The Incredibles 2 (2018)

The Incredibles

Pixar

Things that are not worth waiting for: breakfast at that overpriced brunch place, slow walkers, that person you’ve been texting to actually agree on where and when to meet in 3D. Things that are worth waiting for: The Incredibles 2.

A mere 14 years after the original movie came out, the sequel has arrived in cinemas, picking up the action right where we left off. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s dramatic, there’s a baby fighting a raccoon, there are more superheroes: it’s worth your time, and your cash, and the inevitable annoying person sitting next to you texting. But… how does it represent women? Spoilers and insight ahead.

Does it pass the Bechdel test?

Yes: Voyd and Elastigirl talk about being superheroes.

A brief catch-up on the recent history of superhero movies and how they’ve treated women

Remember all the way back to 2004, the year The Incredibles came out. The Recession hadn’t hit, Facebook only existed at Ivy League colleges, President Obama hadn’t been elected, Donald Trump was a woman-grabbing morally bankrupt TV host, Paris Hilton was the most photographed woman in the world, and Juicy Couture velour tracksuits were not ironic. Superhero movies were few and far between. They were either cheesier than a Swiss fondue, like the old Superman and Batman films, or they focused on dark and twisty anti-heroes, like Blade, or Constantine, or V For Vendetta, in a way that made them less a take-the-kids blockbuster, and more of a watch-in-the-dark-alone action drama.

There were some more mainstream attempts, but they were still nerdy and niche. That year saw the release of Halle Berry’s critically-panned Razzie-winning Catwoman. The first two X-Men movies were released in 2000 and 2003, and Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman came out in 2002 (still my favourite) with the first sequel in 2004. Batman Begins, the first of Christopher Nolan’s genre-redefining trilogy, wasn’t released until 2005, and The Dark Knight didn’t come out until 2008.

Come back to now, and it feels like every other movie in the cinema is about people in skin-tight suits with weird powers. From 2017 to now, we’ve had Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Deadpool 2, Black Panther and The Avengers: Infinity War. Those last two are now the ninth and fifth highest-grossing movies all of time in the U.S. – a list that also includes the two other Avengers movies. This summer, we’re getting Ant Man and the Wasp and The Darkest Minds. And, of course, The Incredibles 2.

The only movies in this list to feature a female lead are 2017’s Wonder Woman, just-released Ant Man and the Wasp, The Darkest Minds, which hasn’t come out yet, and The Incredibles 2.

Yes, there’s a terrifying girl in Logan, but she’s not the titular character: she’s a tool to explore Logan’s decay. Yes, Gamora and Nebula are both tough-talking, tough-fighting badasses, but Starlord is the lead. The Spider-Man/Spiderman films always have a damsel in distress, sometimes ‘the other woman’, and the wise aunt, but they’re just there to serve as cheerleaders to Maguire/Garfield/Holland.

The Princess Leia Effect

Women show up in action movies; they don’t lead them. That includes films in the superhero and sci-fi genres. A female lead in a superhero movie is still a novelty, and it’s worse for people of color, and women of color specifically. Hopefully the success of Black Panther will force producers to start putting their money into projects with more diverse casts.

I call this token use of a single ‘strong’ woman in a movie the Princess Leia effect. Male writers think they can appease whiny feminists like me by throwing us one tough, moderately skillful, domineering, underdeveloped female character. (Sometimes, if we’re super lucky, two.) Not only does this mislead us harpies, but she can also serve their dude-oriented plot by becoming bait for the bad guys, which gives him the chance to save her and be the hero. Oh, she’s also always super conventionally hot.

This is why I can’t be bothered with most action movies; they put so little effort into making even the few female characters they include seem like more than just some heterosexual dude’s masturbatory fantasy that it’s annoying and boring. The exceptions are the recent releases from the Star Wars franchise. Apart from Solo, the studio has taken some note of their own tokenism, hence we have Rey, Jyn Erso, Rose, and Vice Admiral Holdo. Not to mention the original Leia, now General Organa, thanks very much. But what about The Incredibles 2?

How does The Incredibles 2 represent women?

This movie accidentally came out at a time when we are seeing a very gradual, very slow, very bitty move away from entirely white male-dominated superhero movies. One Wonder Woman movie – or even two – does not make up for decades of presenting women as damsels in distress, or throwing in one token ‘strong’ woman to quieten down us shrill, complaining feminists. And although The Incredibles 2 is not perfect, it’s definitely an evolution.

Elastigirl

Incredibles 2

Pixar

Let’s start with the single big positive thing: while the first movie focused on Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), this sequel puts Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as the crime-fighting, plot-foiling, ass-kicking centre. (And yes, she has a motorbike.)

This is because a finance guy (Bob ‘Better Call Saul’ Odenkirk) who wants to make superheroes legal again has done the numbers and found that the way she approaches going after bad guys is less costly than her husband’s methods. This smells like that very boring narrative of ‘women are gentler than men’ to me, but at least it’s a compliment. In one of the big butt-kicking moments, we get to see her chase down a runaway train, with the help of another woman talking to her through a headset. Director Brad Bird has a history of his female characters playing the action hero: he also directed Brave.

Meanwhile, Bob is back in their fancy new home, running around after the superkids: lovesick teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), maths-hating Dash (Huck Milner), and multi-talented baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). Bob is bitter because Elastigirl, who was initially reluctant to leave her kids, gets to have all the fun and the glory.

Annoyingly, the film never directly points out the hypocrisy of his line of thought. Ask yourself: why should Bob be the family member who gets to be the hero?

This is the point where the sexists will say, ‘Because he’s a man,’ and the in-denial sexists will make up some dumb excuse, like, ‘Super strength is better than stretchiness,’ or ‘She’s just naturally better at the whole domestic side.’ If you just read that question and made up a dumb excuse, you are an in-denial sexist. If you’re now considering writing a comment that could conceivably start with the clause, ‘I’m not sexist, but…’ you are an in-denial sexist. See you in the comments!

BTW That internal rage at being dismissed as less competent at the ‘important’ stuff is how many women feel ALL THE TIME.

We never really get the sense that Bob realises this, or that he suddenly comes to appreciate everything his wife did for their family when he was out being Man The Provider. What he constantly screws up, she makes look easy. (This would be a good time to mention that this constant portrayal of dads as domestically incompetent dopes is insulting to dads who nail the whole parenting thing, but this is a blog post about women.) We’re supposed to fawn all over his newfound kid-herding skills, but she gets no credit. Shout-out to all the real-live mums out there throwing their hands up like “Duh!”

