Disney Book Review – 3500: An Autistic Boy’s Ten-Year Romance With Snow White

3500: An Autistic Boy's Ten-Year Romance with Snow White3500: An Autistic Boy’s Ten-Year Romance with Snow White by Ron Miles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #45: A Book Related to a Hobby or Passion You Have

If you are looking for beautiful writing, then you’ll want to pass on this book. It’s not badly written, especially as far as self-published works go. The writing is merely functional, and a little perfunctory — it feels a little as if the author is writing an email or a blog post detailing his and his son’s latest antics, with a reporting style that kind of assumes the reader already knows these people. Out of the whole “cast,” Ben comes across the most clearly, which makes sense since the whole book revolves around him. I had less of a sense of his mother’s or stepmother’s personality (his stepmother seemed like just an occasional footnote), and his father, as the storyteller, makes himself fairly vulnerable but also tells “his side of the story” and says the sorts of things you’d expect a caring father to say.

Still, if writing style isn’t a huge deal and what you want is to learn more about a unique family’s experiences with autism and the lengths they went to to bring their mostly non-verbal son out of his shell, this book will fit the bill. It moves along at a decent pace, and I had to admire the fact that Ben’s parents were willing to uproot their lives to move closer to Disney World, a place where their son seemed to make enough progress on their first visit that they believed it would be a further catalyst for his socialization — and in many ways, it was, although there’s really no way to know how his development would have proceeded had his parents not made this momentous decision. To that end, perhaps what comes across most strongly in this book is the love and devotion these parents feel toward their autistic son — I like Disney World, but visiting multiple times a week, only to ride the same ride dozens of times … it must have been mind-numbingly boring. But these parents soldiered on without much complaining.

If you are not a Disney fan, this book may be a little nauseating to you. The author is a total Disney World fanboy and the book reads so much like an open love letter to Disney that I wouldn’t be surprised if they sell it in their gift shops. I’m totally on board with the magic of Disney, but the total lack of any critique at all, especially considering the fact that his impressionable autistic son was marinating in Disney ideology 24/7, was a little off-putting to me; it felt like a bit of a “sell” at times even though I know it wasn’t.

Still, I mentioned earlier that this is self-published, and in that market, you could do a lot worse. This is cleanly written and formatted and not a slog to get through. And the photos of Ben sprinkled throughout were a very nice touch.

View all my reviews


Week 53: Frozen

First Theatrical Release: November 23, 2013

First Home Viewing Release: February 24, 2014 (digital) and March 18, 2014 (DVD and Blue-Ray)

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Where I Found It: My personal DVD collection. It was the first Disney movie I bought since the 2004 platinum release of Aladdin.

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Elsa and Anna, their mother, and some female trolls. Anna and Elsa’s first conversation is about playtime and Elsa’s magic, and only one of their conversations thereafter is about a man — when Elsa is telling Anna she can’t marry Hans. (I once read that this movie would fail a “reverse Bechdel” test because all the male characters are always talking about Elsa and Anna, which is pretty much true.)

I will be the first to admit it: I am one of the adoring masses who can’t get enough of Frozen. Although I rarely purchase it, I am constantly rubbernecking in stores for Frozen merchandise, from Barbie dolls to cereal boxes, and I not-so-subtly told my mom I’d really like some Elsa slippers in my Christmas stocking this year the last time we went frozen wash ragout shopping together. And when I got tired of laundering the same washrag over and over, I went out and bought myself a set of Frozen washrags — it wasn’t my intention, it just sort of … happened. They were so soft, and cheap. (Honestly, why have I been using one endlessly laundered washrag for four years when I can get 6 branded ones for $3? But I digress.)

Arguments from Frozen’s detractors are often well-founded — there are some glaring plot holes (seriously, WHY did Elsa’s family think locking her up was the best way to cope with her powers right after the trolls had told them that fear would be her enemy? Who ruled the kingdom between the years when Elsa’s parents died and her coronation? How did Kristof survive to age 4 — when the trolls seem to have adopted him — without any parents? Why doesn’t Kristof tell Anna he spied on her first encounter with the trolls when she was a young’un? Etc. etc.). The movie may not be as feminist as we’d like to do the magic.gifbelieve (as endearing as Anna is, she is portrayed as almost hopelessly incompetent next to Kristof on their journey to and from the North Mountain).  But I am willing to forgive all that and more because Frozen was the first movie in over ten years that proved Disney could still “do the magic!”

