Defending(ish) Disney: Pocahontas

images For all the talk about the greatness of the Disney Renaissance, it peaked pretty early and receded after really only four major successes. I wish I could include The Rescuers Down Under, but apparently only about nine people saw that one. It really began its nosedive that would last until very recently with this movie, Pocahontas. I’m going to make a slight change to the format here. Usually, I’m defending the individual movies, but in this case… yeah, I agree with the criticism. Almost everyone, of all political stripes, dislikes this movie. And I have to agree, honestly. If you’re a part of the minority who likes this movie, good for you. I’m glad, because I think a lot of hard work went into making it. I wish I could like the movie for this reason, but, no, I really can’t. I think it’s actually …bad.

History.

History.

So, instead of defending a movie I don’t like, I’m going to try and understand where this movie came from and what the Disney company might be doing. Remember how I said that Aladdin really succeeds because it isn’t trying too hard? It did its own thing and it did it well. However, at this point, Disney had managed to achieve success after success, and with both a Best Picture nom and all the acclaim that The Lion King has, I think the company was under a lot of pressure. This was not just another movie, they were taking chances. They had taken a big chance with The Lion King, and it paid off. They had reached new levels of technical innovation in their animation. This was supposed to be the next step, their launch into a new level of greatness, their next Oscar nom, their next classic. So, what happened? I think one of the reasons why I hate how much I hate this movie is that the company really was trying new things. This isn’t just moving away from fantasy (kind of, sort of…), but it’s an issues movie. It’s tackling history and diversity and controversial subjects and… non-white characters! This may not seem like such a big deal, but Disney has always been pretty reticent to take a progressive racial stance. It’s not just some truly unfortunate past expressions, like a crow named Jim in Dumbo, or the “Indians” in Peter Pan.

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn't horrible at all...

And then there was this deleted scene from Fantasia, because this isn’t horrible at all…

It’s that while Disney certainly has moments with really troubling racial depictions, as time went on the official stance became a very strong we-have-no-stance… stance, while at the same time teaching lessons about how it’s okay to be yourself, even if you’re different. It’s as if the company saw controversy and said, “Look, we make happy movies about singing, dancing mice. Don’t look at us. Nothing to see here.”

Consider this in contrast to what Don Bluth was doing before he Thumbelina-ed his way into sell-out obscurity. In American Tail, for example, he uses a kid-friendly format to discuss subjects as weighty as Anti-Semitism, immigration prejudice, political corruption, and exploitative labor.

It's never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws...

Because it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about the importance of just labor laws…

And, while Disney tiptoed up to actual issues in the past, what with Fox and the Hound being about two characters driven apart by societal expectations, their lesson was actually pretty subtle. Yeah, it’s really sad when Todd and Copper can’t be friends anymore, but the movie doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not this is wrong in the real, non-cartoon, non-talking-animal world. On the one hand, kudos for subtle messages and making kids think (as they fight back their tears…), but one cannot help but notice that the Disney company really did shy away from race as an issue at all. Considering that it took until Atlantis for the company to animate a major character who is also a black man, you get an idea of what Disney is comfortable with.

And, in some sense, Disney may have also understood its own company’s cultural limitations, because when they depict non-white cultures it’s usually kind of… awkward. Not always. Lilo and Nani are fantastic characters in what I will call a very underrated movie, and the cast of The Emperor’s New Groove is sort of progressive in that race is never an issue at all. How many all-Native American movies are there where the focus isn’t on race? Because, really, people, it’s not like everyone who isn’t white goes around thinking about how not-white they are all the time. “I woke in my not-white way, and then not-whited in a not-white fashion through my not-white thoughts and not-white life, which is totally defined by my not-whiteness…”

However, whenever the company tries to make bring their race relations to the forefront, it does come across as pretty messy and awkward, as well as trying way, way too hard to be inoffensive and bland.

Another risk that  the company took, and one which I think is actually far riskier than what turned into some very flaccid race relations, would be the artistic direction. Like I said before, The Lion King had really conquered any previous animation limitations from past productions. It’s big, beautiful, detailed, fast-moving, and the design is really interesting as it is actually based on a lot of life drawings. It’s Disney art building primarily on Disney art, as its own art form. In Pocahontas, however, they really decided to push the envelope. The characters look radically different from anything Disney had done before. The big-eyes and soft curves, these are replaced by far more realistic faces and a more adult look to the entire production. The landscapes are big and detailed, and the animation pushes the cinematography illusions and use of CGI further than any previous film. MSDPOCA EC004 And, honestly, I think that may contribute to a part of the problem. Disney’s last animated humans didn’t look like this. Audiences were given not only the promise of this historical epic dealing with some hefty race issues, but also this brand new, mature look. It’s a little jarring to go from something like Aladdin to this. tumblr_lzs4j7Y7e31r0bp3ao1_1280 I feel like all this rush to be greater and greater as a studio may have left some viewers behind. If it was just the new animation style with a fairytale story, I think the movie wouldn’t feel so disappointing. But when you tell a story that fails as hard as this one does, and tell it with animation as technologically brilliant and artistically interesting as this, then it just feels extra disappointing. After all, this was by no means the only white-guy-learns-about-land-from-native-other-archetype-story of the ’90s. But where something like Fern Gully gets off easier is that it’s a silly fairy story that looks like this:

Derp.

Derp.

Pocahontas was a real person, and these are much stronger issues, and the story tells itself with really terrible plot devices (magic trees, magic Babel Fish leaves, cute animal sidekicks, a super flamboyant villain, cheesy romance), and yet it still looks like it’s supposed to be a good movie: images (2) So, why does this story fail so hard? Well, part of it is that despite trying really hard to be so big and epic, the studio just would not relinquish that ’90s Disney formula. This basically forms the bulk of everyone’s problems with the movie, right or left. It’s super historically inaccurate. Meaning, it has basically nothing to do with history. At all. John Smith is turned into this long-haired Ken Doll, and the pre-pubescent Pocahontas becomes this Disney Princess who wants something “more” (this time it really is super vague) and doesn’t want to marry unless it’s for love, and there are cute animal sidekicks and big musical numbers and a big, fay villain. tumblr_ld734lZRCO1qdq3ajo1_500 If Disney had really believed, fully, in pushing this project all the way, instead of just trying too hard with their old formula, we could have had a really good movie. Instead, it just feels really jarring, like two genres that really shouldn’t be together. And, I feel like Pocahontas’s position as a princess is probably the reason why they chose this story at all and shoehorned in their ’90s formula. While historical accuracy is not necessary for a great movie, in this case the storytelling choices do not work. I don’t think anyone wanted to see an analogue for Native-Colonial race relations played out by a pug and a raccoon, or have the entirety of First Nations culture reduced to safe, non-threatening hippie ways. pocahontas-21 This “white man’s Indian” problem is really one of the major issues with this and many other depictions of First Nations peoples. When the culture began to move away from treating Native peoples like Saturday morning cartoon villains and caricatures, the result was unfortunately not to look at the actual peoples and understand them, or let them tell their own stories. To this day, it’s pretty unusual to find movies made by Native directors, or even casting Native actors. And, while I know Johnny Depp does have some mixed heritage, I’d like to point out that he was still a really safe, white choice for The Lone Ranger.

Represent.

Represent.

The thing is, representation is almost always seen through a white lens, and when stereotypes moved from negative to positive it was still in a very white perspective. In order to side with Native peoples, the people had to be utterly angelic, and usually analogues for bourgeois hippie values. This is troublesome because it makes the First Nations Peoples unhuman, as if to say that the only way genocide and systematic oppression is wrong is if the oppressed are angels. Because if they had flaws like everyone else in the world, it’d be okay? That creates a very troubling undercurrent in this new, sugar-coated race relations paradigm, and one which we see today in many situations of violence, where, for examples, victims of crimes begin to be judged for their moral character rather than their legal rights.

"Okay, so we'll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?"

“Okay, so we’ll admit that it was wrong, just so long as we never find out any of you were anything less than perfect, little flower children, kay?”

The story is also just not very challenging, focusing on a really vague notion of not cutting down sycamores and remembering that even rocks have spirits and names, or whatever. It’s not that interested in discussing race, and really sugar coats that issue.

I have heard some right-wing critics say that this is a lefitst, anti-white movie. I really could not disagree more. The movie reduces the entire conflict and all of the race relations therein to one, single, probably-gay bad guy (with pigtails) who just wants gold. The rest? Oh, well, there was a misunderstanding, but in the end everyone can just get along, because that’s totally what actually happened. It utterly exonerates colonialism by placing the blame on one rogue, gay stereotype of a leader and his love of gold and disrespect for trees.

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Hell, John Smith literally takes a bullet for Powhatan in the end –you know, after he learns his valuable lesson about rolling around in nature and not wondering what it’s worth.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn't do this enough... whatever "this" is... Forget oppression, they just needed more of... this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real flaw of colonialism is just that they didn’t do this enough… whatever “this” is… Forget oppression, they just needed more of… this in order to solve all conflicts for all time.

The real lesson here: Trees be good, greed be bad. So, basically, proto-Avatar. It doesn’t challenge viewers at all, and keeps everything in this safe, artificially happy world that never existed.

Now, some people argue that Disney doesn’t need to make a more realistic movie because it’s for kids. Kids don’t need to know all the gritty, depressing details. I think that if this is the case then Disney really should have adapted something else. However, if you really look at that argument, consider what it means. “It’s for kids, therefore the first time they are likely to learn about this really important, historical issue! Let’s make sure it’s totally false, so as to forever color their interpretation of the events with lies!”

No. I don’t mean that we should necessarily show every drop of historical blood to our three-year-olds, but kids can handle the truth. And the truth did not involve magic tree spirits.

So, I’ve been pretty negative about this movie, and this is supposed to be an series about defending Disney. So, what is positive about the movie? Well, again, the animation is just really good. And, for those who do like this movie, I think that’s a part of the reason why. I think a lot of outdoorsy people enjoy it because it’s Disney really romanticizing nature. And, as far as art goes, American arts have a long history of this.

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

John Kensett, Mount Washington (part of the Hudson River School of painting)

In fact, American Romanticism is really about nature. While Europe was looking at its cultural past, America, being young and without things like ruins and castles, looked instead to the land as both prize and heritage, a symbol for cultural values.

I think this is part of the reason why you have really pretty right-wing Americans who are still very passionate about the landscape and devoted to things like the National Parks system –which, by the way, is a really underrated green achievement.

While I think romanticism has a lot of flaws, not the least of which being its annoying habit of whitewashing everything and not noticing reality…

White Europe's romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

White Europe’s romantic depiction of Native Americans. (The Entombment of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson)

…I do think that some of this romantic view of nature is good. The US really does do some great work in maintain wildlands. Living in the UK, a place where wildness is really quite limited, I really do appreciate the fact that the US has this tie to the land. It’s so ubiquitous that I think it often gets missed, especially by coastal, urban environmentalists who sometimes see the lack of eco-speak in rural areas as a sign of right-wing anti-earth ideology. And, this really isn’t always the case, even if some of these same people are not informed about, say, climate change or energy. Often times, the supposed “redneck” is actually living a very green life, especially when it comes to living off the land and having a cultural identity tied to it. After all, the guy hunting and fishing his own food, and living simply in the countryside, is more green than someone who drinks exotic coffees and eats imported “world foods” and goes on lots of expensive vacations.

I think this almost unspoken tie to nature, even among people who are verbally very anti-environmentalist, is part of what the movie gets right. It doesn’t get nature itself right, because Virginia looks nothing like this movie (the movie looks more like Alaksa, really). But, it gets the viewer’s emotions about wildlife right, the same ideas that fill Westerns with grand vistas and inspire states like Colorado to make propaganda videos like this.

So, despite its Captain Planet goofiness, it does understand something about how Americans view nature, even if it’s totally scientifically inaccurate.

MERICA!

MERICA!

