In Which We Rescue the Fairy Tale

Before being co-opted by Uncle Walt (and, for that matter, the Brothers Grimm), the medieval, European fairy tales were a women's medium, an oral tradition shared over long hours of repetitive work, such as spinning (that's where "spinsters" comes from...). The tales were the entertainment of their day: the movies, the TV, even the porn (did you really think that Rapunzel and the Prince just talked in that tower?). The Grimms recorded the tales of their time and place, but as their compendium went through a variety of reprints--and as the stories became aimed at children--the brothers took out the sex (especially the pervasiveness of incest as the motivation for a heroine's flight) and amped up the violence. They figured, like many of the day, that scaring the beejezus  out of kids would get them to  behave. Personally, I love fairy tales and there are those (such as Bruno Bettelheim) who insist that you should read them, gore and all, to even the smallest children. That makes this modern mommy queasy, but I do think they're great for older girls and I still love reading them as an adult. The Disney animators' brushes have painted the heroines as passive and the prince as the savior, but in fact, that's not how many of the story goes. There are some great tales of female feistiness, cleverness and heroics. Most are waaaaay to bloody for girls (some that aren't are on my resources page). But for those of you over, say, twelve, I'd suggest starting with the following, which you can find online, along with many others, at SurLaLune Fairy Tales:

Fitcher's Bird

The Girl Without Hands

The Robber Bridegroom

Bluebeard

All-Kinds-of-Fur

Tatterhood

Fairy and folk tales  of  female bravery can be found in every culture.  Also check out Alison Lurie's book, Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Fairy Tales, some of which can be shared (or altered to share) with little girls.

My favorite physical version of the Grimms' stories is Maria Tatar's The Annotated Brothers Grimm. You can't beat it. Great on discussing women's roles as well. I'd also suggest Jane Yolen's Not One Damsel in Distress, The Serpent Slayer, and Lady of Ten Thousand Names. Each has some stories within that are appropriate for little ones.

Start with those, then just keep on going! Enjoy!

 

Disney Princesses: The Gateway Drug

I just received a press release (excerpted below) below from the Disney Store. Those  pseudo-empowering" Rapunzels and Belles are just  bait-and-switch for trusting parents. The big money--the REAL money (the $5 BILLION a year) is creating and selling to what here is called the "Princess Fashionista" and then keeping her business and loyalty as she reaches the high-spending tweens and beyond. Interesting  that girls here are no longer encouraged by Disney to live HAPPILY ever after but STYLISHLY ever after. Hence my theory that really, the thing to be concerned about these days is NOT the rescued-by-the-prince fantasy  so much as the way today's Princess culture  girls to a of femininity that is  sexualized, narcissistic, self-objectifying, vain, commercialized, self-objectifying....and need I say UNHEALTHY?

 

Fashionistas receive the royal treatment with an enchanted evening of pampering and accessorizing, Disney-style

PASADENA, Calif., September 7, 2011–Disney Store will celebrate New York City’s Fashion’s Night Out with an event fit for royalty, inspiring its guests to live ‘stylish ever after’. Disney Store Times Square will host an array of fashionably fun festivities on September 8, 2011 from 4 p.m.-11 p.m., highlighting the newest Disney-inspired lifestyle product lines. Guests will be treated to a magical evening including free mini-manicures with the new runway-inspired Disney Princess Designer Collection nail polish, featuring hues ranging from Snow White's luscious apple red to Belle's gleaming gold. Guests will be able to customize their very own bracelet at the Kidada for Disney Store charm bar, and be the first to get a sneak preview of the latest Disney Store fragrance inspired by Tinker Bell—Pixie Dust.

“We’ve created products that tell Disney stories with a fashion-forward spin with the goal to keep our guests excited and looking forward to what is coming up next,” said Robin Beuthin, vice president of creative for Disney Store North America.

Disney Store’s new Pixie Dust fragrance...captures Tinker Bell's personality perfectly – it charms with a subtle sweetness yet it also has a hint of sassiness that we love about the beloved Disney character.  Pixie Dust comes as a range of personal products including Eau de Toilette, Body Mist and Body Lotion, available in all Disney Store locations in fall 2011. Gift sets with body glitter, a roll on Eau de Toilette and lip gloss will also be available.

