A Few ‘Girls’ Books All People Could Read

Today on Twitter I noticed something. I noticed how outspoken and completely amazing the Anne Frank Center is being. Seriously, if you haven’t been following them, do: @AnneFrankCenter. Anne Frank would be so proud. I also noticed a thread posted by @boguspress. She’s a clown. She tried to paint a little boy’s face with a blue butterfly upon his own request. His parents insisted that she didn’t paint the butterfly as it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ for a boy, so he had a skull and cross bones painted instead. It’s heartbreaking. She comments: “So the next time you are incredulous about how the govt could shut down our national parks, or build the pipeline, or nuke the planet…” Then I saw an article on The Guardian about Clarks shoes – specifically, a range of shoes for girls called Dolly Babe, and for boys called Leader. After claims of sexism – quite rightly! – the Dolly Babe range was removed. But look what happened: “Both shoes are made from black leather, but the Dolly Babe has the added cloying detail of a pink insole printed with hearts, while the version for boys – which remains on sale – has a football detail.” Yes, the boys’ range remained – of course there was nothing wrong with the masculine shoes – and the Guardian declares the pink insole with hearts ‘cloying’. Again, something feminine is attacked. The masculine remains unquestioned. There are other issues, commenters pointed out, in terms of comfort and quality and these should absolutely be addressed along with the ridiculous naming of the ranges and the gendered nature of the promotion. However, there is nothing inherently wrong in a pink insole. All children, all adults, should be able to access both feminine and masculine clothing – as well as that fabulous unicorn, gender-neutral clothing. However, I do wish that in the name of combating sexism, feminine things would not be simply attacked and removed.

In the spirit of that and thinking of Anne Frank today and how perhaps the world would be better if more little boys had blue butterfly faces, I thought I’d put together a list of a few books traditionally seen as ‘feminine’ and which really are feminine, but which I think all people should be able to read.

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

She spells her name with an ‘e,’ of course she’s amazing. She is an eyewitness to so much social horror, yet her diary is also full of joy and frustration and love.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Of course this was going to be on my list! But for this post, I will also note that Gilbert and Matthew are excellent role models for boys. Gilbert is brought down a peg or two by Anne, but he learns humility and he learns to be patient and supportive. Matthew is a shining beacon of all that is good – proof that a man can be quiet and hardworking and loving.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Yes, written by a man, so what? The Tiffany Aching series is lively, funny, and has at its heart a difficult, smart, stubborn girl who does the really important, little things no one else wants to do. And she makes great cheese.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie is an amazing hero who uses cleaning up as an excuse to investigate. She realises the strength of old women and how much fun it is to be bossy. She’s a thorough delight. Howl is vain and interested in pretty clothes. It’s perfect.

The Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter

Potter was astonishing as an author and I love The Flopsy Bunnies, which really does shake its metaphorical head at that wastrel, Benjamin Bunny, and gives a staring role to the resourceful Mrs Tittlemouse.

a long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

This isn’t for children, and it isn’t traditionally seen as feminine, but it is feminine science fiction and it presents an amazing future where races, genders, species can all get along. I like to mention it as much as possible!

This is a short list and I’m sure I could come up with something much longer, but I have a book chapter to be getting one with!

 

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Giving Advice

I had a fantastic time at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne. I was so pleased to be one of their ambassadors! Which, incidentally, fulfilled a childhood dream. I mean, I can now call myself Ambassador Do Rozario, right?

Yes, I stole away for a latte at Starbucks (guilty pleasure) and the barista drew my Erstwilder brooch on the cup.

Well, at least I got a badge that said ‘Artist’.

The panels were varied and fascinating. I popped along to as many as I could manage and always came away with new thoughts to ponder. It was particularly thrilling to see a couple of my former students on panels themselves – Tegan Elizabeth Webb talking about zines and other forms of hybrid storytelling, Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones talking about writing trauma. They were both awesome in their undergrad. and Honours years and have only become more awesome now!

I was on a couple of panels myself. I think the most terrifying panel was 5X5 Rules of Writing with some of today’s most amazing authors, Anna Krien, Melina Marchetta, Michelle Law and Inga Simpson. Yes, that includes the author of Looking for Alibrandi! What on earth was I going to say on a panel that included such incredible women? But they were all so lovely that I didn’t feel at all out of place in the end. My 5 pieces of advice? They are largely based on my own experiences as an academic writer, but also as the writer of the odd bit of fiction. It’s actually not so different between genres. Here’s my advice in brief:

  1. Readers and writers are a community – engage with that community, even if its just online or in some other form. You can learn a great deal from other readers and writers. You can take comfort and encouragement from their experiences.
  2. Write things to annoy people or to make them laugh. In essence, write to provoke thought. It’s a bit like poking a bear. However, keep in mind that you have to earn the right – don’t take the easy route to baseless, ill-founded aggravation and cheap laughs.
  3. Write to add to happiness. Show readers how the world can be better.
  4. Own those rejections. This is where I stole a quote from Michelle Gomez, currently playing Missy in Doctor Who. She discovered that someone called her ‘the roach’:
    “And I said: ‘What, like cockroach?’ They said: ‘Yeah, because you’re out there, you get rejected day after day, you get crushed like a bug but you keep coming back. You’re indestructible.’” (link to interview)
  5. Don’t look to a university to teach you to be a writer, or to improve your chances at a book deal – look to a university because you have thoughts about our work as writers and you want to study writing as well as produce it.

