Modernizing the March Family

Over the past few days, I have begun watching the YouTube series “The March Family Letters”. This is from the same team that did “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Frankenstein, M.D.” (among others). This time they are retelling Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

I’m twenty episodes in (just over half of what has been posted so far) and I’m not actually sure how I feel about it yet. Like the previous adaptations from this group, it’s a modern vlog retelling of the classic novel. Unlike the previous shows, I’m not as convinced by their modern updates to this particular story. I like the series, but it doesn’t feel like Little Women to me.

Since I think Meg has gone through the most change from book to show, I’m going to start with and sort of focus on her. Meg is the oldest sister and perhaps the one I identified most with in the books. She was very well-rounded there. Alcott’s Meg is a responsible woman who is clearly capable of all the things a proper woman did (running a frugal, yet inviting household, caring for a family, coping in a crisis, etc.), but also a young woman able to dream of what she wants and enjoy the little pleasures around her. She clearly feels their poverty in ways the younger sisters don’t and isn’t happy about it, but she still manages to appreciate the ways they are lucky.

The Meg portrayed in “The March Family Letters” is rather different. She is clearly still a highly responsible woman, but at times it’s almost too her detriment in ways I never felt it was in the book. She feels older and almost bitter in some ways and when she talks about girlish pleasures (parties and fashion), it always seems to have a sarcastic quality instead of being genuine pleasure. I like that she is both working towards a career (although I question if any of the March girls would work so hard towards a career she doesn’t actually want) and wanting the family and kids future where she can be a stay-at-home mom. I’m just not so sure I see Meg in this young woman who is paranoid about poverty enough to study something she doesn’t care much about and who seems to not see the point in things that exist only for pleasure.

In the series, John Brooks (Meg’s eventual husband) is transformed in Joan Brooks. I am not sure about this change yet, although I very much like Joan’s character. The problem is that she doesn’t feel that much like John Brooks to me. I’m also not sure what it means for Meg’s future in the story. I love the idea of them having a relationship and getting married and all, but part of Meg’s story was that she was the conventional sister. She led the life she was expected to lead and was happy in it – she was the proof that you could absolutely be happy in that role, which I think was a really important element of the feminist message of Alcott’s book. She clearly shows through Meg that you can be feminist and conventional at the same time – it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. The point is to be able to choose whatever you want, and that means conventional choices are allowed too. So what does this change do for Meg’s conventionality? On the one hand, if done well it could go a long way to giving a normalizing image of a lesbian relationship, but on the other hand it is unconventional in the world we live in today and so the very change in and of itself changes the quality of Meg’s conventionality. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.

Jo is definitely different in the series from in the book. Instead of being a tomboy, she’s a hardcore feminist. I think that Alcott would absolutely have approved of this and it definitely makes sense. The only issue I have with it is that the change (so far, at least) sort of erases Jo’s personal struggles with the very fact that she is unconventional. I found those struggles to be a particularly fascinating part of the book and hope they aren’t gone entirely. There’s presumably a lot of show left, so perhaps we simply haven’t seen it yet.

Beth is still the sweet, quiet, shy girl from the books. Because of this, we don’t see her that much except when she is singing and playing her guitar. For the fiction of the vlog, that makes a lot of sense. I have little idea, however, if the rest of her personality and character are there to be found or not. In the books, she cares for kittens and dolls, is too shy for school and stays entirely at home, and is happy simply surrounded by her family. Elements of this are here, but the character is older and I think that changes some of these things. We don’t see the kittens or dolls and I have no reason to believe so far that she did not go all the way through regular schooling, but we don’t know. I’m also not sure how they’ll handle her later. I think I need to wait and see more of Beth to really have much opinion on her, but I think she’s a particularly interesting challenge for a project like this.

They’ve done a great job with Amy. We’ve seen precious little of her physical vanity, but her flamboyant and artistic nature as well as her inability to compromise have absolutely come out. Overall, she definitely “feels” like a modern Amy. I’ll be interested to see how they handle her character development, but so far I think she’s probably the one who feels the most accurate to me.

