Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Feminism in Animation: "Disney's Hercules" (the series)

This series really never got the recognition it deserved when it was on back in 1998, and I'm really doubtful that it'll ever make it to DVD despite a fan following and a ton of celebrity voice talent. I found it to be a pretty clever series, especially since I'm a huge fan of Greek mythology and I love that the writers clearly studied it and involved it heavily in the plots of the series. It's not always accurate, of course, since it's Disney and an animated daytime show aimed at children, but they actually got away with a fair amount, and you can tell they went to the myths first. It's actually pretty cool, since the original myths were largely pretty woman-phobic, anyway. Don't believe me? Take a look at all the female monsters those strapping demigod heroes had to go defeat, like gorgons, sirens, harpies, dracaenae, scylla, maenades, sphinx, Amazons, and the list goes on. (Note: I'm not saying all the monsters were female, but there were a lot of them, and there's a lot of symbolism involved in terms of taming/conquering female power, especially sexuality, which actually lines up with the role and treatment of women in ancient Greek society, too.)

The basic premise, as with most Disney TV adaptations of their movies, is setting Hercules (Tate Donovan) in high school during his awkward adolescent phase. Despite being a demi-god and the son of Zeus, he's pretty much a social outcast and his only steady friends are Icarus (French Stewart), the boy who flew too close to the sun on wax wings and who now seems to be permanently fried physically and mentally, and Cassandra (Sandra Bernhard), a pessimistic, sarcastic, and downright acidic young woman who's cursed to have unerring visions of future catastrophe, but who will never be believed if she tries to warn anyone about them. Cassandra alone's a great feminist character because, as might be surmised by the casting choice, she's a smart, outspoken, independent woman with a lot more on her mind than just dating and shopping. In fact she only dates one character in the entire show and that was only for two episodes-- this is in spite of Icarus's conviction that they're a couple and his stalking and obsessive behavior towards her, while not portrayed as anything other than annoying and basically harmless, isn't touted as building up to a true love match for them, either. She rejects him constantly and never capitulates to dating him or seems interested in him in that respect at all, which is nice. In fact, the character she winds up dating is very similar to him in a lot of ways, but importantly, he's not obsessive or clingy or possessive. Of course it's played for laughs and Bernhard goes completely over the top with her syrupy lovesick voice, but I think it's interesting that it seems to be Icarus's stalker-like behavior that's his biggest obstacle with her.

Icarus, for his part, is also pretty cool when not latched onto Cassandra, since he doesn't seem to pay much heed to constructed gender roles at all-- he's often shown to be more creative, nurturing, and domestically-minded, and never self-conscious about it. Of course he's also delusional and often has very bad ideas that get him into trouble, but it's still cool that he's totally at peace with his masculine and feminine sides.

There are several specific episodes that deal directly with feminist issues, especially anytime the Amazon Tempest (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is featured. One episode, The Girdle of Hyppolyte, dealt with Hercules having issues with his “Home Grecinomics” class (ha ha, puns) because he didn't feel like he should have to do “women's work” like cooking. He winds up following Tempest back to her home because he thinks she's in danger and winds up at odds with the Amazonian ruler, Hyppolyte (Jane Curtain). Banished to the kitchen to do “men's work”, he meets Tempest's father, King Darius (Emeril Lagasse) and learns that cooking and homemaking aren't gender-specific, nor are they inherently demeaning. They stay clear of more prickly topics like reinforcing the gender binary and its inherent struggle for dominance, and the idea that homemaking as a full-time job isn't regarded any more highly in the matriarchy than in the patriarchy, but the ideas are in there if anyone stops to read between the lines. Pretty subversive for a daytime animated kid's show.

It also takes on the Pygmalion myth, which has become popularized these days in movies like My Fair Lady and Annie Hall (which is a great movie, by the way). The basic story of the original myth is that the sculptor Pygmalion found every woman he saw to be inadequate next to his idea of what they should be, so sculpts himself his perfect woman. During his sculpting, he becomes so besotted with his creation, Aphrodite takes pity on him and brings the statue Galatea to life. The episode The Dream Date plays on this, even having Pygmalion be the school's art teacher with the improbably attractive wife (who is never named), but instead of a dissatisfaction with women in general, Hercules's problem is his inability to get a date for a school dance. Inspired by the art teacher's story, he sneaks into the art room and sculpts a woman out of clay, hoping to invoke Aphrodite (Lisa Kudrow) to bring her to life so he can have a date. As exacting and specific about what he wants her to be like physically, he is equally as uninterested in her personality, and just asks that she be “crazy about [him]”. Naturally, things go awry when Galatea (Jennifer Aniston) is clingy, obsessive, possessive to the point of violence with any other girl who so much as says boo to him, and even winds up rigging the election for the king and queen of the dance. When Herc tries to break up with her (by restraining her and dropping her on a remote island), she's completely undeterred and makes her way back to the dance. Long story short, the dance is ruined, the building catches on fire, and because she's made of clay, she winds up hardened into a statue. Realizing his mistake with the helpful prodding of his friends (Cassandra even gets to say the word “sexist” in a Disney cartoon), he asks Aphrodite to give Galatea the ability to be her own person, which is granted; however instead of getting the real date he's hoping for, Herc instead gets the very same break-up speech he'd given her earlier in the episode right before she runs off to find “that hunky Ajax”. All in all, the message there is pretty clear, and I think the episode presents it in a fun and not-too preachy way: women are their own people, not soulless dolls for men to use to satisfy their lust with and project their fantasies onto-- and yes, that means that they might choose to date someone else, no matter how nice a guy you might be. Seems simple, right? Sadly, in the words of Aphrodite, “not everyone gets the lesson.”(may be nsfw)