That last piece of advice may sound odd coming from someone who works with creative writing students, but I think it’s so important for writers to go to university for the right reasons.

I was also on the beautifully named Once Upon a Time panel with Marisa Pintado and Steven Lochran. You should absolutely check out Steven’s books – there are dinosaurs! I managed to sneak in some references to fairy tale – I may also have managed to disparage the Grimms once more – ooops. I was asked about the mistakes I see students make in writing fantasy. I honestly hadn’t thought that might be a question, but it was such a good question! The truth is, the biggest mistake I see students make is that they write to the tropes of fantasy, rather than tell a story. In particular, characterisation suffers. You may be sending a character on a quest… but why that character? Is it the most interesting character for the quest? Also, think the story through. If characters are walking long distances every day, for instance, do their shoes wear out? What do they do about that? Basically, my advice is that while you can be a little hackneyed in your early drafts, the important thing is to really dig into your story and be conscious of why you’re making the choices you’re making in the telling. Don’t just accept and replicate the tropes – think about them and what they mean for the story you want to tell.

The other question that came up quite often during my ambassadorial duties was about getting over imposter syndrome. Easy answer there. I haven’t gotten over imposter syndrome myself! I’m not sure anyone really does. I’m not sure I altogether trust anyone who says they have. But I think you can own imposter syndrome and make friends with it. You can embrace the doubts you have about your work and allow those doubts to keep you honest. We’re all learning. It’s okay to think you’re crap at things sometimes. Just remember, sometimes you will get it right and that’s a wonderful feeling.

Speaking of which, I’m currently doing final edits for a book chapter on Australian fairy tales and I’m feeling like such an imposter that I decided it would be better to write this blog post. So, I should perhaps embrace my doubts and return to work!

However, if you are an emerging writer, look at going to the 2018 festival! They cover such a wide range of writing – screen writing, food writing, freelance, non-fiction etc. I learned so much about everything from the experience of deaf writers (Ross Onley Zerkel) to the wide range of publishers in Australia and how they take on writers ( Kate Stevens, James Read, Marisa Pintado, Enza Gandolfo). The festival team is also the best – they are incredibly helpful and friendly. I can absolutely attest to that!

Dirty Dancing, Fairy Tales, and Pregnancy

I’ve learned my lesson from Anne with an E (although I did enjoy parts of the series). I am not watching the remake of Dirty Dancing. However, a few interesting articles popped up that drew attention to Penny’s storyline in the film. Penny is the young dancer. She picks up gigs to earn a living. She is romanced by a scion of a wealthy family and imagines that he’ll marry her. He doesn’t. She is pregnant. She won’t be able to work. She has no money, no apparent support beyond her friends, and no access to safe abortion. Her plight drives the plot. Baby learns to dance because Penny can’t afford to lose her spot at the Sheldrake. Penny’s livelihood is that precarious.

Kaitlin Menza puts it thus in Harpers Bazaar:

Not only did the film portray a character choosing an abortion, but it got gruesome about the reality of such a procedure in 1963, when the film is set. That dirty knife wrecks the woman’s body, leaving her unable to work or even talk very much. She needs money, she needs a doctor, she needs someone to pick up her shifts at work so she won’t lose her job.

Who knows how many of us, watching Dirty Dancing in our teens, unconsciously became aware of such life-and-death consequences for women ‘in trouble.’

I’ve often compared Dirty Dancing to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Both foreground the young female protagonist’s gaze. Both Ariel and Baby are their father’s favourites, self-actualised girls who want something more than society is currently offering them. They both encounter and gaze upon young men who are forbidden to them, entranced by the way their bodies move as they dance. They both lie to their fathers in order to pursue their desire and in both cases, they have to confront the consequences. However, in the case of Ariel, she pursues the kiss of true love in order to keep her legs and not become a polyp. In Dirty Dancing, the stakes are higher in many respects for Penny.