Obviously, I fully intend to watch more of this series. I don’t feel like it is as close an adaptation as some of their previous series’ were, but I think that they are doing some really interesting things and I want to see how they end up working out. One of the virtues of the show is definitely that if you don’t know the source material, it is still fully watchable. And for me, the very fact that it does have me thinking so much about the changes and similarities is one of the biggest draws for this kind of project. The analysis itself is one of my favorite parts of the experience.

If you are interested in watching this show or any of their previous adaptations (they’ve so far done Pride and Prejudice, Sanditon (one of Jane Austen’s unfinished works), Emma, Frankenstein, and Little Women), check out Pemberley Digital on YouTube.

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle

If you watch a movie or cartoon or pick up a comic that involves a group of main characters you’re likely to find a mix of people in that group. Some white guys, maybe a black guy or an Asian guy, a girl or two and possibly a pet or sidekick of some kind. The stories involving groups like this vary. They could be solving mysteries or saving their planet or just kicking bad-guy butt. Regardless, one thing is virtually for certain – the girls will all have romance somehow worked into their description or plot.

I call this the Reverse Jane Austen Principle. The name was the result of an attempt to explain this issue to someone asking me questions about comic books. In trying to explain it, I found that the simplest way to phrase what I was saying was this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the entertainment industry that a female character in possession of a name and a ringless left hand must be in want of a boyfriend (and the name is really optional).

The characters aren’t always (or even often) exclusively there to be someone’s romantic interest or to moon over boys, often they have very interesting characters beyond this and frequently they’re interesting, powerful characters in their own right. But that romance thing does seem to always be there, which is not always true for male characters who have equally interesting, powerful character descriptions.

This means that you get things like the Justice League cartoon from a few years back, which had seven main characters, each a powerful hero. Of the seven, there were two who were women. Hawkgirl fell in love with Green Lantern during the course of the show and had a very complicated relationship with him and Wonder Woman got pretty squarely paired up with Batman, although they never did anything about this romance and all indications showed more affection on her side than his anyway. Of the three men remaining, everyone already knows that Superman is already taken by the mostly off-screen Lois Lane, J’on J’onzz is still busy mourning his dead wife (and probably considered too alien for a romance anyway) and Flash is something of a chronic flirt who never has a date. Even when they opened up the League and had more than enough female characters they could have paired those guys up with, they clearly never felt the need to do so. But Hawkgirl had to pine for GL even after he started seeing someone else and Wonder Woman was paired with Batman even though it made no sense for either of their characters.

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle means that Hollywood can’t seem to tell stories about women characters at all without injecting that bit of romance. It’s like they can’t imagine romance not being a fundamental part of any woman’s life, even if it doesn’t have to be so to men. For example, there is a movie coming out soon about a very influential Hawaiian princess who lived near the end of the nineteenth century and fought the annexing of her kingdom by the United States government. It’s called Princess Kaiulani (her name should have an apostrophe in it, but apparently they decided to drop it for some reason). The movie creates a romance for her that never existed and sets it as a major focus of the piece. In fact, the tagline is “her heart was torn between love and the future of Hawaii”. Except that it wasn’t.

I can’t think of a good biopic about a man to compare this to, actually. There are tons of movies about politicians with no injected romance (off the top of my head are All the President’s Men, Nixon and Thirteen Days, but there are tons of them). So why does the girl need romance? Every movie about Queen Elizabeth I that I’ve ever seen focuses more on her supposed romances with her courtiers than it does on her as a political leader (granted her father has the same problem, but he sort of made that bed for himself and now he’s stuck with it). Queen Victoria is the same way. She had a very long reign and a lot happened while she was queen, but the movies about her all seem to focus on her romances (real or imagined).

Comics seem to be just as bad. Unless a girl has green or purple skin (and even then it’s not a guarantee), she’s bound to be wrapped up in some relationship plot within just a couple of issues of her introduction! There was a really entertaining short run comic a few years back called Teen Titans Year One. It told some stories about the original Titans getting together and doing missions, but it sort of set them now instead of when they actually were a newly formed team (Robin IMed Kid Flash about a mission, for example). The original Teen Titans consisted of four boys and a girl – Wonder Girl. The boys all had plots involving their mentors being possessed and struggling with their roles within the group and things like that. What was Wonder Girl’s plot? She had a crush on Speedy and they went on a date at one point. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved this comic. It told a great story in a funny, fresh way. But it totally adhered to the Reverse Jane Austen Principle, too.

