Monstrous Liberty: Wolfwalkers and Turning Red

Part II: Turning Red

Wolfwalkers might best be described as historical fantasy, as it’s set in mid-17th century Ireland and features an actual figure from history as its villain, “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell. Yet when the scene shifts from Kilkenny to the forest, it takes a turn toward the mythic, something that might exist beyond the bounds of time. In short, this movie hits my sweet spot precisely. It’s one of those movies that seems to have been designed specifically to appeal to me. So the minute it became available to watch on AppleTV, my husband and I watched it.

By contrast, Pixar’s latest feature, Turning Red, had been streaming on Disney+ for over a month before we finally decided to view it. This one falls under urban fantasy, not my favorite subgenre. Previously, Pixar had been getting past my dislike of contemporary or close-to-contemporary settings by featuring nonhuman characters, and I wasn’t sure I could fall in love with a human-centered fantasy tale set in the year 2002. Criticisms of the movie as “unrelatable” due to its nonwhite girl protagonist and Toronto place setting won my support, but what finally got me to sit down in front of the television for it was seeing a clip of protagonist Meilin Lee playing the flute like an absolute boss. Girls playing instruments is an instant sell for me, and the flute happens to have been my own instrument back when I played with my middle-school band and aspired to musical greatness. This told me right away that Mei, despite short-sighted reviewers’ calling her “unrelatable” and even (gasp) “unlikable” would be a girl after my own heart. That instinct proved correct.

The most common “I’m not a misogynist, but–” criticisms I’ve heard leveled against the film were Mei’s obnoxiousness (the word “cringe” has been thrown around a lot) and the supposedly “bean-mouth” art style. Those who carped on these grounds clearly have different standards from mine. The first word that comes to my mind when I think of Turning Red is adorable. Mei, striding down the sidewalk towards the bus stop with her backpack strapped to her shoulders and her flute clutched tightly in her fist, exuding youthful confidence with every step, pausing to turn a spontaneous cartwheel without bothering to remove her backpack, is by far the most button-cute animated heroine I’ve seen besides Wolfwalkers‘ Mebh. The stickers on the flute, especially the one proclaiming “This Girl Loves Math,” complete the picture of a funny, whip-smart girl who doesn’t know she has rough seas ahead of her. I wanted to hug her and pray for her and maybe offer a word or two of assurance as someone who has been right where she was. (My own flute sticker would have read “This Girl Loves Theatre,” with the “re” spelling we theater nerds — excuse me, theatre nerds — tend to prefer.)

In Turning Red, as in Wolfwalkers, growing up comes with a transmogrification, but whereas Robyn’s wolf form is a fairly unambiguous symbol of freedom from the get-go, Mei’s red panda form is a metaphor for what feminist poet Marge Piercy calls “the magic of puberty” (not menstruation, as some have claimed), a time of swift, confusing, and frightening changes. Robyn, after an initial stab of fear, comes to appreciate her wolf form quickly, thanks to guidance from Mebh. For Mei, however, the red panda is a curse to be controlled and then banished, and her arc centers on her coming to terms with it and deciding what it means to her. The panda is Change itself, the beast all of us must confront when we grow up, and it’s fitting that it emerges in moments of intense emotion. First, Mei must figure out how to control it. Then, she can own it. Once she has come to see it as a valuable part of herself, she flies across the rooftops of Toronto, shifting joyously from one form to the other, in a sequence reminiscent of Robyn’s first run through the forest in her wolf shape. All that’s missing is a beautiful song on the soundtrack.

The core difference between Wolfwalkers and Turning Red is the absence in the latter film of a clear and hate-worthy villain, a “Lord Protector” who embodies the oppressive constraints the monster heroine is pushing against. A film like Wolfwalkers, part history and part myth, benefits from the presence of an identifiable villain, one with too much unshakable faith in his own righteousness to be within reach of redemption. But Turning Red, like Encanto before it, represents Disney-Pixar’s move away from traditional hero/villain narratives and towards stories in which flawed but basically decent people with good intentions come into conflict, and pure evil is less a threat than our own unwillingness to listen to each other. Ming, Mei’s mother, loves her daughter deeply and would never consciously hurt her, but she has her own firmly fixed idea of who Mei is and will become (“Today, honor student; tomorrow, UN Secretary-General!”), and she closes her ears to anything that might challenge this idea. Mei is pushing toward freedom, not from institutionalized misogyny but from the image her mother has shaped of her, which may or may not reflect who she really is. Mei’s eventual choice of what to do about her red panda is an assertion of self-determination.

Yet a core similarity between the films, which sets them both apart from Margaret Atwood’s melancholy “Lusus Naturae,” is that the heroines’ monstrous sides don’t isolate them from others. Before becoming a wolfwalker, Robyn is alone except for her father, despised and mocked by the other children in Kilkenny; her wolf side leads her to a friend, a peer, and a place where she can belong without sacrificing her true self. Mei has a strong circle of friends at the outset of her story, and their choice to stick close to her after they discover her in panda form gives her the power to calm the turmoil that sparks the transformation. Friendship is central to, and is celebrated in, both narratives — something we see entirely too rarely in animated features that star female protagonists.

In my ongoing struggle to understand why I don’t share pop culture’s enthusiasm for female villains, I keep coming back to one point: no matter how powerful they might be, they almost always lose. And as things go from bad to worse for women in the real world, I need more and more to see girls winning. When misogyny makes the news, I can find some glimmer of comfort in the image of two beautiful wolves racing side by side through a mystical forest and an adorable red panda soaring through the night sky, enjoying their monstrous liberty. Most of all, I can find joy and hope in knowing that generations of young people now have these stories to grow up with.

(I do have one word to say to Mei: I know that you’re figuring out who you are, and at thirteen you’re still young enough to explore a myriad of passions before you settle on a path — but please, whatever you do, don’t give up your flute. You’ll regret it if you do. I know. I’ve been there.)

Monstrous Liberty: Wolfwalkers and Turning Red

Part 1: Wolfwalkers

In my daily prayers I habitually give thanks for the different kinds of stories in my life: those I read, those I write, those I watch, and those I teach.

One short story I’ve begun to include in my Freshman Composition II class is Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae.” As someone with an affinity for tales of monster heroines, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a narrator who suffers from a condition that gives her the characteristics of a vampire/werewolf hybrid. The story opens with her looking on and listening as her family discusses her as a problem in need of a solution, but when they finally decide to hold a fake funeral for her so they can rejoin society while she remains in seclusion, she discovers she actually likes the change: “Now that I was dead, I was freer.” Without social constraints, the titular “lusus naturae” (freak of nature) thrives and can shape her environment to suit her needs and desires. Her story at this point reminds me why I’m so drawn to the female monster; when “normal” society limits women to a narrow field of roles and acceptable behaviors, monster heroines can leap over the fences.

