Hamilton: A Musical About A Scholar

How does a bastard, orphan / son of a whore and a Scotsman / dropped into the middle of a / forgotten spot in the Caribbean / by Providence, impoverished, in squalor / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

I was a little late to Hamilton, but yesterday I was listening to a seminar paper and when the author quoted Jefferson, I suddenly had visions of the purple suited Daveed Diggs dancing in my mind. It was particularly ironic since the paper was about the representation of whiteness.

However, that’s not the object of this post – although I am awfully excited about what the hit musical means in terms of representation. No, apart from Lee’s “I’m a general – whee!”, my favourite Hamilton line identifies the founding father as a hero and a scholar. How often do we see academics as the object of a musical? Not enough! And that it comes just as the 44th President becomes the first to publish an academic paper is extra sweet. To me, the most exciting aspect of being an academic is the intellectual adventure. To see that intellectual adventure as the subject of a musical is amazing. There may be some duelling, the occasional stealing of a canon, but what drives Hamilton in the musical is his scholarship and writing. Indeed, writing is the core of the show: the letters, the essays, the words upon which the nation was established.

Today I spotted an interview (Kris Vire in Time Out, Sept. 7 2016) with Lin-Manual Miranda where he says: “And we don’t think of writers as action figures, right? We think of action figures as action figures; we think of soldiers, we think of sports stars. But this is a guy who wrote three lifetimes’ worth of work, and that is really both what got him success and also what got him into trouble. The fact that this guy couldn’t stop writing, as both his biggest strength and his biggest flaw, is the other exciting thing about him.”

Writers are people of action. It takes courage to write, to submit, to publish, to put oneself out in the arena of publish opinion armed simply with ideas.

Writers are action figures.

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Incidentally, I’m really looking forward to seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work with Disney. If you haven’t seen it yet, do have a look at his takeover of Disney’s Instagram. I’m a particular fan of his Gaston!

Moana and noticing the good in Disney

Yesterday, one of my students sent me a link to this article in The Mary Sue, ‘“My Fish”: How The Little Mermaid Helped a Genderqueer Teen Find Strength‘ by Jennie Steinberg:

When Taylor was in kindergarten […] he saw The Little Mermaid in theaters. “I remember seeing her hide who she was from her family and for the first time I thought, ‘I’m not alone.’ It was a revelation to me.

It struck me how often Disney princesses appear ‘normative’ on the outside, but their ‘I wish’ songs reveal that they don’t feel normal inside. The songs offer space to express non-normative experience. Sure, there are a lot of white princesses, but they feel odd, strange, isolated. They yearn for something more.

I am really looking forward to Moana. I’m already noting quite a bit of negative coverage, although the film itself is yet to be released. There’s often an assumption that Disney will get it wrong and, truthfully, they won’t get it exactly right. However, stories and myths and legends all change and evolve. This will be a Disney tale about Maui and it won’t accurately reflect all the stories that have been told. It will be a Disney tale and it can’t be otherwise. However, it has a wonderful cast and I’m really excited about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement. He recently took over the @disneyanimation Instagram and performed a rousing ‘Gaston‘ with the Rock and I didn’t think my day could improve.

“Baba Bobs Her Hair” and other bits and bobs

I recently published a fairy tale over at Timeless Tales Magazine as part of their Baba Yaga issue. Baba Yaga tales are always such great fun! Who doesn’t love a house on chicken legs?

The tale has a 1920s spin, with loads of fantastic 20s slang and a little movie glamour. Just a little! This is a Baba Yaga tale, so most of the story takes place in a less than savoury setting. I also recorded an audio version of the tale, which for a little magazine patronage, you can download. I’ve been incredibly nervous about that audio! It seemed like such a fun idea to record until I started trying to get Baba’s voice right!!!

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I’ve also published a short piece in The Victorian Writer, “The Heart of the Princess.” I explore the glamorous history of princesses, because it never does to forget the glamour.

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I’m also happy to be in such great company in the issue. Louisa John-Krol‘s story, “The Yellow Mansion,” ends with gold slippers, which made me very happy! Kate Forsyth also has a darker take on fairy tale history. It can’t all be about sparkly things!