Even while Bob is lamenting having to stay home with his kids – you know, the kids who share the same amount of DNA with him as they do with their mother – Elastigirl can’t quite shake off her mummy role. When she calls Bob after the aforementioned train crash, the first thing she asks about is how the kids are, and how he’s doing, before mentioning, oh yeah, SHE SAVED HUNDREDS OF LIVES TODAY AND WAS ON TV. And at the end, when she realises it’s time to bust out superhero mode to stop a soon-to-be-crashing yacht, she pauses to consider, what will the kids do? Bob has no such qualms, because… he’s a testosterone-charged dude?

Somehow, in the middle of that exchange, there was a super sweet moment. When Elastigirl is dithering about whether to charge off and save the city or to look after her kids, Violet turns to her and says something along the lines of, ‘Go, we’ll be fine.’ To me, it felt like this look at the future of being female: Violet understands that her mum can have responsibilities outside of her, and her generation is giving an older generation the permission to do that. It’s a new perspective on gender roles coming to help out people caught up in the old one. Got me right in the feminist feels. (I’ll get to Violet as a character in a sec.)

Oh, and since I was discussing the sexualisation of women in superhero movies earlier, let’s have a chat about the internet’s response to Elastigirl. Specifically, this one New Yorker critic, who basically implies that the (presumably hetero- or bisexual) men in the audience are going to be getting boners looking at her hips. He also manages to turn a conversation between Elastigirl and Evelyn (Catherine Keener) into some kind of male-gaze lesbian fantasy.

On the one hand, it’s nice to finally see someone acknowledging that a female over 40 can be more than just a sexless, frumpy waste of space. (Shout-out to all the women over 40 going, “WE KNOW!”) But it seems like this is pretty much all the guy got from this character. She’s out kicking ass and he’s looking at her butt. What decade are we in, again?

Evelyn

Evelyn

Pixar

Speaking of Evelyn, let’s speak about Evelyn. She’s the sister of that insurance guy, the designer to his ad-man. Basically, behind the big-selling, money-making, bullshit-talking dude is a woman who actually did the hard work. The filmmakers are kind of making this point too, in a roundabout way, although they don’t really examine the gender dynamics so much as the low-level sibling rivalry, and the world vs superheroes. Unfortunately, it turns out that Evelyn is the baddie, which implies that women who are simply ambitious enough to demand credit for their hard work must be evil.

You can tell immediately that Evelyn is evil, anyway, because she has untamed hair. I say this as someone whose most identifiable physical quality is my curly hair. The moment I see someone in a cartoon or movie with hair like mine, I’m like, either we don’t trust her, or we’re going to see her get a makeover. (I also have a British accent and a Russian first name, so I’m basically inherently evil, according to Hollywood.) And this is a thousand times more problematic for women of color. I could write a whole post about the abuse of curly and kinky hair in movies.

When I say Evelyn has untamed hair, I don’t mean Merida-from-Brave’s beautiful big curls, which are wild and defiant, just like her. (Merida is my movie hair icon because she breaks outta that big-hair-bad-girl box I just mentioned.) I mean a pixie cut with strands that form wispy spikes all over her head – it’s a haircut that’s shorthand for women who don’t play nice. Women who scheme. Women with ambition. Women who don’t care what other people think about them. Women, to be very heteronormative, who act like men.

Her motivations aside, I like that we have a female villain. Does she have to be a female because it wouldn’t be believable for a woman to take on a man and win? I don’t think that’s what’s going on here: we initially think the Screenslaver is a man, and Elastigirl has no trouble beating up the unfortunate pizza delivery guy Evelyn frames. The more women we can get, with variable personalities instead of the cookie-cutter stereotype, the better. I want them good, evil, polite, rude, meek, loud, hateable, lovable, messy, neat, all-together, total trainwreck, in all different shapes, and from all different backgrounds, and with all different nationalities and ethnicities. I want them human.

Violet

Violet

Pixar

OK, look, I have to admit that Violet is my FAVOURITE character in The Incredibles franchise. She has many teenagers’ dream power: she can turn invisible, shoot balls of energy, and put up a forcefield around herself and people near her. Also, we share the qualities of external shyness balanced with inner confidence around our families and close friends. (Any family members reading this are like, ‘You? Shy? Get outta here.’ Any colleagues are like, ‘You… talk?’)

I felt that Violet was woefully underused for the first part of the movie, but that’s because I love her. She’s slightly lost in the typical teenager role, specifically a lovelorn, dad-hating teenager. But then we get to the bit where the kids basically have to save the day, and she becomes this warrior girl, who’s smart and decisive in battle, with mastery over her superpowers. Watching her and Dash squabble over babysitting duties shows that she’s not going to be sat around looking after the kids in the future. She also postpones a long-awaited date to go battle crime with her family. In short, she’s the independent girl we need, and her mother’s daughter.

Honey

If you were like, WTF is Honey, then you’ve already identified the problem with this character. Honey (Kimberly Adair Clark) is Frozone’s wife/partner, but you never see her. Although it’s never said, we can assume that her superpower is super-hearing, because she always knows when Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is about to do something fun and cool, like fight crime, and that’s when we hear her, shouting from the other room. This is a less-than-ideal representation of women, reducing her to just the nagging wife, out to kill her husband’s masculine urge to run around in Lycra, shooting ice from his hands.

Also, although it’s again never specified, Honey is voiced by Kimberly Adair Clark, a black woman, so in that way, the character also perpetuates that stereotype of the controlling, finger-snapping, always-angry black girlfriend. Yes, it’s just a side joke, I GET IT, but it would have been easier to swallow if we’d also seen a woman of color (or even, crazy notion, multiple women of color) in this movie do more than just screech at a man.

Edna

Edna

Pixar

Every scene with Edna Mode (Brad Bird – yes, that Brad Bird) is like the toy you get in the cereal, or the cookie dough in your ice cream.

Like I said, I’m all about all types of women on screen, and I love that Edna gets to be this career-oriented, super rich, no-nonsense business woman, who is also hilarious. She’s the uniform designer, which is, on the surface, a stereotypical female role. BUT her ability to make clothes that are versatile and resilient, as well as visually impressive, deviously undermines this dismissal of fashion as frilly and superficial, and reminds us that ‘women’s work’ is skillful, and what you wear matters. It’s a technical triumph that the family couldn’t perform their duties without.

By the way, you know how we know she’s super competent and hardass? The straight, dark, fringed/banged bob. WELCOME TO THE HAIR CONSPIRACY.

Verdict

Three

Overall, I’m very happy to welcome The Incredibles 2 to the category of Female-Led Superhero Movies, along with recent inductees Wonder Woman and Marvel/Netflix’s Jessica Jones. I love that it’s showing mums as cool and brave and smart (and hot, apparently). I wish that they’d taken a moment to point out that Bob’s sulky resentment is total hypocrisy that women have been putting up with for centuries. I hope the next one has more, better-developed women of color. I love that it has a female villain, even if I think the qualities that make her evil would actually be admired in a dude. I also love Violet, and the idea that she is the future, confident in her abilities and not about to accept being left at home.

