Reclaiming Cinderella

Reclaiming Cinderella

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Cinderella)

The other day, my husband told me about a conversation he had with a woman who claimed not to like Disney’s Cinderella because she’s a feminist.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard such an argument, and I never cease to find it to be bullshit.  I wish I could have asked the woman when she had last watched the movie, because I’m guessing it hasn’t been since puberty.  So many of these knee-jerk dismissals of things like the classic Disney canon are based on vague recollections of movies the person half-watched decades ago, rather than the actual text.  (And the actual texts definitely merit a second look as an adult, if only for the frequent what-the-fuckery, like how Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio is a hobo who hits on every remotely feminine entity in the movie, up to and including wooden carvings and the fish.)  There’s this perception that Cinderella is a wholly passive character who just sits around and waits for a prince to rescue her, but that’s just not supported by the film itself.

For starters, Cinderella’s not going to the ball for the prince.  When the invitation arrives, her stepsisters are the ones who burble at the idea of seeing the prince, but Cinderella presses for her chance to go because, dammit, she was invited too.  She never equates her unspecified wishes and dreams with this invitation or implies that her whole world is riding on it; she simply wants to be treated like an equal, to have a night off and enjoy herself.  When it’s all over, she’s thrilled to have been left with the one glass slipper and the memory of a dance with a hottie.  The idea that he’s the prince, or that she could have a shot at marrying him, doesn’t even occur to her until the news gets out the next morning.  Hell, she didn’t even seek him out at the ball; he’s the one who came over to her, and never managed to introduce himself while they were dancing.

Fairy-Godmother-Scene-1Then there’s the tricky question of agency.  This is the image that detractors seem to point to as the essence of the issues with the story: Cinderella weeping while the Fairy Godmother comes out of nowhere to solve all her problems.  But that’s not quite what’s going on here.  When she appears, FG implies that Cinderella actually summoned her.  (“Nonsense, child.  If you’d lost all your faith, I couldn’t be here.”)  True, that would indicate a power that Cinderella doesn’t otherwise demonstrate–except when she’s singing.  She harmonizes with herself in multiple parts on “Sing, Sweet Nightingale”, and immediately before FG materializes, Cinderella is having a conversation with the background music.  Seriously, there’s no other way to explain her dialogue there.  A little later, she duets with the prince on “So This is Love” without either of them opening their mouths.  It’s not a direct correlation, but it’s enough unnatural shenanigans to underscore the repeated refrain that believing hard enough (not just possessing a belief, but the action of believing) will make a wish come true.

But that’s still passive, right?  She’s not actually doing anything, just bursts into tears and gives up.  Well, she did do something about going to the ball: she finished up an inhuman workload and found an outfit, which her menagerie did an extreme makeover on.  She earned her chance and then was fucking assaulted, forced to watch in horror while her dress, a memento of her dead mother and a gift from her only friends, was destroyed.  Of course she breaks down.  Holy shit, guys, give the girl a minute.  All FG is doing is restoring the balance, popping in like Sam Beckett to set right what just went wrong.

Of course, the dress was only presentable in the first place because of the mice and the birds.  So let’s talk about them for a second, shall we?  After all, the Tom and Jerry bullshit takes up over half the runtime (41 minutes out of 75, I shit you not; it is 23 sodding minutes before Lady Tremaine gets a line), and we meet two of the birds before we even meet Cinderella.  The animals, then, drive the bulk of the plot.  But this isn’t like Sleeping Beauty, where the supposed protagonists take a back seat to fairie face-offs.  See, while the mice are the main ones we see in action, they never act on their own behalf.  Ever.  The one time we see them doing something for their own benefit is when they go out seeking food, and who’s the one that provides it?  In addition to feeding them, Cinderella clothes them and teaches them to speak (which is something they value, apparently) and protects them from traps and the cat.  This has created a cult of personality, where the animals all happily sing to her tune as they perform incredible feats of engineering in her service.  Everything they do on-screen serves Cinderella’s interests, from acting as her lady’s maids in the morning to altering her dress to helping her escape her tower.  In short, she has a small army of devoted minions at her command, who prove by the end that they’re willing to risk their lives against a sadistic predator if she needs them to.  Do we say that the supervillain has no agency because he hangs out on his dark throne until the final battle, letting the underlings get their hands dirty until then?  (Am I calling Cinderella an evil mastermind?  Well, she has taken over a kingdom by the end credits.  Just saying.)

