It’s Not Right for a Woman To Read, or, A Makeover for Belle

If you’ve been following this blog for the last six months or so, you may have noticed that I underwent somewhat of a shift in my attitudes. I started out my research into fairy tales and Disney movies with a decided prejudice against the latter, pretty much convinced that the Disney adaptations of the fairy tales I’m studying (especially the old ones) are a dumbing down, a flattening and trivialization of the stories. But then, when I looked at the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty movies side-by-side with the Perrault and Grimms versions, and did all those readings about popular culture, about folklore, about folk culture, I started to change my mind. Disney got exonerated; I came to the conclusion that the Disney movies are just as valid a variant of the fairy tales as those of seventeenth-century French Baroque courtiers or nineteenth-century German Romantic philologists, and I rejected the naysayers and snobs who still continue to scorn Disney (CoughZipesCough).

Okay, so far so good. I’m going to keep writing on that track with the second half of my paper; I have yet to see anything about Beauty and the Beast and, to a limited extent, The Princess and the Frog, which would contradict this thesis. So, I think to myself, Disney is fine and dandy after all, and I need to just shelf my anti-Disney snobbery. But then – oh my goodness. I was researching Disney marketing, and I ran across – this: The Disney Princesses. Yes, I had heard about the Disney Princess line before, might even have briefly clicked on that website before. I also just read Peggy Orenstein’s very pithy Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which is all about little girls and the Princess culture. So I was aware of the phenomenon. But I had never really looked at it before, hadn’t paid attention.

Now, this may sound melodramatic, and it most likely is, but taking a close look at that website, I actually felt faintly nauseated. No, I don’t think it was the piece of toast I just ate. It was the sight of the utter pap they’re serving up to little girls on that web page. They’ve taken the heroines of the Disney movies, put them through a food mill, added artificial colouring, flavouring, and lots of high-fructose corn syrup, and extruded them back out into cookie-cutter-indentical pieces of sticky sweet blandness. Here I had just come to the conclusion that Disney did create some strong female role models little girls could aspire to, had just spent days musing over what a great heroine Belle is, and then this.

I mean, here, take a look at their “Belle” page. It starts right with her looks. In fact, most of the girls on the Princess page are indistinguishable from each other – change the colour of their skin, eyes, hair and gown, and you can’t tell one from the other. Disney has taken their own characters, and changed them from the way they were in their movies to a completely uniform look. The only one who mercifully escaped that process was Brave‘s Merida, and that only because an online petition against changing her looks garnered over 200,000 signatures (I think one of them may have been mine) and Disney bowed to the pressure. Too bad they couldn’t have done the same for Belle, but I guess she’s old news, so nobody cares that much.

Well, now Belle sports a Farah Fawcett hairdo; her hair has also grown about a foot since she hooked up with the Beast, and her dress is identical to most of the other girls’, except yellow. But that’s not the worst of it. What really, really gets my goat is the “activities” that are associated with her. If you remember the movie, what’s the first thing you learn about Belle? That she likes books. How does the Beast win her heart? By giving her a library. And what can you do on the website? You can play a game where she teaches the Beast to dance. You can play “Belle Dress Up”. Or you can read an article on “Fashion Tips From Belle”. The last one is the one that really has me fuming. Because, you see, the whole point of the character of Belle in the movie is that she doesn’t give a rip about looks; she wants books and adventure. You see the Beast having a bath and getting dressed, but unlike Cinderella, where the first view the reader gets of her is preening in her garret, and the movie spends quite a lot of time watching her get dressed and fussing over clothing, the only time Belle is seen even thinking about clothes is when her lady’s maid, the big enchanted wardrobe, tries to get her to put on a nice dress to go dine with the Beast – and Belle flat-out refuses. Gaston, the movie’s bad guy, is the one who’s concerned with looks, Belle is drawn as purposely opposite. Looks, and clothing, do not matter to her. Yes, of course she does eventually don the pretty dresses from the wardrobe, but you never see her doing so; her looks are unconscious. Belle does not think about clothes. But now that she’s a ‘Disney Princess’, apparently her brains have leaked out her ears and she’s become a fashionista. What a role model for little girls to aspire to. “Fashion Tips From Belle”, my foot! How about “Reader’s Advisory From Belle”? How about “Help Belle Choose Her Favourite Books” by way of a game, or “Help Belle to Organize Her Library”?