Do you agree or disagree? Do you also heart Violet? Did you think Elastigirl proved her mettle? Did you wonder where Frozone’s screentime went, and when we’re going to finally see Honey? Are you ‘not sexist but…’? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook.

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A League of Their Own (1992)

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No balls can be a good thing in baseball.
Click for trailer!

Confession time

Two facts about me. Firstly, I love sports films. From the training montages to the moment that threatens to jeopardise the whole season to the awful tension of will they/won’t they win it, the whole genre just screams drama louder than a crowd of bloodthirsty fans. Plus, unlike real sports, you’re guaranteed at least one shocking and exciting moment in the match. Second fact: I have very little grasp on the rules of most sports, particularly American ones. I understand the offside rule, but I have no idea what an inning is, why there are nine and how you get to the bottom of one. And what the hell does a quarterback do?

Despite this blissful ignorance, I’ll watch pretty much any sport film (except football – there’s more than enough of that going on in real life, thanks.) If most Hollywood sports films are to be believed, women serve no purpose on the pitch/field/diamond other than as pom-pom-waving, lemonade-serving cheerleaders/mothers (there’s a nice Freudian conundrum for you.) As a big fan of both sports films and women, I particularly enjoy plots that see the men plonk their sweaty thighs on the bench and let the ladies show them how it’s done.

We are the members of the all-American league

Into this testosterone-fuelled genre steps A League of Their Own, which puts women firmly in the spotlight. Loosely based on real events, the film follows the all-female baseball league set up by desperate organisers in the forties when it looked as though the game would be yet another casualty of the Second World War as all the men left to fight. Scouts round up the greatest female players from across North America and divide them into teams, including the Rockford Peaches, the main focus of the film. Made up of various colourful characters (more about our leading ladies in a bit), the team is assigned one-time legend Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) as coach, although the former star spends most of his time sleeping, scratching, spitting, making snide remarks and drowning his sorrows with whisky. As the league’s fame spreads across the country, the Peaches battle through games, sibling rivalries and tragedy in a bid to win the World Series. Whatever that is.

Bechdel Test

While the girls do find time to chat about the various sweethearts and losers in their lives, they’re often too busy talking baseball to bother with the boys.

Leading ladies

Rather refreshingly, there are actually too many to list beyond the main players. The ever-magnificent Geena Davis plays the league’s poster girl and best player Dottie Hinson, who steps up to the plate both literally and metaphorically when it becomes clear that Dugan is less interested in the balls flying on the field than in scratching his own. Although she frequently protests that as a married woman her place is in the kitchen rather than the bunker, it becomes clear that Dottie loves the excitement and strategy of the game.

Dottie continues to overshadow her younger sister Kit, played by Lori Petty, who ‘90s kids will recognise as the whale/dolphin/sea lion trainer from Free Willy. While Dottie strives to appear flippant about baseball, pitcher Kit lacks her sister’s natural abilities but makes up for it in enthusiasm and grit.

A more compatible double act than the squabbling siblings comes in the form of Doris, played with gusto by Irish/American comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, and Mae, portrayed by Madonna. Yes, the Madonna. Well, not ‘the’ Madonna. The current Madonna, if you will. Tough girl Doris has a big mouth and the muscle and confidence to back it up, all of which presumably came in handy when she worked as a bouncer at her father’s club, where Mae was a ‘dancer’. The nature of the dancing is somewhat vague, but it probably didn’t involve a tutu and pink slippers. Look out for the stunning swing dance scene for a reminder of why we loved the Queen of Pop.

Other notable members of the team include shy Marla (Megan Cavanagh), a lovable tomboy who packs a formidable swing and, er, ‘powerful’ singing voice behind a dodgy hairdo and slightly awkward social skills. There’s also Evelyn, played by Bitty Schram. Somewhere Joss Whedon is kicking himself for missing out on that name. Time for a new Buffy season with a mysterious older sister? Evelyn struggles to keep control of her incredibly irritating son Stilwell, although with a name like it’s no wonder he’s so angsty all the time.

Hu(wo)man

Unlike in so many other movies, the women in this film are not merely sex objects, mindless cheerleaders, simpering wives or doting mothers. Instead, they are just people who want to play baseball. As anyone who has known more than one woman can hopefully testify, there is not, in fact, a big mould shaped like the pointy-dress-wearing symbol they put on toilet doors that we all come out of. This film brings us women with a range of personalities: Mae is feisty and provocative, Evelyn is prone to tears, Kit is a bit bratty but very resilient, Doris is tough as nails and Dottie is cool as a cucumber. Forget those flat women you see lining the sidelines with their orange slices and consolatory remarks, just waiting to watch their honey to scoop the trophy: these ladies are realistic and full of life, and all the more relatable for it.

Cut the cat fights

This is not Bring it On with an undertone of Mean Girls. While there’s some pretty intense sibling rivalry between Kit and Dottie, the women are generally not ones for backstabbing and bitching. When a creepy talent scout (played with relish by Jon Lovitz) won’t take Marla to try outs because she’s ‘not pretty’, even the two sisters manage a display of solidarity, refusing to go with him unless she comes too. However, this is no sorority tea party either – these women are in it to win it and they are not pulling any punches. When Kit and Doris fall out on the field, there are no catty whispers and cold shoulders: the two women leap into a full-on fist fight. Mae also delights in taunting the rival teams with as much gusto as any ten foot muscle-bound NFL player.

There’s no holding back on the field, either. Wait, the pitch. No, I’m pretty sure that’s when you throw the ball… Anyhow, these ladies aren’t worried about breaking nails or a sweat: expect slides, splits, bumps, bashes, collisions and a bruise so big it should have its own credit. They’re getting down and dirty in the name of the game, and challenging the image of the delicate little girlfriend in the process.

Woman up

Perhaps unsurprisingly, ideas of femininity get a bit confused in the film. The league owners are concerned that America will be scandalised by the sight of women playing sport, mucking up their hair and potentially even sweating, something that was practically illegal (joking. But seriously, it was not smiled upon.) They therefore introduce the most impractical uniforms ever – mini dresses in the teams’ colours – and subject the women to makeovers and etiquette classes. While the women all protest vehemently against the dresses and treat the lessons like a joke, they also take to the field in pin-curls and lipstick. When it looks as though the league might be shut down because of lack of interest, the women resort to sex to pitch it (yep, sporting pun) to prospective spectators. There’s the promise of a kiss for anyone who catches a foul ball, Mae’s offer to let her uniform fall off at a convenient point in the game, besides Dottie’s headline-grabbing splits. Of course, they also just play a lot of baseball very well, but it’s a bit disheartening to watch our heroines catering to the leering crowds.