The Australian Fairy Tale Society is calling for presentation submissions for its annual conference in June next year. The deadline is January 29. The conference will be in Melbourne next year, which I’m really excited about! The theme is “Into the Bush: Its Beauty and its Terror.” I wonder if we’ll run into Prince Eucalyptus  in the Bush?

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Inverting Pygmalion: Fairy Tales and the Male Model

Sometimes I do wander the web, clicking on tumblr posts. I’m having a coffee, a short break from grading papers or providing feedback. Yes, sometimes I am procrastinating! I’ve long ago learned to accept procrastination as part of my writing process – procrastination is often, after all, an opportunity to break from a faltering thought process.

But sometimes, on my wanderings, something catches my eye and I’m on a new research path!

Today I was looking through some posts and I came across “Why, this is my dream prince!” The post features a juxtaposition of Disney princesses with statues and homemade models of their prince charmings. I had never put all the examples together to realise there really is a theme.

It’s a theme that has deep roots in fairy tale. For instance, in Basile’s tale of Betta, the merchant daughter, the erstwhile heroine disdains all the men of her acquaintance. Instead, she moulds her own man, giving her father a bit of a start when a strange man suddenly appears from her room. It is a delightful twist on the Pygmalion myth in which the woman now sculpts her own ideal man. Indeed, Betta does such a wonderful job, the Queen steals away her creation.

The fairy tales of late seventeenth-century France are filled, on the other hand, with portraits of princes and princesses, some of which speak to their future lovers. In d’Aulnoy’s “The Hind in the Wood,” the prince’s portrait utters endless compliments to the princess he has never actually laid eyes upon. The princess, in turn, falls in love with the portrait, for she has not yet met the prince. Portraits were often utilised in the royal marriage market. A flattering portrait along with lands and cash could ensure a profitable marriage between distant strangers.

The use of models and portraits in fairy tale is quite common. I’m now investigating whether it is most common for the princes to be sculpted and painted and how other scholars have thought about this issue.

 

Evil and Fairy Tale’s Female Senior Citizens

This morning I came across Elizabeth Blair’s piece “Why Are Old Women Often the Face of Evil in Fairy Tales and Folklore?” It’s a valid question and one I’ve often contemplated (see Deb Waterhouse-Watson and my chapter here, for instance).

The problem is, we’re often saying the mean, old woman is a negative stereotype – or even evil. Actually, sometimes the mean, old woman just doesn’t care and gets on with what has to be done. Granny Weatherwax taught me that being liked shouldn’t be an object in life.

Nanny Ogg: “No one would come up here this time of night.”
Magrat Garlick: “What’s to be afraid of ?”
Granny: “Us.” 

Granny: “I’ve never claimed to be nice, just to be sensible.”

Yes, Terry Pratchett! It was a little rough this semester. I was teaching The Wee Free Men just after his death and it was difficult to deliver the lecture without tearing up. I definitely read a good portion of his last novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, through a watery haze. I’m just incredibly grateful that he gave us a last novel with Granny (by the way, it’s worth reading Neil Gaiman’s comments when you finish the book) and the novel, while not Pratchett at his most brilliant – it wasn’t, after all, completely polished – is an amazing farewell and leaves Pratchett’s readers with just a little more Granny-style wisdom to keep us going.

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Social media trains us to seek more and more ‘likes’ and to keep clicking ‘like’ even if we just give something a cursory glance and don’t hate it. In fairy tales, life is too difficult, decisions too momentous, to tackle with a click of a ‘like’ button. The old women of fairy tale know that not everyone will love them or protect them and they act accordingly. Granny Weatherwax is not always loved or even liked, but when the going gets tough, you need Granny in your corner, even if Granny herself worries that she’ll turn a corner and follow in Black Aliss’s wicked footsteps.

Not all old women in fairy tale are evil, though. Disney gave us Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three incredibly loveable old women.