Oh, at least you can read about Belle’s story on her page; some of the other princesses only have an audio option. I’m sure that’s a big concession to Belle’s ruling passion. And we wouldn’t want to think that Disney makes no effort to support learning in little girls. After all, they have to be able to read, or how else will they be able to understand the product descriptions on the merchandise page? There’s gold-coloured slippers, a tiara, a light-up wand (wand? Uh, it was the enchantress cast the spell… But, whatever.), a iPhone 5 case… What, you’re looking for a book? Or even a bookmark? Or a nice, warm cloak to wear when you play outside with your horse or have a snowball fight with your friend? I’m sorry, Disney Princesses don’t need those. They’re too busy hanging out in their walk-in closets, trying on dresses. Which they can freely exchange with each other – all Disney Princesses are the same size and shape.

Looking at that Disney Princess website, you might almost think they’re sharing Gaston’s opinion: “It’s not right for a woman to read! Soon she gets ideas, and thinking…” I’m sure he’d fully approve of what Belle gets to do on her page. People’s looks are something he understands.

 

Kermit and the Prince

Twenty-five years ago, for about a year or so I worked as a nanny to three little girls. They had a VHS collection which they watched over and over, and one of the movies in their collection was this:

Jim Henson Presents: The Frog Prince (1971)

I watched that movie with the kids lots of times, and I can still recite quite a lot of the dialogue, and definitely sing most of the songs. It’s a Muppet version of The Frog Prince – what’s not to like? No, Kermit isn’t the prince, he’s the narrator. It’s his nephew Robin who plays the Prince, Sir Robin the Brave (cue song: “They call me Sir Robin the Brave / And history one day will rave / I’m valiant and daring / And noble of bearing / Courageous and gallant / A mountain of talent; / No wonder folks curtsy and wave! / I’m Robin – Sir Robin! – the Brave.”). Apparently that was Robin’s first appearance on the Muppet scene. Another first appearance was Sweetums; he’s the witch’s ogre. I guess they got signed on permanently as actors after they did such a great job on this.

Anyway, it’s a cute movie. In this one, the princess has a curse as well as the prince: she speaks Pig Latin, pretty much (reverses her words, or weverses her rords), and only the Frog can understand her. The princess is also much nicer than her counterpart in the Grimms’ version; she doesn’t break her word, but immediately agrees to be Robin’s friend, and is even ready to kiss him (yes, of course they’re doing the variant with the kiss), except the witch keeps interfering. Well, I won’t give away too much, have to keep up the suspense, dontcha know. Because, of course, you have no idea what might happen in this story, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. Be assured, it ends happily. And the princess has amazing 70s hairdos. And Kermit is as green as it gets.

You know, I was watching Muppets Most Wanted the other day, and Kermit hasn’t aged a bit in the 43 years since The Frog Prince. You gotta hand it to him, he’s one actor who’s kept fit.

Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête

I just watched Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête again, after I did a careful study of the Mme de Villeneuve and the Mme de Beaumont versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. And I’m afraid I have to admit to being a philistine. It’s sad but true: I prefer the Disney movie over Cocteau. Now, some of that might be sheer snarkiness – I’ve been told Cocteau is quality, and Disney is not; told to study Cocteau over Disney; so I go “Hmph!” and set out to find fault with Cocteau. See, I really love the Disney Beauty and the Beast – it’s probably the only Disney cartoon of which I can say that unabashedly (I also really like Enchanted, but that’s a cartoon/live-action mix and pretty much a parody, so not quite in the same category). So if my favourite is being put down in comparison with another, I’m inclined to be prejudiced against that other.

