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Disney Movie Poster

Disney Movie Poster

Disney has been dishing out tales about young heroes for generations, from the likely to the unlikely, from the princely to the fuzzy, so it’s no surprise that their latest animated film, Big Hero 6, returns in full swing to such heroics with a young hero’s journey to maturation. Living in a futuristic world in a fused Japanese-American society, Hiro Hamada stands out as a young man of exponential potential, a bona fide genius. Even his name suggests his chance for greatest, a Japanese name used as a pun in the film for the English word “hero.” After graduating high school at the age of thirteen, however, our soon-to-be hero, Hiro, seems more like a teenager with too much time on his hands, spending his days inventing robots to beat the pants off his opponents in robot wars, and raking in cash by winning bets placed on these robot games. Fortunately, his older brother, Tadashi, is there to guide him down the right path. But when Tadashi is killed as a result of someone’s devious plans to steal an invention of Hiro’s, Hiro decides to catch the person responsible. Joined by his friends and Baymax, the robot his brother had created, they turn themselves into a team of superheroes up to the job of bringing down a super villain. Yet for all its classic stamps of a hero’s tale, this film makes some notable changes that push it beyond being just another action flick. 

Perhaps most apparent of these changes is the diversity of the characters. Gone are visions of an all-white cast in Big Hero 6, replaced with a racially diverse group of heroes fit for a modern audience. Hiro and his friends come from a number of racial backgrounds, but none of them are limited to “representing” their race, instead acting as unique individuals. Not only is this group racially diverse, but also offers characters of both sexes who, for the most part, pull away from stereotypical presentations of gender. For example, independent Go Go may be a petite woman, but she’s not afraid of breaking rules or charging the enemy while Wasabi is a strong male character who prefers caution, order, and rules. I was most fearful of Honey Lemon who, at first glance, appears to be a stereotypical girly-girl–blonde, chipper, and fashionable. But the movie does a good job of showing that Honey Lemon is indeed all of those things, but she’s also a brilliant chemist, and certainly not confined to being one thing or the other. Even Fred, a “dude” who harkens back to stereotypes of young men as unhygienic and not particularly bright has some surprises up his sleeve. It’s also clear that Fred isn’t supposed to representative of male behavior.

Speaking of how men are represented in Big Hero 6, one of my favorite aspects of this film is how Hiro’s narrative diverges from typical representations of masculinity. Now, in many regards, Hiro acts as a traditional hero, but Big Hero 6 does something that I don’t see very often; it scrapes away what appears to be just another tale of a righteous hero taking down a bad guy to examine issues of revenge and grief.

The revenge plot is nothing new. I’ve seen the loss of a loved one (usually a woman) used as a plot device to spur a male character into action. Yet in many of the examples I have seen or read, the focus becomes his actions instead of his emotions. In these cases, bursts of anger, while an expression of grief, obscure the male character’s sadness over the loss, and put the consumer’s attention on his actions toward the perpetrator as that anger takes the form of violence. Of course, anger is a natural reaction, too, but when fiction puts the emphasis on the male character’s anger without fully exploring it as a facet of his sorrow, it reinforces concepts of masculinity that suggest that the acceptable way for men to express sadness is through anger. Because revenge plots often are part of action films, the stereotype gets taken one step further, with the character acting on on his anger through violence. As such, these representations take us even further from reflections of the male character’s psychological state.

Big Hero 6, however, turns our attention back to emotions. Much of this is thanks to Baymax, a puff white robot that looks like a walking marshmallow. Tadashi created Baymax act as a kind of robotic nurse so Baymax’s priority remains both Hiro’s physical and mental health even as Hiro tries to make him into a fighting machine, reminding viewers of the difficult psychological issues that Hiro is experiencing. Hiro’s attitude toward Baymax reveals his attitude toward his mental health; he would rather fight than address his grief, and he spends much of the movie trying to resist facing his emotions. But his emotions are at the heart of everything. The movie carefully depicts his depression, managing to show a grief-stricken Hiro shutting himself off without making it too depressing for kids, and how he latches onto catching the person responsible for Tadashi’s death in order to pull himself out of his depression.

