Sunday, June 7, 2015

Listening to What Alice Forgot

During the Spring semester, I found that I didn't have as much time to read as I would like, so I started listening to audiobooks on the drives to work, when I was walking my dog, and while I cleaned. I have always been a little snobby about listening to audiobooks, though I'm not sure why. I guess I like the tangible material in my hand. That's probably why I also still tend to buy more hard copies of books than e-books despite owning both  a kindle and an iPad.

There are some books that I believe are worth reading yourself. For example, I can not listen to the audio versions of Ian McEwan's novels, not unless I have first read them myself. I'm greedy. I prefer to hold the book in my hand so that I can see and taste his sentences for myself.

I have, therefore, found that I prefer listening to audiobooks that I wouldn't necessarily rush to read, and I have found some new authors and books by doing so. One author I have recently discovered is Liane Moriarty, an Australian author with numerous books under her belt. I've listened to two books by her: Big Little Lies and What Alice Forgot. I enjoyed both immensely. In fact, I was so engrossed with Moriarty's stories and characters that I found myself prolonging drives and being more productive around the house so that I could continue to listen. For this post, however, I want to focus on What Alice Forgot.

Plot: This novel, at first, may not seem like an entirely new story. It tells the story of Alice Love, who, after hitting her head during a spinning class, wakes up having forgotten a decade of her life, including her marriage, her children, significant life events, and important friendships. The novel is written in alternating points of views of Alice, her sister, Elizabeth, and their grandmother, Franny, and I am honestly not sure which stories were my favorite. 

What I liked about the book: Stories about people who have lost their memories and learn important life lessons from the experience are not new, but this book surprised me. Moriarty's strengths, I am discovering, are her characters and her ability to deal with serious topics in a realistic--and often irreverent--way. The characters in What Alice Forgot are not simple, though they are at times predictable, and they respond to the circumstances around them in the most human ways. 

This story also leads a reader to see her life from a new perspective. As I read about Alice's experiences and misadventures coming to terms with her life in a new decade, I couldn't help but think about my life. How would I react if I woke up tomorrow morning having forgotten the last ten years? In what ways would I be different (for better or for worse)? Would the things that seem so important now be significant at all if I were still in my twenties? How did I become the person I am today? Would I make the same mistakes? Would I be pleased with where I am? Would I be disappointed? 

Conflicts (a couple of spoilers ahead): Though I think Moriarty creates interesting female characters who discover their own power to redefine themselves, she often falls into common representations of women, as wives and mothers in particular. And in What Alice Forgot, this is certainly true. Also, Moriarty's endings feel a little too tidy (and unnecessarily long to me). 

Here, I want to briefly outline a few problems I have with two of the characters and their stories.

  • Alice:   Alice awakes to discover that she is no longer a newlywed pregnant with her first child. Instead, she is disappointed to find that instead of being a carefree, laid back woman who often sleeps until noon, she has become a hard, sometimes bitter, and often busy, control freak who maintains a coffee addiction and keeps a personal trainer on payroll. With Alice, Moriarty often skirts the line, and in the end, I think, attempts to strike a balance, showing that women must find the balance between work/family and taking care of themselves. However, Alice, like many women today, MUST take care of things on her own, and somehow Moriarty, though she later redeems herself a little, condemns Alice for disciplining her children too much and for wanting life to be organized. Perhaps because I am definitely a Type-A personality, I didn't care for the condemnation. Alice is also, apparently, only complete with her man: “He made her more confident, funnier, smarter. He brought out all the things that were there already and let her be fully herself, so she seemed to shine with this inner light. He loved her so much, he made her seem even more lovable.”

  • Elizabeth:  One of the biggest surprises (and disappointments) in this book for me is Elizabeth, Alice's sister. I wasn't aware that the story would be told from alternating perspectives when I first started listening, and I especially wasn't prepared for one of those perspectives to be an infertile one. Elizabeth's story unfolds in her journal entries assigned as homework for her therapist. For most of the book, I found Elizabeth's story of infertility a realistic one. Moriarty truly captures the conflicting emotions of infertility: anger, grief, heartbreak, resentment, jealousy, and yes, even desperation. I also enjoyed that Elizabeth's journal entries were witty, funny, and wry. I often have a dark sense of humor regarding my own infertility that people don't like or get. It's a coping mechanism, as Elizabeth points out, so deal with it. Her story also deals with an infertile woman's sense of self. When walking through infertility, a woman often feels that she carries its mark on her breast like that well-known scarlet letter. She feels that people can see it when they see her. Elizabeth also explains what it is like to be an infertile in a fertile world: “The medication, the hormones and the relentless frustrations of our lives make us bitchy and you're not allowed to be bitchy in public or people won't like you.” What is disappointing about Elizabeth's story is that despite Elizabeth's reflections about what a waste it seems to spend so many years waiting and putting the rest of her life on hold, her story ends like any other infertility narrative: with a baby. Just when Elizabeth begins reconciling herself to a life without children (ignoring the collective, societal command, "Just adopt!"), she discovers she is pregnant. Because so many women's stories do not end with a child, isn't it time for a different kind of narrative?