Okay, backing up a bit: saying I set out to find fault with Cocteau isn’t quite true. It’s more like I watched with a critical eye, not entirely ready to be charmed. And there’s no doubt about it: Cocteau’s movie is a masterpiece of film making. It’s very much an “art” film, very beautiful, ethereal, and deep. It was shot right after the end of the war, just after the Nazi occupation of France ended, and they were up against a lot of difficulties – even simple things like procuring enough materials for the set, which would have been unimaginable even for American film makers of the day, let alone today’s studios. That material and financial shortage was also responsible for the film’s being shot in black-and-white; they just couldn’t afford colour. Personally, I find that’s part of the difficulty I have with the movie – there are short bits of scenes where I don’t get what I’m seeing, the visuals don’t make sense. Black-and-white movies are, to me, dated classics; I find it hard to get into them, to really identify with the characters. The same goes, in this case, for the mise en scène, the setting. The male lead, Jean Marais, who plays the Beast, the Prince, and Beauty’s rejected suitor Avenant, is just too pretty for me, in that 40s style of extremely polished handsomeness, blond hair waves set just so, square jaw being oh-so-square (I also don’t admire Cary Grant the way I doubtlessly should, for the same reason). And Josette Day, who is fantastically beautiful, is just so, so – I don’t know, ethereal? Just a bit too much for me. However, that’s entirely my personal taste, not proper criticism. As is my dislike for the gothic – and this movie is nothing if not gothic. Beauty eerily drifts through long corridors with white curtains wafting at her; the Beast alternately smolders (literally – he’s got smoke rising from the ends of his fingers when he really gets the hots for Beauty), looks creepy with a blood-smeared mouth after a kill, and pathetic; disembodied arms hold up candelabra along yet more endless corridors; there are animated faces in the fireplace surround rolling their eyes at Beauty as she paces, waiting for the Beast to come. And all of that is set to the dissonance of a score which kind of sets your nerves on edge – well, at least it does for me. Add to that that the whole thing is just so slow. Both Beauty and the Beast just waft about, moving slowly, gracefully in her case, stiffly and awkwardly in his – he looks like a guy walking in plate armour; I’m not sure if that’s intentional, or the effect of being in very heavy makeup. And that’s the other thing about him – his looks. There isn’t really a whole lot you can do with a man playing a beast, you’re pretty much stuck with a mask or makeup. Well, to me, he looks like Chewbacca with fangs, which I don’t find all that attractive. I know there are many who would strenuously disagree with me; I’ve read more than one account of this movie by women who find Jean Marais’ Beast incredibly sexy (Marina Warner is one, in an article printed in my DVD insert booklet, and Alex Flinn, who wrote Beastly, is another).

Cocteau credits Mme de Beaumont as his hyptotext. And he certainly sticks quite closely to her version of the tale – two wickedly jealous sisters and all, full Cinderella-style. But one thing I’ve never seen anyone mention is that Cocteau was obviously also quite familiar with Mme de Villeneuve’s version. For example, the horse that’s in the movie is lifted right from the pages of de Villeneuve, but never appears in de Beaumont. In the film, the Beast puts Beauty’s father on a white horse by the name of Magnifique, which takes him straight home, and arrives again later to collect Beauty. In de Beaumont, he rides his own horse home; but in de Villeneuve, he is given a “magnificent horse” which takes him home and back to the castle, while his own horse has to find its own way. Now, as I mentioned before, I don’t know French, but I think there’s some resemblance between a magic horse named Magnifique and “un cheval magnifique” which happens to be magic, no? Another possible nod to de Villeneuve might be that Beauty’s sisters ask the father for a parrot and a monkey, which are exactly the kinds of pets Beauty gets in the Beast’s castle (de Beaumont leaves out the monkeys, though she does keep the parrots). Also, de Villeneuve makes a much bigger deal out of Beauty having lots of other suitors; I would be surprised if the character of Avenant wasn’t at least in part inspired by them. One more thing, and I didn’t come up with this idea myself, is that Cocteau also borrowed from another fairy tale writer, Mme d’Aulnoy: the disembodied hands serving Beauty in the Beast’s castle are taken straight from d’Aulnoy’s fairy tale “The White Cat” (La Chatte Blanche), which is a reverse “Beauty and the Beast” (a prince ends up in an enchanted castle and falls in love with a white cat, who turns out to be a princess). So, in other words, Cocteau didn’t just stick to Mme de Beaumont, he freely borrowed from other writers.

