Sunday, April 20, 2014

Disney Princess 3G

Living in a house with two little girls, we are naturally bombarded with a great deal of Disney.  (Although the Wicked Queen has permanently put Thing 1 off Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.)  When Frozen came out on DVD, Queen Mom happily procured a copy for the Things, and now I get regaled with their adorable renditions of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman," "For the First Time in Forever," and the award-winning "Let it Go."
But as I watch these films, it occurs to me how much the Disney Princesses have changed over the last 67 years, and not in the "Snow White is positively corpulent by today's standards" sense.  I'm talking about their characters.
By 1937, The Walt Disney studios had been successfully creating animated shorts featuring music and talking animals when they decided to tackle a new project--a feature length film based on a classic fairy tale.  The result was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a film that is considered a classic even today, and launched the first of the Disney Princesses.  These original princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora) were very beautiful, very passive--and not much else.  (Two of them spent the better part of their films comatose, and the third was hired help.)  Aurora from Sleeping Beauty had fewer lines than any other title character except the non-verbal Dumbo.  Admittedly, their love interests were not much better.  They were nameless "pretty boys" who "fell in love" after one song.  Sleeping Beauty was the first to name the prince and give them a chance to get to know each other a little--but since their marriage had been arranged sixteen years ago, it was pretty much a fait accompli.  And again, they share one dance, one kiss after she wakes up from a coma, and wedding bells.
After Sleeping Beauty, Disney returned to the "talking animal" characters and would not create another film with a princess for nearly thirty years.  The result was a rather unsuccessful little film called The Black Cauldron.  Here, we are introduced to the non-canon Princess Eilonwy.  This princess is younger than her predecessors, not quite pubescent, and scornful of the hero, who is not a Prince Charming, but a pig-keeper and wannabe hero.  However, she has actual dialogue, interaction with the other characters, and some action scenes.  She also does not marry Taran, although they do share a forced kiss.  Either because of her youth or the film's failure, she is not "officially" canon.  However, had the numbers gone differently, this would have been the first film of the Disney Renaissance.
The Disney Renaissance was truly the point in which the Princesses come into their own.  Although the most successful film of this period was a talking animal film (The Lion King), most of the Renaissance films that anyone remembers feature a princess.  These princess are not the beautiful cyphers interested only in True Love with the Handsome Prince.  They want more!  And they express their desires in song, usually in the first act.  They also spend a few days getting to know the Handsome Prince, instead of one song.  The Little Mermaid tentatively broke the mold in 1989, giving us a girl who wanted legs.  The "may-unn" was merely secondary.  And she rescued her prince long before he rescued her.  However, she was a bit more old-school than the others.  For one thing, the entire time that she was getting to know Prince Eric, she was mute.  A slight improvement over the girl marrying the first guy who kisses her while comatose, but the symbolism is pretty obvious.  The next princess was Beauty and the Beast.  Here we have a girl who refuses to marry the obnoxious town swain--only to wind up in the mother of all emotionally abusive relationships with an anger junkie who quite literally held her hostage.  Not to mention what a lovely message to abused women.  Just be perpetually pretty and sweet, and the abuser will become kind and loving.  With Aladdin, we have two departures.  The first is that Princess Jasmine is not the title character (although she also wants more!, she doesn't express this in song.)  The second is that we now have a princess who is not Caucasian.  She initially rejects Aladdin for being just another obnoxious prince wanting a pretty wife for the harem--until she sees his car flying carpet.  How very Quinn Morgendorfer.  Also, she doesn't marry him until the third installment.  But we still have pretty girls needing to get rescued.