Yet, fairy tale has a long history of grappling with just those stakes. Ruth Bottigheimer’s piece in Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches (ed. Donald Haase, 2004), addresses how the playful sexuality of early female heroes in medieval literature disappeared from fairy tale:

Coincident with women’s loss of fertility control was the emergence of the new literary genre, fairy tales. As the genre developed toward its modern form, two notable changes occurred in their plots. Men became a danger to women, and newly disempowered women cowered in fear […] The dangers then men posed sexually were generalized into a fairy-tale world in which women suffered wicked abductors, relentless captors, long captivity, and increasing isolation. In short, the modern fairy-tale heroine was born. (50)

Many know that the forerunner to Sleeping Beauty, Basile’s Talia, is raped in her sleep and consequently gives birth to twins. Once she is awake, her agency is virtually removed. The king continues to visit, having a delightful time with her, and then Talia’s life is threatened by the king’s wife, before she is rescued and lives happily ever after. It is a strange tale, not least because Talia appears to fall in love with the married man who raped her. Yet, in her circumstances, she has few options and Basile’s storyteller even reflects that she is lucky. Indeed, the unlucky Talia who didn’t meekly accept the king into her life would doubtless die alone and hungry, along with her children.

Basile’s Petrosinella is the forerunner to Rapunzel and the tale is very much grounded in female fertility. Petrosinella’s mother is pregnant and has a craving for parsley, a herb which, incidentally, was and still is regarded as an ingredient for inducing abortion, placing a rather nuanced slant upon her cravings. The ogress, whose garden the father raids, makes them promise to give up the baby. The mother, however, does raise Petrosinella for some years, until she is irritated by the ogress’s constant reminders and tells Petrosinella that the next time the ogress reminds her of the promise, to tell  her to ‘take her.’ Petrosinella is whisked away and placed in a tower and from there, she encounters a passing prince. Basile tells us that their negotiations go well and they become lovers. What is intriguing is that the lovers escape when the ogress discovers their assignations, but there is no mention of Petrosinella becoming pregnant. The relationship appears consensual and the pair are unpunished. In later versions, the young woman becomes pregnant and she and her lover suffer misadventure before being reunited. There is an undercurrent in Basile’s tale of women taking control of their sexuality and its consequences. Children and pregnancy are not unquestionably desired nor wanted, sexual relations can be consensual, and a woman need not be punished for having sex outside of marriage.

Basile’s tales are a cross-section of attitudes to women’s sexuality and fertility and of the fears and dangers of sex and pregnancy for women. As Bottigheimer argues, social attitudes around sex gradually altered the stakes for fairy-tale’s heroines, giving them less agency in relation to matters of reproduction. Lheritier’s ‘The Discreet Princess’ features a father determined to safeguard the virginity of his daughters while he’s away. He doesn’t merely lock them up in a tower, he also gives them glass distaffs that will break if they have sex. Finette is the virtuous heroine while her sisters are lazy and talkative. When they yield to the seductions of a wicked prince and consequently give birth, Finette takes charge and takes the babies straight back to their father, giving him an apoplexy. At least the tale offers a thought to the father’s responsibility. Unfortunately, the sisters are nonetheless punished for their lack of virtue, as are most women in fairy tale who consent to sex outside of marriage.

Today, feminist revisions of fairy tale often focus upon agency, but very rarely tackle the issues of fertility and sex that are so fundamental to a woman’s ability to control her social and financial security. Once Upon A Time briefly tackles the stories of Emma and Cinderella as single mothers, but by and large, motherhood itself becomes a matter of aspiration in fairy tales even now. In Maleficent, for instance, the sleeping beauty is woken by a kiss from the woman who has learned to love her like a mother. Perhaps it is time that, like Dirty Dancing, fairy tales grapple more directly with the consequences of fertility for women.

Disgruntled With An E

As you may have noticed, I spell my name with the ‘e,’ because how could a woman who grew up with Anne of Green Gables not?

So I watched Anne With An E with trepidation. The actor playing Anne is wonderfully cast. She captures Anne’s brashness without being sentimentalized, although her material doesn’t allow her to flesh out the whimsy that is so integral to the character. Imagine Anne without the scene in which she manages to capsize her boat while imagining herself the Lady of Shalott? Only to be mortified when Gilbert comes to the rescue?

The first carriage ride to Green Gables reveals what could have been in Anne With An E. Anne’s allowed to be whimsical as she renames the avenue and properly charms the middle-aged, taciturn bachelor. I didn’t mind the flashbacks in the first episodes. Montgomery doesn’t hide the fact that Anne’s life experience prior to Green Gables was harsh. She was a child of eleven who had already been raising other women’s children and keeping house and dodging men who drank too much. I appreciated the choice to reveal her background, although at times it may have dwelt a little too melodramatically upon what was a horrifying experience, but more horrifying in its mundane slights and tasks than in its great terrors, like being whipped by a man who then keels over dead.

