokyo where the story takes place. The city has all the beauty, hills, bridges, Victorians and openess of San Francisco, (where I live) but loses its quaintness, small towny aspect by adding the clumped tall buildings, blinking lights, and crammed streets of Tokyo. The movie itself is a fusion of Disney and anime in the best way.