Tag Storytelling

In Defense of Villainesses

My over coffee read this morning was an editorial in defense of female cartoon villains.

It argues that there is something admirable about Ursula or Lady Tremaine or any of the evil ladies in cartoons. Especially when comparing them to the heroines in the same cartoons.


Female cartoon villains define transgression. We look at thin-wristed shy-smiling nice-haired female protagonists and we see what’s expected of us: wait. Be patient. Be nice. Be happy with your lot, enjoy what you’re given, and don’t look for more. Make wishes, not plans. Have animal friends, never henchmen. No one should work for you, but everyone must love you. Look soft and small and breakable, and cry with your head flung into your arms so no one has to see your puffy eyes. Be afraid that no one will ever rescue you. Be afraid that you’ll have to live your whole life without adventure ever finding you.

My first reaction to a piece like this is, come on, feminist reading of Disney movies? That’s beating a dead horse, and dismissal. But I like reading about cartoons and I trust the feminist project for gender equality too. So why do I find myself ambivalent to the argument here?

Even the best cartoons are simple storytelling. Cartoons are flat, a context that does not lend itself to deep analysis. Attempts to lock down meanings beyond the surface in cartoons take a conspiratorial tone. That’s because they are empty, same as fairy tales, they don’t have a “true meaning.” They are not crafted to be meaningful but to carry it.

I get the argument and I agree with it up to a point. Princesses are passive, reacting to what is going on around them. The stepmothers of the cartoon/story world are much more interesting, they’re doers, ambitious, smart. But what makes me uncomfortable about the article is the idea of modeling behavior after characters from cartoons/tales at all. This is using stories as moral lessons for dumb children and dumb women, it’s a creepy side effect of the Grimm’s publishing folk tales and having to market them. Very few people took them seriously as literature to study, so they became little lesson books for wifey and baby. It’s crazy really.

Here’s a thought experiment

Imagine someone transcribing the best standup bits from the top dozen or so comedians in the past few years. Now re-work them them so they are clean, appropriate for children and have the same voice and the same point of view. Edit them so that the moral voice is unambiguous. Now adapt one into a cartoon. Now show that to your children. Now your kid grows up and writes an interesting essay on how the characters in the cartoon ring false and she can interpret them differently after all.

See what I’m getting at? The finger pointing at the producers of these cartoon lady-villains has to point all the way back to moralists messing with folk traditions 200 years ago. In any case, Disney has been addressing the Princess problem in newer movies. The witch in Tangled was driven by fear and protectiveness, Elsa in Frozen is a mean magic princess, Maleficent hates humans because she was betrayed. These more recent cartoons feel more generous to me. They serve ambiguity, show a little more of the why of badness than old Disney was able to. Because when the story stops ringing true you can’t blame the story, you just retell it.

Bride of the Sun

A woman wanted to marry someone perfect
So she married the sun.
But then she broke the rule and looked at him
so she turned into a flower.

There was a king with seven daughters, six of them were married. When the time came for the youngest daughter to be married the king was in a quandary. As princely suitors arrived to the castle gates with horns blaring and banners waving, the princess would turn them away.

The king was beside himself with worry as she rejected one prince after another. Finally he asked her, “Daughter, why do you send away these fine men?” She told her father that she had seen her older sisters married to men who seemed handsome, wealthy or kind only to find out after the marriage that the man was not everything he seemed to be.

Her oldest sister married a handsome prince who was insufferably vain. The next married an honest prince who gave away his land and titles. The next, wealthy prince, cruel to his subjects. The next a kind prince, with an empty head. The next a wise prince who spends no time in the bedroom. The next a sensual prince with countless mistresses. And the next married a devoted prince who made her sister stand up on a column to be admired by him alone. Day in day out.

All had qualities that were charming from a certain distance, but up close their strengths were their weakness. The young princess was determined to learn from her sister’s mistakes and marry her perfect love.

At this her father grew very angry, “perfect love? If you insist on finding perfect love you will be waiting a very long time indeed. You’ll grow old waiting for this perfect man and by then no one will want you. No this will not do. Marry now or get out!”

And so she packed her bag and left home for the last time, determined to prove her father wrong and find perfect love. From kingdom to kingdom she searched, feeling more desperate and alone at every turn. Every road was a dead end, every path led to brambles, she would climb a mountain only to find ten thousand more beyond it.

