Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Overthinking It: Little Mermaid

If Ariel's capable of reading a contract and writing her name, why can't she communicate with Eric through notes? Either
1. Though seafolk and landfolk clearly have the same spoken language, as Ariel can understand what Eric's saying, their writing is different.
2. Even though Ariel's a princess, she's a woman in a time when females didn't necessarily need to be educated. Please ignore the fact the Ursula wrote up this contract herself. Let's assume Ariel doesn't know how to write anything but her name. She understands the terms of the deal from Ursula's explanation and signing is just a formality.

Recently, a friend told me she wants to be a mermaid "because they never have periods and don't have to wear pants." Which brings up an important question. How do mermaids make more mermaids? Their bottom half is fishy, so are they born from eggs?
Oh sure, put the ginger in a clashing pink dress. Whose idea was this?
Also, I don't know what Ariel's hair is doing, but when I'm underwater it all gets in my face. Ariel's hair stays behind her head.
Scuttle has feet. Scuttle has always had feet. How does Ariel not know what feet are?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hello, My Identity Is

I've always been fascinated by names. When the movie's over and the credits are rolling, I sit there just to watch the names. Every Memorial Day I take a notebook to the cemetery with me so I can write down all the cool ones. I visit baby name websites more often than most pregnant women. A few weeks ago, a girl named Xantha transferred into my choir class. While everyone else sat around going "What's wrong with her parents?" I'm thinking, "Ooh, cool, that's a variant of Xanthe, which means yellow and was the name of Socrates' wife."
Most of us don't chose our legal names, but we do create usernames. When you make an account, you're usually more interested in choosing a good password than a name. I just type my favorite nouns, maybe my initials, and add on some numbers if those are already taken.
When I run into people with usernames like jerryberryboggerbottom, I have to wonder. Why did you chose those words to represent yourself to the entire Internet?
My name is Erica. When I created my first blog three years ago, I used the name Eliza, mostly for privacy reasons. Besides, half the fun of the Internet is choosing an alias. And in a world where deathdonkey13 is a perfectly acceptable name I see nothing wrong with Eliza.
This has caused some problems for me. When I recommend my blogs to people, I have to let them know it's under a different name. And since blogger is with google, whenever I sign in with google to leave a comment elsewhere, I'm Eliza. I enter a lot of book giveaways online. When I win, I have to explain to my favorite authors why I use a fake name. Otherwise-
"Erica, a package came from Arizona today. It's addressed to your middle name. Care to explain?"
My middle name's actually Elizabeth. But I'm a fan of symmetry and I like that they have the same number of letters. After three years of going by Eliza, I have to remind myself that it's Elizabeth whenever I fill out forms. I've caught myself saying Eliza when people ask for my middle name-but not before it's left my lips.
Eliza is a blogger. Eliza is opinionated. Eliza is snarky. Eliza is passionate about the world and her place in it. Eliza wins arguments online. Eliza gets free, autographed copies of her favorite books, sometimes before they officially come out. In the beginning, she was just a name, like goldenspiral and CaterpillarStar all the other usernames I've created over the years. But now she's an identity. A vital, distinct part of my being that I've bothered to name.
Today I was musing on some of the usernames I've seen, like goodgodlessgal and queerjock. The Internet is the one place where you can be utterly and completely anonymous. So why define yourself by your sexual and religious beliefs? People will form opinions based on your username when they know nothing else about you. Is it leverage, so you can win an argument by claiming other users are biased? Or is it truly the most important part of your identity? What about favorite sports, favorite TV shows, favorite books-
Then I thought of all the other usernames I've seen. Lakersfan8. SherlockLives. There are people who use things to define them as well, and I'm one of them. The Hourglass Door trilogy by Lisa Mangum was my favorite series a few years back. Golden Spiral is the second book. And CaterpillarStar? I didn't just pick nouns, I remember now. I like caterpillars because they fascinating creatures, but nobody appreciates them when they're not in adult form. The rest of the Internet was never in on the joke, but those names meant something to me.
I thought about all the famous people in the world who go by aliases. Pen names, stage names, street names, nicknames, legal names they've bothered to change. A name is so much more than a way to call out for a friend. When you name yourself, especially on the Internet, you define who you are. You decide whether your favorite TV show is a more significant part of your identity than your race. If your team is more important than your religion. If you'd rather abandon any clues to your identity and just use a favorite quote.
Labels don't define people. People define themselves.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Elsa and the Relatable Character

In the two months since Frozen hit theaters, I've noticed that Elsa has become far more popular than her sister. Anna is the main character, so why do we all like Elsa? Is it because Anna's appearance and adorkable personality is reminiscent of Rapunzel? Is it because "my soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around" sounds more eloquent than "the window is open, so's that door"? Or is it just the dress?
Whatever the reason, I've also heard quite a bit of backlash against Elsa's character. Most of the complaints are about how the characters of Frozen are white. And I've seen fanart like this.