However, the film is not unaware of the contradiction that these cringey moments produce. Most of the time, the owners’ attempts to make the women seem extra feminine work as tongue-in-cheek observations of the way the media wants to label the players. At one point, a newsreel seeks to counter the concerns of any scandalised viewer by cheerfully reassuring them that ‘Helen Haley has not only been a member of several championship amateur teams, she’s also an accomplished coffee maker.’ The point is that these characters can be both feminine and athletic. They can have husbands they love and family commitments but they can also be brilliant ball players.

How do you solve a problem like Marla?

The one problematic character in all this is Marla. Sheltered by her father and painfully shy, we’re supposed to look at her gormless expression, terrible posture and lanky hair and pity the poor woman for being totally unattractive. Marla becomes fodder for the baying media but also the writers. While we admire her skills with a bat, the film also expects us to acknowledge her atypical appearance. It’s only when the others get her in a dress that she finds her confidence, performing a passionate, if torturous, rendition of ‘It Had to be You’ to a spellbound fellow across a crowded dance floor. She then gets married and gives up her debut season to go on her honeymoon. While no one could begrudge Marla some personal happiness, the film seems to be saying that women can certainly play baseball but they won’t be fulfilled if they don’t also find the time to don a lacey white gown and settle down with a man at some point. Even baseball-obsessed tomboy Kit has seemingly accumulated a small army of children and grandchildren by the end of the film. This is all well and good, but it might have been nice to have one of the women find satisfaction in the game itself.

The final score

Four

If you’re fed up of sports films that put women in the supporting role, this is gold. The wide range of characters create an interesting dynamic, while the team’s progress through the league and their personal storylines speed the plot along nicely. There are some slightly mixed messages about just how far women can move from feminine values before they simply become unsightly outcasts in need of some rewiring. However, overall this film portrays women as vibrant, tough and, ultimately, human, making it a winner for me.

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Filed under '90s, Sports, Uncategorized

Beauty and the Beast (1991): Part Two

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The public reading of ‘Babe’ was proving immensely popular.

Spoiler alert: If you still haven’t managed to watch this film, cancel your one o’clock, grab the popcorn and watch it now. If that’s just not possible, or you simply cannot deny yourself the pleasure of reading this magnificent post first, be aware that there will be spoilers. And more moaning about that baker.

 Welcome to part two of LttL’s first attempt to destroy your love of classic Disney films. No, not really. Actually, the plan is to offer you the chance to look beyond the heartfelt romance, sharp banter and singing clock, and examine it with a more critical eye. As we discovered in Part One, Disney have set up a female character who wants more than the role prescribed for her by her society. Belle is intelligent, imaginative, brave and desperate for adventure. This makes her a bit of an oddball in her town, which boasts an illiterate population, a horny hunter and a terrible baker (selling the same old bread and rolls every day, the monster), not to mention a lot of sheep. However, as noted, she’s beautiful, so they can cope with her fancy ideas about reading. Just about.

The topic of beauty gets a rather contradictory treatment in this film. The prince is cursed because he turns away an old hag, who then turns out to be a hot young sorceress who curses him for his shallowness. The message, then, is that appearances can be deceptive, and you shouldn’t judge people by their looks. That’s all well and good, but why couldn’t the hag have simply pointed this out? In order to gain power over the prince, she had to reveal her physical beauty, thereby suggesting that only good-looking women can have power over men. The emphasis on Belle’s beauty (which, as Francophiles and GCSE French students will tell you, starts with her name) also suggests that the only reason her differences are accepted is because she is beautiful. Belle is oblivious to her own good looks and she doesn’t judge others by their outward appearance, turning down the chiselled chin and bulging biceps of Gaston in favour of a hairy, scruffy, poorly-mannered Beast. However, these preferences are only extraordinary because Belle herself adheres to society’s ideals of beauty, that is to say, she’s white, with an impossibly slender hourglass figure, straight brown hair with a slight wave at the ends, and enormous eyes. If she were, say, a hag, she wouldn’t be a celebrated and kind-spirited heroine, she would be accepting her rightful place in society. The message Disney is sending women is that you shouldn’t judge men by their appearance, but that you should absolutely be beautiful if you want to have any power.

Let’s move on from Belle’s looks, because, as Disney have gone to great pains to show us, not only is she the local beauty, but she’s intelligent, imaginative and craves adventure, which is something she finds through her reading. Upon examining Belle’s reading material, however, we find a disturbing contradiction between her supposed desire for adventure, and what she actually seems to want.

Early in the film, she outlines the plot of her favourite book for the bookshop owner, a man who will surely be going out of business imminently. (Seriously, his attitude is unbelievable. As we’ve learned, Belle is the only woman in the village who reads, and the men find her hobby rather uninspiring too (or at least the baker does, but he’s an unimaginative individual). Furthermore, the bookseller (which the sign outside identifies him as) doesn’t seem to understand that he’s running a shop, not a library: Belle, his only customer, breezes in, declaring she’s just returning a book she borrowed, and rather than pointing out that this might otherwise be known as theft, the man proceeds to give her another one for free. No wonder the book trade is in so much trouble.) She tells him that the reason she loves it so much is because it’s about ‘Far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise’. The last two elements foreshadow events in the rest of the film, and all of them are exciting and extraordinary, particularly when you’re facing the prospect of eating the same old bread and rolls every day (just too horrible) in a sleepy French village.

So which bit of this fantastic, totally out-there book is her favourite? The exotic locations? The stunts? The spells? The royalty-flavoured twist? No, she tells the sheep, her favourite part is where the heroine meets Prince Charming (but she won’t discover that it’s him until chapter three). And with that one mushy sentiment, our independent, daring rebel reveals that while she thinks all that adventure is sort of cool, what’s actually ‘amazing’ is meeting a man. Oh Disney. Oh Belle. Even the sheep is disgusted. Ultimately, it turns out that all these kooky characteristics are just flavouring: enough to make her seem like an interesting character, especially when compared with Gaston’s image of his little wife and the swooning identical triplets (don’t get me started on the bleak representation of triplets in this film), but not something she would actually act on. Good god, no.

And so, after declaring her passionate desire to explore the great wide somewhere, Belle willingly returns to an isolated castle to live happily ever after with a man she barely knows. The relationship between Beast and Belle is more complex than your usual Disney fodder, thanks in some part to the comparison with Gaston’s feelings for Belle. Gaston wants Belle solely because she’s the most beautiful girl in town, whereas Beast values her selflessness, courage and kindness. Gaston chastises her for reading, before tossing her favourite book in a puddle, whereas Beast gives her an entire library. There is certainly more substance in their relationship, but it still posits them within traditional gender roles.