Other notable examples from the show include:

Hecate (Perri Gilpin), a disgruntled Underworld employee who's sick of getting very little recognition for her work and is trying to unseat Hades much the same way Hades is trying to unseat Zeus-- frankly in some ways she may actually be more qualified to run the Underworld than he is, not the least of which because she actually wants the job. She creates the unique situation of putting Hades in a vulnerable and even sympathetic position at times, while at the same time, the viewer can also sympathize with Hecate's frustration at her lack of respect and power. I wish she'd been around more, she was interesting. Episode to try: The Underworld Takeover

Athena (Jane Leeves), as the patron goddess of Athens shows up more than once, and is always amusing since she's usually smarter than anyone in the room, and usually in a competitive relationship with her twin brother Ares (Jay Thomas). I like her because she can compete with him in physical areas (they were both patrons of war and combat), but not at the expense of knowledge, wisdom, and reason. I also like that she seems to love irritating everyone by being a smarty pants a lot. Episode to try: The Big Games


Artemis (Reba Macentire), as the goddess of the hunt, is only in two episodes or so, but is knee-slappingly funny most of the time. Interestingly, the writers dug out this old myth about Orion, the legendary hunter of constellation fame, and she having an affair of some sort, in contrast to her more typical virgin status. But in typical Reba fashion, Artemis is straight-shootin', down-home wisdom, and prone to raising her voice when someone isn't listening to her. Episode to try: The Boar Hunt

Elektra (Jennifer Tilly), interestingly having nothing to do with her mythical counterpart, this Elektra is a goth/beatnik girl that Herc's interested in. The problem is, she hates guys like him and wants nothing to do with him until he starts trying to adopt her counter-culture lifestyle. Oh yeah, and she summons “furies” (bird-like monsters) when she gets angry for some reason. What's interesting about this is that the episode doesn't seem to come down firmly on one side or the other here; she isn't really vilified for her viewpoints, and Herc doesn't seem to learn much of a lesson beyond 'don't pretend to be someone you're not to fit in'. They butt heads constantly about their life views but neither one wins the other over, and they part still not seeing eye to eye, but it's actually a more realistic ending than everyone magically getting along after seeing the error of their ways. Episode to try: The Complex Elektra

Medusa (Jennifer Love Hewett), in a big nod to The Little Mermaid, is a lonely soul who longs for a connection with someone without turning them to stone. When given the choice between a human makeover that lasts from sunup to sundown in exchange for doing work for Hades, or a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses that keep her look from turning things to stone from Aphrodite, she takes what really does seem like the better deal and goes with Hades. She fits in when she goes to school, has friends, gets the start of a romance with Hercules, but after a serious anxiety attack when she hears Herc talk callously about learning to kill gorgons in his training, she decides to tell him who she is. It's an interesting episode and the only one I can recall offhand that focuses more on the emotional journey of a one-shot character than the protagonists. I remember that one being somewhat controversial in the fanbase when it first aired, since some people found Aphrodite's solution to be too optimistic in the face of overwhelming cultural bias against 'monsters', but there is also something to be said for the basic lesson of not trying to pretend to be someone you aren't just to gain acceptance. It's too bad she was only in one episode, since by the end of it, only Hercules was shown to be accepting of her, and it never says what happened after that. Episode to try: The Gorgon

As noted before, this series isn't available on DVD, nor is it likely to be for at least a very long time, if ever. Fortunately, some episodes are available on at least one popular movie sharing online community, and to the best of my knowledge, it's in reruns on one of the Disney channels, although I think some of the episodes have been edited since their initial airing. It's not a perfect show; the animation's pretty hit or miss, and some episodes are definitely better than others, but I thought overall it was pretty clever, especially if you're familiar with Greek mythology and history already. If not, it's a fun introduction, and it's a great way to play 'spot the celebrity guest voice', too.

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