There are occasionally exceptions to this principle, but they are extremely rare. Nerd girls can slip through relationship-free every once in a great while, but it’s very, very difficult. Usually they have to at least be pining for someone or aimlessly feeling worthless because they don’t have a guy. One notable nerd girl exception would be Velma from Scooby Doo (she is, however, only an exception if you ignore the movies or consider the characters in them different from the ones in the cartoons). Children can sometimes manage to evade this rule as well, but even they usually get trapped by it. River from Firefly got out of it because of the kid rule (even though she wasn’t actually that young, everyone but the bounty hunter treated her that way). It’s also possible to escape if you’re either the only character or if there are so many girls and so few guys that some girls have to not be paired up. Dora the Explorer, some of the minor characters from She-Ra and Flora from The Winx Club all sneak by this way.

But, sadly, exceptions are rare. For the most part, if a female character is included, she’s going to somehow be tangled in this principle. She might be in a relationship, like Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She might start out single but end up in a relationship, like Leia from Star Wars. She might be done with him, but can’t get disentangled, like Rachel from the recent Batman movies. She might be pining for someone specific, like Elisa from Gargoyles. She might be trying to avoid the whole thing and end up caught in a relationship anyway, like Megara in Hercules. She might be just pining for romance without anyone in particular in mind, like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. And she might be minding her own business and have it thrown at her anyway, like Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet! Regardless, it’s everywhere. Few female characters can escape it.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have amazing characters and fantastic stories that follow the Reverse Jane Austen Principle because you can. Many of the movies, shows and comics I’ve mentioned are great and totally worth watching or reading. That said, I’d really like to see this stop being such a rule. I’d like to see more movies that don’t feel the need to make sure every female character is somehow either connected to a guy or wants to be. Just because she’s not married, doesn’t mean she necessarily has to want to be (or even spend much time thinking about it, because seriously, if my planet was blowing up or something, I wouldn’t stop to bemoan my lack of boyfriend). If Legolas, Buzz Lightyear and Obi-Wan Kenobi don’t need love interests, why do most female characters created by the entertainment industry need one?

Movie: Aladdin

Aladdin PosterDisney’s movie version of the tale of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” from the Arabian Nights stories has become something of a modern classic in animated movies. It is a cinematic masterpiece with sweeping views of a fabulous city plucked directly out of an Arabian fantasy and soaring music that gives an epic feel to what is not a particularly epic story. It is not, however, terribly reminiscent of the original tale. I really like this movie, but not because it in any way resembles the original story (in fact, the changes made to the princess bothered me enormously at first – westernizing her so much seemed just wrong). I think that this is a fun movie and Carpet is just one of the must fun animated characters to watch, but I think this is the perfect example of how Disney takes stories and twists them to be what they want, forever changing how popular culture sees them. Nearly every kid I meet today knows the Disney version of the Aladdin story, but I doubt many of them know the Arabian Nights version. And that’s kind of a shame, even if the movie is awesome.

Television: Sleeping Bassoon

Sleeping BassoonThe Little Einsteins seem to read the oddest versions of fairy tales. This time, Quincy reads them his favorite story – “Sleeping Bassoon”. In the story a princess Bassoon (complete with pointy princess hat) makes everyone happy by playing a happy song, but the grumpy wizard doesn’t want to be happy or see anyone else happy, so he casts a spell to put the princess in a deep sleep. If no one can wake her up before all the purple pebbles fall in an hourglass, she’ll never wake up. None of the instruments in the kingdom seem able to replicate the bassoon’s happy song (the wedding march) to wake her up. The Little Einsteins rush to the rescue, since Quincy can play the song on his trumpet. After much searching, aided by a fish and hampered by the grumpy wizard, they reach the castle and Quincy manages to awaken the princess. Everyone is happy, even the grumpy wizard (go figure).

