Birds of a Feather: Mastering Suspense and Metaphor in the Climax of THE BIRDS

•27/07/2014 • Leave a Comment

27 July 2014

When you are Alfred Hitchcock and you have already made Psycho, what is next?  What do you work on when you already achieved such cinematic success and stardom?  Perhaps the answer is…go back to your roots.  Well, to be fair, not all the way back, but Hitchcock did return to Daphne du Maurier’s literature, as he did in the 1940s when he made Rebecca.  This time, Hitchcock went for one of her short stories, “The Birds.”

In short, Hitchcock’s adapted film, also titled The Birds, follows the developing relationship between a San Francisco socialite, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), and California native Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor).  Melanie follows Mitch to Bodega Bay, California, a small coastal town, where Mitch lives with his mother (Jessica Tandy) and young sister (Veronica Cartwright).  Shortly after Melanie arrives, birds begin migrating to the area and attacking people.  The first attack is by a seagull on Melanie, but within hours the attacks escalate to swarms of birds attacking the entire community, killing several who dare to fight. With no help from the outside world or explanations about why this is happening, Mitch and Melanie, along with Mitch’s mother and sister, barricade themselves inside the family home and prepare for battle in an unforgettable cinematic climax.

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The climax of the film is when Melanie explores the Brenner’s attic, discovering the birds have broken into the home and suffering one final, near-fatal attack by the lingering flock.  Melanie’s discovery has interesting meaning, yet there is not much that prompts Melanie to wander off from the Brenner’s and investigate the restricted, dark areas of the Brenner home.  So, why does Melanie’s adventure in the attic such a successful climax to The Birds if it is difficult to understand why she investigated in the first place?

First, the climax is successful because the “Master of Suspense” knows exactly how to build anxiety and excitement, simultaneously, in viewers, and he knows that his viewers are hungry for this tension, especially in a post-Psycho world.  This final attack on Melanie is, perhaps, his most suspenseful moment in the film, the moment Hitchcock spreads his wings (pun intended) and gives viewers exactly the thrill they seek in The Birds.

Why is it so suspenseful?  Apart from the narrative detail that Melanie is alone in the scene, a large part of the scene’s suspense is its silence.  As Melanie approaches the attic, turns the door’s knob, and discovers the birds, not a sound is heard.  Even diegetic sound is quieted so that the silence of the moment is deafening.  Sounds distracts sight, but without sound all the audience can do is sit anxiously awaiting whatever danger hides behind the door in the attic.

In addition to the silence, the scene is also an allusion to Psycho.  Released three years after Hitchcock’s most infamous cinematic success, Melanie’s walk up the stairs in The Birds is reminiscent of the pivotal staircase in Psycho which leads to Mrs. Bates’ bedroom.  Moreover, even though Mrs. Bates is not in her room, she is behind a door, a door which separates a hidden, dark, forgotten room in the Bates’ home.  So, as Melanie slowly turns the attic door’s knob, the audience continues to be, unconsciously, reminded of the Psycho, heightening the scene’s suspense.

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All this suspense occurs before Melanie is actually attacked in this climax.  And, this anticipatory tension prepares viewers for so brutal an attack Hitchcock film’s the moment in fragments.  Never once does Hitchcock use a long shot in this scene; instead, Hitchcock stays in medium and close-up shots.  Hitchcock in not the “Master of Suspense” for no reason, and this unforgettable climax points out why.  By filming the birds attacking Melanie in fragments, viewers have a restricted/limited view of the event.  Instead of shielding their eyes from the grotesque, traumatic attack, viewers are shielded by Hitchcock’s cuts.  And, what do viewers do when cuts quicken the pace and the image becomes unclear?  Viewers look closer, focus harder.  This offers Hitchcock an opportunity he cannot pass up.  Injected into the montage of cuts where birds peck at Melanie’s hands and feet, and between cuts of Melanie desperately swatting at crows and seagulls, there are shots of birds flying directly at the camera, as though viewers are Melanie and the birds are going to fly right through the screen and attack those watching.  This clever, sudden break of the fourth wall comes at the peak of the audiences’ anxiety; therefore, the perfect time to give viewers the thrill they seek.