And ultimately, all those plot holes don’t matter to most viewers because Frozen did not capture our imaginations or our hearts with its rock-solid plotting. Instead, it captured us in the language of metaphor and emotion, tapping into the same primal place from which the canon source material of Disney’s fairy tale retellings came. People loved Frozen because something about their own lives and hearts was playing out onscreen — Elsa’s movement from shame to acceptance, freedom, and joy where her powers are concerned has been convincingly interpreted as a metaphor for feminist awakening, coming out, mental illness, autism, and probably many other experiences that relegate one to “outsider” status.

So, after I just linked to all those really great articles about Frozen, not to mention all the OTHER analyses floating around on the Internet, I come into this post thinking that there probably isn’t much to say about Frozen that hasn’t already been said. But I still have opinions!

Team Anna or Team Elsa

annaelsaBack when Frozen was first released on DVD, I did a Google search to see whether the captivated public preferred Anna or Elsa. To me the choice was clear, but the Internets said the fandom was divided more-or-less down the middle.

Still, I noticed the same conversation taking place independently, at different times, with two different groups of friends: one of whom had little girls, one of whom didn’t.

Both groups wanted to know why all the little girls were seemingly OBSESSED with Elsa, and both groups lamented that little girls weren’t more interested in being “like Anna.”

Well, let’s see. Up until now Disney movies have mostly given little girls two choices when it comes to what kind of woman they could grow up to be: they could be good, or they could be bad. If they choose good, they get (added bonus!) to be beautiful, too. But if they choose bad, they get to be powerful. Yes, even most of the “good” princesses were strong in their own ways, but to a kid watching Ursula rise up out of the ocean while Ariel trembles in Eric’s arms … well, THAT’s what power looks like to a little kid.

elsa powerfulThat’s why, when I was a child, I was more interested in Ursula than Ariel, more interested in the Evil Queen or Maleficent than Snow White or Aurora. With the character of Elsa, for the first time (in forever) girls can FINALLY have it both ways. To imagine themselves as powerful AND to be good … and that is a very, very good option to have. Not to mention, Elsa is the only Disney princess who is promoted to Queen within the first act of the film and doesn’t have to wait to marry a prince to, eventually, ascend to that status at some point in the (off-screen) future.

anna pleaserI’m also somewhat uncomfortable that both these groups of adult women (with kids and sans kids) who mostly identify as feminist want to push little girls toward the character who behaves in more “typical” feminine fashion — Anna is much more of a pleaser than Elsa is, she’s more dependent on others for her happiness, and she’s also the one who “gets the man” in the end.

But don’t worry, I’m not hatin’ on Anna. In fact, what I love so much about Frozen is that it shows girls there is more than one way to be a strong woman, that there are different ways to be vulnerable, and that neither one is inherently better than the other. You don’t have to act tough all the time to be strong, nor do you have to distance yourself from love or the affairs of the heart. Anna and Elsa feel authentic to me in a way that gets lost and muddled when Disney seems to try “too hard” to create a character with the trappings of independence who ultimately ends up following the same script in the end. One of my favorite (non-Elsa) scenes in Frozen is when Anna demands that Kristof take her up the North Mountain after she’s purchased the gear he couldn’t afford. She makes her case without backing down, and right afterward we see her all-but-trembling outside the door of the stable as she awaits his reply.

This scene acknowledges how SCARY it can be for girls to speak their minds in a culture full of mixed messages, where the pressure to be “strong” can sometimes feel just as crushing as the pressure to be “thin” or “beautiful.” Raising the curtain on Anna’s emotional state immediately after she’s made her demands lets girls in on an important secret: It’s OKAY to feel scared when you push yourself outside your comfort zone. You’re not weak just because your voice shakes or you tremble before or after you speak up. You’re strong because you proved you could do it anyway.

But as much as I love this particular scene, I’m Team Elsa all the way.