And, I think that scenes of Pocahontas canoeing and running around the woods really appeal to outdoorsy people. That’s actually pretty accurate, what with its jubilant celebration of ultra-romanticised American landscapes. I think outdoorsy people really do feel this way and have this romantic love of beautiful places and outdoor adventures.

514432_1281620794809_full

Otherwise, I do think that this was an important step for Disney to take, even if it stumbled all over itself and ended up sending the company in a pretty sharp downward spiral. There really are more than just attractive white people in this world. And, pretending like race doesn’t exist is really taking a pretty bad stand in the entire situation. It’s not keeping out of politics to offer zero visibility to a group. Doing nothing is really very political, and actually expressing that, yes, these people exist, was kind of a big deal. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Visibility is a major issue for media and society, in general. It’s why people want to see heroes and main characters who look like them. People who say that they want more female superheroes, or more multiracial movies, et cetera, are not saying that they cannot enjoy a movie with white leads or male leads. It’s saying that they want to be recognized as existing, too. Not seeing yourself, or only seeing yourself as the sidekick, comic relief, damsel, or even villain, is actually really damaging for how certain groups will perceive themselves. I would suggest reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for more on that, especially the scene about white baby dolls.

It is important in a society to not marginalize a group by silencing them or rendering them invisible, or regulating them to strict roles. So, while Pocahontas is the safest, least-challenging depiction of a fairly fetishized character (let’s be real here)…

The "exotic babe who loves and saves the white man" isn't exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman...

The “exotic babe who loves and saves the white man” isn’t exactly the greatest depiction of a real, historical woman…

…she at least exists. It’s also why I tend to forgive Aladdin’s race relations, because at least they are offering visibility to Middle Eastern peoples. (They also do it better because it’s make-believe, race is incidental to character types, and the characters are just better.) It might be pure fantasy, but in a world where Middle Eastern prejudice is pretty rampant, it’s a good way to give kids characters who are at least very universal and relatable.

This movie isn’t as successful as Aladdin because it falls in the category of trying both way too hard and not hard enough. It’s trying too hard with the Disney formula, but not hard enough with the actual story. However, at least the company is acknowledging that, yes, different races exist, and giving some recognition to this fact. It’s not much, it is whitewashed pretty badly, and it’s not a great film. But, at least there’s that. Also, trees.

Oh my gosh, trees, people!!!

Eywa, the early years...

Eywa, the early years…

Literature, Genre Fiction, and Loving the Bomb

I wanted to address some issues concerning “genre fiction”. In most book discussions, genre is a sort of nebulous figure. It can mean ideas of category, in such broad-sweeping terms as library collection labels (science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, et cetera). It can be more subjective, however. For example, a lot of cross-genre stories have crept up where various YA fantasy elements have melded with other genres, like historical fiction or dystopia.

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk... I don't know...

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk… I don’t know…

Furthermore, readers in today’s media-saturated world often have very, very precise ideas as to what they want, often based more on a collection of tropes than on any clear idea of genre. Usually these can be picked out in a very TV Tropes sort of way: “I want a YA series with a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds anti-hero, who is also a Draco in Leather Pants character, who is in a love triangle with an All Work and No Play woman who is Conveniently an  Orphan, and a love rival Starving Artist who believes Ambition Is Evil…”

I think that this devotion to trope collection is often what prevents good literary discussion. When someone gives a very vague I -couldn’t-get-into-it excuse about a book, often it is because the person reads to fulfil a certain love of trope. With women, especially, I see a lot of readers who have a real romance for some blend of the Draco in Leather Pants and Woobies. For the uninitiated, these are TV Tropes terms for specific character types. The Draco in Leather Pants is basically what it sounds like, a hot badboy, like the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera or every love interest in every Cassandra Clare book ever.

Or Spike. Spike also works...

Or Spike. Spike also works…

The Woobie is a put-upon character that you feel sorry for and want to hug because nothing goes his way, which is often kind of a favorite for certain female audiences.

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme...

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme…

Audiences who really like to fix people, to be exact…

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds is when the woobie might, you know, destroy things. But not intentionally.

Frozen

Frozen

A lot of people really hate these tropes when applied to romance, saying that they encourage girls to get into bad relationships in order to “fix” someone. But, I’m not sure if that’s really fair. I think there is a sort of safety in living out the bad romance within the confines of fiction, and that appeals to people.

And some choose to express their fantasies in song...

And some choose to express their fantasies in song…

It’s also not just for women. Film Noir is laden with femme fatales, who could basically just be the female Draco in Leather Pants, and the idea of “taming” the wild woman isn’t too very different from fixing the bad boy, in my opinion.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

However, there is definitely a subset of the population who really fetishize the tropes, intentionally seeking out books not for quality or enlightenment, but because they want to fall in love with angsty bad boys who would be good if only they had wub, sweet wub.

12751687

The romantic, angsty, dangerous love interest is named… Patch. That is hilarious…

This sets off my outrage.

Male readers often gravitate toward another wish-fulfilment fantasy, often with Chosen One narratives where a character is special and gets to have adventures and love and awesomeness because he’s just special. Eragon is a particularly dreadful example of self-indulgent wish-fulfilment writing.

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free!

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free! (And, yes, I know that women read this trope, as well.)

I believe I mentioned a meme in a previous post, about how one reads to escape life, and I said how this is really a very irresponsible way to live. I think that a lot of these Chosen One narratives create a reading environment where literature is not about humanity or raising up ideas and culture, but rather abandoning reality like the children in the Ray Bradbury Story, “The Veldt”.

The problem with collecting tropes is that it often makes it very hard to talk about literature as literature. A lot of people really promote the idea of obsessing over a trope as a positive thing, like it is part and parcel of the reading experience. While it’s not wrong to really like particular tropes, a collection of tropes does not actually make a story. It’s how the piece is used. For example, dystopian tropes can be used well, or they can be…

200px-Modellandcover

There have to be better ways of talking about literature. What does the author address? What about the writing style? What are the questions the author is asking or answering? How does the author enter into the dialogue of art itself? A trope can exist in a really great piece of writing, and also in some abysmal pile of shit. It has no quality requirements. Again, see the picture above. No quality requirements.

Trope collecting is more about filling a certain emotional need, such as loneliness or boredom, and has very little to do with literature. And, sure everyone has emotional needs. Sometimes everyone needs a quick escape, a way to de-stress.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

The problem isn’t from these books. It’s totally fine to read easy books, or even terrible books. It’s no worse than watching TV or watching really bad horror movies about giant rodents. There is, however, a problem in only reading these books, from only being able to read these books, or from refusing to read anything else. No Draco in Leather Pants in As I Lay Dying? I guess it’s a bad book, then… Not as good as Clockwork Urban Angel Vampire Romance of Doom and Fate 7, which is clearly the real masterpiece.

"I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!"

“I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!”

The idea of “genre fiction” is another misuse of the word “genre”. What does that even mean? I understand that literature is supposed to transcend genre, and there is this Sontag-fuelled argument about genre not being necessary to quality. However, I think that the popular notions about genre have really corrupted these ideas.

The problem is, I do agree with this: There is no good or bad genre. There are simply good and bad works of art.

Good vampire novel...

Good vampire novel…

Cornball crap.

Cornball crap.

Good science fiction series.

Good science fiction series.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

However, many people interpret that to mean: There is no literary fiction. There are simply entertaining and boring… whatever that means.

Art.

Art.

The trouble is that genre fiction has come to mean not “fiction that fits within a particular genre rather well” (something which is actually less clear than anyone seems to think), but it’s own thing. Genre fiction has become a blanket term for popular literature that usually has a low reading level, lots of action, snappy dialogue, and mass appeal. Very often, these books aren’t even strict, one-genre reads, like a YA fantasy historical romance, and are more defined by the tropes than by genre at all. Why do you think cross-genre selections of YA reads are devoted to love triangles? Because that trope, not any one genre, is popular.

Dystopia love triangle...

Dystopia love triangle…

Vampire and werewolf love triangle...

Vampire and werewolf love triangle…

Urban fantasy love triangle...

Urban fantasy love triangle…

Sort of like Modelland love triangle...

Sort of like Modelland love triangle…

Twilight with angels love triangle...

Twilight-with-angels love triangle…

Furthermore, good has been replaced by “entertaining”, which in turn often means “it has my favorite tropes and I am in love”. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with quality. Jangling keys in front of a baby can entertain that baby, but would probably not work on your boss.

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull...

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull…

I think those who study pop-culture can definitely discuss something’s popularity and mass appeal in semi-objective terms, such as why The Avengers was generally beloved while Man of Steal is so divisive. But, it doesn’t automatically mean that one’s personal entertainment is a sign of goodness. Again, Screaming Skull. And, often entertainment comes with the ability to access the media.

If one cannot understand Shakespearian English, for example, one cannot be entertained by his plays, even though they are filled with exciting plot devices and timeless characters. And the funny part is that many works of literature actually do have the tropes that people love. If readers gave the books a chance, and put forth the effort to get through the pages, they might discover that…

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants...

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants…

Frankenstein's monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds...

Frankenstein’s monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds…

You don’t actually have to get rid of your favorite tropes. They exist everywhere.

Most art, and that includes literature, is concerned with addressing humanity in some sense, in asking questions, in answering questions, and it participates in a dialogue with other artists, eras, cultures, as well as politics and social issues which concern the author and the audience. This isn’t boring. If this is boring, then life is boring. However, it isn’t as easy to consume as the fast-food reads that pack bestseller lists, and that makes some readers think it is boring. It’s not boring. It’s just asking the reader to do something. If we do not bring anything to the table or do any work while reading, what are we but consumers?

We're all monkeys!  (12 Monkeys)

We’re all monkeys!
(12 Monkeys)

And, again, not everything will interest every reader ever. That’s okay. That’s normal. But, never, ever being interested in anything that isn’t about sexy spies, explosions, chosen boys, woobies, angsty love, and more woobies, that’s just being obstinate. There’s a large portion of the population which is happy to laud privileged, well-to-do, educated people for being able to read basic stories in their native language by the time they are adults. I think this should happen by around age seven. No, no prize for you, college-educated person who only reads Twilight. If you were a child, maybe. Probably I would suggest that you read something else, however.

This isn’t to slight children’s and YA books. I’d praise educated adults for reading The Phantom TollboothSounder, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Paper Towns, The Giver, The Book Thief, The Westing Game, Coraline, A Wrinkle In Time, A Cricket In Times Square, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Hobbit, Skellig, The Book of Three, House of the Scorpion, The Fledgling, The Neverending Story…

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

 I don’t think that quality is determined by age group. However, I won’t praise them for their ability to read, or for actually deciding to read –only for picking some damn good kids’ books. And, I certainly wouldn’t extend that praise to someone reading yet another Twilight knockoff, or ghost-written, mass-produced grocery store novel, or a dystopian version of America’s Next Top Model… gah! That book…

Read it if you want to, but don’t expect the world to bow before your ability to be literate by age 26.

Didn't Disney teach you anything? You get a medal when you save your country from unrealistically muscular invaders!

Summer Reading Contest Winner, 2013. She read three books, so we gave her China.

There are kids in refuge camps who are learning to read in incredibly hard conditions. College-educated, well-to-do adults, especially those currently in college, and especially those in college and not working, should not be praised for doing what they should already know how to do.  That is what college students should be doing already. It’s a unique environment where you can spend years learning as much as you like, with professionals there to help you along the way. Anything less is just ungrateful squandering of a great privilege. When one considers the sacrifices people have made for education, from enslaved people teaching themselves, to bravely fighting for education rights for all races, to women trying to get the right to education  throughout history, to the struggles of the poor to even attain higher education, to the journey of integrating people with special education needs, it seems a little silly to praise people for just taking advantage of being in an educational environment. That’s like praising someone for eating food while at a table full of food.

Eating: not always a really good idea.  (Pan's Labyrinth)

Eating: not always a really good idea.
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

Now, none of this is to criticize fandoms. These can be very good, fun, supportive groups which address great ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something really refreshing about people who get excited about the things they love. It’s like this awesome John Green quote:

“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”

And, surely it’s better than squandering higher education by being a generally useless person for four years.