Recommend? Yes! Despite some of its flaws, What Alice Forgot is a funny, insightful, and sometimes heartbreaking story that asks us to reflect on what is really important in our own lives. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fairytale Feminism--Part Three

Disney’s marketing of films like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White, so soon after the first wave of American feminism reflects a social dis-ease with the change in women’s roles and growing desire to reestablish gender roles that placed men and women in separate spheres, with men in the work place and women confined to the home. This dis-ease would reach epidemic proportions in the wake of the second wave of American feminism. In the 1980s and 90s, the objectification of women became more sensationalized and more sexualized. Images of women, from department store dummies to runway models reflected unrealistic beauty standards that women struggled to keep up with. These two decades saw an unprecedented rise in eating disorders like anorexia, plastic surgery and make-up sales, particularly those products that promised to slow down the aging process. While the dangers of anorexia are widely known, the dangers of anti-aging creams and plastic surgery are less so. Encouraging women to turn back the clock, dermatologists and cosmetic companies peddled products with ingredients like Retin-A, a non-FDA approved drug known to cause cancer in lab rats, and Accutane and arsenic, which burned women’s skin and “made them sick, some fatally” (Faludi 211). Complications from plastic surgery were even more prolific. According to Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “At least 15 percent of cosmetic surgery caused hemorrhages, facial nerve damage, bad scars or complications from anesthesia…For breast implants, in at least 20 percent of cases, repeat surgery was required to remedy the ensuing pain, infection, blood clots or implant ruptures” (219). And in 1988, a congressional subcommittee learned that at least twenty deaths had been caused from complications associated with liposuction (221). Despite all this, in the 1980s, plastic surgery became the “fastest-growing specialty in American medicine” (217). Clearly, women feared failing to live up to beauty standards more than they feared even death. This fear was fostered by the media, which was quick to show girls and women what happened to those who failed to live up to the beauty standards society set for them. Many argued, for example, that it was Roseanne Barr’s off-the-cuff comedy that earned her the title of the “one of the most hated women in America,” but it was her full-figure that most many critics seemed obsessed with. Throughout her career, Roseanne has been the butt of “fat jokes,” many of which verge on the extreme; one member of the Bar Roseanne Club called her an “ugly, Jello-O-Bodied, tasteless monster from the black lagoon” (quoted in Faludi 146). Disney echoes the mainstream media’s attitudes about women’s bodies in its second generation of Disney films. In 1989, Disney would create its own full-figured sea monster and pit her against a svelte, red-haired mermaid who embodied all the beauty ideals of the era.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is, uncharacteristically, the only second-generation princess film to pit a virtuous “good girl” against the ambitious “evil woman”; as such, the relationship between Ariel and Ursula provides Disney with a unique opportunity to teach its young female audience an important lesson about what it means to be a woman in a "post-feminist" society. Throughout the film, Disney animators work to emphasize the shape and size of each female character. As a mermaid, Ariel’s upper body is largely naked, with only her breasts covered, and the attachment of her fin, below her bellybutton, serves to emphasize her super-thin waist. Soon after being turned into a human by Ursula, Ariel bursts forth from the ocean in slow motion, drawing the audience’s gaze and forcing us to focus on her body. With her head thrown back and her body arched, this scene also serves to sexualize the young girl and encourages viewers to associate Ariel’s size with her sexuality and her desirability. Even fully dressed, Ariel’s gowns are designed to cut in at the waist, and her red hair is left loose and flowing down her back. Indeed, it is Ariel’s physical beauty that is her defining characteristic. Unlike her powerful singing voice, which is absent for much of movie, Ariel’s super-thin waist and long, flowing hair are with her despite her many transformations throughout the film. Unlike Ariel, Ursula is full-figured. Half-human, half-octopus, her upper body is drawn with curvaceous arms and large breasts. Her costume serves to further emphasis her rounded buttocks and her breasts, which appear to move independently from the rest of her body, bouncing with each step she takes. When first we meet Ursula, she is eating shrimp in her underwater lair. She lays herself out dramatically, gesturing to her body and complaining that she is “starving” and “wasting away to practically nothing.” In gesturing to her body, Ursula forces viewers to follow the sweeping motion of her hand; this, coupled with the irony of her words, highlights the fact that she is, in fact, not starving. By highlighting the shape and size of these two characters, Disney once again constructs an oppositional binary between the good heroine and the evil antagonist.
And in the world of Disney, those who adhere to society’s standards of female beauty and thinness are rewarded, while those who subvert them are destroyed. Ariel dreams of a life out of the sea, and to achieve this dream, it is implied that she must play to her strengths—in this case, her physical beauty and sex appeal. While it’s Ursula who teaches girls and women the importance of silence and “body language” through song, it’s Ariel whose actions prove that “it’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man.” Having surrendered her voice to the sea witch, Ariel uses her human body to entice Prince Eric. She is often shown, standing demurely, with her head bowed and her hands clasped in front of her, fluttering her eyelashes and smiling up at the prince, coquettishly. And Eric is clearly 
smitten. More than once, he is shown staring distractedly at Ariel, with a moony expression on his face. Just one day after her arrival at the castle, Eric makes up his mind to stop searching for the mystery woman who rescued him from the sea and seemingly decides to marry Ariel. He knows nothing about her family, her social status, her education, her hopes and dreams for the future or the experiences of her past. Still, he is willing to marry her, to make her his princess and give her power over the people of his kingdom. Through Ariel, Disney teaches its young audience that being thin and looking pretty are all it takes achieve the ultimate dream of “being part of [his] world.”
Unlike Ariel, Ursula not only refuses to play on her beauty, she openly subverts society’s beauty ideals. The sea witch clearly has the power to change her form. With a snap of her fingers, she has made other mermaids thinner, and in an effort to keep Ariel and Eric apart, Ursula disguises herself as Vanessa, a svelte, dark-haired woman who speaks with Ariel’s voice. But when the sun sets on Ariel’s third day as a human, signifying the young woman’s failure to live up to her contract, Ursula no longer has need for her disguise. She bursts forth from her thin cage, laughing joyfully. Her refusal to make the physical change permanent implies that she finds this thinner form constricting—even limiting. In fact, as her power grows, so does Ursula. In her article, “Where do the Mermaids Stand?” Laura Sells likens Ursula’s desire for King Trident’s crown and scepter to a kind of penis envy (185). While it’s clear that she wants to appropriate his patriarchal power, this may have as much to do with her desire to control as it does with a desire to be free from the bondage of stereotypical standards of beauty. After acquiring the trident, Ursula swells to a size so large the sea cannot contain her, and it is here that her power reaches its peak. Unfortunately for Ursula, this is still a man’s world, and her refusal to adhere to traditional standards of beauty makes this impossible for her to be part of it. She is killed, stabbed through the belly by Prince Eric with the "phallic mast of a ship," thereby reestablishing the patriarchal balance of power and reaffirming the message Disney has been sending women for years: Ambition in women must be contained, controlled, and sometimes even destroyed. 

