Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ariel and The Little Mermaid: "Something's Starting"

"I don't know when - I don't know how -
but I know something's starting right now
watch and you'll see
someday I'll be
part of your world"

I always felt those words held the most weight in Disney's adaptation of The Little Mermaid.  Methods and Means are unknown, but the grand nature of her passion has become decided and unstoppable.  Although Ariel may have a decidedly more outgoing personality than Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, this passage echoes perfectly the essence of the original story and character.

If you need a quick review of Hans Christian Andersen's classic, read below.  It's quite short.  If this iframe doesn't work for your computer/browser feel free to read it on my scribd account - just click here.

The passage I quoted at the beginning of this post is devoid of character and plot detail, shaved down to only the concepts of the individual and the Other, which is exactly what the original does.

For instance, the original tale of Andersen's may have a mermaid as the protagonist, but most mermaid characteristics are not a part of the story.  There is a storm at sea, but it's never said that our mermaid caused it.  She may have the loveliest voice in the ocean, but she never uses it to entrance sailors.  She has no vanity: at no point does she brush her hair, or look at herself in the mirror.  She has no history of interacting with humans nor does she try to, and he even invents a tradition that limits mermaids from visiting the surface, that only on her fifteenth birthday is she allowed to see the horizon, etc.  Even though she becomes an instant expert dancer once a human because of her past fluid existence at sea, her sexuality is never mentioned in the story.  No, the only real connections to past mermaid lore are one, her longing for a human, which in and of itself is "watering down" if you will the mythological meme's lust for a human, and two, the idea that mermaids don't have souls like human beings, that they are outside of the world of Christianity.  You'll notice Disney's Ariel has all of these qualities as well (she has more in common with the original than appearances and choreographed musical numbers might imply).

So though the setting of The Little Mermaid is romantic, it is more about two worlds, one unknown and one known.  For the little mermaid, the known is the sea, the unknown the land.  For the reader it is the reverse: the sea unkown, the land known.  This inverse yet parallel relationship between the protagonist and the reader is a perfect set up for us to identify with this mermaid's struggle.  This is what I mean about the story's focus on the Other.  More generally this concept refers to whenever we wish for something, but we don't know what we're wishing for, or when we feel different and outside of a given community we wish we could be a part of, or when our circumstances don't feel like enough for our happiness.

Even her very form, half human, half fish, "embodies" this (if you will).  Everyone's not felt "whole" at one point, fully one thing or another.  We seem to be made of parts, and the relationship between them often seems as disparate and opposite as the mermaid's fleshy torso and scaly tail.  And that is what I mean by "the concept of the individual."  Why have we created this concept of becoming "one" and why do we want it so much?  Why not let it remain a mystery?  The little mermaid is like us.  She cannot remain in the sea, living out her limited three hundred years of peace and plenty.

Once she hears of the immortal soul, her fate is decided, her ambition stronger than anything despite the odds.  I find this in Ariel's "Watch and You'll see."

Our existence is chiefly built in longing, drive, and action towards our ambitions for more.

So I guess the remaining question is, if the background and character of The Little Mermaid aren't the essence of the story, does her gender still hold significance, at least for me (this being a feminist blog and all)?

Well, first let's address the elephant in the room.  This tale is rumored to have been semi-autobiographical, as Hans Christian Andersen allegedly/trully had love for a man who did not return his affections.  In addition, Hans Christian Andersen once had a beautiful voice as a child and performed, but once his voice changed with adolescence so did his presence on the stage.  In addition, Hans Christian Andersen, despite mingling with nobility, was never trully a noble himself.  (All of these facts are presented in an extra feature for the 20th anniversary edition of Disney's Little mermaid, although they can certainly be found elsewhere.)  So here we have some major overlaps with The Little Mermaid, and the writer is man, not a woman.

(Eric and Arien

Perhaps once the idea of land and sea came to mind, a merman was too outside of tradition, as mermen are barely a part of any lore, the phenomenon being almost strictly female by all historical accounts and tales.

