Valentine’s Day Confession

As many of you know, Disney has my heart. It’s the kind of love that can withstand many missteps (like tarting up Merida for her princess unveiling, waiting way too long to give us diverse princesses, and making a meeting with the Frozen girls at Disneyworld a logistical nightmare for any parent). For quite a long time it was strictly platonic…and then came Aladdin.

I was eleven when Aladdin was first released in movie theaters. Junior high was already on the horizon, and my elementary school heart was already thinking about boys in a serious way. The thing was, I wasn’t one of those girls who fantasized about getting married. My career was a more exciting prospect and freedom was my main objective. But I still obsessed about boys. Jazmine was relatable to me, she wanted more than what was expected of her—and what was expected was marriage. I can’t remember if I made all these connections as a tween, but I knew I liked her best of all. It also didn’t hurt that we had the same skin tone.

Then I met him. Aladdin. Handsome and clever and completely unafraid of a strong woman. He could sing and he had a flying carpet. His best friend was a monkey and (really thrilling to eleven year old me) he never wore a shirt. Escandalo! Was he real? I fully admit to the fact that I developed a huge crush on an animated character, but looking back it wasn’t as strange as I made it sound. Aladdin is the male protagonist I always look for when I read (and write) a book. We take it for granted in an age where women and minorities wish to be heard and want to be represented in every conceivable way. But finding that elusive unicorn—the well-rounded male—is almost impossible. A man who is strong yet sensitive enough to realized when we don’t need (or want) to be rescued. A male character who shows vulnerability and courage. It was exciting then and refreshing now.

picture of Aladdin with bread

Aladdin with a reassuring smirk

These men exist in nature. I’ve met them and I married one, but why are they rare in stories? We’ve replaced the two-dimensional female archetype from fairy tales and replaced her with an equally underdeveloped male archetype.

Yes, I know this movie sets a lot of people’s teeth on edge with its stereotypes and insensitive song lyrics (which Disney recently changed in the song, Arabian Nights) and I freely admit that my analytical side gnashes right along with them. But this isn’t that kind of post.

I know that by the end of the movie, Jazmine wanted nothing more than to marry Aladdin. The feminist in me wants to rail against that, but honestly I don’t. Once you’ve found the one who lets you be you, it’s reason enough to want to spend the rest of your life with them. So, I don’t begrudge her suddenly going gaga over him. If I ever met Aladdin, my well-rounded husband would have some real competition.

Losing it

I’ve been thinking about loss and fairy tales lately. It’s the prologue to most stories, shaping the hero’s or heroine’s current misfortune. Be they motherless, fatherless, or orphans loss is the beginning of a story in fairy tales. Disney has made this fact into a cliché. It’s been joked that Frozen didn’t become a true Disney movie until (spoiler alert) the parents are lost at sea. I almost think it’s pointless to warn you of the spoiler because as I mentioned before, it’s Disney’s hallmark.

So what can fairy tales tell us about loss? Is it the impetus that makes ordinary people into heroes? Do princesses (or would be princesses) jump at the chance to marry royal strangers because of “daddy issues”? Are feelings of abandonment just the push a boy needs to take on giants and consider thievery as a way of life? Maybe yes, but maybe nothing so blatant.

As a historian, I’m aware that these stories were written in a time when disease, war or poverty would likely tear apart families. But fairy tales don’t care about the mundane. They focus on the fantastical, spinning tales that take us out of the everyday. Wouldn’t you want to escape a reality in which becoming orphaned probably only meant a life of impoverishment and servitude? In the real world, Cinderella would have grown old and haggard at the beck and call of those three spiteful cats. Or she would have run away to the city and been forced into prostitution to survive.

Am I the only one who sees a face?

Am I the only one who sees a face?

But I’m not just a historian. I’m a person with whimsy who sees imprisoned souls in strangely shaped trees. All it takes is a too bright moon and I immediately start to spin a tale about a community of nightwalkers affected by its phases, collecting magical Moonshine. Not all the ideas become a full-fledged story, but more than a fair share get filed in my ideas folder. And one of the most basic things everyone wonders about is death and loss, so why isn’t it a prominent feature in fairy tales? Sleeping Beauty side-steps it with a sleeping spell meant to keep her in suspended animation for a century waiting for her “true love.” Snow White is barely cold in her glass coffin before Prince Charming comes along and dislodges the chunk of apple the dwarves were clearly too short to Heimlich. Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are swallowed whole by the Wolf only to be cut out of his belly by the Woodsman. Even the newest old story, Frozen, gives us a heroine who sacrifices her life and is rewarded by it being returned to her.

In my search for loss in fairy tales, I came across a story from my childhood. It falls under folklore and legend more than fairy tale, and is a popular story in Puerto Rico. It’s called La Leyenda de la Piedra del Perro, or The Legend of Dog Rock. Not far from El Morro in Old San Juan there’s a small beach with a long natural rock wall. At its tip is a rock formation that when looked at from the right angle resembles a sitting dog.

The story goes that a soldier, Enrique, from back when Puerto Rico was part of Spain, was stationed there, far from home and lonely for companionship. One day he finds an injured and emaciated puppy whom he nurses back to health with food and love. In return the dog never leaves his side and becomes his best friend. As is inevitable with all soldiers, Enrique is called to a battle which requires him to leave the dog behind. They part tearfully and as the boat carrying his human companion sails away, the dog (called Amigo) swims to the rock wall and sits there from sun up to sundown awaiting his return. There’s a brutal battle in which all hands, including Enrique, are lost. The dog overhears the news and rushes out to the wall waiting without respite. He stays so long and so still he turns to stone and remains there to this day.

