With a Flair for the Dramatic

I have loved villains in media since I was a very small hellspawn. Whether it was my attraction to Lord Sesshomaru in InuYasha or my undying allegiance to Prince Vegeta in DragonBall Z, villains have always done it for me. Narratively, they usually get the coolest powers, best lines, and most interesting motives even if they make zero sense. Like really, what was Master Naraku’s problem? He didn’t get to sleep with one priestess and that was enough to want to mess with literally everyone else he came in contact with? But why? Doesn’t matter, he was hot and had a cool design.  

But in the spirit of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, I want to talk about something that others have covered but I wanted to put my own spin on as well. I want to talk about queer coding and villains. In fact, there’s a great Princess and the Scrivener video that I’ll link here that talks about this mostly with Disney villains and I’ll use a lot of similar points but really, there’s only so much queer theory to go around.

Here’s the basics: villains in Western media (I exclude Eastern for now but put a pin in this) are often times coded (portrayed using mostly visual and linguistic shorthand) as queer or effeminate to prove a point, that point being mostly how virile and masculine the protagonist is. Think about Scar in The Lion King or Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas. They’re both pretty aggressively queer-coded with all the glitter and flamboyance to highlight how masculine and strong the protagonists are. Ursula looks and sounds like an angry drag queen because she’s based off an angry drag queen and Frollo, despite very clearly lusting after a woman, is given very showy clothes and his attraction to Esmerelda can even be read as somewhat closeted.

And though the video I linked talks about this mostly in the negative…I know I’m just one queer out in the world but I’ve never had an issue with that. I love Disney villains as you can tell by my very enthusiastic Dr. Facilier cosplay. This is one of those places I don’t think queer coding is terrible as if the internet is to gauge, a lot of queer people found themselves in Disney villains.

Now, my realization that I maybe wasn’t quite cis or het may have come from anime but I can also super see the appeal and reason why someone who may be a little different, a little sparkly, a little more fashionable and way more sassy may attach more readily to villains and thus celebrate that.

So that pin I asked you to put in about Eastern media, let’s come back to that because here’s where we tie in East and West. The question is why code a villain or antagonist as queer. Is it just to show off how masc and strong your hero is? Well, yes and no. The root of the reason is the same as the root of many evils: misogyny. It’s easy to take down a villain that is by most writer’s standards a perversion of masculinity which is femininity. Think of Szayel Aporro Granz in Bleach. What is the point of making him such a queen? What does that do for us? Well, when we see him in comparison to the mostly morally strict and pure Uryu, he comes an easy villain to wish ill upon. Except for me, I love him and can’t wait to cosplay him. Many cultures view masculinity as the most strong and most capable, so making your villain queer, feminine or even downright trans in the case of some anime (looking at you again, Bleach) is a great way to create parallel and difference between the force you’re meant to be rooting for. So when Szayel has a sword thrust deep into him, a strange phallic sort of metaphor at the hands of another queer-coded character, you’re meant to be reminded of his perversion, deviance and girly nature and think that those things are bad.

Again, it’s about optics. I love his character and him being aggressively queer-coded doesn’t bother me as much as other characters in the same show do. Even one of my favorite series of all time does this with a villain most ignore and that’s Barry the Chopper in Fullmetal Alchemist, really, what’s the point of making him a crossdresser? Does it add anything? No. But I can tell you that I can still recite his lines in the same lyrical sing-song fashion that Jerry Jewell brought the character in the dub and it scared one of my friends very much to know I can do so.

I’ve spent a lot of words talking about the fact that I don’t think queer coding in villains is that bad but if you follow me over on Twitter then you must know what is to come.

Y’all, I don’t like BBC’s Sherlock. I don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock, Martin Freeman is fine but the plot, the lack of plot and the aggressive queer coding of most of the characters rubbed me the wrong way to start. Episode one features many jabs at how gay Watson and Sherlock must be for each other and that was a bitter enough pill to swallow but then we meet Jim Moriarty. Oh Moriarty. What even is he? Why is he? What is he doing? Andrew, no. Please. Don’t do this. Not like this. Moriarty isn’t even queer coded because coding is meant to be at least a little subtle. He’s just the most. There’s an amazing Hbomberguy video that makes all of these points much better than I ever could but here is my problem with Moriarty’s queer coding while I’m willing to give it a soft pass in other places. What is gained by Moriarty being queer coded? Why do we need to know that he’s apparently slept with one of his bodyguards? Why does it matter that he’s dressed up in the crown jewels? Why do we care that he apparently has the biggest of possible hard-ons for Sherlock? Why? What does this add to the story? You can just have him be a villain. It feels like it’s pandering and that’s why Moriarty doesn’t get a pass from me. Nearly every other queer coded villain has a reason for it. Even if the reason is a crappy one like internalized misogyny but really if you made Moriarty less queer coded, does anything change? Does this make him interesting? Steve Moffat, do you think this is helping? I tend not to throw around the word queerbaiting a lot because I think it’s overused by fans who are just unhappy their ship didn’t sail but in this case queerbaiting Moriarty and coding so aggressively as a flashy queer man doesn’t do a damn thing for the narrative. It’s good for slash fic and even then to what end? Does Sherlock show any interest in Moriarty? No. He shows no interest in anyone, that’s the damn problem. What’s the point? Why are we doing anything? Is bear still driving?

Queer coded villains are frustrating. So much of it is rooted in old and toxic aspects of culture that prize traditional masculinity over flamboyance, style, fashion, good puns and excellent villain songs. And there are other examples where this fails. Think about all the fuss with LeFou being the first out gay for Disney in Beauty and the Beast(2017). What does making Gaston’s literal idiot sidekick gay do for the plot? A whole lotta nothing.  

I can see why some in the LGBTQIA+ family are more up in arms about queer coding and villains because at the end of the day, a lot of these characters die or face some horrible evil and that just isn’t fun. It isn’t fun watching a character you relate to face a horrible death and it does continue to perpetuate a lot of things about being queer that many do not like. Not all of us are sassy, mean, flashy and out to steal your girl/boy.

But for those of us who are all of those things and oh so much more…well, let’s just say that I do love my queer coded villains… most of the time.

The Unexpected Horror of The Little Match Girl

It’s the holiday season and while I promised a month of Disney December I wanted to tell a story that’s personal to me and still is a fairy tale of some kind. I want to talk about The Little Match Girl and how it nearly ruined my childhood before the actual specter of Death could finish the job. This Christmas story was given to me in the form of a picture book as a child and its story still haunts me to this day.

Let’s first go over the story. Is it possible to spoil a beloved children’s book? Well, soft spoiler alert, I suppose.

The book goes a little something like this. A little girl in old-timey England is shivering in the cold. She looks like a genderbent Oliver Twist and she is desperately selling matches to pay for food. She is, unfortunately, down to her final three matches and winter’s chill is quickly setting in. She’s cold, hungry and miserable.

She decides to light the remaining matches she has for much needed warmth. She lights the first match and in the flame’s dancing light, she sees a warm house: family, friends, mirth, the whole shebang; but the fire goes out.

She lights the second match and in its flame she sees a Christmas feast: there’s goose and potatoes and an entire Noah’s Ark worth of other meals. She stays in that fantasy for a while before that match does go out.

On her final match, she makes the fateful choice to use it for warmth and in its light, she sees her grandmother (who we assume has passed away). She can feel her grandmother’s arms around her; they’re so warm and she feels so at home and safe.

