The Maleficent Effect:
Disney, Demons, Daughters, and Daddies
by Daniel Yezbick
Some demons are good for us. At least, they’re good for me.
The name of my favorite demon is Walt Disney.
Yeah, I know. You just broke something deep down inside your inner hipster.
That’s cool. I get it. No worries. Love and flowers.
Just heave your lungs back up into your gullet and I’ll try to explain.
1. The Disney Bomb: Crass Consciousness and the War-torn Wonderlands of American Fantasy
The word “Disney” itself is a like a hand grenade. You throw it around to defend your turf, hold your position, discourage invasion, or – in many cases – to instigate hostilities against ideologies that seem antagonistic or threatening to your own comfort and welfare. No matter how or where you drop the “D-bomb,” violence follows among children, parents, lovers, and friends. This very short surname has a sudden, immediate polarizing effect on many Americans, equal to other controversial iconic “name brands” like Edison, Ford, Gates, and Oprah. At times, Disneyified dissent can boil over volcanically with the same righteous fury that fuels the Abortion, Gun Control, Tea Party, and “Obamacare” debates.
I really don’t want to get too imbedded in the front lines of the media wars that churn endlessly around the Disney brand and its global conglomeration of properties, acquisitions, and franchises. I have something much more specific and personal on my mind concerning Robert Stromberg’s 2014 live action revisionist treatment of Disney Studios’ 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty, originally directed by Clyde Geronimi, and that version, of course, rooted in source material from both Charles Perrault’s 17th Century fairytale and the Grimm Brothers’ “Little Briar Rose.” First, though, it really seems like anyone who wants to talk “Big D” in the 21st century blogosphere needs to define their stance in the debates and choose the most appropriate and feasible weapons to defend their claims.
We have stockpiled an impressive selection of calibers and payloads of explosive Disney Bombs these days. A few folks still cling to fond memories of the great avuncular animator and franchise magician who smiled at Baby Boomers through Mid-Century cathode ray tubes alongside Spin, Marty, and Annette – merry henchmen preaching truth, justice, good behavior, and generally straight, happy Caucasian and Christian thoughts to mask the stench of the gross inequalities of a viciously compartmentalized world. Others prefer the sour oppositional approach of the radical anti-Disneyists. They indict old Uncle Walt’s heinous labor practices, condemn his questionable views on creative license, and generally distrust or rebel against the conventional and therefore largely middlebrow perspectives on gender, race, and class that most Disney properties espoused for the better part of the last 100 years.
Then, there are the McMansion-bound Disney Families. For them, the Disney brand is encouraging insurance against unhappiness. It is also an aggressive class statement. Ubiquitous Disney vacations has become the de rigueur proof of upper middleclass status, a costly holiday rite designed to confirm inclusion and belonging and weed out the impoverished poseurs or unconventional outliers. Parents who can afford the excursions go frequently and announce their triumphant safaris through Wonderland. Those who can’t scrimp, save, and squirrel away what they can for that one big trip that they hope will somehow crystallize the joy and revelry of their children’s youth in one glorious homage to extravagant consumption. The statement, “We are a Disney family” sometimes translates to, “We can afford lavish leisure in highly controlled and hyper-sanitized bubbles of technocratic fantasy, can’t you?” Even more fascinating are the Disney Couples who date, play, and invest the Disney way, with rec rooms, media centers, and custom closets crammed to bursting with Disney couture, Special Edition boxed sets, and Limited run seriographs.
In direct contrast to all of blingy Mouse watches, Infinity consoles, and character cruises, there are the Disney scourges: critics, naysayers, and other “heartless hinds” who drain every ounce of fun, freedom, and fecundity from the mainstream media as utterly and contemptuously as if it were the L.A. river. How many critics, scholars, teachers, and self-mortifying “losers” have burned with jealousy, policy, and derision as they ruined every farce and fable that arises from Uncle Walt’s dream factory?
“The Big Bad Wolf’s Fuller Brushman disguise in The Three Little Pigs is anti-Semitic. I can prove it with evidence from original suppressed soundtrack!”
“Those nasty blackbirds from Dumbo are racist and offensive stereotypes of rural African American culture, even though they have the best damn groove in the whole flimsy lullaby of a film!”
“Belle is charmed by the brutal moods and angry temper tantrums that doom her to a violent, subjugating patriarchal relationship.”
“Those Hyenas from The Lion King are too ghetto!”
All of these I have heard, read, and accepted in reasonably serious, academic contexts. Here again though, there are masterpieces of resistance like Dorfman and Mattelart’s inaccurate but infamous How to Read Donald Duck, Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, Carl Hiaasen’s Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World, and especially Firoozeh Dumas’ unforgettably hilarious discussion of her Iranian family’s outlandish fascination with Disneyland from Funny in Farsi.