One thing that should be said in favour of this romantic pairing is that the verbal sparring between the two characters does contribute to an image of them as equal partners in this relationship. Neither is afraid to stand up to and defy the other if they believe they’re in the wrong. However, once the relationship has been established, Belle loses most of the adventurous spirit that made her more than your generic romantic heroine in the first place. From being the main character whose experiences and desires dictate the plot, Belle effectively becomes important only as Beast’s saviour. This is a fairly common trope in romantic films: the quirky but pretty female outcast, whose charming personality and adventurous spirit help the reserved man, trapped in a rut by his own dark nature, to find the good side of life and thereby improve himself. These female characters often come dressed in fairy wings, playing harps and making cupcakes for kittens, but the essential story of the good woman with no needs of her own other than to be loved, who rescues the man so he can contribute to society, is as old as time. Or at least as old as stories. Of course, Beast does save Belle when she’s attacked by wolves in the forest, but this also plays into traditional gender roles, whereby the strong, courageous man puts himself in harm’s way to protect the woman, who is left to dab up the blood and stick a bandage on it. Oh Disney.

Verdict

Three

Belle is a deeply lovable character, at least initially, thanks to her intelligence, kindness and rebellion against her small town life and its rubbish bread. However, the emphasis on her appearance and the fact she fades into the role of love interest means that ultimately this representation fails to challenge gender roles. Of course, this is a twenty two-year-old Disney Princess story, so it’s hardly surprising that a radical challenge to gender roles was not exactly on the cards. The romance and songs are just as good as you remember, so sing along with Be Our Guest, and mist up a bit in Tale as Old as Time, but always remember we deserve more from a heroine.

Do you agree with this verdict? Let everyone know what you think with a comment. If you enjoyed reading this, and have friends with similarly awesome taste, don’t forget to share it with them. Make sure you follow the blog so you never miss the chance to read more of the same.

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Beauty and the Beast (1991): Part One

Image

Belle wasn’t convinced by Gaston’s claim to be the real Christian Grey.

Spoiler alert: For anyone who has reached puberty without seeing Beauty and the Beast, go and have a serious talk with the parents/guardians/wolves who raised you, and explain to them that because of their inattention, this post is going to give away some of the plot before you’ve had a chance to experience it onscreen. Then watch the film and be amazed.

 As long-term fans may remember, this blog has Tangled with Disney before, in this previous post about Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. It’s not a classic Disney film, but it’s worth a watch if you like gutsy heroines and, er, diving horses. However, Beauty and the Beast is the first instantly-recognisable Disney film to go under the magnifying glass, and is particularly pertinent to a feminist critique since it features one of those oh-so lovable yet highly controversial figures, the Disney Princess. Loved and loathed for their peppy charm, admirable gumption and anatomically impossible waists, these heroines have sparked plenty of debate among recent generations of women, as we struggle to rationalise our horror at the helplessness and shallow morals that often epitomise these characters with the fact we spent the first eight years of our lives wanting to be one. Yes, I had the Ariel doll (the one with the Velcro tail you could take on and off, it was, like, awesome), and yes, I now die a little inside every time I’m reminded she was sixteen in the film.

Plot

I won’t patronise you with the details of this girl-meets-beast love story, but it’s worth noting that Beauty and the Beast is one of the more compelling love stories to feature a Disney Princess. While many of the notable ones start out pining for Prince Charming and then swoon on sight of him, Belle and Beast initially have a rather tense relationship (he kidnaps her father and holds her hostage, she nearly destroys his magical rose, etc) before discovering that perhaps they do find the other rather dishy. The fantastic soundtrack, with its understated but evocative songs, certainly help convey the sweet and sincere affection between them. Besides this, the film works hard to make Belle a brave, brainy and caring character who aspires to more than the role her provincial town can give her. Look past the singing candlesticks and vague mentions of not judging a book by its cover, however, and you’ll see the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of this Disney Princess tale.

Leading Ladies

Bookworm Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) is the outcast in her sleepy French village, and that’s before she takes up with an unusually hairy fellow in a gloomy castle. Mrs Potts (voiced by Angela Lansbury, of The Manchurian Candidate fame) is a cook cursed to take the form of a teapot. The imaginatively named ‘Wardrobe’ (Jo Anne Worley) is a steam iron – jokes, she’s a wardrobe, who comforts Belle when the latter is imprisoned by Beast. Babette is a feather duster, voiced by Mary Kay Bergman, who, in an interesting career twist, did many of the female voices for South Park.

Bechdel Test

Hmm, I’m going to say it passes, but only just, thanks to a scene where Mrs Potts and Wardrobe tell Belle that even though she’s now looking at a lifetime spent as a prisoner of a beast with horrible manners and a vile temper, and will never see her father or her home again, it will all be fine. And then Mrs Potts goes back to the kitchen to finish cooking dinner. No, really.

How are women represented?

To give Disney credit, they really tried to give Belle more depth than has been afforded to other Disney Princesses. From the first song we are shown that Belle rebels against the fixed role that is accepted and prescribed for her by the townspeople and Gaston. The townspeople cannot fathom why Belle seems so discontented with their sleepy village, where no one is interested in hearing the story of Jack and the Beanstalk (maybe they’ve read that one), and where – horror of horrors – the baker sells the same old bread and rolls everyday (apparently this is a big issue for Belle, who would presumably be horrified by the concept of Tesco). Luckily, to quote Gaston’s assessment, she’s gorgeous, so rather than gathering the pitchforks, the townspeople are just a little bemused by the oddball. Thus far, the message Disney is sending us ladies is that it’s good to want more than the narrow life your home offers you, but you better make damn sure you’re good-looking with it if you want to be tolerated rather than alienated. Right. Excellent.

Then we have Gaston, he of the chin and excessive biceps. Since we recognise him as The Bad Guy, we automatically understand that his idea of the perfect woman is Wrong. Gaston wants a pretty little wife to roast the various animal corpses he brings home, massage his stinky, post-hunting feet, and pump out six or seven strapping boys. Yikes. He, and apparently the townspeople, are also against women reading, since this might lead to them ‘getting ideas and thinking’. It’s unclear what might come next, but the point is, it’s not good. Thus, Gaston has helpfully created a Wrong image of women that can be contrasted with Belle to show the latter’s deep and intelligent nature, thereby countering all those nasty accusations that Disney Princesses are superficial wimps.

Belle has been set up as a character who goes against this limited image of women, but what is she actually like? Disney take great pains to show her as a free-spirit with a sense of adventure, who values imagination, is caring towards her father, polite towards the servants, unphased by the fact her captor is a bad-tempered monster, willing to give up her bold dreams and her freedom to save her father, and brave enough to speak her mind and challenge everyone’s expectations that she become Mrs Gaston and make with the babies and spit roasts. Running into the fields beyond the village and away from Gaston, she declares that she wants ‘adventure in the great wide somewhere’, and ‘so much more than they’ve got planned’, an open declaration of her desire to escape the confines of her small village and the role assigned to her. When Gaston tries to pressure her into conforming to this narrow life, barging into her house and declaring that they are going to get married, she points out that she does not deserve this, meaning she deserves more than what he’s offering. She frees herself from his advances by opening a door to the yard and causing him to fall down into a puddle. This rather nice image symbolises her desire to get rid of obstacles that stand in the way of her chance to move outside the confines of a home and to find new opportunities.