The next page of the book is blank, absolutely black and the final page is that of a crowd of more Oliver Twist extras surrounding the little match girl. She is still and smiling, three burned out matches scattered round her: she died, frozen in the cold but did so happy having seen a vision of something warm, light and freeing from the cruel, cold world that let a little girl freeze to death in the streets.

Now, keep in mind that I read this as a child. I didn’t have the tools to process Charmander getting his tail wet in Pokemon yet alone a little girl dying alone in the cold.

There are different retellings of the story; apparently, in some versions she survives and in others, she’s sort of just spirited away into heaven all rapture-style by her flame-based hallucination Grandmother so she doesn’t per say die but sort of does.

I never understood why this story was told to children. What was the moral: don’t be poor so you don’t die? I never understood what this story was trying to tell me but as an adult, I have trivia which tells me a simple fact: fairy tales are meant to help explain and prepare little girls and boys for things they my face. Beauty and the Beast helped prepare girls for marriages to people who to them likely seemed beastly. Cinderella taught us patience in the face of cruel family. Snow White taught us to not trust strangers and most importantly, Sleeping Beauty taught us the important lesson of not shunning the village goth because she’ll come to your party uninvited and curse your child.

The lesson of The Little Match Girl can likely be seen two ways: one is the capriciousness and cruelty of the real world; poverty is real and having a story not end neatly with a bow is an important lesson even for children. The second I think is more interesting: I think this story is really about humility and what matters most. Sure, the girl sees food and fire but she also sees a lost loved one and that is the image that allows her to slip into darkness and sleep peacefully for eternity. She found physical comfort in fire light and spiritual comfort in the warm love of her grandmother.

This book stands in such stark contrast to Disney’s brand of sanitized stories. Disney as a brand and person were great at taking the original darker endings of famous stories and making them “more family-friendly” also known as, boring and safe. In the movie, you don’t get to see Cinderella’s step-sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds or Ariel’s legs cut off or any of the horror Sleeping Beauty faces. Instead we get “the lamp shacks up with a prince of some kind” in lieu of actual conflict or drama.

Sure, this does make things easier to digest for children but there’s something unfortunate about that. I faced death young as a child and nothing in media prepared me for that. These stories used to prepare children for things, not necessarily well, but they did try by at least talking about the darker parts of growing up and being a human person on this planet.

We’ve continued to sanitize children’s media and now there are even few things aimed at children that challenge them in any way. Children aren’t dumb, they simply lack experience. It isn’t that a child couldn’t understand death it’s that nothing would prepare them for that without prompting or experience.

I’m not advocating that The Little Match Girl go on every family bookshelf. It’s a tough read and I know I didn’t process that book, I just sort of sealed it away. It wasn’t until I talked about it with others that I realized how messed up it was as a premise. The story has the roots of a gritty live-action historical movie with a muted fiter over the film and probably staring Anne Hathaway in some capacity. However, teaching kids important lessons is part of the reason we have stories to begin with and even if the meaning isn’t figured out fully until that child is damn near thirty and still a goth, it’s a vital lesson to learn.

Stay warm, dear readership.

Forgiving “Let it Go”

Let it go, let it go And I'll rise like the break of dawn Let it go, let it go That perfect girl is gone! Let It Go, Sung by Idina Menzel, Frozen.png

I didn’t like Frozen. Well, let’s back up. I didn’t like how saturated the market became after the release of the uber popular Disney film Frozen. And that centered around the movie’s super popular song Let it Go. I hated the song, I hated every child who sang the song, I hated every teen on Youtube singing covers of the song.

I hated that it was “the anthem” for the youths.

And if I sound like The Grinch, you are right.

But Frozen didn’t fire on all cylinders for me for more than just the inundation of the song. I wasn’t wowed by the story. Now, mind you, it’s a stunning film and I could have my arm twisted and see some of its appeal. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go over the film. Frozen centers around Princesses Elsa and Anna. Elsa has ice powers and Anna has BenDelaCreme’s terminal delightfulness. Elsa does her best to hide her ice powers and Anna continues to be painfully optimistic. After one party, Elsa’s ice powers are outed, she runs away dramatically and  builds an ice palace (as you do) and Anna has to go on a mission to “save” her sister. There’s a boring subplot about Anna wanting to marry the first man she meets, Hans, and another boring subplot of Anna trying to rationalize her dumb choices to male lamp that carts her around. Hans ends up being an Alex Jones-style false flag villain and Elsa nearly kills Anna with ice magic. Elsa laments this and the moral of the story that the truest love possible is one between sisters despite the fact that Anna still shacks up with the male lamp.  

This movie just dances along the line of being obviously made for children while also being aggressively allegorical for the adults in the room in parts. Disney has recently been very meta with its movies and Frozen really kicked off that trend. Anna’s determination to marry the first man she meets is a staple plot point of the 90s Disney movies and every other character around her is insistent on telling her that her assertion is wrong and is bad and she should feel bad. The abundance of cute sidekicks is also very 90s Disney, so all the terrible ways Olaf is maimed and damaged during the film is an interesting inversion of that trope.

But we’re here to make amends to Let it Go, the breakout anthem of the entire damn film.

It was actually another Idina Menzel song that made me forgive the transgression that was Let it Go.

It’s Defying Gravity from Wicked. Many of you will know I am a huge musical theater person which makes the next statement a little strange: I don’t like the musical Wicked. Now, I do love the music of Wicked. Popular makes me smile, For Good makes me cry and Defying Gravity…let’s get into that.

Defying Gravity is right towards the end of the musical and it’s all about Elphaba breaking free of Glinda and her narrow view of how to do things right. The song is triumphant and beautiful and I do relate to on so many ways. Elphaba uses this song to finally free herself of the expectations set upon her by society, Glinda’s gaslighting and her dead-end relationship with The Wizard. It’s beautifully sung and beautifully performed and it does all the right things for me as a nerd, musical theater person and person who loves Idina Menzel.

My relationship to the song is a little more than just appreciating a damn fine musical number. As someone who felt held down by a hometown littered with ghosts, a family that was prone to gaslighting me into staying in one place and a myriad of societal expectations that only exhaust me, I wanted to defy gravity. I wanted to fly free. I wanted to reconcile all those feelings and be the best me I could be from precisely 278 miles away.

And it was as I belted the lyrics to this song at the bus stop before the sun rose just outside of my tiny apartment, I realized something: this is what the people who so passionately sang Let it Go must feel like. This feeling must be the exact same of finding form to the feelings you’ve had for so long and finding a song that so perfectly illustrates your desire to just break free. Disney has plenty of anthems like that from Part of That World to How Far I’ll Go; every generation of Disney fan has theirs. For me, it was Reflections because of course it was and for a whole generation of children, it’s Let it Go. And the parallels to Wicked and other coming of age narratives don’t stop there. Frozen allegorically can be seen as one of the best metaphors to coming out as LGBT+ put to film.

As Elsa becomes comfortable with her powers and who she is, she stops concealing and not feeling and lets it go. For many that had to remain in the closet, it’s liberating to live your truth and not have to hide who you are. Many find a family or build one of their own, they find safe places that do not make them compromise and they relish in being who they really are; just as Elsa did when she built her ice castle, built her minions and changed her clothes and let down her hair: she became the most free version of herself and that’s wonderfully powerful to those who have felt that way or are trying to feel that way.

Just because at first it didn’t do anything for me does not mean that I can or will continue to deny the importance of this narrative to a new generation. Just because something isn’t my cup of tea doesn’t mean I have to demean its importance to others.