           Not sure what to make of her hair. I feel like it should be darker too. But maybe her winter magic means her hair will always be white no matter what? Okay.
Yes, there's plenty right with creating non-white characters. But there's nothing wrong with making a character white. Especially when the movie is based on a Danish fairy tale. Arendelle was inspired by Scandinavia. During production, Disney sent researchers to Norway to study architecture, fashion, and fjords.
What do you want Disney supposed to do, reanimate the entire movie? If you believe it's important to have diversity in popular culture, buy a ticket for some movie with a non-white character. Money talks in Hollywood. If you want to see a difference you have to make one.
We have several non-white princesses already. Jasmine. Pocahontas. Mulan. Tiana. In fact, Disney didn't make a single white princess between 1991 (Belle) and 2010 (Rapunzel). That's almost twenty years. White doesn't automatically mean racist. If you walk out of a theater and all you can remember is the character's race, clearly you didn't watch the movie.
And on an unrelated note, can we please stop it with the 'Elsa is gay' theories? There is zero evidence in the film to suggest that. So she doesn't dance with the Duke of Weaseltown at her coronation. Nobody wants to dance with the Duke of Weaseltown. So what if she forbids Anna from marrying Hans?
That's not gay, people. That's common sense. She managed to say in one sentence what people have been telling Disney for seventy six years. Elsa's an independent woman, a regal queen, and a powerful sorceress. She doesn't need a man in her life much less have time for one. And please, can we stop with the 'Elsanna' pairings? They're sisters. How does that not disgust you? I think these people just can't wrap their brains around the idea of a girl in a non-romantic relationship.
And the reason she feels shut out and unloved? That's because of her ice powers. They're not a metaphor for gayness. If she were lesbian she'd be shooting rainbows.
Ever since The Little Mermaid hit theaters twenty five years ago, Disney has been trying to shake their 'damsel' image. To create strong female characters. The modern Disney princess saves her prince instead of the other way around.
But strong doesn't just mean "not a damsel". A strong character is interesting, complex, and she connects with the audience. That brings us back to Elsa.
Elsa isn't career driven like Tiana. She doesn't take out a man with a frying pan like Rapunzel. She doesn't shoot for her own hand like Merida. She doesn't man up like Mulan. She's a horrible ruler who abandoned her people. Every problem in the movie is a result of her inability to control her powers. She ignored her sister for thirteen years, even refusing to come out when her parents died.
And yet we love her.
Why does everyone relate to Elsa?

It's probably because each of us has something we conceal, don't feel, don't let it show
We see her at her lowest moments

And we see her at her highest
We watch her run off a cliff held up by nothing but her own confidence
It's not the ice powers we want, or the ability to make sentient life out of snow. We want her confidence. We see our own weakness in her, and when she conquers her demons, we believe we can too. Normally weakness makes us pull back from a character. We don't want to relate to wimpy damsels or grumpy girls because that means admitting our own shortcomings. But Elsa is different because she rises above it. We want to connect with her. That's why Elsa is so likable.  Instead of her personality coming from conquering gender norms, she conquers herself.
Race, sexuality, gender-those things shouldn't define a person. They're just demographics. And really, if you actually care about any socio-political issues, you're better off trying to change the world you live in than complaining about a fictional one.
A relatable character shouldn't be someone who matches us in dull, census statistic ways. And if you refuse to relate to someone because they don't match up with you, you're missing out on some great ones. Elsa succeeds because we see pieces of ourself in her and forget what makes her different. Personality is a thousand times more important than anything else.
And man, does Elsa have a great one.
Edit: I just realized that this post could be misread to mean I don't think diversity in fiction is important. Of course it is. And that's why we need to spend our time and energy creating and promoting media with diverse characters. Slamming a movie for having "default" characters won't bring about change.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Disney Princesses: Romance Through the Ages

Snow White and The Prince, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937:
Well there's your problem right there. He doesn't have a name. I've heard some sources call him Ferdinand, Florian, or Fredrick, but he doesn't get one in the actual film. You know, he doesn't get much in the actual film. He shows up for his duet with Snow, the appropriately titled One Song, and then disappears until the wake up kiss. This movie doesn't refer to it as "true love's kiss" but "love's first kiss", implying that they haven't quite fallen in love yet.
Do you even remember One Song? It's songs like Heigh Ho and Whistle While You Work that stick out. That's because Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Not The Prince.
I don't get this girl. Here you are, wishing for the love of your life to show up, and when he does, you run.