And then he made up some stuff himself (I think), and that’s where it gets quite surreal. What’s with that “Diana’s temple” thing? Briefly, the Beast explains to Beauty that he holds all he has by magic (because, you know, being a talking beast is totally un-magical), and that all his wealth lies in this little temple of Diana on the grounds of the castle, which he is not allowed to enter. He gives the key to Beauty. When she goes to visit her family, she tells her brother and his friend Avenant about this. They steal the key, and then go after the Beast to kill him and rob the treasure (the prototype of Gaston in the Disney version). They decide against using the key (so what was the point of the thing in the first place?!?) and just bust in through the glass roof, whereupon Avenant gets shot by the statue of Diana in this temple – right at the moment when the Beast is dying in Beauty’s arms a few hundred metres away. The arrow hits Avenant, and he turns into the Beast and dies – and the Beast, right then, transforms into the Prince (all played by the same actor, I’ll have you remember). Umm – I don’t get it… It’s not Beauty’s love that transforms him, but his rival being shot by Diana? And the rival is now the dead Beast? And what’s Diana doing in the story all of a sudden, anyway? I’m sorry, that’s just a little to surreal for me.

The other thing I have a hard time buying is rather a key point – I have difficulties believing the love story. Not, as I’ve mentioned, finding the Beast terribly attractive myself, I can’t see what Beauty sees in him, and Cocteau never develops their relationship. Where de Villeneuve and de Beaumont tell of Beauty’s increasing attraction to the Beast, and Disney shows it with library scenes and snowball fights, Cocteau – well, doesn’t. There doesn’t seem to be much that changes about either of them, that gives a reason for why Beauty should love the Beast now, when she found him repulsive before. There just isn’t enough to hold my interest in the story the way Cocteau tells it. But then, as I said, that’s mostly personal taste – being a philistine and all, not appreciating surrealist films telling gothic stories.

Maybe I’ll go watch my favourite Belle and Beast waltzing while Angela Lansbury sings “Tale As Old As Time” now. It won an academy award.

What’s in a Screenplay Writer?

After finding out about Linda Woolverton yesterday, I did a quick and cursory count of Disney’s screenplay writers and found, courtesy of their Wikipedia pages, that of the Disney fairy tale films (I didn’t look at their other movies, just those few), up until last year Linda Woolverton actually was the last female screenplay writer – well, the only one credited for the screenplay by herself. On Mulan, it was three men and two women; and on Brave, two men and two women, one of whom was also Disney’s first female director and is solely credited with the story; so I think that film can definitely be considered a “woman’s movie”, too. But then this last year there have been two big Disney fairy tale movies with a woman getting the sole credit for the screenplay: Frozen and Maleficent.

Methinks I see a pattern: Beauty & the Beast, Brave, Frozen, Maleficent. Belle is the first Disney fairy tale heroine who does not pine for a prince (her dream is to find adventure). And the other three are movies about the relationships of women; princes, if they’re even around, are just sort of window dressing. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There was one point made in the article about Linda Woolverton that caught my attention: Woolverton definitely had to navigate a male-dominated field. “In one scene,” the article says, “the screenplay had Belle pushing pins into a map of the world–places she wanted to visit–while waiting for her father to return. When Woolverton saw the segment on the storyboard, however, she found her heroine decorating a cake.” Apparently both world map and cake were ultimately dropped in favour of a scene of Belle reading, but don’t you think that’s interesting? Even in 1991, an animator thought it was more likely a girl would be baking than travelling the world.