Although this was a rather interesting telling of the “Sleeping Beauty” story, I actually found it rather unsatisfying. I think part of the problem was that in changing the focus of the story from the princess to the questing rescuers, the writers ended up kind of removing both the impetus for the action in the first place and the repercussions afterwards. Why did the grumpy wizard suddenly become not grumpy at the end? It really didn’t make any sense. The use of the song to wake her up and everyone else trying to play it (in sort of a more genuine version of everyone trying on the glass slipper) was really interesting and well done. I would have liked to know what was special about the song that made it impossible for any other instrument to play (part of the spell, maybe?), but I liked the element of them trying to awaken her.

I find the fluidness of stories really interesting in Little Einsteins. They enter the books they read as easily as they encounter “real” things, which is very much the way children are able to interact with books and stories. It’s like the fairy tales are games to them, rather than books, and that’s perfect. I love how they’ve made that the case and yet haven’t felt the need to explain or qualify it at all. It just is. This is definitely an interesting series!

Television: Little Red Rocket Hood

Little Red Rocket HoodThis episode of “Little Einsteins” made me laugh a lot, and not just because it completely baffled Michael. It tells about how Rocket is taking Rocket Soup to his sick Grandma Rocket through the woods when Big Jet steals it. The Little Einsteins give chase and eventually get the soup back, only to have a classic wolf-disguised-as-grandma conversation with Big Jet at Grandma Rocket’s house. The whole thing made very little logical sense, but was incredibly cute and very funny. It was actually a pretty straightforward telling of the “Little Red Riding Hood” story, although never acknowledged as such except for in the title. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Big Jet was disguised as Grandma Rocket and they went through the comments about physical features (“what a big nose you have!”, “what big wings you have!”, “what big jets you have!”).

Michael pointed out that almost none of this episode made sense. Rockets really shouldn’t have grandmas. And they really shouldn’t drink soup. And soup really shouldn’t play music. And rockets don’t really get sick. And conducting crescendos really shouldn’t make tunnels bigger (and why exactly the rocket couldn’t just fly over the tunnel in the first place was extremely unclear). I kind of enjoyed the complete nonsense of the world and the fun it brought to the story, but I can also see how it could be extremely distracting and even frustrating for many people. I kind of wonder how many parents watching this show with their kids get irritated with those aspects of it? Regardless, it is what it is and I think they’ve done a pretty good job of telling this story.

Television: Minnie Red Riding Hood

Minnie Red Riding HoodThis is a loose retelling of the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. Goofy is sick, so Mickey and Minnie make Minniestrone soup to help him feel better. They must carry it to him in a picnic basket. Part way there they run into Pete who smells the soup and wants it. First he begs for it, then he tries to pretend he’s sick, but they don’t believe him. When neither of these tactics work, he tries to sneak up on them and steal it. This backfires and they get it back fairly easily while Pete ends up in a mud puddle. Pete continues to try and confuse the group (which grows as Daisy and Donald join with their offerings for Goofy), but problem solving gets them through every situation. Finally he simply chases them, but they escape to Goofy’s tent on roller skates. Once they arrive at the tent, Pete disguises himself as a sick old woman and tries to fool them again, but this again fails. He does eventually get some soup, but not until he gets sick himself.

The plot of this episode is really well done. It follows the structure of the original story excellently, but gives a whole new spin on it that fits well with the Disney characters and this show in particular. Some parts did come off as odd, however. Minnie randomly wears a red hooded cape throughout the episode, which we have never seen before (and, as far as I know, never see again). No comment is ever made about this unusual addition to her wardrobe, which otherwise never varies. I was also a little annoyed that Minnie needed Mickey along throughout the whole thing. This wasn’t exactly a difficult adventure that required two people and it has not previously been typical of this show for characters to need companions to do anything (Mickey does things on his own all the time, as does Donald). So why did Minnie need help? She could have made and delivered her soup just as easily without Mickey along. He’s in charge of every situation he’s in, so it really felt like her contribution to the whole thing was minimized, which is frustrating when she’s effectively doing the whole thing. But this show is rarely forward thinking in gender portrayals (example: the characters’ footwear), so I’m not particularly surprised either.