In summary, Cinderella is fighting for equal rights and a fair leave policy.  She is maybe a little bit psychic and can bend animals to her will.  I’m not claiming that she’s a perfect template for a protagonist, or that there’s not some problematic bullshit at work here.  (The love-at-first-sight thing is only part of a ludicrously compressed timeline; the entire story, barring the prologue, takes place in just over 24 hours, including the complete organization of a royal ball.)  But this incarnation of the fairy tale gives us a heroine who’s snarky, determined, and industrious at the very least, a woman who unfailingly approaches her situation on her own terms even if she’s not exactly fighting to change it.  She might not be a feminist icon, but she’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Just Friends: Agent Carter, Jarvis, and Platonic Chemistry

Just Friends: Agent Carter, Jarvis, and Platonic Chemistry

(Standard spoiler disclaimer for Agent Carter, episodes 1-3)

Beneath my crusty, jaded exterior, I am a sap.  I just love me a good romantic subplot, and while the key components of that phrase are usually “good” and “sub,” I’ve been known to enjoy both straight-up love stories and pairings that actually, if we’re being honest, weren’t that well executed.  However, despite my weakness for kissy stuff, I am continually fascinated by platonic relationships, possibly because they’re so much rarer.

This is one of the many reasons I’m digging on Agent Carter, the delightful bone ABC and Marvel have tossed us until Agents of SHIELD returns to answer some pressing questions, the cliff-hanging bastards.  The overarching story concerns Peggy Carter trying to prove that Howard Stark hasn’t committed treason, with the help of Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis.  Peggy and Jarvis are not quite partners, not quite friends, and despite them both being so very pretty, possess not one spark of sexual tension.  That’s a very good thing, and while there’s still time to fuck it up, I don’t think they will.

The main reason is that Jarvis is quite happily married, thank you.  Not that writers have ever balked at using an established relationship as a mere obstacle for their preferred couple to overcome, but Jarvis’s biggest character trait is his unwavering loyalty.  Last week’s episode “Time and Tide” further underscored his devotion to his wife; the first time we ever see him get really riled is when the SSR dudebro (I admit that I can’t really tell them apart) threatens her, and he reveals that he risked his life and career to save her from the Holocaust.  This is not a man whose head will be turned by a pretty secret agent.  For her part, Peggy also shows no interest, likely because she’s still a bit hung up on Steve Rogers and because she already has a perfectly good love interest in Sousa, the fellow agent who may or may not be the rescued POW she will eventually marry (according to the archive footage in Winter Soldier).

Mind you, I’m still a little annoyed that the status of this friendship is assured by one (or possibly both, depending on how you look at it) being unavailable rather than them just not being interested.  Someday, we’ll have a proper platonic pairing who have absolutely nothing standing between them and the horizontal mambo but complete lack of desire to do so, and I will shout my joy unto the heavens.  But until then, these two make an appealing pair of guides through this world of old-school spy shenanigans.  Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy have a chemistry that has nothing to do with uglies and the bumping thereof, and there are the hints that Jarvis is still hiding something that might undermine their growing mutual regard.  Plus, their particular relationship means that some common scenarios get to take on fresh meaning; when Jarvis chides Peggy for going into danger alone, it’s not from a place of overprotective macho bullshit, but from the logic that it’s silly to do so when she has a willing and capable ally.  He’s trying to convince her to let him take his proper place as field support rather than trying to take over.