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But it is not simply the suspense Hitchcock creates in this climax that makes the scene effective; the climax of The Birds is a metaphor, and the comparison it draws helps the audience connect to the film on an unconscious level that only Hitchcock, and the few directors of his caliber, could accomplish.

Asking why Melanie goes to the attic is like asking why viewers go to see The Birds?  Metaphorically, Melanie represents the viewers.  The climax is about confronting fear, being attacked by the unknown, and experiencing trauma.  This is what Hitchcock viewers are doing when watching his film, and, on that level, they can relate to Melanie’s experience.  As all great horror, thriller, sci-fi, etc. films do, the human experience is shown on a slant and/or in an extreme, but it is a human experience nonetheless. Sometimes de-familiarizing oneself with reality (as one perceives it) is an excellent way to see reality clearly.  Hitchcock, experimental as always, plays with this idea.  It is not that viewers are all people willing to wander into a killer bird infested attic alone, but viewers of The Birds are people willing to venture into the dark, an isolating place, and experience a trauma they know awaits them.

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From this perspective, the climax of The Birds is successful, not only because it satisfies viewers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for suspense and thrills, but also because it validates their hunger.  On this deeper level, one completely unconscious to viewers are they watch the film, The Birds does not only capture a story, it captures its audience.

In the end, no one knows why the birds attack or if they will attack again, but viewers do not need to know the answers to these questions.  Viewers got what they needed from the aforementioned climax, and what they needed was validation that seeking out the unknown and confronting fear is necessary.  Viewers did that, as they watched Melanie do that; therefore, in the final shot, Hitchcock leaves viewers in the unknown, challenging them to continue seeking and daring them to continue confronting fear.

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Lost in the Dissolve: Another Lady Vanishes in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO

•20/07/2014 • Leave a Comment

20 July 2014

Marjorie Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), called Midge by her good friend John Ferguson (James Stewart)—whom she calls Johnny or sometimes Johnny-O—is a secondary character in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller Vertigo.  Midge, as she is most often referred, is a “plain-Jane,” glasses-wearing realist.  She is articulate, intelligent, independent, and a talented artist.  When the film begins, the audience meets Midge, having left her paintbrushes behind, pursuing a career as a brassiere designer.  According to Midge, the job “pays the bills.”

Sadly, Midge is in love with Johnny, who happens to be her former fiancé from their college days, but Johnny does not see Midge romantically anymore; to Johnny, Midge is a great friend who he can go out for beers with.  Even when Johnny, a detective, suffers a terrible trauma on the job, and Midge cares for him, Johnny is still unable to see Midge as a lover; addressing herself on more than one occasion as “mother,” Midge is maternal, not sexy.  Nevertheless, the two seem very close and spend a lot of time together…until Midge disappears from the film without any explanation.  Although unintentional on Hitchcock’s part, in Vertigo Midge vanishes without a word, communicating to viewers that independent and self-reliant women are easily discarded.

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As stated, Midge is a sensible woman; pragmatist would be an accurate way of describing her.  And, initially, this characterization compliments the equally pragmatic Johnny.  As a detective, Johnny would have to be a logical thinker, reliant on evidence in decision-making, and in complete emotional control.  Yet, when Johnny suffers a near death experience, he decides to quit the police force.  Even though Midge encourages him to stay, Johnny refuses to return to work, perhaps fearful that the acrophobia and vertigo he now has as a result of the trauma will present him obstacles on the job.  Unbeknownst to the two friends, Johnny’s refusal to return to work is the beginning of Midge’s end.

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With spare time available, Johnny meets with an old friend from college, a friend Midge does not remember—which should have been a red flag to Johnny about this mystery friend’s credibility, as Midge seems the type of person who would remember everyone.  This old friend hires Johnny to watch his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak).  According to him, Madeline may be possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a young woman jilted by a lover and driven to suicide.  Despite the supernatural nature of the case, Johnny takes on the investigation, a decision which will eventually push Midge out of his life.

