Questioning Everything Disney Little To Much

Archive for March, 2017

Is Alice in Wonderland Really About Drugs?

The shower of cards

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is, on one level at least, the story of a girl who disappears down a rabbit hole to a fantastic place full of bizarre adventures.

Charles Dodgson, a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford, first told his surreal story to the daughters of dean Henry Liddell as they rowed down the Thames.

After the boating trip, 10-year-old Alice Liddell badgered Dodgson to write it down and Alice in Wonderland – under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll – was born. The heroine follows a talking white rabbit, meets the Queen of Hearts and plays croquet using flamingos as mallets.

Since the 1960s there has been a trend for readers to identify an underlying drug theme in the book.

The Cheshire Cat disappears leaving only the enigmatic grin behind. Alice drinks potions and eats pieces of mushroom to change her physical state. The caterpillar smokes an elaborate water pipe. The whole atmosphere of the story is so profoundly disjointed from reality – surely drugs must have had an influence? After all this was the era of legal opium use.

Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 psychedelic anthem White Rabbit runs with the drug theme.

“When the men on the chessboard get up / And tell you where to go / And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know.”

The Matrix provides a film reference point. “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

The drug link is a homespun thing. You’ll find it on a host of random forums.

But the experts are usually sceptical. Carroll wasn’t thought to have been a recreational user of opium or laudanum, and the references may say more about the people making them than the author.

“The notion that the surreal aspects of the text are the consequence of drug-fuelled dreams resonates with a culture, particularly perhaps in the 60s, 70s and 80s when LSD was widely-circulated and even now where recreational drugs are commonplace,” says Dr Heather Worthington, Children’s Literature lecturer at Cardiff University.

From left, clockwise: fairground ride featuring Mad Hatter's tea cups, original illustration of the March hare's tea party, Fortnum and Mason department store window display of the March hare's tea party, underwater scene featuring divers recreating the March hare's tea party
Caption Surreal scenes from the original text have made it into popular culture

“It is the deviant aspects that continue to fascinate because the text is unusual, innovative, and hard to grasp so turning to the author offers simplicity and excitement simultaneously.”

The mushroom is “magic” only in the context of the story. And the caterpillar is merely smoking tobacco through a hookah.

The shadow hanging over anyone reading the story is the issue of Carroll’s sexuality. A successful photographer, many of his surviving shots are of children, often semi-dressed or naked.

To many modern minds, a man who regularly formed friendships with young girls is inherently suspicious.

“Lewis Carroll’s personal life intrigues adult readers because Alice in Wonderland is a text for children but the notion that the author photographed, however innocently, young girls in a state of undress is, to our modern eyes, unpalatable,” says Worthington.

“That Alice was based on a child that Carroll knew adds yet another layer of interest, or suspicion, depending on how you look at it.”

But Carroll was living at a time when childhood innocence was being forged, influencing how children were represented in 19th Century literature aimed at them.

Carroll’s interest in young female innocence is explained by some of the experts as one that invoked desire, but not necessarily sexual.

Alice Liddell as photographed by Lewis Carroll
Image caption Alice Liddell, photographed as “the beggarmaid” by Lewis Carroll

Jenny Woolf, author of The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, agrees with this theory.

“Girls offered him a non-judgemental and non-sexual female audience and he opened up to them. They loved him and he found it a relief to be with them.

“Although he was attracted to women, celibacy was a condition of Carroll’s job [a condition imposed on certain Oxford academics at the time] and he believed that having sex was against God’s wishes for him.”

There are plenty of experts who find his interests harder to explain and it is inevitable that this knowledge will inform what readers take from the story.

Consult any set of notes on the book and you’ll see a slew of themes picked out: puberty, abandonment, the challenge of transition to adulthood, even the perils of authoritarian justice in the form of the Queen of Hearts.

But bearing in mind the nature of the birth of the piece, an off-the-cuff attempt to amuse a child in a rowboat, are people guilty of reading to much into it?

In a recent issue of Prospect magazine, Richard Jenkyns, professor of the classical tradition at Oxford University, called Alice in Wonderland “probably the most purely child-centred book ever written” and said that its only purpose “is to give pleasure”.

Yet another narrative imposed on the book is the idea of grappling with a sense of self. Carroll led a very controlled existence, struggling with self-identity, a recurring theme in the book as Alice regularly expresses uncertainty about who she is after she enters Wonderland.

“Perhaps that’s why his book refers to ‘morality’ in jeering terms,” suggests Woolf. “And the action takes place either underground or in a world which is the opposite of our own.”