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It's so hard to tell...  (Spring Breakers)

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It’s so hard to tell…
(Spring Breakers)

However, it’s not a problem of fandoms or really liking something. That is usually really positive. The problem is with being indiscriminate and not taking advantage of education. The problem is in conflating the ability to read for entertainment with being literary. Congratulations on your ability to amuse yourself, but don’t expect a medal.

Actually, the world of literature really can learn from the world of what people call “genre fiction”. That is, literature needs to learn to be more nerdy. We need to teach people to learn to love literature, and love it in that enthusiastic, omg-I-am-so-excited, wonderful way. Because, yes, it’s not about the genre. Books of any genre can be great literary works. But, the focus should be on the “great literary works” part. And the focus of teaching should be about WHY these are great. I think a lot of the reason for anti-literature reading habits come from educators who just failed at making literary works interesting. They created a gap between popular “genre” fiction and literature, and one which really shouldn’t exist. Very often, students are left in a sea of jargon, just trying to figure out what literary even means. This makes people forget all the literature that is exciting, beautiful, smart, fun, and interesting, that makes life more illuminated rather than offering a way to ignore life for a while.

So, stop worrying and learn to love the… literati-inclined, high-brow masterpieces.

strange09

Outlit C

The Oscar Awards: Why Only One Film?

Oscar season approaches; a lone film will be hailed as the best picture of 2013. There are other prestigious awards to be given – Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Actor – but a single film, as whole, is called “the best”. I appreciate that such an award is given, but I have to ask this question: why only one film?

Hundreds of pictures are released per year. Many of them are downright dreadful, while others are finely crafted, elegant works. It’s not at all likely that, in a year, a solitary film so far outshines the others that there can be no doubt of its superiority. Oscar season is a competition. Several pictures are considered for the honor of being the finest of the year, before one is chosen from their midst. Take a look at the candidates from the year 2012, for example. But before continuing, please note…

…that the following summaries were gathered from YouTube and Wikipedia articles. Some I’ve altered; however, I wanted to give credit to my sources since most of these words are not my own.

…that one of the films was given an especially long summary. Not because I thought it deserved the most attention, but because its story weaves the lives of a multitude of people together. It simply could not be explained in one or two sentences.

…that I included no images of the movie posters. They made this post look messy to me.

Now, for the notable works of 2012:

Amour (nominee) — An elderly couple’s bond is strained and tested when the wife, having suffered a stroke, is left paralyzed on one side of her body due to complications from a surgery. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tuc3zjvJU8

Beasts of the Southern Wild (nominee) — In a forgotten bayou community, an optimistic six-year old girl lives convinced that the natural world is in balance with the universe… until a fierce storm changes her reality. It becomes her mission repair the structure of her world in order to save her ailing father, the only parent left to her, and her sinking home. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZF7i2n5NXLo

Django Unchained (nominee) — With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUdM9vrCbow

Les Misérables (nominee) — The film tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who, inspired by a kindly bishop, decides to turn his life around. He eventually becomes mayor of a town in France and owner of a factory in that town. He is always alert to the risk of being captured again by police inspector Javert, who is ruthless in hunting down law-breakers, believing they cannot change for the better. One of his factory workers, Fantine, blames him for her being cast into a life of prostitution. When she dies, he feels responsible and agrees to take care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette — though he must first escape Javert. Later, when Cosette is grown, they are swept up in the political turmoil in France, which culminates in the June Rebellion of France. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuEFm84s4oI

Life of Pi (nominee) — While marooned on a lifeboat, a young man who survived a tragic disaster at sea forms an amazing and unexpected connection with the ship’s only other survivor — a fearsome Bengal tiger. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZEZ35Fhvuc

Lincoln (nominee) — In a nation divided by war and the strong winds of change, Lincoln pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the country and abolish slavery. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiSAbAuLhqs

Silver Linings Playbook (nominee) — After spending four years in a mental institution, a former teacher moves back in with his mother and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. He develops a friendship with a lonely, recently widowed woman who offers to help him reconnect with his former spouse. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj5_FhLaaQQ

Zero Dark Thirty (nominee) — For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYFhFYoDAo4

Argo (winner) — November 4th, 1979. As the Iranian revolution reaches a boiling point, a CIA exfiltration specialist concocts a risky plan to free six American hostages. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w918Eh3fij0

When going over this list, I was impressed with the number of films selected and with the variety they represented. Yes, I meant that bit about variety. Even though three of these works – Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty – have to do with historical US events, they deal with markedly different subject matters. Argo is a story about a daring, undercover rescue. Lincoln centers on a pivotal time in the career of America’s most famous president. Zero Dark Thirty follows the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. These three films are distinctive works…

…as are all the 2012 pictures that were nominated. And that’s what makes me wonder more than anything else: why only one film? What made Argo more special than its brethren?

I cannot answer that last question, as I have yet to see Argo. Perhaps I will think it’s hideously bad, and that it in no way deserved the Oscar that it won. Perhaps I will find it mediocre. I prefer to think that I will be enthralled by it, that I will enjoy it and be able to say, “Ah, yes, I can definitely see why it won an award!” However, as good as I may potentially find Argo, my thoughts and opinions on the matter of the Oscars will not change. And they are that…

…it’s is a huge feat to be somehow distinct in an enormous crowd. Every year, a small number of films from a mass of literal hundreds stand out as truly noteworthy. I think that is wonderful. But that they’re considered to be the most excellent works a year had to give? That is indeed worthy of praise.

In 2012, and in all the years past, certain films commanded the attention of Academy members. Through their own merits, each work left so strong an impact that it was judged to be worthy of remembrance. I don’t think the relevance of a single one of these films would have been lost if ALL had been named “Best Picture”. Nor do I think that would happen for the nominees of 2013. In my mind, there has never been a reason why the term “best” should be exclusive to one thing alone.

Oscar Award

– Circuit B

Defending Disney: The Lion King

The-Lion-King-the-lion-king-1883289-624-352

I’m not even sure how to talk about this movie. For one thing, it’s considered by many people to not only be the greatest Disney film ever made, but the greatest animated film of all time. What do you add to that kind of cultural staying power? For another thing, and more appropriate to the subject of this series, people have really applied a heavy portion of Spiderman ethics to this piece. Oh, what does that mean? Well, it’s the “with great power comes great responsibility” idea, which people often take to mean that very influential companies, like Disney, have extra responsibility to the world. Disney should be some kind of ethical superhero, swooping in and teaching kids every lesson imaginable. And, because this is probably the most popular Disney feature, definitely considered some sort of zenith by many, many people, it is loaded with controversies.

I don’t even know how to address these controversies, or even pick out which ones are actual controversies and which are just… silly. That leaf swirl does not spell out “sex”, you idiots! Supposedly it spells “SFX”, which stands for special effects. Honestly, I think they just made that up, because the leaf swirl doesn’t look like either of these things.

If anything, it looks like "SEK". ...Oh, no! Disney is inserting subliminal messages in favor of... Southeast Kansas?

If anything, it looks like “SEK”. …Oh, no! Disney is inserting subliminal messages in favor of… Southeast Kansas?

 

I think that at this point Disney had become too big on the studio and image side, to the point that directors and artists working inside the company were getting squashed by the rising and increasingly hypersensitive expectations of audiences. And, I think we’re really going to start seeing some negative effects of this trend in the next Disney productions. Though, in recent years, I think that the company has been surprisingly receptive to more legitimate criticism and changing tastes, without wholly compromising artistic visions (at least in some cases).

My point for this series was to defend liking Disney productions as part of cinema history (for adults), and as good fun (for kids… and some adults). You see, I remember when I was more right-wing that a lot of people I knew had this strange way of looking for “offensive” material in… everything. Instead of looking for good lessons, they were always on guard for even the weirdest and most conspiracy-driven subliminal message or potential of a possible, if-you-squint, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “evil”. It really troubled me that a lot of hypersensitive adults were ruining childhood fun because something may, kind-of, sort-of be seen as maybe not good, or because someone on the internet said it was bad. So, going more left-wing would solve that, right? Nope, on the left we have the same behavior, but simply looking for different things to find offensive. I’m beginning to think that a lot of ostensibly grownup people have way too much time on their hands.

I think it’s troubling that people look for offensive material. I don’t mean simply being aware of critical problems, but rather actually digging for it as though that is some sort of goal. It makes “bad” the highlight and focus of everything so that a side, right or left, becomes more about not being something than about standing for anything positive. Nowhere is this more absurd than in the idea of “symbolism”. I remember someone told me as a child that Harry Potter had abortion in it, but it was “symbolic”, so no one would know. Turn out that was mandrake root, which Rowling did not make up and which does not mean “abortion”. It’s from very old folklore! I think as soon as someone starts saying this, you can assume that the supposedly offensive material doesn’t actually exist.

The space between bunny ears kind of looks like a triangle... OMG, illuminati! Run! Burn the book! Scream! Hyperventilate!

The space between bunny ears kind of looks like a triangle… OMG, illuminati! Run! Burn the book! Scream! Hyperventilate!

So, with that out of the way, I don’t think I can address the controversies in The Lion King in the same way that I did with the previous movies. I felt strained already when addressing Aladdin, and that one actually had a real line that offended a real group of people. This… doesn’t work quite the same way. It’s all just, “Does this symbolically encourage premarital sex?” or “Does this symbolize the apartheid?” and I’ll try to address some of these ideas when they come up, but I won’t spend much more time on them.

The fact is, what is far more interesting about The Lion King is, well, The Lion King. Although… I don’t actually mean this to say that I think the movie really is the greatest animated film of all time. Oh, it’s great. Don’t get me wrong. The animation is spectacular. But, best of all time? I don’t know. How exactly do you pick the best animated movie of all time? Is there any criteria for that?

Full disclaimer: while this may be strange for someone who is writing a series on Disney, I don’t actually watch a lot of Disney. I loved these as a kid, and I will watch them from time to time. But, with the exception of Tangled and Frozen, I haven’t watched Disney movies recently. I just happen to be an enormous animation geek, which usually makes people think that I’m into either Disney or anime, but actually what really fascinates me is weird, arty stuff like this:

The Street of Crocodiles by The Quay Brothers

The Street of Crocodiles by The Quay Brothers

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

So, yeah, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with saying The Lion King beats out every animated film ever, or even other Disney films. But, I would be completely out of touch if I didn’t understand why people love this. It’s just so… big.

FlamingosScreen shot 2011-04-23 at 6.41.00 PM

The movie is epic, really. It’s almost overwhelming with its animation. Remember how I said that Disney often trades in detail for movement? Well, that isn’t a problem here. This film is lush with detail, but the movement absolutely soars. Every cinematography illusion trick from the previous films is put to magnificent use here with soaring shots overlooking gorgeous landscape imagery, superimposed images, action shots, flying POVs. It has the same fast-paced animation of Aladdin, with quick visual jokes and action scenes, and yet manages to have the glorious details and use of shadow in Beauty and the Beast.

the-lion-king

Actually, I blame this development on a movie I’m not even reviewing. And, I’m only not reviewing it because it doesn’t fit with the “defending” category. No one finds it controversial, but, then, a lot of people don’t remember it.

The-Rescuers-Down-Under-the-rescuers-5012496-720-480

That movie is The Rescuers Down Under, one of those odd occasions when a sequel is actually better than the original. This movie is sadly underrated, with a great story, great comedy, great characters, great action. And… it looks unbelievably good. While I don’t dislike the animation of Aladdin, I do think some of the CG feels a little dated in 2014. But, not so here. And, unlike previous films, it seamlessly blended lush landscape details with fast-paced animation, cinematographic illusions, and sight gags. I don’t know why people don’t appreciate this film, especially people who dislike the Disney formula and want a non-musical adventure story, because it’s really fantastic.

