Friday, January 29, 2016

Once Upon A Time

In the context of research describing how Disney teaches terrible values about women  there was the following quote:     There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things.

I just sat and stared at that for a minute or so.  I wondered “What would be the best way to explain what is wrong with this to the people writing it?” This in turn leads to “Well, what exactly is wrong with it?” When you set yourself the task of trying to explain such things in simple English, you see new elements along the way.  Sometimes your initial argument starts coming unglued.  Sometimes you find even better arguments you hadn’t thought of.  At minimum, you set yourself a bit of exercise in refining exactly what it is you think about a subject.

The four activities men are doing and women not, are not equally separate.  The women in my wife’s college sorority certainly bonded together in tavernish settings singing drinking songs. I’m not sure that practice was common before WWII, but we can at least clearly say women are obviously capable of this. Giving each other directions…I’m not sure what the movie context for that is, but I’m thinking this is also pretty manageable among women, dating back many decades.  Centuries. Women have invented things, though that seems more recent as well.  In the types of economies common to fairy tales – there’s a general feel  for the ones from your own culture, however remote – there are two types of invention, the magical and the technological.  In the former, the women are quite the equal of men in the Wands, Enchanted Beasts, and Animated Household Object categories.  In the technological, which is intentionally related to our own,  women simply don’t show up in any century in the Improved Blunderbuss, Newfangled Harness, or Mineshaft Support categories.

And then there’s the “no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast,” which let you know right up front that these researchers…well, never mind. Any insult would distract from their probable good qualities of industriousness, seriousness, and concern for fairness in all things.

But taking the list as a whole we have the overwhelming impression of “You’re crazy.  That world never existed anywhere, not even close.” To which their obvious response would be "But it's make-believe.  All of it is made up anyway. Disney isn't historically accurate to any era with these stories, nor are they true to the original tales.  They rework them to..."

Yes?  They rework them for what purpose? It is easy to say "to make money," but that doesn't answer why those particular reworkings have the effect of making money.  Disney reworks old stories to fit them to more modern values.  For the last two decades or so that has meant Spunky Gals. Those of us familiar with the older versions have responses ranging from irritation to horror, but that is largely because we are comfortable with older things and their wormy creepiness, violence,  and mixed primitive sexism.  And even we don't much like some of the earliest tales.  We like them partly updated.  The general public likes them even more updated, but even they require that this be recognisable as an old story put in modern terms.  That is what a fairy tale is.  When we say "Once upon a time," that is a different story than one beginning with "Wouldn't it be cool if..."  The latter is science fiction - which also has some good movies that make money.  But very different movies.  (Fantasy occupies some middle ground, closer to fairy tale.)

There was never in our culture - nor, I think in any other - a time and place where women led the townspeople against the Beast and bonded over drinking songs.  There just wasn't, and harumphing that there should have been isto plead for a different genre.

But once upon a time there was one woman who wanted to lead the townspeople against a monster, and that's a story we like.  Or perhaps two sisters, or some supernatural female figures - elves, dryads, sibyls - led a hamlet or an army into the fray. But the joy of those stories is that those females are unusual.

That is the main problem with the researchers' understanding.  They don't under the genre, so they want it to be something else.  They want Once Upon A Time to be Wouldn't It Be Cool If. They are free to make those movies if they like.

A second, lesser criticism.  They tot up how much the male and female characters speak in the early Disney Princess movies versus the newer ones, with surprising results. I think their interpretation of this is a muddle, but it's interesting to see. There is one significant difficulty with all this.  Many of these male and female characters are um, crabs, or teapots, or frogs or whatever.  This is a place where I agree that dividing the genders into neat binaries may unwarranted.  Snow White's dwarves are necessarily pretty butch, but the mice in Cinderella? Not so important. Also, making definite interpretations about features such as Ariel's "voice" tries to force modern categories onto older elements.  Really fairy tales are messier in their symbolism that way.  It is another woman who takes her voice, while every male would rail against it.


Earl Wajenberg said...

??? They are unhappy because there are “no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast”? That's what the villain did. They are curiously insensitive to what the characters do, whether they are good or bad, important or unimportant. This is cherry-picking your data.

"My best guess is that it's carelessness, because we're so trained to think that male is the norm,” says Eisenhauer, a graduate student at North Carolina State. “So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that's just really ingrained in our culture.”

Shopkeepers I grant, but female guards in an iron-age setting is just fantasy in another direction.

“We don't believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way,” says Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

This is a confession of motivated reasoning (barring some unreported context). We have this conclusion to support, so we'll hunt for evidence that supports it.

Earl Wajenberg said...

These researchers might be happier with a series of D&D-based cartoons. The default world of D&D is a medieval-or-something world unmoored from real history, made over to suit modern sensibilities. Although the game is notoriously dominated by male players, the source material is deliberately malleable and often goes out of its way to point out that you can match any sex or species to any job.

I'm semi-serious, here. They might not be bad movies. And you wouldn't have to vilify tradition.

Side note:

When analyzing Disney princess movies, you're always going to get a bump in the data when you hit "Sleeping Beauty." This is because the story is really very different from the others. The princess is a macguffin. The prince is a tool. The actual protagonists and antagonist are fairies -- little old ladies and a bad fairy that could be any age. (And all female.) The other characters are just their pawns. Granted, the two different sides are aiming for happy and sad/dead pawns respectively, but pawns they are, nevertheless.

bs king said...