We can’t ever truly know what Carroll intended or if he meant to write anything beyond an enchanting children’s story.

Based on his own experience as an illustrator for the 1988 edition of Alice in Wonderland, Anthony Browne believes Carroll might not have been aware of the meanings found within his story.

“People interpret books in a logical way as they do dreams. They want it to have meaning. Alice in Wonderland is not to be read as a logical book. There could be some hidden meanings in there, especially considering Carroll was a mathematician during his lifetime, whether he was aware of such meanings subconsciously or not.”

Ultimately, perhaps it’s more enjoyable for the full intentions of the author to remain unknown during the reading of the book.

“In a way, it doesn’t matter,” says Browne. “I don’t think Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland to be interpreted. He wrote it to entertain.”

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Disney Confession #81

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Fan Art Tuesday


Cinderella’s Representation of Gender and How its Changed

How far have we come since Cinderella?
How far have we come since Cinderella?

Growing up, Cinderella was a classic. I can’t tell you how frequently I watched the Disney movie as a child, because that number may not exist yet. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, the gender issues in this film have become more and more apparent. It is interesting to see these issues, and though they can be very aggravating, observing them show just how far we have come as a society.

Model Behavior and Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes

When peeling back the layers of the film, Cinderella highlights key issues with gender roles and stereotypes. It is worth noting that Disney’s adaptation is based on Charles Perrault’s classic, written all the way back in 1697. Clearly, times were different, especially in terms of gender norms and stereotypes. Although the tale is centuries old, it is interesting to discover that a few ideas viewers see in the film were actually rather prevalent during the 1950s. For the purposes of this analysis, the Disney film will be analyzed looking through the lenses of the fifties.

One major common thread between 1950s gender issues and gender in Cinderella is the belief that marriage is the ultimate life goal. According to PBS, “In the 1950s, women felt tremendous societal pressure to focus their aspirations on a wedding ring” (“People & Events: Mrs. America: Women’s Roles in the 1950s”). Marriage was viewed as a sense of security and escape from one’s family. This idea can be seen when observing the film through a critical lens. Every eligible bachelorette wants to be married to the Prince, from Cinderella to her step-sisters. The whole existence of a grand ball that allows a slew of single females to mingle with the Prince—and hopefully solidify a marriage proposal—reiterates the idea that marriage is supremely important.

Another notion is that a woman’s place is in the home. Edith Stern wrote an article entitled, “Women Are Household Slaves,” in which she constructs a satire-esque advertisement calling for a domestic female to do “all cooking, cleaning, laundering, sewing, meal planning, shopping, [and so on]” (Stern 71). The whole article points to the fact that women in the 1950s were essentially confined to the role of housewife. Upon getting married, women were expected to stay at home and perform household chores. Some viewers are able to draw parallels within the film, as well; there is an expectation of Cinderella to constantly perform similar tasks, like sweeping and sewing. When she doesn’t do these things, there are consequences, suggesting that it is in a woman’s best interest to do the housework expected of them.

Oh Cinderella, the shoes were never the issue!
Oh Cinderella, the shoes were never the issue!

It is easier to notice the gender roles and stereotypes that have been brought to light in Cinderella especially when considering how progressive our nation has been in equalizing women and men. For instance, it is worth pointing out that the idea that a woman’s value is determined based on how they look. This is seen in specific instances in the film, such as when Cinderella encounters her Fairy Godmother. Initially, Cinderella is dressed quite plainly in her house clothes. Her transformation into a glamorous and impeccably dressed young bachelorette reinforces the beauty ideal. If Cinderella were to attend the Prince’s ball in her homely attire, her chances of making a good and lasting impression on the Prince would be slim to none.

Another instance where viewers observe the value of being beautiful is at the ball, when the Prince first sees Cinderella. Based on her physical appearance, he immediately falls in love with her, not even considering other elements, like her kind personality. Peggy Orenstein believes that the focus on beauty is damaging for young girls watching films like Cinderella. She argues that “young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs—who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty—are more likely to be depressed than others” (Orenstein). Moreover, young girls are beginning to feel that in order to be well-liked, they must “please everyone, be very thin and dress right” (Orenstein).

There is, additionally, the belief that love is superior to both independence and education. Today, being independent and educated are things that more and more women are focused on; they are more focused on getting a college degree and being self-sufficient than finding a husband as soon as possible. In Cinderella, independence takes a back seat to marriage. If she can marry the Prince, she will be taken care of and can depend on him to be the provider. Education is something that doesn’t even come up in the film, which could suggest that women didn’t want to waste their time learning, that they had more important goals to be fulfilling, like wrangling a husband. In our society, women work to become doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Cinderella, though…not so much; as Orenstein would say, “Cinderella doesn’t really do anything” (Orenstein).