After the first four films, the quality goes straight down.  Stories that had once been considered original had become predictable and formulaic.  This is pretty obvious in Pocahontas, which was so like its four predecessors that it had become almost a parody.  However, in this film, we have not only our first interracial love affair, but the first time that the princess rescues the hero without getting rescued herself.  Thus began an era of some experimentation where the actual hero who rescues the princess is not handsome (The Hunchback of Notre Dame); the princess and hero meet on the job while the girl is in drag (Mulan); the princess is the 8,000-year-old ruler in her own right of a lost kingdom (Kida in Atlantis: The Lost Empire); the "princess" is a working girl with no time for romance by choice (Tiana in The Princess and the Frog); and the "princess" is an anthropologist using her "prince" as a subject for study (Jane Porter in Tarzan).  However, in almost all instances, we still have Beautiful (if now spunky) Princess getting rescued by and falling in love with Handsome Prince. 
Tangled is another example of a transitional film.  As the quality of Disney films went into decline, the Pixar branch became more successful.  So, in 2010, Disney released Tangled, the first CGI film in the "princess" line.  Although stylistically, it is more like the later films I will call Disney Princess 3G, the story is similar to older ones.  Rapunzel is a shut-in emotionally abused by her not-mother (because we've never seen this before), who gets out with the help of Eugene.  Although the girl wields a mean frying pan and uses Eugene as a tour guide without thinking he's cute, he still rescues her, and they still marry in the end.  So, we're back to Beautiful Princess Getting Rescued.
Which brings me to the 3G stories.  For the first time, we have princesses who not only do not marry the prince, but end up rescuing themselves.  We also have less of a clear villain, or if we do have one, it's usually the prince himself.  In Brave, we actually have a princess who is her own worst enemy.  Instead of a mother figure who subjugates the princess for her own gain, we have a mother who tries to instill a sense of duty in her daughter against the girl's wishes.  It's only by appreciating her mother's wisdom that she grows as a character.  This is another departure.  While previous princess characters experienced no growth or even stagnated a little (I'm looking at you, Belle!), these princesses experienced character growth.   The next of these princesses was the video-game character Vanellope von Schweetz from Wreck-it Ralph.  Again, not canon due to youth.  A street-urchin "glitch," she lives to race but is thwarted by the other characters in her game, mostly the crazy, sugar-crazed villain King Candy.  Her first action is stealing the hard-won medal of game "bad guy" Ralph, and using it to enter a race with a homemade car.  Vanellope is voiced by profane comedian Sarah Silverman, and frequently calls Ralph a stinkbrain.  Although Ralph does eventually help her, she rescues herself be crossing the finish line on her own, thus resetting the game's code and revealing her princess status.  She and Ralph stay friends, but do not marry. 
Which bring me back to Frozen.  Here, we have two princesses, one who is an inadvertent "evil queen" due to ice powers she cannot control.  Although originally meant as the villain, Queen Elsa is as much a victim of her own powers as her subjects.  Her sister Anna is the hero in this story.  Although paired with two possible love interests, she does not marry in the end.  Also, she is under a curse that can only be broken by an act of true love.  Naturally, we all think Handsome Prince Hans will kiss her and break the spell.  Instead, he leaves her in a cold room to freeze to death.  The first entity to show her that act of love that puts his needs before his own is the snow golem Olaf.  (That really should have counted.  Seriously, he's a snowman building a fire to keep a friend from freezing to death!  How is that not putting someone else's needs before your own?)  In the end, the act of love that rescues Anna is her own sacrifice to save her sister, not the act of any man.
Over the past 67 years, the Disney Princesses have changed a great deal.  With this new era, let us hope that we keep getting dynamic characters.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Oh, my goodness!

