Rambling Reflections on Matters of Taste

I find it hard at times to hear the stories I love (books, movies, television, or music) disparaged. I try to avoid taking too active a part in debates over matters of taste — at least when they concern what I love; when I hate something, I may not hold back as much as I should. I can explain in detail why a particular book or movie or show is emphatically not for me, but when it comes to explaining my love in the face of skepticism or outright disapproval, I find myself tongue-tied. Okay, I know that Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens may be little more than A New Hope in new skin and the writers may skimp on character development. Just let me love it, okay?

Sometimes a clear-eyed look at the flaws of a beloved thing can actually strengthen the love. At other times we may find ourselves considering whether we ought to let go of that love. Two people can read the same book or watch the same movie/show and come away from it with starkly different impressions. When is one clearly right, and the other wrong? Are there times when there is indeed a point to disputing matters of taste?

More than once in my blog I’ve expressed my admiration for Naomi Novik’s stand-alone fairytale novel Uprooted. It was my favorite read of 2015, although Wexler’s The Shadow Throne gave it close competition. (Here’s my Goodreads review of the book.) Novik’s beautiful prose, especially her descriptions of the workings of magic, seduced me. I took ungainly heroine Agnieszka to my heart and rooted for her to succeed. Yet in my delight, did I miss things that ought to have bothered me more? Feminist author and blogger Foz Meadows, whose posts I’ve enjoyed more than once, posted a scathing review that classed Novik’s work with Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey as sending dangerous, toxic messages about “romance” to impressionable female readers. In Novik’s book, she argues, the abusive behavior of an “alpha male” is glorified and, in the end, rewarded. Were Meadows to confront me face to face, I doubt I could justify my enchantment with the book. Most likely I would keep silent, head hanging.

Because I’m honestly not certain who’s right, or whether there is a “right” in this matter. The book I read, or the book Meadows read — will the real Uprooted please stand up?

A less troubling, because less vehement, criticism of something I love came to me in an article sent to me by a good friend from high school with whom I now keep in touch via Facebook. When she posted it to my wall, she wrote that she was “dying to know my opinion.” It examines the amount of dialogue spoken by male and female characters in Disney films since the late-80s “Renaissance” (including my favorite, Beauty and the Beast) vs. the films Disney made back when feminist consciousness was very far from the studio’s mind. The article shows that female characters actually speak more in those early pre-feminist Disney films than they do in the more recent movies touted as having “strong heroines.” The conclusion drawn is that those recent movies aren’t quite as female-positive as they might at first have seemed.

About this one I’m not quite as shy about speaking up, possibly because as a long-time Disney fan, I’m used to anti-Disney sentiment. Beauty and the Beast has come under harsher fire than this article, having been cited often as a prettified but still toxic example of “Stockholm Syndrome” (a female captive falling for her male captor), a worse offense than an imbalance of dialogue. I’m still not sure what to say in response to that charge, but the dialogue imbalance I can address:

The article is mistaken in its suggestion that the imbalance automatically undoes the films’ feminist credit, just as it’s a mistake to conclude that only a movie that passes the Bechdel Test can be a satisfyingly feminist movie. The main impression I come away with isn’t so much that the studio has done badly, as that it can do better, and it can start by addressing one of the biggest problems the article highlights: the lack of female supporting characters in these “strong heroine” Disney movies.

I may love Beauty and the Beast (after all, the original tale was one of the inspirations for my novel Atterwald) but I still think Mrs. Potts should have been given more to do than just sing a sweet song. More crucially, why couldn’t Chip have been a little girl teacup? Why couldn’t the friendly tiger in Aladdin have been female? (Granted, the character is mute, but she might still have been a majestic female presence.) Might Mushu from Mulan, burdened with a jarring, lackluster vocal performance from Eddie Murphy (who was soooo much better as Donkey in Shrek) have worked just as well, or even better, as a female character? Did the plots demand any of these characters — or Merida’s mount in Brave, or the chameleon and the horse from Tangled — be male? No, but they’re all male anyway, because male is what most characters end up being when their gender is not specifically important to the plot.

The movies may still be good, but the use of male as the default setting for gender-irrelevant characters is an issue that demands a closer look. I’m not saying that all such characters need to be female. Just a few of them would be nice, just to show that we can indeed have female characters whose stories don’t turn on the fulcrum of gender, supporting though they may be.

We don’t have to abandon our affection for certain books, movies, or TV shows just because we become aware of their flaws or recognize that widely divergent, even opposite, readings are possible. We don’t all experience stories the same way. We bring our own hopes, expectations, and histories with us as we co-create the meanings of the stories we consume.

Perhaps, then, there is a point in disputing matters of taste. At any rate, such debates aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, and I need to be ready for them.

 

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