Yet in most monster narratives, society and its rules emerge triumphant, and Atwood’s story has her heroine give into her human nature — the longing for kinship endemic to the social animal — and step outside the isolation that has kept her safe and free. Observing a couple in the throes of sexual excitement, she mistakes them for “beings like myself” and later touches the man, who predictably reacts in horror. At the story’s close, she awaits the approach of an angry mob that includes her “normal” older sister, and contemplates the possibility of an afterlife where she is the norm: “Perhaps the angels will look like me. What a surprise that will be for everyone else!”

The mob marching on the lusus naturae’s habitat intent on doing away with her evokes images of such mobs striding down the streets of Universal Studios’ backlot in their iconic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. It reminds us that despite the ambiguous conclusion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which literature’s most famous monster exiles himself to the arctic wilds, traditional stories generally end in death for the monster. Frankenstein’s monster may achieve a Pyrrhic victory in the novel, but in the classic film adaptations he’s repeatedly disposed of (by fire, by explosion, by sulfur pit, etc.). Blood-hungry Dracula, lovelorn Imhotep, anarchic invisible Jack Griffin, and wolf-men Wilfred Glendon and Laurence Talbot all meet untimely ends, and thus the chaos they represent is neutralized and the status quo maintained. Where Atwood’s lusus naturae differs isn’t so much that she is painted sympathetically — after all, both wild, woeful Laurence Talbot and Frankenstein’s monster as played by Boris Karloff earn quite a bit of audience sympathy as they journey toward their predestined ends — as that she is female, and therefore even further outside the lines society draws.

Recent decades have seen writers of genre fiction move away from the traditional model, to expand the monster’s possible fates beyond permanent exile or death. In the realm of fantasy fiction, vampires, werewolves, and even zombies can be romantic interests, knights in cobwebbed armor who shamble to the rescue of innumerable generic high school girls. Dragons can be heroic warriors and the allies of human soldiers. But there is still one thing the sympathetic monster must nearly always be: male. Female monsters, 95% of the time, are painted as evil, a problem that can only be solved by slaying. In the majority of monster tales, as in the majority of superhero tales, girls and women still represent normalcy, the comfortable ordinariness for which male monsters (and male superheroes) presumably yearn. Beauty tames the Beast. All well and good; I enjoy a well-told Beauty-and-the-Beast tale. But my heart still yearns after the monster heroine, the female Chaotic Good, and I write her because she is so hard to find.

So when I do stumble onto exceptions to the general rule, I treasure them. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two animated films in which young heroines find a kind of freedom in monsterhood, but unlike the lusus naturae, they lose neither their liberty nor their lives: Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers (2020) and Pixar’s Turning Red (2022).

In its opening sequence, Wolfwalkers presents us with a different take on the werewolf than we’re used to seeing. Not driven to kill, the wolfwalkers — humans by day, then wolves by night as their human bodies sleep — are protectors of the ancient forest near Kilkenny circa 1650, and all the creatures who live there, especially the pack of ordinary wolves with whom they are spiritually linked. They’re dangerous to humans only so far as humans threaten the forest. The first scene shows the wolf pack attack a pair of woodcutters before they can fell a tree. Yet when one of them is injured, the wolfwalkers, Moll and her young daughter Mebh, emerge from the rear of the pack to heal him with their magic. He returns to Kilkenny a wiser man. Yet the town is locked in a state of fearful ignorance that will take more than one simple healing to cure. The people there view the wolves as evil creatures to be destroyed — none more so than Robyn Goodfellowe, daughter of a soldier under orders to hunt the wolves to extinction.

Robyn, in her first appearance, fires a crossbow at an image of a wolf tacked to the wall, yet she nonetheless wins sympathy pretty quickly. We’re touched by her warm relationship with her father, Bill, and we can identify with her chafing against the boundaries prescribed by her age and gender. She hates being stuck behind the town’s walls and wants nothing more than to hunt alongside her father in the forest. What she wants most is freedom. All her instincts tell her that she belongs to the forest, not to the town. Once Robyn, sneaking into the forest against her father’s orders, learns the truth about the wolves and wolfwalkers for herself, she discards her old prejudices and bonds with the young wolfwalker girl, Mebh. She represents the hope that humans can learn better, that understanding might triumph over ignorance. But bigotry — here taking the form of the evil Lord Protector, whose orders Bill is bound to follow — isn’t going down without a fight.

Her friendship with Mebh gives Robyn a taste of the freedom she’s been craving, a look at life beyond the rigid confines of the town. Yet in an initial scuffle, Mebh nips her, and though she heals the wound, it proves too late to prevent the spell from taking effect: when night comes, Robyn learns she has become a wolfwalker herself, and in her newly minted wolf form she barely manages to escape from town with her life. She has become lusus naturae, something not merely unwilling but unable to fit within Kilkenny’s social mores. Understandably terrified, she bolts into the forest to find Mebh, and in perhaps the film’s most beautiful and stirring sequence, Mebh teaches her the advantages her wolf form gives her. Freedom is Robyn’s at last, as long as she runs with the wolves.

“Being a wolf is way better,” Mebh tells Robyn, and the film’s very color scheme — lush greens and blues and earthy browns for the forest and dull, flat grays for the town — makes us feel the truth of this and root for Robyn’s ultimate escape from stifling civilization. As a human, she must abide by the Lord Protector’s notions of what is “appropriate” for girls, which means working in a scullery and remaining meek, quiet, and subservient. (“I already am in a cage!” she cries when her father warns her of what might happen if she remains defiant.) As a wolf, she can run and leap and, with her heightened senses, experience the world as she’s never known it before. She also has something Atwood’s lusus naturae never finds: a friend, a being like herself. Robyn’s flight from civilization takes her not into isolated exile, but into a new and more nurturing community.

How she manages this, and how the final battle between understanding and bigotry plays out, I won’t Spoil in further detail. Please, if you haven’t seen it, seek it out and discover it for yourself.

American Animation Has a Girl Problem

I have yet to watch Pixar’s Turning Red, though it’s near the top of my To-Watch list. (I still have to stream some of this year’s Oscar nominees.) Oddly enough, however, for a movie intended as a fun and quirky family film, it’s become the eye of a hurricane of controversy. I feel moved to address that controversy, even though I can’t yet offer an opinion on the quality of the film itself. People either love or hate it, and it’s been derided for being, among other things, “niche” and “unrelatable.”