When we pick apart movies for their elements, feminist or otherwise, we tend to look through our here-and-now lenses and forget how much things have changed. Beauty and the Beast has been picked on for not being feminist enough – but look what it was up against.

I think Woolverton and everyone else did a pretty awesome job on this movie, and I’m not the only one: it was nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Picture” category. That’s up against every other movie out there that year, live-action and otherwise! If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. And I’d like to think that Woolverton’s screenplay had a whole lot to do with it.

The Things You Can Find

I’m digging into the Disney Beauty and the Beast right now. And looking it up online, I found an interesting bit of trivia: the screenplay writer was Linda Woolverton, which made her the first woman to write a Disney animated feature (which definitely shows in the movie, especially contrasted with previous Disney movies). Now, the interesting thing? She also wrote the screenplay for Maleficent.

I found an old article from the Los Angeles Times from January 1992, just after the release of Beauty and the Beast. (I remember standing around waiting to be seated in a restaurant right about that time, and seeing the poster for the movie. The person I was with jokingly suggested we go see it, which I had no interest in as I had never heard the story and wasn’t really into cinema movies – I could count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in the theatre at that point. Later I watched the B&B movie on VHS, and absolutely fell in love with it; and later still I discovered that going to the movies is one of my most favourite things to do, ever. Ancient history… and entirely beside the point.) Anyway, that article: it’s called “Ms. Beauty and the Beast: Writer of Disney Hit Explains Her ‘Woman of the ’90s'”. What had me crowing out loud in triumph was this line: “Woolverton, fearful of being influenced by the imagery of the Jean Cocteau film version, decided not to watch it.” See, I just finished copying a line from Zipes where he calls Disney’s accrediting the de Beaumont version of the story as hypotext for the movie “outrageous”, as, he claims, most of the plot and characters of the Disney film are ripped off lock, stock and barrel from Cocteau. Haha. Of course, the fact that the scriptwriter purposely hadn’t watched Cocteau doesn’t mean that others who were involved in the making of the film hadn’t done so – the article quotes Woolverton as saying “‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a group effort, one in which 500 people wore pencils down to their nubs” – so, sure, the influence of Cocteau is in there. But as for the plot and characters being “copied” from Cocteau, nope.

Anyway, it’s all very interesting about Linda Woolverton. Now I’m going to look up who the screenplay writers for the other newer Disney movies were; it’ll be interesting to do a quick comparison of the ones written by men with those written by women (I certainly hope that Woolverton wasn’t also the last female Disney screenplay writer). I know the old Disney movies were solidly staffed by men; I remember watching an old “making of” featurette for Snow White from 1938 which proudly showed all the animators and technical people and storytellers and so on, and then at the end of the process the ‘girls’ in the colouring department – all women had to do with the making of those quintessential princess movies was to neatly colour inside the lines on the celluloid. It absolutely stuck in my craw. And what was most eye-opening about it was the tone of the featurette’s narrator – he seemed to think that was perfectly normal, the natural order of things. No wonder the movies are what they are, with their paternalistic attitudes and featherwitted princesses who can only pine for a man – that’s the world they were created in, and the people they were created by. We’ve come a long ways today – hurrah for Linda Woolverton!

Coming Off the Pedestal

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last ten months. A lot. And in the course of that reading, I found myself going through an interesting process. I learned things. I found theories and scholars I had never heard about before, but they made heaps of sense (very exciting!). I eagerly lapped up what they had to say. I put them up on a pedestal. I read more stuff. And more. And one day, I found myself disagreeing with a Great Scholar. Just on one small thing; I shrugged it off. I read more, and learned more. And thought more. And I disagreed again, this time more strongly. And repeatedly. As I kept learning, my ideas changed. Not only did the pile of books on my desk grow, my thinking did, as well. And now here I am, nearing the end of my studies, and I have – opinions. Okay, I know anyone reading this who knows me personally is laughing now – I’m not exactly known for my scarcity of opinions and shyness in expressing them, in a general way. But now I have opinions on a particular subject, which came from actually studying it. I do, in a small way, have something to say about folkloristics. Perhaps I’d even go so far as to call myself an embryonic folklorist – or maybe just, like some, a fairy tale fan. And as such, I disagree with some of the Greats in the field, on a few things.