Yesterday, an actress who was one of my childhood favorites, Shirley Temple Black, passed away at the age of 85. 

Some facts about the actress turned ambassador:
  • Shirley Temple was "discovered" at the Meglin Dance Studio in Los Angeles at the age of 3.  Her film career spanned 18 years from 1931-1949, during which time she appeared in 42 feature-length films and 19 short films (Take THAT, Lindsey Lohan.)
  • Shirley's first films were shorts in what was called the Baby Burlesks.  These eight films feature a cast of young children playing adult roles while clad in diapers featuring prominent safety pins (and often little else, save for a hat). Later, she would appear as a younger sister in a typical American family in the Frolics of Youth series.  Most of these films are in the public domain.
  • Shirley Temple's first feature film in which she was billed was The Red-Haired Alibi.  The first in which she received prominent billing was Stand Up and Cheer.  Although she is hardly in it, this film has the "Baby, Take a Bow" dance number in which she tap-dances in the red and white "coin-dot" dress that would later become a signature costume on Shirley Temple dolls.  She would later appear with Stand up and Cheer co-star and dance partner James Dunn in two more films--Baby Take a Bow and Bright Eyes.
  • Besides James Dunn, Shirley Temple appeared in films with some of the most prominent actors of the 1930s and 1940s, including Lionel Barrymore, Jack Haley, Buddy Ebsen, Robert Young, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Jane Darwell, Alice Faye, Claudette Colbert, Randolph Scott, Arthur Treacher, Myrna Loy, Clifton Webb, Hattie McDaniel, Frank Morgan, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rodgers, and future US President Ronald Reagan.  She produced films for Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists, and David O. Selznick Studios.
  • With four exceptions (Baby Take a Bow, The Little Colonel, Our Little Girl, and The Blue Bird) Shirley Temple's early roles were either orphans or children who has lost a parent (usually the mother).
  • The reason Shirley Temple's footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater were done without shoes was to draw attention away from her face.  She had lost a tooth that morning, and didn't want the media catching her gap-toothed.  Later, the studio would provide her with caps as each tooth fell out so as not to mar her perfect smile.
  • Gertrude Temple, Shirley's mother, not only made most of her costumes and helped the young actress rehearse, she also ensured that Shirley Temple's hair was in fifty-six perfect little pin curls for each shoot.
  • Three of her movies were named for her noted facial features--Bright Eyes, Curly Top, and Dimples.
  • In 1934, Shirley teamed up with seasoned dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson for a dance routine in which they tap-dance down a flight of steps.  Temple and Robinson were the first interracial dance team in film history.  Their affection for each other off the set was notable.  They always walked hand in hand; she always called him "Uncle Billy," and he always called her "darlin'."
  • Shirley Temple never won an Oscar for any of her films, since in the 1930s, the Academy did not deem child actors eligible for nomination.  However, she won a special juvenile Oscar in 1935 for her combined six films of the previous year.  (Judy Garland would win a similar award for her work in the Wizard of Oz.)
  • The head of production of Fox Studios changed Shirley Temple's birth certificate so that it would show that she was born in 1929 instead of 1928.  Shirley only discovered the change when her mother told her about it on her thirteenth birthday.
  • Shirley's career was modeled after that of another "girl with the curls," silent-film-star Mary Pickford.  At least two of Temple's movies (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Little Princess) were remakes of Pickford films.
  • Shirley Temple married former airman Jack Agar in 1945 at the age of 17.  The couple had a daughter and then divorced in 1949.  She then married Charlie Black in 1950.  The couple had two more children and were together until Black's death in 2005.
  • Besides her film career, Shirley Temple also hosted the TV series Shirley Temple's Storybook through the 1950s.  She was the ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia through the 1980s.  In 1988, she published her autobiography, Child Star, which was adapted into a made-for-TV movie in 2001.
We will always love you Shirley.  May you fly that "Good Ship Lollipop" always.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It was 50 years ago today...

that four longhaired Liverpudlians performed on the Ed Sullivan show.  And music was never the same again.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Wrapping up and lighting up