It would seem my old enemy the double standard has bobbed to the surface again: the movie centers on a girl — an Asian-Canadian girl, no less — and as such, no boy or man should be expected to enjoy the movie or engage emotionally with its heroine. A girl-centered movie caters exclusively to a girl audience, while a boy-centered movie is supposedly something everyone can relate to. Almost every family film with a female lead that does well at the box office is dismissed as a fluke, or else attributed to some clever marketing trick (e.g. changing the title of Rapunzel to Tangled, centering the ads for Frozen around Olaf the snowman, casting the hugely popular Dwayne Johnson to voice Maui in Moana), as if boys have to be tricked into watching a movie about (eew!) girls. Yet somehow, when boy-driven films like The Boss Baby, The Adventures of Tintin, or Ron’s Gone Wrong are released, nobody worries about whether girl audiences will connect with a narrative that either sidelines them or omits them altogether. We just accept that they’ll identify with the boys on screen, because boys can represent Humanity with a capital H whereas girls apparently cannot. This double standard, which has been in play ever since I was old enough to follow a movie, now annoys me to the point that I won’t watch family films with boy leads as my own little futile rebellion against it. I haven’t even watched Pixar’s acclaimed and beloved Coco; though everyone says I’m missing out, that 2017 Best Animated Feature winner is doing just fine without my support.

2017, the year that gave us both Coco and The Boss Baby, offers a good illustration of Hollywood’s dedication to the double standard. It’s all in the numbers. American studios released thirty-two animated features that year. Of these, six had female leads. Two of those six starred Barbie. Another was My Little Pony: The Movie. I suppose you might count Smurfs: The Lost Village, which finds Smurfette at least trying to find an identity beyond “the girl”; too bad she fails at everything she tries. Movies like this can get away with having female leads because they have a recognizable brand (Barbie, My Little Pony, Smurfs). But for a girl-centered animated film of quality and originality, you’d have to look outside the US — say, across the sea to Ireland, and Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner.

Five years have passed since then. A cursory glance at 2021 suggests that matters might have improved, at least in terms of quality. Three out of the five nominees for Oscar’s Best Animated Feature feature female protagonists, and at least one of them, Encanto, has enjoyed enormous popular success. But the numbers tell a different story. Seven American animated films released last year had female protagonists, just one more than we saw in 2017. The total number of releases? Forty.

What does this year look like? American animation studios plan to release a total of thirty-six movies this year. How many feature a female lead that isn’t part of an ensemble? Three, including Turning Red. I have no doubt that Uzo Adoba’s character in Lightyear will be awesome, but she’s not the title character, not the person that the film’s young target audience and their parents will be going to theaters or turning on their home theater systems to see. That’s par for the course in most American animated movies: female characters may be cool and fun — they may even be breakout characters — but they’re supporting players in narratives driven by male protagonists. And yet people still complain, “Disney never makes movies with male leads; won’t someone think about the boys?”

Short answer: everyone is thinking about the boys. They’re the ones being raised and socialized to admire and identify with lead characters of their gender only. Girls can admire and identify with male leads just fine; if you consider the numbers, they don’t have much of a choice, unless they truly want to imagine themselves as supporting players in someone else’s story. The numbers condition them, and all of us really, to see boys’ stories as normal, while girls’ stories are a deviation.

If there were more of a balance between male-driven and female-driven stories in American animation, would Turning Red be getting the same level of scrutiny? Are we looking harder at it because, as one of three girl-centric animated features coming out this year, a lot more is riding on its shoulders?

Turning Red has another problem, one that hasn’t heretofore gotten much scrutiny. It’s shocking audiences because it depicts a type of character rarely seen in American animated film: a tween girl.

A look at lists of “best animated movies with female lead characters” reveals the problem. We see Joy (Inside Out), Mulan, Pocahontas, Merida (Brave), Snow White, Moana, Elsa, Rapunzel, Belle, Anastasia, Esmeralda. These characters, with the exception of the nonhuman Joy, are all heroines of what would be called in mythic times “marriageable age.” They are young women, not girl-children. Alice (Alice in Wonderland) and Lilo (Lilo and Stitch) are the token representatives of female childhood on the lists — from American films, at least, as Japan’s Studio Ghibli and Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon don’t have the same issue. The child heroines we do see — Alice, Lilo, Coraline — are so few and far between as to seem anomalous.

Rachel Shukert, showrunner for the recently canceled Netflix series The Babysitters Club, explains the problem thus: “girls are expected to go straight from Doc McStuffins to Euphoria.” Girl characters of the same age as most animated films’ target audience (between 9 and 13) are all but invisible, and to understand why Hollywood seems afraid to tell their stories, we need only look at the outrage over the depiction of the onset of puberty in Turning Red.

Yet somehow, the absence of child heroines from American animated features has gone almost without comment. Pixar’s Brave was heralded as the studio’s first feature with a female protagonist, but the plot revolves around a 17 to 18 year old princess’s determination not to be married off. Inside Out arrived a few years later, with a young girl character near its center, but while preteen athlete Riley does offer a welcome presence within the yawning representation gap, the real stars of the film are Joy and Sadness, nonhumans voiced by and framed as adults. Disney has lately been praised for omitting romance plots from its female-driven films Zootopia, Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Encanto, but while it’s nice to see female protagonists’ stories not revolve around finding a man, it would be nicer still to see a few more female protagonists of an age at which marriage and romance aren’t even serious issues. Centering so many narratives around young women rather than girl-children may imply that girls only become important once they’re old enough to be interested in, and interesting to, men.

Turning Red might have been a step in the right direction, but given all the backlash, I’m much afraid Hollywood will decide that making movies that feature girls just entering puberty isn’t worth the risk, and Disney will continue to play it safe with stories of marriageable young women, whether they fall in love or not. It saddens me to say I don’t see American animation’s girl problem going away anytime soon.

Maus, Persepolis, and the Power of Imperfection

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that when I initially tried to read Art Spiegelman’s prize-winning and now best-selling graphic novel Maus, it didn’t land with me. Now, having taught the work to a small group of students, I understand where I went wrong. I went to it looking for the wrong things. If you go to it in search of admirable characters who are thrown into and subsequently purified by desperate situations, you will probably disappointed, as I was, and set the book aside after the first forty pages or so. That is not what Spiegelman is giving us.

What I needed to accept to gain the proper appreciation for the work is that it is, first and foremost, about a son seeking to understand his difficult father by writing down his father’s story of surviving the horrors of the Holocaust — and, in doing so, heal the breach between them. It’s not a tale of reluctant heroes, or of heroes at all. The character at the center of the story, Vladek Spiegelman, is a messy, even downright unlovable human being. In the very first chapter, we see him as a womanizing bachelor nicknamed “the Sheikh” due to his good looks. He strings along a young woman for three to four years without any intention of marrying her, only to dump her unceremoniously when he meets the woman he will make his wife. He asks his interlocutor, his son Art, not to include this story in his book. Art includes it anyway. He isn’t interested in propping up his father as a figure to be admired. If anything, we come away from the book as baffled by Vladek as he is, trying along with him to figure out the mystery of the man.

Vladek is too complicated for us to feel only one way about. On the one hand, he clearly loves his wife, Anja. When she suffers a serious bout of post-partum depression after the birth of their first son, Richieu, he doesn’t hesitate to get her the help she needs. He stays at her side in sickness and in health, at one point talking her back from the point of suicide with the magic of a simple phrase: “I need you.” On the other hand, we see how controlling he sometimes is in his interactions with her. His need to control the narrative is so paramount that after she has succumbed to depression and killed herself, he destroys the journals she kept, journals his son is desperate to see. He has effectively silenced her, and this act prompts his son to condemn him with the very last word of Maus I: My Father Bleeds History — “Murderer.”