As Johnny becomes more and more involved with his case, Midge begins questioning his investigation.  Johnny shares little with Midge, perhaps because he knows her sensible mind will not take his case’s ghostly circumstances seriously, or because his interest in the sultry Madeline distracts Johnny from acknowledging Midge.  Either way, the more invested Johnny becomes in Madeline and her apparent possession, the further away he moves from Midge, despite Midge’s efforts to remain a part of his life.

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The once pragmatic friends are now an awkward pairing; Midge is still as matter-of-fact as ever, but Johnny begins to slip into a world full of illusions.  Had Johnny talked to Midge about the case, as she seemed to want him to, Midge, likely, would have helped Johnny see the facts through the illusions.  Midge would have been his anchor, rooting him on logic and reality.  However, Johnny goes willingly into the world of illusion.

This decision leads him right into another trauma, Madeline’s death.  One may assume Madeline’s demise would end his investigation and restore his life to what it was before he took on this case, but that is not the direction Vertigo takes.  Instead of returning to reality from his world of illusions, Johnny enters a new world, one of complete delusion.  And, remembering how reality-based Midge is, a world of delusions is no place for Midge and she, literally, disappears from the film without explanation.

There are a few ways one can read Midge’s disappearance.  First, in her final scene, the audience sees Midge standing alone in a hallway of the sanatorium Johnny has been placed in. Juxtaposing this final shot with her current status in Johnny’s life, Midge is standing in the place she does not belong.  She tries to keep footing in Johnny’s life, but as his illusions turn to delusions, she no longer belongs with him.  And, in Midge’s final scene, she stands in the hallway of a sanatorium full of people out of touch with reality, a place this woman, who is grounded in reality, does not belong.  And so, in one of the film’s dissolves, Midge disappears.

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From a feminist perspective, Midge’s independence seals her fate in Vertigo, a fate worse than death, eradication.  The other women in the film (Carlotta, Madeline, and Judy) all die; their stories are each carried through to an end.  Their deaths are linked to the men each woman loved: Carlotta eventually kills herself after the love of her life discards her, Madeline’s husband kills her, and Judy’s accidental fall to death is the result of an argument with Johnny.  Yet, Midge does not die like the other women; she is not granted an ending.   And, the difference between Midge and the other women is that Midge is independent, meaning not romantically or financially bound to a man.

Carlotta, Madeline, and Judy’s deaths are all tragic, but Midge’s disappearance is the film’s greatest tragedy.  She is not given the dignity of an ending, of some closure; standing alone, she effortlessly dissolves as Hitchcock moves into the next scene.

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Of all the things that can be said about the “Master of Suspense,” careless is certainly not one of them, is it?  Can it be possible Hitchcock did not realize the implication about women and their worth he was making when he created an independent, intelligent, talented women, then undercut her by portraying her as completely undesirable, and finally allowing her to simply disappear without a word or care?

The answer is no, he is not careless.  Hitchcock did not make Midge disappear, the studio did.  Hitchcock filmed a final scene for Vertigo, one that was only discovered in the 1990s.  After Judy’s death, Johnny returns to Midge’s apartment, not only recuperating the film so that Johnny returns from his delusion into reality, but also highlighting Midge, showing women can exist on film without being sex symbols; strong women can survive a film unchanged.  Unfortunately, Hitchcock lost his last scene when his cut of Vertigo was censored.  Amid the subliminal and subversive messages intentionally communicated by Hitchcock lies a unplanned message: women who are not attractive to men and dare to exist without a man deserve to be discarded.  Terrifyingly, Vertigo’s 1950’s audiences did not take issue with Midge’s disappearance or its implications.