While it may seem like Hiro’s emotional status takes a backseat to action as Hiro, Baymax, and company prep themselves for a fight, closer inspection reveals the movie setting up a contrast of two different ways of handling Tadashi’s death: on the one hand is revenge, and on the other is interaction with friends and family. Hiro assures Baymax–and perhaps himself, as well–that catching the guy will solve his mental health problems, but what Big Hero 6 argues can truly ease Hiro’s pain is the company of his friends and Baymax. With their help, Hiro slowly comes to terms with his brother’s death, his own grief, and, in turn, is able to keep his brother’s will alive. The path of revenge and violence, in contrast, leads only to further destruction in this narrative.

Despite its status as a kid’s movie, Big Hero 6 delves into some hefty discussions of love, grief, and violence. Big Hero 6 suggests that violence won’t solve the true aliment, and, with the healing touch of Baymax, asks its male lead to confront his loss in another way, a refreshing change to presentations of heroes handling sadness. Of course, Disney provides for those itching for a good old fashioned hero-villian face-off, complete with plenty of flying robots, superhero suits, and even a classic revenge plot in Big Hero 6, but in the end, the movie’s real magic shines where the standard hero’s narrative has been reworked to suit a more modern audience.

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Some minor spoilers for Naruto, Disney’s Brave, and Harry Potter

Despite the great influence moms can have on a kid’s life, they don’t always get the attention they deserve, even in fiction. In some stories, mothers don’t seem to make much of an appearance at all, while in others, they just seem to float in every once in a blue moon. So, this Mother’s Day, I decided to draw up a quick list of moms from movies, manga, and books who demonstrate the strength and influence that so many moms do in real life.

KushinaEp247Kushina Uzumaki (Naruto)

After the first half of the series passes with no mention of Naruto’s mother, Kushina Uzumaki at last makes her entrance as her son faces a crucial situation, as he struggles to control the hatred of the powerful beast imprisoned inside of him. Long before the start of the story, Kushina made the ultimate sacrifice for her child, giving up her life to save her newborn son. Even in death, however, this strong-willed woman appears before her son to guide him in his time of need, helping him to overcome hatred with her love.

Like many shonen manga series (Dragon Ball Z, Hunter x Hunter, Bleach, Soul Eater, etc.), Naruto makes a strong connection between the protagonist and his father, from Naruto’s appearance to his later battles alongside his father, but I appreciate that the series also tries to tie son and mother together. Although Naruto resembles his father in some respects, there’s a good touch of his mother in his face, as well as ample similarities in his mannerisms to those of his mother’s. My favorite connection is that Naruto shares his mother’s fiery, courageous personality, a staple characteristic of the protagonist. While she isn’t in the story as much as I’d like, it’s clear from the glimpses that we see of her that she had a deep strength that she seems to have passed on to her son. Seeing the two of them together in an emotional moment demonstrates the deep love and bond of mother and child, despite separation.

images-5Soh-Yon (Beast Player Erin)

At the beginning of this story that spans over years and various places, Soh-Yon lives with her young daughter and the protagonist of the series, Erin. She is a single mother and has raised Erin on her own, since her husband died before their daughter was actually born. She has a big impact on Erin, an impact that stays her daughter throughout the story and sparks the girl’s initial interest in what later becomes her goal to take care of and study animals. Seeing Erin’s interest, Soh-Yon encourages and teaches her daughter, endowing knowledge on her that is indispensable down the road. It’s not an understatement to say that Soh-Yon is a huge part of the story, something that’s nice to see when a very big portion of fiction hardly mentions good ol’ mom.

Because of her intelligence, skill, and knowledge, Soh-Yon holds a vital position in her village: the head caretaker of dragon-like creatures used in war. Her job is no walk in the park. Not only are these creatures dangerous, but they are so important to the country that failure on the job, i.e. the death of one of the creatures in her care, means severe punishment. The fact that Soh-Yon has the job is doubly surprising because she originates from a group of people who are looked upon warily by the villagers and is a woman living in a patriarchal society. She faces resentment and prejudice from people, but Soh-Yon takes it all in stride, showing strength by not letting it get to her and going about her job, proving herself again and again. It’s no wonder Soh-Yon has such an impact on her daughter!