However, overall, the series simply isn’t successful. Joanna Robinson has a great account of what went wrong in Vanity Fair. She refers here to the minister’s advice that Anne stay at home and learn the skills necessary for being a good wife:

This cruel, pervasive attitude ignores the fact that, historically, Anne has been surrounded by other educated women—like her beloved teacher, Miss Stacy, or the girls who go with her to college. Anne Shirley is not the first girl on the planet to crack a book. These misogynist sentiments not only do the good men of Avonlea a disservice (Anne considers the kindly Reverend Allan in the book a “kindred spirit”) but construct an unnecessary obstacle to Anne’s success. Anne with an E seems to think Anne’s triumphs are only noteworthy if she’s continually told she can’t succeed, when in fact her unfettered brilliance needs no such clumsy opposition. It also seems to think that Anne needs a radical feminist makeover when, in fact, the story of her success was feminist in its own right.

This is core to my discontent with the series. I loved Miss Stacy when I was a child, happily reading the books. I was the brightest in my own class at school and my chief intellectual nemesis happened to also be a boy. My own Miss Stacy was actually a male teacher, but I absolutely appreciated how much of a relief it was to Anne to find a teacher who would encourage her love of writing and literature. To not feature Miss Stacy in any version of Anne of Green Gables? Particularly when the novel is chocked-full of great female role models for Anne?

Her name is Miss Muriel Stacy. Isn’t that a romantic name? Mrs. Lynde says they’ve never had a female teacher in Avonlea before and she thinks it is a dangerous innovation. But I think it will be splendid to have a lady teacher, and I really don’t see how I’m going to live through the two weeks before school begins. I’m so impatient to see her […]

She dresses beautifully and her sleeve puffs are bigger than anyone else’s in Avonlea. – Anne of Green Gables

There are two things to note. Miss Stacy is an intellectual mentor. She encourages Anne to go to college and to take her education seriously. Indeed, Marilla rescues Anne in no small way because she sees a bright girl and knows she should be in school. The novels are a celebration of women’s education. Which is why I was so disappointed that in rearranging events, the series has Anne helping to save Green Gables by becoming a cleaner. There’s only glancing reference to her intelligence and her experience in the class room, both of which are so integral to the novels. We all know that Anne goes to college and that she helps support Green Gables by moving home and teaching, continuing to study in her spare time. She goes on to earn her B.A.. Even Gilbert is deprived of his intellectual ambition in this adaptation, setting off to the docks where in the novels he works himself almost to death to become a doctor.

Miss Stacy is also a fashion mentor. The puffed sleeves do appear in the latest adaptation, but no sooner do they appear than they are forgotten, cast aside for a strange subplot about Matthew’s childhood sweetheart, as though a middle-aged man would still be pining for a girl he barely spoke to when he was a child. Anne’s love of fashion is not inconsequential. She learns to dress for the person she wishes to be – she understands that puffed sleeves have power and can lend her consequence. The novels never trivialize femininity or the interests of women. Anne can be an intellectual giant and still obsess over puffed sleeves.

However, speaking of Gilbert earlier… the series turns him into a saint! The power of the slate cracking on his skull is completely sapped, Anne’s righteous fury and indignation rendered bizarre.

The 1985 adaptation, Anne’s cheeks puffed with outrage, captured the real spirit and satisfaction of the slate incident.

I may never forgive the series for what they did to Gilbert.

Indeed, I’m trying to forget the final episode altogether…

 

The Fairy Tale Hero’s New Clothes

The other day, I was enraptured by this tweet:

Yes, I do get a little excited at seeing exquisite historical embroidery. 😊 Also, doesn’t it remind you just a little of a recent Disney Prince? The waistcoat panel was embroidered a couple of decades after Villeneuve published her tale, but there is a nice correlation. Indeed, there is a court suit at LACMA that also dates from around the period of the panel and another waistcoat from around 1740, closer to Villeneuve’s publication date, and again these examples confirm that the Prince’s wardrobe has tangible roots in historical reality. The softer blue, the rich silver embroidery, are even, dare I say it, almost Cinderella-esque?

I did repine on Twitter that it is a shame fairy tales are not as expansive on the topic of masculine fashions. There are plenty of details about feminine fashions, but aside from a few peacock feathers, there is little effusion on what princes and kings and other men wear.

In ‘Belle-Belle ou Le Chevalier Fortuné,‘ d’Aulnoy does spend some time on the masculine wardrobe gifted to her heroine in support of her cross-dressing endeavours:

[The fairy] struck the ground with her crook, and out came a big trunk covered with Levant morocco, and studded with diamonds: Belle-Belle’s initials were on the lid. The fairy sought in the grass for a gold key made in England, and opened the box with it. It was lined with embroidered Spanish leather. Inside were twelve coats, twelve cravats, twelve swords, twelve ostrich plumes; everything by the dozen. The coats were so heavy with embroidery and diamonds that Belle-Belle could scarcely lift them. (see SurLaLune)

The descriptions are largely perfunctory, although the weight of embroidery and diamonds does recall the finest gowns of heroines like Finette Cendron. Detail is spent, rather, on the trunk. Keeping in mind that Louis XIV was himself a fine peacock of a man and masculine fashion in the French court was a colourful, rich cacophony of expensive fabrics and wondrous tailoring, it seems odd that this didn’t translate to the tales themselves.

