Friday, 31 August 2012

7 Quick Takes

I realize that I have been neglecting this blog. For a period I thought about writing a post explaining why, but that might be too self-indulgent. I don’t know what to expect of the future: I could suddenly be more productive, but I could also continue by unreliable trickle. We will see. In the interim, I can at least tell you what is going on with me.

I have finished my courses for my Master’s of English Literature. In a few days I begin a Master’s of Library Science. The good news is that I am not moving from the city or, indeed, my apartment. All is jolly roses here.
A short word on the switch: there are very few professorships available, so getting a PhD is risky; I am feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the seclusion of the English department, as I am uninterested in producing knowledge that will not reach people making decisions; I want a degree which gives me some clear career path, so that even if I do not wind up following that path, I at least know that I can if I need to; I find the idea of helping people access information and knowledge appealing.

For those of you curious about academics, would you be interested in knowing what I have been writing about? I wrote a paper about the trouble with empathy in Wilfred Owen’s poetry; I wrote another paper, for a class on the history of the discipline, trying to figure out the epistemological base of Stephen Greenblatt’s new historicism, finally arguing that he produces a sleight-of-hand covering over a fundamental instability (fusing the old historicism and new criticism); and I wrote a final paper, in my summer course, using Laplanche’s psychoanalysis and Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself to analyze the asexuality described in the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN).

I went on a cross-country trip with Jon after my summer course; I also went to Florida and (very briefly) the Bahamas, including a day in the Magic Kingdom; afterwards, I stayed with my parents in Fort McMurray, where we started a road trip to Hay River, Northwest Territories. It was a busy summer.

What have I been reading? Half-World, by Hiromi Goto, is a YA urban fantasy novel that is surprisingly bleak and difficult, but certainly engaging and worth a read (so long as you aren’t put off by journeys into hell-worlds). Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones are the first three of the Chrestomanci series (if you order them according to Jones’ recommended reading order, and not publishing or internal chronological order). Of them, I think I preferred The Lives of Christopher Chant, though I did quite like Charmed Life. Silver: Return to Treasure Island, by Andrew Motion, is a sequel (written by another author) to Treasure Island. It was enjoyable and a highly appropriate read in the Bahamas, but it has perhaps unachieved presumptions to Literature. The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head, by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, is an interesting, readable, Oliver-Sacks-style set of essays on psychological cases, though I would accuse it of voyeurism and unfounded philosophizing. G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Knew Too Much is what you would get if a Catholic, somewhat bitter C. S. Lewis wrote detective fiction in the school of Sherlock Holmes (at least, that's what I took from it).
From class, I would recommend Roberto Bolano’s Amulet, Pat Barker’s Another World, Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself (caution: theory! jargon! Neitzsche! Kafka! Foucault!), and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (which I had the pleasure of discussing as a TA rather than as a student, and which is now my favourite play ever). I would even recommend Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I did not especially enjoy the beginning and it was very difficult to teach, but it got better as a plot sedimented.

Of course I have also been reading webcomics. I have picked up John Allison’s Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round, both of which are lovely just for their linguistic talent. Scary Go Round is one that improves as it goes, beginning without much strength but getting wonderful as it loses one set of protagonists and picks up a couple other sets of protagonists. (It is somewhat like what Questionable Content would be like if the characters went on adventurers, stopped genuflecting, had a plot, and decided to investigate the weird things going around them instead of mope about relationship issues...OK, so it’s not much like Questionable Content, I guess.) Bad Machinery, the sequel to Scary Go Round, begins wonderful and holds the note. Namesakes is also a lot of fun for people who are interested in things set in Oz, Wonderland, and other public domain fantasy settings.
And my sister-in-law-to-be is about to launch a web-serialized graphic novel entitled Megan Kearney’s Beauty and the Beast, located here. This I will be reading.

I have also been watching lots of things. I will not list them all, but I especially loved BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. With The X-Files I for perhaps the first time in my life shipped a couple (and was satisfied). I have finished off everything Joss Whedon has directed for television, after watching his work for years. The Secret World of Arriety is gorgeous. I am also starting to watch the Disney "classics" again or for the first time, as the case may be. So far, I have seen Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and The Little Mermaid.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sleeping Beauty’s Three Good Fairies

or, What Makes a Feminist Protagonist Anyway?

I do not think this image is proportionally representative of the film.
For a few reasons, I have decided to re-watch many of the Disney films in the coming weeks (or months, if that’s what it takes). The first I watched, however, was not a re-viewing, but a viewing for the first time: Sleeping Beauty (1959), which I had never seen before (to my memory). My expectations were therefore fairly few. Nonetheless I discovered upon watching the film that I did have some expectations after all: I expected Princess Aurora and Prince Philip to be the main characters. I do not think that this expectation was fulfilled.