With each successive generation of films, Disney princesses have become more dynamic, and one could argue that each generation’s growth is a reflection of the growth of women in American society. Although this change is encouraging, it would be too enthusiastic to call these films feminist. While I think it is important to acknowledge the positive changes made by Disney, it is perhaps more important to acknowledge the ways in which their films fall short. Since the creation of its Disney Princess Line, the sale of Disney products has increased exponentially, with Disney making more than three billion dollars a year globally (Orenstein para. 6). In 2006, there were 25,000 Disney Princess Products alone (Ibid). Disney princess costumes are available for purchase year round, and Disney’s website encourages girls to engage in “Disney Princess Dress Up and Makeup Games.” And at Disney’s theme parks and resorts, girls can be transformed in to the princess of their choice at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. Clearly, playing princess is big business, but before we encourage our girls to buy into the Disney princess craze, we need to be sure we know exactly what Disney is selling.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Maleficent Musings: Part Three

We first meet a young Maleficent in the budding promise of Spring as she lounges in a tree. The scene is vibrant, and the moors are a fertile place where flowers bloom and young fairies thrive. The young girl holds a broken branch in her hands and heals the wound, allowing the branch to grow and to sprout new leaves. Maleficent is established, therefore, as a maiden goddess who embodies the life giving force of nature. She is, in the words of Adrienne Rich as she remarks of the mother goddess, a  “source of vegetation, fruition, fertility of every kind” (Rich 100). The maiden Maleficent we encounter early in the film ultimately provides promises of fertility. Because the young fairy is in the Spring season of her life, we expect her to reproduce and to insure that the truth of women’s bodies is a healing and fruitful one.