Why I’m Team Elsa

elsa face.pngAlthough I am not autistic, I’ve experienced IRL all of the other experiences people have been projecting onto Elsa as metaphor. Coming out? I’m bisexual. Mental illness? I’ve struggled with both depression and anxiety and learned what a game-changer anti-depressants can be. And I probably don’t have to disclose my feminist affiliations anymore at this point.

But what I love most about Elsa is that she appears to be Disney’s first openly introverted princess (technically, queen.) Sure, we’ve been given bookish Belle and a handful of other Disney ladies for whom someone could make a solid argument that they were introverts. Aurora spends her time alone in the woods talking to animals. Ariel retreats to her grotto and would rather explore a sunken ship alone than go to a crowded concert.

cold never bothered me.gifStill, with Elsa we see a Disney lady who REVELS in being alone. Indeed, who feels literally transformed once she is freed from the rules and constraints of social interaction. Before she ditches her own coronation party, one could argue that her isolation was involuntary, and I would agree. It’s clear that the growing up years are excruciatingly lonely for both Anna and Elsa — Anna because she is an extrovert and thrives on her interactions with others, and Elsa because she has to keep her authentic self locked inside.

But even in Elsa and Anna’s first scene together, we can see that Elsa is the more reserved of the two — she wants to stay in bed, she talks less than Anna does, and she is pensive rather than ebullient (like Anna) when she experiments with her magic. At movie’s end, there is something tentative in the way she interacts with the crowd before she creates the ice-skating rink, and her pronouncement that they are never shutting the gates again always comes across as a little forced. It is this that convinces me Elsa is an introvert by nature and not just in response to her shame about her magic.

Is Frozen a Feminist Movie?

sister loveIt shouldn’t be so revolutionary when a movie presents children with more than one option for how to be a girl or a woman, but unfortunately, it still is — and that’s why Frozen occupies such an important place in the Disney canon. It’s also the only Disney movie in which the relationship between women is the driving emotional force behind the action. Despite how often we’ve all watched romance provide the primary thrust for the emotional plot of movies, in real life, women are shaped profoundly by their relationships with other women, whether female friends or sisters. To see a Disney movie finally acknowledge the importance of this aspect of a girl’s or woman’s development is incredibly gratifying.

Maybe that’s enough to make Frozen a feminist movie despite its perpetuation of mainstream beauty ideals and its insistence that Elsa run around in heels for the whole second act.

Or maybe it’s just what can happen when you don’t have to wade at least four screens in during the end credits to find your first female name. For the first time (in forever – reprise), a woman’s name appeared on the first page of the end credits — it’s Jennifer Lee, who is both director and screenplay writer — and perhaps that is what made all the difference.

Well, my friends, it is the last day of 2015, which brings my Year in Disney Movies to a close. It’s not the last entry in this blog, though — I still have Big Hero 6 to watch this Sunday. (53 Disney movies in canon, 52 weeks in a year). You can consider it the epilogue. 🙂

For further reading

[And because I couldn’t resist, my favorite “spoof” on “Let it Go”]:

Week 50: Tangled

First Theatrical Release: November 14, 2010

First Home Viewing Release: March 29, 2011

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Where I Found ItMy Big Box o’ Disney Love

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters are limited to Rapunzel, Mother Goethel, and the Queen. But within the first few minutes of the movie, Rapunzel and Mother Goethel talk about Rapunzel’s birthday and her desire to leave the tower.


Tangled was the movie I wanted to see ever since I realized that Disney wasn’t comin’ up with all these movie ideas on their own. Once I knew that Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty existed independently of Disney’s renditions, I started thinking of other fairy tales that I’d like to see get the Disney treatment. “Rapunzel” was at the top of my list.

I may have had to wait till I was 29, but Disney finally came through.

I’m not sure that it was everything I dreamed it would be, but it’s still a nice, feel-good movie, with just enough depth to keep it from feeling like total fluff.

Mother Knows Best

gothel and rapunzel

A couple years ago, I debated with one of my friends about whether Mother Goethel as presented in Tangled really loves Rapunzel or not. It had been a few years since I’d seen the movie (this week was only my second viewing of it), and I remembered getting the impression that Gothel did love Rapunzel. My friend argued that she didn’t, that she was just using Rapunzel and taking advantage of her innocence to make her think she loved her.

