Monday, September 10, 2012

'Feminist Protagonist'

I recently came across this ranking of Disney princesses in terms of how feminist they are. It actually clarified something for me about what bothers me whenever one comes across discussions of whether female protagonists are 'feminist'. The ranking given is:

(10) Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
(9) Snow White (Snow White)
(8) Cinderella (Cinderella)
(7) Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
(6) Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
(5) Jasmine (Aladdin)
(4) Rapunzel (Tangled)
(3) Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
(2) Pocahontas (Pocahontas)
(1) Mulan (Mulan)

It's very noticeable that, except for Rapunzel, this is chronological order. But the thing that struck me most was that the rationale for each place heavily depends on defining each character in terms of what happens to her. This is the whole reason, for instance, why Belle is so absurdly low on the list. The author notes that Belle is usually considered the most 'feminist' Disney princess, and then goes on to reject this by listing what happens to her in the movie -- she "voluntarily makes herself a prisoner" and "falls for a domineering man, because she thinks she can change him". What's left out are all the obvious reasons that explain why Belle is usually seen as Disney's most feminist female protagonist: she's the one whose character is least defined by, and thus least at the mercy of, other people, she stands up for herself the entire movie, she doesn't wait passively in the face of her problems but actively sets out to solve them, and (what is in its own way perhaps most important) she does what she thinks is right and is fairly consistently right because of it. Of all the Disney princesses, Belle is the one who is most consistently an agent in her own right. We see this with the supposed reasons why she gets her low ranking. She "voluntarily makes herself a prisoner" -- yes, by courageously negotiating for her father's release so that she can save his life. She "falls for a domineering man, because she thinks she can change him" -- no, because she falls for the man only when she has already changed him by refusing to be intimidated by him and insisting that he act like a civilized person, and he does.

The problem with this conception of a 'feminist protagonist' is that it defines 'feminist protagonist' as an entirely external status -- it's an approval the heroine gets solely to the extent that she's a good girl who makes sure she only ends up in the right kind of situation. One sign of this in the article is how often marriage comes up as a reason for downgrading the protagonist's status as feminist: marriage is a bad thing to want and a worse thing to achieve. There's no sense here that how strong a female character is could possibly depend on her: what makes a protagonist a 'feminist' protagonist or not is how she happens to fit or not into a man's world. This is perverse in the extreme.

Much the same thing can be said about 'feminist' antagonists, although I find it interesting that people don't talk about them as much. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is a fairly passive character, but what often goes unremarked is that Prince Phillip is also quite passive, because the movie is structured as an elaborate indirect battle between Maleficent and the Three Good Fairies, and Aurora and Phillip are merely the pieces on the board. Maleficent uses Aurora as an instrument of revenge, and the Three Good Fairies bring Maleficent down by weakening Maleficent's curse and rasing Phillip up as an instrument of restoration. For all practical purposes the movie is a war between goddesses; like the ancient Olympians, who could not overturn the set will of an opposing god, neither Maleficent nor the Three Good Fairies can simply undo the other side's moves, and therefore must work around them. And the result is that the thing people really remember about Sleeping Beauty is neither Aurora nor Phillip but Maleficent, who is arguably still Disney's single best villain. Maleficent is the villain whose evil is least cartoonish and least derivative, and therefore darkest, and therefore least in need of any explanation in terms of any external factors. There's an increasing tendency to try to give psychological explanations to wicked queens in modern re-tellings of fairy tales -- in the recent Snow White and the Huntsman, for instance, Queen Ravenna's behavior is explained as a sort of lifelong retaliation against her kidnapping (and possible rape) as a young girl. In other words, she is a function of what was done to her. It is intended to humanize her, but contrary to the intention it dehumanizes her, robbing her of her own responsibility, the resolute wickedness that is her own most fascinating literary feature, and gives it to a man. It is impossible to imagine Maleficent, Mistress of All Evil, who wields the powers of Hell, ever being reducible to an output from a patriarchal input. She is a fairy-tale Lucifer, a beautiful and intelligent creature full of pride and glory who is evil because that is what she chooses to be, end of story. She is defined not by others, and certainly not by any men, but solely by her own character and choices. And she is an impressive villain because of it, standing out as distinctively memorable in a field full of stereotypes because of it. She is wicked in her own right.


  1. Yes. 
    I think that there are always two levels to these types of critiques.
    1) is the protagonist worthy of emulation on feminist principles? and
    2) Is the story itself structured in a feminist or anti-feminist way?

    So, you could say that on level one Belle is a perfect ten, and on level two it's a bit muddier, because while she wants to be valued for her smarts more than her beauty, her beauty is certainly central to her status as a Disney princess. Even the film's censure of those who see only Belle's physical charms underscores the fact that she is, in fact, beautiful, and that's why she she gets a movie. Smarts are acceptable if they coexist with stunning looks.