I think that The Lion King is the direct inheritor of the technological feats accomplished in The Rescuers Down Under, but, using that Disney formula of big songs and coming-of-age plots, it managed to make the movie even more marketable. Plus, it’s even bigger than Rescuers. The opening is just astonishing to watch, even by today’s animation standards in our Miyazaki world. Other scenes, like the wonderfully dark “Be Prepared” and the thunderous stampede scene, which has animation techniques just beyond anything else anyone in the West had seen before, these are technologically marvelous.

stampede

stampede 2

So, saying that, is it terribly wrong if I don’t actually think the rest of the movie lives up to its visual brilliance? Because… I really don’t. It’s not that I think the film is bad. I think the film is good but awkward. Though, really, it’s amazing that this movie isn’t as awkward as, say, Hercules

The most obvious thing about it is that it’s not a princess film. In fact, despite being known for Disney princesses, the company has produced relatively few in relation to its other animated work. Even in the ’90s only three movies follow the fairytale princess formula, and only two of these has the princess in the lead role. The Lion King is an enormous departure from the fairytale world, and on paper it must have been a weird pitch. I mean, it’s Hamlet with African animals. That’s an odd idea.

Okay, but what if he was... a lion!

Okay, but what if he was… a lion!

How about we just add in music from Elton John? Yeah… that’s even weirder.

There's just something about Tiny Dancer that makes me think of both Africa and Elizabethan theatre, amitite?

There’s just something about Tiny Dancer that makes me think of both Africa and Elizabethan theatre, amitite?

Hitler symbolism? Again, weird.

Do you know what kids' movies need more? Nazis. They need more Nazis.

Do you know what kids’ movies need more? Nazis. They need more Nazis.

You know how no other Disney film looks like Sleeping Beauty? Well, no other Disney film has a plot as odd as The Lion King. In fact, this must have been kind of a risk, and whatever flaws are in the film should not overshadow their success. The fact that this was a success and the somewhat less risky (but also weird) Hercules was not says a lot about the movie’s quality.

That being said, I am not completely sold on the entire movie. For one thing, I don’t think that the story always makes sense. It’s not just Scar somehow causing a drought (how?), but it’s also how the film handles its own message. I remember watching a review from Doug Walker about this, and how the movie builds up this message about learning from mistakes and admitting your mistakes. But, in the end, no one stands behind Simba until he finds out that he didn’t actually kill his father. That’s sort of awkward.

And, as much as people will hate me for this, I do not think the songs are as great as they are made out to be. I don’t hate them (except for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”). I think “Circle of Life” and “Be Prepared” are awesome. But, the rest are just kind of… meh. Now, I’m not sure exactly how to make a criticism about this other than a difference in taste, since I am not a music critic. My background is art and literature. But, I do think that there is a significant minority who agree with me about how Elton John-y the music is. I don’t even dislike Elton John, and I think a lot of his music is very good. But, it does give the film a sort of dated and pop-heavy score, which I don’t necessarially like or think fits the tone and setting. But, despite that, as a kid, I loved these songs. Many children love the songs. So, perhaps they do succeed where it counts, though, for me, I prefer the more Broadway-influenced Beauty and the Beast score.

Despite not sounding very traditionally Broadway, The Lion King has actually gained a lot of success …on Broadway. I would be lying if I didn’t understand why, and, again, it’s the visuals. The studio did a great job in hiring Julie Taymor, whose work you may know from Across the Universe  and Frida (and also that adaptation of Titus Adronicus that I mentioned in the last post), to lend her puppetry and stage-production skill to the show. She had already done some great, highly visual work for actual Shakespearean productions, so the choice made sense. She created one of the most stellar and unbelievable-looking production designs in Broadway history. It looks just absolutely amazing, technologically brilliant.

lion-king-show11

disney5

However, that really leads to a lot of questions about the development of the musical itself, and Disney’s influence here.

Disney’s relationship to stage shows has gone back to the beginning, as I mentioned before. However, its relationship to the more specific mega-musical has been huge. The singing and musical style, even how the characters move as they sing, comes straight from Broadway in nearly all the ’90s Disney releases. It only made sense for Disney to put these stories on the stage. However, there gets to be a sort of weird recycling effect. These are shows based on movies inspired by shows, and the shows themselves start to rely rather heavily on either borrowing from the musicals that inspired the movies in the first place (don’t tell me that Beauty and the Beast doesn’t owe a ton of visual and storytelling ideas to Phantom of the Opera), or trying to bring the visual style of Disney to the stage. The Lion King musical looks great, and the orchestration sounds great, but the compositions are still somewhat …meh.

If musicals like Phantom are criticized for relying too heavily on style over substance and composition integrity (borrowing from Pink Floyd is one thing, but lifting entire sections from “Echoes” is another), The Lion King really pushes this extreme. I don’t think anyone goes to this show because they want Sondheim-style musical genius. They want to see puppets and special effects. Is this wrong? Set design is, in itself, an art, and I’d be remiss if I said that I didn’t think that the show is very artistic. However, it is not a great musical as a musical. I think this desire for a thrill ride, and big, awesome sets, and easy-to-sing pop-songs has really played a huge part in where musical theatre is today. Disney may have been trying to make a mega-musical, but it has more in common with contemporary productions, like Wicked, which are all about the set design and special effects. Also, it’s worth noting that Julie Taymor was behind the mega-flop Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, one of the biggest failures in Broadway history.

It's just so... lame. Was anyone asking for this?

It’s just so… lame. Was anyone asking for this?

However, even though I don’t necessarily like everything about The Lion King, I still enjoy the movie and appreciate its art. And, honestly, I may have higher expectations for the movie’s storytelling simply because it is adapting Shakespeare than I might if the movie was based on a fairytale. There is still a lot of weight and emotional resonance in the film. Take, for example, the death of Mufasa. I think that destroyed me as a child. What kid, watching that the first time, wasn’t fighting back tears. It’s a genuinely sad scene, even for adults watching it again.

Disney, the happiest place on earth... except when killing Simba's dad and Bambi's mom, and breaking the hearts of kids everywhere.

Disney, the happiest place on earth… except when killing Simba’s dad and Bambi’s mom, and breaking the hearts of kids everywhere.

Furthermore, most of the voice acting is very good, although I’m not sure why the casting directors thought the child of James Earl Jones should be Ferris Bueller. Movies went through this weird phase where everything apparently just needed a little Bueller. Story about black soldiers in the Union Army? Needs Bueller.

Appropriate casting.

Appropriate casting.

Arty, surreal animation starring a character who doesn’t talk? What if he does talk, and is voiced by Bueller?

The Thief and the Cobbler

The Thief and the Cobbler

Why, studios? Why?

Otherwise, the story gets criticized for having a too simplistic view of good and evil, and perhaps even using some troublesome visual coding as shorthand for “bad” and “good”. Visual coding is when a movie uses clues to “code” characters in a certain way, like black cowboy hats standing for bad guys. And, it’s this coding which is the root of probably the loudest of the controversies. For one thing, many people find the flamboyant and somewhat effeminate Scar, as contrasted with Mufasa’s manly appearance, to be gay coding.

Yeah... about that...

Yeah… about that…

I would be lying if I didn’t think Scar seemed like a bad gay stereotype at times, though it strikes me as unlikely that Disney is planting anti-gay symbolism into the movie. It seems more likely that this is a careless attempt to make Scar seem “sly” or “weird”. Besides, one could argue that Timon and Pumbaa are also coded gay, but are very positive figures. I think that the problem with Scar is more in lazy writing. Yes, I do think that demonizing effeminate men is a huge problem. Hell, some writers and radio hosts have blamed “feminizing” men for basically every evil ever. There are different types of people and not being a traditionally macho guy does not mean you’re conniving, evil, and likely to kill your family or become lion-Hitler. But, I don’t necessarially think that Disney is saying, “Effeminate men are all evil!” I think it’s just sort of clunky storytelling shorthand. I mean, we need to get that pesky character development out of the way so that we can have more Elton John songs!

The other “coding” issue is… are the hyenas supposed to be black people? This is actually a very real issue for some people. And, I kind of see why people worried about this, since this was a ’90s film, apartheid was ending, and many rather prominent Americans were not against apartheid policy. But, I honestly think the visual coding gives us an entirely different, if a little weird, clue as to who the hyenas are. They are a hungry people who follow a charismatic leader to invade another territory, and they just so happen to learn to march in a very telling way… Okay, they’re Germany. “Be Prepared” basically tells you this. It’s not South Africa. It’s Nazi Germany. Why? Why are they German hyenas doing Elton John Shakespeare? I… don’t know. I mean, Nazis are easy bad guys… I guess? The movie has all kinds of weird cultural blending, what with the singing lions doing Shakespeare thing. Why not add Hitler? Hitler is an easy bad guy. There’s no real controversy if your bad guy is just Hitler.

Now, people can say that making an entire group evil is a really bad lesson for kids, and, yes, I agree, but this is hardly the only story to do  that. I find The Lord of the Rings far worse when it comes to creating pure-evil races that can be killed with impunity. That’s way more troubling to me because that story is meant for adults, while The Lion King is for kids who are more interested in a broad idea of “doing good things” than in drawing political parallels. However, if you want more subtle and morally complex animated fare, Miyazaki is a thing. I mean, he hardly ever has a pure-evil bad guy.

In the end, I think this movie is good but overrated, visually breathtaking but musically middling, somewhat awkward, but super successful. It may not always work, but when it does it really, really does. I understand why people love it, and I understand why some people don’t. But, for me, it is culturally significant enough to warrant viewings.

images

Interim: Some actual literature

I know that this should be an update about The Lion King, but it isn’t. I am too jetlagged and sick to finish writing that right now, and also I accidentally didn’t save a portion of the post when I last worked on it. So, that happened. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to say, since there is just a plethora of strange controversies people have dreamed up for this movie. It’s not like Cinderella, where there are all literally multiple books written about it, and an entire social phenomenon named after it, the Cinderella Syndrome. With these ’90s Disney films the controversies tend to be based more in ’90s radicalism and ’90s counter-radicalism, and neither strikes me as very intellectually substantial. The movie itself is more interesting than the controversies, and its influence on the changing world of musicals is probably going to dominate the discussion.

So, until I get that done, isn’t this supposedly a literature-based blog?

Well, yes, it is. Or, rather, it’s a literati based blog for culture and pop-culture, because someday I hope to get an article in The Rumpus… So, literature.

I had a conversation before Christmas with a few undergraduate writing students, and they expressed a certain frustration with professors who expected them to write in a “literary” fashion. Sometimes I think professors assume too much about what their audiences have in their personal lexicons, especially with terms as relatively vague and baggage-heavy as “literature” and “art”. These are ideas that have encompassed not books, but entire libraries, fields of study and philosophical arguments dating basically to the beginning of philosophy itself. Plato wrote on art. It’s a long discussion. And, while I don’t want to imply that these professors did not do a good job of explaining what they meant, or that I can do better in a blog that could alternatively be called “Two Nerds Bitching”, I do think that there’s an assumption that students have been tossed into the dialog of ideas a little earlier than what might be the case.

Actually, I think that this might be interpreted unfairly. I think many professors believe that they should not have to dumb down their classes and that students, whose primary occupation should be learning as much as possible in this rather novel period of life, should supplement their courses with additional material. This is true. However, I think that many bright students get left in a sea of terminology and possibly biased or partial definitions and, with what may be seen as an overwhelming abundance of library material, might come away with headaches and confusion. So, instead of saying that I have an answer to questions as vast and timeless as “What is art/literature?”, I’ll instead talk about what other, smarter people have talked about.