On this week’s watching, I was surprised and a little appalled by the way Mother Gothel treats Rapunzel. Out of all the snarky things she says to her and all the ways she belittles her, there is only one interaction that seems loving and not manipulative.

gothel and rapunzel hugStrangely, this was the only interaction from my first viewing of the movie that I remembered.

It is Mother Goethel’s agreement to take a three-day trip to bring Rapunzel back a certain white paint that she wants for her birthday.

Now, this trip is crucial to the plot, because it is during this time that Rapunzel first encounters Flynn and subsequently plots her escape with him. But what motivates Mother Gothel to leave? Traveling three days to get something that’s not important to you is much more taxing than empty words about how much you love your adopted daughter. If Gothel does not love Rapunzel, then does she make the trip simply to appease her and make her stop asking to leave? (Also, I wondered how Rapunzel even KNEW what day her birthday was — doesn’t this imply that Goethel must have taught her to mark the years, and done so in a celebratory enough manner that Rapunzel felt she could ask for something special?)

Determining whether Gothel loves Rapunzel or not mostly comes down to your definition of love. If you think love means putting the needs of the beloved before your own, then Gothel certainly does not love Rapunzel. But if love means not being able to imagine your life without a certain person in it, then I think one could argue that Gothel does love Rapunzel in her own way.

But this question becomes mostly irrelevant in the context of the movie, because whether she loves her adopted daughter or not, Gothel is an abuser.

Watching the Disney movies in such quick succession, I was struck by how similar Goethel’s treatment of Rapunzel is to Frollo’s treatment of Quasimodo. (Now I understand all the fan-art that shows Frollo and Goethel hooking up!) But more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is mostly about learning to see beyond assumptions about people, Tangled, for all its fun song-and-dance numbers and laugh-out-loud moments, is also a movie about healing from abuse.

Before Rapunzel leaves the tower, we see how nervously she petitions Goethel for indulgences, and how quickly she backpedals when Goethel refuses (and makes her feel guilty for asking in the first place.) Although the scene where Rapunzel vacillates between her joy at being free and her overwhelming guilt about disobeying her mother is mostly humorous, there is some real pain there, too. And although exaggerated, it also rings true to the complicated emotions of someone breaking free of abuse.

When Flynn and Rapunzel are later trapped in the flooding cave, Rapunzel breaks down and blames herself for the whole situation, even though they are being pursued because of Flynn’s thieving, NOT her decision to leave the tower. And just as she is beginning to regain her confidence after a day spent in the city and a romantic boat ride with Flynn, Gothel returns to undermine her once more, essentially telling her that she can’t ever come back home (“Don’t come crying”) if Flynn ends up betraying her.

Still, Rapunzel does exactly that, rushing into her mother’s arms in tears when she thinks Flynn has abandoned her and allowing herself to be led meekly back into captivity. Soon after, she will confront Gothel and call her on her lies in a scene that is incredibly reminiscent of Quasimodo’s final dressing down of Frollo.

Disney is often criticized for bastardizing the symbolism in the original tales with their tweaks and sanitization, but despite the many changes made to the story of Rapunzel, the archetypal message of a girl struggling to attain independence from her mother remains remarkably intact. Indeed, Disney takes it a step further and allows Rapunzel to heal her mother-wound in a way not offered in the original.

baby rapunzel and motherIn the language of fairy tales, “wicked stepmothers” and “witches” are often symbolic of the dark side of the child’s real mother. These figures emerge in the story when the child has reached that age when she  begins to realize that the parents are not the perfect, godlike figures she believed them to be. Recasting the parent in the role of villain gives the child the courage to separate and become independent while preserving the memory of the “perfect parent” from childhood.

Rapunzel new familyThis happens in real families all the time as teenagers and mothers butt heads. But what the fairy tales often don’t acknowledge is that on the other side of these struggles is the opportunity for mother and daughter to come back together as adults to forge a new, different but just-as-enduring bond. In the Grimm version of the tale, Rapunzel is exiled from the tower by Gothel and wanders in the wilderness until she is eventually reunited with her prince. In Disney’s version, she is restored to the mother she lost as a child, soothed with the return of the “good mother” after she has completed her separation and attained independence from the “bad mother.” This approximates the mature relationship many daughters come to enjoy with their own mothers — but often only after leaving home.