I liked this episode, but I’d really like to see the girls on this show get to DO something for once and this episode in particular really highlighted the fact that they don’t ever get to.

Television: Brothers and Sisters to the Rescue!

Brothers and Sisters to the Rescue!This episode of Little Einsteins* was all about Hansel and Gretel. The classic fairy tale siblings wander out into the woods and get trapped in a gingerbread house by a witch. Unable to save themselves, the Little Einsteins rush to the rescue. The witch continually block their path, but the foursome is able to solve each puzzle and eventually make it to the gingerbread house where Leo, the group’s clear leader, defeats the witch with help from the viewing audience. Hansel and Gretel are saved and everyone goes home.

There are obviously a lot of changes to the story in this version. The parents abandoning the children in the woods is completely cut out, probably because the fates of Hansel and Gretel are actually fairly unimportant to this tale. Hansel and Gretel themselves are also portrayed as completely helpless. They need to leave a trail for themselves every day to be able to get back home and when the witch traps them all they seem to do is sit and wait to be rescued. First of all, it’s the same trail every day and they still need to drop something to lead them home? Seriously? And as for being trapped by the witch, did it not occur to them that she trapped them in a house made of food? They could eat their way out, or at least pull apart the gingerbread walls and make a new doorway for themselves! But no, they just whine and wait to be rescued. Quite a change from the fairy tale characters who roast the witch!

I find this show rather interesting, but it does kind of bother me that the gender images, and to a lesser extent the racial ones, are pretty heavily following stereotypes here. The girls’ obvious talents are ballet and singing, respectively, while the boys are more obviously the brainy types. The white boy is the obvious leader while the black boy, Asian girl and white girl adoringly follow along with everything he suggests (even the rocket does whatever he wants!). There’s nothing saying every show needs to break image rules for gender or race, but I’d love to have seen something surprise me here. Anything.

* Little Einsteins is a television show and not the same as “Baby Einsteins”, the line of DVDs and books that promise to make babies smarter but probably don’t do anything of the kind (Michael requested that I clarify this, since it can be a little confusing).

Movie: Miss Potter

Miss Potter PosterMiss Potter was a moderately recent biopic of Beatrix Potter that focused on the time surrounding the publication of her first few books and the romance with the publisher of those books. This was very much a “chick flick” (although, as my father was quick to point out, not the type of chick flick that is date fare). It was slow moving and focused entirely on the interpersonal relations between Beatrix Potter and the people around her. The romance was rather uninteresting, actually, with no real build-up or surprises or even tension. What made the movie was the tension between Beatrix and her mother and the friendship between her and her publisher’s sister. For no apparent reason, Beatrix’s brother was completely absent from the film except for a few flashbacks showing him as a child. I really wondered why he wasn’t at the Christmas party.

The retellings of Potter’s stories were a little over-cute, but they didn’t cut out parts I had expected (Peter’s father having been made into a pie by Mrs McGregor, Jemima being in very real danger, etc.). Instead, they left those parts in the stories, but whitewashed Potter’s childhood. We saw her as a little girl with numerous animal “friends”, which she reportedly was, who got disgusted by her brother pinning bugs to a board, which she definitely would not have been. The fact that those cute, cuddly friends sometimes found themselves being dissected by the young artist and her scientist brother never got mentioned. The drawings themselves were also animated to move and Potter reacted as if she saw them do so each time, when clearly no one else did. This was cute and very much in keeping with Hollywood’s idea of a “charming young lady children’s book author”, but somehow I get the feeling that if Beatrix Potter Heelis was around today she’d be very much annoyed by it. She was not that type of woman, by all the reports I’ve read. Maybe she had changed by the time those were written (most came from later in her life, after she’d mostly stopped writing for farming), but it seemed far too much a Hollywood convention to me. Why must Hollywood make the world of children’s books and those who create them so “precious” (almost to the point of nausea sometimes)? Why can’t the people who write books for children just be adults like everybody else? Is that really so much to ask?

I did enjoy the movie, but obviously it brought up a few issues! I would recommend it, just don’t take it to be necessarily a very accurate picture of Beatrix Potter. Not that any biopic is really that accurate, I suppose. But it was a fun little romance, even with the bittersweet ending.