Retrospectively, early in the film, while in the bookshop inquiring about Carlotta, Midge and Johnny listen to the shopkeeper reminisce about the past, when Carlotta’s lover “threw her away.”  The shopkeeper explains that men could discard women easily because “they had the power and they had the freedom.”  The shopkeeper suggests times are different now; in the film’s world, men cannot abandon women as easily as they way they could before.  Yet, apparently that shopkeeper, like Johnny, struggles with some illusions.  In the film’s fictional world men are still abandoning women.  And, even more frightening than that, upon Vertigo’s release in 1958, men have found a reel way to continue abandoning women in the real world.  Inadvertently, Hitchcock proves the shopkeeper wrong by making Midge disappear, successfully abandoning a woman in Vertigo for all the world to see.

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Dial M for Murder (1954)

•13/07/2014 • Leave a Comment

V.A.C.A.T.I.O.N.  Reel Club will be back in business–and full of scandal with The Master of Suspense–by Sunday July 20th, 2014.

Notorious (1946)

•06/07/2014 • Leave a Comment

V.A.C.A.T.I.O.N.  Reel Club will be back in business–and full of scandal with The Master of Suspense–by Sunday July 20th, 2014.

“…Brave Enough…”: Change, or Lack Thereof, in Disney/Pixar’s BRAVE

•29/06/2014 • Leave a Comment

29 June 2014

It took some time, and a bit of outspoken frustration from film audiences, but in 2012 Disney, in collaboration with Pixar, gave viewers a princess film in which the princess has… a relationship with her mother.  And, not only does Merida, the princess in question, have a mother (Elinor) who plays an active role in the princess’s life, Merida and Elinor’s relationship is at the center of the film’s plot.  This film is Brave…or is it?

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In short, Brave takes place in the Scottish Highlands, following members of the royal Dunbroch clan.  Princess Merida, the eldest child of King Fergus and Queen Elinor, defies the typical “princess” role with her fiercely independent, adventure-seeking, sporty (she loves archery) characteristics, not to mention her hearty appetite.  But, when Merida learns her parents have invited men from allied clans to compete for her hand in marriage, Merida rebels.  Feeling as though she is not ready to marry, and wanting to select her own partner, when the time eventually comes, Merida voices her concerns, only be countered by her mother, the queen, who insists the competition, called the Highland Games, are tradition and tradition must be upheld.  The day of the Games, Merida selects archery as the contest to earn her hand and, after all the men shoot, Merida stands up, declares herself an eldest child, and shoots for her own hand, annihilating her competitors.  Irate, Elinor drags Merida into the castle; Merida and Elinor argue, during which time Merida rips a tapestry Elinor made for her and Elinor throws Merida’s bow into the fire.

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Devastated, Merida flees the castle, wandering through the woods and into and witch’s lair.  There, she bargains with the witch for a spell that will change her mother.  However, when she returns to her castle and puts the spell on her mother, the change that occurs is not what Merida hoped; it Elinor changes into a bear.   Merida and Elinor, now a bear, leave the castle, seeking out the witch to reverse the spell.  Unfortunately, the witch is gone, leaving a message for Merida: “mend the bond torn by pride.” Also, the witch warns Merida that if she cannot mend this bond by the second sunrise, this spell with be permanent.  As Merida and Elinor try solving the witch’s riddle, tensions back at the castle build between the clans gathered to complete for Merida’s hand. With time running out before the second sunrise, Merida must care for her mother and settle the barbarism erupting within her kingdom, all the while trying to discover how to change her mother back into a human.

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While it is certainly about time Disney broadened the horizon on relationships in a princess’s life—elaborating beyond relationships with a father and male love interest—the Merida/Elinor plot is problematic.  The basic problems erupting as a result of Merida and Elinor’s story are these: 1) Merida declares she does not want to become like her traditional mother, yet she subtly does, and 2) Merida’s independence leads her on a quest for change in tradition, yet she spends most of the film trying to undo the “change” she made happen, metaphorically revoking her brave, independent defiance of tradition.