Boyfriend Knows Best

I’ll be frank: I’m not a big fan of Flynn. I don’t go for the “cad” type, and I don’t like that his relationship with Rapunzel begins with him basically trying to dupe her out of the deal they made by first agreeing with her that it’s better if she just stays, and then bringing her to a tavern that he thinks will scare her off. In his own way, he’s as manipulative as Gothel is in the beginning.

Of course, he changes course rather quickly around the time that he realizes Rapunzel’s got this dope glowing hair and healing powers, and soon her innocence and enthusiasm win his heart. In a story that is about Rapunzel breaking free of her abusive mother and attaining autonomy, I don’t take issue with the fact that she finds some of her redemption in a man. After all, many people find that the first steps toward healing from abuse happen through a relationship with someone who sees them through new eyes.

But it does make me uncomfortable that, after Rapunzel finally confronts her mother near the end of the movie, just a few minutes later she is promising herself back into a life of confinement and virtual slavery just for the chance to heal Flynn (or Eugene, by this point.) After all those years of subjecting her needs to her mother’s, now she’s back to putting herself second. Not only that, but she doesn’t even know where she stands with Eugene when she agrees to make this sacrifice — even though he came back for her, she never got an explanation for why he seemingly abandoned her after getting the crown earlier in the movie.

haircutEugene, to his credit, is not willing to see Rapunzel returned to her role as a prisoner now that she’s tasted freedom. So even though he’s dying, with his last breaths he cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, effectively robbing Gothel of Rapunzel’s power and forcing her to rapidly age and die.

By cutting off her hair, Eugene frees Rapunzel from Gothel’s clutches, but he also robs her of her power — all without her consent. HE’s the one who sets her free, HE’s the one who saves her, even though the entire emotional journey of the movie rests on Rapunzel attaining her independence. This final rescue left me feeling dissatisfied, as if that much-needed independence still had not been achieved.

And sure, Rapunzel ends up saving Eugene’s life shortly thereafter — but while Eugene’s act of saving Rapunzel is fully intentional, Rapunzel’s subsequent saving of Eugene is almost accidental. She simply succumbs to emotion and weeps, and then — surprise! Her lover is brought back to life.

healing flynn

So after Eugene saves Rapunzel and Rapunzel saves Eugene we’re even-steven, right? Time to go off and enjoy an egalitarian relationship?

flynn wantedOne can hope. Except that Eugene is the one who gets to tell this story. Even though he admits up front that it’s not really “his story,” we see it through his lens nonetheless. He also gets the last word, and he uses it to assure viewers that gender roles remain intact — he proposed to Rapunzel, not the other way around.

There’s so much I like about Tangled. The fact that it’s based on one of my favorite fairy tales EVER. The gorgeous animation. The attention given to the complicated dynamics of Gothel’s and Rapunzel’s relationship. The musical numbers. A heroine that is both innocent and bold and not overly sexualized, who mostly looks and acts like an 18-year-old. But then there is Flynn/Eugene. And that, my friends, cost the movie a whole half star point. Sorry, Rapunzel.

rapunzel upset

Week 49: The Princess and the Frog

First Theatrical Release: November 25, 2009

First Home Viewing Release: March 16, 2010

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Tiana, Eudora, Charlotte, Mama Odie, and Stella. Tiana and her mother talk about Tiana’s dreams for her restaurant, and Charlotte and Tiana talk about Charlotte’s upcoming party and Tiana’s delicious beignets. However, both these conversations are borderline — Tiana’s mother slips in a comment about “wanting grandkids” someday, and Charlotte is conscripting Tiana to help with a party she is throwing for Prince Naveen.

I was crazy excited about the release of The Princess and the Frog. The same directors as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin! Traditional animation!! Songs!! A return to the Disney I had loved best of all!!

I was a little let down when I saw it. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn’t magic, either. I thought maybe I had just outgrown that feeling Disney movies used to give me (I was 28, after all) and not even traditional animation could bring it back.

Once we were discussing my Year in Disney Movies project at my book club meeting, and a few people wondered whether Disney would ever bring traditional animation back. One woman said, “They don’t plan to because they did it with The Princess and the Frog, and that movie didn’t go over very well, so they blamed it on traditional animation rather than accepting that it just wasn’t that good of a movie.”

