Knights in La La Land

best-leslie-knope-gifsIf there’s one thing that you can expect to hear from TV critics these days, it’s that we’ve reached ‘peak TV’. There’s so much good stuff to watch, in some many different genres, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up, not unless we, in the immortal words of Leslie Knope, ‘work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.’ Of course, here ‘working hard’ refers mostly to the labour undertaken by our eyes, which may become glazed if not permanently damaged, by excessive staring at a screen.

I watch more TV than a lot of other people I know, one of the few benefits of deciding not to sign up for a regular salary and its (many) perks. Thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hotstar and the  good work of Russian/Belarusian/Indian pirates, I can keep up to date with a load of shows that channels here do not deign to broadcast, or air at inconvenient hours, interspersed with ads. Despite the  amount of time I have, I have still not managed to watch everything that my friends assure me I ‘have to see’, like Breaking Bad, or The  Wire. Yes, yes, I know, I cannot claim to have lived unless I strike those off my list.

I’m usually reluctant to taste a new show, unless I’ve a) read about it in some esteemed publication whose writers I take seriously or b) been told to do so by a friend whose opinion I trust. My reluctance also stems from the  fact that for me, getting into a new show is a huge investment. Once I start something, I usually try to finish it, sticking with it as it makes its way to what is hopefully a great season/series finale. There have been very few instances where I’ve given up on a show I started, and though it may not be the  greatest example, Quantico was the  last to fall into this category. I tried to be supportive, but I’m sorry PC, I just couldn’t take it after three episodes.

My greatest joy comes from finding a show that has finished its run, and therefore is available in its entirety to binge watch. This January, I stumbled across just such a show. It ran for all of two seasons, has 18 episodes in all, each of which is around 21 minutes, the  standard sitcom length. I was amazed I hadn’t found it earlier, given that it hit all of the  right notes (for me). Seriously, consider this:

—It’s created by the  guy who wrote, among other film successes, Tangled.

Its music is written by the  guy who shaped the  music of, among other Disney movies, Aladdin.

—It’s executive produced and written by the  guy who is most famous for voicing, get this, Aladdin.

—Oh, and did I mention, it’s a spoof of knightly romances, a convention-spinning medieval tale of spurned lovers, ‘evil’ kings, overlooked squires, badass princesses and subplots galore?

It’s called Galavant, and I devoured it in a little less than three days.

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Disney gets many things right (yes, you guessed it, Disney owns this show), and one of them is spoofing its own work. The  classic animated films are filled with little puns and Easter eggs that reference others in their fraternity—such as the  Genie turning into Pocahontas, or Pumba, in throwaway moments of Aladdin and the  King of Thieves. But self-
spoofing is elevated to an art in Galavant, which employs the  musical numbers that
distinguish Disney’s classics to hilarious effect. The  opening title is basically a sum up of our hero, laying out his ‘every fairytale cliche’, and the  problem that besets him: his lady love, Madalena, has been stolen by the  ‘evil’ King Richard, and he must ride to rescue her on her wedding day. Ring any bells? That’s pretty much the  premise of Walter Scott’s poem ‘Lochinvar.’ So yes, cliched premise, but what follows is upturn after upturn of convention, starting off with Madalena deciding, ‘on second thought’, that she’d rather have fame and riches as queen than living a poor, if ‘acrobatic’ sex-filled life with Galavant. And so less than a quarter of the  way through the  first episode, the  opening titles have been debunked—Madalena is not the  helpless damsel we expect in so many knightly tales, and Galavant is an out-of-work, wine-sozzled man with a beer gut, no longer quite the  picture of ‘ruling in every way’.

But not for long. A mysterious princess shows up, claiming to need his help for vengeance against the  nefarious Richard, and promising him the  precious Jewel of Valencia in payment. Desperate to strike back at the  man who ‘stole’ Madalena, Galavant agrees to come, and thus adventures involving landlocked pirates, ridiculous battles, and singing monks begins.

