Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Childhood Disillusioned


        Like pretty much every American born within the past 50-plus years, I grew up on the works of Disney, my days filled with colorful, bubblegum-sweet images of princesses, cuddly animals and gift-wrapped-with-a-bow-on-top happy endings. I remember watching The Lion King and Aladdin (and, more shamefully, their sequels) on an endless loop, and I knew all the lyrics to songs like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and Mulan’s “Reflection”. I’ve visited every single Disney theme park in the world, except for the one in Paris; I’ve been to a couple of them multiple times, since I’m a spoiled, extremely lucky brat. Just thinking about Toy Story still sends a shiver of nostalgic delight up my spine.

        Yet, despite these fond feelings, I've realized that Disney isn't quite the perfect, carefree utopia we like to imagine it is as kids. Even when I was younger, I didn’t particularly care for The Jungle Book or Snow White, though for the latter, that was as much because I thought the Evil Queen was scary as any discomfort over its depiction of women. I’m well aware that, like any other company, Disney has a more cynical corporate side that’s concerned more with marketing and branding than storytelling integrity. Still, it really wasn’t until certain recent developments that my mental image of the Disney/Pixar offices as some kind of magical paradise, a veritable playground for the imagination, finally and completely shattered.

        To start with a more subjective gripe, there’s the fact that their recent output feels drained of any ingenuity, consisting almost entirely of run-of-the-mill adaptations and sequels. Pixar, not long ago so renowned for their earnest creativity that the studio’s name was enough to get people flocking to their movies, has succumbed to the lure of lucrative merchandising and lazy sequels that pander to their audiences. I still can’t believe I actually paid to see the unfortunate dreck that was Cars 2, and I say that as someone who finds the first one highly underrated. While they’re still releasing original films and apparently plan to emphasize them going forward, even those lack the freshness that Pixar works had only a few years ago, and it’s disconcerting that they feel the need to keep up the sequel trend at all, especially since they appear to have no plans for the one non-Toy Story flick that actually could be good sequel/prequel/spinoff material.

I mean, come ON! It could be totally epic, I’m telling you.

        And then came the whole Brenda Chapman fiasco. A director getting booted off a project isn’t inherently cause for concern, as it apparently happens pretty regularly for animated films, whose directors aren’t as protected by guilds and unions as their live-action colleagues; after all, Pixar itself had previously replaced Jan Pinkava with Brad Bird on Ratatouille, and it’s already kicked Bob Peterson off next year’s The Good Dinosaur. However, seeing Brenda Chapman lose control of Brave was infuriating not only because it meant Pixar had replaced its first-ever female director with a man, but also because she supposedly had such an intimate, personal connection to the story. It seems Pixar trusted a dude to make a tale of female empowerment and mother/daughter relationships, instead of the woman who dreamed up the idea in the first place. Although we’ll never know what the movie would’ve looked like if they’d allowed her to stay on board, I wish we got to see her complete vision; it’s not like the version we did get was particularly impressive or even memorable. All the change of directors did was draw attention to just how much of a boys’ club Pixar is.

        As frustrating as this all was, though, it was a more recent development that put the proverbial nail in the coffin of my opinion of Disney and Pixar. I have one word for you: Frozen. Look, I try my hardest to withhold judgment on a film until I actually see it, or at least until it has actually been released in theaters, but I’ll be the first to admit that I often epically fail on that front. Particularly in this day and age when information is so easily accessible and we’re bombarded by more advertising in more places than ever before, it’s damn near impossible to keep a completely impartial frame of mind and not let outside factors influence your thinking when it comes to art (or anything else, really). However, the more I hear about Disney’s upcoming flick Frozen, the less I’m inclined to give it a fighting chance. The most widely publicized reason for my reservations toward the movie, which have less to do with any expectations about its quality than with Disney’s approach to the whole project, is the following quote from their head animator:

Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression.

