Friday, April 30, 2010

Eras of Disney

Disney can be quite controversial. Some people love Disney and everything about Disney-others despise it/him. Since Disney has made many many movies over almost a hundred years, and the characteristics of the movies are very different depending on when they're from, let's distinguish within Disney itself. For the sake of simplification, I'm only discussing Disney Princess movies.
Walt Disney himself died in 1966. Before he died, he had created 3 complete Princess movies- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1957.) Disney had been a leader and innovator in the world of animation. It's these three Princesses that are often accused of having the most negative female stereotypes-evil female villains and helpless heroines. Yet I have to say, these movies adhere the closest to the plots on which they are based. And some people have attacked Cinderella for being made more helpless than the Grimm version, but Disney didn't base his Cinderella off of Grimm, but on Perrault's (and either way, whether Cinderella got help from talking mice and a fairy godmother, or a dead mother's spirit, she always has help in SOME form.)
There was a long break from Princess movies. Then Disney had another golden age in the late 1980s- early 90s, with The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992). Feminism had spread and filmmakers were more conscious of how they presented females. Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine definitely have more spunk and sense of adventure than their predecessors (although, as I've pointed out before, Ariel is reeeeally desperate to marry a guy she's never actually met. Interesting that the next two heroines on the scene are anything but anxious to marry just for the sake of marrying or for looks), but the plots of the stories differ more greatly from their sources. Interestingly, none of the movies created during this time were based on Grimm stories. And yes, Pocahontas and Mulan are in there somewhere, but they were never as popular. I say, Pocahontas is a travesty because they completely alter a true, historical story, which is different than altering a version of a fairy tale that isn't exactly authoritative on its own. Mulan should probably be more popular, but there's just only so many Princesses you can fit onto a t-shirt, you know?
Then there's Tiana from Princess and the Frog, and supposedly Rapunzel's coming. In the grand scheme of things they should probably be lumped together with the second batch of Princesses, except that Michael Eisner is no longer CEO of Disney. You could say that they've continued and expanded the trend of taking creative liberties, since Princess and the Frog hardly even pretends to be a retelling of The Frog Prince. And I think of the older movies differently in my mind because I was very young when the above came out, and not so young any more. Plus, so much has changed about Disney since then too. The Disney channel has just regressed so far. The popular shows and movies may sport good messages, in theory, but the scripts and acting are just TERRIBLE. Everybody knows that, since the second Golden Age of Disney, Pixar became the new Disney, and they have stayed away from Princessy fairy tales or anything that centers too much around romance. So they might suffer a little in the 4-6 year old girl department, who will forever request birthday presents from the Disney store, but overall their reputation spikes. (Not to bash the Disney store. I should open a museum for all the Belle products I own. Including a lamp in the shape of Belle, in addition to a glow-in-the-dark Beauty and the Beast lampshade. Why light your room with anything neutral when Disney products are available? I kid, but only sort of.)

So the next time someone bashes Disney, ask them to define which part of Disney they mean. And you could point out that taking creative liberties is exactly what the brothers Grimm and other major fairy tale collectors did too. But then you can criticize the particular creative liberties they took, and their reasons for them. But to classify all of Disney as one large entity is almost like lumping all fairy tales together. Well, bad example-people do that, but they're misinformed.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Brothers and Beasts

Just finished reading Brothers and Beasts: an Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. It's impossible to summarize or even pick highlights, since each essay was so different, yet each author is a professional writer so the quality of each was good (i.e., no worries about "fan fiction" type stories). First of all, when I saw it was a collection of essays specifically collected by men, that struck me as odd, but as Maria Tatar and Kate Bernheimer remind us in the Foreword and Introduction, in modern times it's very unusual for men to admit interest in fairy tales. In the past, the foremost collectors and theorists on fairy tales were men, but today the only major one that comes to my mind is Jack Zipes, whereas there are a host of women doing wonderful work in the field. Ironic that as academia becomes more infiltrated by women, certain areas of study are pushed aside and thought of as only for women.

If there was one summarizable thing I gleaned from the collection of essays, it is that everyone experiences fairy tales differently. We have so many theories on what certain symbols in fairy tales mean and how they affect children, etc. But I wonder how much of that study is personal philosophy, and how much is conducted by discussing with people how they understood fairy tales as children and now as adults, or reading tales to children to record their reactions and questions. Because really, who's to say one philosopher's personal journey with fairy tales is any more valid than the little kids I babysit? Or my own, or any of the authors in this book? Some of the essays were very similar to my own personal connections with tales, others are quite opposite, but they're all real experiences.