And for being a stick in the mud about Frozen for literally years now, I do apologize. It’s not my job in this world to steal someone’s thunder. It’s my job to be understanding, as those have been with me. To be critical without being cruel. To be skeptical without being cynical. To be intelligent without condescension. That is what I am here to do.

A Tepid Apology to Beauty and the Beast (1991)

_Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke whe (4).png

I didn’t like Beauty and the Beast when I was little. I loved that movie. I was obsessed with the ballroom scene, the dancing cups and the at the time (and still mostly) fantastic animation. But I was a fickle child and that movie didn’t stay my favorite for long.

Like many of the things I put away in my childhood, I did put away many Disney movies. College brought with it cynicism and cynicism meant that I was, for a moment, too good for Disney movies. I was one of those folks on the internet with all the feminist hot-takes about Disney movies and if I could take those years back, I would. For the longest time, I was convinced that Beauty and the Beast was about Stockholm Syndrome and incredibly anti-feminist and overall, just a poor piece of media.

That was until the live-action remake made me reconsider my feelings.

Now, there are plenty of videos (like this one and this one) that far more eloquently explain the myriad of failures of this movie; so I’ll keep this portion brief. The live-action film calling out the “mistakes” of the animated movie only stand to make the live-action movie seem weaker.

Making Belle more “feminist” simply makes her a lamp of a character. Gaston having PTSD is…insulting. LeFou being gay is…also insulting. None of the changes the live-action film makes to the animated classic help the plot, character or themes of the film.

But this isn’t about the new movie. This is about me falling back in love with the animated classic.

For now, a synopsis: Beauty and the Beast (the Disney animated classic) was released in 1991 and is based off a classic French fairytale. The story surrounds Belle and her desire to find adventure in the great wide somewhere Her father goes off on a fetch quest and ends up in the claws of a Beast, The Beast, in a castle on a mountain that in no way looks scary at all. Belle decides to find her dad, because of course, and goes up to the not scary castle and sees the not at all scary Beast. The Beast bargains with Belle, saying that if she stays in the Enchanted Castle full of living enchanted dinnerware and such with him forever, he’ll let her dad go. Belle agrees, because plot, and magic castle-based bonding ensues. Eventually, Belle has to go back and rescue her dad from the villain I forgot to mention: Gaston. There is a very dramatic castle battle and then The Beast ‘dies’ turns human only after killing Gaston and then the pair can go off.

There’s plenty to love about this movie in hindsight. It has amazing graphics that are still fantastic and whimsical, a soundtrack that is still lovely and voice acting that is still well done.

But I want to talk about what made me like this movie again and it honestly may surprise you.

It was Gaston.

Gaston as far as villains go is pretty special. If you watch the movie, despite all of his scary framing, he makes a lot of sense. He’s a not-so smart hunter who is attractive and has a semi-homoerotic harem. His pursuit of Belle makes sense; she’s the only girl who won’t fall for his charm immediately.

Gaston’s songs are actually what turned me more towards liking this film again. His main song where a group of men sing his praises is hilarious but also wonderful social commentary on what makes the muscle jock oftentimes so popular in society. But the more interesting song is The Mob Song, lead by Gaston as he whips up a mob to fight against The Beast. The song explicitly encapsulates fear-mongering, paranoia and refusal to listen to reason. That message doesn’t seem so off in this current socio-political climate.

But this is a tepid apology. I do still have issues with this film. It is for sure a kid’s movie and I can admit that but jeez, the tone here is a problem. This film has some seriously dark moments and then Goofy laughs thrown in. Really, most of the 90s Disney films have a tone problem but this film has some pretty awful tone shifts like Gaston literally falling to his literal death.

Which brings us to the part of the film that I still dislike: Belle. And that surprises many people. Folks would assume that me, being a bookish know-it-all, would love Belle. But I’m not a fan. She claims to want adventure and she starts off different and unique but the romance that has to happen between her and The Beast just bores me to tears. For someone who wants more than her small provincial town, she sure does settle down quick. I’m sure for some, she’s just fine, but for me, I’ve been bored with her for over two decades.

And the themes of the film still seem really washy to me, especially now as a critical reader and writer. The themes of wanting more and not judging people by their outsides are the two biggest we’ll tackle here. The theme of being small for your town is very 90s Disney but really, Belle’s wish isn’t met in the end, she moves literally down the street from her childhood home to a castle. The second theme of not judging a book by its cover is also undercut by the fact that The Beast doesn’t remain a beast and while, yes, I cop to the fact that a Disney movie couldn’t be so progressive that it would transcend species getting together, it’s an irk I’ve had even with the original novel: if the theme is that beauty can be found in even in the heart of a beast, it’s undercut by having The Beast be secretly actually hot. Phantom of the Opera handles that a little better because we come to find Eric as inwardly beautiful despite his physical looks (we’re ignoring all the places where Eric is really problematic for now but rest assured I have not forgotten about that).

But all of that aside, the animated classic is a classic for a reason. And while the critical response to the film seems to lose sight of what actually matters, I have one thing to say.

I am sorry.

This movie is still beautiful and full of heart and whimsy that does not need to be explained. The live-action film shows us that in very stark contrast. The logic of an enchanted castle of course falls apart once you think about it but that’s the literal point. It’s an enchanted castle, it isn’t supposed to make sense. Sure, Belle isn’t as self-actualized as we remember but that’s okay. It was the 1990s, the internet hadn’t invented feminism yet. It’s okay that the tone is weird and that Gaston doesn’t feel like a villain. It’s okay that The Beast is a jerk sometimes. It’s all okay.

It won’t take away from the fun, the whimsy and the love put into this film. It won’t take away that Tale as Old as Time may be one of the best animated sequences done ever, it doesn’t take away that the movie can make an entire generation sing Be Our Guest, it won’t take any of that away.

The film is better than I ever gave it credit for, and for that, I am sincerely sorry._Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he.png

Regarding Uncle Walt

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”   - C.S. Lewis.png

I grew up during the height of the Disney Renaissance during the 1990s and while I, for certain, had fond memories of Disney movies as a child, many of them sort of passed through me like water. I had many favorites but essentially, each one that came out was my favorite. I waffled back and forth between Pocahontas as a favorite to loving Tarzan to quickly shifting to whatever flavor of the year movie came out. Not to mention the immense soft spot back then (and now) I had for Don Bluth’s mostly terrifying movies which I think during my childhood were much more impactful: I had much stronger feelings about Anastasia and An American Tail than I ever did for The Lion King. That also excludes that my childhood was dominated by other forms of American animation. Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Toons were also a huge influence on top of all the other shows I likely should not have been watching because it was the 90s and parents assumed that animated meant safe.

I say this to illustrate a point: I had to learn to love Disney movies. I had to learn to appreciate Disney movies. And considering that I was for entirely too long one of those annoying people on the internet full of quippy hot-takes, I have a fair amount of Disney penance to account for.

And with that said, I’d like to talk about Disney movies: the ones I love, the ones I can’t stand, the issues I have with a few of them and of course, Old Uncle Walt.

Since I was born in the 90s, I saw many of the movies that make people think of Disney movies. I couldn’t tell you why (outside of being a fickle child) that those movies sort of just ran through me. I can’t say it was an intelligence thing, I had long since memorized television shows and memorable lines from the shows that mattered to me even as a child. Disney movies just didn’t do much for me as a kid so when I finally grew up some and came into my teens, it was like seeing many of these movies for the first time.