Given that this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-fronted property, the execution and reception of this show are kind of a Big Deal.  It would be easy to fall into the common traps of the stories deemed appropriate for girls to carry, but while the relationships in Peggy’s life are really the core of the show, it’s heartening that those relationships aren’t your usual romantic fare.  (Her friendship with waitress Angie gets much more weight and screentime than her mild flirtations with Sousa.)  Her SSR colleagues may not take her seriously, but her real friends do–and Marvel certainly does.

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters)

Let’s do some character analysis, shall we?  Today I’d like to take a crack at one of my favorite movies, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Sidebar: I don’t mean “favorite” in an ironic sense or as a guilty pleasure.  I unabashedly adore this movie, and I don’t care how low its Metacritic score is.  People seemed to dismiss it as an action B-movie, missing the key fact that it’s produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.  It’s horror comedy, and while it might not be as outright funny as Shaun of the Dead or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, its humor derives from its over-the-top cartoonishness, from its gleeful anachronisms and hyper-violence.  I’ve seen it compared to “Itchy and Scratchy,” which is pretty accurate.  You don’t have to think it’s a great movie (I mean, you’d be wrong, but you’re entitled to that), just make sure you’re judging it by the correct metrics.

Our titular heroes aren’t particularly deep or complex.  They had a traumatic childhood encounter with a witch, and now they go around exacting messy revenge on the whole species.  Aside from the intriguing brother-sister dynamic, just your standard Caucasian brunette stoic badasses, right?  Yet I find myself rather fascinated by Gretel.  At first glance, she seems like she’s cut from the standard Strong Female Character template.  She’s introduced as an adult by coolly taking charge of the situation, and when her authority is challenged:

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And yet the headbutt is a rather unusual move for the textbook SFC.  Using it doesn’t require any particular training, finesse, control, skill, or any of the things that you normally associate with a great fighter–just raw force and a disregard for your own safety.

When we see a woman in melee combat, she’s usually a martial artist, employing moves that require just as much grace as strength or skill.  There’s quite a lot of overlap between dancing and fighting, but it’s especially true for female fighters.  Even when issuing a beatdown, the heroine remains aesthetically pleasing.

But there is nothing elegant about Gretel.  She’s a pure brawler, as befits her backstory of learning to fight through experience rather than formal training.  When she punches, she’s not mainly using her arm; instead, she sticks her arm straight out and swings her whole torso, an awkward move that provides power at the expense of accuracy.  Gretel’s character is not, in any sense, about looking pretty.  Oh sure, Gemma Arterton is gorgeous, and she spends the movie in these cleavagetastic bodices and tight leather pants.  She also spends most of the movie positively covered in grime, gore, and every filth imaginable.  Gretel is not here to impress you–she’s here to bite your fucking face off.

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Not a figure of speech.

Gretel also doesn’t have many of the traits of a great fighter, because, well, she’s not actually that great.  Oh, she’s not a Faux Action Girl by any means.  The woman will bring the pain, no question.  But watch the movie again, and really watch her fight scenes.  She’s solid with a weapon, but in hand-to-hand, she just holds her own and never really gets the better of anyone.  Her main assets in combat are her quick thinking and tenacity–she gets the absolute shit kicked out of her, yet keeps getting back up.  Since she works as part of a tag team and most of her fights seem to be battles of attrition, that’s all she needs.  She’s merely competent, which paradoxically makes her rather extraordinary.  After all, how often do you see male action heroes who are just reasonably good at fighting, and when’s the last time you’ve seen a female fighter in a primary combat role who’s anything less than the best of the best?

I think I’m so drawn to Gretel for the simple reason that I’ve never seen anything quite like her before.  In an SFF landscape filled with action heroines who seem to have graduated from the same dojo, she’s a crass, scrappy knuckle sandwich of fresh air.  Really, it doesn’t take that much to create a new spin on something.  In this case, all you really needed was the fight choreographer.