First of all, if you’re repeatedly being asked by a professor to write in a certain way, whether or not that professor has the carte blanche on all that is literary is secondary to what you are supposed to learn in this class. 9 times out of 10, the professor is trying to teach students raised on Hollywood blockbusters, TV, and fast-paced YA series how to use certain techniques. So, unless you’re just so revolutionary and brilliant that you need to fight against the system and show the world that your experimental, postmodern novel-in-verse is the next Finnegan’s Wake, I’m guessing this is an attitude problem. Obstinance isn’t a virtue in and of itself, and sometimes you need to do your writing exercises, draw your still-life sketches, play your etudes, do your plies and rond de jamb, practice your batting swings, and learn your multiplication tables. I don’t know why people think that writing is any different. You’re probably not going to suddenly breathe out the next classic novel without ever practicing your writing or studying the greats. It’s as unlikely as picking up a guitar and, without any practice or ever listening to music, shredding like a rock god. I’d like to dub this “American Idol Syndrome” or, since I currently live in the UK, “X Factor Syndrome”, the idea that out of nowhere you’ll suddenly become a star. It doesn’t matter that the winners of these shows have histories of practice, because they only really exist to their audiences between certain hours of the day, and their rise is like magic. Such is the reality in reality TV.

It's worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction... Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

It’s worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction… Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

But,  I do think that this frustration goes beyond the goth girl who dropped out of my undergraduate fiction writing class because she wasn’t allowed to submit Lord of the Rings fanfics. I think that this goes beyond people who just don’t want to write character-driven stories, or who think that they will be the next J.K. Rowling and therefore do not need to study Faulkner, and so on. Certainly, these people are real (horribly, horribly real), and, yes, they are an enormous drag on every writing course they enter. “Why do I have to read Moby-Dick when I’d rather read an urban fantasy about fast-talking wizards?” they say. Or, “I read popular fiction because I know what sells and I’m going to sell!” they proclaim, dully unaware of how much popular fiction is written by staff authors, or that the majority of such submissions are rejected unread. It’s terrible.

"Whadya mean rejected?!" [Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption...]

“Whadya mean rejected?!”
[Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption…]

However, there are plenty of bright, bookish people who get themselves on the wrong end of a confusing use of terminology. They don’t understand what their professors want. They don’t understand why they like something that seems lowbrow, or hate something that’s supposed to be highbrow. I think that a lot of talented and intelligent students somehow find themselves in this situation and burn out. And, I think that many professors believe that these students are like the “I don’t have to read writing to understand writing! I’m going to be a bestseller!” types, and brush them off.

I think that a lot of people first become unsettled by this discussion when they realize that their likes do not exactly pair up with everything that is or has been critically acclaimed. They find themselves reading a book and going, “Why do people like this? Why am I supposed to like this?” It’s like meeting a popular person and finding yourself in that uncomfortable situation when you seem to be the only one in the room who doesn’t like him. I think that this happens a lot in the visual arts and music, as well. People look at a Rothko and think, “I don’t get it. It must be crap.” People listen to classical music and are shocked to find themselves bored by Mozart and Dvořák, but enjoying Katy Perry. How can that be, when classical music is supposed to be so good and Katy Perry is so… whipped-cream boobies?

Truly she is the voice of a generation...

Truly she is the voice of a generation…

I think there’s a place between embarrassment and reactionary snobbery, and many people fall into it. “Well, yeah, I didn’t like Rothko. That’s because I haven’t been brainwashed into liking that arty bullshit! I’ve got common sense on my side. Sure, I like Vampre Night 7 better than Steinbeck’s works, but that’s because I’m a book-lover, not a hipster! And, yeah, I think Transformers 2 was a good movie and didn’t get Wild Strawberries, but that’s because I understand the common man, not that elitist crap. I might like Flo Rida, eat food that is cooked in 120 seconds, and think that Raphael was a Ninja Turtle, but at least I’m not a kale-eating snob who uses artisan cheese knives and wears vegan shoes!”

"Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I'm not a HIPSTER from OREGON!" [Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

“Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I’m not a HIPSTER from OREGON!”
[Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

The tragedy here is that these people are hurting themselves, just as much as a person who refuses to eat anything but fast food. The unglamorous secret is that you’re not going to like everything. And that’s okay. You won’t like every film that makes it big at Sundance or Toronto, you won’t like every piece of classical music, you won’t enjoy every play, you won’t fall in love with every painting or sculpture, you may not get a performance piece, you might not like that Nobel Prize-winning author, and you may even dislike books that people call “classics”. And that… is okay. Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, what you’re experiencing is normal.

The arts come from people, people with their own quirks, perspectives, and visions. It’s like getting to see someone’s personality in audio or visual form. And, like the people you meet every day, you may not like everyone. This, however, does not mean that you should give up on art, music, ballet, “arthouse”, or literature. You may not like a guy named Ted, but that doesn’t mean that every Ted, Teddy, or Theodore in the world is an asshole.

"I don't approve of Roosevelt's actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose."

“I don’t approve of Roosevelt’s actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose.”

Furthermore, those professors talking about art and literature have their likes and dislikes, as well. I had a professor who hated Death of a Salesman, and a professor who thought Shakespeare In Love was a really wonderful movie. I happen to like Death of a Salesman and I think Shakespeare In Love is the second most overrated Oscar winner after Titanic. There is room for discussion.

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

You see, the arts are not the sciences,and I think schools have done kids a disservice in not explaining this. I partially blame standardized tests, which turn everything into right or wrong answers, little fill-in-the-bubble sheets with simple, multiple choices. However, while there really is an answer to an equation and only in advanced math do we get more discussion (which, frankly, I don’t understand), the arts aren’t like that. Did you know that many people think some of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t any good?

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one. [Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one.
[Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Did you know that writers as prominent as Jane Austen were loathed –by other prominent writers?

Namely, this guy.

Namely, this guy.

Personally, I dislike a lot of critically beloved art and literature. I don’t like The Lord of the RingsPride and Prejudice, Jeff Koons, or anything that Marina Abramovic has been doing lately. I don’t think that most of the Oscar winning movies are very good, especially things like The King’s Speech (although Circuit B will disagree with me about that one). I even think that Nirvana is an overrated band, and I don’t like Verdi’s adaptation of Othello, and I didn’t enjoy Les Triplettes de Belleville, or most of John Updike’s writings.

Is there a stronger word than "hate"? I mean... just look at this Koons shit.

Is there a stronger word than “hate”? I mean… just look at this Koons shit.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I should dislike all epic fantasies, English literature, postmodern art, performance art, Oscar winners, grunge bands, Italian opera, animated arthouse films, or strong, masculine voices in literature. This doesn’t even mean that I dislike everything these artists and writers have done. Furthermore, this does not give me grounds to depreciate the artists. They simply do not speak to me, but they do speak to many other people and I have to respect that and understand why.

The fact is, and this is the crux of the problem, the arts require a certain understanding to appreciate them. They have their own “languages”. Musical notation is, in fact, very much its own language. But, so is color, visual symbolism, visual cues, cinematography, acting, mise-en-scene, textures and brushstrokes and shapes, and, yes, language itself has its own dialects. While most people understand that language has dialects, especially when trying to speak to someone from another culture, it is for some reason often ignored that writing should have different dialects. However, this is true. One cannot, for example, say that a single, standardized, essay-type dialect is suitable for all of literature. Imagine if Shakespeare were forced into these structures? Or, how would you like to listen to a rapper who sounded like an academic essayist? Even various essays use different levels of formality depending on their function and purpose.

"I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: 'Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'" From "My Name Is", the essay.

“I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans in my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: ‘Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'” From “My Name Is”, the essay.

Just as you cannot step into a conversation with people whose language you do not speak, you may not be able to access an artist’s work whose “language” you do not understand. What people do not realize, however, is that this doesn’t mean that they have a problem. You’re not at fault for not knowing someone’s language. However, if you want to converse with this person, you need to learn how to communicate. An inscrutable painting, a piece of music that bores you, a work of literature that you simply do not “get”, these may simply speak a different language than the one you are used to.

The good news is that very often basic exposure breaks down these barriers. NPR did a report which showed that listeners who were unaccustomed to certain kinds of music literally did not process the notes. Their brains simply could not comprehend all of the sounds. However, repeated listening allows people to learn the musical language and appreciate the subtleties of sounds and unfamiliar chords. Furthermore, scientists believe that literature actually affects a different part of your brain than, say, the next vampire romance or slick cop vs. the baddies novel. Unfamiliarity with the complex syntax and vocabulary, as well as the subtle character development and action, can be like working out a muscle that you don’t normally use. If you’re accustom to taking walks, even good walks, you’re still probably going to hurt when you take up marathon running or mountain climbing. It’s the same here.

Many people decide that when they cannot get into art or literature that they have some sort of terrible problem, or that the art/literature has a problem. The answer is that neither you nor the arts have a problem. You’re just not used to the art yet. It’s like not being able to swim a certain distance, run a marathon, or enjoy a really exotic dish. You just need to get used to it.

So, that comes to the frustration with this vague idea of what art and literature are.

I think there’s a subtle difference here that people aren’t always getting. That is: art can be anything. But, it isn’t everything. There’s a difference between what art can be and how art succeeds.

Art and literature are basically anything intended to be artistic and literary, as well as some highly successful things that maybe weren’t intended to be that high brow at the time but nevertheless affected culture profoundly over time. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, and obviously doesn’t do justice to the discussion of aesthetics. However, I think it does answer the questions of those who do not understand what their professors are talking about.

“Why is it art?” should really be less of a question than, “How is it art?” When confronted with a professor saying, “You need to be more literary!” don’t ask what it is to be literary, but rather how something is literary, and how it works. It’s in the writing of the book, the turns of phrase, the subtle development, the way the writing builds on traditions or breaks traditions. It’s in the compositions of artwork, the techniques, the designs. It’s in the musical theory and the composition and the performance of a piece. The how-is-it-art is in the parts, which give you the completed whole.

This is why we cannot use trope identification as a form of literary criticism, because the existence of a “Draco in leather pants”, and a “woobie”, and a “word of God” reference to something greater than the book itself does not have anything to do with the actual book-ness of the piece. This is also why “symbolism” (eg “This symbolizes that the bad guy is Hitler!”) is not literary criticism. Any hack can do that.  As redundant as it sounds, the first thing to care about in writing is the writing –and that is the same for art, music, and so forth.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and ...this.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and …this.

You see, in visual arts we’re more comfortable with just flat-out saying this, while literature, being naturally more verbose, we’re more likely to write fourteen books on the subject. In visual arts, anything can be art. However, not everything is, as any artist or critic will tell you. So, where is the line?

The fact is, there is no multiple-choice, standardized test bubble answer –check here for art, and here for not art. The arts are very much a dialog, discussing life in different eras, and what their goals are, how they change from time to time, school to school, and person to person. Like learning a new language, the arts require audiences to put forth some effort to communicate with the pieces, and not simply sit there and expect to be entertained, as one might be with a Michael Bay movie or Vampire Academy novel.

But, I also think that knowing there is this effort and dialog does cause some people to over-think the arts. They are confronted with a piece of writing which they do not understand and they start doing the literary criticism version of what Calvin and Hobbes do with math homework.

CalvinAndHobbesMath-algebra

They start making up really complicated ways of reading the piece and then get frustrated, as though they are trying to crack a code instead of read a book/view a painting/listen to a song/watch a film. I think that bad teachers, who make students analyze the color of curtains instead of the quality of prose, are to blame for this Da Vinci Code style reading.

Not everything is a code... including everything mentioned in this book.

Not everything is a code… including everything mentioned in this book.

In actuality, most books, music, film,and art are meant to be enjoyable. They may have a more subtle or informed sense of enjoyment than what you may get from Avatar, but they are meant to be enjoyed.

Take David Foster Wallace, for instance. His book, Infinite Jest, is often brushed aside as a “hipster” or “elitist” work. This is entirely due to the fact that it is over a thousand pages long and is non-linear in structure.(Because heaven forbid anyone sustain disciplined reading over an extended period of time! I guess Les Miserables is proto-hipster, then.) However, what might surprise those who sniff at his work is that David Foster Wallace was probably one of the least elitist writers ever. And, when wondering what his work is supposed to be about, he gives you not only the most concise answer but also the best answer for what to look for in literary fiction:

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

And there you have it. That’s why literature affects you differently than the zooming pace and snappy dialog of the sexy FBI agent and his will-they-won’t-they-do-it partner in the latest instalment of the Xplosions and Guns and Sex series.