Her only comfort on the journey was knowing the sun would rise in the morning. Warm her back in the day and at night when it set she would be sure it would return the next day. And so it did, rising every morning warming her back and setting and rising. Day in day out.

In time she realized she was following the path it made and so she followed it right to the edge of the world. There at the edge she saw a castle and watched the sun drop behind the castle wall. She had found the house of the sun. She pounded on the gate and as it opened she imagined she would finally see his perfect face but instead she met with a leather skinned old woman.

“Oh dear look at you dress in rags- so sweaty, what are you doing here? Oh my son told me some one was following him, he said she was beautiful.”

The princess explained that she was on a journey to find her perfect love, that she had followed the sun to the end of the earth and in that time had fallen in love with him. The old woman was excited, she had wanted her son to marry a princess for a long time.

But the old woman had one rule. Whoever married her son could never look at him directly. Strange thought the princess, but she was exhausted and desperate and so close to being with her perfect love that she accepted.

And so they were married and spent many beautiful nights together. The day she spent with the old woman, but it was ok because she was able to rest. And resting she was able to think and thinking she was able to imagine what it would be like to look directly at her perfect love.

So in spite of the rule not to look at him she came up with a plan.

[…See him through the lens of her water glass at the dinner table…]

The old woman saw her fall silent, saw her staring. She had broken the rule, and she was thrown out of the house.

She could not go back to her father’s house, she didn’t wan’t to go back with the old woman so she stood in her spot outside the gate all night with the image of her perfect love burned into her mind. The sun had no choice but to rise the next morning and when he did he was so glad to see her standing there outside the castle he warmed her shoulders in the day and at night he knew she would be there again in the morning. And so she was. Day in day out. In time her feet grew roots down into the ground, he body became a woody trunk her hair petals, and her arms vibrant green leaves.

And so transformed, she watched the sun cross the sky, and he watched her, she had found a way to love perfectly.

The Sleeping Giant

The following is a transcript of a story I told for some 5-8 year olds in East Helena at the very end of 2015.

I’m going to tell you a story about right here. It’s a story from a long time ago, before we had houses around here, before we had roads around here. But there were still a lot of people who lived here. And one day they heard a sound.

Boom boom boom! BOOM!

Sleeping-GiantIt was so loud, everybody was so scared. There was an old man who said, “I know what that sound is, that’s the sound of the snow falling off the trees.” Everybody looked at him and said, the snow falling off the trees? It’s spring all the snow is melted, there’s no snow to..”

Boom Boom Boom!

A little old lady said “I know what that is, that’s the sound of buffalo running through the valley, it’s so loud it sounds like thunder.” Everybody looked at her. “The buffalo don’t come in the springtime, everybody knows they run in the fall…”

Boom Boom Boom!

All along standing in the back there was a little girl and she was looking to the east, beyond the mountains to the horizon.

The Bride of the Sun

Behind his back people called him misfortunate but the king didn’t mind because his seven daughters filled his heart with joy. In all other matters he was bold, rational and determined, but with his seven daughters he took his time to guide them gently. He had found suitable husbands for them and saw them married off one by one.

But when the time came for his youngest daughter to find a husband he was in trouble. Suitors arrived to the castle gates, banners waiving, horns blaring, only to be turned away by the princess. The king was beside himself with worry.

She had seen her sisters married off to princes that appeared beautiful, wealthy or kind only to find out that the men they married had serious flaws,

One sister married a beautiful prince who turned out to be insufferably vain.

Another married an honest prince who over time gave away his land and titles.

The next sister married awealthy prince, cruel to his subjects.

A kind prince, with an empty head.

A wise prince who spends no time in the bedroom.

A sensual prince with countless mistresses

And a devoted prince who made her sister stand up on a column to be admired by him alone. Day in day out.

All had qualities that were charming from a certain distance, but up close seemed more a burden than anything.

She could not fall in love for fear that her love would transform into someone beastly or mewing and weak.

She would wait for a prince who was as he seemed.

Tonight I’ve watched
The moon and then the Pleiades go down
The night is now half-gone; youth goes; I am
in bed alone
Midnight Poem (Trans. Mary Barnard)


      In search of perfect love.

      The youngest daughter of a king sees faults in the men her sisters marry

      She sets off to find perfect love

      The mother of the Sun accepts her on one condition: she may not look at the sun’s face

      But she cannot bare never having seeing him

      Mother suggests a trick, see him through the water glass

      The sun sees her looking and throws her out

      She watches him from afar until her feet become rooted in the ground.

    She is a sunflower.