 

Molly_3Molly Weasley (Harry Potter)

While Harry Potter’s mom certainly makes an impact on the entire series, I wanted to pay tribute to a mom character who is actually present in the story, a condition that is surprisingly hard to find with moms in fiction. Molly Weasley is not only the mother of seven kids, she also welcomes Harry into the family, acting as a sort of surrogate mom for a boy who hasn’t really had a good mother figure. She’s a good mix of tough and warm, even if the Weasley kids may not always appreciate it, sending them away with a kiss and a snack, and the occasional Howler when she can’t be there herself to make sure her kids learn their lesson.

But Mrs. Weasley can also use that toughness and perseverance that got her through taking care of seven kids. She does not sit idly by when the others start a resist against Voldemort, but becomes heavily involved in the Order of the Phoenix. And when this mother can, she will fight to save her children even at the risk of her own. Most famously, she takes on the crazy Beatrix in the final battle against Voldemort, saving her daughter’s life, hurling curses and screaming, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Don’t underestimate the fierce protectiveness of mothers. (If you want to read more about the moms in Harry Potter, check on my earlier post on them.)

 

imagesQueen Elinor (Disney’s Brave)

At first, Queen Elinor seems like a lot of teens’ nightmare: the parent who nags and just does not seem to “get it.” Her daughter Merida has her own way of doing things, but her mom insists that she transform herself into something she’s not. Yet even though she lacks an understanding of Merida’s more rough and adventurous lifestyle, Queen Elinor clearly has her daughter’s well-being and future in mind as she repeatedly tries to make the bow-and-arrow-toting girl into a demure princess. As mother and daughter are forced to work together when Merida accidentally turns Queen Elinor into a bear, the two slowly begin to break down the barriers of misunderstanding and differences that have built up between them. Mom begins to reconsider her well-intentioned but ineffective approach to her daughter while Merida comes to see the fierce love and concern that her mother feels for her, feelings that colored all her decisions concerning Merida.

In addition, Queen Elinor is a great role model for those who may not be as adventurous as Merida. She’s calm and collected, and shown to be the mastermind before the peace in the kingdom. One could say that she’s the most competent ruler in the whole movie.

That’s my handful of influential and loving moms for this Mother’s Day! There’s a lot more that could be said about all of these characters, and some day I would like to do a more in-depth post on mom characters and the stereotypes surrounding them, but I hope you enjoyed a little lighthearted fun. If you have any mom characters that you think deserve mention, let me know in the comments. (I’d love to hear about more non-traditional moms, which I unfortunately did not have many examples of for this list.) I hope everyone has a great Mother’s Day!

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In my review of Disney’s most recent princess movie, Frozen, I praised it as being a more modern rendition of Disney’s classic princess formula. While I tried to briefly explain what I mean by that, my thoughts on Frozen understandably left some people a little confused. After all, what about out-of-the-box hits like Brave or Mulan? Those are both great princess movies featuring protagonists and stories unlike any of the other Disney princess movies, aren’t they? In this post, I want to clarify what I mean when I say Frozen is an improvement of the classic Disney princess formula and why I put Mulan and Brave in slightly different categories. To start, let me define what I consider to be the classic formula.

Princess Protagonist + Romance-focused Plot = Classic Disney Princess Formula

The basic elements of the classic Disney princess formula are a princess protagonist (born royal or married into it) and a plot centered around romance. That is not to say that there are not other plots in the movie other than romance, but that romance plays a starring role in the story. The classic formula is called such because these are the basic elements of the oldest Disney princess movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) and remains the dominate formula in their princess films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled).