One thing Jack Zipes points out in the Afterword I thought was interesting-that though you can spot a feminist trend in fairy tales, you can't really spot a clear "male" trend. And though I respect those who are trying to undo negative stereotypes of women in tales, at the same time that's kind of sad. In order for a tale not to be offensive to females, it has to have a plucky and courageous female character who doesn't need a man to save her. Yet the males in this anthology seemed to identify with the neglected and forlorn youngest son who is thought to be useless but eventually rises to power, not the sword-weilding, kiss-bearing hero we might think they would. I myself connect a lot more to any shy characters. While I like reading about these lively females, I never really connect with them. If anything, female warrior characters (in pop culture, or in a more fairy tale-like setting, such as Mulan or other feminist versions of tales) intimidate me. I can't be beautiful and kind and witty and courageous and strong and athletic all at once! It was enough to just be beautiful and kind! And since female warriors are never anything but beautiful, it's not like we're setting more realistic expectations for our heroines-they've only become more unattainable.

Disney and drunkenness

I always loved the song "Pink Elephants," but the first time I watched Dumbo as an adult I was kind of shocked that the whole thing is a drunken delusion.

Dumbo isn't the only classic Disney to involve drunkenness, or to make it humorous.

Check out Sir Hiss from Robin Hood at 3:30

The Kings-and the Page-drink a little too much in Sleeping Beauty
"Let me fill up your glass-that glass was all full!" Heehee

And of course, Gaston's tavern song.

LeFou: More Beer?
Gaston: What for? Nothing helps. I'm disgraced.
LeFou: Who, you? NEVER! Gaston, you've got to pull yourself together!

In addition to these, David Koenig cites 12 other Disney films which include characters drinking: Pinnochio, Fantasio, Saldos Amigos, Make Mine Music, Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Sword in the Stone, Aristocats, Rescuers, Pete's Dragon, Great Mouse Detective, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Hunchback of Notre Dame. Pocahontas was mentioned but dismissed as not qualifying for "heavy drinking."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Historical evidence for mermaids?

This article describes an old museum exhibit that took the viewer through a series of mythical creatures and the historical basis for them. But one thing I never knew-Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that he saw a mermaid, but that it was "not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men." Modern scientists claim what he really saw was a manatee, and at the exhibit they would superimpose a picture of a manatee over a mermaid to explain the confusion. But...really? Here's John William Waterhouse's mermaid:
Here's a manatee. I don't see any resemblance at all. Maybe Columbus needed glasses.
The article goes on to say that John Smith also saw a mermaid, but unlike Columbus, he thought she was "by no means unattractive."

Urban legends describes how the supposed washed-up skeleton of a mermaid that was sent around by email is a hoax. Taxidermists would combine bodies of monkeys with fish. has interesting reading on the evolutionary possibilities of mermaids existing, though admits that there is no proof.

Supposed "real mermaid"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wicked: Book and musical

Not too long ago, everyone was obsessed with the musical "Wicked." It seemed to be that people were most enthusiastic about the music. When I saw the musical myself, it wasn't necessarily the music I loved-it was fun and catchy, and I do think "Defying Gravity" would feel great to belt out-but not really excellent. What really caught me about the musical was the plot.
I love the idea of twisting traditional plots-making Elphaba the true hero and tying in the characters we know of as Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion to people in Elphaba's past. But the message really got me-one that I specifically needed to hear at that time in my life, as well as in general-about the importance of not sitting back and letting evil happen, but going out and doing something about it, even if it may cost you.

I had heard negative things about the book but wanted to read it for myself anyway. Those who have gone from the musical to the book, like I did, may be shocked at how different they are. Both of them took creative liberties, but the approaches are entirely different.

The musical turns the world of the Wizard of Oz upside down. What was once black is now white, what was white is now black-but the world is still one of black and white. The book does not attempt to villainize Elphaba, or to make her out to be a heroic victim. Maguire's purpose was to explore the character and history of the Wicked Witch of the West in a way that fits in more closely with the original books and movie. Not to implicate her from all wrongs, but to create a scenario in which a person would be so obsessed with her sister's red shoes (silver, in the original). And, if the witch did have green skin, how would that affect her upbringing and ultimately the person she became?

