Saturday, January 7, 2017

Thinking Out Loud on the Homefront -- Changing Perspectives

Frequent readers of Niagara's Water Cooler know that my wife and I have three children. Many of my posts regard the trials and tribulations of being a stay-at-home dad to those children.
This one is a combination of that and my forays into more standard column writing, which I've done in the past when given the opportunity in printed mediums.
Like the last time I wrote a strict opinion piece for the NWC, I am sure it will have a reaction. What that reaction will be, I can't say. I'd be especially curious what fellow parents think.
Let's get to it, shall we?

Last week, during time off from school, I was fortunate enough to take my older two kids to the movies. We saw Moana, the newest Disney feature film. A quick review from yours truly is as follows: It was better than Frozen.
But it got me to thinking about a lot from the past. Specifically, movies and books, and how we look at them as we get older.
For instance, I ask you: what do Belle, Mulan, and Tiana have in common? Technically speaking, they are perhaps three of the strongest animated Disney heroines in the past 25 years and none of them are "princesses."
Also, none of them actually "needed" a male counterpart as a love interest.
Belle did wind up falling for the Beast, but one could argue she saved him rather than the other way around. He was a prince, and it is inferred that they lived happily ever after with her assuming a royal role by marriage. Still, she wasn't a princess, and she was as strong-willed as any fairy tale character, male or female.
Mulan saved a whole realm, proving in the process that "girl power" is a thing and that real strength of character lies within one's heart, not one's braun. She, too, was not a princess, though she apparently was part of a noble family. I think. It could certainly be argued.
Tiana was a cook who waited tables. She longed to save enough money to open her own restaurant and be her own boss. In a fun-filled take on The Frog Prince, Tiana turned into a frog after kissing the prince and then, as they learned to work together, they found that their lives would be better with each other instead of without. Spoiler: they break the frog curse with a nice twist and she gets her restaurant (it is Disney after all) but Tiana is the heroine.
In the past few years there have been multiple articles posted by many people about how little girls who think Disney princesses are everything are looking up to unrealistic expectations. I recall one story complaining about how the animators made the sisters from Frozen look "wrong" because their eyes were bigger than their wrists, but the guys in the story were more proportional. Or something. The fact that someone took that message from Frozen was disturbing. The message I took was that we should always look out for family. And, of course, the age old belief that love conquers all.
Other posts and articles have dotted the electronic media landscape and all seem to focus on how the princesses are too dainty. With Frozen, Disney started turning a corner, I believe, as neither Elsa nor Anna "needed" a male counterpart, and both of them took turns driving the story forward. In the Disney-Pixar movie Brave, Merida proved to be a force of nature. But again, she was drawn somewhat dainty.
I must note that every movie mentioned to this point has been seen by my oldest daughter multiple times, and she's "met" all of the aforementioned characters at Disney World with a tremendous smile on her face. My youngest has met them, too, but she was smiling because she's just a happy kid. I don't think she realized what was going on.
That brings us to Moana.
A few months ago, when trailers for the movie first appeared, I immediately thought, "The Rock in a Disney movie? I'm there!" Keep in mind that I went through my WWE-watching phase at the height of The Rock's wrestling career. Even paid money to see a live event at the arena where the Sabres play, whatever it's being called today. Watching him transition from athletic entertainment to bonafide movie start has been, I imagine, what it was like watching Ah-nold build his resume in the early 1980s.
Around the same time trailers appeared for Moana, though, so did detractors. There were stories where the writers complained that by making The Rock's character Maui so large, it was being stereotypical toward Polynesian men. There was a smaller issue about Maui costumes, as they had to be pulled from shelves because too many people were offended. In what has become a hypersensitive America, the color of the costume was deemed racist, I think. Reading that story proved to me that people will always find something to complain about. I didn't even think about it until after I saw Moana last week.
During the movie, I had a few thoughts:
- The music is fun and upbeat.
- The Rock is gonna sing? Wow, The Rock can sing!
- Auli'i Cravalho has some serious breakout star potential.
- One of these days I'll have to see Hamilton. (Lin-Manuel Miranda had a major role in the songwriting for the movie.)
- So many shots of the characters' feet...and shoulders...and torsos...and ohhhh, I get it.
Reread that last thought again, because a quick google search of "Moana body image" turns up more results for the Maui-is-too-big nonsense than anything else.
Moana is a princess, sure. But evidently a conscious effort was made by the animators to make her built like no princess before her. She lives on an island. She can handle sailing the open seas by herself. She is around the water and swims plenty.
Putting it another way, her body has a shape and is not waif-like and feathery like Disney standards like Snow White and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Moana is well-proportioned and is perhaps the most realistically drawn Disney princess I can remember seeing on screen. (Except Amy Adams in Enchanted. Amy Adams is also Lois Lane in the current DC movies. She has also been in a great movie about boxing, and a great movie about baseball, and...sorry...of topic...) In terms of her strength of character and leadership qualities, I'd put Moana second to Kida, from the severely underrated Atlantis. (Kida, by the way, also led without a prince by her side. Kida was awesome.)
When I was single, I would watch movies and either enjoy them or not enjoy them. Now, as a parent, I view them differently. With all the news out there about body shaming and young girls (and boys, too) being forced to live up to ridiculous standards, it was refreshing to see a heroine that looked "real." I know that at this point in her life, my oldest daughter was at the movie to simply enjoy the movie and its music, but that didn't mean I didn't notice the attempt to show audiences another type of strong princess who was both strong and built differently than others. I would imagine that many other parents noticed this as well.
Honestly, I didn't want to analyze or review or critique a movie this week. If anything, I hope that if you've made it this far you at least can understand how knowing that so much news and opinion has colored the way many of us look at things.
In the end, I still enjoy movies (and Disney movies) with my kids. But there are times I wish I could turn back the clock and just watch for the pure enjoyment of things without some part of my mind asking, "Hmm, why is that like that?"

Howie Balaban is a fan of many Disney heroines. He counts Maid Marion among his favorites. Not only does she prove to be a pretty strong character (for the time she was drawn), but she is darn foxy.