Alas, I think that pretty much sums it up. It’s got all the right ingredients, but in the end, it just isn’t that good of a movie.

All the Right Ingredients

This movie makes me feel like a bunch of Disney writers got together and were all like, “OK, so what can we do to make this a fun movie that won’t piss off feminists?”

“Oh, I know, let’s make the princess BLACK. Yeah, that’s SO progressive! And let’s make a REALLY BIG DEAL about her being Black, too, and get lots of positive PR for it rather than acting like Black is just a normal thing to be.”

tiana waitress“Oh, and let’s make her have a JOB. Because it’s so progressive for women to have jobs. Yeah, let’s make her career her priority, let’s make her dream be to open a restaurant rather than to find a man. That sets a good example for little girls, right?”

little tianaOf course, there will still be a love story. It just won’t DOMINATE Tiana’s consciousness. In fact, let’s juxtapose her with a girly girl so we can show audiences/parents/etc. just how much we GET IT. And let’s make Tiana disinterested in romance even when she’s a little girl so viewers will know that she’s DIFFERENT (you know, besides being Black.)

As snarky as my tone is above, objectively speaking these ARE all really good things. An African American lead — 66 years is a little late to the progressive party, but better late than never. A girl who has to work to support herself presents a more realistic picture of what girls can expect out of life than all the princesses who busied themselves frollicking in the woods or staring into fountains or cleaning the house before her. And learning to balance career and relationships is certainly a worthy goal.

mansiontiana houseTiana is feisty enough to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant even in the face of Disney’s very passing nod to racial discrimination (when the real estate brokers tell her a restaurant would be a bit “much” for a girl of her “background.”) There is even the BAREST hint of racial tension when we see the long ride Tiana and her mother take away from the mansion lined streets where Eudora works to the cozy cluster of shacks where the Black community lives.

If Only It Wasn’t the Only …

Despite having all these checks in its favor, people sensitive to the portrayal of race still found plenty to criticize in The Princess and the Frog.

  • eudoraIt was “stereotypical” to portray Tiana and her mother as working for wealthy white folks. (In actuality, I think Disney was going for historical accuracy here. Perhaps the real danger is that children don’t pick up on the subtleties of era and may too easily transpose their experience of Disney’s one Black princess to all Black people. But this is why adults should watch and discuss Disney with kids.)

    “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Even though Tiana has typically Black features, she falls in love with a lighter-skinned man (some people say Naveen is white, but I don’t think he is.), therefore implying that Black girls should “marry up” by snagging a lighter-skinned man. (I don’t take issue with this, either. I think that Naveen IS also Black, just lighter skinned. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of ethnic ambiguity. It’s the way our whole world is heading, after all.)

  • Disney’s only Black princess spends the majority of her movie NOT EVEN BEING HUMAN and therefore eradicating the question of race, anyway. (This criticism holds some water, I think, especially with the pervasiveness in our history of comparing African Americans to animals.)

tiana as frogNone of these things are very egregious on their own, nor even together. The problem, of course, is that Tiana is asked to bear such a heavy weight as Disney’s (still) one and only African American leading character. It’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of one character, or of one movie. Which is why Disney and other studios should stop treating diversity as a marketing stunt and just incorporate it into the way they do business. It wouldn’t matter that Tiana spends most of her movie as a frog if we had other Disney movies featuring Black characters that remained human throughout.

It’s this weight of responsibility that cripples the movie, I think. It tries so hard to get everything right that it loses some heart in the process.

So, the moral of the story? DISNEY NEEDS MORE DIVERSITY.

The Messaging Is Great, Except …

frog weddingSo even though this movie didn’t give me all the Disney feels I dreamed about when I learned about the return to traditional animation, on my rewatch this week there was one thing that resonated with me.

I really liked that Tiana and Naveen didn’t return to their human forms until after they had accepted the possibility of living their lives as frogs.

There’s something very zen about it, you know? Like being able to find true happiness only when you’ve let go of expectation, or falling in love only when you’ve stopped looking for it.

But then I started to think about it a little more.