            One of the most poignant scenes of the film, however,  shows us the dangers of women’s bodies and their power when this promise of fertility is unfulfilled. In an attempt to win favor with the king and to inherit his throne, Stefan must bring proof  that he has killed Maleficent. He approaches the maiden as a friend and the one who offers her true love’s kiss. He drugs her, and then, unable to follow through with killing her, Stefan violently removes her wings as she sleeps. This scene serves as the catalyst for the events that follow. Because Maleficent loses her wings—and her soul with them—she turns vengeful , embodying the terrifying aspect of the Great Mother, and later curses Stefan’s child, Aurora.
            This emotional scene has been understood symbolically both as a rape and as a castration. Not only do we see remnants of the fairy tale’s ancestry here, we also see a clear, but complex, metaphor for infertility.  In fact, Adrienne Rich explains the rhetoric of sterilization and hysterectomy: “the language suggests a cutting—or burning—away of her essential womanhood, just as the old word “barren” suggests a woman is eternally empty and lacking” (29). Similarly, Stefan does not merely cut away Maleficent’s wings; he uses iron chains to burn and cauterize them. If hysterectomy is understood as “cutting—or burning—away..of womanhood,” so can the removal of Maleficent’s wings. After all, it is the loss of her wings that leads, as Jolie observes, to the loss of Maleficent’s maternity, a part of her womanhood and femininity that leaves her “empty and lacking,” and willing to curse a baby. It is a part of her womanhood that Maleficent must find again in order to be redeemed.

    Kirkman and others have observed that infertility is a disruption of the life cycle. Essentially, an infertile woman skips the transition from girlhood to adulthood, the stage of reproduction. The consequences of Maleficent’s metaphorical rape and subsequent loss of her wings reveal the perceived danger of this kind of disruption in a woman’s life. When Maleficent awakes on a mossy-green river bank to find that her wings have been removed, the landscape around her begins to change, transitioning from richly-hued autumn to the graying first snow of a barren winter. As Maleficent makes her way through the once-fertile moors, we see a distorted image of the first scene in which we meet her. Now, however, spring is no more. As she walks, the land around her freezes and dies, signaling that Maleficent has skipped the autumn of her life, the time of harvest and promises fulfilled. 

        Maleficent is, instead, thrust into winter, a metaphorical season of a woman’s life that embodies both sexual unavailability and reproductive inability. In other words, we first encounter Maleficent as a maiden, and now we see her as a crone, the last figure of a female, triune deity that signals the last stages of a woman’s life. The Triple Godesses, the maiden, the mother, and the crone, illustrate a woman’s connection to nature, traditional life-cycles, and “embody the Moon as a symbol of women’s fertility” (Pollack 19). The Crone Goddess is also known as the dark mother, a figure associated with the death and destruction of late autumn and winter seasons. When Maleficent realizes she has lost her wings, one of her first actions mirrors those early in the film, and she takes on the cloak of the crone. The traumatized woman notices a broken branch lying on the ground and uses it to magically fashion a walking stick, a scepter that has now become an iconic symbol associated with Disney’s villain. It is not a coincidence that the figure of the crone is most often depicted, like Maleficent, with a walking stick and a raven on her shoulder.

            While the Crone is often a figure of wisdom and benevolent power, she is also at times portrayed as one who signifies the darker aspects of the Great Mother, those that are terrifying. Disney’s  Maleficent seems to offer an explanation for the crone’s destructive aspect. The disruption to her life-cycle, her loss of maternity, has produced an unnatural consequence: she is hard, dark, and vengeful. In a word, Maleficent is unnaturally unfeminine. The role of motherhood, then, is a natural progression that produces wise, benevolent grandmother figures, but without a child, the power of the woman becomes corrupt and dangerous. Ultimately, the film’s imagery of a female, triune deity as embodied by Maleficent reinforces the social importance of reproduction and motherhood in a woman’s natural life cycle. It also perpetuates the myth that a childless woman is one to fear.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Fairytale Feminism--Part Two