I once read a terrible internet meme that said something like: “I read so that I can escape reality.” Now, while we all need an escape now and again, that is still a horrible sentiment. You read not to find comfort in the struggles of those who overcame in the past, or to find out about yourself and others, or to understand the world, or to seek beauty, or to empathize with others? You read because you don’t want to think about these things and would rather imagine supernatural love triangles and magic powers? What, do you not think you have any invested interest in what happens on planet earth? Yes, bad things happen to people. Let’s not eat lotuses and forget about it. We have some duty to our neighbors. We do not have the right to be ignorant of life and therefore end up hurting someone, voting poorly, developing prejudices.

And I think that really sums up the difference between a quality work, and something that professors/critics/literati-types won’t like. Good art is about being human. It’s about finding beauty. It’s about sharing in this great dialog of all these minds. Great art, not commercial, lowest-common-denominator production, is about the common person, reaching out to everyone, open to anyone, produced by anyone, the most democratic and glorious celebration of human life and individuals in this existence we call being human. The mega-studio blockbuster is made by executives so rich that they will never move in the same spheres as you, and made from collections of marketing data. It’s mass appeal is as calculated as selling corndogs, and made from elites and for the purpose of filling pocketbooks. One has to move beyond this strange prejudice that “easy to understand” means “for the common person”, which holds the corollary that intellectual pursuits cannot be achieved by common people. That, not the pursuit of beauty, is the truly elitist position. The person who says, “Well, I am not brainwashed by art and literature so I know that Moby-Dick is bad!” is the real elitist, setting himself apart and above all the many, many minds that have been moved and influenced by these great works.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.


The fact is, literature and the arts are about being human. When we do not understand them, it very often comes from too many preconceived notions and the worry that the piece will be too difficult. In fact, very often the opposite is true. Very often the piece is simply the story that was inside a particular artist, and that artist’s voice is trying to tell it in the best way that she knows how. And that may sound corny and mushy and too simple for a piece that seems so complex, but it isn’t. You know that “oh-so-elite” David Foster Wallace? Here’s something else he said:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

I remember watching with my mother this documentary called Between the Folds. It’s about origami, which doesn’t sound like an interesting documentary subject, but, like I mentioned before, it’s not the what but the how that makes something art. And, this is actually one of the most delightful and entertaining movies I have ever seen.

BTFPoster0809WEB2SM

In the documentary, the origami artists discuss their development in a relatively new art form –that being the origami as fine-arts sculptures. What is interesting is how the art progresses through stages that usually take eras for arts to develop through, and how the documentary brings attention to this. Toward the end, the artists begin to look at the medium they love so much, which they have given up jobs and devoted their lives to working with, that being paper, and start to think about how little they can do with. I mean this in the most positive sense. Paper, to these artists, is absolutely beautiful, and they get a sort of kinship from the process of touching and folding the paper. I think many people forget the relationship between artist and medium, one which is very often something like a love story. If paper is beautiful, and touching and folding and working with paper is itself beautiful, then why should it simply be an art that dazzles people with the artists’ ability to draw up mathematically complex plans and turn them into 3D paper dragons?

And so, the artists begin seeking minimalist folds, one or two folds, abstracted and focusing only on the beauty of the paper. When the documentary was over, my mother said to me that it was really fascinating that as the artists matured in their craft, artists who were fully capable of creating very complex and mathematically detailed paper sculptures, were drawn to the simple. What does this yearning for simplicity say about humanity?

I think that being able to see this process, and how delighted the artists are, and how in-love they are with their craft, really helps demystify the idea that non-representational art is for this elite class of critics to interpret to the people, like guardians of an oracle. Take Rothko, for example, an artist often considered too obtuse for audiences, or possibly even a great bullshitter. No one except maybe Pollock gets as many “my kid could do that” comments as Rothko. But, this is because people are looking at his art the wrong way.

Like the origami artists, Rothko could paint in both representational –and surrealist– styles. However, he was drawn to simplifying his medium. It is like the artist Kandinsky said in his manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual In Art, art is more than just looking difficult. If you want that, go watch a trapeze act. Art is about expressing something about yourself, and life, and about seeking beauty, and about trying to present something rather special to the world. Rothko is about color.

MARK-ROTHKO-MARCUS-ROTHKOWITZ-blanco sobre rojo

I do not understand how these self-proclaimed guardians of beauty, against “Modern” art, cannot find any beauty in color, in the way it relates to other colors, in the way the light plays with it, in the delight of paint itself, in the sheer joy of color and medium. Do they ever find themselves in contemplation over a single drop of perfect alizarin crimson? Because that’s what it’s all about, no obtuse cipher of jargon and terminology, but the rapture of it, the beauty of it, the fact that colors, and paper, and words, and notes, and movement, and texture, and syntax are beautiful.

Image16rothko

These supposedly difficult prose pieces are simply relishing in the sound, texture, and music of language, its power to move,surprise, delight, terrify, enlighten, enrage, and soothe. The complex notes of classical composition, which sound like incomprehensible noise blobs to the unaccustomed ear, are really these fantastic, unique sounds, which blend together in beautiful techniques to create some of the greatest music in the world.

So, there isn’t an easy answer as to what it is that makes something literary or art. And, yes, if you’re serious about it you’ll have to do a lot of studying and expose your mind to the greats of your field, the best writers, musicians, artists, et cetera. But, if you love it, this is what you will do already. It’s what you will want to do. That’s how people who love their art behave. The person who loves music is not the person who plays the radio and dances along to the Top-40 whatever, but rather the one who listens to the best of the best, and practices. The artist doesn’t just like putting posters up or “liking/sharing” something that looks cool; artists practice art and study the art world. People who love books are not people who dully consume them like potato chips, or madly seek out fandoms to obsess over, or correct typos on the internet. They care about writing, about quality, about great words, about language, about ideas.

Stravinsky's Petrushka manuscript

Stravinsky’s Petrushka manuscript

That kind of care is really the baseline for the answer. There is no exact answer, because this isn’t a science. But, the desire to enter this dialog of art, to work with the world of art and what it has done, to be aware of the arts and their ideas, and to love and delight in the materials themselves, this is the how. It won’t always work, but might.

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

Defending Disney: Aladdin

AladdinDisney

I think that when critiquing the ’90s Disney films a lot of people forget just how different they all are from one another. The Little Mermaid is very much a step to make Disney up to date with a new teen culture, but Beauty and the Beast is a mega-musical style romance, and now we have Aladdin. In some ways, we could say that Aladdin is the natural child of the two previous princess films. It’s a sassy, anachronistic, teen-culture film, and it is a mega-musical-style romance. It even has Lea Salonga doing Jasmine’s singing voice, coming from Broadway’s Miss Saigon. (She would later go to do the singing  voice for Mulan, and played Eponine in the 10th Anniversary edition of Les Miserables.) But, while the movie does have this natural inheritance, it is again its own thing, and really quite different from its predecessors.

The most obvious change is that this isn’t from a female perspective. It is noteworthy for being the first Disney prince story. Yes, Princess Jasmine is a major character, but it’s not her story. It’s Aladdin’s story, and that’s where the emphasis falls: on a male hero, who is also kind of a wise-cracking scamp, a little street, and who has more action-based adventures. For some reason when Disney made Tangled there was a lot of buzz about how the studio was stepping away from female-focused princess movies and doing something totally new. I guess everyone had amnesia, because before Flynn there was Aladdin. This isn’t new. The Disney Company, for being a studio known for such a recognizable image, has been noteworthy for not wanting to do the same film over and over again. That was a real concern all the way back to Sleeping Beauty, and it was only when the company was in a slump that its films looked more generically like one another. As for having male characters, from the start, Disney made a male-focused, scamp-type character who has more action-based adventures, and that was Pinocchio, the second Disney feature. However, the company had not decided to combine the girl-focused princess movies (of which there is only actually a small handful in a long list of features, by the way) with a more boy-driven story. It aimed to bring boys to princess movies without compromising girl interests. So, again, like Tangled (why do people think that movie is so unusual?).

However, the movie is radically different from the previous two ’90s Disney pics in other ways, as well. While The Little Mermaid has expanded character development and more playful songs and anachronistic references to being a teen, it’s still played very straight. It’s a late ’80s early ’90s youth culture, but, like the ’50s style in Cinderella, this doesn’t dominate the film. The era’s concerns are “cast” in the film’s fairytale world. And, Beauty and the Beast takes itself very seriously and is a very mature story, one of the reasons why it was a Best Picture nomination. So, what were they going to do with Aladdin?

I think that a lot of people who make something that was as much of a hit as Beauty and the Beast feel the need to do the same thing again, to recreate that success story. And, usually that doesn’t pan out very well. Disney made a great choice. Like their decision in the past not to make Sleeping Beauty a re-treat of their (successful) previous films, they chose to take Aladdin in a radically different direction. If Little Mermaid was Disney’s first blatantly teenaged movie, and Beauty and the Beast was its first straight-up romantic movie, Aladdin was a fairytale  buddy-comedy.

Aladdin-Screencap-aladdin-1715325-720-480

Now, I don’t mean that the movie is just a dumb parody. But, the studio’s decision to make a comedic, self-referential movie, complete with Robin Williams as the Genie (a casting decision so successful that the studio will shoot itself in the foot time and again to recreate  that success), was a major departure from the rather self-serious princess movies. In fact, Disney had been known for trying to make its audience of little girls get teary-eyed, what with Snow White’s apparent death, Cinderella’s torn dress scene, the three good fairies’s reaction to the loss of Aurora, Ariel almost not marrying Eric, and straight-up stabbing The Beast in the back. This isn’t even counting Bambi’s mom or the entire Fox and the Hound movie, and what they’ll do to children’s psyches everywhere in The Lion King. And, of course, the films are also known for having very self-serious love stories, fights of good vs. evil, and so on. This is all still in Aladdin, but instead of comic relief being in a serious movie, it has serious parts in a comedic movie.

The writing and animation is very fast, especially with Robin Williams as Genie, who basically just does Robin Williams routines throughout the entire movie. The animation has to speed to keep up with his jokes, with all kinds of sight gags, physical comedy, and random references to other Disney films and pop-culture jokes.

jokes

It’s a hipper Disney, like the Shrek before Shrek, but without deconstructing the fairytale elements. And, this new formula worked. In fact, adult audiences today, women and men, often list this as one of their favorite childhood films. I think that, looking back, the style and tone made me feel grown up, like I got the jokes and I was with-it enough to laugh at the jokes. I liked how cool and together the characters were, with Genie always getting the last joke, Jasmine’s independence, and Aladdin’s just… Aladdin-ness. He’s the fast-talking, street-smart sort of person that seems really cool to young kids, like he was Disney’s first non-villain badass.

scene

The animation is interesting in that it is just so fast. The movement problems of the past were over. The sight gags go by quickly, even by adult standards, and the movement is fluid, moving from realistic to over-the-top cartoony without ever being jarring. There is a stronger illusion of camera work, as well, and while some of the old CG work feels a little dated it was thrilling at the time, and best used in all the flying scenes with the magic carpet. The color scheme is interesting, as well, full of jewel tones and white palaces, making for some great contrasts. Unfortunately, like Little Mermaid, the trade-off for movement is detail, and if you’re looking for more of the lush designs of Beauty and the Beast you will be disappointed. But, this isn’t meant to be Beauty and the Beast. It’s less arty, but it isn’t meant to be. Its focus is on being comedic, fast-paced, and upping the ante for action scenes. There are chase scenes, escapes, treasure hunting, and, again, flying. It’s interest is expanding the Disney boundaries, and it accomplishes this.

The music is also pretty good, although I would argue less impressive than Beauty and the Beast. I can’t say I’m fond of lyrics like “But when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear
That now I’m in a whole new world with you…” and I think Tim Rice may be an overrated lyricist –though far be it from me to criticize the man who penned “Go, go, go Joseph!” as an actual lyric. However, like the movie itself, the music is more lighthearted than arty and I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who really disliked the songs or didn’t think they were fun and catchy.

