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 FortunĂ©,‘ 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 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.

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” (PlanchĂ©, 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 LhĂ©ritier, “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.


A Yellow Dress



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.

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.

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.


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.

Live-Action Cinema and the Fairy Tale

I recently went to see Maleficent with the Monash Fairy Tale Salon – spoilers ahead! I will admit, I went in prepared to hate it. I didn’t hate it as much as I hated Snow White and the Huntsman (the skirt ripping scene was about it for me as far as that film went). In all honesty, I’m always wary of tales told from the villain’s perspective. The greatness of the fairy tale villain is villainy. A film that situates the villain as the sympathetic figure loses the oomph of a truly vicious villain. Maleficent in the Disney animated film is incredible. She is filled with malice and snark. She is wicked in its most absolute sense – hence her name. While there are glimpses of this Maleficent in the new film, there are only glimpses. Her glorious wickedness has been stripped away and instead she’s a woman wronged by a man, a woman who becomes a surrogate mother to his child. I found that disappointing. Even more disappointing, King Stefan isn’t even turned into a glorious villain to make up for the loss. There is no sense of why she’d love him and why he would then turn into such a raging megalomaniac. The film seems to suggest that all human men are greedy and violent.* That’s it. And they aren’t even very good at it. King Stefan turns into a crazed version of Miss Havisham without the wit and bitterness.

Perhaps most awful of all, the fairy godmothers turn into bumbling, comic relief. I love the fairy godmothers of the animated feature. They are small, funny, but incredibly powerful! Little old women who can squabble over the colour of a dress one moment, the next help a prince defeat an evil dragon. In Maleficent, they are simply incompetent and foolish. They aren’t even allowed to soften Maleficent’s death curse – Maleficent does that herself and I’m not even sure why.

As Louisa, one of our group, pointed out, Aurora doesn’t even sleep that long under the curse. Louisa has written a marvelous review about the loss of time in the film that you should be able to find shortly through the salon’s blog. Indeed, Aurora in the animated film is a wise, kind young woman – she is not simply happy and bubbly. As Louisa pointed out, bestowing a blessing of happiness on her may have in fact been a curse – she became a cardboard cutout of a character.

It wasn’t all gloom, however. I did love Diaval. I would watch an entire film about him. Witty and yet tragic, his magical transformations make him one of the most true fairy tale figures of the film.

I think that’s the problem with a lot of contemporary, live action adaptation of fairy tale. They aren’t real fairy tale. They attempt to become dark, to become like Lord of the Rings. It is a curse Stardust happily avoided and that is a great fairy tale film of recent years. The films of the 80s, like The Princess Bride and Labyrinth, likewise balanced humour with tragedy and villainy. Who needs a Maleficent wronged by a thief when you can have Jareth, the Goblin King, who is deliciously wicked, yet somehow emotionally needy too? The villains were complicated inherently – they didn’t simply ‘turn’ evil as a result of outside forces. That made them so much more interesting and entertaining. The use of puppetry, also, beats out CGI for me.

I have been reading with increasing worry about the film adaptation of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, too. i09 recently posted a story about it. Mind, one of the things that amuses me is how often people assume it is Disney sanitizing the ‘original’ Grimms’ tales. Actually, the Grimms were the first to start cutting out the sex. Sondheim actually added in much of the sex and violence of the musical. Disney is simply taking it out again, which is disappointing. I fear I’ll be muttering under my breath once again when I go to the cinema to see it.

* There’s really only one human woman in the film, the Queen, and she dies off screen after barely speaking.

I may get slightly cranky…

This morning, I learned about Moana, a Disney animated film in development for 2018, when I saw a friend’s tweet, which began ‘what is Disney culturally appropriating now?’

I may have made some grumpy noises and gone into the kitchen to get more coffee.

The problem is, recently many were complaining about Frozen: ‘oh, another white Disney princess.’

It’s oh so easy to fall into those extreme camps, particularly when Disney is the topic. I’ve seen quite a few people commenting of Frozen and Tangled, too, that Disney marketing doesn’t trust that films about girls will be successful, hence Tangled rather than Rapunzel and trailers for Frozen that toot the comical snowman. Yet Disney seems almost single-minded about continuing to produce films about female heroes/princesses.

I think part of the problem is that Disney is often viewed in a vacuum. As I look at all the ‘blockbuster’ films, Disney’s engagement with gender and ethnicity is looking quite a bit better. It’s not perfect, but go take a look at Lilo & Stitch, which I think is under-rated, yet a great celebration of how well non-white, female characters can be portrayed. Again, it’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s good.

That Lilo & Stitch is so under-rated may have a lot to do with audiences and the film industry in general. A good friend, Michelle Smith, recently wrote about politics in children’s television for The Conversation. She notes: “Writers for children do not generally sit down with a devious plan to embed left or right-wing views in their children’s works. Yet they largely cannot help but reflect the cultural norms of the period in which they are writing.” Perhaps part of our problem with Disney is that we don’t always like what it reflects back? Often I note critics overlook the positives and I think part of the problem is they want to blame Disney for the sexism and racism they see. Is Disney to blame? In part, yes. Yet, it needs to be understood in context. There are problems in society that Disney reflects and that Disney alone can’t put to rights. We can expect it to get better at portraying more positive messages – and I actually think it is getting better at that, for all its missteps – but it isn’t the whole solution. Then again, perhaps in the incessant critiquing of Disney princesses, such critics are also helping to affect change?

Incidentally, as I was doing some research, I was quite surprised by how little was written on race in fairy tale in general. There’s a great deal about depictions of race in Disney, but what of the wider fairy tale genre? Particularly older, literary tales? Race isn’t absent from these tales. Basile and d’Aulnoy, for example, include black princesses in their tales.

D'Aulnoy's "La biche au bois"

D’Aulnoy’s “La biche au bois”

I’m interested to explore how fairy tale’s engagement with race might better help contextualise Disney’s engagements with the issues today.