Week 35: Hercules

First Theatrical Release: June 27, 1997

First Home Viewing Release: February 3, 1998

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Where I Found It: My Big Box o’ Disney Love

Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Which is really disappointing in a movie with no less than EIGHT female characters: Megara, Hera, the five Muses, and Hercules’ adopted mother. None of them really talk to each other except the Muses, and they talk (sing) exclusively about men, mostly Hercules.

I did not expect to especially love Hercules when I first saw it at the age of 16, so I was pleasantly surprised to be swept up in the humor and music of this “take” on Greek mythology. As had become my habit, I attended it more than once in the theater. Mostly I went for “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.”

A few years ago, I watched the movie for the first time as an adult and was disappointed that it didn’t hold up to my memories of it. It felt a little too “cartoony” and “silly,” and the sexualization of Megara made me uncomfortable. I half-hoped I’d find I had been wrong back then and that my initial delight in the movie would return. It didn’t, although my feelings about the movie now are a little more complicated. Something about it just feels a little off to me, and I can’t exactly put my finger on it. Part of me wonders how much of this ties into where I was in my life when Hercules premiered. I was 16, and silently suffering through the worst depression of my life. Perhaps watching this movie again hints at that dark time too strongly; or perhaps I latched onto it more than I would have otherwise because I was so desperate for a bright spot, for something that could take me away, if only for 90 minutes.

But here are a couple of the things I WAS able to put my finger on, which, as much as I hated to do it, dipped the movie below 4 stars for the first time in the Renaissance Years.

The Problem with Meg

Before I proceed, I should make it clear that I like Meg. I used to have a huge-ass poster of her in my bedroom. She was the main reason I returned to see the movie on the big screen. I found her cynicism and her “experience” to be a refreshing departure from the typical Disney fare, as well as the way she existed in a sort of moral gray area, bound to Hades and yet secretly rooting for Herc.

And I guess it’s a good message for Disney to send that you do not have to be innocent/perky/a good judge of character to find love — and that there’s still a chance even if love has already let you down in the past. (You DO still have to be waif-thin to find true love.)

Ratios of the body dimorphism between Herc and Meg. Click for full article.

Ratios of the body dimorphism between Herc and Meg. Click for full article.

But just as people often mistake cynicism for intelligence, in evaluating Meg we have to be careful not to mistake it for independence.

meg memoryPerhaps more than any other Disney leading lady, Meg is completely defined by the men in her life. The implication is that her very personality stems from the heartbreak she suffered when she sold her soul (her SOUL!) for her ex-boyfriend, who then dumped her and left her in a lifetime of servitude to Hades. One might imagine that she was as perky as the next princess before this devastating incident.

And even though she resists her attraction to Hercules, it doesn’t take very long for him to win her over. It might seem like this is okay because, well, he’s clearly a good guy (more on that later). But the moment Meg really seems to cross over is when he takes her hands and promises that he will never hurt her. Surely she knows that words are cheap, but before Hercules proves himself to her in any real way the Muses are already declaring that “He’s the earth and heaven to you.” Again, it seems she is on the verge of making a man her entire world, totally eclipsing her sense of self.

(She still gets one of the best Disney songs ever ... that part hasn't changed.)

(She still gets one of the best Disney songs ever … that part hasn’t changed.)

It doesn’t help that through the whole movie we seem to see Meg exclusively through the “male gaze.” Hercules’ first good look at her, that is, the one in which she really seems to capture his attention, is when she is bent over, “presenting” fashion, wringing out her wet hair over a pond. Some horny animators had WAY too much fun with her hips, which have a life of their own. Hades sees her sexuality as his most powerful weapon against Hercules (“Perhaps I haven’t been throwing the … right curves at him.”); Phil ogles her openly; and the implication is made that even the river guardian hoped for sexual favors (“He made me an offer I had to refuse.”) Oh, and just for good measure, let’s throw a rape joke in there. (“Well, you know how men are: they think no means yes, and ‘get lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours.'”)

meg presentingWhen we first meet Meg, she is in the clutches of the monstrous river guardian, but she assures Hercules, “I can handle it,” and tries to send him on his way. Despite this pronouncement, Hercules rescues her, and one has to wonder HOW she was planning to “handle it” if he hadn’t. Against Herc’s bulk, Meg seems especially frail, and she proves herself in need of rescue despite her protestations. The one time she attempts to save Hercules, she’s more or less ineffectual except in that she gets hurt, which inadvertently breaks Hades’ bargain. Oh, but she also dies, which requires that Herc rescue her from the Underworld.

dead meg

Meg is essentially a very important prop in the quest toward Hercules regaining his godhood, which he can only do through his love for her. As appealing as she is, largely owing to Susan Egan’s phenomenal performance, she essentially “talks the talk” of independence far better than she “walks the walk.”

And Then There Are the Men

The men don’t get off the hook in this movie — not by a long shot.

So last week, I mentioned that Disney often cues us in to a villain’s evil nature by the way he treats women. Hades is no exception. Not only does he officially treat Meg like a tool, he is also incredibly reliant on her sexuality to further his plans, as mentioned above. Like Frollo, he reduces Meg to her sexuality, and that’s one of the things that tells us HE IS NOT A GOOD GUY.

But then there is Phil.

philanderer hercules disneyWho is essentially a dirty old man who pervs on the water nymphs when they think they are alone for some “girl time” and ogles Meg much more openly than Herc does, even though Phil chastises Herc for letting Meg distract him. We learn when we first meet Phil that he is “retirement age,” and yet he still has the gall to hit on someone the age of his student — presumably young enough to be his granddaughter if they were the same species. And we’re supposed to see this behavior as harmless and funny, when really it’s totally gross and creepy — and perhaps Phil is the reason I now have trouble stomaching this movie. Because HE is supposed to be a good guy. (Also, I think it’s sick how he tries to live vicariously through each hero he trains, essentially blaming them all for not being PERFECT. He’s not in the hero training business because the world needs more heroes — he’s in it because he’s hoping for some sort of vindication/validation for HIMSELF. This is a pretty crummy burden for any teacher to place upon the shoulders of his student. No wonder they all cracked under the weight.)

PLEASE validate my existence, Hercules!

PLEASE validate my existence, Hercules!

But what about Hercules? His heart of gold makes up for it all, right?

Hercules1Maybe it would, if he didn’t become abusive when he loses his temper.

In the scene where Herc is on top of the world because he’s just had an awesome night with his lady, Phil tries to tell Herc Meg is “playing” him and Hercules slaps Phil across the room.

Yes, when things get heated, Hercules hits a little old man. Sure, I despise Phil — but Hercules’ behavior hints at a darker side of him that is totally glossed over in the movie. This is a man who has been taught from a young age that he needs to be careful because he “doesn’t know his own strength,” and then he uses that strength moments after lifting huge weights to assault his mentor. Yes, he regrets it afterwards — but that’s a common reaction in abusers.

I worry about the first big blow-up between Hercules and Meg in their wedded, stuck-on-earth bliss. And if it comes to that, I hope she takes her unruly hips and hair and walks out — this time keeping her soul.

meg slice

For further reading:

  • A defense of Meg from someone who sees her more generously than I do (note that it’s written by a man proclaiming Meg to be a “good role model for women.”
  • A feminist review of the movie focusing on Meg

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