(From Brian Froud and Alan Lee's book, Faeries)

Perhaps the protagonist was made female as a cloak to hide how close the story was to the writer's life.  Perhaps, since back in his time having anything but strict heterosexuality as your identification as a man, Hans Christian Andersen decided his fictional reflection should be a different gender.

But what of the significance in the story itself, to readers across the ages, that our identifying character is female?  It is certainly interesting that the eyes of the prince are what attracts her most to him, and conversely that the male character as well so easily dismisses her - although I've always thought that to be more because he's royalty and used to having girls in love with him.  So certainly how a female feels attraction and rejection are subjects of possible scrutiny, and even more important, are topics of possible influence over men and women readers in thinking about the nature of women.

(Art by Edmund Dulac)

But I want to leave the influence of the story aside in this post, and focus more on the story itself, standing outside its influence over the past 176 years.

Certainly her becoming a "favorite" of the prince is something solely female of the time period the story is placed in, and her sleeping outside his door every night is something typical of the day, submissive, something a man, however favored by royalty, would not do unless perhaps he was the lowliest servant and ordered to do so.  Her quiet nature and then resulting inability to speak can also be associated with feminine submissiveness.

(from the 1968 Russian adaptation)

Yet despite her reputed beauty, on the most basic level, the character strikes me as androgynous.  This is for the reasons I've listed earlier: the setting and time have little influence over the meaning of the story, dissapear behind the overwhelming concept of longing.  So too does the character's gender, at least for me, dissapear into the background.  Perhaps this is because she is first and foremost a thinker.  She doesn't frolic with her sisters: she looks out her window and asks her grandmother to tell her stories.  Thought has no gender.

(by Lisbeth Zwerger)

And this is precisely why I personally find the tale such a feminist story.  There are so many tales that have men women easily can identify with, but very few times do we encounter the opposite.  In addition, in the end the little mermaid does not need the prince to accomplish her dream, becoming a daughter of the air, earning her immortality for herself just by being herself.  Quite the empowering role model.  In fact, not only does she not need the prince, but despite loving him still, she doesn't end up married, and the marriage between the prince and his bride is depicted as a mistake.  So the traditions concerning women, love, and marriage are very much challenged.  And don't forget - she's the one who saved the prince.  Then there is the witch figure, which despite living up to the established witch archetype, is a source power, the grandmother figure, a source of knowledge, along with the female daughters of the air - when you add the giving up of the feminine locks of hair by the part of the little mermaid's sisters, we essentially have a horde of women challenging established modes of femininity.

Once, at a party, someone mentioned 
Disney's Little Mermaid degraded women 
because Ariel went after a man.

Putting aside my usual response that Ariel wanted to be a part of the human world before Prince Eric, I responded,

"And why should it be unfeminine for a woman to chase a man for herself?"
(by Christian Birmingham)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

From Boycotting Pink to Defining Asexuality: Modern Fairy Tales

Here's a train of thought piece I wrote a little while back, enjoy!


I’ve recently been reading a book about the effects of societal imagery and marketing on the minds of girls and women.  At least at the beginning, it was framed in the stereotypical paranoid characterized feminist manner – much as the title ‘Cinderella Ate My Daughter’ would lead you to expect.  As I read statistic after statistic, anecdote after anecdote, the authoress seemed to make the probability of my experience of upbringing to be very low, as if the likelihood such things should have not been a part of my childhood the feat of almost god-like powers on my parent’s part.  

Sure, I grew to feel the need to boycott pink as a child, 

and I never doubted for a second that, without any work whatsoever, once I reached a certain age I would suddenly have Barbie©’s body – exactly.  

In addition, I couldn’t quite decide what ‘I wanted to be when I grew up’ (a question asked practically daily in America at least), but I finally decided I would wear high heels
 (a la the heroines in forties movies, simple, black, elegant) 

and have an office: possibly corroborating the theory that girls feel obligated and compelled to ‘have it all’, and that though women post-1920 can vote and post-1980 have a decent desk job beyond the secretarial, we also need to look cutting-edge at the same time.  