To approach the first problem, Elinor’s characteristics are worth mentioning. She is a devoted caregiver, peacekeeper (particularly of men), and respecter of traditions.  Conversely, Merida does not display any of these attributes.  Merida feeds her small brothers sweets instead of encouraging them to eat their more nutritious meal.  Evident by the mockery she makes of the Highland Games set up to win her hand, she is no diplomat or peacekeeper, often riling up situations as opposed to calming them.  And, lastly, she defies tradition, wanting to change tradition, even though custom dictates the winner of a competition wins her hand in marriage as prize.

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However, after Elinor changes into a bear, Merida’s characterization undergoes a drastic transformation; Merida becomes like Elinor, suggesting the real change is not with Elinor, but with Merida.  Take, for example, when Merida builds the shelter in the woods to keep the rain off her mother, now a bear.  Or, when Merida teaches Elinor how to fish and feed herself.  Surprisingly, the cookie-eating, flighty young princess has, overnight, transformed into a caregiver.

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Also, when Merida returns to her castle to repair the rip she tore in the tapestry, which she hopes will “mend the tear torn by pride,” she sees chaos in the castle; her father and all the clansmen are fighting, violently, with one another.  Like her mother, Merida instinctually transforms into a peacekeeper.  Taking the cue from Elinor, Merida talks, calmly and persuasively, to the men, reminding them of their alliances and encouraging them to cease fighting; as Elinor’s husband always listens to her, the men listen to Merida.

And, by the end of the film, Merida does repair the tapestry, apologizes to her mother for the spell, and reaffirms her love to Elinor by the second sunrise.  Shortly after, the audience sees Merida and Elinor creating a new tapestry together.  Symbolically, repairing the tapestry and creating a new tapestry with her mother suggests Merida’s new-found respect for tradition.  The art of tapestry weaving is a tradition (perhaps not the most common artistic tradition in Scotland, but a tradition all the same).

The second problem in Brave, which plays out through Merida and Elinor’s story, is that Merida spends the beginning of the film demanding change—a necessary and timely demand—but then spends the majority of the film trying to undo the change she makes happen.  Merida was wise to see that her mother’s compliance with tradition only perpetuates the princess problem: when a princess is voicelessly and submissively pushed on to an all-powerful man.  Merida was also wise to actively seek change.  However, as soon as change occurs, Merida gives up her independence and spends the rest of the film reversing the change.  Frighteningly, this reversal, according to the film, is what is brave.

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Reading into the film, the message Brave actually communicates to audiences is: changing tradition is bad.  Changing tradition may mean hurting a loved one and tearing a family apart. Changing tradition is so bad, in fact, that Merida, the young princess who once saw the need for a change in tradition, so she could leave a life of her own choosing, must undo the change and apologize for causing change.  In the film’s conclusion, Merida never gets her bow back, (as mentioned) she works on a new tapestry with her mother—demonstrating her respect for tradition—and she is last seen riding in the Scottish Highlands with her mother.  What happened to the independent young woman from the film’s opening who rode on her own?  That girl is gone.  According the message communicated throughout the film, Merida learned the danger and heartache in defiance and is now willing to sacrifice her independence, staying close to her mother’s side, for the traditional, unchanged life.

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In the end, Brave is not so…well…brave.  In fact, calling for change only to reverse the change is actually rather cowardly.  At the start of the film, Merida is independent and forward-thinking, but the film does a beautiful job of transforming her into her mother.  Tragically, Merida has the power to change antiquated ways, yet does not.

Who Is This Girl I See?: Reflecting on Female Representation in Disney’s MULAN

•22/06/2014 • Leave a Comment

22 June 2014

When it comes to Disney’s Mulan, one thing is true: the representation of girls and women to young audiences is just as negative in 1998 as it was in the 1930s when Disney began making animated features.

What is not true: Disney’s bizarre depiction of strong women in Mulan.

