I’ve been MIA finishing up my book. Though my time blogging is currently reduced, my time spent watching movies with my 3 daughters ages 5, 8, and 11, is not. I’ve consolidated my recent reviews into one post.
Please remember that showing your children media where powerful, complex females are front and center is important for both girls and boys to see. (If you don’t know why, please read this.)
Reel Girl attributes 1 – 3 S’s for gender stereotyping or 1 – 3 H’s for heroines.
Beyond all of these initial feelings I had about the movie, it sucked. Totally. I can’t be more clear. It is all about love, because you know, girls they love to love. Everyone is singing about love in a cheesey medley that lasts for the entire movie. I felt like I was watching a bad video that wouldn’t stop. I almost never get bored in movies, and I was bored out of my mind. “Strange Magic” is basically another– yet another– beauty and the beast story. It’s not creative, a stereotype, and a rip off. The best part was the mushrooms playing telephone. I’m not giving “Strange Magic” a Triple S because the protagonist is female (though you can’t tell that from the poster she’s gone missing from) and she has moments of bravery.
Reel Girl rates “Strange Magic” ***SS ***
Part of the reason it’s so challenging to recognize sexism in stories for children is because we grew up with these narratives. We’re attached. I feel this way about Paddington. I loved him when I was a kid. I had several plush versions of him, and I read all the books about him. I wanted to love marmalade because Paddington did. I was devastated when I finally tired it and had to run to the garbage to spit it out. (I still don’t get the love, it’s orange rind, right? Who would like orange rind besides a bear and maybe the British?)
I liked the movie. I thought it was true to the book. I would’ve called “darkest Peru” just Peru. But in a nutshell, the movie made me laugh. My 5 year old was in stitches. Nicole Kidman is good as the villain. Her role is similar to the evil woman she played in “The Golden Compass.” Unfortunately, her character uses her womanly wiles to manipulate; she is called “Honeypot” while her ga-ga male partner is has the code name “Fierce Eagle.” The dad in the movie dresses as a woman (ha ha.) A maid. A male goes ga-ga over him (ha ha ha). And of course, Paddington is the main character in his eponymous movie. The mom and the sister have pretty big parts for supporting roles but these roles are, of course relegated to supporting.
Besides the humor, the main reason I liked “Paddington” is because it’s well plotted. There is foreshadow, climax, and transitions for all the characters. Perhaps I was so impressed with the structure because I’m currently writing a book and studying these phases. And perhaps, the other reason I liked Paddington is nostalgia. So, I’ll leave you with this: If you’re choosing between “Strange Magic” and “Paddington,” see “Paddington.”
Reel Girl rates “Paddington ***S***
I loved Selma. I cannot fucking believe it was not nominated for an Academy Award and that the director, Ana DuVernay, was also overlooked. In 2015, a black female has never been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.
Yes, the movie is about a legendary man, Martin Luther King Jr., but the narrative focuses on this particular time in his life and the people around him. It’s always annoyed me how biographies of MLK (and Ghandi) leave out the disrespect these men showed for the women around them. “Selma” addresses King’s philandering and the effects of his behavior on his wife. The movie also addresses female leaders in the movement, and the stories of the women who were around King.
There is violence in “Selma.” After checking Common Sense Media, which is a great resource for specific examples of sex/ violence in movies (but pretty negligent about gender stereotyping) I decided to take my 8 year old along with the 11 year old. At one point when an officer hit a protester, perhaps because I gasped, my younger daughter, who always studies my reactions, said: “Why did you take me to this?” She covered her face. I told her. “This really happened. It’s part of history. People were beat up and killed just because of their skin color.” The movie also includes the scene where the 4 girls are burned in their church, also a horrific moment in history. If you read this blog, you know I believe in protecting children from stories they are not ready for. Kids need to feel strong and secure so they can be healthy, grow, and take risks. Dumping adult narratives and adult problems on young children can be abusive. Taking all this seriously, thinking about it, witnessing my daughter’s reaction, I’m glad I took her to see “Selma.” At the end of the movie, she said she liked it and asked me a ton of questions about MLK. I recommend the movie for children 8 and up, but it’s a choice that depends on you and your kid.