Extraneous from these admissions however, I couldn’t find much else in common with the cultural trends the authoress sourced.  Both my parents have career jobs – my father works at risk management at a major bank, my mother is a neurologist specialized in stroke treatment – and they never felt buying pink promoted femininity, and more importantly, that not buying pink promoted asexuality.  They simply bought clothes they thought looked good on us, and bought the books that taught nice lessons or were well written, and bought a variety of films, again based on quality and their specific taste – our only cartoon movie for quite a few years was ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit.’  

I played with a few Barbie©’s, but I didn’t have many, and though I shifted a few dresses, it was more about role playing in whatever constructed situation; I had an American Girl doll, but and I think I read one of the poorly constructed non-historically accurate books, but I found it as vapid as it was, and even didn’t bother to find out the girl’s name, and soon tired of playing with the doll, instead spending hours staring at the tiny Victorian bag with the slate and tiny chalk.  The list goes on, but I have other objectives to tackle.  I didn’t have much interest in sports but I loved rolling on hills and I loved playing kickball – a mix of baseball and soccer.  I collected dead bugs on an sophisticated level (whenever I found a new species, I would put it in my transparent grid box and label it with my father’s help).  

In short, my parents raised me on their joint interests, and though my father did a little more scheming to make sure we always read books with positive heroines – down to making an animal character that could be either sex female instead of male when he read before our literacy – 

(specifically, "Jooka Saves the Day" by Gilles Eduar)

overall, they didn’t bother to discriminate this or that influence, and especially, exposed us to their adult interests and tastes more often then delineated things specific to childhood.


Here's a tidbit I'll add to those thoughts of a few months ago:

To really have a field day concerning the implications of how women are "targeted" in various media these days, watch the web comical commentary series "Target Women."

to see this video on youtube, click here
(I just uploaded in case the youtube link expires)

P.S. Cut N' Style Barbie was my favorite Barbie growing up, only i lost all her extensions early on and didn't get for years why she had less hair and some Velcro on the back of her head.  i just loved her choker and earrings.  I still have her, and I still love her (she's on my desk right now actually, the result of a recent passionate urge to research everything Barbie, but that'll be another post), though I've long lost her original dress.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Petrosinella, Rapunzel, and Tangled: Princesses and the Other, Part 1

otherwise known as: 

My Obsession with Tangled: Part One of Infinity

"And the walls that surround her, and hold her back, are symbolic of walls in anyone's life, those things that hold us back from being who we really long to be. Yes, that is feminist and masculinist and humanist."
- Glen Keane, Executive Producer of "Tangled" and Directing Animator of Rapunzel

In this series, I won't only be discussing Disney's adaptation of Rapunzel, "Tangled."  However it was the teaser trailer that inspired me to look up older adaptations and the origins of the tale in general.

- In fact directly after seeing the Tangled teaser trailer a google search lead me to watch my first Barbie movie, Mattel's "Barbie as Rapunzel" - so you see how avid I was to find something to get my Rapunzel fix!

  Anyhow, I figure I'll start by telling you how I became fascinated with Rapunzel/Lady in the Tower tales through the release of "Tangled" in 2010, an hopefully you'll become fascinated along with me!

My freshman year in the usual generic way I was asked to write an essay entitles "An Event that Changed Me."  I felt like I'd underwent much change but could not pinpoint any particular "event."  The following was my first draft.  It was trashed because my teacher did not accept a movie as an event.  Anyhow, it is a good introduction to my love affair with the movie, and after this I will elaborate on the feminist themes I touch on here.

The language is especially fanatic here, don't let that scare you.  I was feeling poetic I guess so I flew off the handle.  Don't worry - I am capable of discussing the faults of the movie, and I'm not starting a cult surrounding it any time soon.  I do however like its themes involving women and the human condition, so I thought this especially colorful intro would be nice.  Here goes:

An Event That Changed Me

Normally it would seem frivolous to name a movie as an event capable of changing someone’s life, but even the severest critic knows the impression the Disney© Company has left on the entire world’s culture; and as a member of the world I have been influenced as well.  When the first teaser trailer for Disney’s adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy tale “Tangled” came out, something hit me; something fantastic, infectious: I had to know everything about it.