Here are some of the new products:

 

Yes, this is for your preschooler.

 

No that is not the new OPI line. It is, again, for your preschooler .

And, oh no, look what they've done to poor Mulan!!!

 

 

Sigh. Honestly, do you WANT your 3-year-old to be "fashion forward?" Do you want her even to know what that phrase means? And by the by, why does a preschooler need perfume, let alone one with a "sassy" edge?  Don't children  smell perfectly delicious as they are (assuming they are potty trained)?

Oh, and in other Mouse House news, Andy Mooney, creator of the Disney Princess line and head of consumer licensing for the past 12 years, resigned yesterday. Unclear where he will go but in an email to  his staff and colleagues he wrote, Together, we have radically changed the licensing business." Damn. You can say that again.

Jennifer Lawrence--The Anti-Bella?

The first "Hunger Games" movie is set to hit theaters in March. The next one was just announced as well, set for November 2013. Both will star Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She's a little old for the part, true, but I A*D*O*R*E*D* her in Winter's Bone which was one of the best movies I've seen in years (MUST SEE MUST SEE MUST SEE). So I am crossing my fingers that she will be the anti-Bella......  

Pixar's Female Problem: Please Stop Asking Me, "What About Jessie?"

Awhile ago I posted some art for Pixar's upcoming film Brave, its first with a female protagonist. And, naturally, I pointed out that Pixar has seemed almost perversely incapable of creating a female protagonist and how utterly offensive that is since they've made films about Anyway, among the comments someone inevitably asked "What about Jessie?

What about Sally in Cars?"

 

I started to answer and then realized this deserved its own entire post. So here goes.

Let me begin with this: if a studio as innovative as Pixar made 12--that's TWELVE-- films with female protagonists and a few had perhaps 1 or 2 strong tertiary characters were who were male and maybe 1 in 10 male characters with ANY speaking parts at ALL  wouldn't you think that was a teensy-weensy bit disproportionate, minimally a failure of imagination and maximally openly hostile  in its dismissal of boys and men?

Would it feel an adequate comeback if I shrugged and said, well, there were kick-ass guy side characters who was love interests in one or two films. Jessie is great, yes she is. But guess what: THE FILM IS NOT ABOUT JESSIE. It's about Woody. And Cars is not about what the comment referred to as the "Spunky Attorney Car" (Jeez, does she even have a name)? It's about Lightening McQueen. It is NOT the same thing, and to even intimate that it is shows how inured you have become to the fact that  female characters so rarely play the central role. We are happy with the crumbs of being "strong" but completely unnecessary (really) side characters.

In Pixar's films, maleness has consistently been presented as "universal" as neutral. while femaleness is singular, and--even when a character is "strong"--she is  inevitably imbued with those particular stereotypically female characteristics: she is a love interest or a helper. She is caring. She checks out her butt in the mirror. It has never once been HER experience, HER feelings, HER complexity or crisis that drives the narrative. If it were the opposite and Pixar had NEVER made a film in which a male character's quest drove  the story wouldn't you find that a smidge odd?

In a marvelous post on this subject which I have only just now found, the blog Vast Public Indifference , written by a former elementary school teacher, asks: Why did Remy HAVE to be a male rat? Couldn't  Linguini have been female? What if Wall-E were a female robot? Or had no sex?

This blogger goes through every Pixar film, cleverly breaking it down for you so I don't have to. In fact,  I'm just going to repost her rundown here (it's from 2008. so before Up and Toy Story 3) I wish I knew her name, but I hope that posting this with her blog linked above counts as giving her credit where it is amply due. She says:

Toy Story: This buddy movie revolves around the rivalry/friendship between two male characters, Woody and Buzz. Female characters: Andy's Mom, Bo Peep, Mrs. Potato Head, Sid's sister Hannah, Baby Molly (we're scraping the bottom of the barrel here).

Grrl Power score: 0/10. The women in this story are almost entirely irrelevant.

