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Archive for July, 2011

Art of Hayao Miyazaki and many of his characters.

For those of us in the anime (japanese cartoons) community, the name Hayao Miyazaki is like Steven Spielberg is to film lovers: pure genius. The name almost certainly (if not certainly) gives avid fans a guarantee for a fantastic ride with each frame so detailed a person could hardly look at it as anything less than art and stories that play our hearts like skilled musicians, leading viewers along perfectly whether through hardship or great, whimsical fun. But shining just as brightly among the jaw-dropping art and heart-felt stories are Miyazaki’s characters, many of whom are strong females and none of which are to be missed, be they “villains” or “heroes.”

One of my absolute favorite Miyazaki films is one of his earlier films by the name of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind created in 1984 (it’s actually an adaptation of a manga of the same name also created by Miyazaki). The story centers around an inquisitive young woman in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by deadly toxins. The people of this world set some time in the future share it with a race of giant insects that are largely feared by the people. (You know how people react to an itsy-bitsy spider in their house? Just imagine how they’d feel if that spider was as big as them!)  Of course, our heroine, Nausicaa is more curious about these creatures than she is afraid and often ventures into the forests they inhabit, living a peaceful life in her quiet valley. But everything changes when a plane from another country crashes in Nausicaa’s people’s valley.

Introduced through this story are many great characters, but the two I’ll focus on are the protagonist, Nausicaa and the antagonist, Kushana.

Nausicaa makes a wonderful heroine for many reasons. Of course, as I said, Nausicaa is adventurous and courageous; She enters forests filled with toxins and potentially dangerous insects with her gas mask on and curiosity as her guide, exploring and searching for new materials to use. But Nausicaa isn’t the reckless and often stupid type either. There’s a brain under that skull and she doesn’t waste it. Nausicaa is inventive and quick to realize her situations which helps her more than once throughout the course of the story. She can also use a gun and a sword, but her strength doesn’t come from that; in fact, one of Nausicaa’s greatest qualities is that she could use violence, but instead struggles for peaceful solutions (although not in the holier-than-thou, blind-to-reality missionary sort of way).

Wow! Imagine a female character that holds your attention even though she's completely covered up!

The other thing I love about Nausicaa (and many of Miyazaki’s other female protagonists) is that she can’t really be placed under any stereotypes. She’s certainly not a girly girl, but I wouldn’t call her a tomboy either and Miyazaki never resorts to cheap, sexy heroines. I believe that this is partly due to the fact that Nausicaa wasn’t created in a fashion that limited her to her gender; in other words, her gender is not her identity. Nausicaa is Nausicaa, simple as that. She’s not a cookie cut out, but a unique, one-of-a-kind character who truly seems human.

Kushana, too, is unique so it should come as no surprise to hear that she’s an opposite to Nausicaa in many ways (of course, maybe you guessed that from the fact that she’s the antagonist). Kushana shows some of the same strength and resilience as Nausicaa, but while Nausicaa has almost a child-like purity to her at times, Kushana is a hardened adult. She’s lived (a little) longer than Nausicaa and from the looks of it, it hasn’t been a picnic as she already has a number artificial limbs (again, Miyazaki isn’t vain about his female characters) and a toughness well-developed.

The other major difference between Nausicaa and Kushana is that while Nausicaa vies for non-violent options, Kushana seems embedded in the violence. She’s in charge of the foreign military that invades when that mysterious plane crashes in Nausicaa’s valley. Kushana can be quite ruthless in contrast to Nausicaa’s mercifulness, taking hostages and fighting until it truly is over. Yet Kushana isn’t some half-crazed villain with no soul and a cackling laugh like nails on a chalkboard; another one of the strengths of Miyazaki’s films is that in some ways, there are no “villains,” only characters with different methods or objectives. This gives the stories a deeper taste like chocolate with a touch of cinnamon; it’s good, but only gets better with that bit of contrast.

And you know what just hits these two characters out of the ball park for me? Both Nausicaa and Kushana are princesses! Now that’s the kind of princess we need to see more often. So, thank you Miyazaki for making real, three-dimensional characters who aren’t restricted to the stereotypes of their gender (female and male) or other set roles that show us what real characters are made of.

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Warning: some spoilers for those who have not read/watched up to 6th Harry Potter book/movie!

It’s amazing, for all the stories centered about kid/teen protagonists that’s out there, how few of them have mother characters. Sure, there may be a side reference thrown in there about some deceased mother or kind mother, but how many solid, involved mother characters can you name? Disney fairy tales? Dead. The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon)? Dead. For those of you who read manga, specifically shonen manga, it was pointed out that in many major series such as Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece the mothers are either long since deceased or never even mentioned. Ok, so maybe we don’t want parents in every story we read, but this trend is reminding me a bit too much of Neverland–a bunch of kids running around without a parent in sight.

That’s where the Harry Potter series stands out for me (or at least, one of the many things that stand out for me); Harry Potter has moms and lots of them! From the normal mother to the mother who picks up a wand and fights, there are moms a plenty from the get-go. What’s more, these moms play a very active role in the story.

I think I can safely say that many of us Potter fans think of Molly Weasley, the tough, but loving mother of all those Weasley kids, when the topic of Harry Potter moms is brought to the table. Mrs. Weasley is certainly one of the main mother figures not only to Harry, but to the readers and watchers of the series. In many ways, she’s the typical mom–fretting over her kids (and Harry), sending them away with a kiss and a snack, sending them a Howler when she can’t be there herself to give them a talking to–which gives her a warm, homey and loving feeling, something that is far more important than some realize.