        Excuse me while I go slam my head against a wall. You don’t have to be an expert in animation to know that it’s bullshit to say that women are harder to animate than men or that it’s any harder to make them look distinctive from each other. What’s worse is that he says they’re more difficult not because of any legitimate technical challenges, but because he thinks you have to keep them pretty. First of all, it apparently hasn’t occurred to him that women – and men – can express the same emotion in different ways, and if creating different expressions for them is really such an issue, it probably says more about the skills of his team than it does about animation or women. Secondly, he should really check out this guy’s work – or really, any kind of anime – for some seriously quality emoting.

        More than anything, this quote shows how little Disney’s perspective of beauty and body image, specifically for women, has changed over the last several decades. Not only do they steadfastly refuse to portray women, at least in heroic roles, who deviate from conventional standards of attractiveness (standards that they’ve helped cement), but they won’t let their Barbie-esque heroines look unattractive for even a second. They want women to constantly look like flawless models likely standing around to please the menfolk onscreen or in the audience; to them, women seem to be objects, not humans. No woman could possibly live up to these aesthetic expectations, let alone surpass them, since even the most glamorous models and movie stars have their ugly moments and need makeup and airbrushing to remove their physical flaws. In addition to the usual concerns about sending the wrong message to young girls in a society already hell-bent on crushing their self-esteem and exploiting their subsequent insecurities, this mindset is so utterly antithetical to what Disney professes to stand for: the belief in a world where anything is possible. A true magical wonderland would be inclusive and as free of the prejudices that dominate real life as possible, because what’s the point of creating a fantasy world that’s as biased and restrictive as our own?

The only spell Disney seems interested in casting is one to convince people women like this could actually exist.

        Unfortunately, as mentioned, this attitude toward women is hardly limited to the clowns working on Frozen. From Snow White, their very first princess, on down to Rapunzel in Tangled, Disney has exhibited an extremely narrow view of what constitutes a heroine. While dudes can range from an awkward demi-god (Hercules) to a lowly, self-preserving street urchin (Aladdin), ladies appear as pretty much only a princess or…another princess or…an ordinary aspiring restaurant owner who ends up as a princess. And guess what? They all look more or less the same with their uniformly slender limbs, practically nonexistent waists and well-arranged hair that remains in perfect form no matter what they’re doing. This standardization of female appearances isn’t even a subconscious drive; the animator’s comments as well as Brenda Chapman’s quote in the Time article linked above about changes made to the body type of the queen in Brave hint that Disney is, in fact, very much aware of what it’s doing.

        More recently, the studio has expanded its repertoire ever-so-slightly to include more women from different races and – gasp! – even a couple who aren't and never become princesses. Let’s see, there’s Megan from Hercules, Jane from Tarzan, Wendy from Peter Pan, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan from, well, Mulan, aaaaand I think that’s it; also, note how all of those movie titles except for Mulan refer to a male lead. Despite this progression, they continue to promote a very particular ideal of feminine virtue based primarily on elegance and (eventual) submissiveness. Not only do their storylines inevitably revolve around a male character, even when they occupy the sole leading role, but no matter how rebellious these heroines are at the beginning of the film, they always end their journey by conforming to conventional gender roles, usually by getting married or at least attaching themselves to a guy.

Men: the solution to everyone’s problems. Especially if they’re white.

        Disney also has exhibited a particular ideal of who isn’t a heroine. Female villains are defined by two factors: a grotesque physical appearance and motivations that are coded distinctly feminine. They are either obese (Ursula in The Little Mermaid, the Matchmaker in Mulan, who isn’t an outright villain but is certainly an antagonist) or exaggeratedly skinny (Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove) and boast harsh, almost androgynous facial features compared to the soft roundness of the heroines’ faces. Just consider the looks of Ursula versus Ariel, Maleficent versus Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, the evil stepmother versus Cinderella. Reinforcing a specific set of beauty standards as markers of goodness, this character design tells women who deviate from this perception of attractiveness that they are not only undesirable and unworthy of love, but also that they are lesser, flat-out bad human beings.