On a side note, Jasmine from Aladdin is an exception to the formula because she is not the protagonist of the movie she appears in, but rather the female lead and love interest of the protagonist, Aladdin. Anyway, now let me break down why Mulan, Brave, and Frozen do or don’t fit this formula.

Mulan: Non-princess Female Protagonist = Not a Disney Princess MovieDownloadedFile-1

I’ve written about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. Disney markets Mulan as a princess. In fact, the only time we see Mulan nowadays in when a dolled up version of her appears in banners brimming with all the lovely ladies of Disney’s princess stories or in other princess-themed Disney merchandise. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that Mulan has no connection to royalty other than saving the Emperor’s hide at the end of her already epic adventure.

While Disney may call Mulan a princess, I see no reason to put her in that category. Her story is much closer to the many male-centered Disney adventures that focus on the growth of a young male protagonist and his relationship with friends and/or family. The only real similarity that I see is that Mulan is a story centered on a woman, just like Disney’s princess movies. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to include her in the princess category and since comparing Disney princess movies to Mulan is like comparing them to The Lion King or Hercules, I don’t. That comparison is fine and doable, but it’s different from comparing a princess movie to a princess movie.

Brave: Princess Protagonist + Non-romance-focused Plot = Non-Traditional Princess Movieimages-26

Brave, on the other hand, is a movie I count as a Disney princess movie because it does feature a princess protagonist. I would, however, consider this movie to be a non-traditional Disney princess movie. Why? Because Brave throws out the romance plot so central to the majority of Disney princess movies in favor of focusing on a mother-daughter relationship. Of course, other Disney princess movies I’ve classified as classic, romance-based plots feature other types of relationships, too, like Ariel’s relationship with her father, but the type of relationship that is most central to those plots is the romance. In Bravethe main plot revolves around how the heroine and her mother come to understand each other when they are forced to work together to undo a spell, pushing what may have been a sub-plot (the heroine’s relationship with her parents) in another princess movie to the forefront.

Frozen: Princess Protagonist + Romance Plot + Non-romance Focused Plot = Tweaked Classic FormulaDisney-Frozen

Frozen falls somewhere in between the pure classic formula and the non-traditional formula, but because the protagonist is a princess and romance, while not the only important plot, is still a central plot, I’m considering it an upgraded version of the classic formula. It mixes elements of the classic formula (romance) with aspects of non-traditional princess movies like Brave (focus on relationships other than romantic ones).

As I said earlier, some of the Disney movies I’ve placed under the category of “classic formula” do have other sub-plots dealing with non-romantic relationships and wishes for freedom/adventure, but those sub-plots are just that–sub-plots. They take a backseat to the main romance plot or are wrapped up tightly in it. For example, getting a chance to see a new world is acted on and achieved only through Ariel’s romance with Prince Eric; Jasmine and Rapunzel ultimately only get their desired freedom through their relationships with their love interests; Tiana has dreams of owning and running her own restaurant, but the story is not about her accomplishing that dream, but of her romantic relationship with Prince Naveen, etc. On the other hand, Anna’s romance and her wish to help/have a relationship again with her sister are equally important in Frozen. Romance is the focus of a good portion of the movie, but obtaining goal A doesn’t get overshadowed by romance nor does Anna’s romantic relationship mean the achievement of that goal.

Pocahontas probably falls somewhere in this group, too. The protagonist is a princess, but unlike Brave, there is a strong romance-focused plot. Like Frozen, there is also another strong plot running alongside the romance–the tension between the English settlers and Pocahontas’ tribe, which the heroine and her love interest try to bridge. However, it’s been years since I’ve seen Pocahontas so, that’s one I need to revisit.

Anyway, that’s it! To some, it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but I hope this makes my stance a little clearer.