Just from this, we’ve seen that in Belle, Disney have given us a character who is determined to go against the narrow role society has prescribed for her, and to find adventure for herself. However, this positive beginning doesn’t end happily ever after. I’ve split this post into two sections (loosely positive and negative sides), partly to give your poor eyes a rest, and obviously to let your brains calculate the ground-breaking, life-changing insights offered thus far, but also to allow anyone who is averse to having films from their childhood picked apart for their poor representations of women to close this tab. I agree that it’s frustrating to realise that films you loved were subconsciously leading you astray, but I also believe that being able to see the problems in a film does not render it less enjoyable as a work of entertainment. If that were the case, no one would be able to sit through the first three minutes of Gone with the Wind. If you agree with me, come back for part two, which includes more berating of that awful baker (the one who makes the same old bread and rolls every day, or Satan, as we know him), an analysis of the poor business plan of the village bookseller (shocking fact: he’s not a librarian), and, of course, actual analysis of the negative elements of the representation of women in this classic.

Liked what you’ve seen so far? Disagreed with my perspective? Got some angry words to share about that damn baker? Don’t forget to share this post with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and The Whole Internet, and give us your comments below.

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13 Going On 30 (2004)

13 Going On 30 shocked

Columbia Pictures

Fair warning: contains references to the ending that may enable the canny rom com connoisseurs out there to deduce spoilers

Plot

All Jenna (Christa B. Allen) really wants for her thirteenth birthday is to shed her geeky image, get in with the popular girls at school (known as the ‘Six Chicks’) and hopefully get a kiss from her crush. When she invites them all to her party, along with best friend and neighbour Matty (Sean Marquette), things don’t go well, and the girls leave her in the wardrobe to go and find some booze. Those wild eighties kids.

When Matty tries to help, Jenna is furious, pushing him away and wishing she was ‘thirty, flirty and thriving’ like the women in glamorous magazine Poise. Suddenly, thanks to some magic dust (no, that’s not a drug reference), she finds herself transported into the body and life of her thirty year old self (Jennifer Garner). Just go with it.

Once accustomed to novelties like mobile phones, boobs and cocktails, Jenna loves her stylish and fun new life as editor of Poise. It turns out that ‘Tom-Tom’, who was the leader of the Six Chicks when they were thirteen, has changed her name back to the far more sensible Lucy (Judy Greer), and is now Jenna’s best friend and co-editor. While Jenna is thrilled to find that she actually became a member of the group, upon tracking down Matt (Mark Ruffalo she learns that they fell out after her thirteenth birthday party, and that he is now engaged.

As time passes, Jenna realises that for all the perks that come with being an adult (such as limitless junk food and credit cards), she barely recognises the mean person she’s become, and that maybe her thirteen year old self’s priorities were somewhat out of whack. Behind the daft plot lies an endearing story about appreciating what you have, being yourself and not growing up too quickly.

Leading Ladies

Jennifer Garner shines as Jenna in her thirty-year-old form, nailing the mixture of naivety, blissful ignorance and sweetness that make the character so likeable in spite of her superficial teenage ambitions. Judy Greer is funny and hateable as sycophantic and conniving Lucy, while Kathy Baker appears as Jenna’s mother, dispensing support and pearls of wisdom from time to time.

How are women represented?

Fortunately, this film generally avoids the obvious problems that could accompany a plot where adults are interacting with a thirteen year old who appears to be a fully grown woman. Much of the joy of the film comes from Jenna’s wide-eyed and innocent perspective on adult life, which is a refreshing reminder of the fun and hard sides of being grown up. This young perspective makes for a rom com that is endearing rather than sleazy and which carries a strong message about personal growth and understanding.

However, the film’s portrayal of women draws on cultural ideas that offer some mixed messages. Furthermore, despite its moral of self-fulfilment and self-confidence, by the end it has given in to the usual trappings of the rom com genre, in that end the heroine’s romance is portrayed as the most important element of her life.

A quick look at how the female characters behave reveals some disturbing stereotypes. Lucy and the Six Chicks manipulate Jenna into doing their homework for them, and then humiliate her by tricking her into sitting alone and blindfolded in the wardrobe, waiting for her crush to kiss her. Let’s address how disturbing the concept of ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven’ is. The girl goes and waits, blindfolded, in a confined space, and then a boy she can’t see comes in and is ‘allowed to do anything he wants to you’. Not only is this incredibly creepy, but it defines women as the passive object in male-female relationships. To return to portrayal of women, Tom-Tom/Lucy grows up to be a conniving and two-faced double crosser, who tries to jeopardise the friendship between Jenna and Matt out of jealousy over Jenna’s career. Not such a great image of women. Then there’s Jenna’s initial response to her adult life, which is to go shopping, throw on a ton of make-up, moon over boys, and watch sappy films while eating junk food. There’s nothing innately wrong with any of this, but it is a revealing look at what popular culture believes teenage girls want and think about, and what they would do when put in charge of their own lives.

Despite Lucy’s dubious qualities as a friend, the film certainly portrays relationships between women as enriching and supportive. Although she already has Matt, young Jenna aspires to belong to a group of girls; although this is partly to do with their popularity, it recognises that there is something about female friendships that is particularly desirable. As a thirty year old, Jenna turns to Becky and her friends for support, and the sleepover scene where they dance together in their pyjamas while singing ‘Love is a Battlefield’ into hairbrushes (because that’s what girls do when we get together) again shows female friendships as places where individuals find affection, enjoyment and support. Jenna’s relationship with her mother, which appears sporadically throughout the film, also emphasises a particular understanding between women; having just arrived in her new older body, Jenna is desperate to speak to her mother, and she turns to her for advice after recognising that she’s royally screwed up.

This referential view of the bonds between women draws on a perspective that has replaced more traditional and outspoken notions of feminism among some women. While they are not comfortable with describing themselves as feminists, believing this to refer to man-hating, bra-burning spinsters, these women, including famous names like Jennifer Lopez, Charlene Spiterri and Janet Street Porter, identify their friendships with other women as integral sources of comfort and fulfilment. From this comes an understanding as to how to behave towards other women: Jenna is horrified when she finds that she has slept with a colleague’s husband because of the hurt she has done to another woman, even though she has no personal relationship (that she can remember) with the injured wife.

