Gosh. I could write about things that aren’t stock photos OR classic epic poetry today. Huh. That being said, if you’re craving some classics, follow me on Twitter (@AnneBeanTweets) for my occasional live-tweets while reading Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Also, even though Stock Photo Hell is dead, long live Stock Photo Hell. The link there is about a video/PR campaign by the Republican party that disastrously backfired, not only because they used the hashtag #IAmARepublican but because the video seems to have been made almost entirely of stock photos. And as the Republican party trying to say how your members are diverse and interesting when in reality you searched “smiling Indian doctor” on iStockphoto.com for an image to use? Cheeeeesy.
But for real, in terms of my writing obsessions, can we talk about fairy tales? Specifically, can we talk about Jewish tales and legends?! Because they are the coolest. There are rampaging golems, vampires, a weaponized alphabet, demonesses stalking people from behind mirrors, magical artifacts, ghosts that possess the living (dybbuk), and more! A great starting place is to check out Howard Schwartz’s books of Jewish tales, such as Elijah’s Violin and Lilith’s Cave.
Recently I’ve been reading a collection of golem stories translated by Joachim Neugroschel. The book contains multiple stories by multiple folks including the classic 1921 play by H. Leivick. Right now I’ve been going through stories originally published by Yudl Rosenberg in 1909 that detail the exploits of the golem as raised by Rabbi Leyb of Prague. Rabbi Leyb, a.k.a. The Maharal, was a badass Rabbi/wizard who did subversive and heroic things to protect the Jews of Prague. The number one thing that endangered the Jews was the blood libel, i.e. Christians planting copious quantities of blood and/or the bodies of dead children in Jewish houses/the Jewish ghetto in order to convince everyone that Jews killed children. Never mind where the Christians were getting all these child-corpses from. (In one of the tales, a particularly nutty priest who’s been in a long feud with Rabbi Leyb actually kills a child to use in the blood libel. He is defeated by the golem and exposed for his fraud.)
So, for those of you who are not as obsessive about this stuff as me, a golem is a creature made of clay and brought to life by inscribing the word “emet” or “truth” in Hebrew on its forehead. In order to “kill” a golem, one rubs out the first letter of the word so that it reads “met” or “dead.” The golem cannot speak, and is inhumanly strong. I knew all this, coming into the Rosenberg stories. What I didn’t know was that the Golem of Prague had a name and occasionally got up to wacky hijinks. Joseph the Golem, a.k.a. the Golem of Prague, was one part protector and one part domestic servant. In fact, this one time there was an awkward situation where the Rabbi’s wife forgot to turn off the golem after she’d asked him to carry water and over flowed the…wait, doesn’t that sound a little bit familiar?
Apparently, as Neugroschel mentions in the introduction to the book, Goerthe based his symphonic poem on the golem story, and the rest, as they say, is history. I find it interesting to track where golem mythos shows up in modern culture, from The Thing (Ben Grimm is Jewish) to incarnations in The X Files and Sleepy Hollow.
An actual golem showed up in Saga of the Swamp Thing #11.
That’s all I’ve got. Join me next week for one or more of my usual obsessions: fairy tales, feminism, writing craft, and/or comics. Oh my.
So, I spoke a bit too soon about the Snow Queen. Disney has another Tangled-esque movie in the works called Frozen. It seems…loosely…based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, in the same way that Disney’s Little Mermaid is based only loosely on the Andersen tale.
“La la laaa…I don’t have a soul…and can only get one by marrying a man in a Christian ceremony…and also I die at the end…”
So in Frozen, the main “princess” is a Rapunzel with slightly different CGI attributes named Anna, who lives in Scandinavia. (At least they kept that bit. Although some have wondered, why not use a native Lapp character?)
Different hair and eye color mean TOTALLY different character, riiight?
So Anna replaces Gerda in the story, and there is no real Kay equivalent. Anna goes off to rescue her sister Elsa from, like, herself, ’cause her sister IS the Snow Queen.
Now, I’m all for sisters-rescuing-each-other tales. And I’m fine with ditching Gerda and Kay, for one because I think “Gerda” would be a hard sell as a Disney Princess name. But what about the weird and awesome supporting cast of the original tale? All dudes now. Yep. I’m not saying this will be the worst movie ever or anything, but it sure has been Disnified. And that means funny dude side-characters.
Yes, the reindeer and the snowman are also male.