But Mrs. Weasley can also use that toughness and perseverance that got her through taking care of seven kids to get them through hard times. Mrs. Weasley does not sit idly by when the others start a resist against Voldemort, but actually becomes heavily involved in the Order of the Phoenix. And when Molly Weasley can, she will fight to save her children as many of us know from the famous scene in which Bellatrix Lestrange attempts to kill Ginny Weasley in a fight and Mrs. Weasley rushes forward, hurling curses, screaming, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Don’t underestimate the fierce protectiveness of mothers.

Then there are characters who appear little or not at all until later in the series such as Narcissa Malfoy. Mrs. Malfoy is very different compared to Mrs. Weasley–prim and stiff to Mrs. Weasley’s slightly frazzled and warm–but her love for her child is no less than Molly Weasley’s. When her son Draco becomes the unlucky target of revenge on the Malfoy family from Voldemort after the failure (yet again) of Draco’s father and Narcissa’s husband, Lucius Malfoy, she snaps into action. Though the Malfoy family have supported Lord Voldemort (if only out of fear) for years and protecting her son at this point means going against Voldemort, Narcissa would break her pact with and even betray the most feared wizard in the world rather than sacrifice her son.

Finally, there’s Lily Potter, one of the most influential characters in general in the series. Yes, she’s dead and is dead from the very first page of the series, but Lily Potter is different from all those other dead moms of protagonists. Lily Potter could have saved herself, but instead sacrifices herself to save her son, Harry. Her influence doesn’t stop there though; her sacrifice and love protects Harry more than just that one time and her actions embed themselves deeply into Harry. Lily Potter represents a mother’s love and sacrifice for her child. She’s not a small side note in the story, she is at the very heart of the plot and meaning of the Harry Potter books. I also appreciate that, unlike some fiction where the male protagonist is said to take after only his father, Harry takes after both his father and mother. Furthermore, Lily Potter is not the only mother long since deceased who holds great influence over the characters of the series. Voldemort’s mother molded the life of her son in ways as well.

Mothers play a great role in the Harry Potter series and are one of the embodiments of the theme of love throughout the story. So, with the last Harry Potter movie coming out this week, go see those amazing mothers in action (and maybe bring your mother with you).

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Damsels-in-distress, evil stepmothers, wicked queens, and valiant, nameless princes. If you ever meet someone who has never seen these and other stereotypes, it would be appropriate to ask them (politely) whether they’ve lived under a rock for very long. Most of us are subjected to these at very early ages. We’ve seen them in Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all of which are more commonly known by their Disney versions, the king of reproducing classic fairy tales to be fed to a modern audience and by fault the king of regurgitating old, undying stereotypes at a new, young audience. Let’s break it down.

The Damsel-in-distress

The damsel needs no introduction. Most of us have been well acquainted with her since childhood when our eyes beheld Disney’s Cinderella (who fell so low she had to be helped by a few incoherent mice). However, broken down to the basics, the damsel is beautiful, innocent, hapless, and most often young and at the mercy of another person, be it a step-mother or someone else. In some stories we really have no other characteristics to go by but that and a good amount of those are the female character’s physical appearance.

The Evil Older Woman

Also, in classic fairy tales such as Cinderella or Snow White the young, innocent creatures play opposite to less attractive-to-haggard, older women who are vain and greedy, but often in a more powerful position and more cunning. Whether they are witches, queens, or step-mothers, they are free of male dominance (although some of them are supposed to be married) and have control over their own lives and choices.

So, what does that say to children? Powerful women are undesirable and wicked? Think about it: how many little girls do you meet who play queen? Girls like to play princesses who are subjugated, but they never play powerful queens. Personally speaking, as children, never did any of my girl friends nor I pretend to be a queen because we thought of them as mean old women, an idea that was certainly strengthened in our minds by Disney, if they did not completely give us the idea. These portrayals also fuel incorrect messages of “good” and “evil” by the way that it is related to physical appearance; the beautiful are good, the ugly are bad.Also, these fairy tales like to pit women against women (or more correctly, girls against women). This supports a societal concept that the U.S. has fueled of women putting each other down, ideas that run strong today in stories recreating (or attempting to recreate) high school mean girls scenarios. Instead of being taught to help and support each other, girls are taught from a very early age to be wary of possible threats from their fellow females.

Cat fights of a previous century.

Prince Charming

Needless to say, the rescuer is always some prince on a white horse (in some cases, literally). Here’s a question: can you remember the names of those Disney princes? Some of them didn’t actually have names such as the prince from Snow White and Cinderella. Both are forever destined to be “Prince Charming,” the nameless and soulless guys with a kingdom and an apparent need to rescue girls they have artificial crushes on. Let’s face it; the so-called “romance” in these fairy tales must be physical attraction. The only other explanation would be that the two lovers knew each other in past lives thus they already have gotten to know each other, but I don’t think that kind of romance scenario was so popular back when these stories were made. Anyway, in the end, the two beautiful young people end up in a bland, unrealistic love.

Disney: Teaching girls to look for the man on the white horse since 1937.

However, it is also important to point out that while the princesses give priority to beauty, the princes impress the idea of masculinity for boys. This deepens harmful traditional stereotypes that restrict people in real life. In Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play by Karen E. Wohlwend, a study done on young boy and girls is noted, to have found that “girls as well as boys positioned male characters as powerful and female characters as weak, even suicidal, victims.” So, while Disney’s fairy tales are just tales, sweet and innocent, the ideas within them hold more weight in a child’s mind than one might think.

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