Animated Ladies – The Rescuers

There are never enough female characters. This will remain true until ‘the hero, the grumpy one, the fat/big/dumb one, the cute kid and the girl’ is no longer a standard team lineup.This is a convention that drives me absolutely bananas, all the more so because I have once or twice caught myself doing it because I’ve actually internalized this crap. Women should not be only a token presence, despite the increasingly strict narrative conventions that bias towards males – so today’s post is about a movie that is an exception to that stupid rule.

I’ve been watching a lot, and I mean a lot of animation since I had a kid, even more than I did before, and I would like to shout out to the original ‘The Rescuers’, which passed the Bechdel test long before the Bechdel test was cool… or even invented. Spoilers ahead!

Of the four primary characters, three are female. And they never, ever talk about men. The plot goes like so – the primary villain, Madam Medusa, has a passionate, desperate desire for the fabled Devil’s Eye diamond. In order to obtain this thing, she has kidnapped sweet little Penny from Morningside Orphanage. The other two primaries, Miss Bianca and Bernard, get wind of this and on behalf of the Rescue Aid Society of mice (they are mice), go to the rescue.

So let’s start with Penny, who we see first. She’s a little girl in a very scary situation, something which isn’t really downplayed much. She’s been kidnapped, she doesn’t know where she is, and these people who use alligators as guard-dogs have not only held her for three months, but keep putting her down a scary dark hole in the ground where water comes in and might drown her. But Penny fights, to the best of her limited capacity. She tries repeatedly to escape, she puts messages in bottles and throws them out of the boat where she’s being held, she yells at Nero and Brutus (the alligators) when they catch her and gives the dopey sidekick Mr Snoops as good as she gets. Penny is The Victim, but she doesn’t passively wait to be rescued – she does her best to escape while going along with her captors as much as she needs to to keep them from hurting her. She’s smart, and she’s doing pretty damn well for a kid of 6-8.

Miss Bianca is the Hero of the piece, not Bernard. Bernard is unmistakeably second banana from the get-go. Yes, Miss Bianca suffers from some negative stereotyping (fussing about wrinkling her dress, making them late because she has to pack a few things, etc), and Bernard gets to save her from peril once or twice, but nevertheless she is unmistakeably the one in charge. Bernard does what she tells him, both because he has the world’s biggest crush on her and because he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. You see, when the Rescue Aid Society intercepts one of Penny’s letters-in-a-bottle, they agree that someone should be sent to investigate. Miss Bianca, the Hungarian representative, promptly volunteers. The chairman waffles about changing times and danger and goddamn women’s liberation okay fine you can go but you have to take a MAN with you. Then he calls for volunteers from the male representatives, trying to put Miss Bianca and the mission safely into male paws. Miss Bianca is not having his shit, though, and says sweetly that they’re all so kind, but if she has to take a guy she thinks she’ll take Bernard – the cute but doofy mouse janitor who just fell into the bottle and got stuck. The Chairman splutters, but she gets her way, and control of the mission. She gives the orders after that.

Madam Medusa, the Villain, is presented as a sleazy trollop – bad makeup, sagging figure in a skimpy dress, and so on, and that I don’t care for. But she is unmistakeably The Villain, with a pathetically incompetent male sidekick, Mr Snoops. She runs her own business, has her own evil plans and goals, and never shows the slightest interest in men. She’s the one who trained the alligators, who frighten Mr Snoops, and she drinks, drives recklessly, and waves a shotgun with abandon. She’s clever until she loses her temper, and if she isn’t quite as badass as she thinks she is, she’s not doing half bad as a credible villain. (Okay, she’s no Ursula, but she’s pretty good!)

Oddly enough, Miss Bianca and Madam Medusa, the Hero and Villain, never interact directly beyond Medusa freaking out about mice being in the house and waving her shotgun around. But they both talk to Penny, not once but multiple times, and (aside possibly from references to the pirate’s skull) never discuss men AT ALL. Bianca, Medusa, and Penny provide the entirety of the plot’s motivation, almost all of its smarts, and most of the romance – though Bernard crushes on Bianca, she’s the one who makes the move.

It’s silly and cheesy and still problematic in spots, but give The Rescuers credit – it had strong female characters before Strong Female Characters were required, and it’s a fun watch.

However, watch with care – the Rescue Aid Society song is one of the most potent earworms I have ever encountered. I actually woke up humming the damn thing.

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4 thoughts on “Animated Ladies – The Rescuers

  1. Hmm. Now, that’s not actually from the first book called The Rescuers – it sounds like one of the later books, probably The Turret. In the original book the rescue team is two males an a female, Bernard, Nils and Miss Bianca. But Miss Bianca is the dominant character, and although when we first meet her she is rather spoilt and prone to fits of the vapours she has serious interests – she’s a poet, devoted to her master and interested in the politics at the embassy – and she saves the boys’ lives through an act of spectacular bravery and presence of mind. Bernard has a desperate crush on her for seven or eight books before she finally reciprocates. And the first book has a male damsel-in-distress character whom they all rescue.

    ‘Tis true, it’s surpisingly hard to think of films which pass the Bechel test. OTOH almost all of Terry Pratchett’s books do, and therefore any films based on them.

    • According to the Disney wiki, the Rescuers movie is based very loosely on the second book in the series, ‘Miss Bianca’, with Penny as an analogue for Patience and Madam Medusa as a highly dramatized reimagining of the Diamond Duchess. As usual, though, Disney has taken massive liberties with the story. It’s sad how many movies don’t pass the Bechdel test, though it’s worth noting that Thor is almost alone among action movies in not only doing so, but doing so in the very first scene before the Hero is even introduced.

  2. I loved that film as a kid! I’m glad to read something that vindicates the things I liked as a child, because nowadays there’s so much derision directed towards barbies and Disney princesses (correctly so, I suppose). I don’t think all of that pink girly crap did me any harm: at least it got it out of the system before I was grown up and stuck with that stereotype.

    • Disney varies kind of wildly on things like female presence and the Bechdel test, but I love it anyway. The Princess and the Frog was one of their best for having multiple established female characters who relate to each other outside of their respective relationships (and even though romance-mad Lottie has trouble with this, she’s adorable and a good friend). Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmations all pass the Bechdel test, too, if you credit Lady and Darling with ‘communicating’, which any dog-owner can tell you they do. Mary Poppins is likewise a stealthy triumph for lady characters, since Mary Poppins is clearly the most powerful person in the movie, Jane is accorded equal agency with her brother (albeit not much, since they’re children) and Mrs Banks exhorting her ‘Sister Suffragettes’ to rise up. All these movies have their problems, of course… but they do much better than they could have.

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