Reel Girl rates “Selma” ***H***
“Into the Woods”
You should see this movie with your kids just for the Red Riding Hood character. She is well acted, a great singer, and she cracked me up. Emily Blunt is also excellent playing a baker’s wife who is desperate for a child. After the witch (played by Meryl Streep,) gives the baker and his wife a list of tasks, Blunt seems like she’s ready to take them on. For a split second, I thought she might be the protagonist of the movie. But the baker steps in (of course he did, she’s the baker’s wife) and tells her its too dangerous. He will go into the woods. (I’ve got to add here that over Christmas, my daughters and I saw Rudolph’s dad say the same thing to Rudolph’s mom when he goes off to search for his son. This scene happens all the time in movies for kids, years ago and now. We re-interpret and change fairy tales, but we can’t change this?) Not only is Blunt not the hero, she dies after she kisses another man who is not her husband. Meryl Streep, as always, is fantastic but her character is obsessed with being young and “beautiful.” I enjoyed “Into the Woods” and it’s scattered moments of female empowerment, but it’s not feminist.
Reel Girl rates “Into the Woods” ***H***
I was really annoyed that “Mockingjay” was split into two parts. Unlike the final Harry Potter book which was also divided in two, the “Mockingjay” narrative could easily have fit into one movie. While I saw the two earlier movies in the series on opening day, for this one, I took my time. My 11 year old and I saw “Interstellar” and “Beyond the Lights” before we went to “Mockingjay.” My expectations were low, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t bored for a second. I didn’t think the movie was slow. I loved seeing Julianne Moore as the president, and I also appreciated in a bittersweet way, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Jennifer Lawrence playing the incredible Katniss, as always, is amazing. Because the movie was slowed down, I got an interesting perspective on how a revolution is planned and a movement is built.
Down to the last scene, “Mockingjay” is a manipulative money grab designed to pull us in, to get us to fork out money for two movies instead of one. I think a lot of fans feel like the same way, and that’s why the third movie didn’t make as much money as the first and second. That said, I’m hooked. I can’t help it. I’ll be first in line to pay for Part 2.
Reel Girl rates “Mockingjay” ***HHH***
More Reel Girl posts on new releases for kids and gender stereotyping:
This is a guest blog by Lesley Williams about the new “Annie”
Seven Things I Love About “Annie”
1) The heroine is a whip-smart African American girl who gets dressed up for a party in age appropriate (i.e. non-sexualized clothing) and without straightening her kinky hair.
2) The hero is an African American millionaire who is neither a drug kingpin, rap star, nor an athlete.
3) There is a chaste, and very sweet interracial romance which no one makes a big deal about.
4) Miss Hannigan is allowed to have a change of heart and ends up saving Annie, rather than callously abandoning her. In so many children’s films, the villain is a 2 dimensional caricature, with no nuance and no redeeming characteristics, who typically gets killed, or at least carted off to jail at the end. Kudos to the filmmakers for imagining a person who might do bad stuff, but is not an irredeemably bad person, (and who incidentally has a love interest who believed in her goodness all along).
5) The film is forthright in its depiction of how depersonalizing the child welfare system can be, even though individuals within it may be kind. We see Annie waiting in an absurdly long line and coldly told to bring back a certain form, yet when the rich guy character turns up it’s a very different story.
6) Annie is illiterate. We see how she copes: memorization, verbal skills, and chutzpah, but when she is caught off-guard and asked to read in public she is terrified and humiliated. There is talk of how kids often get overlooked in overcrowded schools, and the film ends with Annie and her adopted dad opening a literacy center.
7) Unlike almost every film I’ve seen with a similar scenario, when the soulless opportunist running for office has a change of heart, he doesn’t win the election, he says, “Hey, I have no business being mayor. Vote for my opponent with the solid record of public service!”
Lesley Williams is a librarian in the Chicago suburbs with a rad and righteous teen daughter. She has a blog on African American literature at aalevanston.blogspot.com/ and is passionately concerned about sexism, racism and under-representation of females and racial minorities in pop culture.
A story is not a life condensed, but a moment expanded.
That is my theory, having written a novel for children. I have learned so many things writing this book with my husband that I feel like no matter what happens, if no one else reads it, or if I’m the next J.K. Rowling, I am forever changed. And just that, by the way, is something I’ve learned. Art is about process, not the result. It’s so strange to take a round-about route and end up at all the cliches. But here’s what I’ve leaned about cliches, you’ve got to get there your own way, to feel it, and that’s the only way they’re true for you.
I’ve written a fantasy/ adventure starring two female protagonists, with male and female supporting characters, but probably more females than males. My book is a book about girls for all kids.