The first wave of American feminism is marked by amazing accomplishments. While this wave officially began with the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 and ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the after-effects of this movement could still be felt well into the 1950s. In this first century of feminist activism, women earned the right to vote, became the first generation of women to attend college, and especially after the advent of WWII, began entering the workforce in droves. Ironically, between the 1930s and 1950s, the Walt Disney Company chose to market a series of princess films to the children and grandchildren of these politically active and groundbreaking women, whose sole purpose seemed to be the objectification of girls and women and the glorification of the feminine virtues of domesticity and passivity. Simone de Beauvoir was the first feminist critic to acknowledge this dichotomy between real women and those presented in “song and story” (291). In oft-quoted passage from The Second Sex, de Beauvoir explains, “Woman is the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, she who receives and submits…She learns that to be happy she must be loved; to be loved she must await love's coming” (291). This is especially true for Disney’s first generation of princesses. Undoing the work done by their foremothers, Disney’s Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty submit to abuse and the patriarchal control of domesticity in an effort to find happiness through love.
As the first full-length animated Disney film, Snow White sets the precedent for later princess films. In what will become a common motif in Disney’s animated movies, the film begins by constructing an oppositional binary between the older, assertive, “evil” Queen and younger, passive, pretty princess. As critic Dorothy L. Hurley notes in “Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess,” one way Disney works to construct this opposition is through the use of a “binary color system” that equates “‘white’ with goodness…[and] equates black with evil” (223). When we first met the Evil Queen, she is inside the castle, shrouded in darkness and wearing a dark cloak.
By contrast, Snow White first appears in the light of day, surrounded by white doves; she is soon joined by a white Prince riding a white horse. With the use of this binary color system, Disney encourages viewers to identify with the good, white heroine and to associate the dark Queen with “evil or danger” (Hurley 224).  
Moreover, “good women,” according to Disney, are domestic and passive, while “bad women” are assertive and powerful. The Evil Queen practices black magic, and forces men like the huntsman and the Magic Mirror, voiced by male actor Moroni Olsen, to do her bidding. Everything she does is to further her own ambition to be “fairest in the land.” Snow White, on the other hand, lives to serve. When we first see Snow White, she is scrubbing the steps of the castle, humming a happy tune to herself. Later, in one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, Snow White and her woodland friends clean the dwarves’ house, all the while singing “Whistle While you Work.” It is while she is cleaning that the Prince first sees and falls in love with Snow White; and after saving her from the Evil Queen’s curse with “true love’s kiss,” it is this same prince who will marry the princess and carry her away to his castle, where she will live “happily ever after.” But as Snow White is the first Disney film to establish, there is no happily ever after for powerful and assertive women. After cursing Snow White with the poisoned apple, the Evil Queen falls from a cliff where, presumably, she dies and is eaten by vultures. By constructing this oppositional binary between the good, domestic Snow White and the evil, assertive Queen, Disney offers girls only one of two options: you can be pretty, pleasant and productive—or you can die.
The glorification of domesticity is a theme that replays itself again in Disney’s Cinderella; like Snow White, Cinderella cooks and cleans, sews and serves, always with song and a smile. But more worrisome than Cinderella’s love of the domestic is the young woman’s utter passivity. She never questions authority, never disobeys an order and never fights back. The most disturbing scene of this Disney film comes as Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters are leaving to attend the ball. Cinderella runs down the stairs, in a dress made for her by the mice, and is immediately and viciously attacked by her step-sisters. Cinderella stands passively, crying, while Drusilla and Anastasia tear her gown to shreds. What is important to note here is that Cinderella doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t defend herself, she doesn’t tell her abusers to stop; indeed, she doesn’t even try run away before her dress is destroyed. This one scene exemplifies a pattern of passive behavior on the part of Disney princesses like Cinderella. And as Alexandria Robbins notes, in Disney fairy tales, a young woman’s acceptance of abuse is often “rewarded with a patriarchal prize—a man” (107). Like many Disney princesses, Cinderella’s life only exists within the patriarchal home—first her father’s house, then her husband’s. With her marriage to the prince, Cinderella may be rescued from a life of abuse, but in exchange, her life is forever restricted to the domestic sphere.
Disney’s deconstruction of first wave feminist ideals comes to head in their classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. Like Snow White and Cinderella, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty glorifies female passivity and domesticity, but this fairy tale is perhaps the most insidious in its objectification of women. It is true that both Snow White and Cinderella are objectified; it could be argued that their beauty drives the plot of their respective tales. The Evil Queen threatens to kill Snow White because she has taken the older woman’s title as “the fairest in the land.” And it is Cinderella’s beauty that makes her the object of violence; her step-sisters tear her dress because they fear that, were she to attend the ball, her beauty would capture the Prince’s attention. But both Cinderella and Snow White are awake during the more climatic moments of their stories. Unlike these earlier princesses, Sleeping Beauty sleeps through much of her movie. The film’s title alone implies that her most import quality is her beauty. As Maria Tatar argues, in her article “Show and Tell: Sleeping Beauty as Verbal Icon and Seductive Story,” “The very name Sleeping Beauty invokes a double movement between a passive gerund (sleeping) and a descriptive noun (beauty) that invites a retinal response. Beauty may be sleeping, but we want to look at her to indulge in the pleasures of her visible charms” (143). Unfortunately for the sleeping beauty, “her visible charms” are all she has to offer. Having pricked her finger on a spinning wheel, she is cursed by Disney filmmakers to spend the rest of the film in bed. While she slumbers, Prince Phillip usurps her role as the tale’s protagonist. It is he who battles the evil queen, Maleficent, who has taken control of the castle. When she takes the form of a dragon, it is he who kills her with a sword to the heart. And it is he who saves the day when he awakens the princess, and the entire kingdom, but administering “true love’s kiss.” By allowing Prince Phillip to take on the active roles in the film, and by giving Princess Aurora (also called Briar Rose) the title of “Sleeping Beauty,” Disney filmmakers reduce the female character to a passive object.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Maleficent Musings Part Two

