Next year I’ll teach an MA elective subject on gender in children animated films of the 21st century and I have started the process of selecting indispensable bibliography for my students. I have, then, spent a few great days reading Amy M. Davis’s excellent volumes Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation (John Libbey Publishing, 2006) and Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation (John Libbey Publishing, 2013), both in reasonably priced paperback editions. Both are very good, as I say, though the former is possibly better because it includes a very informative introduction to the history of animation for children in the USA, and to the rise and rise of the Disney Studios. The latter volume is quite curious because Davis uses a far more descriptive style, as if she is carefully finding her way as she writes about men lacking clear directions. You might think that we know everything about gender in Disney films but Davis proves very convincingly that many critiques are based on gross misreadings of the heroines (who are more active than we assume and not so often a princess) and that the male protagonists have been mainly overlooked. Her chapter on the “Handsome Princes” is quite a surprise, painting a portrait of these guys as quite passive men and, in essence, just trophy husbands for the gals.
These days I am also thinking of finally starting the project of a collective volume on the good guys, now that I am done with the villains, and I have been paying close attention to what Davis has to say about the male Disney characters. Clearly, something important happened at the turn of the century, for the good guy generally preferred by Disney Studios started sharing space with the spoiled lad. Davis describes Milo from Atlantis (2001) as a young man with enough “love, integrity, and moral strength” (103) to defeat the villain, whereas Emperor Kuzko of The Emperor’s New Groove (2001) is described as an “over-indulged boy”, “very spoiled” and “selfish” (178, original italics). Following a pattern already present in Beauty and the Beast (1991), the uncaring boy is transformed into an animal (in Kuzko’s case a llama) and needs to become a “true man” (178) before he regains his human form. Milo, in contrast, is a “true man”, which means a good man, from the start. This is why he can play hero and be accepted by the new-style heroine Kida.
Davis dates the emergence of the unmanageable lad to a point between 1999 and 2000 when British magazines FHM and Maxim became exports to the US market, as part of the Cool Britannia wave (182). I think that laddism, as the lad culture has been called, may have been a catalyst for trends already present in the USA by which the good lad became the nerd, and the jock became the frat guy, and a bully. Earlier in the book, David discusses Brom Bones, the practical joker that gets rid of nerdish Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and its Disney version (NOT the Tim Burton version). She writes that Bones “is generous, good-hearted and has a lively sense of humour, but he is rough, rude, cocky, and tends to be a bully” (133) though not a cruel or vicious man. It seems to me that the current Brom Bones (in plural) have lost the first half of these traits to keep only the second, feeling authorized by laddism to be the worst version of themselves. The good guy, I insist, is now reduced to being a nerd (as we see, for instance, in the boys of Stranger Things). President Trump is the arch-Brom Bones today, the lad with the ‘grab-them-by-the-pussy’ locker-room talk and acts.
Reading Davis it occurred to me that I have no idea what the little boys in the audience for animated films are like. I know about the girls: they are clever and/or intelligent, self-assured, playful, certain than being a queen (like Elsa) is cooler than being a princess because you don’t need a guy, and very much in search of their own way into the future. But who are they boys? It seems to me that the division into nerds and bullies has done away with the middle ground at which animated films used to aim: the nice boy. I haven’t read yet Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age by Shannon R. Wooden and Ken Gillam and the answer to my query might be there, but I still have a strong suspicion that something is not quite right. I do see the good lad in a film as perfect as Pixar’s Coco (2017) but I am not sure who among the boys Coco appeals to. Or, rather, what I mean is that this tale imagined by Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina, though being firmly anti-bully can do little to stop the bullies from being so prominent in the current lad culture. Do not misunderstand me: I am NOT saying that little boys like Miguel in this film do not exist, what I am saying is that they are not popular and respected in real life, though they should, because the lad, the frat guy, the jock are attracting all the attention. And they are not good guys.