The book is definitely an adult book, in contrast to the family-friendly musical. It's more dark and gritty and doesn't even feel very much like a fantasy because the fantastic world of Oz is so like our world. If I had read the book first I probably would have appreciated its approach more-it wasn't till I had time to process afterwards that I understood it better.

Beastly females

In college I took a fantasy class, and I wrote a paper on C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. The book retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche's sister-named Orual-who is tremendously ugly yet not evil like the classic stepsister stereotype. In my paper I explored the concept of inner and outer beauty, and how beauty is perceived and treated.
This is a theme that fascinates me, but I was surprised to discover in my research that few other authors touched on the subject. In fact, given the importance of the theme in the book, it's pretty much ignored in most papers and books.

I learned some interesting things about C. S. Lewis as well-for example, his wife was not considered especially beautiful, and for a while he himself treated her like one of his male friends. This is also a theme of the book-how Orual is despised as a female and at best is treated like "one of the guys," all because of her ugly face. Only by veiling it can she ever hope to be treated like a woman.

Not only do critics of the book ignore the topic of female ugliness, but I think culture at large avoids it. Women love Beauty and the Beast-it is still far and away the favorite on Surlalune Blog's favorite fairy tale poll. Other popular stories involving beastly/deformed males include the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Elephant Man, and especially Phantom of the Opera. You'd have to live in a cave not to know that (at least some) girls find the Phantom to be eternally more attractive than Raoul.
EDIT: Gerard Butler as the Phantom in a makeup test, without mask

Yet what about examples of Animal Brides or females with deformities? Though folklore has examples, virtually none remain in common knowledge. Even with historical Animal Bride tales, generally the animals take beautiful forms-swans or cats-and there is little struggle to win male affections. There are seal maidens, but they shed their seal skins and then the men fall in love with their naked human forms.

The Frog Bride (illustrated above by Kay Nielsen), is one of the exceptions. But very few people know that the Frog Prince is sometimes a Frog Princess. Why do we ignore this theme? Why do we only have animal grooms?

My theory is that we, as a culture, can't even stand the idea of an ugly female. Females themselves are willing to love the Beast-but don't want to be the ugly, vulnerable one themselves. I'd be interested to know how popular Beauty and the Beast is among males. Do they mind picturing themselves as the Beast? Or can they stand it as long as Beauty stays hot the whole time? From my limited experience, it APPEARS as though men tend to judge women by more shallow standards. Please contradict me if I'm wrong.However, there are some exceptions to the rule: Gail Carson Levine's Fairest. This book features a hideous girl with a beautiful voice in a land where singing is valued as highly as beauty. I would LOVE to live in a land like that (I am definitely one of those people who wishes every deep emotion would trigger backup music and a song with choreographed dancing). It's a very good story-I found it on the bookshelf of a girl I was babysitting one day and started it, and after I went home I had to go to the library and finish it. Then there's Penelope, in which Christina Ricci's character has a pig snout for a nose. Yet first of all, these examples are hardly classics like the male versions I mentioned before, and I also wonder about their implied messages. Fairest has good messages about how each girl is beautiful on their own, but seems to put a lot of pressure on the boys to fall in love (basically) at first sight-yet now they're not supposed to judge by beauty, but instantly know character. If boys do judge by appearances-and let's face it, we all do to some degree, should we ignore that fact? No one would claim that beauty/appearance doesn't matter at all. How do we deal with it in the world in which we live?

And one Netflix commenter pointed out that Penelope seems to indicate that any physical flaw will result in being treated like a complete monster, and that true happiness ends in looking like a beautiful celebrity. Of course, that's sort of the message implied by the old versions of Beauty and the Beast as well. Another commenter-I tried to find the exact quote but it was left a while ago-said something to the effect of, "This movie is stupid. I kept waiting to see Christina Ricci cuz she's hot but she had that stupid pig nose on the whole time."

What do you think?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Disney: Helping to educate your child since 1928

I went to a disability ministry conference over the weekend and attended a session entitled, "How to use Disney movies to help your child speak." Needless to say, I was pretty psyched about it, and the speaker was also really good.