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Heroes out to save…somebody.

The  cast is perfect, particularly Karen David, who plays ‘ethnically-ambiguous’ Princess Isabella, Mallory Jansen as the  ambitious Madalena, and Timothy Omundsen as the  hilarious King Richard. Everyone sings, and hams it up, and looks like they’re having such fun with their roles, fully embracing the  faux medieval aesthetic and all its Disney splendour. There are plenty of in-jokes, like random signs pointing to ‘Winterfell’, a handsome knight named ‘Sir Jean Hamm’ (played dashingly by John Stamos), and even a dig at Disney’s problematic race record, with Isabella, Sid (Galavant’s black squire) and Galavant singing stirringly about  what a wonderfully diverse cast they are. Alan Menken’s tunes are comfortingly similar to what we expect from a Disney production—catchy and filled with digs both at the  show itself, and the  larger TV universe of it which it forms a part. For instance, my personal favourite is the  opener of Season 2, where the  cast catches the  audience up with what’s happened in Season 1, and celebrates not being cancelled despite not ‘being Game of Thrones’.

Galavant owes a great deal, of course, to Don Quixote, one of the  earliest and still best send-ups of the  medieval romance. It’s easy to watch, and really seems made for people who want a little Disney feel good in their lives—feel good that is smarter than Once Upon a Time. I loved the  show, and I think that anyone who likes Disney, who likes intelligent satire and storytelling, and also just likes to see the  typical princess figures turn things upside down, should check out Galavant. Musicals seem to be having a moment, so why not keep the  La La Land feels going, Game of Thrones style?

Pocahontas, 21 years later

I have wanted, and continue to want many impossible things. I look up to more fictional characters than real people, and they have changed in the course of time. But the first one I remember having any ‘real’ effect on me, the first person, male or female, animated or not, to have a deep and lasting impact on my life, was Pocahontas, the eponymous heroine of Disney’s 1995 film.

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When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Pocahontas. I can tell you why, too. In some ways, the story is one that is familiar to many ‘poco’ kids around the world, longing, if not always consciously, to see themselves in western pop culture entertainment. I saw the movie when I was 5 years old, and from the moment Pocahontas burst onto the screen, I was in love. She was so amazing: she was beautiful, smart, and so rebellious, jumping off waterfalls instead of timidly climbing down them, refusing to marry the warrior her father had selected for her and instead, trying to cement peace between two peoples. Plus she had that whole mystical goddess-like connection going on with the world around her, with winds carrying secrets to her, and trees giving her life lessons in the absence of other maternal figures.

And needless to say, she had great hair. This is the worst kept secret in my family: that at the age of 5 I decided to grow my hair as long as possible, not because tradition or my mother dictated it, but because I wanted to be like Pocahontas.

meekoI was a fangirl. In fact, I don’t think I’ve fangirled as hard for anyone since. I dressed up like her for Halloween, I danced to ‘Colours of the Wind’ for my school talent show, I got my mother to buy me all the ‘kid’ history books she could find about her, as well as any other merchandise she could afford on her graduate student salary. This included chocolate, picture books, stickers, dolls…so when people talk about a new generation of kids and the Frozen craze, I totally get it. I was on the other side not too long ago.

One of my most crushing disappointments came two years after seeing the movie. I was used to people calling me ‘Pocahontas’ by then, playing along with my extremely modest opinion of myself. I was ‘Indian’ after all (who cared for political nuances, like whether I was the ‘right’ kind of Indian?), and she was, at the time, one of only two ‘brown’ princesses on the Disney pantheon. So it was a bit of a shock when, at a summer camp, a counseler, when he heard my fellow kids calling me ‘Pocahontas’ said ‘Pocahontas? No, she’s Jasmine.’ I assume, since he was a very nice man, that he meant nothing but the best with that statement, but I was crushed. I didn’t want to be Jasmine: she was spoilt and pampered and she had to be rescued. Pocahontas was so much cooler. Even as a seven year old, I could tell that choosing to stay behind with her people rather than sail off with the dreamy John Smith was revolutionary, and therefore, raised Pocahontas to a level far, far above her fellow heroines. It was also my first experience of being stuck into an identity not of my choosing, simply because I happened to look more like one kind of princess than the other, but as far as such profiling goes, this was one with relatively gentle consequences; after all, my ego is not the biggest casualty.