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It appears Disney assumes Mulan to be a forward-thinking, strong young woman; a role model to the young girls watching the film.  But why is that?  Because Mulan goes to war?  Because she overcomes psychical and mental obstacles and plays a large role in saving China from invasion?  Perhaps.  Going to war and challenging one’s self does require bravery, a type of bravery traditionally associated with men, not women.  Yet, Mulan is not as forward-thinking or strong as she is lucky.  It is lucky for Mulan that she is surrounded by weak men: her father is frail, her fellow warriors are uncoordinated and unfocused, and her leader/love interest (Li Shang) is not observant, articulate, or all that intelligent.  Mulan is fortunate that the men around her set a low bar and, by flukes, she is able to take advantage of situations that present themselves.  For example, when initially fighting Shan Yu’s Hun army in the snowy mountains of China, Mulan single-handedly defeats the invading army by causing an avalanche.  Of course, Mulan does not communicate her plan with any of her fellow soldiers or have this plan entirely worked out before she attempts it; inadvertently, she puts her fellow soldiers in the avalanche’s path.  Again, she is not a good soldier; she is lucky.

Actually, strike that. Mulan is not lucky; the cricket traveling with Mulan is what is lucky, at least that is what the audience is told.  Interestingly, Mulan cannot ever find herself in her own reflection, and at one point she claims that she sees “nothing” when she looks at herself.  (That is pretty accurate, Mulan.)  She is not a strong heroine; she is simply not as weak as the men around her.  And, remembering the cricket is the luck, she is not even lucky.  Add to this for the majority of the film Mulan lives a lie, surrendering her identify, it is fair to say Mulan is nothing.

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And, even if viewers want to overlook Mulan’s nothingness and see her as daring young woman unafraid to challenge traditional gender roles and prove girls are capable of everything boys are capable of, the film, in its conclusion, does not allow it.  Mulan sacrifices her identity to fight, and she does this to protect her father and serve her country.  It seems as though disguising herself as a man is a valiant, loyal sacrifice.  For the first three-quarters of the film, viewers take Mulan’s transformation seriously, recognizing the danger and significance of her gender swap.  Yet, in the film’s climax, three of Mulan’s fellow soldiers gender swap as well to try holding off Shan Yu and his army; yet, when they do it, the swap is for comedic relief. Dressed as women, the men prance around, one asking, “Does this dress make me look fat?”

So, after viewers are expected to recognize Mulan sacrificing her identify to show valiance and loyalty in the face of danger, the film undercuts Mulan’s sacrifice by depicting the same sacrifice as a joke.  The soldiers’ cross-dressing is a mockery of Mulan’s actions.  Just as Mulan faces her greatest danger (Shan Yu), the film indirectly makes fun of her and reduces her sacrifice and daringness.

Also, in doing so, the film also gets in another cheap shot at women.  “Does this dress make me look fat?” is just another dig at the stereotypical representation of women as the vain and self-conscious gender.

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And so, this is Mulan.  The young woman who, according to Dinsey’s late-1990’s standards, is the strongest female representation yet, a positive one for young audiences.  Disney just did not understand.  Having their female become male does nothing to improve the representation of women, it only further perpetuates the suggestions that women are inferior or lesser.

Furthermore, in Mulan, Disney falls back into its bad habit of creating negative relationships between women.  Females do not have positive relationships with other women in most Disney films, including Mulan.

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Mulan has a mother and a grandmother, but they are only interested in her “bringing honor” to them by marrying well.  In fact, Mulan’s grandmother introduces Mulan to the audience by saying, “We’re going to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.”  In that statement, Mulan’s grandmother calls Mulan a female pig and suggests that Mulan is inferior, the opposite of something fine and/or desirable.  Also, Mulan’s mother, largely silent in this film, has absolutely no relationship with her daughter.  It seems Mulan’s mother appears in the film as the antithesis of Mulan because the mother is the submissive, devoted wife to Mulan’s father; mother seems a secondary role to wife in this character’s depiction.

In the end, when Mulan returns from war, she does not run and greet either of these women, suggesting indifference in the film’s female relationships.  And, when her grandmother sees Mulan has returned with gifts to offer her father, the grandmother says she would have rather Mulan return with a man instead.  Evidently, Mulan’s grandmother is not satisfied Mulan has returned safely, or impressed that Mulan defeated an army; none of Mulan’s accomplishments will every matter to her grandmother (or mother, by association) unless it is marrying a man, suggesting a lack of emotional connectedness between the women in the film.