A popular theory is that while men could dress beautifully, the expression of an interest in fashion was seen as feminine. In effect, men could wear fashion if they simply didn’t discuss it. However, this doesn’t account for why female authors like d’Aulnoy likewise skimp on the prose around masculine fashion.

Where masculine fashion does become of plot interest, it is often as a means of ridiculing the male fashionista. Hans Christian Andersen presented the world with ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ Once again, though, while fine fashions are eluded to, they aren’t detailed. Indeed, the tale itself has become best known for its use in political satire, as evident in this linked cartoon.

Which gives me another excuse to link to this clip of Adam Ant’s ‘Prince Charming,’ in which the unlikely Prince steals Cinderella’s fashion status for himself.

Getting Gaston Right

(Note: some spoilers for the recently released film.)

Everyone who knows me knows I was looking forward to seeing Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (2017). I have often joked that my PhD thesis was inspired by Gaston’s biceps and it’s actually, absolutely true. I was really interested in how the transition from animation to stage production was achieved and Gaston’s sheer physicality in the animated feature made a great case study. I won’t deny that research was fun. I took Eisenstein’s theory of plasticity in animation and applied it to theatrical performance.

I felt confident about Luke Evans’ casting from the moment I saw him singing with Australia’s first Gaston, Hugh Jackman, on the Jonathan Ross Show. The big expressions and gestures? The physique? The deep voice? Check, check, check.

 

Jacqueline Durran retained Gaston’s colour palette for the film, particularly that explosive red (my PhD supervisor was in stitches when he noticed I’d written that the colours of Gaston’s costume detonated strength and violence). The transition from animation is particularly successful. Stage productions replicated the cartoonish appearance of Gaston’s wardrobe with its bright, bright reds and yellows, and even added a little extra definition to pectoral and stomach muscles with some judicious padding and painting. Durran’s costume for Gaston is earthier and more wearable, so to speak. The suggestion of the military about his frock coats and the loose linen shirts shift attention from his physical to his sartorial display, which works just as well for the character. He remains larger than life without pumping up his biceps to rival Popeye’s.

It’s difficult to pin down why Gaston is such an attractive figure, despite being completely awful, malicious, and terrifying. I remember speaking to one actor who had played Gaston and he professed to being very confused about the women who gathered at the stage door to see him! Yet, there it is. Indeed, recently Gaston proved a hit at Disney World, as reported by GQ. And on io9, Katharine Trendacosta argued for a Gaston prequel: “It wasn’t exactly that Gaston had depth so much as he walked a line of menacing and hilarious that just worked.” Emily Asher-Perrin on Tor.com further reflects: “Luke Evans gives a fantastic turn as Gaston, but it isn’t merely his performance that stands out—it is that manner in which the script addresses Gaston’s toxic masculinity with far defter strokes that its predecessor. Gaston isn’t just some big burly alpha male who gets what he wants with the application of muscle and bullheadedness; the film reveals this construction to be a lie, and instead chooses to focus on how men like Gaston truly operate in the world.” Perhaps it’s that latter point that makes him all the more chilling. The film, while allowing us to laugh at his brazen narcissism, also offered us the opportunity to baulk at his malice and manipulation. The film went deeper into his villainy by showing how it operated in the community itself. This was no solo-villain, living on the fringes of society like a Maleficent or Ursula or Scar. This is a villain in complete command of the populace and they love him, even as he despises them.

The truly terrifying aspect of Gaston is perhaps that I realise I’m fascinated by him too.

Why Is Belle Indecent?

This is a post about Belle’s drawers, in a way. Again, please note, minor spoilers regarding the recently released film, Beauty and the Beast (2017).

One of the things that struck me in the film was that Belle was often running about with her underwear showing! How embarrassing! This was, of course, an effort to create a more ‘feminist’ wardrobe for the active heroine, but for a viewer familiar with fashion history, it could be perplexing. There were a flurry of articles about Emma Watson not wearing a corset, ascribing this to her desire for Belle to be unimpeded and active. However, corsets of the time were designed to support women’s activity and… basically… to support their bosoms! There were no bras. Corsets helped prevent painful bouncing situations. (Hilary Davidson has an interesting Twitter thread on the issue.)

The animated film was not, needless to say, historically accurate and there’s no reason for the film to be so. However, the film does reproduce the intricacies of eighteenth century fashion, so Belle’s fashion choices do strike me as overtly anachronistic.* No wonder the villagers thought she was odd!

In an interview for Fashionista, costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, discussed many of the choices.

Durran: “We took elements of those 18th century things and added them to Belle. So her pockets, for instance, are an 18th century thing. It’s just that people didn’t wear them outside like she does. They wore them inside the dress, hidden. But we just put them on the outside [like a tool belt] to look extra useful.”