Disney’s Maleficent is very much concerned with storytelling and how stories are told. In the opening scene, the narrator, who we later learn is the Sleeping Beauty herself, tells us that this is a version we are not familiar with, an “old story told anew.” Therefore, Maleficent firmly situates itself in the narrative tradition of all fairy tales, stories that are often revised for different audiences. However, the film’s revision also links it to strategies and processes of infertility narratives. Maggie Kirkman points out that, for the childless,  part of the process of mourning  is revising their autobiographical narratives, how they understand themselves and relate to the world around them. Their lives, she explains, have experienced a disruption in, what seem to be, natural processes toward adulthood.  Infertile men and women must consequently create new stories to fulfill these coming of age processes and with which to identify themselves. However, as Kirkman points out, there are several barriers to this necessary and painful revisionary practice. Namely, dominant, canonical narratives of motherhood perpetuated in mass media. In other words, films like Maleficent that rely on the power of motherhood to redeem a lost woman are not new stories. They are old ones simply told in a slightly new way. These films, then, do not assist—and often prevent—infertile women in constructing new stories about their worth and identities. 

Maleficent is also connected to themes of fertility in more tangible ways through imagery of the mother goddess. In her analysis of the origins of goddess worship and the divinity of the maternal, Rachel Pollack explains that the Mother Goddess is “life-giving, nurturing, sometimes terrifying, but always tied to nature and to the truth of our own bodies” (1). Maleficent is all of these things. She is first depicted as one who is capable of giving life and later as one who is frightening and capable of death. And in both of her identities—as hero and villain—she is connected to nature, and, consequently, to the truth of women’s bodies. In fact, the film is not subtle in its depiction of Maleficent as a goddess figure. The early scenes establish Maleficent’s connection to nature. She is dressed in earth-colored garments of browns, greens, and golds, and the narrator tells the viewer that Maleficent is the “protector of the moors.”   
We first meet a young Maleficent as she sits in a tree.  The young fairy holds a broken branch in her hands and heals the wound, allowing the branch to grow and to sprout new leaves. She is established, therefore, as a maiden goddess who embodies the life giving force of nature. She is a “source of vegetation, fruition, fertility of every kind” (Rich 100). Because she is young, innocent, and at one with nature, this young fairy, the film shows us, is also playful as she engages in a mud-fight with the inhabitants of the moors. Interestingly, mud or clay is often an image linked to the mother goddess. Barbara G. Walker explains that “… the early Semitic worshippers of the Great Mother…were “men of clay” -the meaning of their name-because their bodies came forth from Modir. This meant the root of both “mud” and “mother.” The maiden Maleficent we encounter early in the film ultimately provides promises of fertility. We expect the young fairy to reproduce and to insure that the truth of women’s bodies is a healing and fruitful one. 

One of the most poignant scenes of the film, however,  shows us the dangers of women’s bodies and their power when this promise is unfulfilled. In an attempt to win favor with the king and to inherit his throne, Stefan must bring proof  that he has killed Maleficent. He approaches the maiden as a friend and the one who offers her true love’s kiss. He drugs her, and then, unable to follow through with killing her, Stefan violently removes her wings as she sleeps. This scene serves as the catalyst for the events that follow. Because Maleficent loses her wings—and her soul with them—she turns vengeful , embodying the terrifying aspect of the Great Mother, and later curses Stefan’s child, Aurora. 

This emotional scene has been understood symbolically both as a rape and as a castration. Not only do we see remnants of the fairy tale’s ancestry here, we also see a clear, but complex, metaphor for infertility.  In fact, Adrienne Rich explains the rhetoric of sterilization and hysterectomy: “the language suggests a cutting—or burning—away of her essential womanhood, just as the old word “barren” suggests a woman is eternally empty and lacking” (29). Similarly, Stefan does not simply cut away Maleficent’s wings; he uses iron chains to burn and cauterize them. If hysterectomy is understood as “cutting away..of womanhood,” so can the removal of Maleficent’s wings. After all, it is the loss of her wings that leads, as Jolie observes, to the loss of Maleficent’s maternity, a part of her womanhood that leaves her “empty and lacking.” A part of her womanhood that Maleficent must find again in order to be redeemed. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Maleficent Musings: Part One

For quite some time, I have been interested in the use of infertility as a trope in fairy tales, but it was not until I saw Disney's Maleficent for the first time last year that I felt I had something concrete to research. In fact, I will be presenting a paper at a conference in April about this topic, if the paper ever gets written. The thing is, I am suffering from a severe case of writer's blog. A combination of too much work/grading, anxiety, intimidation, and even perhaps too much research has prevented me from writing a single word. I have lots of notes, but nothing that fits together yet. So, I decided to write this blog in the hopes that I can get some of my ideas down and to take the pressure off of myself to create a formal, polished piece of academic prose. So, here goes...
In a recent interview on the Diane Rhem Show, Marina Warner explains that fairy tales endure because they spark the imagination and allow for protest and resistance. Fairy tales, because of their simple narrative structure and broadly-defined characters, provide a unique space for creating adaptations of the tales for new, social and political contexts. Certainly, as evidenced by their continued presence in both academia and popular culture, fairy tales are fertile ground for authors, scholars, and film makers alike. They are reproducing stories that allow us to resist and challenge cultural values and mores. In recent years, the trend in Disney’s fairy tale films and television shows has been to offer a new, fresh perspective that attempts to challenge previous gendered narratives of their often-criticized princess films. At the same time, these reproductions often fall short of their goal. According to Cristina Bacchilega, postmodern fairy tales may revise and question classic, literary forms as they simultaneously adhere to previous models of gender norms.