    Sleeping beauty is the opposite: Aurora herself is passive, but, as you point out, the story is structured around a group of powerful, memorable, and unique women, none of whom have anything to do, really, with  marriage or beauty.

    And for what it's worth, Tiana's my favorite.

  2. Brendan Hodge10:18 AM

    Though she's less spectacular (nothing of the goddess about her) I always thought the stepmother in Cinderella was one of the more effective Disney villainesses: She has that one-step-ahead control of the plot and willingness to be spiteful just for the fun of it which would allow her to fit in moderately well with the stronger female characters in I Claudius.  (Though, of course, Livia would easily poison her.)  

    I never liked Belle much, but then the whole Beauty & The Beast movie annoyed me, and Belle in particular because she's showcased as "the reading character", though all she appears to do is constantly re-read the same dreck.  It always puts me off when I'm told a character is smart or literary but the character shows no real signs of it.  (That, and Beauty & The Beast/Cupid & Psyche is such a great story that I'm doubly annoyed with the film makers for not doing something interesting with such a good story.)

    My own highest rated Disney heroine would be Tiana in Princess & The Frog, a movie I thought deserved better acclaim than it got.  But then, Tiana would fit in well with one of Miasaki's hard working heroine's, so maybe it's just that she's my type.

  3. Brandon Watson10:49 AM

     I've never had a chance to see The Princess and the Frog all the way through, but from what I've seen she definitely holds up well.

    You're certainly right about the two-levels thing. I think talking about feminist and anti-feminist structures of stories gets very complicated, since our criteria of what counts as a feminist structure for a story has to be able to accommodate a large diversity of different women and the whole array of reasonable choices available to them. I think when people talk about such things they are really not talking about the structure of the story in question, but common patterns when one considers all the stories that get told. You're right that Belle's beauty plays a very big role in the story -- it's both her name and most basic plot function, even independently of the Disney princess thing -- but this is not really the problem, since there' s no reason why you can't have feminist stories about women with stunning looks whose looks play a role in their story (e.g., it's not as if only ugly women get to be feminists or feminist role models). Rather, it's the fact that it contributes to a pattern of stories in which a great deal depends on the woman's stunning looks, that this is the kind of story that happens over and over again, to the exclusion of all the other possible stories. It's in this sense that marriage gets to be a problem -- it's a reasonable sort of ending to a reasonable sort of story, after all, and may be the most reasonable ending to to this sort of story, as it surely is with Belle's -- but there's a problem when it becomes the happily-ever-after ending for a woman.

    It reminds me a bit of Virginia Woolf's Angel in the House. Woolf never suggests there is anything wrong with the Angel in the House herself -- in origin she is, after all, just an extended figure of speech, and kept as such is as harmless as a painter using a woman as a model for a painting of Venus . But when she becomes a pattern, the pattern starts suggesting this is the way a woman must be, and suddenly Venus is the model to which every woman has to conform, and a woman has to be this figure of speech as if it were a literal description. And that way we get only dishonesty -- it's dishonest to expect women to do that, and a woman who tries to do it can only manage it by dishonesty. Something like what Woolf has in mind is operative here -- no one can really make herself Belle, but we wouldn't expect anyone to do so if there weren't so many endless stories emphasizing a pattern until it seems like a beautiful face is the only thing that matters.

  4. Brendan Hodge11:23 AM

    I'm appalled by the contempt that the Nerve writer has for the princesses who don't fit in her tidy little paradigm of What's Happening in Feminism. Poor oppressed Cinderella, too downtrodden to burn her bra. Of course we all know it takes very little strength to stay graceful and gentle and kind under the kind of relentless antagonism that Cinderella faced, though perhaps that something that modern feminist writers don't know much about, judging from their abrasive prose.

    I find it a strange claim that "Ariel disempowers herself for the patriarchy". What does that even mean? No, she chooses to have her voice yanked out and her tail ripped in half (and I remember how freaky that was to watch as an eleven-year-old) as a costly sacrifice on behalf of a specific person, Eric, not "the patriarchy".  I don't particularly like The Little Mermaid, but to drum Ariel out of the feminist assembly because she's "either mute or unable to walk until the very end, when her father has to bestow freedom on her" is just ludicrous. (1. Dude can't walk either; 2. umm, Helen Keller? Just another unempowered mute.) How about celebrating the stereotype-busting drama of a woman who finds a way to carry on without talking? 