One thing I didn’t properly think about until having a conversation with a friend about this movie was that in “The Snow Queen,” pretty much all of the supporting cast is women. Like, there’s one sort of incidental Prince, and the crow is male. But aside form that, there are: Gerda and Kay’s grandmother, the flower witch lady, all of her (female) flowers, the Princess, the crow’s girlfriend, the Little Robber Girl, the Finn woman, the Lapp woman, and the Snow Queen herself. That’s, with Gerda included, a whopping eight female characters, plus like five flowers. I don’t think there have been that many named, semi-significant female characters in a Disney movie like, ever. (Disney fans please geek-correct me here!) I mean, Disney cannot handle alive, non-evil mothers and several significant heroic females at the same time.
So, for four years I spent a LOT of time on a playground full of multi-racial, multi-ethnic kids from ages 3-6. And I had plenty of thoughts about how they played pretend. Of course there were subsets of kids who would play licensed-character games: superheroes, power rangers (occasionally, still a thing), Star Wars (sorry, everyone in my generation, but they play the prequels. I know. Shed a tear with me.), and of course, Princesses. And I think the way little girls play Princesses is deeply affected not just by the Disney aesthetic, but by its storytelling.
For one, there is no good role for boys in Princess games. They obviously can’t themselves be a Princess, and most of the Princes are so boring as to blend together into a generic mass of maleness. There are a few exceptions to the Boring Prince rule, (like what’s-his-face in Mulan. He’s cool, right? He does stuff.) but by and large there’s really no good boy roles unless a really dedicated boy wants to be the funny animal sidekick. I usually only saw that happen when a little boy REALLY wanted to play with some particular female friend or other. (“Ugh, okay, I guess you can be the dog.”) Otherwise, a boy would occasionally be co-opted as a villain for the sole purpose of chasing the girls around while they squealed.
For the most part, especially at age 4+, gender separated play is a thing. I don’t know how much it’s socially constructed (I, for one, did my part in starting gender-inclusive games of “superhero”, but that’s me) and how much it’s a biological imperative. I just know that little four and five-year-old girls love them some games of Princess. Here’s how it usually goes down: a ringleader or two will claim some of the best princesses for themselves and invite others to join in. The best princesses were usually sort of classic ones, to my surprise: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, even Snow White. Sometimes you’d see a Rapunzel, a Belle, or a Tiana (the one black girl in class, yes, did like to play Tiana. So did kids of other colors and races). Because this isn’t the 80s, I didn’t hear much Little Mermaid and never once did I hear anyone mention Princess Jasmine. Probably 50% of my school was of Indian heritage, so that shows you about how well 80s “multicultural” Disney film worked. In general, the Princesses sort of went off on adventures together. It was either a “dresses/go to the ball” type adventure or a “walk around and talk and climb on stuff” adventure or sometimes a “let’s have this boy chase us” adventure. They rarely re-enacted actual scenes from the movies, in part because they were always dealing with characters from multiple movies. Princesses, to me, felt like a “girly” equivalent of Superheroes, but with more social jockeying for position. Very rarely in Disney movies are two women of equal status seen working together.
I wonder what little girls’ games would look like if there were Disney movies with women working together, mothers that weren’t evil, and/or princes that had more personality and importance to the story than being a quest object. Huh. Next time someone’s asking why people are so frustrated at film’s lack of female main character representation, tell them to imagine being a guy and having most of the film canon be Disney Princess films.
Thoughts? Have you seen kids play differently than me? Do you have memories of your own childhood? What do you think about Frozen? Tell us in the comments, dearie-o.
…Seriously, next time I’ll do my top five villains Disney REALLY doesn’t want. Sorry for the holdout.
We interrupt your regular programming to bring you a link roundup, a feature which I am hoping to run weekly (likely on Wednesdays in the future). Oblivion Part Two will go up on Monday. But now for something completely different…
This week: Disney.
If you grew up in America, you are likely to have a relationship with Disney: Love it, hate it, obsess about it, love to hate it, have embarrassed unironic love for it, have unabashed unironic love for it, throw up in your mouth a little whenever you see it, whatever.
For the record, I tend to fall into the nerdrage/mouth throw-up camp. That being said, I really do enjoy singing Disney songs. This one time I directed a Kabuki play, and the all-male cast’s anthem was “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan. As culturally incorrect as you can get, but there’s still something fabulous about blasting that song in the theater with 11 guys belting it out.
Anyway. Disney links!
Let’s start with something positive! This cosplay is pretty badass!
This post about Tiana from Racialicious encapsulates the love/hate/rage feelings I get from Disney pretty well.