Yeah, pretty much none of us want to watch any of those fairy tales in their original form. I remember finding an older copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales when I was 8 or so and crying really hard at the end of the little Mermaid. She becomes sea foam??? For eternity??? What does that even mean??? Those things were morbid.

I go back and forth on the realism in movies and its effect on us. Is it one of the Malcolm Gladwell books that has an anecdote about the effect of gangster movies on criminals? Basically they invented the stereotype by exaggerating the affect of one or two gangsters, then police noticed an uptick in gangsters who started talking like the movie version. So the stereotype comes from somewhere, then Hollywood captures it, then other people mimic it. Google isn't helping me find the particulars, but it seems right to me that movies can simultaneously reflect and influence reality.

WRT to the talking thing: it's the missing moms. Give half of Dads lines to a mom and I bet that evens out.

Sam L. said...

I give you Chicks In Chainmail (SF/Fantasy):

Sam L. said...


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Missing moms - good pickup. But stepmothers or new families sometimes figure in. Still, I'll bet that's part of it.

As for chicks in chainmail, my point exactly. Not a fairy tale. A subset of the fantasy genre. Definitely in the "Wouldn't It Be Cool If" category rather than "Once Upon A Time."

Retriever said...

Some quick and rambling token female comments :) ....As a fairly assertive female I LOATHE all the Disney princesses, old and newer. It wasn't because of counting words or roles, but just because the plots were dumbed down, characters made two dimensional. Of course, my girls, following my example, sigh as we pass the brides in Disney Princess dresses being photographed in our local park "another lamb to the slaughter!" or "enjoy today before you begin a life of eternal servitude!"

One thing I've found is that moms tend to be more polarised about Disney than dads (at least where I live). Dads tend to think the feminists or the cranky old fashioned intellectual snobs like me should just lighten up. They often make points similar to those that people here have made about how the old fairy tales are just as horrible or creepier or chauvinist or whatever, just in different ways. Certainly I remember as a little girl the desperation with which I used to read storybooks, hoping for even ONE heroic female character I could identify with. I more or less gave up and identified with the boys when reading, without in any way becoming gender-confused in real life...I detested most of CS Lewis' females (Aravis was perhaps the best, but she was annoying). We won't go into TOlkien's. It used to infuriate me in fairy tales and mythology and classic adventure stories that virtually the only strong females were witches, evil queens, slutty seductresses, or in need or rescue, or got left by the hero etc.

Most moms when I had little kids (and now), LOVED Disney as a free babysitter. I didn't, altho God knows I was desperate for a break at times w a spouse at work 14 hours a day and 3 kids in 3 years. Bit, the thing about these movies, if you are actually with little kids all day, is that kids don't watch these movies once at the movie theater. Typically, they watch them dozens and dozens of times over. In the car on DVD players in the back of the mini van, on the TV at home while Mom cooks dinner, etc. So they have a HUGE impact if a parent allows them. Many kids become absolutely fixated on them. My children were never taken to Disneyland or Disneyworld. We didn't allow them TV, except briefly during a difficult pregnancy of mine (after a miscarriage) when they got a video when I had to rest in the afternoon. Loathsome Little Mermaid was one I can still remember...

So I thought the article was good. It captured many of my objections to the movies. Basically, they are dreck.

When the article describes how in the newer ones (tho the 80s/90s are hardly new!) the females speak less than the older ones. it made me think that something similar has happened to young women in real life since my days in college: altho they THINK they are more liberated, they are actually far less so. Socially: far more have never had a boyfriend and hookups are the only thing offered. Young men rationalise it and say "women are hos" but I talk to enough weeping young women to know how they HATE it. They are judged far more by their appearance now than when I was young. There is more tokenism and forced integration of women into the workplace but aggressive women are still viewed as bitches (the Hillary phenomenon, tho she IS one). Won't go on w more examples...

D & D? Both my daughters (who are beautiful, brilliant, altruiistic. kind, love men,etc--who, me, partial?!) have been Dungeon Masters in D & D (both are computer geeks. one winning a middle school "best with computers" prize over the Asians and the boys. Like me, both are good at many things traditionally male, but have zero patience with misogyny. Our preferred tactic is simply to detour, to avoid it and choose another field (we can't stand to be around chauvinists). We hate Disney Princesses.

Sam L. said...

Chicks in Chainmail is still strong-women-protaganists-in-stories.

Sam L. said...

" There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things."

Women know their strengths, and men are the ones to go after The Beast. As for the drinking in the taverns, that was for the local hookers. I'm sure women did invent things. Trouble is, too many people seem to hate how people behaved (or misbehaved) (or have been said to have) in the good old bad old days. Do we really know? Can we really understand the past?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"Can we really understand the past?" One can take that as a superficial question or a profound one. On the basis of your previous comments, I am choosing the latter.

Sam L. said...

That's because I've read it elsewhere, fairly recently. Most of what I think I know about the '20s and '30s comes from the movies (for images) and things I've read, so the only thing I KNOW that I know is that I don't know enough. And that how life was in one place is not likely true for some other place. Also, the observer has a bias that I do not know, though maybe I can get an approximation of it.

Sam L. said...

Further, if women unite to fight The Beast, and a number of them die, and are of child-bearing age, then they shall bear no more children. Men are the "more replaceable" unit, which men understand, and sacrifice themselves to save their women and children.

I think I'm done, now. No guarantees, though.