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One of the reasons I disliked Maleficent (2014) was that the film turned the old women into bumbling fools. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), they are a little silly, but there is no underestimating their power. They take charge when the baby princess is cursed with death. They can wield their wands to bake a cake or send a sword swift and true to defeat a dragon. Their magic and their generosity saves the kingdom.

And when old women are evil, they can be rather wonderful. One of my all time favourite, bad, old women is Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). While we may be wary of the negative stereotypes attached to the old woman in fairy tale, I don’t think it hurts to occasionally celebrate her in all her snarky, reckless, insouciant glory. She reminds us we don’t always have to be liked to be incredible women. Indeed, sometimes it’s a lot more fun to be wicked.

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The Female Gaze and Fairy Tales

The male gaze is a fixture of cinema and, to an extent, of literature. Women, more often than not, experience storytelling through a masculine perspective.

However, the female gaze does exist and it’s a wonderful thing. Lately I’ve been encountering examples. I’m working on my own take on the female gaze in Disney, so I was highly amused by a recent Buzzfeed post, “This is What Disney Princes Would Look Like in Real Life.” Prince Eric is particularly noteworthy! I’ve actually always argued there’s a nice parallel between The Little Mermaid (1989) and Dirty Dancing (1987) in which the young heroines peek and openly goggle at their respective princes. The audience is invited to share their gaze. It’s the female gaze in action. Even when Johnny sneaks a peek at Baby changing in the backseat of his car, the audience – and Baby – is watching him sneak that peek.

As I’ve been researching, I’ve come across other examples. Jupiter Ascending (2015) caught my eye because I first read Donna Dickens’ piece on HitFix. I saw the film recently when I downloaded it, having missed it at the cinema. It’s amazing. It really is Cinderella in space. It is trashy and kitschy. It’s not a perfect film – there’s a good review here about the queerness of the villain, for instance – but I really enjoyed the scene with the bees and Jupiter’s female-dominated family life. I also enjoyed the space skates. I would like a pair of those. The film also understands fairy tale. The plot is a little barmy and inconsistent and concerned with capitalism. These are all traits of fairy tale. Logic should never get in the way of a good celebration of and take-down of capitalism!

Then this morning I discovered this great post on Tumblr. I always recommend George of the Jungle (1997) as an entertaining film. I had never explicitly thought about it in light of the female gaze, but it is utterly about the female gaze. I think I’ll have to rewatch it now! The post doesn’t mention one of my favourite scenes, in which George dresses unself-consciously in a short, summery dress. He even does a little twirl! It’s not quite a fairy tale, but it does have many of the elements. The lost son raised by animal friends, the princess from far-off lands who has to be rescued. Yet the tale takes many of the tropes and re-realises them to create a very positive feminine experience.

One of my very favourite fairy tales about the female gaze, though, is that of Betta. A tale by Basile in the 17th century, this is a tale about a girl who rejects all her marriage prospects and literally creates a husband of her own with her own hands. He is beautiful. The Queen even desires him and steals him away. Oh, there should totally be a film about Betta!

Salons to Sydney

It’s been a busy few weeks! The Alice Salon at the Glen Eira Storytelling Festival was fantastic fun. My co-conspirators put together the most wonderful tea party and publication displays and we had a great selection of music and papers.

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I loved learning about Alice’s many media manifestations, her influence on Japanese fashion subcultures and the history of playing card people. Louisa John-Krol as always led us in amazing song, bewitching us with images of flowers! She was joined by her merry, colourful band including a rather intrepid white rabbit child and a surprise appearance by a bunyip! Copious invited us down into Wonderland with wonderful, dark melodies and lyrics. We were exhausted, but happy by the end of the day!

Soon after the Alice Salon, I headed to Sydney for the Australian Fairy Tale Society’s second conference. It’s a fantastic opportunity to re-engage with my peers in fairy tale! And this time I didn’t have the ‘flu! I gave my first paper on Australian pantomime, pantomime rapidly becoming one of my research interests. There’s such fabulous material. This time I focused mostly on Djin Djin.