Another matter that strikes me very much reading Davis’s Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains is how often the word responsibility crops up. Far from being ready to follow in their father’s footsteps the Prince resists the patriarchal demands to find a wife and become himself a husband and father. Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998), written by Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant and Rick Parks, and directed by Tennant, has many interesting things to say about how in the medieval patriarchy which inspired many fairy tales the prince was as much a pawn as any princess. In this film Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) is quite dismayed by the role he must play and resists assuming his responsibility to marry a wife he does not love. In a way, Cinderella (Drew Barrymore) frees him as much as she frees herself by marrying him. The Prince’s plea, however, has attracted little comment because it is usually assumed that he is eventually empowered by becoming the King and, anyway, if he is unhappy in his arranged marriage he can always enjoy the company of a mistress, which is not the case for a Queen. You might think that my talk of Princes assuming their responsibility and refusing to be pawns is positively medieval, but you only need to think of the immense differences between Juan Carlos I and Felipe VI to understand that this is still a vital matter. We have always known that Juan Carlos I solved the problem of his indifference to his wife Queen Sofía with a string of mistresses, the last of whom has caused him to lose his prestige as a respected King emeritus. In contrast, Felipe VI went through a string of girlfriends until he chose, unexpectedly, a divorced commoner to be his Queen, with whom, we assume, he is personally happy. I say this as a convinced Republican, by the way.
Before I get lost in the corruption of the Spanish monarchy as embodied by Juan Carlos I, I’ll get back to the matter of responsibility. Little girls are taught to be responsible for themselves and because, it is assumed, they will want to be mothers someday. My nieces started expressing their opinion about having children around the age of seven, and I myself became aware that this issue was part of my life at that age, when my youngest brother was born. I don’t see, however, my nephew, now nineteen, considering the matter of fatherhood if only hypothetically, as something in his future. My impression is that he is fairly representative of the average lad today: someone who is good company but hardly someone I would define as responsible and taking steps to eventually become a husband and a father. Sorry, baby. I do not mean that adulthood is defined by marriage and parenthood but what I mean is that I see the responsible adult in the little girls in ways I don’t see in little boys. Animated films are great fun but still they address themselves to the responsible little girl who wants to be loved and even admired for who she is. I don’t see the same attitude towards little boys, as if somehow society has given up on them and has no plans to teach them how to become responsible adults. Or perhaps I am exaggerating: parents of boys lends me a hand here!!
Davis claims that for a long time now Disney has addressed its films mainly to boys but its merchandising to girls. My impression is that things are more balanced as regards the films so that for each Tarzan we have a Mulan (no idea, though, why Frozen is not called Elsa and Anna, or Sisters). The matter of the merchandise has its own scary edges. A friend of mine, father of two little boys and very keen on Star Wars, a franchise now owned by Disney, called my attention to how the most popular Disney character among boys, judging by the merchandise, is now Kylo Ren. In case you are not a Star Wars fan, Ren, born plain Ben Solo, is the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, whom he very much admires. In Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) he murders his own father, Han Solo (his mother is Princess Leia). I am wondering right now what kind of father buys his little boy merchandising connected with a patricidal monster, but here you are. In the most recent episode, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) Rei does her best to have Kylo Ren show his better self, to no avail. Although there is an even worse villain in the saga, apparently Ren, who has a very cool laser sword, remains a favourite with boys. I hope for our collective sake that I am very, very wrong.
Then, there’s Kristoff in Frozen, whom I keep calling Sven, though that’s his reindeer. Commoner Sámi Kristoff, quite a handsome lad, informs Princess Anna that he sells ice for a living. When she meets the troll family that raised him, his adoptive mother Bulda tries to convince Anna that he is a good choice, though at that early point in Frozen the Princess is not interested at all. Bulda sings then the song “Fixer Upper” wondering “Why are you holding back from such a man?”. “Is it the clumpy way he walks?”, she asks Anna, while other trolls add “Or the grumpy way he talks?”, or his weird feet, or how “though we know he washes well, he always ends up sort of smelly”. Kristoff is said to be “Sensitive and sweet” and have just a “few flaws” that can be fixed with love… if only Anna accepts his “peculiar brain” and his “thing with the reindeer”… Shy Kristoff is also characterised as “socially impaired”. There is much more but Bulda does ask “Are you holding back your fondness/Due to his unmanly blondness?/ Or the way he covers up that he’s the honest goods?” The good guy is, in short, comical relief and it takes a determinate suspension of disbelief to see him become Anna’s love interest in earnest. Songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez has claimed that her own husband and co-writer Robert Lopez was the inspiration for the song, the original fixer upper (a term originally meaning a house in need of repair). This is all great fun, and a change from the idiot Prince Hans Anna chooses as her husband on the same day she meets him, much to Kristoff’s incomprehension, but what is this song telling little boys? No matter how clumsy you are, as long as you’re handsome, a nice pretty girl will choose you…? It’s confusing…
I’ll end here, in all this confusion, and will get back when I read the book on Pixar and think how Poppy’s friend Branch in Trolls fits the picture.
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