I wrote this book because I’m sick of seeing so many stories for kids where girls are on the sidelines, sexualized, and stuck in supporting roles; where if you read a story where a girl is the main character, she is often surrounded by males; because while “buddy” narratives starring males abound, there are few stories where two girls come together to save the world. I wrote it because I wanted my children to see more girls taking risks, having adventures, changing, and growing. I wrote this story because four years ago, my husband suggested I stop complaining about what’s not out there and write. I wrote it because I wanted to walk my talk. I wrote it because I’m a writer. I wrote it because I’m madly in love with my husband, and this is a story he started to tell our daughters. I wrote it because I wanted to create something with him.
Here are just some of the things I’ve learned from the writing of it: Contrary to popular belief, to be a writer, at least for me, at least for me to write fiction, I’ve got to be an optimist. I’ve run into so many plot problems, I wanted to throw up my hands and say: there’s no way out of this! But there is always a way. I’ve learned how to find creative solutions in my work, and from this repetitive experience, I’ve learned how to find creative solutions in my real life. I’ve had to learn to be resilient. I need grit. The reason I started Reel Girl is because fantasy creates reality in an endless loop. If we can’t imagine equality, we can’t create it. Creating your own story not only creates your own reality in the book, but also teaches you the possibility of creating your own realities in life. This is liberating on so many levels. So many of us have grown up with family narratives with the good guys and the bad guys, the heroes and the villains, repeated and repeated and repeated. Now, I think part of really growing up is telling your own story, being the narrator of your own life.
I didn’t understand the purpose drama in stories. Bad things have to happen to your protagonist. Does that mean we want bad things to happen in life? We need excitement, trauma blah blah blah (and this goes back to “writers/ artists are depressed, unhappy, sick” etc) Now I believe that the adventure is an emotional metaphor. For me, cleaning out my closet is a huge Sisyphean task, but I can’t write a story about that, it would be boring. So I pick a metaphor everyone can relate to. In real life, just for a moment, I feel like my world is falling apart from something small, like I lose my keys. I feel like I’ve been abandoned. It’s a mini-panic attack, a second. If I were to write a story about the feeling, it would involve losing something major and important, a magical golden locket. I’ve come to believe that health is experiencing your emotions, fully and openly, and then releasing them. I don’t mean openly as in catharsis, telling everyone how you feel. That’s often inappropriate. I mean being open to your own emotions, how they feel for you. Getting out of a shower or getting out of bed can feel like a huge transition. A story is all about transition, that moment, something we experience countless times, every day but we block it out, because it’s too scary to be present, to be in our bodies, to be alive. Writing this story has taught be how to be alive in every moment or at least aspire to be.
Finally, I’ve learned, contrary to popular belief, that happiness is insightful.
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…
There are a couple reasons why I bought Brooke Shields’s memoir There Was a Little Girl The Real Story of My Mother and Me. I grew up in the 80s and remember images of Shields, from the infamous “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” ad to her hair perfectly coiffed to cover her breasts in “Blue Lagoon” to that child-woman face staring at me from magazine cover after magazine cover.
When I saw the book at my local store, I was curious about her story, the one behind all those images. I was also drawn in by the book’s title There Was a Little Girl. In some ways, I imagine what happened to Shields, the contradiction of being a real, emotional being beyond all those “beautiful” photographs of her, the three dimensional versus the two dimensional, is an extreme version of what happens to girls everywhere, the paradox of being seen yet not being seen at all.
In the first pages of her book, Shields writes that she wants to tell the real story about her mother. She resents the characterization of Teri Shields as an aggressive stage mom. Shields believes that her professional life saved her, it was a way for her to exist in a world beyond her mother’s frenetic one. The real danger, Shields writes, was that her mother was an alcoholic, self-medicating her depression and anxiety. Her mother was ill. Teri was loyal to Brooke, obsessed with her, and conscientious, but while those characteristics may imitate aspects of love, they aren’t real love, the kind of love that makes a child feel happy, safe, and strong. Instead, Teri used her daughter like a tranquilizer, a buffer between her and the world, a passive receptacle for her thoughts and beliefs, almost like a translator, to communicate with the outside, all the time, making Brooke think it was her choice to play that role.
Problems started to happen when Brooke finally took steps to become more independent. Her mother undermined or ignored these attempts, instead of supporting Brooke, took her moves personally, continuing to only see the Brooke that she wanted to see, the one who was most useful to her, the one in the photographs.
There Was a Little Girl is a sad, raw, and beautiful book about how one person’s alcoholism affects those who love her.