I started college and managed to bring with me many of the great Disney films and to be honest, none of them impressed me. I was full of angst and ennui and I didn’t have time for the sentiment and whimsy of a Disney movie. But I could appreciate some of the darker themes of some of the riskier movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which may get a blog post all on its own). This, of course, excludes many of the Pixar movies because those can make me cry and I’ve cried enough for the sake of this blog. College brought many of those weak criticisms against Disney movies like them not being feminist enough or Beauty and the Beast being about Stockholm Syndrome (I will repent for that sin next post, I promise.). And many of those aren’t false, simply misplaced. Sure, Mulan is self-actualized and Jasmine is a sexy lamp and while we’re at it, no one gives Cinderella enough credit! But many of those shallow dives don’t give those films the credit they deserve.

It wasn’t until the later years of college and really post-grad that I found a deeper appreciation for Disney movies as cultural touchstones and as art. Who knows. Maybe I found some of that sentiment in me after the loss of a parent or I was just a little less jaded. I was able to see them for their skill, their magic and their music. I tend to use musicals to clean and sew so in the heavier workload years of college I found immense solace in something I could sing to and had a beat: it kept me motivated in between costumes and essays. At that time, my bread and butter of beloved movies remained the same: Hercules and Pocahontas as well as Hunchback but that’s because it never really left the rotation.  

Unfortunately, the formal years of book-learning meant the flames of old cynicism began to flare again. It was difficult to deal with the representation and writing in many Disney movies and while, sure, they’re for children; it’s still less than ideal to have old tired tropes rehashed for new vulnerable audiences.

That’s right: feminism ruined Disney movies.

The book-learning also brought in with it a very complicated relationship with Mr. Disney. One of my college senpais was deep into Disney fandom so when I discussed my issues with how the company treated (does still treat) its employees or how the animation team continued (still does continue) to whitewash history and people for the sake of “safe”  and profitable stories, my criticisms were often met with harsh silence or a laundry list of excuses. Let’s be clear, Disney was a complicated man who did his best but was a businessman first. I can’t knock the man’s hustle but I can be disappointed with how the company treats its staff and the land around their parks. I can also still have a strained relationship with its characters. While for many The Princess and the Frog was a huge step in the right direction for me it was a tired limp towards what was long since an understanding of demographics. While many praised Moana, I saw mostly a reboot of Pocahontas with much less casual racism and whataboutism.

It’s okay to have a complicated relationship with Disney as a person and as a company and as a brand but that doesn’t mean that I am too much of a contrarian to admit when something is good. The Lion King still can make me cry [An aside: so the fall after my mother passed away, Amber and I were babysitting a friend’s young son. We decided to put on a movie and Amber chose The Lion King because it’s a good movie with good songs and really the movie was for us and not for the child we were watching. Around the scene of Simba trying to wake his dead father, I started crying. Silent sobbing is the better term. Amber then looked to me and realized what had happened and she said “Oh, no! I’m a monster!” and immediately hugged me. I assured her I was fine but this happened well into my 20s; these movies are still powerful.] I can still admit that the water animation in Moana is impressive. I can still admit that I cried during Mother Knows Best because it so painfully echoed much of the gaslighting I’ve endured growing up. I can tell you that parts of Hunchback still give me chills. I can still dislike their desire to make a monopoly of entertainment. I can dislike their choices by continuing to think that diversity is a myth and hedging their bets on mostly “safe” white storytelling. I can be disappointed in all of those things.

But I can still say that I love Disney movies.

 

A Blog Post About Jokes About Jokes

“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.” ― Nikolai Gogol.png

When I first started following Deadpool as a character in the 2000s, he was really a interesting but far from the only character doing what he did. 4th wall breaks were somewhat common in comics and She-Hulk was much better at breaking the 4th wall than Wade Wilson ever was. It may have been my love of manga and anime which is full of meta humor and puns that made me sour on the whole thing faster than the average American, but I’m frankly quite tired of meta-humor. Here’s why I dislike meta humor and some practical examples of how it actively usually hurts the narrative its in.

Let’s take a moment to discuss some vocabulary, because once I get started, I will not be slowed down. Meta-humor as currently defined is humor at the expense of the subject. For instance, Scream calling out all the logical fallacies in other horror movies makes it metacritical and metatextual while still being at the time subversive. To subvert or be subversive is to undercut or defy the expectations of a medium or genre. For instance, Rick and Morty subverts the sci-fi genre by being mostly bleak and entirely nihilistic. Meta-humor like this has been popularized for decades and is a vital part of the postmodern culture we live in: thanks, late-capitalism. Meta humor is said to be funny at all because it’s calling out the tropes we know and hate now because they are so overdone. A 4th Wall Break (an instance where a show or piece of media admits it isn’t real and breaks the wall between performance and audience) is rare in theater and was rare in other pieces of media but got more popular with comic books. This is different from being an anti-joke or even surrealist as the goal with these is to defy expectations by being either entirely serious and completely doing something out of the norm. Think of the Lobster Telephone done by Dali. Again, to give credit where credit is due,  the earlier runs of She-Hulk was full of 4th wall breaks but let’s be honest; when you think of a 4th wall break currently, you think of Deadpool.

Deadpool as a movie franchise is interesting, really the character is a hard sell if you aren’t super into comic books. Wade Wilson is a character who cannot die and essentially has gone crazy due to his mutation and is in no way a cheap rip-off of Deathstroke. That being said, the whole idea around his particular version of meta humor is actually pretty strange, Wade Wilson knows he’s a comic book character and knows he isn’t real but most of that is chalked up more to mental illness or lazy writing than it is to anything else. The movies ignore that aspect of canon keep him as every teenage edgelord who thinks he’s funny and too good for the humor of the common folk. This worked in the first movie that came out just after the first big wave of superhero movies. It was funny to have a character comment on the logical fallacies in superhero films. It was great to have jokes lobbed at the film’s own expense, it was, at first incredibly refreshing. By the time we reach Deadpool 2, it’s simply tired. The superhero movie bubble has started to burst and since Avengers: Infinity War had ripped the hearts out of most fans, his humor was just tired. It was no longer new, refreshing or subversion: it was a chore and that movie was mostly a slog for me except for a few scenes that genuinely almost made me spit out my overpriced cola in the theater. Because by the second time Deadpool is commenting on Cable’s weirdly limited time travel abilities or the fact that there are still very few people of color in comic book movies despite there being several people of color in comic books: it just feels like it’s exposing a plot hole. That is a problem.

A 4th wall joke is funny the first time, the second time may even be insightful but the third or fourth is just tired and if anything can take you out of the film. It’s no longer subversive once the trope has already been subverted. Think of the last post we did on the Trope Trope: once being subversive of tropes is established, it then becomes a trope.

It’s especially difficult when a large company tries to comment on the tropes they established. Disney has recently gotten very meta about Disney and it’s infuriating. I grew up with Disney movies and while I didn’t notice many of these errors as a kid, I certainly don’t bat an eye at them much now as an adult. It doesn’t bother me that Beauty and the Beast was full of plot holes: it was a beautiful movie. It doesn’t matter to me that Cinderella isn’t “feminist” enough, she was engaging and the animation on the older movie is gorgeous. But the newer Disney movies have been determined to comment on the tropes that made the movies famous. Don’t like Disney princesses falling in love? Frozen is here to comment on that and then cop to Anna falling in love with her new disposable boyfriend. Disappointed that Belle didn’t fight back more? Beauty and the Beast (2017) is here to make her extra “feminist” and actively weaken her character with an invention subplot that goes nowhere and a total lack of performance or chemistry from Emma Watson. Tired of all those pesky cookie-cutter princesses? Here’s Moana with a character (in the form of Maui who is supposed to be our secondary protagonist) who is literally every teenage edgelord of a kid to undercut the serious moments to the movie’s detriment.