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Can a kid’s obsession with a questionable fictional character yield good results? Research has shown that reading fiction increases empathy, leading to the spectacular conclusion that reading things like Harry Potter makes kids better human beings. I agree—through fiction you live in other people’s heads, see perspectives that would otherwise remain closed to you. you learn the world is not centred around you and people like you, or that it shouldn’t be.

Fiction can also open the doors to topics and events that you would never have known of otherwise, whet interest in things that you never knew about. For instance, a friend of mine, an English student, grew extremely interested in the American recession of the early 2000s, and continues to slake that interest through movies about it (thanks to her, I watched the treasure that is Margin Call). For me, Pocahontas did the same. I began to read about American Indian history, starting with the ‘kid’ versions available. The ‘true’ story of Pocahontas devastated me; even the briefly told version I had left me angry and disbelieving. As I grew older, I read more—novels by American Indian authors, histories, interviews with activists. I began to view the Disney movie with a more critical eye, and while the experience of writing a paper on it and its historical/anthropological inaccuracies broke my heart a little*, I still continued to love it.

Pocahontas answered some deep-seated need in me to see a liberated, cool brown woman doing things on screen. She also opened my eyes to a whole new world, something no other Disney person managed to do. So if I never knew her, I have no doubt my life, and my interests, would be quite different, to say nothing of my appreciation of the voices of the mountain, or the colours of the wind.

*I learned, for instance, that Pocahontas, for all that she’s touted as an ‘American Indian’ princess, does not look anything like one. Artists consciously created her as a composite of a different races, using elements from ethnicities around the world to build this ‘ideal’ human being.

Uprooted

red forestThe words ‘once upon a time’ have always held a note of unparalleled promise for me. Call it the product of colonial baggage, of new-age Disney imperialism, or what you will, but there is no beginning for a story that sounds as portentous, as magical, as downright compelling as those four words. I’ve even let my fondness for them carry me through five seasons of ABC’s less than stellar show of the same name, though you could dismiss that as the result of said Disney imperialist baggage instead of any sense of fairy tale fidelity.

From this rather rambling paragraph, one might surmise that I love the phrase, and the fairy tales it usually prefaces. I also love fairy tale reworkings, my favourite collection being Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. This sort of stuff is hot right now, as Frozen, Tangled and other such female-power centric tales would testify, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted falls into its adultified (therefore, slightly more true-to-‘original’) genre.

A book built using elements of Polish folklore and fairytales, Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a seemingly simple village girl, and her drive to protect her friend, Kasia. The vally in which Agnieszka’s village is situated also harbours the corrupt and dangerous Wood, a place where, like the classic forest in many fairytales, something sinister resides, from whence issue monsters and nightmares. Those who venture into the Wood, or are taken into it, seldom return, and when they do, they are changed horrifically by some malignant power deep in its heart.

The valley is watched over by a wizard only known to the villagers as ‘the Dragon’, a distant, forbidding figure who seldom intrudes into their lives, except at the time of the Choosing. Every ten years, the Dragon selects one girl around the age of 17, whom he takes into his tower for ten years. What he does with them, the villagers aren’t sure, but after they emerge, they never stay at home, moving out of the valley and into the wider world. Agnieszka dreads the ‘taking’, not because she thinks she will become the dragon’s new ‘girl’, but she fears sundering from her closest friend, Kasia, who is ‘special’ and therefore, expected to be taken into the mysterious tower. Her world is turned grimly upside down when instead of Kasia, she is chosen and taken to the Dragon’s tower. Agnieszka must put her time in the Dragon’s tower to use when later, Kasia is taken into the Wood, forcing her to venture under its eerie boughs.