I’m not sure what that story teaches us. On the one hand loss is something that can’t be gotten over and you can remain stuck in a moment of despair without moving on. Or it could mean that loss forces out the very nature of a being. For the dog, it was loyalty. It could be said that for the characters of popular fairy tales, it was a desire to be more or escape their current situation. In both cases, it led to profound change. Fairy tales teach us that no matter how mundane today might seem and yesterday was, tomorrow could be extraordinary–either good or ill. They teach us that loss is not the end of the story.

The Danger

All endeavors have their pitfalls. Lawyers can become too jaded. Doctors–to robotic. Policymakers–to self-interested. And it doesn’t stop at professions. A mountain climber will tackle an even taller mountain because she hasn’t found one that has beaten her–yet. Surfers are always searching for that big wave and there’s a moment between doubt and sheer terror where invincibility washes all questions away. For every creative person the next work, the next piece, the next manuscript digs a little deeper (you hope) until you reach a core where only you live. That’s the danger. Living inside your head so much that no one can get in. That’s what all these risks have in common–standing in your own way.

Now that I’ve made this post sound so esoteric, let me bring you back to earth. I’m a writer and one of the things I write (obviously) is this blog. I concentrate on fairy tales, myths, and such and how they speak to us now. Not on an academic level, although it can sneak in there sometimes, but on a everyday human level. What does that mean? It means that I tend to spend a lot of time in my head figuring out what I think, feel, and believe regarding entertaining fiction. But living in my head I have a tendency, as many of us do, to overanalyze–to reach for something that maybe no one else sees. Nothing’s more jarring to an analyst than someone who reads your thoughts and comes back with, “Really? You went there?” “Yeah, I went there! And what?” Okay that’s defensive, but you get the point. But when you can’t find something in your bag of tricks, you tend to reach for snark.

This idea has been swirling around in my head for a while now and it started with Frozen, the new Disney movie sensation. I won’t pretend that I didn’t love it–because I did both as a parent and as a life-long lover of all (well, almost all) things Disney–but it’s gotten a little over the top. People want to dress up like Ana and Elsa, they record themselves singing, Let it Go, for public consumption, and they overanalyze the message. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the fact that (spoiler alert!) the main idea is true love which doesn’t involve a prince. I’m writing a series trying to debunk the myth that all girl-power adventure stories have to have a romantic focus. I just think that the cult-like following it’s attracting is…I’m searching for a word that isn’t too judge-y…unbelievable. It’s middle-aged women obsessing over Twilight unbelievable. Okay that was judge-y. Then I go back to my defensive analyst and hear others saying, “Yeah, I went there! And what?” To which I have no response.

We all have our own obsessions. Mine just happen to be quiet and solitary, while others can be loud and in your face. I came to blogging kicking and screaming and still haven’t joined Facebook or Twitter. I’m not secretive or shy, but I find I’m intimate. I’d rather have drinks at a bar than shots at the club. So, to end this long digression here’s the danger of blogging–living in your head and then being too judgmental of other people’s headspace. While it can be constructive, sometimes is can be cruel (like my Twilight remark). And though I don’t promise that I’ll always be big enough to take the high road, I like to think that I’m conscious of the danger.

The Hidden Minority

I have to say that I am encouraged by the current push of contemporary fairy tales. They give women a voice and often make them front and center as heroes in their own stories. The LGBT community finally has a glimmer of hope in seeing protagonists that have the same thoughts and feelings as they do. Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and myriad cultures are being discovered within the pages of novels which before had almost ignored their existence. I don’t think we’ve reached the goal of true diversity in stories, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Except for one slice of the underrepresented pie…

Now, I’m willing to be proven wrong on this front, but I think stories have failed to acknowledge a particular segment of society. It’s one that exists across all borders, within every culture and comes from every socio-economic background. I speak, of course, of the Plus-Sized protagonist. In an age where we worry that the population is overweight and health issues like diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease are of serious concern, I understand why we are reluctant to glorify a state which could bring about all of these things. Then again, we glorify the bad boy who after years of being a dick can find his heart because of the love of a nice girl.

Here’s the deal. I don’t hate skinny girls. I will admit to the occasional bouts of “big girl rage” when I skip dessert but want to chow down on some cake. But I can’t be angry at someone who can eat anything they want while I have to exercise in order to stay in my favorite jeans. Everyone has something! I just don’t understand why every heroine (and hero for that matter) has to be willowy thin with athletic abilities. How is it that the bookishly smart hero, who spends all his time in the library also manages to have a perfect BMI? Is the chubby sister any less deserving of a prince than her wasp-waisted sibling?

I suppose I can imagine anyone as Sleeping Beauty or the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. That’s the power of an immersive story. But then I see the story come to life on screen. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people who whispers “The book was so much better”, but we live in a visual age. Even if I don’t want to see the movie version of The Great Gatsby, I can’t help but think of Leonardo DiCaprio whenever I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book. So unless I want to live under a rock, the actors cast as my favorite characters tend to stick in my imagination. Would it be so wrong to hope for The Zaftig Mermaid (something to keep her warm in the big ocean) or a pleasantly plump set of sisters in Frozen (for the cold winter nights)? Red Riding Hood and Cinderella were work horse, traipsing through the woods with heavy packages and cleaning house for an exacting step-mother, respectively, so I understand their thinness. Couldn’t Belle have been just as…belle…if her voracious reading came with a chocolate and croissant habit? Rapunzel was looked up in a tower, for goodness sakes, and you’re telling me she couldn’t have been cute if she were full-figured? Yes, I’m fixating on Disney, but it has given us the most popular versions of these heroines.

This doesn’t only have to apply to fairy tales. I would love to hear about a popular YA series featuring a sassy and shapely girl or a handsome yet husky guy. They would have to be just as capable as their lean counterparts and most importantly not apologize for their size. Just a thought.