It’s just exhausting. The reason why it’s such a cheap shot is because rather than, you know, fixing the narrative issues; writers assume that calling it out acts as a blanket to cover them instead of just being better. So when Deadpool calls out Cable having a crappy motivation as an antagonist, guess what. I’m aware of how crappy his motivations are. When the new trailer for Wreck-It Ralph makes a jab at how horribly Disney treats its princesses, I’m not laughing. I’m just hyper-aware of how terribly they are all treated and how repetitive it is. When you intentionally poke a hole in the curtain, it becomes easier to see all the other holes in it. Do you know what would be actually subversive? Doing the right thing. In this age of cynicism and senseless cash-grabs, what would really be shocking and subversive would be to just write well. It’d be subversive to have a princess with two loving parents and a stable home life. It’d be subversive to have a gay character who is complex but not magical, a martyr or a token. Sincerity in this cynical postmodern age would be more unique and special at this stage and I can’t believe I have to say that now.

 

Spirited Away and Westernization: Is It All Disney?

The film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is the coming of age story about a girl named Chihiro and her magical journey through a land of spirits, demons and monsters.  This is thought to be a quintessential Japanese story of determination and strength through what is to most a very exotic and foreign land but upon closer inspection one can see that this film has deeper Western influence within it than at first glance despite this being Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled “return to Japan”.

Westernization as defined by the dictionary is “the influence of Western culture on non-Western cultures”. This can also be called the imposing of Western ideals on non-Western cultures.  Westernization in Japan began in the Meiji Era in the late 17th to 18th century when American traders forced the Japanese to open their ports and flourished again during and shortly after World War II and has since gained speed with globalization. Westernization can be seen not just in the culture and language but in various films and publications from Japan. Everywhere from McDonald’s to hearing more and more people in Japan speaking English, Western influence has been the battle we seem to be losing as we struggle to preserve cultures outside of our own.

I’ve watched this film countless times and never gave it any thought, I always assumed it was just to appease American audiences and must have had something to do with the Disney influence but further investigation revealed that it is not only intentional but original to the film.  It all started with a moment of watching the film with friends and keying in on one key line. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s got credit cards.” Chihiro’s father went on in the key scene at the café for the spirits with Chihiro’s parents who up until then I never considered to be overly Westernized but that sort of flaunting of wealth and money and then the overly pluralized capitalist remark from her father just sealed the deal, this film has more Western influence in it than I think anyone knew.

The first place this is apparent is in Chihiro herself. She spends most of her time in the film yelling, whining or complaining.  These are very non-typical traits of a Japanese character of firstly her age being that of ten years old and of her gender, being female. The typical Japanese girl is even in this modern era meant to be quiet and respectful, polite, considerate and respect her parents. Even with the slight influence the West has provided in modern Japan, Japanese children even up until young adulthood maintain a level of respect that is uniquely Eastern.  Chihiro was unlike any character I had seen in a Japanese film before.  This is meant to show the duality of characterization and she was meant to provide a foil to the traditional background of the film but she seemed to be a more basic example of Western influence than a mere foil to the tradition of the film.
The second place is in the main setting itself, the Bath House of the Spirits. The Bath House is run by the witch Yubaba, who is a greedy, sinister and selfish character who runs her bathhouse strictly and with an iron fist. Firstly the bathhouse in Japanese culture is a mostly male dominated realm not to be owned by a female. And a female with such strong Western ideals. Though this is one of the more traditional parts of the story, most often in Japanese myths women that as wicked and greedy are shown as grotesque as Yubaba and are often the villain of the story as with Yubaba.  She is also dressed surprisingly in a Victorian outfit that seems to be a nod to 19th century England; her clothes are tight-fitting and show off her large broad body which shows strength and ferocity, traits that are uncommon for even villains of Japanese myth. Such capitalistic greed and concern for money and self-preservation as Yubaba shows are surprisingly common for Japanese myth but her clothing, style of speech are distinctly Western. But there is one key that does tie her back to tradition, she takes Chihiro’s name, this is a very Eastern concern, the tie between the soul and the name. But in a moment of Western concern Yubaba takes Chihiro’s first name and not her family name which even for girls is of more concern than their first. Between her pipe smoking and over-concern with her gold stash she reminded me more of a female brothel owner in the South than a Japanese villain.

Within the bathhouse’s work structure we also see another shout back to Victorian England and to factory life of the Industrial Revolution. The workers at the bathhouse seem to be of a lower class and cannot afford to actually enjoy the bathhouse’s luxury but are resistant to change when the human girl Chihiro is offered a job. Each department refuses to take her and such specialization within the workplace seems more at home in a factory in London than a bathhouse in Japan. Also the poor treatment in which they are treated, and conditions they work are of poor standard, crowded and very busy. Not serene at all or zen-like similar to how we believe and have record of most bathhouses being run.
The foremen are cruel and make harsh comments to the female workers, the female workers often girls and young women have to work very hard. In traditional bathhouses women were only allowed to work as geisha and could not even do any of the actual work of the bathhouse and that was relegated to the workers of the bathhouse who were usually male and they worked in what were considered to be normally very equal and fair conditions. These factory conditions did not appear in Japan until well after the Meiji era and the beginning of World War II and is by no means traditional.

The third distinction made was with the boiler man and the overall industrial feel of the film. Despite the film’s backdrop being a very traditional Japanese bathhouse that could have been plucked out of a Meiji Era picture book, the boiler room is a testament to steam era technology that seemed to bypass Japan and seemed to come more from Victorian England than late Tokugawa Japan. Coal power is distinctly Western and the more traditional form used to power bathhouses came from manpower or natural geothermic reactions.  The skyline also in the film is very modern and Western, though it does seem to seamlessly meld with East and West, skylines and dragons, myth and reality, old and new.

Another place we see a near overly Western influence comes with some of the items dotting the landscape in the film. A New Orleans-style paddle-boat brings weary spirit guests to the bathhouse a one-way San Francisco-style trolley car rolls along the stops of the spirit world. These things are almost never seen in Japan outside of theme restaurants and in pictures from the United States. What are they doing playing background image to a traditional bathhouse?

The interpersonal relationships of the film are another mark of Westernization. It is not just Chihiro’s pessimistic and disrespectful attitude but also her forwardness with other authority figures. Her parents are near oblivious to their daughter’s needs and shoo her needs away and her growing concerns about entering the terrifying abandoned amusement park. Her parents are not as attentive as we are accustomed to seeing Japanese parents especially ones that have a young daughter.  We are quick to shove that to the side and assume it is a plot device; if they had listened to her more intently the plot would have never moved forward. Yubaba’s relationship with her foremen and workers is more like that of a factory owner than the traditional respect of an Eastern bathhouse.

Another key fact that gets the plot moving is Chihiro’s family moving, this is actually fairly uncommon even in modern Japan where jobs are very stable and families have not moved from prefecture to prefecture in years even if they do work in the more industrial regions of the country like the Aichi prefecture where there is a great deal of auto manufacturing. The behavior of the characters cannot be simply chalked up to devices of the plot of slaves to moving the story along, there is a deeper Western influence within that perhaps served the purpose of making them more relatable to a growing American audience.

