Let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars… Why Disney Villains are better role models

While most of Gawker media’s outlets have deteriorated significantly in quality (I’m especially looking at you, io9 — although I still swoon over Esther’s articles), Jezebel is still worth reading.  On Saturday, they posted an article, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘.

Princesses are usually defined by their sexuality and fascination with pretty objects and cute baby animals. White Disney princesses wear puffy gowns with petticoats (Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Aurora) and non-white princesses dress the same way sorority girls do for questionably-themed parties. (Jasmine, Pocahontas, even, to a lesser extent, Mulan.) I didn’t want to be saved; I wanted to drive the plot rather than be pushed into a happy ending.

So instead, I was fascinated by villains, particularly Maleficent, the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil. She’s cunning, she’s ruthless, and she has a sick wardrobe. Not to mention: DRAGONS. Maleficent demands respect, and I expected the same, which is why, as a four year old, I refused to answer to anything other than “Maleficent” for months. [Source: Baker, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘, Jezebel]

The article is great and discusses the Baker’s (the author) desire to grow up like a Disney villain instead of a Disney princess.  It’s great stuff.

But it also got me thinking.  Having had quite a bit of practice at reading waaaaay too much into things and a lifetime of mansplaining, I thought: ‘Why do we see the villains as villains in these movies?’

You might respond: ‘Mark, old buddy, there’s no extra level of meaning here.  Grimhilde tries to kill Snow White.  Maleficent tries to kill Sleeping Beauty.  Ursula tries to turn people into wormy things.  These characters are evil because they do bad things.  Open and shut.  Get back to doing real things.’

But I think you’re wrong.  You sort of knew that Grimhilde was evil long before she went all ‘Time to eat Snow White’s heart!’  Maleficent is clearly the villain of the play from the second she appears in an explosion of green smoke, long before she gave Aurora a pretty shitty birthday gift.  While Ursula is a bit more of the ‘Muahaha, I’m evil!’ type of villain, her big crime isn’t that sinister: allowing Ariel to enter into a contract when she’s clearly a minor.

I clang on a lot about the necessary laziness of storytellers.  For folklore and fairytales, you sometimes need shortcuts to point out to the audience who is the evildoer.  All too often, this requires the audience to fill in the blanks with their prejudices.

Thus, in an underwater world of slender Caucasian women, Ursula is clearly the enemy because she has darker colours and a BMI greater than 18.5.  Although having tentacles and two nasty looking eels doesn’t help her win friends, her legalism is also a sort of unnatural evil.  Resorting to contracts and legal negotiations is no place for a woman — even one with tentacles and ugly eels.  Women should be interested in thingamabobs, whozits and whatzits galore.  The final demonstration of her evil is that she wants King Triton’s symbol of power — the Trident.

And why freaking not?  Nowhere in The Little Mermaid does Triton explain why he’s the rightful ruler of his soggy kingdom.  But we take it on trust that he’s correct; after all, Ursula has darker colours, is a woman, and is a darker fat woman.

Maleficient also struggles against conceptions of the correct colour skin, but also against the idea of how women should behave.  Here are the fairy godmothers:

Sleeping Beauty movie image Walt Disney

Pinkish skin.  Pastel colours.  Not at all sexually intimidating.  Compare and contrast with Maleficent:

sleeping-beauty-disney-movie-image-maleficentA very different picture.  Green skin.  Black clothes.  Menacing looking bird for good measure.

The plot of Sleeping Beauty links again with these ideas of a woman being evil if she moves outside her designated space.  Sure, cursing an infant to die on her sixteenth birthday is a bit of a jerk move, but compare her with the heroine of the story, Aurora, and you start to wonder if Maleficent wasn’t doing her a favour.  Aurora is betrothed to some boneheaded prince for the purpose of uniting a kingdom which, for all you know, has a policy of stomping on kittens.  The movie plays on our intuition that unified kingdoms are Good Things and anything which jeopardises that Good Thing is a Bad Thing.