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I have a confession to make: I can be a bit of a doormat, a people pleaser, a pushover. In the effort to make others happy and/or lacking the backbone to speak my mind, I have a habit of letting others run right over my true wishes and thoughts without so much as a peep of objection. When people ask me, “What do you want to do,” even if I have a preference (which sometimes I just don’t), I smile politely and say, “Oh, whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Or worse, someone will ask me if I’ll do something and, while in my mind, I’m screaming my loathing of the idea, my feeble subconscious automatically moves my lips in the pattern its grown accustomed to and, before I have time to rally my thoughts, its formed the detested words, “Yes.” And with a smile plastered on my face, of course.

images-82So, how is a feminist who’s a confessed doormat like myself supposed to feel when I see a classic doormat female character letting herself be dragged through the course of a story? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. Like everyone else, I like to see characters who I can relate to, even if that means they are not go-get-’em girls who have a healthy amount of backbone at the beginning of the story. While I admire and praise the female characters who get out there and take action, whether that action is starting her own business or taking back a kingdom, I often see more of myself reflected in those female characters who are too nice for their own good and who seem to be waiting for others to make something happen. That has made me hesitate to take the pen against certain characters despite seeing the problems with the messages those characters send.

Of course, just because a female character is passive doesn’t mean I automatically feel something like kinship to her; passive female characters pop up in fiction a fair amount, from classic princesses from fairy tales to modern action flicks and it’s something that I’ve complained about over and over and over and over and over—well, you get the point. But there are times when they strike a cord within me. For example, one famous character who I have a bit of a soft spot for, but who also has some very reasonable complaints lodged against her because of her doormat behavior is Tohru from Fruits Basket. Tohru is a classic doormat at the beginning of the series; always smiling and putting others before her, she is sweet to a fault and will do whatever others ask of her. She’d let herself be tricked and treated poorly if that somehow helps the other person or because she feels she must have deserved that treatment and she apologizes even when she’s done nothing wrong. As unrealistic as that sounds, there is a degree of her character that rings true to me, especially as the series goes on.

The problem lays in the fact that these types of passive heroines reinforce old notions about gender roles and relationships that just aren’t healthy, notions that suggest that an ideal, good woman is someone who does whatever she can to make others happy and does what she is told. These are, of course, very traditional ideas that aren’t as popular as they were, say, in the 50’s, but still manage to surface in fiction as an ideal. To me, doormats are the worst of the breed of passive female characters because they are presented as saint-like in their benevolence in a way that just isn’t possible for even the nicest human being to behave and feel all the time. In addition, in stories like Fruits Basket, she even has people who will stand up and protect her when she won’t herself. Like classic stories like Cinderella, somehow or another the girl with the “purest” heart eventually wins via living happily ever after. Thus, when girls read or watch stories with doormat heroines, they’re supposed to admire and long to be like them with the promise of praise, protection, and “happily ever after” floating around in their heads. Sadly, reality isn’t nearly so sweet and letting others do whatever they want while lowering your own desires and feelings can be dangerous, if not simply unhealthy, whether you are male or female (of course, males who are passive are mercilessly considered “weak” while women still get the message that passiveness can be an attractive trait in them).

However, I don’t think doormat female characters are inherently harmful role models, the likes of which should vanish from fiction. Rather, I think how we present these characters in fiction images-84should be altered. Instead of depicting a complete lack of a backbone as something to be admired in a woman, it should be shown as a type of behavior that some people have, with all the trouble it can bring upon those people. If a doormat character is to be admired, it’s not because she’s so nice that she’ll let others walk all over her, but for, perhaps, her struggle to stand up for herself and gain a backbone. A woman can still be nice without being passive and it takes real effort to flex those assertive muscles after being doormat for some time; as a confessed doormat, that’s one of my biggest struggles. In fact, one of my favorite stories, Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow, largely centers around the internal struggle of Youko, a girl who has spent her life trying to be non-offensive to others, even if it meant ignoring her true thoughts and feelings. (Edit: Even Tohru is revealed to have problems of her own and she is forced to face those problems down the line, something that adds depth to a doormat character that isn’t always depicted.)

So, show me doormat characters, I won’t deny that they exist in reality, but don’t feed misconceptions about what it means to be a doormat. Better yet, give us doormats some extra inspiration by creating more characters who come to recognize the problem with their own behavior and fight it.