Remember that one time Disney actually tried to buy a holiday? Or rather, since they’re making a film about it, they wanted to, like, trademark it and stuff. And they thought that was okay, apparently just ’cause it came from another culture? Yeah, that time. (DID YOU CATCH THE BIT WHERE THEY WANTED TO MAKE DIA DE LOS MUERTOS CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS? BECAUSE I FIND THAT LIKE ALLCAPS RIDICULOUS.)
If you haven’t seen the Advice For Young Girls From a Cartoon Princess series from the Second City Network? Well, Ariel, Snow White, and Belle have some key advice for you.
And last but not least, did we all catch this talented youngster’s parody Disney Princess song? I think it’s adorable; I do wish that he went a little deeper with some of his points. Because there are much, MUCH deeper issues in Disney. I think he gets the closest in the Aladdin section. …Anyone up for making a Disney Prince one with me? Especially you’s folks who can sing? I have some devious ideas.
I’m sorry if I’ve wrecked anyone’s hopes and/or dreams. They were probably nebulous dreams that ended up being realized in the form of a prince ’cause that’s more convenient than figuring your shit out anyway. *cough*That is to say, sorry, here’s some adorable and only sometimes creepy pictures of Disney couples all dolled up for prom.
Post your Disney links in the comments! Sharing is Caring!
Lest the last post be too disparaging about fairy tale ladies in iffy marriage situations, let me bring a seriously rad lady to your attention:
SHAHRAZAD, heroine of The Arabian Nights
illustration from the Edumund Dulac edition
So here’s the deal with The Arabian Nights: it’s one large frame story with several smaller frame stories grouped inside of it. Tales within tales within tales.
This is accurate.
In the outmost story, the Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad seeks to save her own life and the lives of all the city’s women by telling the king stories and thus staying her execution. The entirety of the Nights is Shahrazad’s slow, clever campaign to save her society from its murderous leader.
So here’s what I always somehow misunderstood: Shahrazad willingly enters her situation with the King. For some reason, I thought she was just next up on the chopping block, a victim of circumstances.
But no, Shahrazad wants to marry the King. She actually blackmails her father into letting her marry a murderer. This is the total opposite western Animal Husband tales where, as Bruno Bettleheim puts it, the heroine goes to a beastly husband “because of love for or obedience to her father.”
So why does Shahrazad put herself in such a deadly situation? Because she’s one smart cookie. And she has a plan.
The first description of her doesn’t go on about her beauty (the number one trait of all Perrault and Grimm princesses), but her intelligence: “[She] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by hreat, had studied historial reports, and was acquainted with the saying of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.”
"Damn it, all *I* got were these really heavy earrings and a pet tiger that didn't actually rip anyone's throat out."
Shahrazad knows exactly what she wants to do, and lays it all out for her sister: “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice [of killing women], save myself, and deliver the people.” Even by Joseph Campbell’s standards, this is a large-scale, heroic goal.
Shahrazad chooses an incredibly clever setup for her time with King Shahrayar. Firstly, she brings her sister Dinarzad into the picture. Her plea to get Dinarzad in the bedroom is heartfelt and simple, “I have a sister, and I wish to bid good-bye before daybreak.” Of course Shahrayar sends for the sister, and at the opportune moment Dinarzad speaks the words for the first time that will become a refrain throughout the book: “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night…” Shahrazad asks permission, of course. But when the king agrees, he is entrapped.
illustration by Kay Neilsen
Shahrazad never gets quite all the way through a story on any given night, at least not without hinting at the next one. She never finishes the tale during the daytime, presumably because dawn is the time of her supposed execution. The king never demands her to finish except at night, when Dinarzad has again asked for a story. The king himself never asks for a story directly; Dinarzad becomes the innocent voice of the eager listener, and the catalyst of the storytelling. Shahrazad never pleads for her life with the King, she merely tells her sister what further amazing tales she has in store “if the king spares me and lets me live!” The King is never threatened or directly coerced, giving him the illusion of control. In fact, Shahrazad controls the stories, and thus the action, the whole time.
Within the stories themselves, there are a number of frame stories that bear a striking resemblance to Shahrazad’s situation. In one tale, three Dervishes must tell their tales or be executed by the fearsome mistress of a house in which they stayed. In another tale, a vizier named Ja’far must stay his execution by telling a strange story to his Caliph. In yet another, four characters plead for their lives to the King of China. There are several life-or-death situations.