uprooted-naomi-novik-book-review-ya-fantasyIn a book that spins the familiar tropes of Beauty and the Beast, placing them amid the grim darkness of a forest, Novik weaves a totally unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable tale. There are proud princes, kidnapped queens, unsettling foes, fantasy monsters and stuffy wizards galore. There are also plucky village girls and surprisingly softhearted abductors—for all his pretensions otherwise, that is exactly what the ‘Dragon’ is regarded as in the villages—and of course, at its heart, a story of friendship. Agnieszka’s motives in the book, at least at the start, are largely driven by concern for Kasia, and there seems to be little she won’t do in order to save her friend.

The language of the book is simple, compelling, so much like a fairytale in one of those large, gilded collections of The Brothers Grimm. Novik’s world is painted with large brushstrokes, but her words manage to evoke detailed pictures in the mind of the reader. She refuses to lose herself in the lacework and flowery descriptions that dog many other fantasy writers, sticking to the simple, steady voice of the narrator. Like Agniezska herself, the girl’s voice (which guides readers through the book) is forthright, blunt more often than not, making no pretence at something she is not. For instance, here, in a few simple sentences, Novik conjures up for us the sheer menace of the Wood:

But there was something watching. I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here….something alive, and I was trapped in an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

For people who enjoy fairytales and the sense of wonder they evoke, like fantasy that rips apart expectation and convention, or just want a good story to while away the summer hours, Uprooted is the book for you. There’s something so refreshing about a book that doesn’t follow the epic hero quest formula, and instead, takes you back to the randomness of the fairy story, where literally anything can happen, where atmosphere means everything, and where the good old peasant girl gets turned into a princess in a tower, and instead of languishing for a prince, uses her guts and her guile to do what she thinks is right.

Throne of the Crescent Moon

Everyone knows about the Arabian Nights, right? Those stories spun by a captive Princess, who postponed death by entertaining her sociopathic husband with tales of genies and rogues, magic and pioneering sailors? They’re right up there among the literary treasures of the world, and plenty of people have plundered them and created compelling entertainment. My favourite example is Disney’s Aladdin, which offered a highly sanitised version of the original, and while indulging in (now) problematic exoticisation of the ‘East’,  brought about many people’s sexual awakening.

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Given the status of these stories, and the ‘mystical’ flavour of the Middle East in general, it is a little odd that not much fantasy set in this realm has made it into the mainstream. Sure, there’s been plenty of movies that exploit these settings, but full-length fantasy novels (in English and published by American/British houses)? Not so much.

throneSaladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon rights that. Set in Dhamsawaat, the capital of the Caliphate of Abassen (one of the three Crescent Moon kingdoms), the book follows the struggle of Adoulla Makhslood, ageing ghul-hunter, and his friends to (you guessed it) save the world from doom and destruction at the hands of a bloodthirsty, power hungry megalomaniac. This is complicated by the fact that none of those in power believe him, and in fact, seem to do everything they can to hinder the team’s efforts.

The appeal of the book, for me, lay chiefly in the portrayal of Dhamsawaat. Ahmed captures both the complexity of a large city—its varying cultures, the worlds within worlds, the sheer diversity of people and classes that make it up—as well as the differing relationships people have to it. This is where most of the action takes place, and each of the characters in Adoulla’s group has a specific view of the city. For Zamia, the Badawi tribeswoman from the desert, it is an unknown land, a site of strange smells and peoples. For Raseed bas Raseed, Dervish and holy warrior, it is a site of temptation from his chosen path. And importantly, for Adoulla, it is home: a place at once loved and detested, filled with people he has dedicated his life to protecting, often receiving little to no recognition for his sacrifices. But as Adoulla keeps reminding himself ‘He who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life,’ and that has not happened to him quite yet.