Okay, pockets as tool belt. That’s fine. However, imagine the ‘magic’ of whipping her tools from her skirts! The pockets were accessible and useful to the wearer, but were more difficult for thieves to pick. It would have been very odd in the period for Belle to be wearing pockets outside her skirts.

Durran: “And she had her skirt that she hikes up into waist and, to make that possible, she wears bloomers underneath, which are almost like her wearing trousers. But she doesn’t wear trousers because she’s a girl in the 18th century.”

The ‘hike’ really did kind of annoy me. It looked like she had her skirts caught in her knickers! I’m sorry. But it was rather indecent in a village of eighteenth-century costumes. The ‘trousers’ were light and flimsy and looked like the undergarments that would emerge particularly in the late eighteenth-century for women. These were, however, at the time often regarded as racy and even indecent, rather than as liberating for an active woman. Women certainly wouldn’t have shown their bloomers while walking down the street at that time – it would be the equivalent of a woman walking down the street in her knickers today, really. And, in fact, trousers weren’t entirely unknown in a woman’s wardrobe of the time. Marie-Antoinette, after all, wore trousers for riding, as evident in Brun’s painting:

An actual pair of trousers would have looked much better than a skirt hiked to reveal flimsy bloomers that probably wouldn’t have withstood all that horseback riding. Imagine Belle’s poor thighs! A sturdier material for the bloomers may have been a nice note to the later Bloomers movement, too, which definitely had feminist motivations.

I’ve already blogged about my concerns with the yellow ballgown. It did look pretty and it was better in motion, particularly from the back, but a little more oomph would have balanced Belle with the Beast. The lightness of the satin organza, painted in gold rather than embroidered, did look pretty and floaty, but I still longed for the textile splendor of the gowns of the period, particularly next to the richness of the Beast’s wardrobe. However, it’s when she rips her skirts off that the problems really start. She’s running about in her chemise and petticoats – her underwear, basically. Sometimes petticoats and chemises were worn to show – to peep out from the intricately laced and flounced gowns, however, not really to be worn on their own.** It’s a chemise and undergarments, furthermore, that don’t fully look like they were worn beneath the gown in question, as a friend seeing the film with me noted. Not to mention that along the way she has picked up some boots. If she changed for boots, couldn’t she have changed the gown to something more practical, rather than later rip it off and run about in underwear? An eighteenth-century gown would have taken a little while to unlace from, but Belle’s gown seemed simple enough to take off.

The concluding ballroom scene also featured an anachronistic Belle. White and cream dominated among the gowns of the supporting women and the floral print of Belle’s white, semi-transparent gown was consequently a bit lost, particularly when the prince is wearing a beautiful blue brocade with silver lacing that is entirely in keeping with the period. Anachronisms are not unusual in costume design – Outlander rather cleverly plays upon them – and Beauty and the Beast is certainly not authentically eighteenth-century. However, I couldn’t help but think Belle was consistently anachronistic in a way that the other characters were not. This is partly a conscious move, but not altogether successful.

This is in keeping with a few other choices designed to make Belle more active, but that, to me at least, fell a little flat. There was much discussion of Belle becoming an inventor. She does rig a kind of washing machine to do her laundry, but she doesn’t share this innovation with the other women and the mechanics of her rig would monopolise the fountain, making it unlikely to be a real time-saving device for anyone but Belle herself. There’s no indication that she’s about to run out and receive a patent for her device, either, unlike, for example, eighteenth-century inventor, Sybilla Righton Masters. It does give Belle a chance to teach a young girl to read, but her attempt is easily frustrated by the male teacher.

The magical ‘book’ that can transport Belle and the Beast to Paris has antecedents in earlier tales in which Beauty is able to watch operas and plays from around Europe in the Beast’s castle. In Planché’s translation of Villeneuve’s tale, he describes the technology that permits Beauty to see all kinds of theatrical entertainments. It sounds oddly like television!

What does Belle, our heroine who longs for the greater world, do with this magic? Beast is excited to arrive in Paris, but they land in a tiny attic and it turns out that Belle used this magic simply to discover the truth about what happened to her mother. This is certainly laudable, but again, the focus is upon Belle. For a heroine who longs for more, she is remarkably centred on her own self. Once she finds out her history, she just wants to go home. Even though Notre-Dame is right outside the window! Perhaps, as the Beast suggests, it’s too touristy!

I did enjoy the film, don’t get me wrong. The problem is, I think the male characters became more interesting! The Beast certainly became more fully fleshed out and I did love the portrayal of the Beast as a wicked young Prince, in particular. The make-up was gorgeous! Gaston hit all the right notes, too. However, in a tale that celebrates Beauty, I felt she became rather lost, vocally and sartorially.