    I'm another Tiana fan. In fact, The Princess and the Frog ranks as one of my favorite Disney movies, though I tend to favor Studio Ghibli over Disney anyway. I like that Princess and the Frog actually has real plot development based on character choices and interactions -- it shows that some of the Pixar writers worked on the film. Of course, it has some of the least memorable music in the Disney franchise -- probably because each song was fairly specific to plot or character, and so lacked the universal character of, say, the music of Beauty and the Beast, a pretty spectacle of a movie with plot holes large enough to accommodate a Mack truck.
    Maleficent is indeed the most gloriously malign villainess in the Disney pantheon of bad. Her psychological torture of Philip, in which she presents to him a vision of the future in which he remains captive until old age transforms him past potency and recognition, is reminiscent of the scene in The Return of the King in which The Mouth of Sauron, at the gates of Mordor, tells the Gandalf and Aragorn that perhaps Frodo will be released to them after years of torture have warped and broken him past all hope of healing -- and that it will be all their fault.

    Also, she had green eyes, something no Disney princess had for years and years.

  5. MrsDarwin11:25 AM

    Dangers of the shared computer -- the below was mine.

  6. Brandon Watson11:51 AM

    Apparently the Wicked Stepmother's name is 'Lady Tremaine' ; I was wondering if she had one, since nobody calls her anything but the Wicked Stepmother, but apparently she does. You're right that she has a sort of Roman indomitability.

  7. Brandon Watson12:13 PM

    There does seem a pattern in the article of treating endurance of great difficulty and voluntarily giving things up as somehow a weakness. I remember Ursula K. LeGuin once taking some flak about the passivity of her female protagonist in comparison with the activity of some of the male characters (I don't remember what the novel was and I don't think I've ever read it); she pointed out that the whole point of the novel was the Taoist idea that letting things grow their own way is better than forcing them into an arbitrary shape, so it would have made no sense for her female protagonist to go around being active the way the other characters were. You can have a strong Cinderella character, whether one thinks Disney managed it or not; but a Cinderella who never patiently endured any difficulty is never going to be a strong Cinderella character.

  8. And you can have very feminist stories about why a woman's looks are central to what happens to her--see Tess of the D'Ubervilles. It's not so much reinforcing the narrative that a woman's looks create her, but analyzing its horrors.

    Cat, I have green eyes too! My cousins told me only witches had green eyes when I was little, and I believed them for years.

    And confession: I really, really, really hate Ariel. She's a spoiled, boy-crazy brat who betrays her family and gives up her voice for some stupid proto Zac Efron (implicitly accepting the witch's dictum that what really matters is "body language,") and then, wouldn't you know it, is saved and given everything she wants by her daddy in the end. Well, fine, as long as we're on this track, I'd like a pony.


  9. branemrys2:23 PM

     Tess of the D'Ubervilles is one of those novels I keep meaning to read and never get around to reading; perhaps I'll have to make an effort to look it up.

  10. MrsDarwin2:56 PM

    "My cousins told me only witches had green eyes when I was little, and I believed them for years."

    You believed it because Disney implied that it was true. Whereas I built up a deep reservoir of rage that exploded every time I had cause to talk about a Disney movie... :) 

    You're right that's what's really messed up about Disney's The Little Mermaid is how Daddy ascends as the Deus ex machina and makes everything right, as if the whole plot could have been circumvented if she'd just gone to him in the first place and convinced him to give her legs. Part of the tragedy of Hans Christian Andersen's story is that there is only one way for the mermaid to become human, and that chance is lost once the prince falls in love with the other princess. The saddest part of the story is the quiet despair of the mermaid as the approaching marriage brings her daily closer to sea foam and oblivion. She's lost the inhumanity of the sea, and even her sisters' sacrifice of their hair (which does grow back after all) cannot move her kill the prince in his moment of happiness so that she can go back to the water. All this is lost in the movie. 
    I read Tess of the d'Ubervilles so long ago that all I remember about it is that I read it.

  11. I think maybe this second level of critique works in the same way as the Bechdel test--it's useless as a test of the overall worth or  feminist content of any particular film (except possibly sometimes ensemble films), but it is a a good way to keep tabs on what kind of stories about women get told.

  12. branemrys7:57 PM

    That makes sense. Some of my colleagues are working on what they call the Gendered Conference Campaign, which is an attempt to raise the profile of women in philosophy; it mostly consists of publishing which conferences have only men for invited speakers. In any given conference the reason for this might be completely benign, some accidental variation -- e.g., there's some evidence that women are much more likely decline invitations due to other commitments, so it occasionally happens that hosts will invite several women but none of them will accept -- but despite the fact that people sometimes get their feelings hurt over their conference being mentioned by the campaign, you have to point out each case in order to show that it happens too often for it always to be an accident.

    And this seems like that:  even though the story itself might not be egregious at all, it may contribute to a pattern that is itself egregious. And, in a sense, the Bechdel test is just that -- it's a crude measure of the diversity of stories, using one particular pattern that tends to be a problem. In that context it's easy to see why it has its attractions (it makes people aware of one kind of common, problematic pattern), and also easy to see why it's rather crude, with its inability to take into account both genre differences (e.g., romances do somewhat better, and science fiction even worse, with feminist matters than the Bechdel test suggests) and other patterns that matter. I think what's really needed is some way to identify important patterns that are missing from the stories available., or patterns that exist but are relatively rare. A Propp's morphology, so to speak, that does justice to the diversity of real women's lives, and so allows you to recognize both the patterns and the alternatives to them.