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I don’t recall reading a fantasy book—a high fantasy book, I should specifiy—that placed the city front and centre in quite the way that Ahmed’s does. Not all the characters are ‘natives’ of this place: in fact, only Adoulla can claim to have grown up in Dhamsawaat. Circumstances have brought the others here, and though they may not relate to the place in the same manner that the ghul hunter does, not see it as ‘home’ (with all the layers of meaning and emotion that word evokes), they feel some form of obligation, if not connection, to its winding streets and put-upon residents. Indeed, one of the main conflicts that Litaz, an alkhemist from the Soo Republic (one of the other Crescent Moon kingdoms) seems to face is when to leave the ‘damned city’, and go home. Being a woman with her heart and priorities in the right place, she chooses to postpone it till the saving-the-world has been attended to.

Ahmed has built an engaging, multihued world, filled with characters who face down inner demons as threatening as the ones they meet in real life. The dialogue can, at times, become stilted and rather strangely Tolkien (excessive formality in fantasy will do that to you), but the narrative as a whole is fast paced and pelts the reader on from encounter to encounter, introducing characters with a sort of breathless energy and hurtling towards a bloodsoaked, sword and sorcery conclusion. This is the first of a trilogy according to the blurb, and Ahmed does leave tantalising openings for the next book. So come on down, stop on by, there are no carpets that fly, but step into the Dhamsawaati night.

Eowyn, an old friend

When I was in high school, I was crazy about The Lord of the Rings. I read it umpteen times (I was determined, at the age of 13, to beat my uncle’s record of seven), taught myself Elvish from fan websites, and papered my room with pictures of Aragorn and, increasingly as my hormones kicked in, Legolas. I didn’t go so far as to post fanfic, but let’s just say that somewhere in the bowels of an old computer, there probably lies a self-insert romance where Legolas falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful half Elf, a story that’s played out thousands of times on fanfiction.net.

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Can you blame me?

The character I most closely identified with was Frodo. I felt like him, unspectacular, thinking that I was like my cooler older cousin Bilbo and wanting to go on adventures, but realizing, when presented with the opportunity, that it may not have really been my thing after all. But another person I really grew to love and (in one rather embarrassing high school episode) emulate was Eowyn, one of the most angsty characters in a world full of people harboring tragic pasts and parental issues.

Eowyn is in some respects the stereotypical warrior princess, the emblem of a spirited woman kept down by a patriarchal society. At least, this is the reading it’s easiest to foist onto her. If you think about it, though, Eowyn does not, for the first half of her presentation (in The Two Towers) come eowyn-fightingacross as particularly spirited. She’s sort of cold, reserved, reclusive. She steps in to help her uncle, and lead the people, but she’s always distant and not exactly riled up by the happenings around her. In fact, at times she barely seems interested in them at all.

We’re told that this is the result of Wormtongue’s attentions and whispering (Tolkien’s creepiest allusion to sexual harassment, if not abuse), but even after he has been cast away and Saruman’s hold over the Kingdom of Rohan broken, Eowyn only becomes particularly spirited during her battle with the Nazgul. Her plea to Aragorn, where she semi-confesses her feelings for him, is also a veiled affair, and honestly, till that point I had no idea she even had a thing for him. Miranda Otto made it much more obvious in the film adaptation.

It’s telling that Eowyn is described as ‘thawing’ when she accepts that Faramir’s love for her is real, and may even be reciprocated. Until then, she’s still in danger of succumbing to whatever it was that fell upon her as a result of Saruman’s infiltration of the court. What the was, we’re not sure, but she made attempts to escape it by a) clinging to Aragorn as a form of rescue and b) throwing herself madly into danger. I sincerely doubt Eowyn expected to survive the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. In fact, it’s very strongly implied that she takes to it as a sort of last resort, an escape from the ‘cage’ that is her greatest fear.