 

 

*I was disappointed that in ballroom scenes, the women wore white and cream gowns. The gowns of the period were a festival of colour and while the white gowns drew attention to the prince, they were also a little less exciting than they could have been. Of course, replicating historical fashions is always problematic for fairy-tale film. The Slipper and the Rose (1976) populates its ballroom scenes with pastel confections, meaning that its Cinderella doesn’t really stand out as much as she might.

** The chemise a la reine would have been an interesting fashion note for Belle to have adopted. A simpler, unstructured gown, it was popularised by Marie-Antoinette.

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What Could Belle Read?

Fragonard, The Reader

(Note: some minor spoilers of the recently released film.)

Beauty has always been a reader. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve tells us Beauty enjoys reading and was deprived of the pleasure when her father was obliged to sell his books. Beauty is delighted to find a great library in the Beast’s castle: “Her great taste for study could easily be satisfied in this place, and could easily guarantee her against the dulness [sic] consequent on solitude” (Planché, Four and Twenty Fairy Tales). The 1991 Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, made much of Belle’s love of reading, promoting her literary interests as a feminist quality. Moreover, Belle is reading a fairy tale in the animated film, one in which the heroine fails to recognise her prince charming before chapter three. It is a metafictional nod that actually occurs in the tale’s pre-history.

Before Villeneuve presented “Beauty and the Beast” to the world, tales of young women and beasts were already common fodder for fairy tale authors. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy presents us with two interesting antecedents for the tale, “The Ram” and “The Green Serpent.” In “The Ram,” Merveilleuse is exiled by her father, the king, for not showing him love and respect in the grandiloquent manner he expects. She finds herself in a pastoral paradise of streams running with Spanish wine, trees hung with dressed partridges, and dark places where it rains lobsters and white pudding. This freakish landscape is presided over by the Ram, a prince who has been transformed into a sheep. He is bedecked in diamonds and pearls and carries her off in his great, verdant pumpkin coach, while his companions, a whole herd of enchanted sheep, sip coffee and sherbets. The tale follows the path of “Beauty and the Beast,” with Merveilleuse returning for her sisters’ weddings under assurances of later rejoining the Ram. However, her father recognises her and is so contrite, he presents Merveilleuse with his very own crown. She forgets all about the Ram in the excitement of becoming Queen and the Ram consequently dies of a broken heart at the gates of the palace. So much for romance.

It is “The Green Serpent,” however, that foreshadows “Beauty and the Beast” more closely. The heroine, Laidronette, is cursed to be ugly by a fairy who has a complex about her height. Indeed, Laidronette’s name indicates her ugliness, not her beauty. She chooses to remove herself from court, but on her travels becomes lost at sea. The Green Serpent wishes to help her, but she finds him too monstrous and rejects him, even in her plight. Instead of being lost, however, she is rescued and bestowed in an incredible palace, courted by an invisible lover who, of course, is the serpent. She reads a book about Psyche and Cupid, but while she sensibly believes she should learn the lesson of the tale and not seek to uncover the nature of her mysterious lover, her family convinces her otherwise. It is the kind of metafictional twist we see in the animated film three hundred years later. Laidronette’s actions unwittingly abort the breaking of the curse upon the prince/serpent and so she must go through a series of trials to be able to finally, consciously, break it. In the process, she is herself made beautiful.

The live action Beauty and the Beast (2017) retains the sung line about the fairy tale, but there are so many other literary references, that it loses some of its power. It is terrific to see a wider range of reading represented. I was, nonetheless, a little disappointed to see more focus on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which doesn’t work metafictionally with Belle’s own story. I did enjoy the Beast’s response to it, however, and his immediate determination to introduce her to some wider reading! Quite so! Nonetheless, it would have been nice to see more female authors represented – for instance, rather than give Villeneuve’s name to the patriarchal horror that is Belle’s village, why not allow Belle to read Villeneuve’s actual literary works? The heroines of previous tales rely upon feminine advice and stories in understanding their own fates. Indeed, when Beast is caught reading about Arthur and Guinevere – Belle teasing him that it’s a romance – it becomes more about Beast reading about male characters and interests.

What could Belle be reading? Of course, it would be delightful if she were reading Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” or even d’Aulnoy’s “The Green Serpent” or “The Ram,” but here are some other options:

Margaret Cavendish, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World or The Female Academy

Aphra Behn, The Fair Jilt

Henriette-Julie de Murat, “The Pig King” or “Bearskin” (in this case, Beauty is in animal form)

Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier, “Marmoisan” or “The adventures of the discreet princess”

Claudine Alexandrine Guerin de Tencin, The Siege of Calais

Françoise de Graffigny, Letters from a Peruvian Woman

Eliza Haywood, Fantomina; or Love in a Maze

Louise d’Épinay, L’Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant,

Of course, the film does plump for more recognisable works, although “A Crystal Forest” by William Sharp is rather more obscure and was actually written much later than the period in which the film is ostensibly set. Part of the problem, however, is that people aren’t exposed to the history of women’s writing to the degree they are exposed to men’s writing. Indeed, I was somewhat vexed to see Paul Young quoted in a Huffington Post piece on the film: ““[’Beauty and the Beast’ is] a story written and published by a woman, with a strong female character at its lead, who is very reflective and intelligent and she makes her own choices, which is not something you saw in French literature or in French society at the time.” Perhaps it was not as common or well-known, but it was certainly not completely unknown in the eighteenth century or even earlier.