The premise of his talk was to meet the kids where they're at-to use children's interests and obsessions as teaching tools. This is a common educational tool, but children with special needs (especially autism) tend to have obsessions, and Disney pops up a lot as being a common obsession. Many children with autism with perseverate, or quote the same line over and over again, whether or not it fits in with the context. They'll quote lines from their favorite movies or songs, and the astute Disney student can often recognize the movie or song being quoted. The speaker shared some of his research on using Disney movies as teaching tools and how they can be used to teach various concepts.
He mentioned a child who got in trouble in the playground for repeatedly yelling, "Stand back, you fools!" Eventually his teachers figured out he was quoting Maleficent.
He showed us these fascinating pictures drawn by a child. (He promised he would have the outline posted on the web later that day, and I haven't found it yet. I'll keep checking and load the pictures if I can, or at least link to the site.) The child had drawn Jafar, only the drawing was a red, completely unidentifiable blob. The researchers taught the child about parts and wholes-everything is part of a whole, and has its own parts. After a short amount of time, the child drew Jafar again, but this time the picture had limbs and was recognizably human. After a little more training, the child drew Jafar a third time, but this time the resemblance was unmistakable.

This particular child had an obsession with Disney villains. The speaker, in trying to guess why the child fixated on villains and not on Princesses, Princes, etc., theorized that it was because the villains were different, just as the child sensed he was different. Which is interesting, because the heroes are ostensibly supposed to feel as outsiders. Snow White and Cinderella are abused and treated like servants, Belle doesn't fit in, Sleeping Beauty is raised all alone in a forest, Jasmine doesn't fit in as a Princess and disguises herself as a commoner, Mulan disguises herself as a boy, Ariel isn't satisfied with being a mermaid, etc., etc. Only the viewer isn't really convinced that these princesses are outsiders, as they are obviously the most attractive and have the best character. Not that it would be easy to create a character that was convincingly realistic, yet that the viewer identified with and wanted to emulate.

This came up when I searched for "Disney Princesses." An attempt to make them more human and relatable?

But overall, Disney movies-as well as other movies-are great teaching tools in general for kids with special needs. While some teachers might shy away from using movies because it's "cheating," movies provide great modelling of correct grammar, plotlines, realistic facial expressions (especially good for people with autism), and in tune singing. Plus, if a teacher uses a still shot from Mary Poppins, for example, to review vocabulary, then every time the child watches that movie again, the vocabulary words are reinforced, unlike a random worksheet.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Little Red Teapot

How cute is this Little Red Riding Hood teapot? Link to Modcloth (where it is, unfortunately, currently out of stock)

Mad(ly cute) tea party

If this little reading nook were in my house as a child, I would have spent all of my time here.
Note the teeny tiny teaset on top of the book!
Pictures from a local house my roommate was housesitting.

Fairies and ballet

Fairy tales are interwoven into the history of ballet. In the beginning, only men were ballet dancers, until the 1680s when women started dancing as well. They danced in heeled shoes then, and large dresses. As time went on, skirts got higher and higher and evolved into the modern tutu. Marie Taglioni is credited with being the first dancer to dance on pointe-on the very tips of the toes. As difficult as this is today with specialized pointe shoes, the first pointe dancers just stuffed the toes with cotton or fabric.
Marie Taglioni is most famous for her role in La Sylphide, in which she debuted this new style of dancing. David Barber's summary of the ballet: "La Sylphide tells the story of a young Scotsman named James who's about to get married to a woman he's not sure he loves. (She's his cousin and her name's Effie, neither of which may have helped.) The night before their wedding, he falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful winged fairy, a sylphid or sylph, who flies down and tries to lure him away. He follows her into the forest, but thanks to an evil spell by the neighborhood wicked witch, her wings fall off and she dies. At the end of the ballet, some of her sister sylphs fly down to carry her away, leaving James alone in the woods while Effie goes off to marry someone else entirely. Bummer." (Taken from Barber's Tutus, Tights, and Tiptoes: Ballet History as it Ought to be Taught-apparantly really cheap on Amazon).