Cinderella and Prince Charming, Cinderella, 1950
Oh look, he gets a name this time. I wonder why we use "Prince Charming" as the name for that fictional man we all want to meet. He doesn't have that much chemistry with Cinderella. And he can't be very bright either. Who recognizes their girlfriend by shoe size? It's not like it was a masquerade ball. He saw her face. And did Cinderella really love him-or just his money? Hey, she married up. Got to give the girl credit.
I'm not going to tell you how long it took me to find an English version that wasn't a crappy cover. Seriously, an English song from an American company and all I can get is Greek? Guess Cindy doesn't have much a legacy.

Aurora and Prince Phillip, Sleeping Beauty, 1959
This time I blame the lack of chemistry on the girl. As I've mentioned in a previous post, she's only in eighteen minutes of her movie. More focus is put on Phillip. Like the previous movies, they meet for one brief scene until he shows up at the climax to make things right. At least he slays a dragon to reach his love instead of walking in for a shoe fitting.
Watch Aurora take a leaf out of Snow White's book.

Ariel and Eric, The Little Mermaid, 1989
Eric's statue is just another one of the gadgets and gizmos in her grotto. She loves him because he embodies her dreams of the surface. Even if Ariel had legs, what would she do on the surface? She needs a home, a family, and she wants the royal life she's grown up with. So she goes for the nearest human prince.
Ariel and Eric have more interaction than the previous couples, but it's stunted thanks to her missing voice. Ariel's also more assertive. She saves Eric's life, makes a deal with the devil, and swims all the way to his ship (in her human form) to crash his wedding. They have their reward. In the sequel, Return to the Sea, they have a daughter named Melody, which makes them the only couple on this list to have children.
However, Eric's not that bright. He falls in love with the sound of a voice. Even after building a relationship with Ariel, he goes for Ursula just because she can sing.

Belle and The Beast (Adam), Beauty and the Beast, 1991
The best chemistry of any couple so far. Why? Because neither of them falls in love at first sight. Their movie takes place over the course of several months rather than a few days. And they both have flaws. The Beast's, of course, is his beastliness. He's mean and he's coarse and unrefined. Not at all like Belle's romanticized dream prince.
For the first time, we see Disney mocking themselves. In the opening scene, Belle sings about how she wants to "meet Prince Charming, but she won't discover that it's him 'till chapter three".
I chose this video to represent their love life rather than "Beauty and the Beast". Partly because they sing it themselves, not Mrs. Potts, and it lets us see their relationship grow.

Aladdin and Jasmine, Aladdin, 1992
The first princess to be featured in a movie with a male lead.

Pocahontas and John Smith, Pocahontas, 1995
If you know the history behind this their whole relationship is ick. They aged up Pocahontas and gave John Smith a beauty upgrade. Still, the couple has some good moments. They go on a weird acid sequence of a forest walk, learn to appreciate each others' cultures, and saves his life-before they're forced to part. Don't worry, there's a which Pocahontas meets her real life husband, John Rolfe.

Mulan and Shang, Mulan, 1998
No. Just no. There's no room for romance here because she spends most of the movie being a man. Her interaction with Shang mostly consists of him yelling at her. Only the ending hints that they might fall in love.

Tiana and Naveen, The Princess and the Frog, 2009
So we've had more than ten years since the last movie. In that time, Disney's been listening to critics. Quite a few of their princesses have no goals in life besides finding a prince. Sure, those complaints are mostly directed at the first three movies, but they listen anyways. Tiana is the antithesis of previous princesses. She's career driven and doesn't have time for a man in her life.
Then there's Naveen. He's arrogant, rich, and likes to mess around. Just as the princess in the original fairy tale looks down on the prince for being a frog, he looks down on her for being a waitress. And she despises him because of he was born rich while she had to work for every penny she's got.
They do fall in love, though. Eventually.

Rapunzel and Flynn, Tangled, 2010
In my opinion, Rapunzel and Flynn/Eugene have the most successful romance of any Disney couple. It's their story. Fish and fairies aren't here to distract us. Aside from Mother Gothel, the thugs, and Rapunzel's parents, who have no speaking parts, they're the only people in the movie.

Merida and her unlucky suitors, Brave, 2012:
Let's imagine how this movie was made.
Pixar: We're going to make a movie about a princess.
Disney: Hey, cool. We'll put her in the lineup. We'll make dolls of her and her prince. We'll put her songs on our princess albums.
Pixar: Wait, you mean you want her to be a Disney princess?
Disney: Dude, we own you now.
Pixar: I'll show you! This will be the story of a princess and her mother. The only song she'll sing is a Gaelic lullaby. And princes? She won't have one. She'll have THREE and reject them all. Merida will be shooting for her own hand.