The only other speaking female in Mulan is the matchmaker, and the relationship between Mulan and this “angel in the house” is far from positive.  The matchmaker judges Mulan; literally she is scoring Mulan’s performance, and she is also passing judgment on Mulan’s appearance, behavior, and overall ability to meet her own demanding expectations on young women.

Long before Mulan “becomes” a man to fight in war, the matchmaker unknowingly takes on a masculine appearance during Mulan’s assessment.  Smearing black paint on her face, giving the appearance of facial hair, the matchmaker, who already lacks a traditional feminine shape, transforms into a man right before the audience’s eyes.  Like the soldiers who do this in the end, this is done for comedic value.  Even before Mulan’s sacrifice, the matchmaker’s transformation sets up gender swapping as ridiculous, criticizing Mulan’s sacrifice before she even makes it.

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Disney manipulates what it means to be a strong woman.  According to Mulan, strong women are really those who act like men; therefore, there is no strong woman, no feminine strength.  As Mulan says, she looks in the mirror and sees nothing because, according to the film, when a woman looks in the mirror to see a reflection the only options she has are seeing a man staring back or, as in the case of Mulan, seeing nothing.

It is not until recently Disney made a necessary realization.  Representing female strength in film does not mean creating female characters who are masculine, or women who do what men do.  Females have strength all on their own, feminine and female strength.  Representing strong women means creating strong, positive female relationships in film.  Creating dynamic female characters who have identities they do not hide or change, relationships with men, and relationships with other women.  Moreover, one woman as antagonist to another woman only perpetuates a problem, as is the case with Mulan and the matchmaker (and so many other Disney princesses who encounter female villains).  Creating female alliances offers a solution to the poor, inaccurate representation of women in film.  Mulan had the opportunity to establish strong female relationships within its story; however, this film, like so many others in the Disney lineage, dismisses the value of strong female relationships and creates yet another negative, antagonistic relationship between its female characters.

Ironically, for a movie that spends so much time discussing honor, Mulan is a real shame.

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Mixed Messages: False Feminist and the Victimizer, Better Known as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

•15/06/2014 • Leave a Comment

15 June 2014

In Disney’s 1991 animated feature Beauty and the Beast, the audience meets Belle, a small town young woman desperate to break free from the constraints of, what she calls, her “provincial life.”  So why does Belle think her “poor…quiet village” she is limiting?  Because in her “little town…every day is like the one before,” full of “little people” who seem satisfied sacrificing their individuality so they can carry out their expected roles in life: mother, baker, bookshop owner, etc.

The audience learns early on that Belle uses books as an escape from this “provincial” world, an escape that awakens her mind to other worlds, new types of people, and the possibility of a better life outside her oppressive, confining town. Immediately, Belle, our protagonist, is characterized as intelligent and resourceful.  Moreover, diving into the 1990s with a splash, Disney sets up its newest heroine as an emerging feminist; put another way, a future feminist if Belle is daring enough to follow through with her convictions and boldly defy limitations…

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Spoiler alert: turns out Belle does not evolve into a feminist; instead, Belle devolves into a hypocrite, taking on her expected role in life, just like all the people of her village who she passes judgment on. Additionally, what is most frightening about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is not a temperamental beast lurking in a dark, enchanted castle; the most frightening thing about this Disney feature is that Belle starts off as a strong, independent, intellectual female for young audiences to admire, but subtly succumbs to the very submissive lifestyle her original self opposes, sending a mixed message to viewers but ultimately leaving impressionable audiences with the message that, in the end, strong-willed, bright females relinquish their power.