The energy, the tactile promise of the hair itself, the possibilities of what such a company was to do with the first CGI fairy tale musical ever let alone my second favorite fairy tale – it lit something up inside me, and I haven’t gotten over it since.

It served as a catalyst that called for action, called for questioning all the concepts that intrigued me, called for me to face various conflicts in my life and provided a lens through which to understand myself more and more.  It begged the eternal balance between the relevance and weight between “to do” and “to be.”

My reader might ask whether I am superimposing something that isn’t there on a simple film; and I would say they are both right and wrong.   The film’s unusual artistry and detail, coupled with its outstanding relevance to me at this time in my life and development, caused a level of involvement, expression, and enthusiasm that can even be described as articulate yet boundless.  You might say it changed me so much because it was already so much a part of me.  Self-awareness and exploration is change too.

It started innocently enough; when the teaser trailer came out, and the bright colors, detailed CGI cloth and hair design, and the smart-ass chameleon hit my eyes I decided to do some research, find out more about it.

I have since collected article after article, filled 2 DVDs with information and videos about its development, merchandizing, face characters, technological publications, and staff, and bought “The Art of Tangled,” the only book so far released discussing the behind-the-scenes decisions and art direction.

So far I have as much as 17 GB total of information not to mention my compilation of concept art, advertising, and other Tangled-related imagery currently adding up to about 2.29 GB (5,350 photos).  Even if these figures are a mystery to a layman’s ear, be assured I haven’t managed to read as fast as I’ve been collecting!  I am a person who likes to delve to the very depths of meaning and form and an animated feature is so complicated in the necessary planning and labor involved that there can be no end to the treasures I can find.

With Disney specifically however, all decisions must have thorough research behind them (John Lasseter stresses this in all interviews, and it does appear to be true to some extent); for example, the very shape and contour of a street-cart that only appears on the screen for thirty seconds must first have been decided from a thorough research on different street-cart designs from across history and across the world, as well as with the shape themes found in certain genres of animated films and the specific shape themes chosen for this particular movie (this is a random example of course - but I can tell you for certain they researched in a like manner for animating the aging Mother Gothel).

Being the first CGI film with hair as such a main plot point, all new technology was needed to create realistic hair – but it also had to be stylized, for just as an actress in a movie could not physically hold up so much hair, neither can an animated character – so a stylistic physical world had to be created – the very laws of physics changed, both for immediate simulation and for artistic manipulation at an animator’s convenience.  I’ve always loved physics – though I am by no means naturally gifted in the field – but it was Tangled that made me realize just about anything one is inclined to like can be applied to a work, an opus, a vision.  Such a marriage of process and artistry is in my mind the very essence of life.

Tangled specifically also mirrors the long history of the Disney company, for even dating back to the days of the founder, Walt Disney (with whom I happen to share a Birthday) an adaptation of the Rapunzel story was in development – and saw trials and errors, attempts and failures, all documented in a library, creating a wealth of ideas to draw from; and it is often proudly advertised by Disney that their greatest treasures lie in their past mistakes.  The challenge with the Rapunzel story also mirrored the challenge of life in the sense that the problem always went back to the enclosing and limiting space of the one room the fairy tale Rapunzel is necessarily trapped in.

Can fiction – and, by implication, thought, action, interesting and incentivized life – take place in an enclosed space?  Which – if interpreted metaphysically – could be seen as the human condition’s earth and mortality itself?

These concepts were also layered within the story – not just with the original fairy tale, and the implications of what they could do with it, which was the subject of my constant musings before it came out in theaters – but also with the movie itself, which once it was out in theaters I saw ten times.  – But I’m getting ahead of myself.  After that first trailer, I experienced a whole lifetime of change even before the movie came out!  In particular, the idea of contained then released energy – the “imprisoned” girl, her hair almost representing a compressed spring, and then the release, the liberation.

In the Grimm version the release is first banishment, but the ending is very clear – she was once in a tower, defined by a tower, and now she is out of the tower, and it no longer defines her.  Very identifiable for a 20 year old girl who chose to take two years between high school and college, spending a lot of time about books in her room – not looking out the window perhaps, but looking out into the internet – to the potential of thought and expression.