Just who is Vladek Spiegelman — murderer? Sheikh? Loving husband? Distant father? The only word I can find for him is human, despite the mouse’s head he wears. Art Spiegelman noted in a 1991 interview that he drew his characters not as anthromorphized animals but as humans wearing animal heads, perhaps to highlight our universal tendency to regard people who differ from us by race, religion, and/or ethnicity as members of a different species from ourselves. Nazi propagandists were fond of comparing Jews to rats, and the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate them shows that idea taken to its “logical extreme.” Yet the figure at the center of Art Spiegelman’s narrative is so thoroughly human, with all the good and bad that implies, that it drives home the horror of all the efforts to reduce him and others like him to a subhuman level. Were he some saintly, too-good-for-this-sinful-earth figure, his story would lose its power.

I’m glad I gave myself another crack at Maus I. Now I’m moving on to Part II.

Also on my syllabus for the same course: Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel autobiography Persepolis, another work with a deeply flawed, undeniably human protagonist. This one did land with me the first time I read it. For one thing, I’d seen and liked the film first, so I had a pretty good idea what I was getting. (Spiegelman has stated in interviews that he is determined never to see Maus adapted to film.) Also, the history its first part covers, the overthrow of the Shah of the Iran and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Islamic Republic, was the first big event in international news to capture my attention when I was a child. Satrapi and I are contemporaries. Right away I was primed to relate to her story.

Looking at the two graphic novels with my “teacher’s eye,” I suspect Persepolis is designed to be easier to engage with emotionally, while Maus is more interested in making its readers think. The child-self, “Marji,” to whom Satrapi introduces us in the book’s first half is one of the most beautifully realized girl-children I’ve had the pleasure of reading about, a masterful combination of charm, humor, and terror, making mistakes as children will but making them so adorably that we can’t help rooting for her and then later fearing for her and her family as their world grows steadily darker. Her first big step toward adulthood is poignantly depicted in her bond with her uncle Anoosh, a political dissident, and her grief and anger when he is executed. At the book’s very beginning, Marji aspires to be a prophet — an ambition that results in her mother and father being called in to a parent-teacher conference — and has lengthy conversations with God before settling down to sleep. After Anoosh’s death, she angrily kicks God out of her room, declaring she wants nothing more to do with him. It’s impossible to read this scene without feeling your heart break just a little for her.

Yet Marji, like Vladek, is a complicated human being, as becomes more and more apparent as she heads down the rocky road of adolescence and makes mistake after mistake along the way. At age 14, she’s sent to Vienna in the hope she’ll be safer, only to find herself abandoned by her relatives there. Over the next several pages, we see her make friends only to lose them one after the other and fall in love only to have her heart broken, until at last she finds herself so utterly alone that she returns to Iran, hoping to take refuge in the love of her parents and (awesome) grandmother. But just as her departure for the West fails to bring her the security and freedom she’d hoped, the return home likewise proves disappointing, for she finds herself “a Westerner in Iran and an Iranian in the West,” and she becomes trapped on a roller coaster of depression that Satrapi depicts with disturbing and at times frustrating frankness. We see her get worse, get better, get worse, get better, and then get worse again, culminating in a suicide attempt that she miraculously survives.

The pivotal moment near the book’s end comes when Marjane, now in her early twenties, ventures close to what TV Tropes calls the “moral event horizon, a point of no return beyond which redemption is impossible. She goes out to meet her boyfriend wearing cosmetics forbidden by Iranian law. When she captures the attention of the police, she deflects it by pointing to a man sitting nearby and telling them he spoke indecently to her. As they turn on the man and place him under arrest, she escapes. While she does wonder what will become of him, only when her grandmother rebukes her (yelling at her, as she says, for the first time in her life), does she feel the full weight of shame. This confrontation with the darkness in her own soul moves her to become a better person, to understand who she is and who she might become, and to strengthen her own ethical code. She reclaims her self-esteem and sense of purpose when she challenges a religious speaker at the university she attends, pointing out the massive double standard applied to women and men. As through all her mistakes we’ve never stopped rooting for her, we enjoy a cathartic sense of pride.

March is Women’s History Month. Persepolis, which I appreciated even more upon my second reading, would be an excellent book with which to honor the time.

Why We Need Stories about Racism

We haven’t achieved a color-blind society, even after many decades of progress. Whether we like it or not, race still plays a role in how others perceive us, how we perceive others, and how we perceive ourselves. So it behooves all of us to confront a key question: What will we choose to do about it?

Even as I write that last sentence, I know it’s easy for a white woman to say.

When I was young, my first exposure to fictional portrayals of racial injustice came in the form of the sham trial of Tom Robinson, the African-American man accused of raping impoverished incest victim Mayella Ewell in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird — first the movie, then the book. I knew even at the tender age of ten that Robinson’s only “crime” was being the first and only person of any race to show Mayella kindness, and felt the fire of outrage in my belly when he ended up paying for that “crime” with his life. To this day, each time I watch the 1962 film, I hold out a vain spark of hope that this time the jury will return the right verdict.

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, both book and movie. I admire Lee’s evocative prose. I adore its narrator, the tomboyish Scout Finch, the first fictional heroine I imprinted on in my youth. But as this book, commonly taught in middle and high schools, has met with disapproval from both conservative parents, who don’t like Scout’s use of profanity (“pass the damn ham, please,” a line I always wish the movie could have gotten away with including), and liberal parents, who dislike the copious use of the “n word” and the portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch as a “White Savior,” who defends the unjustly accused Robinson yet reacts to the racists in his midst with winking tolerance, I’ve taught myself to look at it with a more dispassionate eye. I can’t take the criticism of Scout’s profanity seriously — I remember practicing “cussing” outside my parents’ earshot when I was her age — but I’m aware that I saw the first story of racial injustice to make a strong impact on me through the lens of a young white protagonist, a safe perspective for a young white girl.

I could have been Scout. I had much in common with her. I loved to make believe, to act out the stories I read in books and saw on movies and TV. Scary houses fascinated me. I had an older sibling whose nerves I got on. I idolized my dad. Of course I embraced her and the story told in her voice. Yet from the vantage point of adulthood, I wonder — would I have seen so much of myself in Scout if I’d been a young African-American girl? Would my takeaway from the story have been the same? I’ve read of a student, the only black student in her class, who felt more like an outsider than ever when she and her classmates studied this book. She found the depictions of the story’s black characters alienating, Tom in particular, characterized more as a symbol than as an individual. Since writer and reader create meaning together, is her reaction wrong and mine right?