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We had papers from a number of academics and non-academics interested in the field, including my honours student, who gave a great interview for the Sydney Morning Herald. We also heard from a range of authors, including the keynote speaker, Sophie Masson. Louisa John-Krol was there too and she sang us into each session, which was the best treat. I was especially thrilled as she premiered her new song, ‘Glindering,’ based on my short story, “The Death of Glinda.” What an honour! She knows me so well, too, since there is spindling and swindling in the song! You can find more on the conference in the coming weeks at the society’s website.

I popped down to Sydney a little early, too, because I really wanted to visit the Undressed exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Yes, there’s references to underthings in fairy tales, so it was all research! Plus, I did get to see a pair of Queen Victoria’s knickers! I didn’t know this, but the Powerhouse Museum also has the most amazing shoe collection. If you have an interest in shoes, I can’t recommend it highly enough and may have had a little ‘shoe comma’ afterwards. So many red shoes, too!

An Afternoon with Alice: June 13, 2015

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1pm, Saturday 13 June 2015

Glen Eira Town Hall — Theatrette

The Monash Fairy Tale Salon will be hosting a curious afternoon of madness and muchness as we go down the rabbit hole in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Come along and learn about the author and illustrators who shaped literary history and gave us such wonderfully uncommon nonsense. For the bold at heart (or the Queen of Hearts), come dressed as your favourite wonderland character! This event is open to anyone who has a love for nonsense.

There will be music from Copious and from Louisa John-Krol with her merry band including Naomi Henderson, Nicholas Albanis and Gilbert. There will be papers on illustration, fashion, cats, playing cards and all things transmedial from Madeleine Hunter, Megan Russell, Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario, Fiona Price and Laura-Jane Maher.

Of course, there will also be a tea party with drinks, sandwiches and sweet treats! No sleepy dormice will be injured.

Entry is free and no bookings are necessary. Join us down the rabbit hole!

For more details:

http://www.gleneira.vic.gov.au/Connect/Arts_and_culture/Glen_Eira_Storytelling_Festival/Alice_in_Wonderland_%E2%80%94_150_years

Research and Mrs Exeter

I saw an excellent paper the other night, “Inhabiting an Ageing Body: Old Age, Fashion and Beauty Culture in the Twentieth Century,” by Charlotte Greenhalgh. I’ve an active interest in representations of old age. Deb Waterhouse-Watson and I wrote an essay on old age in children’s fantasy for Harleys and Hormones: Ageing, Popular Culture and Contemporary Feminism, and I’ve even been turning my own hand to representing old age in a story about Glinda. Greenhalgh focussed on an historical approach, examining first hand accounts of men and women talking about their relationships to fashion. She also used Vogue as a key source of information and, in particular, the career of Mrs Exeter. Mrs Exeter was a fictional character, but through her, Vogue explored how older women could relate to and adapt fashion. Her first appearance in the late 40s led to a successful ‘career’ right up to the early 60s. She coincided with a period in fashion that valued sophistication and experience and produced styles that suited and flattered mature bodies.

I was immediately fascinated by the character. I spent the following morning researching her. I found a couple of articles, a book chapter, a few references elsewhere. I found some old Vogue magazines and pattern books that featured her, though most were out of my price range. I was happily discovering a new interest, but around lunch time, I began to feel guilty. I said to a good friend that I was really wasting my time, because I wasn’t immediately planning to write an article. She responded that I actually didn’t need a reason to research Mrs Exeter. Besides, a reason might come along in the future.

Research in the university system today is very ‘outcome’ based. We rarely receive funding or spend time on research that won’t result in an article, a book, a grant submission. It occurred to me, though, as I looked at my haul of Mrs Exeter information, that surely part of an academic’s job is to research, to be curious, to learn? As we become more outcome-driven, our curiosity muscle weakens from neglect. We stop learning and become focussed solely on our own increasingly stagnated, intellectual contribution. Of course, outcomes are vital. My realisation is that universities are increasingly reducing support for research that isn’t tied to an outcome, yet such research is the essential groundwork for intellectual development. Even in my desire to justify my attendance at a paper – “because I have an active research interest” – signals the changing culture in which academic curiosity is becoming steadily endangered.