  13. MrsDarwin10:43 PM

    The campaign publishes conferrences that have only men as invited speakers, or as actual speakers? Because if women are invited and decline, that hardly seems the conference's fault, unless the invitation was tendered with foreknowledge that it was inconvenient for the woman to attend and therefore she was likely to decline. I wasn't quite clear on the parameters of the campaign from the description above.

    I like the idea of a morphology for women's stories, rather than a stand-alone assessment, a la the Bechdel test (which, for my money, is one of the least-interesting methods possible for analyzing story content). I agree that there are certain patterns of story-telling that are pre-dominant, to the exclusion of other, worthy patterns - stories often end in marriage because that's an inherently satisfying ending, and yet obviously in real life not every story ends with happily-ever-after. And being aware of of broad patterns helps in organizing a story's structure, since literature, like all forms of art, has to be arranged and distiller somehow. Yet a story purposefully written as a counter-narrative can be as tiresome and stereotypical as stories following more traditonal patterns. Rebelling against established patterns is almost as old a trope as the original patterns themselves.

    That's why, to me, broad single-issue litmus tests strike me more as grievance-mongering than as watch-doggery.

  14. branemrys11:38 PM

    Conferences have lots of speakers, most of whom apply, only some of
    whom are specially invited; being an invited speaker is generally a
    recognition of importance to the field in some way, and is a useful thing for the CV. Usually the only information available is the list of actually scheduled speakers who were invited -- one of the  major things the campaign is working on is a little more transparency about how conference organizers determine who to invite. The point is not really so much to apportion blame, although conference organizers sometimes take it that way, but to point out and gather evidence about what seems to be a systemic problem, namely, that women in philosophy appear to be massively underrepresented as invited speakers. As I said, there's some reason to think that women are more likely to decline invitations due to other commitments, but if so nobody knows why, and nobody knows how much of the disparity this explains. It raises the question of whether, for instance, conferences need to take more definite steps on things like child care for the conference, or whether women are being overloaded with tasks (committees, etc.) by departments. That these might even be an issue was really only discovered in the course of the campaign, and that's one of the major things the campaign is for.

  15.  "stories often end in marriage because that's an inherently satisfying ending, and yet obviously in real life not every story ends with happily-ever-after. "

    I'm not sure it's even that not every story should have a happy ending. It's that marriage the happy ending to a specific type of story, yet that is overwhelmingly the main story told about women.

    "Yet a story purposefully written as a counter-narrative can be as tiresome and stereotypical as stories following more traditonal patterns. Rebelling against established patterns is almost as old a trope as the original patterns themselves.
    That's why, to me, broad single-issue litmus tests strike me more as grievance-mongering than as watch-doggery"
    It almost sounds to me as if you see this as a sort of equation--too many marriage stories, so let's write x number of non-marriage stories!

    But most thoughtful people who find the Bechdel test helpful (within its limitations) aren't clamoring for neatly defined quotas from studios. 

    Again, it's not that traditional stories themselves that are the problem--it's like you said, that one or a few narratives of female experience gets enshrined at the expense of all the the other equally real and important ones. It makes for lousy art, among other things, which is why "The Ugly Truth" was somehow a marketable film.

    A whole host of factors contribute to any one manifestation of sexism--to see a broader range of women's stories, you'd probably have to have more women in Hollywood; you'd probably have to ease up on the many other cultural methods by which girls are placed in certain roles and handed certain scripts; you'd have to stop Victoria's Secret and American Apparel from hammering the message that they are primarily objects of sexual desire into little girls' brains.

    So keeping tabs on faulty patterns in  cinema won't offer any quick solutions--but it is, I think, one of several first steps in the right direction.

  16. MrsDarwin9:11 AM

    No, I don't agree with quotas at all. What I'm protesting against is pattern and counter-pattern as a substitute for nuance. Remember the origin of the Bechdel test: its proponent says that she ONLY watches movies that meet the test's standards. Is it a useful benchmark for establishing women's presence in film or whatever media one chooses to apply it to? I don't think so, because it says nothing about whether the depiction of women's stories is of any artistic merit or touch on anything true. Has the proliferation of girlfriend movies really raised consciousness of the real dignity and variety of experience of women?   Frankly, I would love it if every movie or book that passes the Bechdel test scanned as if it were written by Rumer Godden, but if the IMDB write-up for The Ugly Truth is any indication, the only law that holds true in pop culture is that 90 % of eveything is shit.


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