I don’t agree with those who suggest schools should jettison To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet I’ve come to believe it should be studied alongside other books, such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies, and Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys — all novels that that portray the experience of growing up African-American in a racist America. Yet these are the very books that some politicians and parents don’t think young people should read. Books that depict racism and racial injustice in too strong a light, they argue, will damage the self-esteem of young white students. The stories will make those students see themselves as oppressors; their sense of worth will sink under the weight of shame and guilt. The unspoken thesis of all this is that it does young white people no good to read stories that look at bigotry and its effects from an African-American perspective.

In the course of my life as a reader, student, and teacher, I’ve read some pretty bleak depictions of racial injustice written by black authors, observed and experienced by black protagonists. I’ve read Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which a poor black man employed as a chauffeur experiences his first sense of real power after he accidentally kills his boss’s daughter. I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which an escaped slave kills her baby daughter rather than see the little one captured and returned to slavery. Then there’s Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I wrote about in my previous post, which details the moral disintegration of a young white boy, the son of a slaveholder, from a likable kid to a violent, abusive rapist. I can attest that while these stories disturbed me to my core, as well they should, not a one of them made me hate myself.

What they did do is make me think. They forced me to wrestle with that crucial question: faced with racism, what do we choose to do? Where will we stand? All of us, of all races, most confront that question. If we simply ignore or deny the injustices in our past and present, nothing will change; all of the progress we’ve made over the past decades will be stalled as we walk in circles. We need those stories, not in spite of their making us uncomfortable but because they do.

Nineteen years ago, when I first moved to Gainesville, GA, I attended a meeting of the Gainesville Theatre Alliance. The previous year, the GTA had mounted a production of the musical Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. The story has three protagonists, one white Protestant, one Jewish, and one African-American. The black protagonist, Coalhouse Walker Jr., is no persecuted innocent cypher like Tom Robinson. He’s a philandering musician who has finally decided to settle down with his child’s mother and who purchases a Ford Model T as a symbol of his good intentions. Just when all seems bright, a gang of white policemen vandalize his automobile. The outraged Coalhouse’s quest for satisfaction takes a tragic turn when his sweetheart is killed in an effort to advocate for him. The loss maddens him and sends him on a murderous rampage. Persuaded by Booker T. Washington, the man he admires above all others, to turn himself in, he is hanged. It’s a bleak story and, with songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a tremendously moving one. The GTA gave special performances of Ragtime for children from local schools. At this meeting, the head of the GTA told of one particular child who saw the show.

In a letter, this child’s teacher mentioned she’d been concerned about how he would react to the story, since he was the son of one high-ranking Ku Klux Klansman and the nephew of another. The children ate picnic lunches after the play, and the teacher noticed this boy was unusually quiet, and he was frowning as if he was thinking hard. At last, just before the students returned to their bus, he approached her.

“It was a wrong thing they did, to hang that black man,” he said. “It was a wrong thing they did, to kill that black woman. They shouldn’t ought to have done it.”

That play taught this student something he might well never have learned at home.

This is why we need stories about racism.

This.

The Importance of “Discomfort Reads”

When I first read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, I thought it was one of the greatest books I’d ever read, and I would never pick it up again. I set it on the sell-back table with a shudder of deep respect, knowing the harrowing journey of a modern African-American woman mysteriously transported back at intervals to the antebellum South, with its unrelenting cruelty and injustice, was burned into my brain. Like Orwell’s 1984, it left me feeling I’d been punched in the stomach repeatedly and only after several hours would my normal comfort level reassert itself. And, in both cases, I wouldn’t have traded that feeling for anything.

Some years have elapsed since then, and I find myself revisiting Kindred after all. I picked up a copy at McKay Used Media Store in Chattanooga on Black Friday 2021, thinking I might soon reread it with a teacher’s eye. My decision feels almost prophetic now, for as my holiday break was ending, I got a call from my supervisor at Life University. One of my colleagues was having a surgical procedure in January and wouldn’t be able to teach his literature course, ENG 212 (Identity and Otherness); would I fill in for him? While having to create a syllabus at the last minute is far from ideal, I couldn’t deny a tremor of excitement. Here was the perfect opportunity to teach Kindred. I contacted the friend and colleague from whom I was inheriting the course to find out which books he commonly used, so I could decide which ones I would keep and which I would replace with choices of my own, Kindred among them.

One work I decided to keep was Art Spiegelman’s Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, an allegorical depiction of his Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust.

I have a shameful confession: I tried reading the acclaimed graphic novel once before and couldn’t finish it. I’d chosen it as a leisure read, and after reading almost half the book and seeing no significant female character emerge, I decided it wasn’t working for me and set it aside. But I don’t read as a teacher the same way I read for leisure. Teacher-Me can get excited by works like Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Poe’s short fiction, and Miller’s Death of a Salesman, all dominated by male characters but fun and fascinating to discuss with students. Seeing no reason why Maus wouldn’t join that company if I gave it another try, I left it on the ENG 212 syllabus.

In light of recent events, if I had decided to cut it, I’d feel the need to restore it.

The McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee recently voted 10-0 to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book from the district’s curriculum. According to nbcnews.com, “The district had sought to use the novel. . . as an ‘anchor text’ for eighth-graders studying the Holocaust.” The board, however, decided the book wasn’t fit to teach due to “eight instances of profanity and an image of a nude woman.” (Mouse, actually; the characters are animals in this allegory.) I can’t help thinking back to the time when a Republican U.S. Senator raised a similar hue-and-cry when NBC aired the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Schindler’s List without the usual television edits. His comments were met with well-deserved mockery, but more than two decades later, a school board comprised of apparently like-minded individuals decided the sight of an unclad mouse was too much for thirteen-year-olds’ fragile psyches to handle — and the most disturbing part of the whole business is that they’re far from alone.

In “The War on Library Books,” journalist Judd Legum describes a proposal in the Oklahoma State Legislature that would prohibit public school libraries from carrying strong sexual themes or content. How strong is too strong? That’s up to parents, and parents alone — many of whom are less interested in their children learning anything than in “protecting” them from any ideas or information that might challenge their world views. The author of the bill, Republican Rob Standridge, told local media that he specifically “wants to empower parents to purge ‘transgender, queer, and other sexually related books’ from school libraries.” So much for A Streetcar Named Desire and The Color Purple. In Virginia, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved is deemed too much for AP English students — for its sexual content, or for its raw, brutal depiction of slavery? Both, I expect. So much for Kindred, then.

An even more disturbing, because more vaguely worded, initiative is being spearheaded by Texas State Representative Matt Krause (R), who has asked several districts in his state “to identify . . . books in their libraries that ‘might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, and any other form of psychological distress because their race or sex.'” The idea seems to be that students should read only what is comfortable — that is, only what affirms what they already know and won’t demand they confront the more sinister aspects of history, society, and/or psychology. They shouldn’t look at the darkness, or swim where they might feel an undertow. They should stay in the shallows of learning, where it’s safe.