Although this message of female solidarity is ostensibly positive, since it recognises that women are capable of offering each other support and kindness, it is also reductive, prescribing all women with the stereotypical nurturing and emotive personality traits. Furthermore, it doesn’t suggest how a woman might behave and be seen in a relationship with a man, thereby permitting the continued promotion of stereotypical gender roles. It is therefore not surprising that the film ultimately reduces Jenna to the role of typical rom com heroine; she chooses Matty rather than the girls, suggesting that an audience should care more about how her romance fares than her friendship.

This dynamic also plays out in her professional life at Poise, which Jenna is shown to enjoy: we see her working long hours, trying to improve her skills, and giving a passionate presentation about her new ideas for the magazine. However, when the film reveals how Jenna’s life turned out, this element is totally ignored, and we are only shown the details of her love life, implying that this is all the audience really wants to know about. Despite the film’s emphasis on a young woman’s personal development, by the end it is identifying as a love story. While everyone loves a love story, and this is a particularly sincere and believable example, it’s a shame that a film which offered such an endearing and well-developed protagonist ultimately chooses to focus on her as a love interest rather than an interesting personality in her own right.

Verdict

Two

By examining the adult world from the perspective of a thirteen year old, 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh look at the dilemmas and perks that come with being a grown up. While this concept could have been disastrous, the plot generally avoids being creepy, and makes for a sweet romance and a memorable heroine. The emphasis on Jenna’s female relationships identifies women as a vital source of support, advice and friendship for each other. Jenna is portrayed throughout as someone who, despite some poor judgements, is caring and sensitive, but also capable, hard-working and intelligent. However, despite the initial focus on Jenna’s learning curve, the film ultimately centres on the romance plot. This is fine, but disappointing in a rom com that seemed to promise a personal development plot. Furthermore, the female friendships Jenna seeks turn out to be less fulfilling than her relationship with Matt, and Lucy becomes a jealous, back-stabbing stereotype. 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh new premise but fails to live up to its potential. Gather some friends, bring on the junk food and enjoy, but take the representation of women as a work in progress.

How did you perceive Jenna’s female friendships? What are your views on this new ‘alternative’ to feminism? Did you think women in the film were reduced to stereotypes? How badly did you want your own dream house? Seriously, the cotton wool bath bubbles blew my mind. If you have a response to these or any other points raised, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments section.

If you have a moment, and you’ve liked what you’ve read, please share this post with friends, family and casual acquaintances, and don’t forget to like the blog. You can also tweet thoughts and film suggestions to @LTTL15 or email LTTL15@outlook.com.

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Jerry Maguire (1996)

Click picture for trailer: Tom Cruise and Renee Zellwegger complete each other in Jerry Maguire

Warning: contains spoilers, sarcasm and a healthy amount of indignation

Plot

Smarmy sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) undergoes a crisis of conscience when one of his clients is injured, leading him to write a heartfelt ‘mission statement’ calling for fewer clients, less money and more love. Fired by his horrified company, Jerry’s only remaining client is Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Junior), a skilled American football player who is often overlooked due to his melodramatic fits of rage. This lack of business is perhaps a blessing, given that the only one of his colleagues to follow him into unemployment is accountant Dorothy (Renee Zellwegger), a single mother who lives with her young son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki) and straight-talking, man-mistrusting sister Laurel (Bonnie Hunt). Ditched by his fiancé Avery (Kelly Preston) and facing dire financial straits, Jerry attempts to make the best of things by starting an ill-advised relationship with Dorothy, which is ostensibly based on the fact he doesn’t like to let people down. Cue a lot of cheesy lines, predictable ‘twists’ and a totally ill-advised will-they-won’t-they plot.

Leading ladies

Renee Zellwegger, is accountant Dorothy, a woman naive enough to marry Maguire, smart enough to break up with him, and naive enough to take him back. The lucky lady who escapes this fate is Avery, Maguire’s kinky, slightly loopy ex-fiancée, played by Kelly Preston, who dares to disagree with his quitting his job without telling her, and to value her own career over massaging his ego. Oh these modern women. Speaking of whom, Bonnie Hunt plays Dorothy’s ‘disapproving sister Laurel’, the woman who dares to suggest that a late night visit from your new boss might be less than innocent.

Bechdel Test

Fails: although the film has four relatively prominent female characters, none of them manage to discuss anything other than a man.

How are women represented?

It is pretty hard to recall the name of anyone in this film that isn’t Jerry Maguire. This is another example of Hollywood’s favourite sort of tale, about the plights and problems that face a wealthy, straight, good-looking, well-educated white man. As such, any character who does not fit this role is cheerfully stereotyped and side-lined so we can focus on the real challenges of the world.

Main female lead Dorothy has no real substance beyond being a hopeless romantic. This is clear from the first time we see her, when she nearly falls out of her seat trying to overhear Maguire describing his proposal to Avery to another passenger on a plane, because a single woman, and particularly one with a small, irritating child in tow, has nothing else on her mind than marriage. She then quits her job at the sports agency to follow a man she doesn’t know into a new business with no money or clients, simply because he deigns to remember her name and the poster she has up in her cubicle. She also puts up with being repeatedly groped and grabbed by a drunken Maguire, because hey, he looks like a suspiciously taller version of Tom Cruise, so he can do whatever he likes, right?

Dorothy continues to overlook the fact she has to support herself and a young child, only choosing to leave her job when she realises that she is draining money from Maguire’s failing company. Having found herself a better (read: actually) paid job, she immediately gives up on this when her new boyfriend/former boss Maguire panics at the thought that the relationship might fizzle out, and proposes on her front lawn. Eventually, she catches up with what the audience realised thirty three minutes previously, namely that this relationship is totally implausible and based on mutual insecurities, and, in a rare moment of clarity, integrity and will power, breaks up with him. Then he bursts into her living room, says he misses her, and they get back together. Because a wildly romantic speech made by a desperate and lonely man solves all relationship problems. Of course, we know that rom coms are supposed to present an idealised view of romance, love and all that mush, but the real love story here is between Maguire and himself. Dorothy contains no substance, serving only as the martyred single mother and hopeless romantic desperately trying to snare Mr Right Now, however wrong he might be.

Surprisingly, Dorothy is one of the two woman that Jerry Maguire actually wants us to like, the other being Marcee Tidwell, Rod’s smart, cutting and supportive wife. The message Jerry Maguire sends to women is that you’re either a devoted wife, or you’re a bitter old hag who wants to be a devoted wife but is too untrusting and selfish to achieve this goal. The divorced women’s group, who dare to criticise men and suggest women might want to live without them, are played as a joke, a bunch of loud, gossipy women trying to hide their loneliness behind anger. Because all women really want is to just get married.