In the summer of 2014, Disney's Maleficent was welcomed into the corpus of fairy tale reproductions. Some celebrated the film for its focus on one of the most beloved villains in Disney history and for it's rejection of the traditional "true love's kiss" formula of the animated version. In Maleficent, we no longer see a submissive and sleeping beauty waiting for a prince to save her, and audiences applauded the revision. On the other hand, others have criticized Disney's portrayal of Maleficent as yet another woman who has been wronged by a man and who is, therefore, vengeful and bitter. Despite these mixed reviews, most agree that Maleficent is a step in the right direction as it rescues us from the classic, happily-ever-after narrative. However,I will show that in spite of the film’s acknowledgment of feminist critiques of fairy tales and self-conscious attempts to resist them, it nevertheless emphasizes cultural norms of ideal femininity and motherhood that shape women’s lives. In this paper, I will read Disney's Maleficent in terms of the fertility narrative. I argue that while Maleficent investigates the reproductive narratives of classic fairy tale forms, the film reinforces enduring, internalized stories of feminine worth and fertility.

  Maleficent screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, explains that she did not consult classic, literary forms of Sleeping Beauty while writing the film. Because it was Disney who gave the evil fairy her name and developed her into one of the most iconic villains, it makes sense that Woolverton would rely on Disney's sanitized version as source material. However, Disney's animated classic was based on classic versions of Sleeping Beauty, and as an offspring to the literary fairy tale, Maleficent naturally contains traits of these earlier traditions. Therefore, it is important to briefly investigate earlier versions of the tale and its reproductive ideologies. In her book, Pregnant Fictions,Holly Tucker explores the ways in which pregnancy and childbirth “inspired anxiety, wonder, and—most important—tale telling" in early modern fairy tales(4). She explains that these fairy tales provide a space that bridges the medical and personal discourses of reproduction and that the "genre is clearly predicated on a cycle of marriage and procreation; tales begin with queens who are desperate to become mothers and end with the marriage of daughters to princes” (11). Certainly, infertility seems to initiate many fairy tales, making the daughters born to infertile royalty all the more valuable and, therefore, worthy of the princes who save them. The tale of Sleeping Beauty, however, seems to be one that maintains themes of fertility, sex, and even rape throughout its multiple versions.
The origin of the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood begins with Basile's 17th century tale titled "Sun, Moon, and Talia." This early version has little in common with either Disney's animated film or the recent Maleficent. The story opens with the birth of a daughter to a gentleman. The baby becomes a beautiful woman, named Talia, who pricks her finger on a piece of poisoned flax and falls into a death-like sleep. One day, a king discovers Talia in the abandoned palace, rapes her, and leaves. The woman gives birth to twins, and when one of the babies sucks at the piece of flax in the mother's finger, the woman awakes. Though this version of the more well-known story does not open with the trope of infertility, it does portray the anxieties and mysteries of reproduction. It literally takes a child to suck out the bitter thing in the mother and to save her. It is not a prince who saves Talia, but her daughter. When Talia awakes, the king's wife, who notably does not have children, attempts to kill Talia and the twins and to feed them to her husband as punishment for his infidelity. The queen, who possessed the "heart of a Medea," is thrown into a fire, and Talia, with her children and her new husband, live happily ever after.

 Disney's Sleeping Beauty was primarily based on a combination of narrative characteristics found in both Charles Perault's and Grimm Brothers's versions. Though both open with an infertile king and queen who long for a child, notably, Perault's version is one of the few fairy tales that portrays the grief and desperation of the childless. “Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were ever so unhappy, because they had no children; so unhappy I can’t tell you. They went to all the spas to drink the waters there, gave presents to all the saints, went on pilgrimages, and always said their prayers; everything was tried and nothing worked.” Recent research indicates that grief, desperation, and anguish not only accompany infertility, but that the media and storytellers portray this desperation as something unnatural, negative, or unhealthy. According to Naomi Pfeffer, the portrayal of the desperate, childless woman contributes to popular discourses about infertility: "It seems that once you find yourself involuntarily childless, all other identifying marks are washed away.... The word desperation or some such synonym appears so frequently in conjunction with infertility that sometimes it appears that what troubles infertile men and women is not the absence of a child as such but some form of emotional disorder related to their failure"(82). What few have recognized, however, is that early, literary fairy tales also use this trope of the desperate, infertile woman, which, I believe informs popular culture discourses today. In these tales, we see women who are willing to try everything: bargaining, seeking out the help of a malevolent witch, or going on pilgrimages. These discourses, which appear in early fairy tales and persist in films like Maleficent continue to perpetuate myths about a woman's worth.