Breaking the Chains of Gender Stereotypes Today

While Cinderella may perpetuate numerous gender roles and stereotypes, it is also just a movie. Disney’s own executive Andy Mooney has chimed in on the matter. According to him, children merely go through phases as they grow. He reasons that “[boys pass] through [and girls pass] through. I see girls expanding their imagination through visualizing themselves as princesses, and then they pass through that phase and end up becoming lawyers, doctors, mothers or princesses, whatever the case may be” (Orenstein). In this case, young children watching Cinderella could view it and remain unaffected by it; just because they watch the film doesn’t mean they will grow up thinking that they need to be a princess.

Orenstein, too, agrees that “plenty of girls stray from the script,” and rather than reenacting scenes from film, they may do other things, like “[play] basketball in their finery, or [cast] themselves as the powerful evil stepsister bossing around the sniveling Cinderella.” She also states that “there are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations.”

Perhaps the most telling about the progress we’ve made are the films that are being made today and how they stray away from these traditional gender roles. Lighezzolo brings up Frozen, which is certainly a great example of the undoing of these stereotypes, especially with the idea that Elsa gets her happily-ever-after without having a love interest. Brave is another film that doesn’t depend heavily on a female character in need of saving. Merida is a rough-around-the-edges, self-sufficient, and determined young woman that relies more on her set of skills than waiting on a male to shoo in and do all the hard work.

You wouldn't catch Cinderella only doing this in 2014.
You wouldn’t catch Cinderella only doing this in 2014.

The views on Cinderella undoubtedly are multi-faceted. While some see the film as a basic children’s movie, others feel that it paints a particularly problematic picture of gender roles and stereotypes. Although neither side is one hundred percent right or wrong, it is still essential to examine the film closely because of the debates that it sparks, no matter what era we’re living in.


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Disney Confession #80

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Fan Art Tuesday


The Little Mermaid: Change Everything for Your Man?

Today, we’re talking about Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I’ll go ahead and admit up front that I have a vested interest in this argument, owing to the fact that Ariel is actually my favorite Disney protagonist. She’s the one I connected to most strongly when I was a kid. I liked collecting things and learning about my favorite hobbies, just like Ariel. I looked petite and disarming but had a will of steel, just like Ariel. I was passionate, a romantic, and best of all, a redhead.

ariel

So what’s so controversial about The Little Mermaid, you may ask? Isn’t it just a cute story about a mermaid who loves a human and finds a way to cross the divide? In case you haven’t heard the gripes about this movie, let me catch you up.

First, people say it gives a dis-empowering message to little girls. The protagonist, critics say, is a woman who gives up her voice (her metaphorical agency) for the purpose of getting a guy. She leaves the only world she’s known and changes herself completely just to be with him. What’s worse, she goes directly from being under her father’s rule to being under her husband’s.

The second thing I’ve heard this movie criticized for is encouraging teen rebellion. Ariel disobeys her father’s instructions about staying away from humans, disobeys the ban on visiting the Sea Witch, and is ultimately rewarded for her rebellion by getting what she wants: marriage at 16 and her own set of wheels—er, I mean legs.

I maintain, however, that innocent Ariel has been falsely accused! The evidence shall show “Not Guilty” on all counts. Let’s begin.

Accusation #1: Ariel Gives Ladies A Bad Message

I must admit, the first time I heard the explanation of how Ariel takes women back half a decade, I was devastated. I mean, the evidence was right there. She does give up her voice. She does go straight from her father’s home to marrying the prince. My favorite Disney protagonist was the antithesis of everything I now believe about women. Woe is me! My childhood was built on a vicious line of propaganda designed to keep me dependent on my father and future husband!

And then I stopped and actually thought back on what happens in the movie. Let’s examine the attacks piece by piece.

1. Does Ariel change herself (become human) for her man?

Nope. Ariel changes herself for herself.

Look, I know finding Eric and making him fall in love with her is a huge part of the plot. But let’s not forget who Ariel was before she met him. She was already obsessed with humans. She swam through dangerous, shark-infested wreckage just to bring a few human objects home. She went repeatedly to the surface though it was forbidden. She had an entire cavern of human paraphernalia, illegal in her world.

People, she even has a song about how much she wants to be human (“Part of That World”).