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In so many ways, Eowyn is the most, if not the only, relatable woman in Tolkien’s universe. Given that most of the others are immortal, near perfect Elves, she does not have much competition. As a teenage girl, I loved her because she was NOT perfect. She seemed awkward and stilted, like she couldn’t figure out how exactly she was supposed to behave and therefore preferred to stay away from the action. It was like she was saying, I want to be at the heart of this fight, and do something the way my jock brother can, but since you’re saying that’s not my place, I will stand aside and be awkward. She grows into her role only later, after her watershed moment on the battlefield.

I think it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to compare Eowyn with another much-restrained princess, though the latter was written for a considerably younger age group: Elsa of Disney’s Frozen. Elsa is similarly reserved, and elsadistant, and is ‘melted’ by true love in the form of Anna. However, she needed that moment of breaking away and throwing herself into action in order to come to terms with a part of herself that had been shut away, much as Eowyn needs to just get moving and do something when she starts to feel that those bars are becoming far too much of a reality.

I really liked Eowyn for many reasons, not least of which is her mad skills on the battlefield. But more important than that was how very unsure of herself she was before those moments with Faramir. I liked that she was always searching for something, much like me as a stupid 15 year old; I could identify with her need to latch onto someone older and more sure of himself, thinking that he would be the person to get her out of her state. But also, and this may sound cruel, I really liked that she was forced not to rely on him. Sometimes those ruthless cuttings-off of ties are what are really required to push you into your own, and what an own she comes into.

 

Cinderella: An Absurd Fairytale


cinderellaOnce upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl called Ella. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her in the care of his second wife and two step daughters. Jealous of her beauty and general wonderfulness, the stepmother and her daughters forced Ella into becoming their maid, and generally set about trying to repress her spirit.

It’s actually a horrible story, come to think of it.

Ella is forced to slave away for people who she, and her father, had trusted to take care of her, and there seems little happiness in sight. And then things magically look up when the fairy godmother arrives and grants her one wish: to go to the ball and escape the misery for a time.

The important thing that many people miss out in in the Cinderella story is what exactly she wished for. There’s been a meme doing the rounds for a while, that pointed it out. Cinderella didn’t ask for a Prince, or for love; she asked for a night of fun. A night where
she could forget the drudgery of her life for a time, pretend to be someone else and dance away her sorrows like any other privileged young woman in the kingdom. She never asked to be rescued from her situation; that sort of came along later.

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I actually think Cinderella is a very gender neutral story. The core is pretty simple: someone who leads a boring, seemingly meaningless life is suddenly sparked into a realm of wonder by some sort of amazing event, and then everything that they have been through acquires significance and importance. We tell ourselves that Cinderella was rewarded with love and riches because she was ‘good’ and ‘kind’. There has to be some causal connection between what she did before/how she lived and what came next for her. The fairy godmother didn’t visit the wicked step sisters after all.

Cinderella is the ultimate ‘absurd’ hero, along the lines of Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus defined his hero thus: ‘..the whole being is exerted toward the accomplishing of nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ Cinderella’s drudgery was undertaken as some kind of absurd punishment, handed down to her by someone who, by all rights, should have risen higher than to take out latent frustration and insecurity on a helpless child. The stepmother is the ‘god’ of Cinderella’s absurd universe, dictating her endless servitude and demanding unflinching love and obedience in return. Being the hapless human she is, Cinderella delivers.

Cinderella does the chores allotted to her because she cannot do anything else. There is no place for rebellion in Sisyphus’s world. His knowledge of this, and his ability to continue on in spite of it is what makes him a hero; similarly, for Cinderella, she perseveres simply because she must. She has no choice. The way her life is lived is unchangeable by her own agency; the attitude she brings to it is what makes her heroic.

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She’s so got this.