When I became a Bat Mitzvah (a week after my college graduation--figure that one out), I bought myself a tallis to commemorate.  It was pink and black silk with silver thread woven into the atara, and came with a matching tallis bag and kippa.  I still have it.  I was never sure what to do with it.  Cut off the tzitzit and atara and turn it into a headwrap?  Keep it as a relic?  Donate it?  To whom?  No boy would be caught dead in a pink tallis, and we certainly wouldn't want to give it to a girl--since of course, any girl who wants to wear a tallis is some evil feminist with either an agenda or a score to settle.  One morning, I decided on a lark that I would wear it again while davening at home.  (The Things were not there to witness my transgression.)  Before I even got to Shema, I took it off.  Somehow, after all those years of not wearing it, it just felt wrong somehow.
I think about my pink tallis, sitting on a shelf in my closet, now that the explosion is starting to settle down.  The explosion of course is the Orthodox yeshiva SAR permitting two girls to wear tefillin during in-school Shacharit.  I can't say that I've ever had the experience of wearing them, but I can sort of relate.
The halacha is very clear.  Women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot.  This includes things like tefillin, since they are to be worn during Shacharit.  This also includes davening with a minyan, hearing the megillah and the shofar, sitting in a sukkah, hearing Parshat Zachor--wait a minute!
Even in uber-frum Boro Park, plenty of women rush to shul for Zachor.  Some shuls even have later readings which are packed with women.  Same with megillah leinings.  As for shofar--even homebound women get to hear it, thanks to wandering shofar-blowers.  And I've never been ordered away from a sukkah.
Moreover, if that's the benchmark, why are women obligated to light Shabbos candles?  That's one of the main mitzvot for women.  However, since the lighting is from the commandments of "keep Shabbos" and "remember Shabbos," aren't those both positive?  And it's certainly timebound.  I can't, for example, decide to keep Shabbos on any day of the week I feel like.  And, as any balabuste can tell you, the minute is set in stone.  Miss the time, and you're mechalel Shabbos.  Bad Jew!
Frequently, I hear appeals to emotion like "most women don't really care about wearing tefillin" or "you women don't know how good you have it, not having to get up early" or "my wife would rather not wear tefillin, and doesn't understand why anyone would."  That's nice.  Unfortunately, these sentiments have no place in a discussion about halacha.  Either it's allowed or it's not.  And if women can sit in a sukkah or hear Zachor, and have to play "Beat the Clock" every Friday for the rest of their lives, then apparently the time-bound rule is a little fuzzier than we thought.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


One of the proofs given to me that Orthodox Judaism is really enlightened was that Jewish marriage guaranteed a wife that her husband provide her with "food, clothing, and marital relations."  These rights are guaranteed in the ketubah signed by every Jewish couple just before they go under the chuppah.  This was usually framed in a very feminist, sex-positive way.  As I like to put it, "On the eighth day, G-d created the orgasm--and it was GOOD!"
Sounds great in theory.  But as usual, context is everything.
This particular list of a wife's rights caught my eye as Queen Mom and I were reading the parsha last Shabbos.  Only it was not in the context of marriage.  It was in the context of buying a slave, or as the text put it, "a Hebrew bondswoman."  Not really much to argue with there.  Apparently, bride purchase was a common practice in the time of the Torah.  And these wives had the status of wives--sort of.  If the master decided not to marry them, they had to be released after six years.  (Sounds like there was a "try before you buy" option.  Nice.)  They also had to be paid off for their betrayal, adding to the theory that these men were "test-driving" their slaves before deciding whether to make them a permanent fixture in the harem.  (And, yes, there were multiples.  That line about food, clothing, and marital relations was the guarantee given to these slaves just in case Massa decided to get himself another slave wife.)
Disturbed enough?  It gets better.  Understand that I use the term "bondwoman" rather loosely.  See, according to the commentary, these "bondwomen" were roughly the same age as my daughters.
I wish I were making this up.
Straight from the commentary of my Stone Chumash, now considered the standard in Orthodoxy, "For example, if she had been sold when she was five years old..." Yuck.  Stop right now.  Put down the book, and back away slowly.  Children?  Seriously?  Grown men are buying CHILDREN for their harem?  This is the Torah?  And, please, spare me the cliché about how children were more mature back then, blah, blah, blah.  This is little more than the permitting of baby rape.
Makes you rethink that immortal line from the ketubah, doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What did I sign up for--Hilchos Jail