Shahrazad unquestionably holds the most power in The Arabian Nights. She willingly throws herself into a deadly situation to save her people. She stops and starts the stories at will, aided by the soft, inoffensive voice of her sister. She succeeds at every heroic goal she set forth for herself. In the end, she wins the ultimate boon, saving not only of her life, but the lives of all the other women, and even the life of King Shahrayar. As translator Husain Haddawy notes, “Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man.” So, yeah, she got the guy in the end, but it was a kind of bonus effect after she saved the women of her culture from violent death.
Oddly, this does not all end in tears. (illus. Kay Neilsen)
By the way, if you want to pick up a copy and check it out, I highly recommend Husain Haddawy’s translation. It’s really readable and feels faithful to the source material. Also, he has a big honkin’ introduction about how Sir Richard Burton’s translations sucked….because Burton and others loved to Anglicize (and pontificate about) Eastern stories. It’s a proud Western tradition.
Snow White and the Sultan from Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham. The book in general is lovely and completely beautiful. But its frame story makes the actual character Shahrazad look all like she's a victim of circumstances following in Snow White's footsteps.
There are two volumes from Haddawy, The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. The second one has the more well-known stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, etc), but the first one has the beginning frame story with Shahrazad, which is the best bit in my opinion. Click on the pic for an Amazon link:
Translated by Husain Haddawy from the 14th century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi, published by Norton.
I highly recommend checking the tales out! They are approachable and worth experiencing firsthand. Besides, badass fairy tale ladies are a sight for sore eyes after the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.
I know you have a range of feelings and thoughts conjured by the term. In our culture, whether it’s nostalgia, irritation, boredom, hatred, glee, adoration, or nausea, Disney Princess movies probably mean something to you.
And I’ve got to take down everyone’s favorite darling today, my friends. The one that people say, “Well, I don’t like Disney Princess movies much, except….” Especially to my smart, bookish female friends, I apologize. (Here’s David Tennant looking sad to make you feel a little better.)
I am really so, so sorry.
We all know Snow White is creepily racist and Sleeping Beauty is a classic Damsel in Distress with no personal agency. We all know Cinderella’s Happily-Ever-After doesn’t deal with how creep-ass her baby crazy father-in-law is or what kind of a living hell her stepmother could make her life after marriage, much less how it’s a little weird to marry a dude you’ve met once.
But Disney became more enlightened later, I hear you cry. They started to have heroines that were active and intelligent and interesting. No beauties sleeping here!
Oh, yes. So it would seem.
But I’ve got to take down Beauty and the Beast. Because, ladies, for smart and bookish folk like us, it perpetrates a major lie.
…a delicious, delicious lie...
First of, we all love Belle:
*I* wander around town with my nose in a book too, but hey, that's me.
As a nerdy girl, I can connect to Belle. We’re introduced to Belle and her vague social awkwardness, bookish yearning, and awesome ability to outwit assholes with cunning. This is one likable, awesome girl.
I also hang around farm animals as part of my job every day. Clearly, Belle and I have plenty in common.
Unfortunately, this movie is not about Belle, or what she wants, or her getting what she wants.
Belle says that “There must be more than this provincial life,” and doesn’t really know what that might mean for her. She’s reading a lot of adventure stories, and seems to like the ones that have a lot of swashing and buckling. She is entranced with the romance in one of the stories with the Prince in disguise, which sets up her romance with Beast. “She doesn’t know it’s him ’til Chapter Three!” But she’s reading Count of Monte Cristo type adventure-romances, not Jane Austen type domestic tales. Clearly, Belle wants adventure, travel, and maybe some love, too.
Let’s keep in mind that Belle is not an ordinary peasant in the French countryside. She’s an inventor’s daughter. Her father makes crazy interesting stuff all the time. He is actually “something more than this provincial life.” Like most Disney heroines, Belle does not have a mother, nor any apparent grieving for/ongoing connection with her presumably dead mother. She puts all her love and energy into her father, but doesn’t think that *she* could be inventing things too, or seeking out actively the types of adventure that she reads about in her books. She has always believed in her father’s dreams–she says as much. But has he believed in hers? Has she dared to seek support in her dreams, aside from her dream of having more books?
…not that rampant book acquisition isn't a totally legit goal, too….
So who’s story is this, then?