In seriousness, why do we think the kingdom is so great that an arranged marriage is necessarily a good thing?  Because the non-threatening little women in the pastel colours are in its favour?  They are here in support of the arranged marriage.  Their gifts are to be pretty and have a great singing voice.  These are hardly the feminist icons or progressive philosophers.

Maleficent is clearly a utilitarian, viewing the removal of one person (the infant) as a necessary step in dismantling this insane feudalistic backwater where women are property to be traded for geopolitics.  That, of course, is really why she is evil: she sees Aurora as a means to an end rather than as an end in herself, and all consequentialists are evil or ignorant when you think about it, and Maleficent does not seem ignorant.

But back to the comparison with Aurora.  Maleficent has awesome powers.  Aurora is pretty.  Maleficent has ambitions.  Aurora wants to fall in love.  Maleficent gets shit done.  Aurora falls asleep and is awoken by a sufficiently aristocratic suitor.

But Grimhilde from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first and set the template.  All Grimhilde needed to do was look in a mirror and we knew she was evil.

grimhilde

Where Maleficent was all about breaking down the power structures of an oppressive kingdom, Grimhilde is in the position of tyrant (implied to be an illegitimate hold on the power).  In many ways reflecting the attitude of some women in senior positions towards younger women, Grimhilde is trying to kill off competition.  Even before she gets out the box and hires a woodsman, Grimhilde is considered vain, has the trappings of power, and — most importantly — is not in the company of men.  Snow White, in comparison, sings about finding true love, hangs out with cute animals, and ends up hanging out with seven men as their maid.

This gets us back to the Jezebel article:

Villains are goal-oriented, while princesses are content with a puffball dress and Ken doll beau. Villains don’t put virginal love on a pedestal. One could even argue that villains provide an opportunity to teach your children about making the right choices. (For example, don’t be covetous/kill Dalmatians. Also, chill out if you don’t get invited to a party! That was Maleficent’s chief issue, which I’ll admit is a tad superficial, although I’ll argue that there’s way more going on beneath the surface. And DRAGONS.)

Princesses are only princesses because of who their parents are or the man they marry. Villains don’t get it that easy. Villains shape their own lives. [Ibid.]

Looking at these three examples and seeing the similarities: they are transgressive characters, they are active participants in their story arc, they happily trash gender norms when it suits them, and happily utilise them when it suits (further, they have three entirely different understandings of attractiveness).  More than anything else, they are intelligent — much more intelligent than anybody else in their films.  If I had a daughter, these are the sorts of traits that I wish she’d emulate — not the vapidity and vacuity of the protagonists.

I’d tell my daughter: ‘They’re not considered evil because they do bad things.  They’re considered evil because ordinary — very ordinary — people don’t like women being anything other than mediocre.’

I’d hide the spinning wheels, though.

Phantom shadows on the floor… Wreck-It Ralph is utterly dreadful fun #reviews

I remember the first day I played Mario Kart 64.  I played as Donkey Kong because I was yet to discover that Wario was the better character.  It was less than ten minutes between my younger brother (it was his birthday present) opening the box and us racing around Luigi’s Circuit.  Ten minutes.

Thanks to Wreck-It Ralph, I can now imagine what it would have been like if that ten minutes instead lasted two hours.  Freak me sideways.

Wreck-It Ralph is a difficult movie to describe because it’s three mini-plots wrapped up into one film.

Ralph is a video game baddie.  In a moment of existential crisis, he attends a support group for other baddies where he learns the mantra that it’s good to be bad, being bad is okay, and it’s okay to be him.  For the film to end, Ralph must explore this mantra, whether he agrees with it, or whether there is another way for him to live.

Then there’s the story of Ralph trying to find acceptance within his society.  He is told that if he receives a MacGuffin called ‘A Hero’s Medal’, he will be rewarded with a penthouse and invited to live among the community.  For the film to end, Ralph must find this medal and return.

Then there’s the story of Vanellope.  Introduced about half way through the film, she steals the Ralph’s medal in order to enter a race in order to win the right to be considered a real person… or something.