But, like everything else, this film also has controversy, so let’s get to it!

On the left: The film is racist.

On the right: Jasmine is immodest, the movie is too sexy. Also, the Sultan is an offensive depiction of fathers.

Everyone else: Why can’t I have a pet tiger? No, I’m kidding. There is no controversy.

First of all, the big elephant in the room: Disney does not have a great history with depicting non-white characters. Few very existed in early Disney, and among these are fleeting images of “the blackfish”, a crow name Jim (why? Just… why?), shadowy circus workers who admit that they cannot read, a super happy depiction of slavery… It’s not stellar. And, even when Disney depicts other cultures favorably, they usually end up in very stereotypical roles. So, the big elephant in the room with this movie is that it straight up calls Arabia “barbaric”. Also, people say that Aladdin and Jasmine look white while Jafar looks more “ethnic”.

Aladdin-classic-disney-7730702-529-419

To the first criticism, I think it might be fair to consider that the story isn’t supposed to be “today’s” Middle East, but rather the setting of the Arabian Nights, with stories about 40 thieves and the like. But, that would still be a lot more acceptable if the depiction didn’t come from white America. Yeah, it is a pretty awkward depiction of a culture, and if you think that kids might not be able to process this I do understand waiting to show it. However, speaking for myself, I never considered that the Middle East was barbaric from this film. I thought that the rule of a specific fantasy kingdom, like the kingdoms in previous Disney films, had a very harsh code of law. But, this seems to come from inequality and the police, not from being of Arabian decent. So, I don’t think that kids are likely to come away as mini-Glenn Becks after a viewing, but I do understand the concern.

However, I don’t think that Jafar looks “ethnic”. I think he looks like a cartoon villain, even complete with a scary mustache. And while Aladdin’s voice is definitely American-teen, I think that the character is actually positive, showing cross-cultural sympathies with being put-upon and underprivileged, something all societies have. I think that making Aladdin more “street”, if in a cute and Disney way, does bring to life the fictional character in a way that resonates with kids, and that this was the goal rather that whitewashing his character too much.

Jasmine is sort of a social conundrum. On the one hand, yeah, the belly-baring, sexy depiction of a Middle Eastern woman does fit with some pretty classic race-fetish issues. In a world where white pop-singers dress up in sexed-up versions of traditional foreign garb, and people stereotype women of certain races as being especially s-s-s-sexy, I do see why people have a problem with this design.

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However, I would argue that the character kind of subverts this cliches. She looks at first like the stereotype, but her character is different, an independent princess, one who wants to even give up her royalty to have some freedom, who doesn’t want the men who see her as this sexy object. And, that kind of challenges viewers. Is the problem her design or our expectations concerning her design? (Basically, is she “just drawn that way”?) And, I think a Disney princess who doesn’t dream of a prince, who wants freedom, who stands up for herself, and who challenges those who try to objectify her or win her as some kind of prize (actual line addressed) is a good role model for kids.

And… also, I don’t actually think she looks European. I think the question is whether or not she’s a stereotype of the “sexed-up Arabian woman”, not whether or not she is whitewashed. I don’t think she’s particularly differently complected from actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, other than the fact that she’s, you know, a cartoon drawing.

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But, does the depiction actually make the viewers question their preconceived notions, that any attractive woman of Middle Eastern descent is a fetish character? No one thinks Ariel is a fetish character, and she wears less than Jasmine. And, Jasmine doesn’t act like a fetishized character. In fact, she’d probably be classified as the independent princess, or the freedom princess.

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As for the right’s concerns, I’ll just say, again, that if you’re really getting turned on my Disney princesses, you’re weird. You probably have problems. No normal person has this issue. And, I think it’s great that Disney shows that a woman can wear what she wants and still be within her rights to demand respect. So, I don’t buy the immodesty argument. She’s a 2D drawing.

Then, there’s that all-pervasive concern about the depiction of fathers. And, for once in the entire princess series, or perhaps the only time other than the King in Cinderella, the father character isn’t portrayed in a stellar light. He is a buffoon. That’s accurate. He basically is the King in Cinderella, but in some vaguely Arabian setting. He wants to marry his daughter off, and is otherwise kind of a nut. However, like I said before, I don’t think that the predominantly male creators of these shows are attacking men. In fact, this show has two very positive male figures, Aladdin and Genie. I don’t think you can point to a rather minor figure and say, “Ah, see, they hate men!” while the two main characters and heroes are in fact men. That makes no sense. But, they are not fathers and fatherhood has become a real brand on the right. I hate to be cynical, but I neither think these groups are helpful nor attacking real social issues. I understand the concerns of the people who buy their merchandise, but I don’t always buy the sincerity of the producers or the value of their product (Courageous, anyone? I mean, give me a break…).

Again, I don’t think dads become deadbeat dads from watching Disney princess shows. And, a lot of people have countered this by pointing out that at least Sultan is alive. Where is Jasmine’s mother? In the end, though, I think that, once again, this is about telling a story where young people make decisions and have to face frightening situations, and the anxiety it plays off of is having to do this without parents. That I think is the real purpose. However, I do see why a parent might be concerned with this portrayal –not because it portrays men badly, but because it might encourage a particularly sassy child to be particularly sassy. That’s a personal decision, however.

And, for what it’s worth, I never saw either the King in Cinderella or the Sultan as dads. I saw them as royals, which seems to be the real satire. I also heard, though cannot really confirm, that the Sultan was based on the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz, which, again, makes sense with the satire of royalty thing and the fact that these are American shows.

Again, like the depiction of race, it really comes down to how these issues are addressed within the household. If you introduce kids to very positive, multiracial role models, I don’t think that Aladdin will be the way kids understand the Middle East. I think they will see it as a fantasy kingdom. And, if you have good parent-child values in your home, I don’t think that kids will see the Sultan and decide to disrespect dad. I certainly never got that message.

In the end, I think this movie is innocuously awkward, trying a lot of things, succeeding at some and failing at others. It’s a fun movie, but also one that does require some further discussion with kids. Perhaps you could introduce your kids to Middle Eastern movies like Children of Heaven?

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I actually think that it’s good when movies bring up questions about how we talk about people, how we think of people, just so long as we discuss it. And, it really does a disservice to film as a medium when you forget to discuss the films and instead just mindlessly absorb the information. Parents have the duty to do this with their children, and children can handle it. They absolutely can have discussions about the movies they watch, and actually they really want to. Have you ever noticed how kids love talking about their favorite movies? Engage them. You might come up with something worth while!

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Defending Disney: Beauty and the Beast

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I think that if you ask most people which Disney film they like best it is usually one of the following: Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. And, it’s not hard to see the reasoning behind these choices. These are both big, impressive films, with stories far more complex and emotional than their predecessors. They really resonated with audiences due to their strong character development, memorable songs, and state-of-the-art animation. So, first to look at Beauty and the Beast.

This is one of those rare Disney films where even non-fans kind of like it. It’s hard to find anyone who dislikes the movie, and almost everyone who does has more of an ideological reason than a film-quality reason, which is unfortunate as the film is a film, not a political tract.

After the success of The Little Mermaid and the resurgence of popular interest in not only Disney princesses but Disney animation, the studio had a new direction and a new wave of fairytale structures. The ’90s Disney pics, the Renaissance Disney films, were typified by impressive animation, ’80s mega-musical-style songs, and a new sense of youth culture. The characters are generally misfits, for some reason or another, who want something “more”. In a way, this isn’t too different than Disney’s previous interest in living one’s dreams. But, while Classic Disney tells audiences that it’s good to be optimistic, to hope, and to see the world as full of possibilities, these ’90s Disney films are interested in how their protagonists can do this and how they feel. The stories, liberated by stronger innovations in motion and anatomy, as well as new computer technology, are able to move from the archetypal structures of the past to look at characters with stronger and more realistic desires. I say more realistic, because the archetypal style doesn’t really go away. But, in ’90s Disney the good princess might want to live her dreams because she has been reading books and has desires for adventure, and because she doesn’t fit in, rather that because she is a young princess who dreams.

So, enter Belle. Belle is almost everyone’s favorite princess. At least, almost everyone I know.

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Again, it’s not hard to understand. Belle, like Ariel, doesn’t quite fit in. But, unlike Ariel, who makes herself an outsider simply because she’s a brooding teenager who sits in her room with her posters and collectibles and sings angsty songs to herself, Belle is different because she just thinks differently than the people around her. She’s the daughter of an eccentric inventor and enjoys reading and studying, and cheering on her father in his plans to promote new inventions to the world. Unfortunately, they live in hicksville, where the cares of the villagers are, well, provincial.

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The people don’t understand dreamers who want more than finding a line of work or getting married, and, interestingly, this doesn’t just extend to Belle. I think people forget that her father is kind of a pioneering brain, and the town thinks he’s crazy for wanting to do things like… make work easier. He invents household technology and work-saving devices.

What is interesting about Belle is that, while Ariel’s good looks and voice were what made her fit in despite her awkwardness and angst, Belle’s good looks make her more of an outcast. The women her age don’t understand why she’s into books instead of boys. The town doesn’t understand why someone pretty is so different, and so they see her as even more odd, because she attracts more attention. And, the most attention she gets is from Gaston.

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Gaston is one of Disney’s more interesting villains. For one thing, he’s the first male villain in a princess movie. Considering that the films went from unable-to-animate-men to a character like Gaston, that is impressive. For another thing, Gaston is a major break from previous Disney villains. Ursula really isn’t that unusual for Disney –yet another witch with vague motivations, even if she is pretty awesome with her badass villain song. Gaston isn’t a witch or even an authority figure. He’s just the town jock, a good-looking guy whose interests happen to make him the town hero. He’s the kind of character one might initially think would be the hero, since he is vaguely good looking and has a Disney-style insta-love interest in Belle. However, he’s actually a selfish douchebag, who wants Belle because she would look good on his arm. He doesn’t share her interests, doesn’t respect her family, but thinks that she just should like him because everyone else does. He’s the town football hero who can’t understand why he doesn’t get everything his own way, the big-fish in the small pond. He’s the high school football star who always passed his classes so that he could play sports, even though he couldn’t really read.

And, frankly, I think that Belle and Gaston really typify why so many people relate to this movie. Belle is different, has ambitions that people don’t understand. How many people can relate to hearing, “Why don’t you just do what everyone else’s is doing?” or “What, do you think you’re special, wanting [fill in the blank]? Selfish!” In fact, that basically typifies all of society’s attitude toward “millennials”. “Why do you think you’re special or worthy of having a dream, ambitions, adventures? What, do you think you’re too good to work for $7 an hour flipping burgers at Pig’n’Grease, just because you have an MA in history and BAs in anthropology and classical languages? Pff, weirdo. Don’t take that unusual job. Don’t write that book. Don’t paint that. Don’t fall in love. Don’t try to fight for anything. Don’t try to get people interested in them derned books you’re always reading. You’re just a hipster!”

And, for all the (narcissistic) social analysis which deludes itself into thinking this is unique to our age, I’m pretty sure this theme is older and more resonating than current trending buzzwords might let on. I think when Disney unveiled a princess who has more ambition and brains than the people around her, that was a little refreshing: that it’s not elitist and doesn’t make you a horrible person to stand against mediocrity and want something more from life than “Marie, the baguettes!” and worshiping small-town heroes.

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

A literate young person? What an elitist hipster! Truly this is a terrible example for children!

And, I think as much as a lot of people related to Belle, a lot of people related to a villain like Gaston. You see, where Belle just innocently desires something more from life, without judging or being unkind to the people around her, and therefore rises above provincial thinking without being an elitist, Gaston is an actual elitist. Yes, you can be a numb-skull and an elitist. He’s not above mediocrity, but he’s the best at being mediocre. He’s the douchebag frat boy who threw you into lockers. And, it’s not really his fault. Society is so mediocre that it doesn’t expect anything more. It made him.