Now, the film has plenty of traditional elements to it. The idea of a bathhouse for the spirits and Yubaba’s odd concern with respect and maintaining her guests’ happiness. The closeness to the spirits is one that is only seen in the US in regions like New Orleans where voodoo is practiced and there is a closeness and concern for the dead there; that is the only other place outside of Eastern myth that I have found the living and the dead communing so casually together. The theme and concern with mythology is one that is uniquely Eastern. Also the great interjection of mythological characters and creatures of folklore that have survived for thousands of years in Japan like the dragon and water spirits, river spirits, demons and monsters that seem to encompass the landscape of the film.

Spirited Away was as Miyazaki-senpai said his “return to Japan”, the film’s exotic setting, mythical creatures and whimsical spirit was very unique and unlike the average film to the average American movie-goer. What did tie the film back to Japan was something Miyazaki does consistently throughout many of his films and it is doing his best to when he can preserve Japanese culture and the dying way of life that is the traditional Japanese way, in a way the Bushido code provided the guidance for the samurai up until the early Meiji with its brief resurgence during World War II, Miyazaki strives to bring that time back, to a simpler time where man lived and respected nature, and therefore respected others. Where myth and legend lived not just on paper but in the hearts of the people. Where honor was key and the most important thing to a person and not money or socioeconomic status.

These more traditional aspects come from another key scene and that is the stink spirit. We come to find that it is not a stink spirit at all but an old river spirit but due to neglect and pollution he has become gross and dirty. It takes outside help from Chihiro and the other workers at the bathhouse to clean him up and discover his true nature, a clean and healthy river he is grateful and leaves powerful medicine behind. This story is one that we see more commonly in the West but we are beginning to see in Japan as the Japanese become suddenly very concerned with preserving their rich natural habitats and local rivers and streams that were the lifeblood of the ancient Japanese and became neglected shortly after industrialization and pollution came to Japan.

The other key place is within Haku. He is one of the only characters to maintain traditional dress and for the most part formalities and respect for others including authority figures. Despite him being a mythical creature his story is also fairly similar to other Japanese stories. River spirits often communicate with humans and form close bonds with mortals, that being the reason why so many rivers in Japan have human names, they were thought to have real human embodiment that could feel and move just like humans could. Haku’s relationship with Chihiro then isn’t just to be chalked to do plot device, this is something that was seen as rather conventional if this story was being told hundreds of years ago in Japan.

Music and dance are other key places where we see the traditional creep back in, the soundtrack to the film is filled with traditional instruments like the samisen and koto, instruments used most commonly by geisha or Shinto priestesses. Also the various fan dances that happen throughout the film, though this even could be considered more a gesture in some instances. Fans are a highly traditional part of Eastern culture including Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Depending on the occasion they can symbolize elegance and grace or signal death and doom depending on the usage and occasion.

Amid criticism that Disney’s influence had been negative on his films, Miyazaki assured his fans that he worked very closely with translators and made sure they did their best to maintain the integrity of his works. This poses the question further. If it wasn’t Disney’s fault, why are these films so filled with Western ideals and images? It would be easy to just blame Studio Ghibli’s partnership with Disney on the Westernization and say this is just what Disney does to these things but since Miyazaki signs off on each film personally that means he either add these things intentionally or he still isn’t quite catching them before the film’s premiere.

Perhaps it is to widen his audience, for many years Miyazaki’s films had only been known to those who could fluently speak Japanese and had subject matter that was odd to the average American including pigs in WWII Italian planes and a secret society of talking cats. These films geared at young adults were highly sociopolitical with references that not many understood. It was not until some of his middle works like KiKi’s Delivery Service and Nausicaa of the Wind Valley that his works became more easily digestible to American audiences and as American audiences asked for more the more Western the films became and the easier it was to relate to the characters and story lines but at what costs? The end result for a while became a film that began in Japan and that at times was in Japanese but was basically the same as any other American cartoon.

In the end Spirited Away may have been Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled return to Japan and to the untrained eye, it’s easy to get swept up in the exotic location, mysterious plot, mythological creatures and intriguing yet relatable characters. But upon closer inspection one sees that this film is far more influence by the polarizing world around Miyazaki-senpai. One that does not know when to be old or new, when myth and legend are appropriate or when they need to be pushed to the side where contrast isn’t just a comment on the inside of a travel brochure it is a legitimate concern. When fans are concerned about the Japan in the texts books fading away forever as the new building encase old pagodas, where will the films be when the battle is decided as East becomes a growing part of the West.


Works Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006): 287-310. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <blume.stmarytx.edu/ehost/detai…>.

“Westernization of Japan – International Business – a Wikia Wiki.” International Business Wiki. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <internationalbusiness.wikia.co…>.

The No Good, Very Bad Thing that is Pan-Culturalism

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese_” ― Charles de Gaulle.png

I live in Texas. I was born and raised in Texas. But I was born specifically in North Texas. I now live in South Texas. But there’s a funny trick about a state so large: each part of Texas really is its own region. Remember the 6 States movement out of California? It was an idea that San Francisco and Los Angeles were fundamentally different from Culver City and San Jose and Compton. How could then, one governor, rule a state where each part of it is vastly different from its neighbor. Texas is very similar. Dallas is not Austin is not San Antonio is not Lubbock or El Paso or Del Rio. But yet we are all Texans. Pan-culturalism is a little like bit like. It’s assuming that just because someone is from a particular region: they all must be the same.

In our last post, we talked about how Disney can commodify cultures and pan-culturalism is part of it. It takes broad strokes from a specific culture that is unfortunately not as well-known over here in the West and thus makes it easier to understand (in theory) and then is reductive and out-right offensive to those who are in that representative population.

We’ll touch on an example that is close to my heart. Orientalism or Pan-Asianism (yes, I know the word is offensive and I hate it) is this idea that all of Asia is something that vaguely just resembles China. Let’s take Mulan as an example. Mulan as a film borrows from Korean clothing styles, Japanese iconography and Chinese mythos and iconography as well despite being a Chinese story set in China. And while, sure, I’ll pause for those saying:

But wait, Amanda. China was a major influencer of both Korea and Japan.

Sure, it was: through conquest. But they are not all the same place and as of whenever the hell Mulan is set, Japan and Korea were more stable as countries with their own distinct identities. This also reared its ugly head around Christmas-time for me. My uncle (who is African) LOVES A Christmas Story. Personally, I’m ambivalent about it. He was providing riveting live commentary during the movie and I immediately got stuck on the infamous Chinese restaurant scene. I was floored by this scene. And here’s where I’ll pause again for the:

It was a different time argument.

Yes, the blatant racism was a different time but the conflation of two cultures floored me. The restaurant is Chinese, thus the employees are assumed to be Chinese. So when they stumble of the Fa la la la la of a popular Christmas song, it’s patently false. China does have a concept of the “L” character. Japan is the one that does not. So the idea that Chinese immigrants would stumble over a fa la la is a cheap joke made by casual racists. And it’s frustrating to see a culture that is unique and thousands of years old be reduced to dragons, mysticism and handsome vases.

And it really only seems to be done with countries that are not considered to be The West. Sure, we romanticize and reduce European countries to broad stroke stereotypes but very rarely are they denied what makes them what they are. Sure, for many folks Switzerland, Germany and Austria may run together but we’d never just blanket call them “vague Germany”. But even many western countries have that issue. Each region of France is distinctly different considering which part it touches. England is different based upon region and not everyone sounds like Mr. Darcy and Germany: oh boy, Germany could be 4-5 individual countries depending on, again, who its neighbor is.