Want to know what’s wrong with the world? Here it is, a picture paints a thousand words as they say, so here are three:
#1 A solidarity march for Charlie Hebdo. Do you see German Prime Minister Angela Merkel front and center? Can’t miss her, right? Elbows linked with other marchers who are marching for the right to free speech, the right not to be censored.
#2 Here’s how the photo appears in the orthodox newspaper HaMevaser. Merkel is photoshopped out along with two other women Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The names of these three women are also not printed in the paper.
#3 Here’s what the photo looks like with the women shown and the men disappeared. I don’t know who created this photo but I saw it on Soraya Chemaly’s Facebook page.
Lori Day comments on Soraya’s page:
The secondary benefit of this photo, to me, is showing how few female leaders we have. Look at that empty street. PROBLEM.
Is this the march that the White House is apologizing for not sending a higher level official to? Why is that story headline news while this sexism is under the radar, something I didn’t hear about until I checked my Facebook page? Why does the world sit by and allow sexism to happen again and again and again?
HaMevaser, this is a visual assassination. The world is waiting for an apology for your sexism and misogyny, for falsifying news, for using censorship to supposedly cover a story censorship, for using religious extremism to cover a story about religious extremism, for being hypocrites and liars.
I’m desperately trying to complete the middle grade fantasy-adventure I’m writing with my husband, thus I’ve hardly blogged for the past month. I think that’s a record of apathy for me, given my blogging addiction. There’s so much I wanted to post about including the new releases I saw with my kids: Annie, Selma, and Into the Woods; we streamed Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken; I read and loved Brooke Shields excellent memoir There Was A Little Girl about growing up with an alcoholic parent. At this point, I’ll have to skip my annual frustration about gendered Christmas and sexist specials (This year my kids and I all cracked up watching Rudolph when the dad tells the mom she can’t go look for her lost kid because “it’s man’s work.” I do feel grateful my children are at least aware of this bullshit, that I’ve done my best to help them get that even if its normal to see sexism, it shouldn’t be.) Right now, I’m reading Watership Down, I talked my 11 year old into getting the book because she just got a rabbit, but I stole it from her. I’m on Chapter 7 and not one– NOT ONE– female rabbit has had a speaking part, and that includes legends of rabbit mythology the rabbits tell each other. The author, Richard Adams, writes in his introduction that Watership Down started as a story he told his two daughters. Two daughters! And no female characters. WTF? Please don’t tell me the rabbit world is “naturally” a patriarchy. These rabbits can speak English but we can’t imagine gender equality for them? And they worship male gods? ARGH. But wait– all I wanted to write in this blog is I have 2 kids home sick. We are stationed in front of the TV watching “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” on PBS (after just watching Curious George. Next will be “Cat in the Hat” all shows starring males with male characters in the title.) So that’s my excuse for blogging today. I’m going to try and catch up.
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
Bell, Elizabeth. “Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of
Women’s Animated Bodies.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 107-122. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female
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.
A die hard Swift fan, here’s my daughter holding her finally finished (almost finished?) essay and her beloved guitar. I am very psyched Taylor inspired her to think about her experiences with bullying and to write about her feelings.
Obsessed with Taylor since 2012 (and always told she looks like her) here she is dressed as her idol on Halloween that year.
I was so happy she picked Taylor instead of a sparkly poofy princess, or witch or vampire with a costume that looks just like a princess. (Her younger sister in the background is Batgirl. Unfortunately, she has since realized Batgirl hardly exists in the world and has now lost interest in that character. Sad!)
I can’t believe we hadn’t seen this Scholastic/ Swift video! It’s so good. You must watch it with your kids. Swift is sitting around with a bunch of students and more students are Skyped in. What I loved is that first and foremost, Swift defines herself as a writer. I really appreciated my kids hearing Taylor say this because they think of her as a pop star. Taylor says that she would never want to get on stage and just sing someone else’s songs. She recommends journaling. After introducing the kids, Taylor opens the video with this statement:
I’m really excited to talk to you about reading and writing because I wouldn’t be a songwriter if it wasn’t for books that I loved as a kid and I think that when you can escape into a book it trains your imagination to think big and to think that more can exist than what you see. I think that’s been the basis of why I wanted to write songs and why writing became my career.
What’s the first question, from a 11 year old boy?
I saw that you liked the Emma Watson video about feminism, and I wanted to know what female characters influenced you in literature?
Can you see why love this video? Watch it now with you kids and find out what Taylor says! Here’s the link.
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.