Yes, Eric may have been the catalyst that finally drove her to do something about her desire (except actually he wasn’t, because if you recall, it was her father’s temper tantrum that drove her to the Sea Witch), but she already had the heart to be human. She didn’t change her desire or goals to conform to Eric; that accusation is contradicted by every single bit of background and character development that occurs for the first half hour of the movie. To the point where I wonder if some of its critics have actually watched it.

Oh, but there’s so much more, you say! What about the fact that…

2. Ariel gives up her voice to get her man, which equals giving up your agency for a boyfriend.

Let’s take a multiple choice test. I want you to think back on the plot of the movie and choose the correct answer to a question. Ready?

Of the following characters, whose idea was it for Ariel to give up her voice?

#1

ariel 2

#2

eric

#3

triton

#4

ursula

The answer, of course, is #4. Ursula.

The vicious antagonist of the film.

At this point in the movie, the audience knows that Ursula plans to trick Ariel and use her as leverage to overthrow King Triton. So when Ursula suggests Ariel give up her voice and become human, we know it’s a TRICK. It’s a BAD idea. It’s probably going to backfire in a way that benefits Ursula and harms Ariel. So why would that make a child think that giving up your voice is a good thing? Let me tell you something. I was way less likely to visit sea witches in caves and let their little yellow smoke hands pull out my glowing voice box after seeing this movie—not more likely!

Ursula, incidentally, is the character who espouses the view that women’s voices aren’t important. Remember her song “Poor Unfortunate Souls?”

“Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man”

This comes right after she’s reminded Ariel that “You’ll have your looks—your pretty face!”

So again, the BAD GUY is espousing a horrible view of women. But the movie continues to give blatant evidence that having a voice is important for Ariel. It’s the thing Eric first fell in love with, after all. When he meets human Ariel on the beach, she is beautiful and mute—qualities Ursula said men value—but Eric feels there’s something missing. He’s disappointed. The thing that makes Ariel Ariel is gone.

He wants the real her, not a pretty China doll.

3. Ariel goes from being under her father’s rule to being under her husband’s.

I think people say this based on one important misunderstanding: they believe the conflict between Ariel and Triton is about who has control. Through that lens, this story is about a girl who isn’t allowed to choose what she wants until her father gives her permission.

But I don’t believe that is the lens through which to view this movie. I don’t believe it’s about who has control or who has the right to give permission. But we have to delve into the next section to fully answer that, so please hang on to your hats, hold those thoughts, and stay with me!

Accusation #2: Does Ariel Endorse Teenage Rebellion?

….Sigh.

Y’know, I’m just not even sure where to start.

If you believe that movie portrayals of kids going outside their parents’ jurisdiction is bad for your kids, then probably most of my opinions about life in general are things you’ll disagree with. But I’m going to try and explain this one anyway.

Remember way back, a few seconds ago, when I said people mistakenly believe the Ariel/Triton conflict is about control? Well, that misunderstanding is also what fuels the belief that The Little Mermaid endorses teen rebellion. In actuality, I believe the Ariel/Triton conflict is a classic case of “children, obey your parents, and parents, don’t frustrate your children.” Rather than asking the question, “Will Ariel learn to submit to her father’s will?” the movie asks “Will the father and the daughter learn to understand each other?”

The point is that Triton and Ariel are learning mutual respect. They both have to swallow their pride and recognize their mistakes. Ariel acts rashly and does dangerous things in an attempt to get back at her father; by the end of the movie, she sees what a mess her anger made of everything. Meanwhile, her father refuses to respect his daughter’s differences and acknowledge that she’s old enough to make her own choices; he must face the reality that his little girl is grown up, and will start choosing things with or without his help.

They both make mistakes. They both grow.

So if you’re one of those parents who wants all movies to teach that parents are always right, then I can see why you dislike this one. But I hope, as a parent, you’re open to the idea that you have things to learn from your kids, too.

This is why I don’t believe the story is about Ariel going from the rule of her father to the rule of her husband. It’s not about a father owning his girl-child and selling her off to a prince. It’s about a father who holds on too tightly until he’s forced into the reality that his girl has become a woman.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, Sebastian says it right out loud at the end of the movie: “It’s like I always say, Your Majesty. Children got to be free, to lead their own life.”

That is the line that ultimately makes Triton realize Ariel should be a human. It’s her decision, not his.

But back to the whole “it will teach my daughter to rebel” thing. I have to argue against this just on movie-making principle. Stories about kids or teenagers are only interesting if the kid or teenager is somehow moving through the world outside the parents’ protection. This is Children Storytelling 101. That’s why most young protagonists are physically separated from their parents for the duration of the film. Land Before Time, anyone? Finding Nemo? Beauty and the Beast? American Tale? The Great Mouse Detective? It’s not a coincidence that all these kids’ movies feature kids making their own decisions. It’s more interesting that way.