This image of the girl looking out the window in a sort of wistfulness for the unknown – not just the “Manifest Destiny” concept of literally exploring the rolling hills leading to the horizon – but in constantly wanting to find more, earn more, do more; the hunger born in everyone’s soul.  Conversely, the idea of Rapunzel – her riches in seclusion (for the dim prison of the Grimm story is not accurate to the gilded “cage” of the original story, “Petrosinella”) – coupled with Disney’s Rapunzel – the ultimate expresser, painting the walls “to make them disappear” as Glen Keane, the head of her animation, said – she HAS to express herself.

As Glen Keane also said, “Even her hair is growing" to an extreme length symbolizing all she can and wants to be – attracts a very alluring concept of an private, isolated, and permanent home, a pedestal, the wish to in fact never “escape” – as Freud would put it, the wish to retreat back into the mother’s womb.  But Rapunzel in many versions does the exact opposite, doesn't she?  She becomes a mother herself.

Mother Gothel discovers Rapunzel's Pregnancy
(because her dress becomes too tight)

Nevertheless I knew such feelings must be fleeting, for both heroines got sick of their beloved privacy and broke free, risking everything for the chance to share their world with someone else. And surely I would do the same.  Such thoughts and images feverishly fleeted though my mind as I googled and read forums and papers and interviews and theories, all attached to what some would simple-mindedly call a simple film; or even, a conventional, pandering propaganda machine.

Even such an accusation as I have just made calls to mind the stubborn quest for the idyllic – controversy – denial – debate – hope – failure – independence.  I confess in my exponentially growing obsession I lost much sleep and saw much less people for a while in the contemplation of these terms and the study of these concepts; but Tangled also made me a more involved person.


Don't forget too, the Rapunzel Tale starts with a girl - I don't know of one that starts with a princess.  A girl destined to be a princess, of course, but not a girl who was born to be a princess, or knows herself to be one, or to even be destined to be one.  Yes, in the Disney version, possibly to stress her arrested potential, they have Rapunzel a born princess, ignorant of her birthright.  But the truth of the tale remains the same: the tale starts with a girl, just some girl, usually a very common, if beautiful, girl.  In all interviews the Directors and Animators and Developers of Tangled's Rapunzel stress they designed her to be more of a "girl next door," a girl you could imagine meeting, even being - not a distant princess archetype.  So you see this old fairy tale has a very immediate, earthy sense to it.  I'll be exploring that a bit more as well, - if all goes well.  It's a meeting of opposites: the humble girl and the crown.

I'll leave you with those thoughts for now.

Here's A taste of the blog entry to come -

Part 2: Rapunzel Film Adaptations Before Disney Gave it a Go

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Life = The Little Mermaid, Part One

Mermaids and Blogs and Feminism: they are the same

...otherwise known as: a History of the Creation and Development of this blog

The following was my College Common App Personal Essay.  I post it here to hopefully make more clear how I see mermaids, feminism, and blogging to be especially related and relevant to me at this time, and hopefully it will make clear why it would be interesting for you to read my opinions.  

Here Goes:

Everyone has a favorite story since they were little, a story that is almost an image, that inspires them and drives them forward, acting as a lens through which they actualize their ambitions: for some it is “The Little Engine that Could,” for others it is “Leo the Late Bloomer,” or even “St. George and the Dragon;” for me, it was “The Little Mermaid”.  For me, the fable’s secret world and unshakeable desire first introduced the concept of dreams creating purpose; the mixing of species and elements has cultivated the bridging of apparently disparate worlds as a constant point of fascination.   

During my time between high school and college, I’ve been involved in substantial  self‐reflection, thinking a lot about independence, identity and soul; and naturally  
“The Little Mermaid” constantly came to mind.   It is such a time-honored and beloved story, yet there is little organized research dedicated to it: the poignant tale of a fish longing for legs is, like its protagonist, without a firm grip on land.  I have been exploring new and different media myself, not only between water and earth but also within the technological world; a mystery to me when I graduated high school two years ago. 