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Oz_The_Great_And_Powerful=Print=Poster===WDSHE_WorldwideMeet Oz. Oz is a con-man magician with more lies than magic tricks up his tattered and patched up sleeve. With his slicked-backed hair and charming smile, he easily woos lovely, naive ladies with laughably over-the-top and cheesy stories about heroic dead grandmothers and music boxes bequeathed to him, which he’d love to give to the woman of the hour. Yet for all his ego, the one girl he truly has feelings for has moved on and, even while cheating his one and only friend/partner and taking almost all the profit for himself, his business isn’t raking in the money he wants. That’s when, in the middle of a storm, Oz is chased into a hot air balloon to escape some unhappy boyfriends and he is transported to the whimsical world of Oz. Here, he meets wide-eyed and innocent witch, Theodora, who quickly becomes convinced that Oz is a powerful wizard prophesied to save the people of Oz from the terror of an evil witch. Stuck in this strange, new place, the dubious Oz’s journey begins as his path crosses with two more witches and a war between good and evil erupts. Say hello to the basic set up of Oz: the Great and Powerful.

As a kid, The Wizard of Oz was a much watched movie in my household. I remember popping in the old, clunky VHS tape and sitting down to enjoy the magical tale about a girl from Kansas and her tiny dog, swept up in a tornado into an alternate world where there are talking scarecrows, lions, and tinmen, roads of yellow-brick, good witches and bad witches, cities of dazzling emerald, and (who could forget?) flying monkeys. Therefore, it was with excitement and little bit of apprehension that I saw a modern film was in production which was supposed to act as the prequel to that beloved old tale. I knew Oz: The Great and Powerful would never recapture the charm of the original; however, I did not know that by the end of the movie–scratch that–about fifteen minutes into the movie, I would be battling two very different emotions–laughter and anguish–and neither of them good.

Putting aside other, more technical issues I had with this tale, one of the biggest short-comings were the four major characters, Oz and witches. Oz, who in all respects is an egotistical playboy with delusions of grandeur and wealth, is somehow the person who everyone in the film looks to as their only hope. As for the witches, Oz: the Great and Powerful may boast three female characters who in every right should be powerhouses in this story, but like the movie’s protagonist, it quickly becomes obvious that is little more than a pretty facade filled with hot air. Popped were my hopes of even decent female characters, when, minutes into the film, Oz is shown telling sweet lies to a gullible girl who believes even the most pathetically blatant lies. For a guy whose only skill seems to be deceiving others, Oz isn’t very good at it; rather the people around him, especially the women, seem particularly dull. This theme only continues and deepens once Oz reaches, well, Oz.

Thedora, a witch who is shown to have terrifying power, is reduced to a naive girl who latches onto and depends upon Oz like a lost puppy; she falls for his lies, hook, line, and sinker, and, while Oz has only just arrived in this new world and has no powers, he must save the witch from Oz from a flying monkey.  To add insult to injury, her character development, which is motivated entirely by something Oz does and makes all her major actions throughout the story either passively letting the guy take the lead or a reaction to a guy she’s hung up on, is something that makes this feminist cringe.

Glinda, a woman shown to be sharper than the average Oz women since she’s able to see threw Oz’s lies and one of the sole leaders of resistance against the wicked witch, is similarly stripped of any meat as a female character. Despite her intelligence and power as a leader, she turns to Oz to take action against her enemies as if she were unable to do something herself. Yet when one looks at the two characters, a witch with magical powers and a group firmly behind her or a man who has only just come to this world with only lies in his arsenal, one wonders why Glinda seems powerless without Oz in the lead. In the end, she’s made into the maiden with a pure heart and little substance under her fluff, a pretty accessory.