Yeah, but this character is beyond her parents’ protection specifically because she disobeyed, not because of circumstance or natural disaster or death.

And your point is? Look, here’s the bottom line, and this is actually really good news: Your relationship with your child is not determined by what they see in the movies. If your kid learns to trust your judgment, it’s because of choices you made in real life that affected them—not because they watched a movie where a mythical creature wanted to try inter-species dating. Conversely, if your kid mistrusts your judgment, it could be because of choices you made in real life that affected them. Or maybe they made a conscious choice to go their own way, or any number of other factors. But I highly doubt you can really blame it on one movie.

If you want some proof, you’re looking at it. I, the girl who practically was Ariel, the girl who watched that movie literally hundreds of times throughout childhood, had an incredibly trusting relationship with my parents. We did not experience the apocalyptic teenage friction that pop culture promised we would. We didn’t fight over who I dated. I never went to a sea witch, or anyone else for that matter, for help going behind their back.

As a side note, I also watched Back To The Future without thinking time travel was real, watched JAWS without going around the house biting people, watched The Great Mouse Detective without becoming a sewer-dwelling supervillain OR a stripper at an underground mouse pub, and I watched the show Beetlejuice without believing that the phrase “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice” would make a disturbingly bizarre little man pop out of my closet (okay, okay…I did try the Beetlejuice thing once. Not gonna lie. But nothing happened).

Oh yeah? Well, what about the fact that she doesn’t see any consequences for disobeying her dad, but instead gets what she wants?

She doesn’t see any consequences? So almost being killed isn’t a consequence? The Sea Witch getting Triton’s triton and almost becoming the ruler of the sea isn’t a consequence?

Ariel doesn’t “get what she wants” (a human life and marriage) because she disobeyed and went to the Sea Witch. After the witch is defeated, Ariel is left a mermaid, right where she started. As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

She “gets what she wants” because she and her father finally work out their differences. She gets closure on her childhood issues. The healed rift with her family is what gives the power for her to move on and start her adult life .

So there you have it. All the reasons why I still love The Little Mermaid and don’t worry about it corrupting my children in either direction (too rebellious or too retiring). Any other questions? No? Good. I’m going to go watch that movie again.


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Disney Confession #79

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Fan Art Tuesday


The Princess and The Frog: The Princess is Black!

Controversy Over ‘The Princess and the Frog

 princess.jpg

One of Disney’s most recent leading ladies has a big job: Tiana is the first Black princess the fairy tale imagineers has ever featured. Viewers and critics alike want to make sure that “The Princess and the Frog” represents Black people in the best possible light.

When Disney announced that it would make a film with a Black heroine, we said, “Yay!! It’s about time.” Since then, some of the company’s decisions regarding Princess Tiana have been called into question and some minor tweaks and changes needed to be made.

Concerns were voiced over the princess’s original name, Maddy–which was thought to be an unlikely name for a Black woman–as well as her occupation, as a maid for a white family. To appease its customers, Disney changed her name to Tiana and placed her in the kitchen as the family’s chef. Now that’s what we call affirmative action.

There were still complaints over Princess Tiana’s love interest: The frog prince is not Black. Truth be told, throughout much of the movie he and his fair lady are frogs. He has a Middle Eastern name, Naveen, is voiced by a Brazilian actor, Bruno Campos, and comes from a made up place, Maldonia. Critics have cried, “What’s wrong with a Black prince?,” while others rebut, “What’s wrong with portraying multi-racial love?”

Other questions have been raised about why the 2-D cartoon movie is set in New Orleans, a place where many African-Americans were displaced due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, as well as the racial implications that the use of voodoo in the film may raise. However, as the first Disney cartoon musical since “Hercules,” the legendary city that birthed Jazz seems a likely setting for a fairy tale, and the use of magic in Disney stories is almost customary (see “Aladdin” and “Sword and the Stone”).

While Disney animated films often draw controversy–remember the phallic symbol on the VHS box cover of “The Little Mermaid”, the Jessica Rabbit scandal of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and the claims of subliminal messages in “The Lion King”–they typically tend to bring home a family-friendly message.

“The Princess and the Frog” is the stoy of a beautiful girl who kisses a prince who’s been turned into a frog only to turn into a frog herself. It presents themes about believing love even in tough circumstances, the struggle of moving up from one’s social standing, and the idea of beauty being skin deep. These are all great lessons to be taught by Disney’s first Black Princess. Most creative ideas face challenges and criticism.