Yet, even these works of outrage, protest, and opposition fail to recognize the nodes of struggle, strength, and understanding that Disney’s carefully calculated parables can create. Ashman and Menken’s homo-romantic scores for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and bits of Aladdin are also coded pleas for gender equality, individual initiative, communal understanding, and uncompromising life choices. There might be no better condemnation of the crass ignorance of the capitalist marketplace that Belle’s gorgeous plea, “There must be more than this provincial life?” Ariel’s controversial, “Part of your World,” might be darkly interpreted for what it says about the debilitating loneliness of outsiders and misfits, but it is even more evocative as a sign of someone knowing that something deep down inside just doesn’t fit in with the “normal rules” of heterosexual attraction and mainstream behavior. Toy Story and its sequels, despite their relentlessly upscale suburban milieu, are a celebration of near Shintoist respect for the unbreakable bonds we can share with certain objects. Song of the South, Mulan, Pocahontas, and The Princess and the Frog, each deeply flawed and heavily criticized in its own way, have provided crucial identifying moments of access, understanding, acceptance, and belonging to thousands of multicultural youngsters. Even if it is all about marketing, that matters a great deal to the little girls and their parents who proudly seek out Disney diversity whenever they can find it. As many have noted, Asian and Native American Disneyania remains among the most difficult to acquire even in the virtual marketplace and Princess Tiana continues to elude thousands of hopeful lower income, Web-lacking shoppers every holiday season.
Finally, thank goodness, for the revolutionaries, the last faction in this arbitrarily awesome taxonomy of Disney-driven social systems. These are the Disney-coated rebels and reprobates, those who riff and skim across the master narratives of the Disneyverse with shrewd, lewd, and scandalous joy. Some of their reckless, acerbic masterpieces are legendary and never as well suppressed as the Mighty Money Mouse might hope. Consider the shocking gee of Wally Wood’s Disneyland Orgy, Lalo Alcaraz’s Migra Mouse, Robert Armstrong’ s Mickey Rat, or the granddaddy of them all, the pornographic satire of early Mickey Mouse animated anarchy that led to a landmark court case concerning copyright law, Dan O’Neill’s crazed, crass Mickey Mouse versus the Air Pirates.
Once again, though, the man, the Studio, the theme parks, the merchandise, and (yes, we can say it), the lifestyle are all too vigorous, vehement, and sometimes vitriolic to ever ultimately settle or dispute. Disney, it seems, functions like a major global crisis, endlessly contentious and far too contraverted and complicated to fully grasp, assess, or amend on a macro-scale. What we can do, however, is zero in on a few crucial Disney derived nuggets of truth and see if they don’t guide us through the enchanted forest more effectively and productively. That’s really what started this whole hootenanny in the first place!
2. What’s in a Name?: Elsa, Frozen, and the Rise of the Alpha-Princess
My six year old daughter’s name is Elsa. Because of Disney, this is now a glorious burden. Anyone with young children knows exactly what I mean. She was named for my wife’s Great Aunt, a major inspirational figure in her life who passed away in her 90s shortly before our daughter arrived, but outside of our small family circle, none of that matters anymore. The world is ruled by Disney visions of history, identity, and joy.
My Elsa has always known Disney media, and because of Daddy’s “job” in Media Studies, she has probably known a little more than most of her peers. I read to her from my mother’s childhood copy of Walt Disney Studios Storybook, The Three Little Pigs, just like she had done for me. We watched Silly Symphonies shorts like Flowers and Trees, Candy Carnival, and Skeleton Dance and she was ready for Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, The Rescuers, and The Emperor’s New Groove at a very early age, well before her older brother. When we first heard that the heroine of the next big Pixar/Disney feature, Frozen, was named Queen Elsa, something twitched inside my parental spaz-o-meter. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew this would become important. I was worried a bit. Amused a little, but mostly just concerned because I knew that no matter what happened, the Disney forces were too gargantuan to tackle or censor. I got hold of an early press release and read through the entire plot, which made me feel a bit better, but until the storm broke, I just wasn’t settled. We saw Frozen on opening weekend, and my daughter was beyond excited. I admit, I was too. I still get gitchy feelings in my knees whenever I take my family to the movies, even more so if we can swing an opening weekend without too much fuss or expense. Frozen was PACKED, of course, with 657,983 toddlers, Kindergarteners, and elementary school devotees. The film began with the rich, low, manly tones of the ice harvesters, and right then, I knew something huge was about to happen. I looked over at my daughter and knew things would change for her forever in the next 90 minutes.
Much has been written on the Frozen phenomenon and I don’t need to add to all of the press and frenzy surrounding the royal Sisters of Arendelle, the ascendance of “Let It Go” as the pop anthem most likely to overplay itself to death after Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats-driven “Memories,” or the general discourse that pokes around the new model Feminism of Rapunzel, Merida, Venellope, Anna, or Elsa. There’s plenty there already. I will say that Frozen is a marvel, a masterpiece of understated emotion and overbearing spectacle that balances sadness, love, humor, and horror with all of the finesse, elegance, and nuance of an operetta. Anna and Elsa are incredible depictions of sibling affection and the wicked Hans underwrites the warnings of a million nervous parents and guardians. My favorite character, though is the hirsute Sven. I can’t help it. I always go for the hairy heroes and Sven’s final blustery moments of glory and regard, complete with a new sleigh and that shiny medal of honor that Chewbacca never gets, send me over the edge with laughter.