Why I Liked Branagh’s Cinderella

I saw Cinderella last week as part of Hoyt’s ‘Girls’ Night Out’ promotion, which was rather perfect, really. It’s a very girly film! Is that a bad thing?

I’ve been fielding many questions from people about the film, about Disney princesses, about the anti-princess movement. I read Judy Berman’s post about the film on Flavorwire this morning. I read The Guardian on the film last week. There seems to be a consensus that Cinderella is a step back from the plucky, feisty, headstrong princesses Disney has been telling stories about.

And yes. Yes it is.

Is that bad? Cinderella is a love letter to its Disney animated source. I’ve always thought the 1950 heroine is undervalued. She is bright, optimistic, kind and graceful under pressure. She doesn’t storm, she doesn’t rant, hence she isn’t ‘plucky’ or ‘headstrong’ apparently. She in fact seems overtly passive, but there’s a twinkle in her eye and voice, a touch of sarcasm that reveals she knows her own worth and simply chooses to bide her time until a suitable opportunity presents itself. When she flips out her glass slipper and puts it on, you know she’s just not as meek as she has appeared. I like that Branagh brought forth these qualities and that he underlined how her position in the household is gradually eroded, with the growing tension between her faithfulness to being courageous and kind, and the reality of being simply used and abused. It is clear in the film – she in fact tells us – that she stays because she loves her home and will take care of it, even though it means weathering her vindictive stepfamily. She chooses not to leave. She controls her own reactions. She does have her moments though. She has enough and rides off into the woods, only to stop to help a stag, and stays because she meets an apprentice and sees a possible future for herself. She has enough and is ready to leave when her fairy godmother equips her to go to the ball. She’s not loud and shouty – one might even conclude she’s an introvert – and she doesn’t pick up a sword. She listens and observes and it’s not for nothing that she pauses to tell the King his son loves him, a move that underscores her diplomatic credentials. Cinderella’s agency is in her kindness. She is kind to people and to animals and they largely respond in kind. She’s thoughtful. She tries to make the world a little bit better. So often that is misread as self-sacrificing or selfless, yet she does want to go to the ball. She does have her desires. She does enjoy wearing that dress. She simply does put other considerations first, sometimes at her personal cost.

Incidentally, much has been made of her waistline. She is not the only princess with a tiny waistline, however, and she will not be the last. Indeed, Perrault’s tale originally remarks upon her sisters not eating before the ball and then lacing their waists to be as small as possible. It’s not unproblematic, but watching the film, I note that hardly anyone remarks that Cate Blanchett’s waist is also tiny. Corsetry itself is not anti-feminist and many feminists wear corsets. I know many. Providing Cinderella’s waist is not the only representation of a female waist, I think we’ll survive as a gender. Indeed, I think most of us looked at her and thought ‘pretty, but not worth it!’ as we ate our popcorn.

I like Cinderella because it is classic and beautiful. Berman writes about “[t]he movie’s achingly slow pace, mostly the result of Branagh’s insistence on lingering over every twirl of the dress,” but I actually loved that. I also loved Marie Antoinette (2006) for much the same reason. So sue me. I like gowns and shoes.

I didn’t like Maleficent (2014) because it made all men greedy horrors, turned the heroine of the tale into a cipher who sleeps for the blink of an eye, robbed the fairy godmothers of their power, and made only one woman powerful, with her actions driven by “the man who did her wrong.”

I wouldn’t want Cinderella to be the only representation of a Disney princess. There needs to be diversity. There needs to be louder, feistier heroines, too. This is also my point with the anti-princess movement. Yes, there is too much focus upon the Disney princess, but that is in part because there are so few alternative, feminine options for children, both male and female, to engage with. At least they have the Disney princesses. And if one princess is quiet, kind and graceful, if one princess doesn’t shout and rage at the world, is that so awful? Is she unfeminist simply because she wears a glass slipper?

To conclude, I’ll leave you with an epic rap battle featuring Buffy‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar as Cinderella.