It started when my best friend who had moved away suggested we both start a blog.  As I began to consider my blog’s theme, I remembered that almost every one of my essays in high school, despite the assigned topic, came back to feminism.  I have always been fascinated that such a well-worn topic could still be so new and ambiguously defined. After choosing feminism as the topic of my blog, I began a serious love affair with detail.   

I often chose to cover animation of females; studying frame-by-frame face changes of early Disney princesses was hard work, so I chose to make a video zipping through my thousands of screen captures.  Soon I was adding music, or changing the speed of the flipping images, to encourage themes of thought in my audience.  As my technological standards got higher, I adapted by learning new skills and using new programs.   

Soon I graduated to working with clips instead of images.  The cutting and re- arranging of film with a certain aesthetic in mind so reminded me of the collages I love to make, that I began to call my videos “clip collages.”  One has reached over 80,000 views on YouTube© over the past four months.  These were intended to complement textual analysis on the blog. I prefer a multi-disciplinary approach – science and art, math and history – to fully understand and appreciate what surrounds me.  If we can as skilled mathematicians see the art in golden ratios and theorems and as experienced artists appreciate the chemistry of the artist’s brush stroke, the possibilities of all measurements of reality working together are mind-blowing.  I have tried to bring this multi-lens view into all my evaluations and interpretations; therefore, multi-media analysis was the next natural step.  

As I began to embed videos on my blog, my own creations as well as clips from movies and documentaries, I was often faced with technical problems and soon found that to make my blog the way I wanted, I’d have to learn HTML.  If essay writing is a balance of form and function, I was learning that web coding was a well-defined balance of HTML and CSS.  I learned the history of web-site construction.  Initially it was just data tables for scientists who didn’t care about appearance.  Soon social, commercial, and educational purposes were discovered, and attempts to change HTML to compensate turned (literally) ugly, necessitating the invention and inclusion of CSS and a purified HTML, a new revolution still in motion.   

Learning the history of web coding in my online beginner’s course was like learning a microcosm of the history of the world.  Although not religious, I found something oddly Buddhist about it, these lessons in process that spread across all different genres and disciplines.  Inspired, I began implementing these concepts into my cello teaching,  - this balance and concomitance of the technical and the “emotional” – which any musician will tell you, defines music.  

 As I worked through my HTML and CSS beginners’ course, I developed a habit of reading the source code of every website I came across.  The minute structural and artistic decisions used to decorate or facilitate the websites through a profession so new and uncharted drew me further into the purpose of my blog:  the giving, analyzing, and presenting of data and thought.  I began to learn – both through the web course and through trial and error – to promote my blog more professionally.  

This all may seem like a far cry from a fairy tale about a half-fish out of water written nearly two hundred years ago. The more specialized my skills and research became in the online tech-world, the more I delved into fairy tale influences on culture over the ages, especially in film adaptation. 

The history of The Little Mermaid, though extremely small in comparison to the history of other fairy tales, is very rich with adaptations, cultural influences, and historical landmarks.   Comparing what different film adaptations did with the same story became an addictive new hobby, so I began collecting anything I could find. As my search became international, I learned more technological skills I never knew were within my grasp; .srt subtitle coding, for example.  Every turn brought something new.  This was a rewarding and relevant tale that spoke to the urges of the “other” - the land beyond reach, the possibilities of change - to the very skills and pursuits, the web-coding, the cello teaching, the film editing, the film and cultural history, that attracted me in the first place.   

One of my dreams is to make a website that focuses on all the facets of the story of the Little Mermaid; film, literature, followings, imagery.  Such a website does not exist.  This idea started when people from across the world, most recently Spain, the Philippines, and Mexico, saw my clip collages online and contacted me asking for obscure background information, or to find a version they remember from childhood. 

It is such a thrilling thought that in actuality I am helping people who are intellectually thirsty about the same things as I; it surprises me that someone so unfinished in her schooling can start something new and build on something old in order to better inform, intrigue, and amuse a willing audience.  I thought the only unexplored “new worlds” were the research of smallest unit of the atom or some sort of Lewis and Clark venture; but now I know that I can break bonds and build beginnings throughout my schooling by following my passions as I have in the last two years.