Television: Sleeping Minnie

Sleeping Minnie“Sleeping Minnie” is an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in which Minnie picks a sleeping rose and falls asleep. She will sleep for one hundred years if Mickey doesn’t retrieve a magical golden harp that can wake her up. As Mickey quests to find the harp and bring it back to the clubhouse garden, where Minnie is asleep, he is constantly reminded of the importance of his quest by a little song sung by Clarabelle. The cow, who is sort of the cause of the whole mess in the first place, stayed behind. Mickey is never long without companions, though, and meets Donald and Goofy along the way who gladly join his quest and the three of them overcome all obstacles together.

The episode started with Clarabelle coming into the clubhouse and telling Mickey that she had been planting “sleeping roses” in the garden when Minnie picked one. “Sleeping roses”, she explains, will put whomever picks them to sleep for one hundred years. My reaction to this was to wonder what kind of moron plants “sleeping roses” in their garden, especially without neon signs warning passersby not to pick them! But Clarabelle’s idiocy in this matter aside, I quickly started to wonder why she couldn’t go after the harp herself. Why did the boys have to do it? It’s not like there was anything particularly perilous or anything about the quest that she might be wanting to pawn off on them out of fear. It really seemed like it was just a matter of the expectation being that boys go on quests when these things happen and girls wait at home for it to be all better (assuming they aren’t the one under the spell in the first place, but I would have been extremely surprised to have seen Mickey put in such nebulous danger). This didn’t make me especially happy, as you may imagine. The way the writers reworked the fairy tale was innovative and interesting – no villain, no romance, just a spell and a quest – but it felt very unfair. The girls definitely got the short end of this stick.

Movie: Ever After

Ever After PosterThis is a retelling of the Cinderella story with a 16th century French setting. Danielle (Cinderella) is made to work as a servant in her own household by her stepmother and stepsisters, but takes solace in the books of philosophy and science that her father left her. Prince Henry, the heir to the French throne, is unhappy with his “gilded cage” and habitually runs away. One of the times he runs away, he meets Danielle on her family’s estate (as he is stealing a horse). He clearly doesn’t pay that much attention to her, but when they encounter later and she is pretending to be a fine lady in order to save a servant who was sold away, he definitely notices her as she lectures him. He consistently pursues her until she eventually falls in love with him. All the time, both of them are dodging the stepmother and her daughter (who is trying to win the prince). The problem here is that Danielle gives Henry a false name when she’s pretending to be a fine lady and must thereafter continue the charade whenever they meet. This, of course, causes many problems. But it’s a fairy tale, so all things work out in the end.

I liked that this movie told the story completely without the use of any magic or exaggeration on the part of the characters. The stepmother and stepsister were horrible people, but also totally believable people. There was nothing about their cruelty that I couldn’t believe. The same went for pretty much the whole cast of characters. They had strengths and flaws every one, no one was completely without blemish (even Danielle and Henry) and no one was without something that made them understandable and pitiable (even if they were still pretty despicable). I also loved that the strongest characters in the movie were the women. Danielle was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and clearly a smart woman. She even rescues herself near the end just as the prince rides up on his noble stead to rescue her. The stepmother and stepsister were willful and cunning in many ways, even if it was clear from the outset that they were doomed to failure. Their strength made them all the more frightening. The queen of France was also far more interesting and appeared more observant and competent than her husband (or her son). It was clear that she was not simply there as a royal social director, she obviously had a real hand in what was going on. That’s an awesome thing to see in a fairy tale and a movie with a historical setting!

I really like this movie. It’s one of my favorite full-length fairy tale retelling movies. I think they did a great job with every aspect of it – the writing, the acting, the sets and especially the costumes (I want a dress like Danielle’s ballgown some day!). I am perfectly happy with the romanticised story and the way everything turns out happily ever after (which are sometimes criticized about this movie) because it’s a fairy tale! That’s the way it’s supposed to be! I’d be annoyed if the bad guys didn’t get punished, but they did, and it was a great realistic punishment! I love this movie and highly recommend it!

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