And I’ll pause here to talk about romanticization and stereotyping again. I’ve spent time in Austria and before my trip, I likely couldn’t tell you much about Austria despite what I learned from Axis Powers:Hetalia but in my mind I had a feeling it had to be mostly like Germany. It is not. And each part of Austria is special. Innsbruck is the capital of old Tyrol and has a haunted castle of nightmares and a golden roof. Vienna has some of the best yakisoba I’ve had in my entire life and Salzburg is mostly Mozart stuff. But we still paint the broad strokes of mostly German onto them. And those include that Germans are stoic, strict and punctual. None of those things are entirely false but you couldn’t apply that to every German man or woman ever in history. But very few of those actually impact other Western views of that land. But stereotyping is a strange sort of phenomena. They often do come from somewhere and that’s why they are so insidious. Do folks in the U.K. have an accent, ride trains and happen to be surrounded by castles: yes.  That also does not make all of them Harry Potter. We see this a lot with the United States that many stereotypes are rooted in something that was once a cultural artifact but are now just used as insults. For instance the whole concept of African-Americans liking fried chicken comes from years of systemic oppression and not having access to other cuts of meat. Now it’s used almost as a racial slur despite being rooted in something real.

But while we respect and coo over the differences between Dresden and Munich, we ignore the regional differences of let’s say India.

India is a part of Asia but it by no means can be lumped into the dragons and Ming vases of Chinese and Japanese orientalism. Incidentally, each region of India is vastly different from its neighbor. You cannot assume that someone from Kashmir is exactly the same culturally as someone from New Delhi. There are language, culture, religious and many other factors that make each part unique and while they all may be from the Indian subcontinent, they cannot all be broad stroked by one unifying culture.

Africa also distinctly has this issue. Across the African subcontinent there are hundreds of languages, countless unique religions including many Christians and you cannot assume that a person from the Ivory Coast is the same as someone from Tanzania. My uncle is from the Ivory Coast and my use of the French language was learned mostly from him still using the language of his homeland. But yet popular media still represents Africa as being mostly grass huts and hunter-gatherer societies despite the fact that Nigeria has a booming film and music culture

We’ll go back to another Disney example in Moana. While the story is Polynesian, it’s still reductive and goes back to a happy island folks with coconuts and ghost magic trope. While those things are important to some of the people that call Hawai’i, Tahiti and the rest of the islands that make up what we describe as Polynesia: it isn’t true for any one of them. Many of Polynesia were warriors, many were fierce fighters, they are not just strong navigators but also settlers and colonizers who tamed the land and ate all the moa.

So how does one balance all the cultures of the wind? Well, as I always say, to the research! If you’re working on, curious about or just plain wamt to expand your horizons: research the individual country you wish to discuss or discover. There are countless resources available to you to find out more about what makes other places so great. And there are plenty of examples I am leaving out because unfortunately, this topic is vast and large and it makes my head hurt to think about for too long.

Pan-culturalism is casually racist, patronizing and flat out exhausting. The differences that make cultures unique are special, sacred and important. And since the criteria that seems to make a culture its own versus one that is swept up with its neighbors seem to be troublingly colonialist, nationalistic and well, to put it bluntly, a tool used by dominant powers to patronize other nationalities and it’s high time we stop such a practice.

 

A Whole New Commodified World

 

_Stories are one of the means by which a culture preserves its identity._Edward Zwick.pngI have vivid memories of being in high school and parroting the Cantonese version of Honor to Us All. My anime club officers and I did our best to mimic the language that was foreign to all of us and we made plenty of of mistakes in our pronunciation but we were earnest students and it wasn’t long before we had the whole thing down. But there was one big problem: none of us were Chinese. Most of my anime clubbers were white, a few of us (me included) were black (albeit very culturally abandoned African-American youths) and a few of my anime clubbers were of Asian decent but were Vietnamese or Korean. The long and short of it is: none of us were Chinese and this was a brief moment of cultural appropriation. Come to think of it, I as an African-American human person running Japanese culture clubs for over 10 years is another grand moment of cultural appropriation.

We’ve talked about cultural appropriation a lot but I wanted to talk about a very special kind of cultural appropriation: the Disney variety.

Disney has a long history of picking, choosing and sanitizing the history of many different cultures. Moana features the culture and language of Polynesia. Pocahontas is the very whitewashed version of the story of the real life heroine and Native American. Lilo and Stitch features a mostly native Hawaiian cast and Mulan borrows from many Asian cultures and practices. The main feature of that which makes it appropriative is that Disney is still a mostly white-led company. And even though Moana featured many people of color as voice talent and as researchers, the leads of Disney are still wealthy white men that then get to profit on this somewhat indigenous story.

This is especially troubling for me because as the little culturally abandoned person I am I find myself more drawn to narratives that are not my own. I fell for stories like Mulan and Moana because they were so unlike my own. I did my best to commit the songs to memory and tease apart the language that was so unlike my own. I sold my soul to Japan years ago, so such a desire to flee my own narrative makes it easier to cope with the narrative that was meant to be written for me. But what is the issue with culture and Disney?


Let’s be honest: Disney is a company. They have items to sell. Parks to market and all sorts of other things to put in front of the eyes of children and their parents. This means that Disney has to sanitize parts of history. Pocahontas is a stellar example of: literally none of it happened that way. The Disney way of telling the story puts all the blame on one greedy white man and tries to Devil’s Advocate the whole racism thing. Which is…let’s just pause for a minute to think of how troubling that is. But in their attempt to make this story more palatable for children, they ruined a perfectly good narrative. The real story of the native peoples and their interactions with colonists is far from safe for children but is a harrowing tale of survival and the pain of cultures being forgotten and rewritten due to technological superiority. Princess and the Frog has a very similar problem with race considering its black protagonist and Jazz Age setting. Tiana is so self-actualized she’s hardly a character and Lottie and her family are rather accommodating considering that they still essentially own Tiana’s mother. Because remember kids, the reason she couldn’t own the restaurant was because the bankers were worried about a woman running a business all by herself. No other factors. Nothing else. Nothing at all. What systemic racism? No, eat more French donuts.

Disney tries to fix this issue by ignoring colonialism entirely with Lilo and Stitch and Moana. But the same main issues remain: Disney is not doing anything to benefit the communities it is taking inspiration from and just because there are occasionally people of color behind the screen does not mean it is actual representation. This is particularly interesting with how Disney uses language for music. Some of my favorite Disney songs are not in a language I grew up with. Honor to Us All centers around a very old and distinctly Asian view of marriage and what it means to be a good daughter (though as a Southern debutante, I can admit those feelings aren’t too far off the mark for someone in my position). My favorite parts of Moana feature a language whose words are very unfamiliar but with more familiar sentiments. Heck, my favorite part of Pocahontas is the opening song sung in the native language of the Powhatan tribe.

I want to talk about merchandising for a moment since it is also a key part of this whole cultural appropriation thing. And no, we’re not going to talk about the little brown-face/brown-body Maui costume that Disney decided was a good idea last year. But the buying and selling of cultural artifacts to help bolster support for a movie is dubious at best. I remember being a kid and McDonald’s selling a copy of Pocahontas’ necklace from the movie but the idea behind such a necklace does hold some significance for the Powhatan tribe.

Moana had similar issues with native pieces and accessories suddenly becoming en vogue again. All the shell jewelry and tribal prints.