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A Yellow Dress

 

entertainment-weekly

The live-action adaptation of Belle’s iconic dress was revealed a while ago and I have been mulling it over for a while. I think it’s going to bug me. Particularly when she’s joined by the Beast in his gold-embroidered blue coat and swathes of lace, her dress looks too flimsy, too simple, too contemporary.

Emma Watson had a say in the dress. In Entertainment Weekly, she says, “I really embraced working on the dress, making sure that it was utterly whimsical, and magical.” The problem is, it just doesn’t look that whimsical and in a film that so far appears to evoke the 18th century so beautifully, it simply doesn’t fit. Jacqueline Durran says, “In Emma’s reinterpretation, Belle is an active princess. She did not want a dress that was corseted or that would impede her in any way.” Of course, women in the 18th century were active. Corsets were often worn sensibly, loosely laced. They provided the necessary structure for the gowns of the period, particularly taking into account the lack of modern underwear. Women of all classes wore corsets and, of course, the fashions of the time, and many of those women performed physical tasks. They worked and they played. Certainly, women in magnificent gowns were capable of dancing. There seems to be a basic disconnect with the lived reality of 18th century fashion. Furthermore, the dress that Belle wears needs to be the most fantastical concoction. It needs to be rich and adorned. The image below of Louis XV’s mistress is from the decade or so after publication of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1740) and gives an idea of the elaborate nature of aristocratic fashion. It simply wasn’t minimalist.

François Boucher portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour

François Boucher portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour

 

The stage productions of Beauty and the Beast have been better at capturing the amazing concoction of the dress. I particularly admire more recent productions.

The Dutch 2015 production with Edwin Jonker and Anouk Maas

The Dutch 2015 production with Edwin Jonker and Anouk Maas

The gown sparkles, as you can see from the trailer, and, of course, Maas is able to sing and dance in it. I’d even hazard that the stage Beast is more attractive than what looks like a CGI’d Beast from the film.

Writing the Gilmore Girls

We all have different opinions about the Gilmore Girls Netflix episodes. I think in many ways, the negative responses are an oddly positive sign of how far we’ve come in what we demand of our television shows. Yes, it is basically a show about privileged white women. That has its set of problems and many of those problems have been exasperated in the past decade. However, while the body shaming in the pool scenes was an off-note, it doesn’t detract from the years of positive representation of Miss Patty and Sookie. Never once did the show cast any aspersion upon their weight – they were whole, successful, sexual, and attractive figures. And while there could be more diversity in the casting, that doesn’t take away from what great characters Lane and Mrs Kim, Michel, and even Gypsy and Ceasar have been. I’m also tickled pink to see Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeting about watching the series from the start – I like a nice cultural convergence!

And, honestly, being a musical theatre geek, no, the Stars Hollow musical scenes are not too long. They are perfect. I love them.

However, that’s not what I wanted to write a quick blog post about. Rory’s story in the revival has been the most criticised. Often justly! There’s no denying that she is annoying and we all wanted better from her and for her. I cringed the moment I realised she was with Logan. The bit that particularly intrigued me, though, was Jess’s suggestion that she write the story of the ‘Gilmore Girls.’

I found it oddly satisfying and very frustrating. It felt like a perfect beat, echoing Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. The heroine is stuck, seemingly rootless and directionless, and a man tells her ‘write what you know.’

Of course, two problems. First, a man tells her – why is it always a former or current love interest?* Seriously? Why do they need the man to sweep in and tell them what to write? Secondly, write what she knows?? That advice always frustrated me. Why do female authors always get that advice? Why is there an assumption that they should stick to writing about their own lives, rather than exploring all sorts of exciting alternatives? There’s nothing wrong with writing about one’s own life, of course, but it’s often treated as the sole option for the female author. While I think there is a nice rounding out of the themes in Rory writing about her mother and herself, I miss the Rory who went out on the campaign trail with Obama, who wanted to be in trenches reporting on wars. I actually wouldn’t have even minded a Rory who took the Stars Hollow Gazette to great new heights, whiskey in her desk drawer and all. She could still be a contender. She loves that paper.

In my mind, I’m just going to imagine that she remains as editor of the Stars Hollow Gazette, gets motivated by those last four words, and digs in and makes a life for herself with or without a baby.

giphy-1

 

*In terms of Anne of Green Gables, this picks up on the miniseries with Megan Follows.