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First, shortly after Belle sings of her “provincial life,” the opening that so readily establishes her as a free-thinking, independent female, the audiences learns Belle is a devoted daughter, so devoted, in fact, that Belle sacrifices her own freedom for her father’s, making her the beast’s prisoner in his enchanted castle.  Once judging her town’s sacrificial mother desperate for eggs by proclaiming “there must be more than this provincial life,” Belle now shows herself to be as sacrificial a woman, one who, without hesitation, gives away her freedom for another’s.  Although the film presents Belle’s sacrifice as courageous and loving, her action undercuts every claim she made during her opening song.

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This initial sacrifice starts of a series of sacrifices Belle makes for others.  After coming to her wits and attempting to escape the beast’s castle, Belle nearly dies when confronted by wolves.  But, just when the wolves hungrily turn their attention on her horse, Philippe, Belle sacrifices by throwing herself in front of the noble steed.  Sacrificial actions continue when the beast shows up and fight off the wolves.  Although he defeats the enemies, the beast is wounded in the fight, giving Belle another opportunity to escape.  Yet, she does not; Belle sacrifices her freedom again by saving the beast and returning him home to the castle.  Submissively, she cleans his wounds and warms him, despite his angry, oppressive outbursts directed toward her.   Furthermore, when the beast presents Belle with a magical mirror which can show her Maurice, her father, Belle races to save her dad when she sees he is sick.  Sacrificing the happiness she appears to be finding with the beast (happiness some have argued is actually Stockholm Syndrome), Belle continues a sacrificial pattern of behavior she initially stood against, making her more of a hypocrite than a feminist or individual.

And, considering how boldly Belle initially declares her strength, intelligence, and ability to see beyond oppressive barriers in her “little town,” Belle’s de-evolution into hypocrite sends out a mixed message, which, unfortunately, is received by the impressionable target audience Disney markets its films to.  Yes, Belle presents herself as powerful initially because she dreams of something more, a life with adventure and freedom from expectations; however, this is not what Belle gets.  By adventure, impressionable audiences are to accept the female protagonist’s imprisonment (literally) by an abusive male, continuous fighting between and amid men for control over the woman’s life, and this woman finally falling in love with the “master” of the castle/her captor—with whom she has a dangerous and dysfunctional existence.  Not a positive message for young viewers, and a complete subversion of the message the film initially suggests.

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Moreover, a life with freedom from expectation is never something Belle achieves.  Impressionable audiences see Belle become a princess…yay, but, below the surface, Belle does not escape anything; Belle merely shifts social and economic statues.  Frighteningly, by ending up a princess in the end, audiences are expected to forget Belle concludes in the same equally restrictive position she started off in, only wealthier.  Originally, Belle was ostracized by her society because her life is controlled by her father, a clumsy inventor; in the end, Belle will continue to be ostracized by her society because she is no longer a part of the community, she is royalty, and her life will be controlled by her prince.  Yes, Belle, your life is no longer “provincial” (in one sense), but your life will still be the same scrutinized routine day-in, day-out.  Impressionable audiences are sold the surface-level message that being a princess trumps everything, but, upon closer inspection, is does nothing for Belle.

And so, in the end, the magic is gone, quite literally.  The film ever so subtly introduces fantasy in Belle’s opening through her daydreaming and imagining the magic of her books as reality.  Then, she actually wanders into an enchanted castle.  Yet, by the conclusion, all the spells are broken and the magic fizzles out.  This, of course, is the “happy ending” in Beauty and the Beast.  Impressionable audiences assume “happily ever after,” but, looking closer, this ending rather bluntly suggests just the opposite: the magic is lost and, therefore, the future is bleak.

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Why bleak?  Belle starts off the film strong-willed and powerful, but relinquishes that power, ending up in her expected role as princess.  Perhaps Mrs. Potts is right, “there may be something there that wasn’t there before,” and that something is a submissive side to Belle that she predictably reveals.  Belle, the protagonist who tells viewers her story will be different because she “wants more,” inevitably ends up like all the other Disney princesses.  Only difference, at the beginning of the film, Belle tries selling herself as something she is not, and that is more frightening than any untamable beast.

 
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