But can a good story ever be safe?

In a fun and informative TED Talk I’ve used in my Public Speaking classes, “How to Have a Good Conversation,” Celeste Headlee points out that “listening requires a setting aside of oneself” (emphasis mine). Reading is a form of listening — listening to the author, listening to the characters. A good story, like a good conversation, asks you to set yourself and your own preconceived notions aside and see the world through the eyes of someone else — someone who isn’t like you, who carries the weight of a different set of experiences, who may have values and opinions that challenge or even contradict yours. It asks you to walk in their shoes, to love and fear and suffer as they do, to endure violence and injustice you may be protected from in your own life, but also to feel the elation of triumphs beyond your own reach. It’s not easy or simple. It’s not meant to be. But the rewards are boundless. You become wiser, more knowledgeable, more understanding, more empathetic. It’d take that over being “comfortable” any day.

That’s why I’m reading Kindred again, along with my students. That’s why we’ll be reading Maus later in the quarter, and watching Schindler’s List afterwards. And that’s why all of us who value good stories need to stand up and fight for them, personally, socially, and politically.

For more on recent book-banning initiatives and concern with students’ “discomfort,” see these reports.

Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021, Part 3

West Side Story.

The musical has always been among my top five favorite film genres, and 2021 is the year Hollywood at last remembered how to make them.

I will forever contend that the death knell of the movie musical sounded when Hollywood ceased to seek out and nurture talented singers and dancers and instead started to give leading roles in musicals to big name stars, regardless of their ability to carry a tune beyond four beats or execute a simple buck-and-wing. When non-singing, non-dancing Marlon Brando was cast as Sky Masterson in 1955’s Guys and Dolls, and a key song from the Broadway show as cut and replaced with a weaker tune to accommodate the star’s limited vocal range, the downward spiral began, with only occasional bright spots (among them 1961’s West Side Story) popping up along the slow descent. Recent financial successes like Mamma Mia and critical successes like La La Land only serve, for me, to illustrate the depths to which the genre has fallen. In a musical, the songs should be highlights, the moments when an audience’s emotions are most powerfully stirred. But in Mamma Mia, which serves up such horrors as Pierce Brosnan singing (two numbers!) and Meryl Streep frolicking, the numbers only serve to make us roll our eyes, while in La La Land, the songs are the dreariest moments, shining a light on Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s inadequacy as musical performers. These two films fail to stir the slightest emotion other than cynicism and boredom, because none of the players has the slightest clue how to sell a song. By and large, it’s been up to animated films to keep the musical’s flame alive during this Dark Age.

But earlier this year, just when I was ready to despair of ever seeing a soul-stirring big-screen live action musical again, along came In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Broadway’s wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. The only widely known name in the cast is Miranda himself, who plays a minor role; even in his case (of course), songs and dances are not sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. Everyone involved with this film, including the cinematographer, knows what a musical should look and sound like, and it is on all accounts a stunning experience. It deserves its own blog post, but it’s been several months since this movie dazzled me, and I would need to watch it again in order to give it a properly detailed review.

Far fresher in my mind is a recent release, West Side Story, which hits some very different notes from In the Heights. While it does touch on some serious themes, In the Heights stands out in my memory as an explosion of joy, a celebration of community. By contrast, West Side Story is a tragedy, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which, as anyone who passed ninth-grade English could tell you, does not end well. With the “houses both alike in dignity” represented by a pair of rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, it asks its audience to make an emotional investment in characters we know to be doomed. If done well, it will break your heart. And this version of West Side Story is, to me at least, done very well.

I am not a West Side Story purist. I like and appreciate the 1961 film, but I don’t find it to be an unassailable masterpiece beyond all possible improvement. It’s a product of its time. Of the three actors who play the principal Puerto Rican characters, Maria, Bernardo, and Anita, only Rita Moreno (Anita) is actually Puerto Rican, and she and George Chakiris (Bernardo), Natalie Wood (Maria), and the other performers playing the Sharks were made to wear the same dark make-up so that all the Puerto Rican characters would have the same skin tone, denying the racial and ethnic diversity in the Puerto Rican community. Granted, Natalie Wood, despite not sharing her character’s ethnic background, gives a strong performance that reaches devastating levels in her final scene, but Richard Beymer’s Tony is so pretty-boy bland that she has nothing to work with in terms of creating chemistry; as a result, the romance that should be the movie’s heart becomes its most underwhelming feature, and Wood, good as she is, is overshadowed by such forces of nature as Moreno, Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn.

Another weakness was pointed out to me by my husband as we were on our way home from seeing the remake. I asked if he’d seen the earlier version, and he admitted he’d never watched it from beginning to end, because he’d always found the Jets and the Sharks too clean-cut in their appearance and movements to be believable as street toughs. I hadn’t considered that before, but he has a point. The actors might have been convincing in 1961, but they’re less so to a modern eye.

Steven Spielberg’s remake addresses every one of those issues.

First of all, from the opening moment we can see the grittiness and the current of violence in the world the characters inhabit. Grime is everywhere; dust permeates the air. The streets down which the Jets and the Sharks dance in the 1961 movie are swept and deserted; in Spielberg’s film, those same streets are choked with traffic, with people constantly knocking against each other. The Jets and the Sharks are of a piece with this chaos, and the actors bring a feral energy to every move they make, even when they’re dancing and singing. “Someone gets in our way, someone don’t feel so well,” boast the Jets. I know I wouldn’t want to get in these guys’ way.

Second, the Puerto Rican characters are all played by Latino actors, which gives them a degree of authenticity the 1961 film couldn’t manage. Moreover, their community isn’t racially homogenized; actress Ariana du Bose, who plays Anita, is black. She’s terrific, by the way, imbuing the character with hope, humor, and fun — which makes what happens to her near the movie’s end all the more devastating.

Then there’s the love story. Some critics don’t agree with me, but I think it works this time around. Tony (Ansel Elgort), so dull in the ’61 version, is given some shading here. He has a backstory to explain his desire to distance himself from the Jets, and it adds a sense of urgency to his love for Maria, since she’s the ray of hope that shines upon him, the force that, as he says, stops him in his long fall off a cliff. Their relationship is his lifeline. It also helps that he shares a good bit of screen time with Valentina (Rita Moreno herself, also an executive producer), who runs the drug store where he works after her husband, Doc, has died. Their scenes together radiate tenderness, warmth, and humor, and they make Tony easier to engage with and root for.

Rachel Zegler, as Maria, has more difficult shoes to fill, but for me, she ends up being the movie’s biggest find. She’s pictorially exquisite, a bit like a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, and she uses her eyes to convey the character’s earnest innocence, as well as the conflict within her between her loyalty to her brother, the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, not quite as gorgeous as Chakiris but still an intense and powerful presence) and her love for Tony and her desire for a future different from the one Bernardo wants for her. Also, unlike Wood, Zegler does her own singing. Her bright, clear soprano voice rings rich with feeling. She, more than anyone else, will make you never want to hear the likes of Emma Stone or Pierce Brosnan attempt a musical number again.