The beauty of a fairytale is that things can change, and often do, for no real rhyme or reason. Cinderella’s escape from her absurd existence is simply a fluke. The fairy godmother appears literally out of thin air and rescues her, provides her the night of fun she desires. That brief escape from her rock leads to bigger and better things, but how long before those become their own version of the dreary existence she just left behind? Camus makes it clear that this constant repetition of a meaningless task, the endless labouring towards a hazy and undefined goal, is what defines modern existence. Power comes from recognising this and continuing regardless. it comes from watching as the boulder rolls down the mountain and then following it down the path, to start afresh. ‘..the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols,’ Camus notes. In the recognition of his state, he owns his fate and diminishes the power of the gods.

Cinderella’s ‘escape’ from drudgery is the joy inherent in a fairytale, a pretty fabrication told to children. The reason the story ends where it does is because to follow it onwards would be unbearable. We would see her happiness dissolve, her marriage become routine and rote, another boulder to be rolled up a hill. We might see her giving joy and life to it, as becomes her character, but it wouldn’t do the job of conveying the fabricated moral half so well, that ‘kindness’ will get you places.

One must imagine Cinderella is kind.

We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.


aladdin-disneyscreencaps-com-1391What’s in a name:
‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

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OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine
jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

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At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

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Sansa Stark: Martin’s Disney Girl

WARNING: There are spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

ImageGrowing up, I was very much a Disney child. I watched all the movies and my parents bought us the video tapes (so retro!) as well as cassettes of song compilations. They even took us to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where we spent three magical days riding the rides, greeting the characters and eating all sorts of bad food. It was, as you might imagine, heaven for a seven year old.

Of course, Disney also did mess me up a little, as it probably did most of those who grew up with it in its princess heyday. Based on the lives of Ariel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I was convinced at the very impressionable age of six that there was nothing greater than finding a beautiful Prince Charming and kissing him in a heart shaped fade-out. Later, when the more ‘independent’ heroines like Pocahontas and Mulan came along, I revised my opinion a little bit. This may be chiefly due to Pocahontas, my favourite Disney ‘princess’ of them all, who ended up with no Prince Charming in the end.

Evil whispers inform me, however, that she gets one in the sequel. Thankfully I have never seen the atrocity known as Pocahontas II, though I may have to some day.

But yes, for a long and rather cloudy-headed time, I thought that, based on the wishes my heart made, some day my prince would come and we would find a whole new world together (see what I did there?). My prince would be perfect. He would ride a horse, he would fence and he would, most importantly, love me and I would be his queen.

Or princess, as the case might be.

Like I said, it was only as I ‘grew up’, met less sappy heroines, that I realized that was not what ‘love’ and relationships were all about. But because I have been through that earlier stage, I cannot possibly hate a character that many others seem to detest: Sansa Stark.

Sansa is that Disney girl. She’s pretty, she’s polite, she’s sappy and she loves songs of ‘knightly’ valour and romance. She sews beautifully, she can sing and yes, she is graceful too. She falls in and out of love with gorgeous knights, giggles with her girlfriends, and, in short, believes that fairy tales do come true. Unfortunately for her, she’s terribly out of place in a world where honourable men lose their heads and golden-haired beauty often cloaks a beast.

I see why people dislike Sansa. She is silly, granted. She trusts easily and runs to the wrong person with information, thus setting in motion a series of events that leads, eventually, to the loss of (almost) her entire family. She does not (apparently) have the vengeful grit of Arya, the existential angst of Jon Snow, the heroism of Robb. Unlike her fellow Starks, she seems more than happy to make the shift to the southron court and be surrounded by the perfumed and the glamorous. If she were in The Hunger Games, she would probably have lapped up the fashions of the Capitol.

But think about it—Sansa is 12 at the start of the books. I remember myself at 12, awkward, gawky, heading into a phase where noticing boys was alarming and wonderful and always dreaming (not so secretly) of being whisked off into the covers of a Harry Potter. I was more likely to listen to a Backstreet Boys song and sigh than to read the Art of War or be interested in the politics of the world around me. Yes, I grew out of it, eventually, but I took my time.