Okay, with one Great in particular (I’m sure you already know where this is going): Jack Zipes. I first started reading him back in September, on my prof’s recommendation (and very grateful I am for that recommendation, too). I was thrilled, I loved what he had to say. And really, he is great. The amount of insight I got from his writings is quite staggering. I was wishing I could go study under him, but quite apart from the fact that he was working at the University of Minnesota, which is a long ways from here, he’s retired now. Too bad. I kept getting more of his books out of the library, and then bought my own copies for keeps; they’re that good. But as I kept reading, amid all the wonderful stuff I was learning I ran across points where I didn’t like what he was saying. The first thing was his disparaging opinion of Harry Potter. I was ready to make excuses for him – he’d been pushed into expressing an opinion, he wrote about the series when it was only half finished, etc. But then I delved deeper into the study of fairy tale film adaptations, and got a hold of one of his latest books, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy Tale Films (2010). And as I kept reading, some of what he was saying kept rubbing me the wrong way. I found myself getting annoyed with his dismissive tone, his hypercritical and condescending attitude to particular popular culture products. And finally, here I was, just this afternoon, reading the chapter on Beauty and the Beast and Frog Prince adaptations, and I was loudly disagreeing with half the chapter (“That’s baloney!” “Gimme a break!” – yes, I know I’m weird, but my family is used to it) – that’s when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at what he was saying. That’s right, the guru has come off his pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong – I still have enormous respect for Dr. Zipes, and probably 95% of his writings are excellent. But there are certain topics where I just find myself at odds with his opinions, and they are just that, opinions. Specifically, it’s dealing with popular culture where my ideas clash with his. Now, as I mentioned before, I’m not a big Disney fan. I’m not sure if any real fairy tale buff can be. But Zipes, it’s like you mention the name Disney, and the shutters come down. “What good can come from Disney Studios?” Nothing, apparently. By definition. He goes into enormous raptures about the Cocteau Beauty and the Beast, which I personally find so-so (okay, I’m hampered by my lack of French; I can only follow the story with the subtitles, but still, I don’t quite know what the fuss is about), but the Disney version, which I love, is in Zipes’ opinion pretty much despicable. The feminist themes in it are a sham, the whole thing is same-old-same-old Disney flatness, the music is trite, etc etc. In fact, reading what Zipes says about it, I can’t help but get the feeling that as soon as he sees the name “Disney” on a screen, he doesn’t even bother paying attention to what he is watching, because his mind is already made up. Some of the comments he makes about the movie are plain old wrong. For example, he says that the Beast rescues Belle and then dies in her arms, which is baloney – the Beast’s battle with Gaston is for his own sake, Belle is neither threatened nor anywhere close by at that moment. Dismissing a text for something that’s not even in it is, I’m afraid to say, just shoddy scholarship.

On the other hand, I found myself slightly amused to find that Zipes is very much in favour of films that came out of the old Eastern bloc countries. Now, I do agree that the Czech and DEFA (East German) films are pretty fabulous. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a scholar whose work is based on the ideas of the Frankfurt School (a form of Marxist scholarship) likes movies from communist countries? And dislikes anything that is commercially successful such as Harry Potter and the Disney empire?

About the only movies I find myself agreeing with Zipes on, other than the Czech/German ones, are the Shrek series. Well, he can appreciate their subversiveness and humour, because DreamWorks isn’t Disney. The subversiveness of Disney’s Enchanted, on the other hand, doesn’t count…

So those are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind this afternoon as I was loudly arguing with Dr. Zipes in an empty room. He’s come off the pedestal I stuck him on (entirely unasked for on his part, I might add). The learning curve of finding a guru, and then un-finding him again, has been interesting. It’s an empowering thing to be able to look at what even the greatest scholars say with a critical eye, to find in yourself the temerity to disagree with authority.