In this world of powerful witches, the only ones who seem able to lead themselves are the “evil” ones. This old-fashioned idea, which is plain to see in Disney princess movies and fairy tales, frames women who have power like queens and witches as power-hunger vultures or twisted souls and puts them in juxtaposition to the pure heroines who embody traditional ideals of what a good girl is. Yet these girls the viewers are supposed to cheer for are the ones who end up helpless and dependent on a male character. We aren’t supposed to like the female characters who want power or take action themselves. On top of that, the female characters in Oz: the Great and Powerful seem to exist to highlight Oz’s “greatness,” whether it’s his power to save them from their troubles and danger or showing his prowess over the evil ones. Oh, and did I mention that the Wicked West of the West gets a sexy upgrade? Because, you know, just because you’re overflowing with malice and busy sending flying monkeys out to wreak havoc doesn’t mean a girl should neglect to show a little sex appeal. oz-witch

There are many good tales about apparently unethical characters who must struggle between doing what’s right or what’s easy, doing something selfish or doing something selfless, and sink or swim making their choice. These moral dilemmas show inner battles that all people experience. Yet Oz: the Great and Powerful speaks of egotistical fantasies where a blowhard lives in a world all too ready to fan his ego; a world where people (especially women) line up to hang on his every empty word, where everyone waits with breath held for one man to take action, and even three powerful witches with magic at their command and kingdoms at their feet are blown away by a dashing con-man with nothing by parlor tricks and lies up his sleeve. Even the name, “the Great and Powerful” reeks of a puffed up ego. Oz (and, in fact, the description of the movie) claims he is on a journey teetering on whether Oz will be simply a good man or cross the line into greatness, but throughout the entire film, I found myself wondering how great, or even good, enter into this lackluster tale where sexism runs so thick it seems to have been taken straight from the era of black-and-white pictures the movie tries to emulate in the first fifteen minutes.

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This past week, I watched a 2011 documentary called Miss Representation, a play on the word “misrepresentation.” The documentary examines the overwhelming amount of objectified images of women in the U.S. media, the use of things like photoshop to create impossible ideals of women’s bodies, the emphasis on women’s appearance, and the lack of realistic women in the media. Even as someone who has been acutely aware of these issues, this movie really brings home just how bad this problem has gotten (for example, according to Miss Representation, out of all the U.S. fiction, only 16% have female protagonists).

Most significantly, this documentary focuses on the impact this emphasis on female appearance and objectification has on women politically. It claims that American girls are socialized (in large part through the media) to be ultra concerned with their appearance and that those girls who are the most concerned with their appearance feel less politically powerful. Studies have been done that show that in elementary school, an equal amount of girls and boys want to be president, but when these kids are re-interviewed in high school, the number of girls who feel they can be president has dropped significantly. Miss Representation also shows how female politicians are treated differently by the media than male politicians, making comments about how terrible Hillary Clinton looks or asking if Sarah Palin got breast implants. When was the last time you heard a news report on those gray streaks in Romney’s hair or speculation on whether Bill Clinton should get botox? This is just a piece of what the documentary discusses, but it paints a picture of how the media affects how people see women and as a result, how women are limited to certain representations.

I know a lot of people wonder when I or anyone else talks about poor representations of girls/women in the media (from commercials to movies to books to manga) how a piece of fiction can really matter. Miss Representation explains how better than I ever could by presenting a larger picture. These representations of women are everywhere and both girl and boys are exposed to them from childhood. Even boys’ and girls’ toys are segregated to socialize them to a certain role; boys get traditionally manly things like building blocks, cars, tools, etc. while one look at the girls’ toy aisle reveals a sea of pastel pinks and purples, makeup, fashion, and Barbie and Bratz dolls. We become used to seeing objectified and sexist images of women so, if one doesn’t stop to examine things more closely, it’s easy to miss them. So, when I talk about a book or movie that I feel poorly represents women, it’s likely not just that one piece of fiction, but one example of a bigger trend I see in many movies, books, manga, and so on.

If you have any interest in the U.S. media misrepresentations of women, even if you are a skeptic, you should definitely try to see Miss Representation. It goes over multiple issues related to this problem and really gives a good example of the larger impact a seemingly small thing can have on a society.