Anna and Prince Hans/Anna and Kristoff, Frozen, 2013
This is where Disney makes fun of themselves. Anna's relationship with Hans parodies (and later deconstructs) the logic of love at first sight. I have to say, their first meeting scene is hilarious and their love song adorable. But my Genre Savviness Alert System smelled a rat from the moment I saw the trailers. He's too Nice Guy. Disney hasn't made one of those for a while.
Then Kristoff walks in. Still high on the excitement of the love song, I was confused. Why would we need two hot, young male humans in one movie? They can't both be the love interest.
Or can they?
Frozen pulled off the first real Disney princess love triangle. Stupid little Aurora thought she was in one because she didn't bother to learn Phillip's name. Gaston pursued Belle but she never returns his affections. Pocahontas falls into one in the sequel, but I'm only examining first movies.
Just as in Tangled, the romantic interest is lovable rogue who accompanies you on your quest. And just like Tangled, we see that love is the most powerful magic of all. But this time it's family love, not romance, that takes center stage.
In recent movies, Disney tried to defy the damsel stereotypes by creating girls who would rather fight a war or start a business than fall in love. And while Merida and Tiana occasionally get praised for that, the memory of Snow White and Cinderella still prevails. So Disney tried a new approach: use the first love trope-but play with it. When the trolls announce that Anna can only be healed by "an act of true love" everyone assumes it will be a kiss. But in the end Anna warms her own heart. Really, that makes more sense. Why should Phillip's love affect a curse placed on Aurora? Why should Belle's love release the Beast from his enchantment? That's about as effective as getting heart surgery to wake someone else up from a coma.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


My plans for the week are to lounge around on the couch and watch the Olympics. I'll feel guilty, I know, just like I did two years ago with the London games. I took gymnastics for eighteen months, but quit two months before the Olympics started in August. I'd finally realized that I wasn't going to get any better. At fifteen, I was always the oldest in my class and usually the worst. The youngest girl was eight. I realized that if I held in for a few more months I'd be twice her age.
So when I watched Gabby Douglas flip and twirl and fly, I didn't just envy her body. I wished I had her talent. Her determination. Her strength. But I knew I couldn't get it without years of grueling training. I knew how unattainable it was.
So sometimes I feel guilty while watching the Olympics. Here are these athletes from every corner of the globe proudly representing their countries. Here's me, a couch potato in my own living room, representing no one.
Then I watched the countries parade into the stadium with their flags held high. Really, this is the least interesting part of the games. I should've turned it off and got on my math homework like a good little student. But I kept watching. And I began to feel inspired.
I realized that glory isn't a full time dream. That these people are finance advisers in Seattle and bricklayers in Nepal. They take time off high school and college to fly out to Sochi. They've got families. When they told me that certain teams had never brought home a medal, I realized that dreams grow old. That being the best in your own country for one year isn't enough.
But that's not what it's about.
I admired the lone athletes from places like Paraguay and Togo. While Canada, Russia, and the USA teams marched in over two hundred strong, they had no one but a handful of coaches behind them. They came from warm climates. They didn't intend to go home victors. Some of them don't even come from the countries they represent. That Paraguayan woman is American, adopted from there as a child. The guy from Togo? French. It's easier to make those teams than the American and French ones because they are the team. Yet you can see from their faces that they don't feel like fakes. They want to represent these countries. They want to represent themselves. They want to cheer and be cheered
As I sat there couch potatoing, I realized that a dream doesn't have to define you. And even if you want it to it never will. Medals get dusty, your body will grow old, and forty years from now no one but the host city will remember these games even took place. You have to go home and get on with your life.
A dream can make you proud. Proud to hear an entire stadium cheering you on. Proud to carry your country's flag. Proud to cross the finish line just in time to score a bronze medal.
But you don't need to stake your entire identity on it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rainbows, Daisy, and What I Really Think About English Class