Years ago, I remember Rebbetzin Jungreis saying over and over again, that Torah is like no other study.  Studying Torah will make one a better person, a more moral person.  A Torah person.  And the Torah has all those rules about how to behave.  Rules about not stealing.  Rules about honest business dealings.  Rules about how to treat people.  Rules about not hurting people.  The most famous Hillel story has him saying "That which is harmful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah--the rest is commentary.  Go and study!"  That, to me, is what Torah observance means.  However, I would guess not everyone agrees.
Last spring, Misaskim magazine had a whole article about how to conduct oneself if one should be unfortunate enough to get arrested.  Now I have read many service magazines in my time, and I find that most of their articles get a tad repetitive.  However, I have never seen a secular magazine carry an article about arrest.  Had they really become so commonplace in the Jewish world?  What about the Torah?  What about following all those rules on theft and honesty and moral behavior?  What about the Ten Commandments?  Sure, you can study the damages paid when your ox gores your neighbors' bull, but what about that strong moral code?  Shouldn't that be enough to keep pretty much any Torah-observant Jew out of legal trouble?
I didn't think it could get any worse.
It got worse.
Coming out of uber-frum Boro Park--an entire two-volume sefer devoted to the laws, prayers, and inspirational stories for the Orthodox Jew in jail.  I hate to imagine.  (Since the book was written entirely in Hebrew, I'm afraid that I CAN only imagine--can't read well enough for a sefer.)
The big issue is not that this book was written.  If someone can write a volume thicker than the Brooklyn Yellow Pages basically saying "cover up and avoid men," then anyone can write anything.  The issue is that publishers will only publish books when a market exists.  Is there really such a large number of Orthodox Jews in jail that this book needs to exist?  Is there enough of a market for a book geared to frum prison inmates?
What does that say about us?
Child molestation.  Tax evasion.  Insurance fraud.  Theft.  Domestic violence.  Being a slumlord.  Assault.  All of these are--or should be--off limits to anyone who calls himself frum.  And, hopefully, there will never be any more need for seforim like these.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

So, what does 2/3 of a kid look like?

Recently, an article came out decrying the rates of women in poverty.  The article quoted the statistic that 42 million women and 28 million children live in poverty.  This, of course, leads to the inevitable comments about welfare queens with multiple baby-daddies having kids they can't take care of.
I know, after all, if you do the math, 28 million kids distributed among 42 million women works out to--about 2/3 of a kid per woman.
Less than one.
I would love to meet the baby-daddies performing this feat of nature.  Seriously, which two-thirds?  Is it divided from the feet up or the head down?  Or is it laterally?  Those poor children hopping around with only a vestigial second leg.  I have never seen a 2/3 kid, but I feel sorry for them.
Now of course, this does not mean that we have a rise in partial children.  Statistically speaking, it means that at least one-third of the women living in poverty HAVE NO CHILDREN AT ALL!  Yeah, so much for blaming the welfare moms.  Also, since this is not China, women can have multiple kids.  Therefore, this means that every woman in poverty with more than one child, means another woman with none. 
So much for "can't feed 'em, don't breed 'em."  So much for the multiple baby-daddies. 
So, what is the problem? 
Wage price inequities.  Henry Ford famously paid his employees enough to afford the cars they produced.  Today, the minimum wage barely covers rent.  When I was single and worked full-time (with a college degree and no children), my salary barely covered an illegal converted shed that I called home.  My car was falling apart (and this was in California--you don't have a car, you're nowhere), and I once considered not using it because it needed repairs that I couldn't afford until payday three days later.  Fish and cheese were luxuries--forget meat.  I was in that statistic--and I had done the "responsible" thing by going to college and not having kids.
Plenty of people do the "responsible" thing and get burned.  Remember that.  And before you cry foul, do the math.