This “more” that Disney is exploring is beyond the idea of dreams coming true and also carries with it a sense of rising above, seeking quality, being brave, being smart, striving for more than the average. Belle’s dad isn’t content with the way the world is, and so he invents ways to improve it, and Belle is the same. Interestingly, as much as this “more” and “being more” theme typifies ’90s Disney, its morals are very Pixar, not unlike The Incredibles. 

And, then, there’s the Beast, or, as Disney retroactively decided to name him, “Adam”. Yeah… they never mention this in the entire film. They probably only did so that people like me wouldn’t nickname him Marvin.

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The Beast is a great character, however. He’s a handsome prince with an ugly soul, who becomes an ugly beast and has to become beautiful on the inside. As corny as that sounds, this is interesting for Disney, as most of their heroes up to this point have been straight up good-looking, and their villains are ugly. How do you know Cinderella’s step-sisters are evil? Because they look plain and have enormous feet! But, beyond this, The Beast is a great character, with a story arc, internal conflict, changes, and even a sense of humor. He starts out very intimidating –this frightening, Gothic monster,–and then becomes a character whose transformation is almost disappointing when he actually turns human.

This is probably not unintentional. Beauty and the Beast owes much of its look and artistic style to classic arthouse, surrealist fairytale Le Belle et la Bete, a 1946 French film by Jean Cocteau, the director of Orphee.

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Cocteau reportedly thought the ending of the fairy tale was boring, unfitting for a dynamic heroine, and so he wanted audiences to be as disappointed as he was. He did this by making the ending extremely sentimental, but Disney does this by making The Beast a great character that you actually care about. In fact, Paige O’Hara supposedly cried while voicing the scene when The Beast seems to die.

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From a technical level, aside from borrowing heavily from Cocteau, it’s safe to say that Disney had solidified its image to the extent that it was building on its own artistic tradition more than picking art from history. However, this is not to say that the melds of art in the film do not have roots. For example, the heavy use of chiaroscuro and the interior designs of the castle itself are borrowing from the Baroque tradition.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

Giovanni Lanfranco, Annunciation

However, the film is also very Gothic, in terms of architecture, as well as its interest in dark, monstrous images.

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It is also Romantic, but, again, Gothic Romantic, with Belle working just as easily in that tradition’s archetype as a fairy tale archetype. It has brooding, dark passages, an interest in decayed buildings, and an anti-hero, as well as a Byronic sense of heroes being somewhat outside of society. And, this I partially blame on its other major influence, the 1980s mega-musical, and Phantom of the Opera.

In fact, the entire structure is very mega-musical. While earlier Disney used the singing and dancing and talking animals of vaudevillian productions, The Little Mermaid was entering a musical scene that had changed dramatically. Broadway was creating massive, expensive mega-hits, with big pop-musical numbers, huge sets, and epic stories. EvitaLes MiserablesPhantom, these were all enormous productions with huge influence on the new Disney structure. In the past, for example, choir music works more like a Greek chorus, with only a few exceptions, often not even sung by anyone, and there more to explain a scene or create a montage to move the plot forward. In Beauty and the Beast, the first song is a Broadway chorus, where individualized characters sing the exposition in a massive show-tune style, not unlike scenes from Les Miserables. However, the way the characters sing dialog, and the big show-stoppers, like “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest”, and the titular “Beauty and the Beast” are also in this tradition. Songs like “On My Own” from Les Miserables or the love duet, “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera would not be out of place in this style of production. I think the film might owe more than it lets on to Phantom, in general, from its use of symbolic roses and mirrors, to a brooding and disfigured-but-romantic anti-hero, to The Beast having a Gothic lair… But, a lot of people tend to really disagree with this and argue that, if anything, they are simply inspired by the same fairy tale. What’s interesting is that Beauty and the Beast then went on to become a mega-musical on the stage, itself, bringing the influences full circle.

(Original Broadway Cast) Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here...

(Original Broadway Cast)
Yes, I can see no obvious influence from Phantom here…

Perhaps because of this structure, and audiences showing a strongly favorable interest in Phantom as a romantic story — because nothing says romance like brooding  angst–

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept...

Entire pop-culture, despotic empires have formed over this concept…

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most unabashedly romantic Disney films. I don’t mean this in, “Oh! I am so swept up in this love story!” but rather that the film is intentionally put together to be more romantic and have more of an emphasis on the romance than the previous films. While love has always been a huge theme in the princess movies, the films aren’t really romantic, per se. Snow White only meets her prince twice, and he barely does anything. She’s simply waiting for him to find her, somehow. Cinderella’s dream, initially, is to go to the ball, and only then does she meet the prince. They share one song together, and that’s it. Love… I guess. Neither of these films had the technical prowess to create male characters that could be on screen long enough to be romantic. The films just tell us, in Cinderella‘s case quite literally, that this is love (huh-mmm-huh-mm). Sleeping Beauty has its princess and prince fall in love in a really gorgeously animated sequence, but the story is really about the fairies. The romance is just sort of assumed because this is fairytale logic. And, while Little Mermaid does have Ariel spend more time with Eric than any of the previous couples, the story really is about Ariel’s interests and Eric isn’t that much of a character. While as a kid I used to dress up as Eric (for some inexplicable reason), he’s actually a pretty bland leading man.

Beauty and the Beast, however, opens with The Beast’s story, and asks us, “Who could ever love a beast?” Then, when the characters meet, we see them go through changes, learn about one another, and develop together until they even get a romantic ballroom scene.

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And, of course, it’s a forbidden love, which Disney plays up in the scene when Belle shows Gaston the magic mirror and everyone decides to become an angry mob –totally unlike that other show it totally doesn’t owe any artistic credit to. And, the interactions between the characters are more traditionally romantic, not in that I am going to argue their swoony potential, but that they literally borrow from the tropes of romance films. The characters argue a lot, and that just means they’re meant for each other (a common romance movie trope).

"Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off." (The Notebook)

“Hey, girl, you piss me the hell off.”
(The Notebook)

The characters also are more physically affectionate. They dance closer, hold hands, kiss passionately. These aren’t actors. Animators and animation directors had to choose to specifically make the chemistry stronger than, say, how Prince Eric apparently needs an entire animal choir to encourage him to kiss the girl who leans in to kiss him –and then doesn’t even do it. There are animation choices being made. People chose to draw this, in purpose. And, I think the fact that this is a romance movie, not just a love story, is part of why people really connected with the film. Audiences loved it. Critics loved it. And, it was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

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Now, of course, because this is a princess movie it has controversies. Something about making media that has a primary target of girls just makes people complain a lot, I guess.

On the left: Belle has Stockholm Syndrome and the movie encourages abusive relationships.

On the right: Oh, gosh, where to begin… Belle humiliates Gaston, Gaston is an offensive portrayal of men, Belle’s father isn’t tough and strong, there’s a fleeting image of a religious figure laughing in the scene when Gaston tries to marry Belle, Belle and The Beast are too sexy, beast characters encourage children to like monsters and those are apparently real and also the devil…

Everyone else: “There’s a controversy? What?””

First, people, you have got to stop diagnosing everyone with mental illnesses. I think this Stockholm Syndrome argument is the direct outcome of people medicating kids who fidget slightly because they have “ADHD” or are “manic”. Yeah, let’s stop pretending like we have doctorates in psychiatry when we don’t. Unless you actually do, in which case why are you analyzing Belle instead of real patients? Belle doesn’t have a disorder where she has convinced herself that she cares about an abductor. That is because this is a fantasy. This isn’t about an abduction. It’s about a world where enchanted castles hold enchanted Beasts. He, feeling threatened by an outsider, imprisons Belle’s father. Belle takes his place in the castle, which The Beast is just surprised by. She doesn’t really act like a prisoner, and even leaves, only coming back when The Beast is injured by the wolves. From that point on, she stays and does things like play in the snow. Furthermore, this is, again, a fairy tale, and the story really does have this plot point. It isn’t about reality but about abstract messages, like isolation, loneliness, being an outsider. And, it’s a part of our heritage. People complain about Disney dumbing down fairy tales, and then they complain when Disney follows the fairy tales. Nobody’s every happy. It’s always something.

In the end, Belle is a smart, ambitious, sacrificial, caring, brave, and strong character, and there’s nothing anti-feminist about that. You can hardly argue that The Beast doesn’t respect her by like ten minutes into their screen-time together, also. And, what little girl after seeing this would decide that what she wants is to be captured by a real kidnapper or in an abusive relationship? That doesn’t even exist in the same reality as this story, and clearly Belle has no problem ditching loser guys.

As for the right, I am constantly boggled by the arguments concerning Gaston. The guy’s a creep. He’s the guy who constantly tries to force himself onto someone and then beats up her boyfriend. This kind of person actually does exist. And, I don’t think that the male filmmakers are attacking men. I think that, just maybe, the kind of people who grew up to make Disney cartoons might possibly have clashed with Gaston-like characters in the past. It seems likely to me that arty people who went into the cartoon business might have had their problems with Gastons as kids. Besides, how is The Beast not a good male character, the opposite Gaston? In fact, by the end, The Beast even appears gentler and Gaston looks like a raving maniac, and Belle puts a fine point on it by calling him the monster.

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The point is that not everyone who looks good and is maybe a small-town hero is a good person, which is a valuable lesson for kids. And, again, The Beast is a good male character, both kind but also strong and fierce when he needs to be. I get the feeling that some of the idea that he’s less “traditionally masculine”, a phrase which apparently forgot this was ever a thing…

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…comes from The Beast’s design when he is a prince. Because he’s… French-looking and doesn’t seem like, I don’t know, a Duck Dynasty member. Because only guys with a cleft chin, who hang antlers everywhere and shoot geese in city limits, are truly manly? Because manliness depends on fashion and looks? That sounds like a horrible lesson!

As for Belle’s father, yeah, he’s not strong. Because he’s an old man. He is, however, smart and obviously passed on his ways of thinking to his daughter. He also sacrifices and cares about her, despite being an old man and an intellectual, not a warrior. Physical strength isn’t everything, and that’s kind of the point of the movie. Plus, when Belle takes his place, the movie makes it clear that he’s not just given up. He doesn’t want her to take his place, and he almost dies looking for her. Yeah… what a horrible depiction of a kind, loving father. I wish he was more like Gaston, said no one ever.

And, yes, there is a reverend type in the crowd at Gaston’s farcical wedding. Because no reverend has never been bad… Besides, the entire town is there. The idea is that the town has spoiled Gaston so much that he literally cannot understand or stand being rejected. His entire motivation is that he’s embarrassed by this. But, I remember as a kid that a lot of people thought Belle should have been nicer to him. Let me ask you this: if a random guy burst in on your daughter with a bunch of people and was like, “We’re getting married! You’re so lucky!” would you say to her, “Be nice, girl. Be sweet about it!”? Probably not.

The last two complaints I’ll address really quickly, because they are dumb. One, do you really find a kid’s cartoon too steamy for you? What, are chair legs to steamy for you? The problem with this complaint is 100% about the complainer. Two, monsters aren’t real. You don’t have to worry about your kids falling for a real monster and thinking it’s good because… monsters are imaginary. So is Santa. But, kids will encounter very real people who look different or who are in some way outsiders, and we should care about them. Real people are hurt every day because they are different, look different, are not in the norm. But, monsters don’t exist. Real monsters are, like the movie says, like Gaston, and that’s a more realistic message to teach your kids.

I’ve encountered a lot of writing which really praises the idea of very abstract evil, dragons, and monsters. One writer complained that his political opposition should just admit that they are orks so that he could fight them. Need I remind anyone that orks are killed without mercy in fantasy stories? While showing kids the defeat of an abstract monster can teach kids the valuable lesson that evil can be conquered, real evil doesn’t look like imaginary monsters. We learned the lesson about slaying dragons in Sleeping Beauty, but there are more lessons that kids can learn, and Beauty and the Beast provides some of them.

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