Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Problem with "Penelope"

I love kids' movies. Not so much the '80s kids movies, like The Goonies or even kids movies that prominently feature kids (funny how those two types tend to overlap), but movies made for the enjoyment of kids. Seriously, most of the movies I see in theaters are kids' films - and sometimes the big summer blockbuster drawing inspiration from a comic book. And movies that have Shia LaBeouf in them, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, I see a lot of movies made for the enjoyment of children, because at heart I'm five and expect everything will turn out perfectly in the end. Which is why I rented Penelope. Because it fit all of the requirements (kids' film with no actual kids), and because Penelope as a movie had several things that made it seem worth watching. It had Christina Ricci. It had Catherine O'Hara. It had Reese Witherspoon. It had James McAvoy. It was a fantasy. So I watched it.

And I liked it. I genuinely liked it. It was cute, Christina Ricci was cute, James McAvoy was cute, and overall it was a decent film and a good way to spend about an hour and a half. But.

But I can't sign on to endorse a movie where one potential reading of the story in question presented during the film is "It's always the mother's fault". That isn't the whole of it, but it does sum up a rather huge problem with Penelope. It suffered from what I term "exceptional female syndrome". Now, Penelope wasn't the only girl in her world. She isn't even the only cool girl in her world. But she is the only cool girl we spend any real amount of time with. Her mother, played by the hilarious Catherine O'Hara, is - to put it politely - a bit of a shrew. She is about a pretty horrid example of mothering, and the film calls her out on it. I wouldn't be opposed to that if, you know, it wasn't a huge thing to have it be all the mother's fault - oh, and if most of the horrible stuff Penelope's mother Jessica was guilty of wasn't also demonstrated by her father Franklin.

For instance, the affliction Penelope was cursed with, having piggy features, could only be broken if "one of her own" could accept her for who she was, could love her even with her pig nose and ears. Penelope breaks her own curse by asserting that she was happy the way she is (which, coincidentally, means that she is no longer the way she is... ...which in and of itself is kind of a catch-22). Kind of like how in Disney's Beauty and the Beast it wasn't enough for the Beast to love Belle and have Belle love the Beast in return - in fairy tales this sort of thing always requires a declaration. Jessica actually blames herself for the curse being in place for so long, and we as the audience accept that as being partially correct. After all, Jessica is Penelope's mother. She should have loved her daughter wholly and completely even with her curse. But a big part of this picture, the big invisible part of this blame game, is Franklin. Franklin had just as much power as Jessica or Penelope to break the curse, to truly love and vocally accept his daughter for who she was; he didn't. And we as an audience aren't asked to expect that he would. We look down on Jessica for her match-making ways and her inability to see how incredibly cute Penelope was with a piggy nose, but the same standard isn't applied to Franklin. And that? Is a bit of a problem.

Another problem is the fact that Jessica is made mute by the end of the film by the same witch that originally cursed Penelope. And we're supposed to see this as a good thing. We're supposed to see Jessica as getting her comeuppance, and everyone around her being given a gift - especially the "long-suffering" Franklin. Just not cool, man. Part of this is that we spend only large swaths of time with Jessica when Penelope has run away - when she is under a great deal of stress. But part of it is the same problem with the Potato-Head commercial:

In both instances, the wife is supposed to be seen as a nag, a nudge, the kind of woman who should be seen and not heard. The kind of woman it would be best to silence. And since silencing has long been a technique employed when dealing with women (along with others) who are coded as being "less", Jessica's curse leaves me with an entirely unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Then there's Penelope's piggy features:

I could see suitors a plenty doing a double take. But I can't see them crashing through glass windows on second stories, or run screaming from her presence. Because Christina Ricci is still, by any Western standard, still aesthetically attractive. Her piggy nose is proportional to the rest of her face. And pigs? Not exactly the scariest or most unattractive of animals. So all of the fuss just kind of seems strange and unnecessary.

Like I said, there are good parts to Penelope. The underlying theme that curses only have the power we give them is a fairly standard one, but the heroine rescues herself and then goes and finds the guy she loves. She gets to drink beer, get drunk, and have fun with no negative consequences - and marriage is not the key to salvation. The key is simply loving yourself, for yourself. And accepting yourself, for yourself. And that message could have rung out all the sweeter if the specter of Jessica and her "comeuppance" didn't hang over the film.

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