Elsa, however, was and is still all about Queen Elsa. Elsa, the gifted. Elsa, the cursed. Elsa, the responsible, reluctant leader. Elsa, the magician of ice and snow. Elsa, the mother of snow clowns and frost beasts. Elsa, the dutiful sister, regent, partner, and friend. Elsa, the troubled and confused. Elsa, the true and veritable every-girl who senses within herself the tremendous capacity to thrive as well as the perverse and punishing concerns with failure, fear, and frustration. I could not ask for better a role model for my own precocious Elsa than this truly courageous, conflicted, and ultimately compassionate scion of young and daring womanhood.
Since that screening, the world has changed. My daughter has many friends and I am grateful, but now they say her name with a different kind of enthusiasm. It’s not jealousy or intimacy, just excitement, as if they too are more a part of the tight, feminine bond that unites, empowers, and preserves Anna and Elsa from the swords of conniving men. My Elsaberry, as I love to call her, and her friends, belt out every song from the Frozen soundtrack at screeching volume to the delight of parents and peers and the wretched chagrin of older brothers. Even her recent theater camp wound up with a Frozen-themed skit in which she was, of course, delighted to take part. After Frozen settled into the E.T.-esque phenomenon that it has become, I was relieved. I knew she could endure it, accept it, and eventually, when the time came, “let it go” and reject its cultural continuities in favor of whatever else she would find inspiring or relevant to her interests. It was all very very good as far as this hyper-liberal, mega-cautious parent was concerned. Then came Maleficent, and it all got even better.
3. Meaningful Demons: Winged Victory and the new fables of Disney Femininity
This time it was special. It was a strangely rainy afternoon and for some reason I can’t remember, I had an afternoon off from school. My wife was out of town, and I was running errands in St Louis’s Central West End with Elsa and her brother. We passed the Chase Park Plaza and it just clicked. Maleficent was beginning in five minutes. My daughter exploded with spasms of popcorn-hurling delight. My son was excited but a bit nervous about the potential nightmare factor. We had heard from a film critic friend that parts of Maleficent might be too disturbing for tender young minds, but we’ve walked out of rough movies before, most notably Zack Snyder’s putrid Man of Steel. So into the Chase’s tiny organ-enhanced theater we went, well armed with Post-Frozen Grrrlitude and Elsarific elation.
What happened next might well serve as my favorite moment in a movie theater for the rest of my life. The myths of Maleficent unraveled before us and again, I knew something new, different, and powerful was beginning both on screen and deep within my daughter. As the magical havens of forest, fairy, and flower arose and the elegant, angelic heroine leaped, soared, and burned through the clouds, I was taken back to the thrills of my first viewings of rich fables like Ridley Scott’s Legend, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, and Martin Rosen’s Watership Down. Though Maleficent’s backstory was simple and its plot was clear and focused to engage its juvenile audience, there was incredible grandeur and weight in the balanced ecology and burgeoning lushness of the film’s fertile world, not to mention the matriarchal power of its leading fairy. This was big, beautiful mythmaking that made me envious of own kids’ thrilling experience. I looked over at Elsa as she witnessed the full-on majesty of Maleficent’s empowering flight and for the second time in a Disney Princess screening, I was stunned.
My daughter had let her popcorn fall to the ground, spilling and spiraling, lost forever under the seats. Her drink was untouched in its caddy and, a true miracle, her tiny cache of candy - a very rare treat in our cinematic excursions - lay unopened on the seat next to her. She was standing unseated, staring with laser-like vision at the sweeping angel bursting through the clouds. Both fists were clenched above her shoulders to either side of her head and she was shaking them vigorously, rooting on her new, true hero. She held her lips tight with passionate concentration. Her whole body was bent forward as if she expected to take off into the screen herself. She rocked back and forth with Maleficent, rolling in empathy for the tight curves and soaring along in her own fantastic world of splendor and strength. She, and I, had never seen anything like this. Her brother loved it too, but he was still equally focused on popcorn and plot. Elsa was gone, somewhere new and strange and special and I wished I could see it with her.
The effect lasted for the entire film. She never sat down except in moments of immense tragedy. The rape of Maleficent’s wings was especially difficult, but my daughter told me as the wicked king-to-be did his worst, “he’s a bad guy but she will get them back. She will!” And she did, and it spectacular fashion, while the lesser men of the wicked human world suffered and ruined and pillaged and argued and wrecked it all until another feminine bond between fairy godmother and adoptive daughter make it all as it always should have been. Again, I go for the creature companions, so Sam Riley’s Diaval, the badass Raven/Wolf/Dragon enforcer was more for me, but this very special fantasy was NEVER meant for me, my generation, or my gender. Though directed by a man, and based in other stories and versions of matriarchal malevolence continually and perhaps originally developed by men, Maleficent showed me what a true women’s fairytale can do to inspire, ignite, and encourage the greatest sense of worth, force, and soul I had ever seen in my sweet, shrewd, sassy little girl. I have seen it many times since, always with the same burning edgy fullness, benevolence, and grace that arose in her that afternoon. My son liked the film and said sweetly as we were leaving, “It was really great, but it wasn’t the best movie ever.” For my unfrozen Elsa, though, I have no doubt that is was.