A Bug's Life: This adventure story concerns the efforts of a male ant (Flik) who sets out on an adventure to save the colony from the wrath of a grasshopper gang. Interestingly enough, real male ants do nothing but eat and fertilize eggs, so Pixar had to go out on a limb to make this character male. [note from me (Peggy)-I point this out ALL THE TIME. Any ant you see out in the world is female. Same with Bees. So that Jerry Seinfeld Bee Movie? All those bees would beeeee female. Not in this man's Hollywood, though. Transgender bees! What next?] Female characters: Dot, Princess Atta, The Queen, Gypsy, Rosie.

Gender Equity score: 1/10. This film gets points for having more than three female characters (out of a main cast of 17). Unfortunately, I had to deduct points for the writers' going out of their way to turn a female-dominated community into a male-dominated movie. To what end?

Toy Story 2: More Woody and Buzz. But now we have Jessie! Jessie is awesome and we love her. Too bad the story is still about Woody's existential crisis. Female characters: Jessie, minor toys (Tour Guide Barbie, Mrs. Potato Head, etc.), Andy's Mom.

Girls Rock score: 3/10. Jessie scores three points all by herself for being present, having a personality, and kicking ass. But the movie isn't about her.

Monsters, Inc.: Another buddy movie about two dudes, Mike and Sully. Female characters: Boo, Celia, Roz.

Feminist Statement score: 1/10. Boo is adorable and Roz turns out to be Agent 001 of the CDC. But seriously, what little kid loves to play with her Roz action figure? Finding Nemo: Father/son bonding film featuring a male clownfish (Marlin) and his son (Nemo). I'm all for movies about fathers and sons and, in fact, this is my favorite of all Pixar movies. Still, Nemo doesn't put female characters front and center, and it probably shouldn't, considering the subject matter. If it were only one male-dominated movie in a well-balanced oeuvre, I wouldn't have a problem. Female characters: Nemo's dead mom (Coral), Dory, Peach, Deb, Darla.

Ally score: 2/10. Points for having an important female character. Not too many, though, since she is squarely in the selfless helper/moral center role. Should I give points for making 2 of the 8 fish in Nemo's tank female? Should I just be happy that any are female and not quibble on the 25% issue? Also, the elementary school teacher fish is male. Maybe because he's a science teacher.

The Incredibles: The story of Bob Parr's midlife crisis and how his family deals with it. Perhaps that's a little unfair — the whole family has problems that they work through in this film. Still, Bob's story drives the action. It's called The Incredibles, not Elastigirl Saves Your Whiny Ass. Female characters: Elastigirl/Helen, Violet, Mirage, Edna, Frozone's wife's disembodied voice.

Womanpower score: 5/10. Helen is a developed character with feelings and motivations. That gets us halfway there, even though almost all of the other superheroes are male (for no good reason). Cars: Douchebag hotshot (male) racecar Lightning McQueen reenacts Doc Hollywood. I hated this movie. Female characters: Sally Carrera, Flo, Lizzie.

Girls Are Not Just Objects of Male Desire score: 0/10. Honestly, Wikipedia lists 15 residents of Radiator Springs. Three are female. Also, girls can't be on Lightning's pit crew, but they can be his silly, preening fans. Ye Gods.

Ratatouille: Male rat (Remy) dreams of becoming chef and achieves his goal even though movie sidetracks to cover ludicrous and unnecessary romance between humans part way through. This is the kind of shit that bothers me: Why is it important that the rat have a penis? Couldn't Remy have been written for a female lead? Why not? Collette's right — the restaurant business is tough for women, especially when even the fictional rat-as-chef barrier can only be broken by a male character. Female characters: Colette, that old lady with the gun, um . . . maybe some patrons?

More than a Token score: 1/10. ZOMG, we have one female character. We'd better make her fall inexplicably in love with the bumbling Linguini, stat!

