Animated Ladies: Sleeping Beauty

Or: Why I Love Merryweather.

Merryweather argues... as usual.

Merryweather argues… as usual.

Sleeping Beauty is another story that, while on the surface appearing to be a typical if Disneyfied fairy-tale, is completely motivated by female characters. Aurora is the Victim, and a fairly standard one – pretty, sweet, and ultimately helpless. Maleficent is of course the Villain… but the Hero isn’t Prince Phillip, who’s likeable but helpless in the face of of Maleficent’s magic. Phillip is a stooge for the real Heroes of this story – the Three Good Fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They deflect Maleficent, hide the princess, rescue the prince and pretty much carry him to the final battle, arming him with magic and all but drawing a target on Maleficent for him. If a Hero is defined not as ‘the principal male character’ but as ‘the principal active or motivating character’, as generally I think they should be, it’s definitely the Good Fairies in that role here.

If it weren’t for one thing, I’d suspect the Good Fairies of having some kind of master plan. The movie opens with them unable to move directly against Maleficent, but by the end Maleficent is dead and their twinkly little hands are technically clean. Given that they’re the ones who set up the amelioration of the initial curse, then are also the ones who put Aurora within reach just in time for Maleficent to enact it, then set Phillip on Maleficent with all the force of their magic behind him, it could be a clever plot.

Except for the fact that Flora and Fauna are as thick as bricks.

And they are. There are exactly two moderately bright people in the whole damn movie. Maleficent, who has terrible taste in minions but takes sensible precautions like locking up the True Love, and is only foiled because King Hubert lets something slip in Flora’s hearing. Maleficent knows the fairies are idiots, and couldn’t have expected them to react so effectively or so fast.

The other one, of course, is Merryweather. The youngest (her hair is still black, not grey like the others) and the most confrontational, she’s the only one with a grip on common sense. When Flora suggests sneaking off and raising the baby themselves, Merryweather’s response is a practical query as to who’ll do the housework. Flora assures her ‘Oh, we’ll all pitch in’, but Merryweather’s expression indicates that she isn’t fooled. Flora is the boss. Fauna just wants to take care of the baby. And who’s going to be doing everything else? Junior Fairy Peasant Woman Merryweather, that’s who. She’s also the one who wants to confront Maleficent directly, which the others won’t do because of the Good Fairy Rules.

Much later, when Aurora is turning sixteen, Flora and Fauna decide to make her a pretty dress and a fancy birthday cake respectively. Merryweather’s response to Flora? “But you don’t know how to sew! And she’s never cooked!” Yep, Merryweather’s been doing the grunt work for the last sixteen years all right. She drags the other two down to earth, insists on using magic to do something that Aurora/Rose will actually like, and is graciously allowed to clean the house with magic for a change. Okay, yes, it’s her squabble with Flora that tips Maleficent off, but she’s still far and away the brightest of the fairies.

She’s also the stoutest, which I love. Instead of being the ‘pretty’ one, the youngest fairy is a short, round, sassy little badass who takes Maleficent’s crow down with one zap and is clearly going to Get Shit Done as soon as she’s the Senior Fairy. She’s one of the only examples I can think of of a fat female badass in animation – the only other one leaping to mind is Ma Dola, the feisty pirate captain in ‘Laputa: Castle In The Sky’, though my memory is lousy and there are probably more.

There is a Maleficent movie coming out, which I’m looking forward to. But I’m sad that there’ll probably never be a Merryweather movie, in which a stout, confrontational little fairy kicks some fairytale butt. It’d be great.

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Animated Ladies: Whisper of the Heart

If you’re looking for movies with strong female characters who aren’t solely identified as the love interest, watch Studio Ghibli. Pretty much any Studio Ghibli.

But today I want to talk about one of my persistent favourites, the often under-rated Whisper of the Heart. Spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to keep them minimal!

The protagonist is a girl! Not unsurprising in a movie made by Hayao Miyazaki – his female protagonists substantially outnumber the male. Shizuku is in junior high, and she is an avid and passionate reader. She notices one day that most of the books she checks out of the school library have already been borrowed by a Seiji Amasawa, and begins trying to find out who he is.

It’s really not a spoiler to mention that Seiji turns out to be the cute-but-annoying guy she keeps running into, as it’s pretty obvious. Seiji is an unusually appealing love-interest – he’s sometimes a bit of a jerk in his attempts to get Shizuku’s attention, but it’s not particularly intentional and he’s a well-realized character in his own right, with an unusual ambition of his own.

So there is a romance, but it’s not all or even the biggest part of Shizuku’s character development. That is reserved for Shizuku’s attempt to transition from merely loving to read to writing stories of her own. It’s a movie about an aspiring writer! Someone young and determined and still struggling to figure it out. (I would recommend this movie and the Emily of New Moon books by L. M. Montgomery to any young aspiring writer – they’re very honest about how hard it is and how much work it takes, but they’re still encouraging.)

As for the other animated ladies in the movie, there are several! There are eight ‘named’ female characters, as opposed to only four male – plus the Baron, who… well, he’s a special case. Shizuku’s sister Shiho is actually one of my favourite characters in the movie. She’s a university student, very take-charge and bossy as older sisters often are (I’m allowed to say this, I am one), and only peripherally involved in Shizuku’s story. She nags Shizuku about her grades and how important school is, and complains that Shizuku doesn’t do her share of the house-work, which is clearly true. Part-way through the movie, she moves out, leaving their shared bedroom to Shizuku, which is important to her later.

Shiho provides one of the clearest examples of the fact that, while Shizuku is totally immersed in her own crisis, other people’s lives are going on around her. Shiho has her own story, of which we see only tantalizing hints. She visits an aunt, talks to her mother about moving out and managing money, reminds Shizuku that school is important and sends letters that she doesn’t want Shizuku to look at too closely. That’s all we know, but she’s very clearly a person in her own right, adding an element of depth to the movie because it’s not an isolated story floating in film-space – it’s a moving window focused on Shizuku that sometimes passes other people with other stories.

Shizuku’s mother Asako is also a student – she’s completing grad school, so money is tight for the family. She’s concerned about her younger daughter’s grades, but has only limited time and resources to ride herd on Shizuku, having her own studies to do! Again, she’s a well-recognized individual with her own priorities, who clashes with the protagonist without in any way being a villain.

Shizuku’s best friend Yuko is a staunch supporter who has a crisis of her own during the movie. She and Shizuku sing with two more of their female friends, and eat lunch in the school nurse’s office – she¬† seems very friendly with the girls, and takes an interest in what’s going on in their lives. In contrast, while Shizuku’s father the librarian, Seiji’s grandfather the antiquarian, and Seiji himself are all important to the story, I can think of only one scene where they actually interact with each other. Like women in all too many other movies, the male characters appear primarily when interacting with a member of the opposite sex, usually someone more important to the plot than they are.

Add in the facts that Whisper of the Heart is beautiful to look at, has genuine struggle without any need for a cartoony villain, and is about an aspiring novelist, and it is no wonder that this is one of my very favourite movies.