And then I wasn’t so sure.

mincedSee, the whole idea is that through their relationship (developed as frogs) Tiana and Naveen both learn to be more “balanced” people. Tiana learns to relax and let loose a bit, while Naveen learns to, you know, act like a grownup and maybe do some work? (btw, I’d need MORE evidence than a few chopped vegetables before I was ready to commit to a guy who had spent his whole life as a freeloader, especially if I had a strong a work ethic as Tiana.) But the whole movie has been about how Tiana’s big dream is to open a restaurant — NOT to find a man. That’s so clearly what is supposed to appease all the feminist mommies in the audience.

But what is the ULTIMATE lesson that Tiana must learn?

That being with Naveen is more important than her dream of opening a restaurant.

That a man is more important than her dream of opening a restaurant.

That the thing about her that MOST needs to change is her single-minded ambition — and only when she gives THAT up can she attain true happiness.

She still gets her restaurant in the end, so, yay, minority girls really CAN have it all.


But not until they make peace with giving the greater part of it up.

For Further Reading:

Week 36: Mulan

First Theatrical Release: June 19, 1998

First Home Viewing Release: February 2, 1999

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

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

Bechdel Test Score: Passed, but barely! Female characters include Mulan, her mother and grandmother, the matchmaker and her sidekicks, and some random ancestors. It’s the awakening of the ancestors that gives this movie its passing score, as there is more than one female spirit present and they are discussing Mulan/the family in general rather than a man.

Mulan was the first and only movie from the Renaissance era that disappointed me the first time I watched it.

:: Ducks to avoid tomatoes tossed by film critics and feminists ::

It was also the first movie from that era I only saw once in the theater. I drove around analyzing why we didn’t love it with my younger sister after we’d gone to the first possible showing on release day. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the movie more for what it is than what I wanted it to be. Because like every good budding feminist, I had read my share of books about girls who disguised themselves as boys to take advantage of the greater opportunities afforded them. And I had a version of Mulan in my head years before it was released — and I liked my version better.

haircutI don’t remember my version anymore, but I think I was not quite sure how to react to a movie that was more emotionally subdued after the high drama of movies like The Lion King and Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As an adult, I admire that Mulan is a more restrained film, with no huge declarations of love or dark, dramatic musical numbers featuring the villain. I especially love that with this movie Disney finally broke its pattern of sexualizing its leading ladies, and that Mulan spends the movie learning how to more completely be herself rather than worrying about “performing” in a way that is appealing to men (think Jasmine’s sashaying hips as she approaches Prince Ali on the balcony, or Meg’s sultry glance over her shoulder when she first encounters Herc). Although Mulan is attracted to Shang, this attraction never defines her, nor does it drive the emotional heft of the movie.

I think that may have been my biggest disappointment when I was younger and a total junkie for Disney romance. This movie doesn’t even feature a kiss!

I’m over that now (sort of) and better able to see this movie on its merits, which are myriad. This is a movie that pretty much does everything right — and yet still does not make me feel all the feels of earlier movies. This is probably one of its merits, that it doesn’t use the manipulation of emotion to disguise potentially questionable messages. Still, I do like those villain song numbers.

But this movie is the fave of many feminists for a reason, and there is absolutely nothing about its messaging that makes me feel squeamish. Quite the opposite. There are a lot of things Disney does “right” in this movie, but these are the two that strike me most strongly.

Disney Comes Out for Androgyny

Disney deserves some of the flak it gets for its characters’ conformity to idealized gender norms, especially when it comes to body type and physical appearance. While it doesn’t exactly break the mold here, particularly in its presentation of the oh-so-manly Shang, the storyline requires that Mulan be less of a perfect “hourglass” than her predecessors. More important than that, though, are the messages the movie sends about what it means to ACT like a woman or a man.

matchmakingThe one scene that seems to raise feminist ire in this movie is the “matchmaker” sequence at the beginning. I’m not sure why, since the whole reason for this scene’s existence is to reveal that Mulan does not feel like herself “performing” femininity in the way that it is traditionally valued in her culture. When she disguises herself as a boy to join the army, she attempts to “perform” masculinity in a similar way — lowering her voice, attempting to hock loogies, punching other soldiers in the arm, swaggering. Her failure in these attempts is funny not just because she mulan manlywears the mantle of masculinity so awkwardly, but because hyper-gendered behavior IS pretty ridiculous. It’s only when she stops trying to “act” like a man that the other soldiers stop looking askance at her. Rather than focusing on how to pass herself off, she begins to cultivate attributes that are valuable regardless of gender, such as perseverance, innovation, and independence (as evidenced by her return to the camp after Shang tries to send her home; her discovery of how to use the metal weights to help her retrieve the arrow atop a pole; and her decision to fire the last cannon at the mountaintop against Shang’s orders to fire it at Shan Yu, leader of the Huns, respectively).