Sansa doesn’t take her time. The girl we see at the close of A Game of Thrones is very different from the fluttery, nervous one we listen to at the start of the book. This Sansa has a determined edge, one that causes her to almost give in to the temptation of pushing Joffrey off a narrow rampart. Think about that: this is the same girl, supposedly, who lied on his behalf on the kingsroad, speaking (in her unwillingness to speak) against her sister.  At the start of the book, Sansa couldn’t bear to cross her ‘beloved’, was unwilling to see anything wrong with him. By the close, she is willing to risk her own life to make sure he meets his end. The reason she holds off? The Hound steps in.

How good was YOUR gaydar at 14? Huh?

How good was YOUR gaydar at 14? Huh?

Unlike Arya, Sansa’s grief for her father does not transmute into rage. Arya’s response is consistent with her character—always presented as ‘wilder’ than her siblings, more apt to answer with her heart than with her head. Sansa, on the other hand, at first becomes rather suicidal, but then later, when offered hope in the form of her brother’s rebellion and then the Tyrells, she regains a little of her former optimism. Her trusting nature is both her greatest weapon and her weakness. It opens her up to all sorts of manipulation, but it also wins her the rather twisted but very useful regard of Sandor Clegane.  Now, I think, based on all that she’s gone through, she wears her naivete chiefly as a mask. Sansa will continue to be underestimated, but that is all to the good in the game of thrones.

There are very few idealistic characters in Martin’s series, and the ones we see are very often read as stupid. For instance, there’s Dany, who sits around in A Dance of Dragons trying to rule a city that’s not ‘home’, that will never be home to her the way Westeros or the ‘house with the red door’ is. I’m not the only reader who had a problem with Dany in Book 5, wanting her to just get on with her quest to invade Westeros. She tries so hard, so very hard to build her ideal city on the dust of Meereen’s bloodstained bricks, and what does she achieve? She loses her dragons and, Martin would have us believe, her very ‘self’. At the close she regains it, with the memory of her house’s words: Fire and Blood.

Sansa and Theon, I think, are the only other characters who go through this loss of identity^, of rootedness. Sansa loses hers early on, when Lady is killed. With the death of the direwolf, she loses her emblematic connection to the north, and hence her absorption into the intrigues of King’s Landing seems all the more inevitable*. In the TV show A Game of Thrones, Ned remarks that Sansa has started looking like a real southron lady, her hairstyles and her clothes mimicking the fashions of the court. Sansa is eager to shed the north, and in her desire to stay among her new ‘friends’ she makes perhaps the greatest mistake of her life. The rest of the books, thus far, have seen her steadily losing her glamorous illusions about the south and wanting, more than anything, to go ‘home’.

It’s easy to dismiss Sansa, to dislike her and read her apparent quietude as ‘insipidity’. She reminds me, in some ways, of Jane Seymour in Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies—seemingly stupid and obtuse to the dangers around her, but delivering, at certain junctures, sharp barbs that pierce right through armour. For instance, who can forget this wonderful moment in Season 2 of the show (A Clash of Kings if you’re going by the books) when, with a few well chosen words, Sansa plants the idea of rushing into the thick of the fray in Joffrey’s head? ‘They say my brother Robb always goes where the fighting’s thickest,’ she says, all innocent eyes and cool composure. Of course it drives Joffrey wild.

That is not the mark of a stupid or insipid person.

And so, Sansa Stark, I raise a toast to you. You bring to life the tricks and traps of adolescence, of being quijotically in love with fiction and fairy tales. You pass through nightmarish trials, but you somehow have the stability of mind to hold on, not lose yourself to rage and despair. In that hope-starved universe of power-crazed and desperate people, I don’t know many who would be able to boast the same.

Salut!

*I wonder, really, how the direwolves would have survived in court. Martin solved that problem for himself by killing them off/removing them early.

^I will hopefully talk more about this in another post, some other day. Stay tuned.