Marie Taglioni dancing the role of the Sylphide. The new technique of dancing on pointe helped convey the otherworldiness of the fairies, as they seemingly floated across the stage.
Since then, fairy tales have popped up as sources for most of the famous ballets. Giselle features a group of Wilis, spirits of dead women who dance men to death. Above picture of the American Ballet Theater. Chopin's Les Sylphides, Stravinsky's The Firebird, and Prokofiev's Cinderella are all examples of standard ballet repertoire that features a fairy tale and/or fairy characters.

Picture by Don McMurdo, Australian ballet, Swan Lake

But the most famous ballets are the three Tchaikovskys- Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker. The combination of plot, music, costumes and scenery together with dance make all of the above instant classics. It's so unfortunate that both fairy tales and ballet have become culturally associated with little girls, and become something that every girl is interested in and then "grows out of." Ballet is a beautiful and incredibly difficult art form- in fact, few professions (if any...) require the amount of discipline and commitment demanded from a professional ballet dancer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beauty and the Beast: Marvel style

I really love X-men, and I really REALLY love Beauty and the Beast. The two combined is brilliant. I need to get my hands on this somehow.

Henry Bett

I've referenced Henry Bett lately, and that's because I've been reading his book Nursery Rhymes and Tales:Their Origin and History. (Out of print-the link here is to the one copy available on amazon, $153.81). From 1924, it can be a bit shocking to the modern reader in its non-P.C.-ness. For example, Henry Bett quotes an African man who was wondering what is the cause of various forces of nature. Bett claims, "This, of course, represents an unusual level of thought for a savage mind. It is a speculative and sceptical mood rather uncommon in an uncivilized race." Which is not only quite an untrue claim to begin with, but opposes his whole thesis, which is that myths and tales were ancient people's ways of trying to explain natural phenomenon. They wouldn't be trying to explain anything if they weren't first wondering how it came about.

Other than that, Bett has a very interesting book. He not only takes current (or, what was current in 1924) tales and rhymes, but has many related examples through different cultures, and then cites historical facts and customs that relate to the tales and rhymes as we know them today. He claims that our tales and rhymes are rooted in historical fact, which have evolved and become distorted over time. He talks about the practice of burying people alive in the foundations of a house or bridge to appease the devil as the source of the rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down," (which may or may not have been the case, although there's no reason to think a person was specifically buried under London Bridge,and there are other guesses as to the meaning of the rhyme) as well as the custom of baking pies in such a way that live birds can actually fly out of it when cut, such as in "Sing a song of sixpence."

Most modern analysts of tales assume they hold symbolic meaning. Which is surely partly true, but we can't forget the tales are very much the products of the cultures from which they came. Bett talks about certain fairy tales I've already posted about, Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard. For more on the history of nursery rhymes, you can visit this site.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hansel and Gretel overture

Overture to the opera Hansel and Gretel. Composed by Engelbert Humperdinck.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Historical Bluebeard

Usually when we talk about the history of a fairy tale, we mean how the story evolved over time, but not a historical event on which the tale was based. With one of the creepiest fairy tales, Bluebeard, there are actually a couple possible historical precedents.

Kay Nielsen

Henry Bett claims that Gilles de Retz, Sieur de Laval, Marshal of France, was nicknamed "Barbe Bleue," "because of his blue-black beard," and that he believed he could restore his strength by bathing in the blood of young children (an awful resemblance to Countess Elisabeth Bathory bathing in the blood of young virgins to retain her beauty).

I haven't found any concurrence on the nickname or the bloodbaths, but he was a serial killer of young boys who gained pleasure from their pain and humiliation. More about him on wikipedia.

Matt Mahurin

Conomor the Cursed is the other possible candidate for the "real" Bluebeard. Once again, history becomes intertwined with legend. We do know he existed and killed his wives-I can't tell from my sources what are the exact known facts, but there's a whole legend about killing his wives once they got pregnant and how the last one was murdered but brought back to life and became a saint.

Edmund Dulac

If you want to know more about the tale, read the annotated version on Surlalune, or Terri Windling's article. Windling explores the various folkloric versions that predate Charles Perrault's tale, and how many of the heroines were able to outwit their murderous husband on their own, saving their sisters who had been victims-a stark contrast to Perrault's heroine who can do nothing but wait for her brothers to save her. And the moral (Perrault's) which condemns the woman for disobedience, and not the serial killer husband.