But wait, Amanda, someone shouts from the edges of the comment section: This isn’t the only time Disney has messed around with other cultures. What about Hunchback of Notre Dame or literally most other Disney movies. Here’s the problem with that: cultural appropriation is a neutral term but it’s mostly a problem with a colonizing culture appropriates a colonized culture. So not a problem for Disney to go French for a while but it is a problem for them to go pan-Arab for Aladdin. (We’ll talk about pan-culturalism soon because I have thoughts!)

And what’s interesting is how wrong this all feels now in hindsight. Cultural appropriation is made painful by the fact that really only the company (Disney, in this case) benefit from taking over or taking aspects of a culture and no one (short of the occasional actor or cultural specialist) really benefit from them making a powerhouse movie like Moana or Coco. And while the cultural impact is huge like with Coco (that cannot and will not be denied) who benefits when someone buys an mp3 of the soundtrack or gets a hoodie or t-shirt from the movie. What about when someone goes running around with a sugar skull t-shirt without knowing the story or meaning behind them? Insidious, isn’t it?

Actually an interesting work around to this came about from a conversation about porgs with Carlos. For those of you who have been living in a cave, porgs are a new and adorable Star Wars. Porgs are adorable and the reasoning behind them is very practical. They are little digital costumes for the local puffins that could not be removed out of every shot in the movie The Last Jedi. Porgs are adorable and the reason is interesting but the fact that Disney now is profiting so much out of a necessity is strange. Carlos mentioned ratherly quickly “It’d be cool if they just gave some of the toy sales to help the real puffins out.” and that was very valid. What if some of the money from Coco or Moana went to cultural centers or to organizations that support these at times at-risk communities or populations. Is this just another form of tokenism: sure, probably. But it’s tokenism that could prove more valuable than letting an entire generation grow up with a sanitized narrative and none of the context behind what is so compelling about the narratives told by other cultures.

Next time, we’ll talk about pan-culturalism!

 

Tonal Dissonance and You

“Don't look at me in that tone of voice.” Dorothy Parker.png

I’m of the very proud and polarizing Disney generation. The renaissance of Disney films were ones I saw in theaters, owned at home and could recite as a child (Hell, still can for most of them) and while many did not age well for me, I’ve found that several actually mean even more to me now as an adult than they ever did when I was a bright, strange child. A common complaint that film critics now have of those 90s era Disney movies is that they have a “tone” problem.

That’s a bit reductive, isn’t it?

Just blanketly saying something has a tone problem doesn’t explain why, how or what to do about it and makes the reviewer (often one of the Youtube variety) seem like an expert without necessarily being an expert. So let’s talk about tone, tonal dissonance, Disney movies and what it means to really have a tone problem.

I come at this from two angles: one of them being a comic book fan and the other being an anime fan. Tonal dissonance is abundant in both of those genres. FLCL naturally flows between nihilistic angst and bright rock music. Cowboy Bebop can in one scene talk about the existential misery of being alive and knowing you will one day die alone and pair it with a corgi high on mushrooms. Neither of those undercut the pathos or emotion of the prior scene but because of genre and style, we accept that the tone can abruptly change. Comic books also often change the tone on a dime from serious death scenes cut in between the normal pageantry of daily life for the rest of the citizens of a named non-descript city.

Now, I won’t defend all Disney movies of this era. Some do have a serious tone problem (Lookin’ at you, Hercules.). But many are firstly a product of their time (the 90s) and they were also fundamentally a children’s movie. Instead of simply writing some of these movies off as having tone problems, perhaps it’s better to admit some of the daring steps they made despite being a kid’s movie.

Let’s take my favorite Disney movie: The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an example.

This movie…it’s a doozy. It does have some serious tone issues in the form of three obnoxious dated no longer relevant celebrity voiced gargoyles. But the rest of the film, the rest of this wonderfully animated and voice acted and paced movie is just a brilliant example of what this movie could have been. Hunchback is a dark movie for a Disney film. The main character is deformed, the main antagonist is the literal embodiment of people’s fear of the Catholic church and Catholic guilt in general. It created in Esmeralda one of the most active agents of her own free will Disney will make until the post-renaissance and later characters like Elsa and Moana.  The music could easily be its own blog post featuring some of my favorite songs in all of Disney discography.  And the animation was some of the best of its era.

But that tone problem. Those gargoyles. The Goofy yell in the middle of a literal siege in the thrilling climax of the movie. All of it for some is just too much and it makes it difficult to see that underneath all of that is a movie that is fundamentally different from others of its kind. Think about it, it’s adapted from a novel that is by far not safe for children. And while the movie takes plenty of liberties from the novel, I think it actually does a few things better than the novel. The movie paints Frollo as almost a sympathetic man, truly just one haunted by his repressed sexuality and the immense pressure under him and the threat of eternal damnation. As someone who was raised Roman Catholic, I can vouch that the Hellfire sequence is the literal manifestation of Catholic guilt. Esmeralda’s scene in the cathedral to the tune of God Help the Outcast is one of the most famous Disney songs around. But for the chances the movie tried to take, some things had to remain the same. This is a Disney picture, after all. It has to have an animal sidekick of some kind. The good normal looking heteronormative person has to fall in love with the princess/gypsy dancer. It has to have an uncomplicated unilaterally happy ending. That’s how Disney’s made their money for decade and a story about a church official and his…wants aren’t gonna stop the Disney cash cow from doing what it does best.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind this was the 90s. It was a different time. Everything was strange when it came to tone. A normal 90s kid like me juggled between the dark oppression of Batman the Animated Series to the fun camp of Looney Toons. As children, we didn’t mind the tonal issues. We laughed at the fart jokes, singing animals and stupid side plots. They’re insufferable now that many of us are adults with educations and have now read more than one book. But if you held most things to that standard, they’d simply fall apart. Now, I’m one of the last to use “It’s a kid’s movie” as a blanket excuse. I’m an anime fan. Plenty of the anime and animated movies from Japan that I watched were meant for kids but had deeper plot points than some American serialized television shows. I don’t say that to excuse the faults of any movie, Disney or otherwise, just to help frame the issue a little more.

But being older really helps frame many of these movies better. Hunchback becomes less and less about the weird diegetic gargoyle singing and more about a struggle between the sacred and the profane. In Hunchback I see a man struggle between his faith, his desires and his position of power. I see a character with the purest of hearts but unfortunately cursed with a face that the rest of the world finds detestable. I find comfort in music that is wonderful and Latin verses that I had to sing and chant in mass with my family. I see Paris in a way that many young kids have never seen before. I see imagery that to anyone who has read another book would instantly be impressed with. I see so many other things than just a really strange joke that tried to insinuate a gargoyle is attracted to a goat.

Mulan has one of the best most jarring tonal shifts of all from the bright, very misogynistic A Girl Worth Fighting For to the literal scorched Earth and destruction left behind by the Huns. Pocahontas has plenty of strange tone shifts between loving the Earth and nature, respecting native cultures and the relative similarity and mirroring from each side of an argument or conflict to jokes about food and cute animal distractions.

So what is there to be done about tonal dissonance? I admit now, if I want to watch Hunchback I skip around a lot. I hit the list of things I want to see like the subtle tone and key shift from Heaven’s Light to Hellfire. The Court of Miracles scene is a must if I have a copy that kept that scene in. God Help the Outcast is beautifully animated and I mostly just ignore anything involving Captain Phoebus and his rushed romance with Esmeralda. If the tone problem bothers you, I can totally respect that. It irks the hell out of me, too. But I won’t deny what these movies did. I still sing these songs. My friends and I can still recite the movies. This was our childhood. This was my childhood and even if it was tonally off, that’s okay.

I’ll keep singing The Bells of Notre Dame.