In short, it’s a beautiful trainwreck of interviewing plots.  Vanellope enters the race, and then we explore Ralph’s story about coming to terms with his role in a programmed universe for about an hour or so.  Fortunately, there was enough time between registering for the race and the actual race.  They never would have had three quarters of this film if the logical thing (‘Okay, time to race!’) had occurred.  They even have to make a car for her.  For Jove’s sake.

Nothing about Sarah Silverman’s voice doesn’t annoy me.  For an hour, the audience has to endure her trying to sound even more infantile than she already does.  Why does Vanellope sound like her intellectual development was stunted?  Could it be due to the entire world in which she lives being made out of sugar?  You need to eat your eight serves of fruit and veggies, girl.

The film runs well and truly out of steam by the time a training montage appears.  Acknowledging this, characters end up acting in particularly strange ways in order to keep the plot moving along.  Oh, it turns out a bad guy did something that nobody can remember… but wouldn’t visitors from the other video games realise something was whack?  Oh, it turns out the King (who is excellent, by the way.  The voice actor — one of the non-events from Firefly — did an amazing job of impersonating Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland — although more people would recognise him as Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins) can give Ralph what he wants without all this Mario Kart gibberish?

What makes the film tank?  It tries really, really hard to be clever and insightful but, like most Disney morals, makes for uncomfortable thinking.  We are the way that we’re programmed.  If there isn’t a princess ruling everything, the world is somehow immoral.  We need to accept our lot in life.

It’s also a film that really doesn’t know who the target audience is.  References don’t make sense to kids, and yet the pre-teen market appears to be the target audience.  The film doesn’t work — as some children’s film try — as having two messages: the big shiny distracting message for the kids, and the innuendo, implied message for the adults.  But the video game characters are all from my generation, so there’s no connection for the current generation of children.  Perhaps that says something (terrible) about modern gaming.

The film most like it is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  At the heart of that film was an extremely clever trick: it associated Roger with well-known cartoons, making it feel like we were peering into a parallel universe a little bit like our own, except that Roger was just as famous as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Droopy Dog.  The trick doesn’t quite work in Wreck-It Ralph, where Ralph’s game is presented to us alongside characters from Street Fighter, Super Mario BrosSonic the Hedgehog, Altered Beast, Pac-Man, &c., &c., &c.  But the emotions that we have towards those characters never rubs off on Ralph like it does with Roger.

Which is a shame, because without that key ingredient, the other particularly clever ingredients go to waste.  Despite being modelled in 3D, the characters in Ralph’s game move in Game and Watch style rhythm, for example.  There’s a post-apocalyptic glow to the gaming universe when the orange ‘Out of Order’ is posted by the human owner of the arcade.  And references.  Tonnes, and tonnes of references.

All of that being said, despite noting every single (and there are many) flaw in this film and the fact that the film is, ultimately, extremely stupid…

… it is also  fantastic fun.

There’s something absorbing about the world presented.  You’re overcome with nostalgia for the characters who make cameo appearances in the world-between-gaming-worlds that you forget that you’re watching a shitty film and start to think about those games instead.  Many of the jokes work as one-liners.  Action pieces are engaging fluff and don’t drag too much.  And, it must be said again, the Mad Hatter King is simply fantastic.

In conclusion, wait for it to come out on television.

There’s math and there’s dealers and players and me… oh, and there’s submissive women in Disney movies

While it’s been around for a while, I highly recommend this post about Disney princesses.

The problem isn’t a new one: Disney does not always promote positive images of women.  It was a problem they inherited from the source material: folk stories do not always promote positive images of women.

While the Disney princess is all very terrible, not a lot of attention is placed on the Disney villain.  The default position is: if they’re male, they’re English; if they’re female, they’re hot.  This was particularly the case in early films: Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) and Grimhilde (Snow White).  Both evil, both smoking hot.  There’s a bit of deviation, but not much.

What’s interesting is that these female villains are very overtly sexualised.  They’re powerful and attractive, thus they’re evil.  The objects of the prince’s desire are cute, innocent, and require protection. Continue reading “There’s math and there’s dealers and players and me… oh, and there’s submissive women in Disney movies”