        As for their motivations, I mean that female villains are always driven by traits traditionally attributed to only women, namely jealousy and an obsession with – guess what? – physical beauty. Male villains generally want wealth, power or revenge, goals that might be self-centered but can be pretty substantial; after all, those kinds of greed are essentially the entire basis for international politics, and their desire for revenge usually stems from real, rather than imagined, slights. Their female counterparts, though, care about nothing more than their looks, seeking to harm the protagonist out of envy or because the hero can provide them with the means to acquire radiant beauty or eternal youth. Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to the suits at Disney that women don’t actually care about their appearance nearly as much as the men incessantly judging them think they do. Even if they did, those insecurities are the result of ingrained societal pressures, not because women are inherently vain and superficial; in fact, I’d argue that the men who feel such an overwhelming need to regulate and police how women look are the really superficial ones.

        Moreover, women rarely feature in major supporting roles unless they’re a love interest for a male hero or an antagonist. Pixar does a slightly better job on this front, as seen in movies like The Incredibles and Finding Nemo, but regular Disney films never portray women as companions, friends or comic relief. They never occupy roles that aren’t explicitly required to be female, hence the abundance of mother roles (think Mulan and Dumbo, or the fairy godmothers of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty). Even in Beauty and the Beast, where all the female characters with names aside from Belle are inanimate objects, they’re naturally the most stereotypically feminine objects, like Mrs. Potts as a tea kettle (mother figure alert!) and Belle’s wardrobe.

        Rather than attempting to rectify this imbalance, Frozen seems to be somehow even more egregious. Because the story is based on existing source material, it’s easy to see just how much Disney intentionally skews their gender representation. Knowing how heavily populated with ladies Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale “The Snow Queen” was makes seeing them all erased and replaced by a bunch of dudes (including a male companion/potential love interest and a goofy snowman) just that much more painful.   

        What the film’s defenders and apologists miss is that we’re not talking about quality here. No matter how great or supposedly progressive the end product is, it could’ve been so much more if they stuck to the general outline of Anderson’s original story. Disney seems eager to get pats on the back for including not just one princess, but two princesses who have a relationship with each other that’s crucial to the overall plot. Yet when you’re adapting a tale that was chockfull of diverse, memorable ladies into a movie where practically all of the characters are now male, don’t expect me to jump up and down with excitement because, hey, at least you kept two of them. It feels like tokenism, similar to the way the inclusion of POC heroines like Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Tiana felt like Disney fulfilling a quota so that they can now  go back to making stories about Caucasian, mostly blonde girls. Add in a generic title that no longer places the focus on a female character (blame The Princess and the Frog’s failure for that) and a marketing campaign that ignores the female leads except for select moments of Anna looking like a ditzy rom-com heroine. It sure sounds like they’re trying as hard as possible to disassociate themselves with anything that could be construed as feminine, hardly what I’d call a progressive approach.

Way to literally bury the lead(s), Disney marketing team

        Maybe Frozen will have some praiseworthy qualities, and early word suggests that it does, but neither that nor the fact that it has a female director – ahem, check that, co-director – excuses the animator’s comments or the fact that the two sisters are literally just clones of each other but with different colors and styles of hair. Even if it’s genuinely their most progressive movie to date, it’s not like they’ve set anything resembling a high bar, and it’s not enough to make up for Disney’s history of sexualizing, marginalizing and all-around not taking seriously the very people it has traditionally courted: women, both as characters and as an audience. Like the rest of Hollywood, the company appears to care only about young male viewers. It’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy Frozen and any other Disney/Pixar work, but I’ve been unable to work up any genuine enthusiasm for their recent projects, only frustration; being told I should be satisfied with the bare minimum gets tiring. For me, the magic has disappeared, and given that Disney has been making movies for almost 100 years and has barely budged from their longstanding, narrow-minded traditions, I don’t expect it’ll return any time soon.

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