Avery is treated even more coarsely, becoming a petty, slightly manic backstabber when she refuses to sacrifice her career to support Jerry. The only really compelling character in the film is Laurel, who is blunt, thoughtful, practical and protective of her blindsided younger sister. However, because the film identifies these strong qualities as masculine, she is not perceived as a romantic interest but as a loyal supportive character for the typically feminine Dorothy. As Laurel’s steely traits identify her as disconnected from traditional notions of femininity, her suggestion that sleeping with your new boss might be a mistake is perceived as atypical of women, a slightly quirky character trait peculiar to her, because of course ‘proper’ women all want to sleep with men, however unwise the situation might make this. Despite being the only character with an obvious grasp on the stupidity of the situation, she is then shown smoking alone in the dark kitchen, looking wistful as she eats Dorothy’s restaurant leftovers while her sister has loud, giggly sex with a totally unsuitable man. She appears pleased to hear that Dorothy is having fun, stifling a chuckle and she roots through the cold food. From this scene we are can deduce that Laurel, despite her strong will, common sense and intelligence, ultimately accepts that she and Dorothy are incapable of being happy without a man, and that a totally unsuitable man is better than none at all.

Verdict

Image

As the title infers, there is really only one character that matters in this film, to the point that everyone not named Jerry is either there to support him or oppose him. We’re meant to identify with Dorothy’s whimsical quest for romance, and with Marcee’s devotion to her husband, and to criticise the divorced women’s group and Avery as selfish man-hating harpies, and the steely reserve of Laurel as masculine and therefore unappealing in a woman. Unusually for a film that can be categorised as, among other things, a rom com, Jerry Maguire focuses primarily on the directives and needs of a man, and through this focus reinforces a narrow and stereotypical view of women.

Do you agree that Jerry Maguire offers us a poor portrayal of women, or was it right on the money in your mind? Comment below, share your views on the Facebook page and tweet @LTTL15, and remember to follow the blog for more analysis, ranting and reviews. 

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Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991)

WHCBB

Click picture for trailer: Gabrielle Anwar plays feisty Sonora in Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

A gutsy heroine aspires to join the dangerous horse diving profession in this true life Disney tale, but are we looking at a winner for women or just a ‘mare?

Plot

In the early years of the Depression orphaned teenager Sonora Webster (Gabrielle Anwar) is determined to see the world, or at least Atlantic City. When her aunt surrenders Sonora to the mercy of the state, she runs off to join Doc Carver’s (Cliff Robertson) diving horse act, headed by aspiring actress Marie (Kathleen York) and assisted by Doc’s handsome son Al (Michael Schoeffling). While Doc initially rejects Sonora as too young, her stubborn refusal to take no for an answer sees him hire her as a stable hand. As the act travels round the country, Al helps Sonora train a difficult horse in the hope of impressing Doc and earning her the chance to be a diving girl.

Bechdel Test

Passes: Marie and Sonora have a brief discussion about the importance of make-up, and Sonora’s aunt tells her she is nothing but trouble.

Leading Ladies

Gabrielle Anwar is bright and bold Sonora Webster, and Kathleen York is haughty wannabe starlet Marie. Lisa Norman also appears briefly as Sonora’s Aunt Helen.

How are women represented?

Sonora is the Disney heroine we have all been waiting for. She is resilient, driven, and defiant of those who would stop her from reaching her dream. She resolutely refuses to accept limitations inflicted on her by general life happenings or narrow-minded people, and she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. I’m not saying that punching a classroom bully in the face is big or clever, but it’s pretty satisfying to see a girl let her fists do the talking in the same way a male character would. Warm and caring with those she likes, particularly horses, not only does Sonora have self-belief in bucket loads, and a no nonsense approach to haters, but she doesn’t blink at taking on slightly bizarre, death-defying stunts.

Teenager Sonora’s slightly disturbing romance with the obviously much older Al thankfully doesn’t dampen her spirit, since she continues to defy him in order to achieve her dream. Although the film is based on real events (yes, horse diving was apparently a thing), it would have been nice if they had veered off course in order to avoid marrying off a sixteen year old, and particularly one with such an independent spirit. The only redeeming point to note is that this information is tactlessly given out by an extremely curt ‘and they lived happily ever after’ type announcement right at the end, which at least goes to show that the totally unnecessary marriage plot was an afterthought rather than the main message.

Critics have pointed out that Sonora’s big dream apparently consists of living a glamorous life as defined by an advert for the Atlantic City pier, and that this superficial goal is what leads her to cut her hair, in an effort to live up to this image of femininity. However, this haircut is less about adhering to cultural expectations of women, and more about taking control of her life, refusing to give in to the limitations inflicted by the Depression, and defying people’s expectations of her. The bobbed hairstyle was all about rejecting traditional notions of how women should look, and marks her as a modern woman in charge of her own destiny. Sonora’s priorities, prizing her character over her appearance, are emphasised throughout the film, in which she remains almost entirely make-up free, particularly when compared with the eternally dolled up Marie.

However, although there’s a lot to love about Sonora, the film offers mixed messages about women. While Sonora benefits from instruction offered by male characters like Al and Doc, the women in the film are either stressed out, unfeeling nags, in the case of her aunt and her teacher, or superficial and vain, as with Marie, the other main female character. This seems to imply that Sonora is the exception that proves the rule, hence her affiliation with men rather than women. In this way, the film praises an extraordinary heroine by identifying her positive traits with men, thereby rejecting the notion that women can be feminine and also courageous, defiant and determined. This message is made particularly clear when you compare the characterisation of Marie and Sonora: bare-faced Sonora is lauded for her bold character, while heavily made-up Marie, who prides herself on her appearance, is a shallow, fickle airhead. On the one hand, you have to admire Disney for refusing to cover their leading lady in more than a dash of lipstick, and for celebrating her admirable personality instead. However, on another level, this implies that femininity is incompatible with the grit displayed by Sonora, and that in order to be respected, women must sacrifice typically ‘feminine’ traits.

Verdict

Three

This film grapples with social and cultural expectations of men and women, sometimes supporting them and sometimes undermining them. Sonora is one of those rare heroines who makes you want to throw your popcorn/film food of choice into the air and shout ‘YES!’ She goes to extreme lengths to take on a wildly dangerous job, refuses to give up when the going gets tough, and is unswerving in pursuit of her dream. However, the unflattering portrayals of Marie and the other women, and the fact that Sonora’s positive relationships are with men, implies that Sonora is an exceptional woman, and that most women are insensitive and unfeeling, while particularly ‘feminised’ women, who wear make-up and skirts, must also be shallow. Overall, this is a brilliant portrayal of a feisty female that nevertheless neglects to examine the place of femininity within empowerment.

Did you find Sonora’s refusal to adhere to traditional expectations of femininity refreshing or frustrating? Is she a role model? How do you perceive the women in the film? Spill your heart and go wild in the comments.

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