Art by Frederic Theodore Lix

Tanith Lee's Red as Blood

Sometimes when I read fairy tales I try to recreate what it might have felt like to read them for the first time-the fear of the villain, the uncertainty of the ending. Reading the stories from Tanith Lee's Red as Blood: Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, I don't have to try to feel fear or curiosity. She blends tradional fairy tale plots with truly horrifying twists.

It's hard to pick a favorite, because they're all excellent, but I couldn't help wishing some filmmaker would make a short version of "Thorns," the Sleeping Beauty, because it has such delightfully macabre descriptions that have the potentially to be visually stunning. I also thought "When the Clock Strikes," the Cinderella tale, was particularly genious. The plot was actually more convincing than the traditional tale.

But, as Beauty and the Beast tales will always be close to my heart, I adored "Beauty." The first time I read this book, I was terrified by the time I got to this last story that it would be twisted beyond recognition like the other tales. I enjoy speculating about Snow White and Rapunzel being Satanic, but Beauty and the Beast is too personal to me-I would hate for Beauty to cast the spell on the Beast, or for the Beast to be a true monster of nightmares. Yet the story, though definitely with a twist, is beautiful and won't offend Batb freaks like me. It is set in the future and is my favorite short story version of Beauty and the Beast, which is saying a LOT, because of all the genres, there are a lot of short story versions out there.

This book isn't for everyone-those who don't like scary movies or having the plots of their favorite tales turned upside down on their heads should stay away. But as far as quality and creativity goes I can't recommend it highly enough-each time I read this book I can hardly put it down.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Little Red Riding Hood as Sun Myth

Kenneth Whitley poster

Little Red Riding Hood tends to be over-analyzed, in my opinion. Every branch of folkloric thought believes it has the correct symbolic meaning. Any psychoanalist will tell you the red cloak is OBVIOUSLY blood from menstration and the wolf is OBVIOUSLY a sexual predator. Henry Bett, on the other hand, claims with certainty that Little Red is a myth of sunset and sunrise. Generally sun myths can be applied to anything because anything good is the sun, anything bad is the night. The ultimate triumph of good over evil is the dawn triumphing over night. Congratulations, you have an interpretation for 99% of human stories.

Image by Paul Woodroffe

Yet, after a conclusion that might seem oversimplified, Bett goes on to cite many myths and legends from around the world that are directly related to the moon and sun and have parallels to Little Red-either connecting the color red/red coverings with the sun, or wolves with the night. Even one Melanesian myth where the hero takes a piece of red obsidian and cuts Dawn out of the belly of night. Personally, I can see a red hood as the rising sun more easily than menstration. This would all make a lot more sense if the red cap/hood wasn't added till Perrault's version. But anyone who claims any myth or tale has one specific origin or meaning is making one heck of a claim. Betts himself admits earlier, when critiquing those who interpreted everything as a sun myth, that "It seems to be the fate of every theory in folk-lore to be made ridiculous by being pressed too far." Modern interpretations don't really pay any attention to this sun myth idea and attribute everything to sexual meaning.

Image by Annie Rodriguez

Yet the complex influences of culture and history that created the fairy tales we know today are all fascinating to contemplate. It's true that Little Red has a hold on the imagination-it's one of the few tales that every child knows yet has not been marketed by Disney, with Hansel and Gretel also up there holding it on their own. Folklorists love to quote Dickens when he, reminiscing on his childhood, recalled how he believed that if he should have been married to Little Red Riding Hood, he should have known perfect bliss.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beauty and the Beast of Cultural Expectations: Prince Desir

Forgive the lame title. I was never really good at coming up with clever titles so I just do whatever comes to mind first.

Madame LePrince de Beaument (of Beauty and the Beast fame) has another tale called Le Prince Desir et la Princess Mignonne, in which the Prince is cursed to have a huge nose until he realizes that his nose is unusual. Andrew Lang simplified the tale for his Blue Fairy Book, renaming it Prince Hyacinth, and it can be read online here. (Image from Blue Fairy Book, illustrated by H. G. Ford and G. P. Jacomb Hood).

His whole life, the Prince is surrounded by people and pictures of people with long noses. His nurses and teachers tell him that all the great historical figures had long noses, that a long nose is a sign of beauty, and that a short nose is a horrible thing to have. He falls in love with a princess' portrait despite her short nose, and it's not until he meets a fairy in disguise on his way to save his Princess and tries to kiss the fairy's hand that he realizes how inconvenient his nose really is.