These days there is a lot of talk about how women characters are portrayed, and Disney princesses are a popular subject of this conversation. One can even find lists which rank the princesses according to how feminist they are. Princess Aurora usually does not fare well in these discussions. Granted, it would be difficult to rig a version of Sleeping Beauty which is particularly feminist: the princess spends almost all of the story a victim, and in most of it an entirely passive one (she’s sleeping!). As a character, Disney’s Aurora is hard to make out; she seems clever and active enough when left to her own devices, but she falls in love with a strange man after one song (mind you, he’s the only man she ever met and she’s sixteen, so it’s not implausible) and then weeps all the way from there to the fateful prick. As far as the plot goes, Sleeping Beauty is a feminist’s nightmare: the princess is marked out as a victim from infancy while simultaneously subject to an all-powerful patriarchal authority (father and king in one figure); her life is planned out for her, and she raised in seclusion under the assumption that she must always be protected, rather than taught to protect herself; all men are kept away from her, and as a result she does not know how to interact with them; when her aggressor finds her, the princess is inexorably drawn, without resistance, to a domestic and traditionally gender-linked device, which promptly puts her to sleep; the princess then waits passively until a male hero defeats her aggressor and binds her to himself in matrimony. (Maybe even worse, the villain is a classic instance of a woman who wants power becoming evil.)

While I am not about to suggest that this nightmare is actually absent from the movie or that the movie is somehow not problematic, I will suggest that we might perceive Sleeping Beauty to be worse than it is if we imagine either Prince Philip or Princess Aurora to be the protagonist of the movie. Rather, I think a strong case could be made that the Three Good Fairies are the protagonists of the film. They get more screen time than the prince and probably even the princess, and they get more control over the events of the story than any of the royals, too. If it had been up to Prince Philip, the sleeping curse would have lasted for the traditional one hundred years, but the Three Good Fairies circumvented that—so, in a more metafictional sense, they did change the story from the original to the Disney-version. Sleeping Beauty is in a lot of ways what happens if we take the behind-the-scenes-operators and give them the main attention of the narrative, which is an interesting experiment.

But you might object that the Three Good Fairies are not feminist protagonists. I certainly agree that they are not feminist characters in the sense that we are used to them. Most obviously, they are incompetent and silly a lot of the time. When trying to imagine how they might save the princess, one of them suggests turning her into a flower. This is precisely the kind of silliness a chauvinistic man might attribute to women. Worse, their squabbles over what colour dress Aurora should wear is what gives away their position to the enemy. What better metaphor for a woman’s supposedly misplaced priorities? Bear with me, though. They do ultimately wind up being competent: in a show of remarkable bravery, they infiltrate Maleficent’s castle, sneak into Prince Philip’s cell, remove his chains with magic-wand cutting torches, arm him, and protect him from enemies during his escape. Prince Philip cuts through the thorns and fights dragon-Maleficent, yes, but during his moment of weakness they arrive and cast a spell on his sword, which allows him to finally defeat Maleficent. As far as support roles go, they do almost all of the work. Prince Philip gets to be the regular masculine hero, victorious through violent monomachy, but the focus is on the support. The heroism of support could be a strong opportunity for feminist re-tellings; after all, women have historically be shuttled (whether willing or not) into support positions, and those stories so rarely get told. Sleeping Beauty may not be explicitly thematizing this unfairness, but insofar as the Three Good Fairies take protagonist positions, the movie is doing some of the work of telling those stories. The Good Fairies are not Whedonist super-powered women or self-aware anti-heroic Atwood types, but that does not mean they are not “strong role models” for all that.

Let’s go back to the part where the Good Fairies are incompetent. What is it that they are not competent in? Clearly they are good at magic. No, when they are most useless it is in domestic activity. They are terrible domestic help. One of the most amusing parts of the movie is watching them make a childish mistakes when trying to prepare for Aurora’s sixteenth birthday: one of them, making a dress, cuts a hole in the middle of the fabric for the princess’s head and neck; another, making a cake, puts the icing on and stacks the layers on top of each other before putting it in the oven. I find it very interesting that these female characters, clearly ones we are supposed to admire (eventually), fail consistently at being “good women.” Now, this comedy relies on an expectations that three grandmotherly-types would be good at domestic arts, and the recognition that domestic arts take real skill is undermined when they just magic it all away in the end, but I think that at least we can acknowledge an ideological tension present between Good-Fairies-as-unconventional and Good-Fairies-as-domestic-fairies. Put differently, they are shown as both unrealistic domestic goddesses and as real, futzing people who are not terribly good at cooking. (Also, they are old and they are not offered as sexy eye candy. Chalk a few more for the good guys.)

I am not hailing Sleeping Beauty as a feminist masterpiece. But I do have two lessons that I have taken away from this. The first is that we might need to re-imagine what a feminist protagonist would look like (and this is work already well underway, has been for a while, but we need to continue re-imagining); the second is that part of ethical reading (or viewing) involves asking questions about who the protagonist is (who is driving the action? with whom is the film trying to ally the viewer’s sympathies?) and trying to monitor one’s assumptions about it.

[Some lingering problems: 1. Women are often encouraged to let men take credit, because men are not penalized for self-promotion but women are. Is celebrating women who stay in the background a way of telling women to wait for others to notice their accomplishments and do the promoting work for them? If so, that promotion—and so the career promotions—will not happen. 2. What about Maleficent? She seems in lots of ways like a regular wicked witch, a standard evil-women-with-power. There's also a whiff of sexy=evil. What can we do with her? 3. Did anyone else prefer Aurora's peasant dress to her princess dress?]
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