Sadly, West Side Story isn’t doing as well at the box office as I wish it were; perhaps its bittersweet melancholy and its inescapably gloomy ending aren’t quite what the crowds flooding theaters to see Spider-Man: No Way Home are looking for. But it just might, like its 1961 predecessor, win some love on Oscar night, pointing the way for future musicals with actors skilled in dance and song.

Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021, Part 2

Ghosts.

M*A*SH* is one of my top five television shows of all time, with The Muppet Show right alongside it, but as a general rule, sitcoms aren’t my thing. I enjoyed them well enough in my youth, but these days, a sitcom has to work hard to win me over. It has to convince me that it’s not following the nowadays-admired Seinfeld/It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia model, by showing me characters who can grow and change and don’t have to be mean in order to be funny. 2021 saw the conclusion of one such sitcom that managed to work its way into my heart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But no sooner had the lights gone out on that show’s final episode than a new show emerged to fill the void — CBS’s Ghosts, a rare example of an American sitcom adapted from a British original that succeeds on its own terms.

The premise is simple enough: a young couple, Jay and Samantha (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Rose McIver), move into a 200+ year old mansion Samantha has inherited, with an eye to turning it into a profitable bed-and-breakfast. However, the ghosts who haunt the place, a varied lot representing different epochs in American history, don’t like that plan. When one of their efforts to scare the couple results in a head injury for Samantha, she finds she can now see, hear, and interact with the spectral residents, and the ghosts are so thrilled at their new opportunity to communicate with someone living that they drop their objections to the bed-and-breakfast. Samantha becomes a de facto member of the ghosts’ found family. All this is accomplished within the pilot episode. Subsequent episodes show how she and Jay manage to share their home with the eclectic posse of phantoms, and how they forge unlikely bonds, and how, via their new channel to the outside world, the ghosts discover things about themselves and their lives they never knew before.

McIver, whom I loved in the underrated iZombie, is as “normal” as her role demands, yet she’s still smart, funny, and engaging. All the same, the ghosts themselves are the show’s biggest draw — it’s named for them, after all — and every member of this ensemble is an interesting person who is more than they seem. The oldest ghost, tough Viking Thorfinn (Devan Long), has a history of crooning lullabies to the very young children who have slept in the house, including proper Victorian lady Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky); the babes, who are more spirit-sensitive than their elders, are comforted by the warmth in his deep voice and don’t care that his lyrics involve crushing enemies. Revolutionary War officer Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), with his veneer of stuffy hauteur, has to confront his attraction to the British officer he accidentally killed (John Hartman). Scoutmaster Pete (Richie Moriarty), a genuine straight arrow killed in an archery accident, must move past his anger and grief when he learns that his wife cheated on him with the friend she’s now married to. Roaring ’20s jazz singer Alberta (Danielle Pinnock) is obsessed with fame, but her longing to be known springs less from narcissism than from the earnest hope that she might have made a difference in a racist world. Even Trevor (Asher Grodman), the “most recently dead” who literally passed away with his pants off, gets to be more than just a smarmy corporate lecher, when he shows his fellow phantoms one of his favorite films from his lifetime, Ghostbusters, only to discover the movie lands a little differently if you’re a ghost. There isn’t a single character on the whole show that I’m not eager to see more of.

One more word of praise is due the living characters: I appreciate the way Jay and Samantha’s relationship is handled. The fact that she can interact with the ghosts and he can’t could have resulted in episode after episode of hackneyed tension as he tries to talk her out of her “craziness.” But all this is dealt and then dispensed with in the pilot episode. After that, he simply accepts that ghosts are “living” in his house and Samantha can see them; he comes to like having them around as much as she does. Even though they don’t always agree, these two clearly have a marriage based on trust and respect, and that’s a delight to see.

Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021: A Series

I have no legitimate excuse for my failure to post here regularly in 2021. While I have been devoting most of my writing time to a new novel project and to scripts for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, I’ve always been able to carve out sufficient time in the past to keep my blog going, and I need to do the same now. The pandemic and the constant stream of depressing news, from mass shootings to insane battles over reproductive rights to ridiculously light sentences for confessed rapists, have done their bests to compromise my creative energy, and I can’t let that happen. So one of my top resolutions for the coming year is to keep up my posting, even if those posts are only a paragraph or two.

For the remainder of the year, I offer this series of short posts devoted to various stories I’ve loved in 2021, welcome antidotes to the disheartening meanness of the evening news and social media.

Encanto

Since this is the story I’ve taken in most recently, I begin with it. Its very existence is almost enough to gladden my heart, as it shows that Disney has not, as I’d feared, cast aside new animated projects in favor of live-action remakes of their older material. Those live-action remakes are still ongoing, alas, but at least they’ve taken the time to present us with this cinematic bonbon, full to the brim with magic, color, and life.

Too often, especially in family films, female protagonists in the movies fall into one of two camps: aspirational (super-competent badasses with an abundance of skills) or “relatable” (clumsy, awkward girls with few if any skills, who are Just Like You). To me these feel like opposite extremes of Wrong; the heroines I most enjoy getting to know are those whom, thanks to good writing and development, I can relate to and look up to, and Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist of Encanto, fits that bill. As the only member of her generation of the Madrigal family not gifted with a magical power, she speaks directly to those times in our lives when we feel “not good enough,” when we wonder if we’ll amount to as much as others around us and fear our wheels are spinning in place. As a woman in her early fifties who once thought I’d be much further along in my writing career when I reached this age, I can identify with the sorrow little Mirabel feels when her “magical door” disappears before her eyes, erasing (or so she thinks) her chance to be extraordinary like her sisters and cousins, and her ongoing anguish when, as a young woman, she finds herself pushed into the shadows of her family’s life while the magical ones dance in the light. But despite the bad hand she’s dealt (“I’m not fine,” she vents in song), Mirabel is no victim. She pushes ahead with reserves of creativity, resourcefulness, and determination to be the hero of her own life. She’s smart, funny, and kind, the trifecta of virtues that win a fictional character a place in my heart. It doesn’t hurt that she’s cute as a button, and Stephanie Beatriz’s vocal performance is delightful.

Yet my affection for this movie doesn’t begin and end with Mirabel. Other elements that win me:

  1. Encanto is one of the very few Disney films to center on the dynamics of a multi-generational family. Mirabel isn’t quite the only Disney heroine to have living parents; Rapunzel (Tangled), Judy Hopps (Zootopia), and Moana came before her. But unlike Rapunzel, who is stolen from her home, and Judy and Moana, who choose to leave home, Mirabel finds adventure within the home, and interacts with her parents and other relatives substantially throughout the film’s run time.
  2. In Luisa, Mirabel’s older sister, we see the first tall, brawny female character in the Disney canon who is not a villain. While I’m still waiting with bated breath for a female protagonist who isn’t tiny, this super-strong but gentle giantess is my favorite character next to Mirabel (and Mirabel’s uncle Bruno, but, well, we don’t talk about him.
  3. While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs for this film don’t quite reach the bar set by Moana, they’re still catchy as hell. Special props go to Luisa’s number, “Surface Pressure.”
  4. This film has no villain. Every one of its characters is a flawed, complicated person. How they work through their flaws and repair the fractures in their relationships forms the movie’s heart, making it something more unique, and (I think) more complex, than the usual battle of good vs. evil.

