Mistaking Success for Blunders
The recent shootings in France have sparked quite the discussion on multiple fronts, including the controversial subject of diversity and its effects on a nation. Ultimately, however, it’s not hard to determine what those effects are on such a large scale. When powerful men with powerful armies and powerful weapons discover their differences are not compatible with other powerful men with powerful armies and powerful weapons, there are only two courses of action left, and they both run parallel to the courses taken by two pre-pubescent brothers sharing a bedroom: either slug it out, or define strictly enforced territorial boundaries which if crossed will result in the first option.
In other words, different nationalities and cultures require their own countries where they can live by their own rules. This is done out of mutual respect for the foreign nation’s (1) ability to inflict great harm or kill many members of your native land, and (2) their desire to live in peace and within their own country. If either of these requirements are not met, then one country will inevitably invade the other, and the game will only end when the stipulations are again met through conquest. The conclusion therefore is that diversity results in violence.
But this is diversity on a giant scale. What happens when it occurs on a different, smaller scale? Within, for instance, business or entertainment? In business, diversity of thought is highly valued when creating new products. In entertainment, diversity of thought is valued for much the same reason as business, but on a more fundamental level since the entertainment industry thrives on one thing and one thing alone: story.
More specifically, most writers of fiction know, at least on a theoretical plane, that story itself is based in the resolution of conflict, but that conflict can only occur when there are opposing sides. The main character must be pitted against another character, entity, force, or unsolved problem or else the reader will lose interest. This is true throughout the entertainment industry. Movies and television must have conflict and the promise of resolution or viewers will not enjoy it. Poetry, too, has conflict, as do even the barest lyrics of popular song, and the best music always evokes some kind of emotion in the listener by relating itself to universal human difficulties. Even a simple news article or television exposé follows the pattern of story writing, albeit with a more rigidly defined and drier set of rules. As such, diversity is necessary for a good story simply because it naturally compels conflict, which in turn must be resolved. Resolution is the drug that keeps us reading and watching.
But zooming in too closely does not particularly help us or give us new insight into the effects of diversity, for we are dealing with stories rather than real life. In real life, we deal with sales, and whether or not something sells depends on what your target market is. For instance, this author at Tor.com writes an article with a specific target audience in mind, one which readily enjoys hearing about Disney’s apparent inability to provide true depictions of equality and diversity. The author asserts that Disney’s more recent princess movies, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen, all make the same “critical mistake.”
Where are all the periphery female characters in Tangled, Frozen, and Brave?
Look, we’ve got two main female characters in Tangled (Rapunzel and Mother Gothel), Brave (Merida and Elinor), and Frozen (Elsa and Anna). Tangled features brief, silent, and grave moments from Rapunzel’s true mother, and all of these films show the occasional peasant woman or palace worker. There are female rock trolls that look exactly like male rock trolls in Frozen, and the whole group basically function as a chorus anyhow. There’s a short cameo by a witch in Brave. And outside of these fleeting examples, every single character of note is male. All of them. Literally.
And yes, this is a problem in practically every movie we watch.
Everyone: let it be known. It’s a problem. No, it’s worse. It’s a mistake. Yet apparently this “critical mistake” did not prevent millions of kids (and adults) from liking the three movies. The reason for this is, shockingly, because the background characters are irrelevant. The story is not about the background characters. In a curiously twisted way, however, it is this same quality of irrelevance that draws the author’s attention and on which she pins her argument. I admit, the significance of this escaped me at first, but now I believe I understand.
It is because the author doesn’t actually want a story. The quotes below should shed some light on this.
For example, what if Merida had triplet sisters? They would have been young enough to keep out of the fight between their older sis and Queen Elinor, but it also would have meant that the people Merida felt closest to in her family weren’t all male. She could have had a strong relationship with her young sisters, which actually would have helped to soothe the entirely gendered aspects of the argument she and her mother are having throughout the film. What Queen Elinor really wants is for Merida to accept some responsibility in her life—but when the entire fight gets codified using terms like “ladylike” and “graceful,” Elinor seems like a parent who is disappointed at her daughter for not fitting into the stereotypical gender boxes. It weakens the whole narrative.
Do you see what I see? If not, here’s another one about Tangled:
So… how to counter these female leading ladies and make certain that boys will still find themselves represented into the tale? Surround them with bands of men, of course! When Rapunzel and Flynn leave her tower, they wind up at a tavern filed with a variety of surly guys who want to turn Flynn over to the crown and collect the reward on his head. Rapunzel sings them a song about following your dreams, and the haggard crew reveal that they all have softer sides. Later, they come to Flynn’s rescue so he can run back to his lady love. And the two accomplices to Flynn’s recent crime, stealing the lost princess’s tiara? Two burly twin brothers.
For Tangled’s part, it would have been pretty adorable if Pascal—or Maximus the war horse!—had been lady animals. Or even better, that band of gruff ruffians at the tavern? Women. Just, the whole lot of them. Why not? Or if Flynn had been pulling his heist with twin sisters. And I’m sure someone is saying “But if they were ladies, he would have flirted with them!” But you know, he could have just… not. He doesn’t have to be interested in every age-appropriate female with a pulse just because he’s a scamp.
You see, what if Merida in Brave had had triplet sisters instead of brothers? Just as the author says, it “would have meant that the people Merida felt closest to in her family weren’t all male. She could have had a strong relationship with her young sisters, which actually would have helped to soothe the entirely gendered aspects of the argument she and her mother are having throughout the film.” Meaning, that the mother-daughter conflict that is the essential basis for the story no longer exists. I mean, gee, if Merida had a better relationship with her mother, then she would have never had the witch turn her into a bear, and everything would have been sooo happy!
And in Tangled, what if the crowded tavern had been full of women instead of men? For one thing, the beautiful Rapunzel would not have been able to charm them at all, and would more likely have been met with icy indifference or cruelty by the lesser female beauties such a place would attract. The story may not have halted in its tracks with such a change, but the roles would most assuredly be reversed, with Flynn flirting his way out of a jam instead of Rapunzel, or else physically cowing the women. But then who would have dared save Flynn in the end? Probably not the women—their nature would not lend itself to such an act. Instead, the story would have ended with Flynn’s execution and Rapunzel back in the tower, ergo, no story at all. Nor would it be in Flynn’s nature to avoid totally seducing twin female accomplices, not to mention making for less than terrifying bad guys. Flynn is, above all, a scoundrel, who likes pretty women and probably isn’t intimidated by less than terrifying bad guys.
In other words, the author’s assertion that “It weakens the whole narrative” is not about the story’s narrative. she doesn’t care about the story. She doesn’t want story. What she wants is grey putrescence because real story subconsciously reminds her too much of the greatest story of all. And when she says “it weakens the whole narrative,” what she means is “the story is too strong.” For such a person as the author of the article, forward is backwards and backwards is forward, and a blunder is preferable to success.
Ultimately the fact remains that the peripheral characters are just that: peripheral. They do not make the story. Nor is their gender an issue for children watching the movies, whose focus will be almost solely on the main characters. The peripheral characters genders will not teach children that women matter less or women matter more. After all, when was the last time that a girl said she wanted to be the background character and not the heroine? When was the last time a boy said he wanted to be the nobody instead of the hero? It is only the twisted mind of a twisted adult who replaces success with blunders and prefers ugliness to beauty. If the author had her way, there would be no true diversity in these stories, effectively removing their status as stories. Each character would think and act the same, and telling such a tale would not be a story at all, but a monotonous and never-ending description without conflict and without resolution.
And that would be a hell to be pitied for anyone who had the misfortune of watching or reading it.