I find this tale very intriguing. Today many people (myself included) believe in the power of embracing your natural, healthy body. While it may seem that to say every woman is beautiful is simply untrue, or that we must at least concede that some women are surely more beautiful than others, I truly believe that there are different forms of beauty and it's up to the viewer to learn to see it, rather than putting all the pressure on girls to conform to our rather narrow cultural standards of what is beautiful.

Yet in this tale, the Prince's salvation isn't embracing his unique nose-because for most of his life he is truly proud of his nose-but the moral is supposedly that pride can blind us to our faults. Which may be true of character, but is a long nose a fault? But the Prince is easily convinced that long noses are beautiful. If long noses were the majority, would we not all also be swayed? Cultures through time and around the world have considered things beautiful that modern Americans don't:

Full, round figures (painting by Titian)

Black teeth

Filed teeth

The tragic bound feet of Asian women

Beaument's story brings up a theme that I love to explore in reading and writing versions of Beauty and the Beast: not only Beauty verses ugliness, but how we perceive each. Tanith Lee explores this expertly in her version, which I will post about very soon. I've come up with a concept on my own (that was probably sunconsciously influenced by Lee) but have never been able to successfully turn it into a story, in which a girl like any of us inhabits a world of hairy beasts, in which long, thick fur is the sign of beauty. We never know if this girl would have been considered beautiful to us or not, because her hairlessness sets her apart as being the beast of that culture. So though Beauty and the Beast don't physically change from our story, their roles flip because of their beauty standards.

Dark music

I love dark fairy tales. Many fairy tale enthusiasts will insist that true fairy tales really were dark in their origins, therefore to describe them as dark is redundant. But in our culture, we definitely have a prevailing view of fairy tales as innocent and specifically for children, even though before many a happy ending are many gruesome trials. Even in the Disney versions, considered by most to be the epitome of fairy tales reduced and simplified, there are scary moments too!

However, for anyone to admit to loving fairy tales enough to research their origins and their "true" nature, there still has to be a sense of vulnerability and childlike appreciation of the magical aspect of the tales as well. Yet the darker, adult versions of these traditional themes and tales provides an interesting juxtaposition of dark and light.

I've found that I like this same juxtaposition in music. I love basically any music in minor, but especially in minor 3/4. Music in 3 has a lilt to it, usually thought of as being waltz-like. Yet with a minor melody, that waltz can become more sinister- a waltz of vampires, or a demented circus-something childlike or innocent gone awry. Any story-or music-that tries too hard to be hardcore without leaving any vulnerability takes away much of the realism and the personal connection.

I adore the waltz from Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet. In minor 3/4, it takes a beautiful waltz but gives it a sinister sense of foreboding. And listen to how he creates the ominous clock ticking and then chiming midnight with a symphonic orchestra!

I love Ravel's "La Valse." (This is only part 2 of 2). It starts off bright and cheery, but towards the end gets wilder and wilder. It makes me think of a dream that starts off pleasant and turns more absurd and perhaps nightmarish. I also think it would be perfect to accompany the Cinderella-at-the-ball scene.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Beauty and the Beast tv show

I've been sharing some of my favorite versions of Beauty and the Beast, and this show isn't exactly a favorite, it's the only one in the television genre (that I've come across, enlighten me if I'm wrong. Aside from the Syfy version I haven't seen and probably never will).
Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton star in this modern interpretation from the 80s. The Beast lives underground and saves Catherine (the Beauty) from some thugs one day. They fall in love and run around saving people, mostly each other. A lot of people really like this show, so I hope I don't offend anyone when I say, this show is pretty terrible, it's just so bad it's funny. The Beast (Vincent) has a bond with Catherine such that he can sense whenever she's in trouble and will immediately come to her aid.
Although, I'd be totally lying if I denied that, in between laughing at the script, I secretly enjoy it. It didn't help that my first introduction to this little treasure was a movie version that was edited terribly so that they would make references to past experiences that were in the shows but not in the movie, therefore the audience had no idea what they were talking about.

This isn't Linda Hamilton's only brush with Beauty and the Beast. Embedding has been disabled by request (grrr...) but check out this rather genious recut version of the Terminator movies, entitled "Beauty and the Beastinator".