WALL-E: Robot somehow acquires human gender characteristics, strives to clean up earth, goes on adventure to space. Why does WALL-E need to be male? Why does EVE need to be female? Couldn't they both be gender ambiguous and still fall in love? That would have been a bold move, but I think it's safe to say that Pixar is less than bold on the gender front. "Hey, guys, we have this robot with no inherent gender identity. We want to give it an arbitrary gender. Maybe we could make it female. Yeah, no, that would just just be ridiculous." Female characters: EVE, Mary, maybe some of the dead ex-captains of the Axiom

Challenging Gender Stereotypes score: 2/10. EVE is the competent scientist-bot. Still, making something that is inherently genderless male because male=neutral is bullshit.

This is where the blog post becomes out of date. She surmises (correctly) that Up will be "another buddy movie about two guys. See: Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc." What she did not realize, of course, was that the only female character in the film died after the first 10 minutes. Nice.  And of course there was Toy Story 3. Jessie is back, this time more actively girlie. And Barbie, though amusing, is Barbie. I imagine her score would hover around 3/10.

And that brings us up to Brave (I am ignoring Cars 2 for obvious reasons. I talk about Brave in CAMD. Maybe it will be a great film--it probably will be--but it still irritates me that a team as creative as Pixar's, which has imagined so many extraordinary male characters, can't imagine a female protagonist unless she's a bloody princess. On this one,  Vast Public Indifference says:

OOOOOH! Somebody told Pixar that they needed to make a movie with a girl as the main character! So, duh, it's going to be 'Pixar's first fairy tale!!!' The main character will be, get this, a PRINCESS! But, since the Pixar people are probably good Bay Area liberals, I'm sure the princess will want to defy her parents'/society's expectations. Where have we seen that before, I wonder? No cookies for rehashing the same old shit. If we're super lucky, she won't marry the prince, which will allow us to cover the same ground that Robert Munsch and Free to Be You and Me covered in the goddamn '70s. Maybe it will be good, but no matter how good it is, it still PISSES ME OFF that girls get to be main characters only when they are princess (or marrying up the social ladder a la Belle and Mulan) in fairy tale worlds. Boys can be main characters anywhere, but if a girl is the main character, you can bet your ass it's a fantasy world. (Side note, as of 6/28/2008, the Wikipedia entry for this movie's premise begins, "In mythical Scotland . . ." Damn. I wanted to go to Scotland next summer.)

Please Don't Be Awful score: unknown, though the girl=fairy tale princess thing means they've got to work their way up from below zero in my book.

I suppose what makes me so mad is not that Pixar makes movies about male characters but that they seem to go out of their way to make sure that this remains the case...On several occasions (A Bug's Life, WALL-E), they have defied logic in order to make sure that the protagonist of their tale was male. When good female characters are part of the story (Elastigirl/Helen Parr, Jessie), they still focus on the male character's plotline and development. They make infuriating choices (female main character = princess in fairy tale). It's not just the stories they choose to tell, it's how they choose to tell them: in a way that always relegates female characters to the periphery, where they can serve and encourage male characters, but are never, ever important enough to carry a whole movie on their own shoulders. Unless they're, you know, princesses.

I love this woman.

Sneak Peek at Pixar's FIRST Female Protagonist

In case you haven't heard, Pixar's 13th movie will have a female heroine. They say that like they should be proud of themselves. As if it isn't a HUGE EMBARRASSMENT that they have done a DOZEN films without a single woman in a starring role? That in Toy Story I there were no females at all (except Bo Peep) and they didn't even notice? I'm just saying. Also, just to gripe a little more, after waiting patiently (and sometimes not so much) through 12 genre-busting films about male robots, male superheroes, male cowboys, male rats, male cars, male ugs, male fish and a small male mailman, it would have been nice if the movie was NOT about a princess, even a kick-ass princess. But there it is. It may well be great, but honestly, that was a huge failure of imagination. It will also be interesting to see if, as the Geena Davis Institute Reported, the movie despite its female lead sticks to the fewer than one-in-three speaking parts are female and fewer than one-in-five characters in crowd scenes. I noticed that was the case in "Rio" even though there were two female leads. I actually counted in the credits (counting young Linda and old Linda as one voice, to be fair, since they were the same character).

All that said, here is a picture of Merida, the film's kick-ass princess hero. What do you think?