My friends have fallen out of love with reading and that bothers me. My friends who read Dickens, Twain, Hugo, and Shakespeare for fun. My friends who write their own stories. My friends who work on the literary magazine. It's not the reading they've abandoned-no, they crave stories. It's English class. The assignments designed to pick apart their favorite books. The lectures that make them think they can't be writers because they're not some old dead guy. Most of my lit magazine class took it to get out regular English. I'm an anomaly.
We had this unit on light in sixth grade. One day after school, I looked outside and found a rainbow. All I could think was, "It's round because the sun and water droplets are round. The light is divided up into all of the colors in the visible light spectrum, like light going through a prism. There are other colors we don't see like ultraviolet and uuuuuuugh. What happened to my brain? Why can't I just enjoy this stupid rainbow?"
Behold, science!
That's what literary criticism is. So much how and why and cause and effect that you forget to see the rainbow. People who love language classes generally do it for the creativity. It's a nice break from the yes/no, true/false, x/y mindset of science and math. But when English class becomes more about analysis than appreciating the beauty they fall out of love.
My philosophy with reading is to take the middle  ground. Yes, study the imagery and metaphors and syntax and all that crap. But don't forget what you love. It's alright to set the worksheet aside and simply admire a book. When I read The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was supposed to dissect them for rhetorical strategies and vocabulary words. But that's not what I took away from the books. My favorite scene in Gatsby is this:
“Why candles?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”
“We ought to plan something,” yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.
“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly: “What do people plan?”
Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.
“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.”
We all looked — the knuckle was black and blue.

There is no fantastic literary value in this scene. It's not the one people quote. It's not the one people discuss in book club. It's not the one I focused on in my essay. But I liked it and that's all it matters.
Daisy reminds me of every idiot I've ever known. The type of people who keep talking when they never had anything to say in the first place. The type of people who make mistakes and then whine about them rather than take responsibility. Now whenever I hear someone echo themself, I think, You're daisying again. I like that F. Scott Fitzgerald was able to take something that always bothered me and put it into words. If I tried it would be a rant. He made it funny.
And Mark Twain did funny much better than Fitzgerald. Most people read Huck Finn as The Great American Novel or a commentary about racism and slavery. I didn't. The part I'll always remember is the long, anticlimactic thirty pages at the end of the book.
Huck's friend, Jim, is an escaped slave. Or at least he was escaped until he got captured by a plantation owner. His prison is a simple wooden cabin with a locked door. Huck's plan to break him out goes like this:
1. Open window
2. Cut chain of Jim's leg
3. Watch Jim climb out of window
But Huck's friend Tom has better ideas. He's read adventure novels and he knows his history. Prison breaks are supposed to be daring and complicated. He'd rather cut off Jim's leg than the chain. So despite Huck's protests, he comes up with a ridiculously complicated escape plan. It involves tunneling into the cabin with pocketknifes (while shovels sit a few feet away), drugging the guard dogs (the dogs are friendly), disguising himself as a servant girl to deliver messages (there are no servant girls and they're allowed to talk to Jim anytime they want), and forcing Jim to keep a diary in his own blood (Jim can't read). Tom reckons they can get him free in thirty seven and a half years.
But Huck points out that Jim will be dead by then, so Tom speeds things up a bit. And then, for the fun of it, he lets the townsfolk know about the escape in advance so they can have a proper army chasing after them. Which nearly gets them all killed.
It's a slow chunk of the book where nothing important happens. Most adaptations leave it out. But I liked Twain's not so subtle jabs at adventure novels. And I'm allowed to like it all I want since my homework is done and over with.
Bear with the literary analysis. The pain only lasts for a little while. But don't lose sight of the rainbow because, in the long run, that's all you want to remember. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why eBooks Aren't the Death of Print

I don't wear a watch. I have some in the bottom of my jewelry box for camping and AP tests, but I rarely pull them out otherwise. Three digits in the top right corner of my phone screen is enough for me. Over the last few years, I've noticed a decline in watch wearing. Timepieces, from sun dials to pocket watches to Rolex, have historically been a status symbol. Certain clock towers, like Big Ben, symbolize an entire city or country. Look at Switzerland-watches equal Swiss and Swiss equals watches.
I haven't heard the watch industry whimper about the rise of cell phones. Maybe it's because I don't follow the timepiece world like I follow books. But if it were a serious issue, wouldn't I know about it by now?
I have a calendar hanging on the wall by my desk. I only mark important dates on it, like vacations. A calendar factory made money off me. I use the notes app on my phone but that doesn't stop me from owning several notebooks.
I have a nook. Someday I'm going to find the charger so I can actually use it. 99 percent of my reading is done on traditional ink-and-paper books. But when I want to read something that isn't available in print, I download it.
In many ways, digital books are actually good for the industry. A book stays in print for maybe six years. After that, an author can't make money on sales. Unless they put it up as an ebook. Short stories are too expensive to print unless they're part of a collection. But if someone will download it for 99 cents, why not put it up?
The existence of phones hasn't eliminated the clock industry. Fancy Swiss watches will always be there for those willing to pay for them. In the same way, books will always be around for those who want to read them.