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What do you get when you mix a rebellious teenage princess, a mother/queen trying to do what’s best for her country and her daughter, talk of a political marriage, a rowdy bunch of men, and magic? Well, frankly, you get trouble, but you also get Pixar’s newest movie, Brave. After months of anticipation, hanging on the hope that this new princess tale would present audiences with a strong princess fit for modern times, does it pass the test?

Brave is set in Scotland in what appears to be the medieval ages. Merida is a headstrong princess who would like nothing better than to practice her fine archery skills and ride her horse through the forest in search of adventure. But life as a princess isn’t so free; princesses have obligations to their family and people. Her mother, Queen Elinor, knows this and has been careful in trying to teach Merida to uphold those obligations, starting by just getting her to behave like a proper princess. Though mother and daughter haven’t seen eye-to-eye on these matters, life has gone on peacefully — until it’s announced that Merida must now fulfill her duty to marry someone she’s never met for political reasons. Unable to convince her mother against the idea, she takes things into her own hands and sets out to change her fate. But will she bring ruin to her kingdom by fighting tradition?

When I first heard the plot for Brave, I was instantly hooked. With a heroine who is not only shown to be skilled in archery fighting against customs and a plot line sporting phrases about changing her fate Before this story really took off, I couldn’t help but think that this could be something similar to Disney’s Mulan. But the movie surprised me in more than one way.

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

As you may or may not have picked up on from the plot introduction, Merida and her mother are at odds. Truth be told, my heart sank a bit at the beginning of the film because of this. “Is this going to be another one of those stories where a mother and daughter butt heads?” I wondered. After all, fiction has had a habit of throwing bad mother-daughter relationships in our faces a lot. Yes, moms and daughters may not always see eye-to-eye and some–maybe many–butt heads frequently, but do all the mother-daughter relationships in fiction have to be like that? We see lots of nice father-son relationships in fiction after all. Heck, often moms aren’t even a crucial part of fictional stories. So, when a mom character is actually present, does she always have to be shown as some annoying nag?

That’s why I was extremely happy when it became clear that the minds behind Brave had different ideas for this mother-daughter pair. In fact, although Brave sounds like an epic fantasy from a brief overview, at its heart, this movie is actually about the relationship between Merida and her mother. The dynamic between the two starts off looking stereotypical, but, unlike other stories with this set up, explores the relationship further. While I think we can all understand Merida’s wish to be free, she goes a little too far and forgets her responsibilities to others and how her actions affect them. Queen Elinor, on the other hand, is so focused on the customs and the responsibilities to be flexible and see freer alternatives. Thus bring me to my first surprise; there’s magic and a little action, but Brave is more a journey of Merida and Elinor coming to understand each other rather than a journey filled with fights and mortal danger.

Elinor and Merida are great female characters outside of this mother-daughter relationship story as well. As is evident from the basic storyline, Merida is a whole different kind of princess than the classics. She’s bursting with energy and independence, making her Disney princess predecessors pale in comparison. Queen Elinor is a levelheaded, well-spoken ruler who commands just as much (or more) respect from her subjects as her husband the king. Together the two make a powerful duo of independent women. And isn’t it nice to see a romance-free Disney princess movie for once?

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

So what’s the other surprise of Brave? While the basic story sounds epic, it’s actually on the lighter side as plots go. Pixar lightens the mood with a witch who runs a woodcarving business, magic that turns people into bears, and clansmen–er, actually the men in general–who largely act as comic relief. To some older fans who are familiar with Pixar’s work, this may be a bit disappointing. Some reviewers are saying this lighthearted feel is not up to the deeper stories of past Pixar films. I don’t follow Pixar’s work so I can’t compare that too much, but I will admit that the movie felt lighter than Pixar’s Up and Disney’s Mulan and The Lion King for some examples. Despite expecting something more epic myself, this didn’t keep me from enjoying Brave.

In the end, like its heroine, Brave breaks the traditions. Everything that defines classic princess movies like Cinderella and Snow White are thrown out the door to give way to a fun fantasy with female characters, relationships, and messages that get both thumbs up. Regardless of whether you’re six or sixty, if you’re interested in any of that, go see Brave.

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