October Musings: The Unexpected Feminism of “The Mummy” (1932)

I make no secret of my love for the horror movie classics released by Universal Studios in the 1930s, but by and large they’re the last place to go if you’re looking for active, interesting heroines, let alone any trace of feminism. (The horror classics produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, particularly 1946’s Bedlam, are far more satisfying in that regard.) Memorable characters abound in these films: Bela Lugosi’s despicable Count Dracula and Dwight Frye’s manic Renfield; Boris Karloff’s poignant Monster, Colin Clive’s haunted Frankenstein, Ernest Thesiger’s sinfully camp Dr. Pretorius, and O.P. Heggie’s gentle Hermit; Claude Rains’ invisible madman Jack Griffin; and Lon Chaney Jr.’s tragic werewolf Laurence Talbot. But none of them are women, unless you count the drive-you-crazy screechers played by Una O’Connor; she’s infuriating but not very forgettable. The female leads are, for the most part, dull damsels easily preyed upon by evil and very given to tears and screams — with one exception.

That exception is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the object of Imhotep’s (Boris Karloff) desire in 1932’s The Mummy.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: the movie itself isn’t for everyone. It’s a short film, only 73 minutes long, but it takes its time. Even fans of classic cinema, used to the acting styles and black-and-white cinematography that alienate quite a few post-Generation X viewers, sometimes complain of this movie’s slow pacing, with one YouTube critic complaining that too much of its run time consists of “men talking in drawing rooms.” I can’t say these criticisms are unfounded, though I’m fond of it. The most crucial element that carries it for me is Karloff’s Imhotep, a “monster” in a fascinating situation — executed for a crime motivated by love, reborn suddenly into a world he doesn’t understand, wanting nothing more than to be united with the woman he still adores. He’s almost a sympathetic figure, though his actions can’t be condoned. Karloff, one of my favorite actors, endows the role with a darkly charismatic presence, with his deep, resonant baritone voice and his mesmerizing eyes. Helen, the beautiful young reincarnation of his ancient beloved, is realistic drawn to him.

But the second element that draws me to the film is Helen herself, far more interesting than the pallid, weepy damsels we see in the other Universal horror classics. While ordinariness is a feature rather than a bug with the latter women — since they’re meant to represent the domestic normalcy threatened by the monsters — Helen has an exotic mystique of her own. We first see her sitting at a window and gazing out at the pyramids, a look of rapt fascination on her face. It is with the utmost reluctance that she turns away from what she calls “the real Egypt” and toward the dance to which Dr. Muller (every-mentor Edward van Sloan) has brought her. (I have no trouble empathizing with the introvert pulled out of a daydream and encouraged to socialize.) We lean in the next minute that she comes by her attraction to “the real Egypt” honestly, since her mother is an Egyptian with “a family tree a mile long.” This too sets her apart from the WASP ladies we see in the other films. Moreover, this first scene establishes her as someone indifferent to the prospect of romance, since her thoughts, as Muller says, are “far away from the dance and these nice English boys.” We’re led to expect that when it comes to love, she’s not going to be a pushover.

Since this is a horror movie from 1932, however, a love interest she must find, and the bland, callow Frank Whemple (David Manners) is not among the movie’s strengths. Why she would be attracted to so generic a man while all those “nice English boys” at the party did nothing for her is a mystery the movie never manages to explain. But in their opening conversation, she challenges him in ways that again make her unique among Universal’s horror heroines. Trying to impress her, he tells her how he and his team of archaeologists took apart the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, culminating in unwrapping the princess herself. Yet she reacts not with admiration but with disgust, turning her face away and saying, “How could you do that?” His reply — “Had to! Science, you know!” — is hardly convincing, for either Helen or the audience. She calls him out for cultural appropriation and men’s invasion of a woman’s space long before such things were commonly scrutinized.

Nonetheless, Frank manages to win Helen over, though we’re never shown how or why, and the movie presents him as the “good choice” she must make in order to save her soul from the looming threat of Imhotep, now calling himself Ardath Bey. As the love triangle intensifies, the interesting parts of Helen’s personality start to flatten out; after a fascinating scene in which Bey gives her a glimpse of her past as Anck-es-en-Amon and his own failed attempt to resurrect her after she died, Muller and Frank keep her confined to her house “for her own good” so she can’t respond to Bey’s hypnotic pull, reducing her to a state of protected passivity. But when their scheme fails and she gets away, the stage is set for a climax that first echoes, then subverts the pattern set by Dracula a year earlier.

In both Dracula and The Mummy, the hero and the mentor (played by the same actors) enter the villain’s lair to rescue the hypnotized heroine from his unholy clutches, but at this point the stories diverge. In Dracula, Mina (Helen Chandler) is in a trance, every ounce of her will drained away. In The Mummy, Helen has been drawn back to ancient Egypt, to her old identity as Anck-es-en-Amon, still in love with Imhotep. But her will remains, and when she learns he means to murder her mortal body and turn her into a living mummy like himself, she immediately resists, with all the dignity and determination of a Pharaoh’s daughter and priestess of the goddess Isis. The men burst in, but Imhotep holds them at bay with his death-dealing magic ring and wicked Karloffian glare. They become the imperiled, which gives Anck-es-en-Amon time to pull free from his grasp and raise a prayer that Isis might teach her the forgotten holy spells that can destroy her once-beloved, now enemy. The goddess obliges, the priestess chants, and Isis’ golden statue strikes the menace dead with a lightning bolt. Rather than being rescued, Anck-es-en-Amon becomes the rescuer, destroying Imhotep before he can harm the men. Female magic, the power of the goddess and her priestess, is presented as heroic, in a day and age when it was nearly always framed as evil.

Sadly but inevitably, Helen ends the movie in Frank’s arms; having her leave him to pursue her own career in Egyptology is simply too much to ask of a 1932 film. All the same, the elements of feminism are there, and Helen remains one of the very few horror movie heroines prior to the rise of the slasher film’s “final girls” to deal the monster his death-blow. This alone puts it miles in front of the abysmal 2017 remake, in which a modern-day damsel is reduced to the ultimate passive state while the female “straw feminist” mummy is overpowered by that most egoistic Alpha of all Alpha males, Tom Cruise. (The hope that this film might contain any trace of feminism was pretty much blown sky high the moment Cruise was cast.) So I’ll be sticking with the original, flaws and all.