 Because these earlier tales serve as progenitors, it is not surprising that the evolution of and the making of Maleficent is rooted in dominant discourses about infertility and the redemptive power of motherhood. When asked about the biggest challenge she faced in transforming a villain into a hero, Linda Woolverton said, "How on earth was I going to justify that this woman would curse a baby? Even if you can never come back from something so horrific, what's done is done. She doesn't ask for forgiveness, and her love for Aurora is her redemption...I have a daughter, so I'm sure I wouldn't have written the same character 10 years ago." For Woolverton, the most evil and unfathomable aspect of Maleficent is her willingness to hurt a baby. Because of her own role as a mother, the screenwriter finds that the only way to combat this kind of villainy is through the love of a child. That, for Woolverton, is Maleficent's redemption. Likewise, Angelina Jolie, who is as often recognized as a mother of six as she is for her professional work, explained in a recent interview: "The core of [the film] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people. The question was asked, ‘What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?'” Interestingly, Jolie first notes Maleficent's lack of maternity and equates maternity with womanhood and softness. Without maternity, a woman, then, is hard, dark,and unfeminine, someone capable of inflicting abuse on others, even a child.
These themes play out in notable ways throughout the film, and in part two, I will begin diving into a close reading of significant scenes.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Synthesizing Disney: A Feminist Analysis of the Evolution of the Disney Princess

I am teaching my first Disney-themed course this semester, which means I spent much of my summer researching and reading books, as well as popular and scholarly articles on Disney films, products and theme parks. While the theme of the course is Disney, this topic is simply the medium through which I am attempting to teach college-level writing skills to students who might otherwise be resistant; each week, my students use one or more Disney related articles to practice skills like summarizing, quoting, rhetorical analysis, and most recently, synthesis. To help my students understand the complex process of combing multiple ideas in an effort to create one, cohesive argument, I decided to create a sample synthesis. What started as a "simple, easy-to-follow example" quickly got away from me, however, and I ended up creating what could be the start of a new and interesting research project. What follows is a half-day's reflection on Disney, feminism and the roles each play in our developing American society:

In her article, “The Disney Princess Effect,” author Stephanie Hines quotes a Disney Corporate Executive who argues, “For 75 years, millions of little girls and their parents around the world have adored and embraced the diverse characters and rich stories featuring our Disney princesses.... [L]ittle girls experience the fantasy and imagination provided by these stories as a normal part of their childhood development” (para. 9). In other words, Disney has been educating girls for the better part of a century, teaching them what it means to be “normal” as they develop from girls into women. While Disney clearly views their effect on girls and the institution of American girlhood in general as overwhelmingly positive, many authors have criticized the underlying messages provided by “stories featuring …Disney Princesses.” Alexandria Robbins, author of “The Fairy-tale Fa├žade,” claims that Disney princesses like Cinderella encourage passivity in girls and women. Other authors, however, are noticing a positive change in the representation of girls and women in Disney films. In “On Disney, Daughters and Dads,” author Michael Corso concedes that, while early Disney princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are “utterly passive” (para. 3), the next generation of Disney princesses, Jasmine from Aladdin, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and Ariel from The Little Mermaid, provide girls with more active, adventurous role models. Even more promising, says Laura Sells, author of “Where do the Mermaids Stand?,”are the covert, feminist messages present in many Disney films; she argues that films like Disney’s The Little Mermaid encourage women to reclaim the voices they sacrificed during the era of Second Wave feminism, when women first began entering the predominately white, male workforce. The collective voices of these critics make it clear that there has been a shift in the way Disney represents girls and women. 

While it’s true that Disney often misses the mark, each new generation of Disney princesses appears to be stronger and more powerful than the last. More interesting, however, is that each of these marked shifts in the representation of women in Disney films seems to follow a wave of feminist activity in America. Disney’s Snow White (1939), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were released in the generations between First and Second Wave Feminism; Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) appeared in the generation following the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 70s; and most recently, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013) have appeared in the wake of the Third Wave Feminism of the New Millenium. Each successive generation of Disney princesses reflects the advancement of women in American society, but each film falls short of being truly feminist.  While the films of the 1980s and beyond show a marked improvement in the representation of girls and women, each film relies heavily on traditional stereotypical beliefs about gender roles and modern-day cultural assumptions about female beauty to achieve its “happily ever after” fairytale ending; in this way, Disney films act as cultural representations of the positive effect feminism has had on women in American society and the violent cultural backlash that often follows it.