From a storytelling perspective, it’s Beast’s. Allow me to go all Joseph Campbell* on your ass. (Actually, I’m going to go a bit Christopher Vogler on your ass, because he has adapted the monomyth to be a little more useful and less gendered. You can check out his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers if you want to know more.) The arrogant and unnamed Prince get a Call of Adventure in the form of a hideous old woman’s request for aid. He refuses the call, and with the Supernatural Aid of the enchantress, he is transformed into the Beast and thus over the threshold into the “special world” of his adventure.
Well, what about Belle? I hear you cry. Didn’t she get a call to adventure in the form of her father being abducted by the Beast? Yes, that happened more than a quarter of the way through the movie…and it wasn’t Belle’s call. Belle’s call was Gaston’s marriage proposal, which she refuses in order to pursue her dream of romantic adventure. The tragedy of the story is that Belle’s dream is ultimately tamed and made banal, much as Beast himself is made into a dull, Fabio-esque human prince at the end.
But let’s pause for a moment on Belle’s choice to save her father and enter the Beast’s servitude. This is one of the few active choices that Belle makes during the movie: she rides out to find her father (with an active, masculine horse that takes up a lot of screen time) and volunteers to take his place. Unlike the traditional fairy tale, in which her father comes back and tells her that he has bargained her away without her knowledge, Belle gets a choice in this version of the tale. We like that she gets a choice–she is active and a mistress of her own destiny, yes?
Well, it would be, if she was the one with the character arc and purpose for the rest of the film. The central section of the film is Beast campaigning strategically to win Belle’s affection.
Ladies: Read out loud to your abusers. It will help with the Stockholm Syndrome.
Beast is the one making active choices throughout the section of the film when Belle is in the castle. He campaigns to win her love, and thus serve his own ends by breaking the curse. The Ordeal (or midpoint) of the film comes when Belle wanders up to Beast’s chambers, he scares her away, and then follows her and rescues her from the wolves. Had Beast not made the choice to rescue Belle, the movie would have ended about halfway through with a gory wolf-related death, since Belle was not a match for a pack of hungry wolves. Beast then was close enough to Belle to make connections with her via showing her things she enjoyed–books, mainly–and learning table manners.
Belle, in the meantime, is going more or less with the flow. She reacts to external circumstances in a logical way, but she is a reactive character rather than an active character. Heck, good ol’ Gaston has more of an active campaign to get what he wants than Belle does. I mean, who thinks sending his future father-in-law to the madhouse is the best way to win a woman’s affection? (…not that it’s unappealing, I’m sure, but the point is most men have more self-control.)
I will win the girl with cunning use of chest hair!
Gaston’s obnoxious pitchfork-and-torch mob forces Beast to make his ultimate choice that brings about his death and resurrection. Beast commits the ultimate act of selfless love: he lets Belle go even though he knows he may die. Beast is unquestionably heroic. Belle, on the other hand, gets saved by a damn teacup. Seriously. She and her father would have been screwed without a teacup with an axe.
He's got an axe! He killed your family!
So at the end of the movie, Beast has nicely completed his character arc, becoming the Master of Both Worlds. He can be a Prince, but also love and be loved in return. Also, he got to live again with sparkly lights. Yay for Beast. Belle, on the other hand, may or may not have found more than the provincial life she was seeking. Sure, she has a castle full of servants and a nice husband and a library. But adventure? Debatable. Did she get what she wanted, really? Maybe. Maybe not. In many Disney Princess movies, the heroine states a vague yet passionate wish at the beginning that they do not explicitly reveal. Let’s hope it was a man, ’cause that’s what they’re getting.
Marriage and Happily-Ever-After. Totally the same thing. …right?
Still, the message here is disturbing. Smart, bookish women need only to find a monstrous man to tame, and all their dreams will come true. If there are no compatible men in your hometown, geek girl, simply go find a lonely guy with few social skills and change the crap out of him. It’ll work.
Fairy tale scholar Karen E. Rowe points out that “Romantic tales thus transmit to young women the rather alarming prophecy that marriage is an enchantment which will shield her from harsh realities outside the domestic realm and guarantee everlasting happiness.” I would like to think that we geeky ladies are beyond such and obvious trap, but how many of you wanted to be Belle?
I would be a bit remiss in my duty as an internet literate human if I didn’t include this gem as a finale (check out the whole series!):
Please, let me know what you think. Do you have hope for Belle, or these Disney stories? What reactions do you have to Disney Princesses?
*With whom I issues. At length. But that is, as they say, another tale for another time. Suffice it so say that he’s got a handle on Jungian male psychology and his monomyth is an appropriate vessel to pour the story out of.