reflectionAs the movie goes on, we have less and less of a sense that Mulan is “pretending” and more that she has found a way to “be herself” even as she pulls off the ultimate deception. One could even read queer commentary into the movie, especially when Mulan admits that she pursued life as a soldier not for her father, but for herself. Not to mention that Shang realizes his attraction to her mere days after believing she was a man (one of my good friends theorized that Shang is/was gay and was attracted to Mulan as Ping, which was why it was especially upsetting to discover that he was a she.) And when Mulan saves China at the end of the movie, she does it as herself (while her fellow soldiers get a taste of what she endured as they disguise themselves as concubines). There’s even a bit of poignant social commentary when Mulan tries to get the attention of the soldiers and crowd and they ignore her, as Mushu reminds her that, “Hey, you’re a girl again.”

Mulan swordShe is a girl again, but she is still Ping, and she never stopped being Mulan, and the development of her inner strength that is impervious to gender serves her and her country well in the end — and brings her the quiet pride and acceptance she’s been searching for since the movie’s opening.

Mulan fatherPsychological thought, led by the pioneering work of Sandra Bern, has long held that androgynous individuals are the most mentally healthy. It may have taken 60 years, but I’m glad Disney finally jumped on that bandwagon.

War is Always the Real Villain

shan yuShan Yu is possibly the most downplayed villain in Disney history. He has very few lines in the movie, conveying nearly all with his evil grin and gleaming eyes. Mulan does not even encounter him until the very end, and even then he is far less important than what he represents — the invasion of China. Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that he has absolutely no personal vendetta against Mulan. He doesn’t care that she violated social norms by joining the army. He doesn’t hold a grudge against Ping for bringing the mountain down on his army. His antagonism is totally detached, theoretical — he is out to conquer China, and he’ll cut through anyone and anything that stands in his way. Nothing personal.

That’s because in Mulan, the primary antagonist is not the villain, but rather the specter of war. It is because of war that Mulan’s father was initially disabled, and it’s a war that threatens to call him from the safety of his home and quite likely finish him off. It is war that pushes Mulan to do the unthinkable — because war is unthinkable.

mulan dollOnce when I was staying with a friend, she suggested that we watch Mulan because she had never seen it, but her roommate had recommended it as a Disney movie she would feel comfortable getting behind. Never one to turn down a Disney movie, I agreed. I observed her shock as the camera panned over the dead Chinese soldiers on the mountaintop, and that’s when I appreciated Disney’s refusal to ignore the reality of this crucial event upon which the whole movie turns: war is not just about training montages (of which Mulan has one of the best, far better than the one in Hercules), or about proving yourself to your fellow soldiers, impressing the captain, pining for girls back home. It’s about the destruction of villages, the slaughter of innocents (which is implied by the doll Mulan finds even though we don’t see the dead bodies of children), and battlefields littered with corpses.

mulan corpsesIt is not all about glory and proving yourself.

It is mostly about death.

When my friend’s roommate came home, my friend exclaimed, “I can’t believe you didn’t warn me! That wasn’t the lighthearted movie I was expecting. That was a movie about WAR.”

War and lightheartedness don’t go hand-in-hand, nor should they. Not even in a Disney movie. Perhaps that is why, despite the way the movie pokes fun at gender roles, despite comic relief moments from Mushu, Crick-ee, and Mulan’s grandmother, the movie remains more subdued than Disney’s other films.

In addition to all the great lessons the movie imparts about gender and being true to oneself, the message behind its central conflict is equally important for children to absorb: war is neither fun nor glorious. Many children must see the realities of war play out within their own lives, but for those who are lucky enough to have it confined to their TV screens, at least Disney offers a socially responsible message to discourage future generations of repeating the same devastating mistakes.

Mulan war