A Beauty But A Funny Girl

phdpfbelle4.jpgI can still picture the exact spot where I was sitting when I opened my Belle Barbie. It was Christmas Day, 1991 and a sea of wrapping paper floated atop the golden oak floorboards of our lounge, where I sat next to the fireplace. Belle was one of the last gifts I opened that day. I had never owned a Barbie before and I could not believe she was mine. She came with her blue peasant dress and apron, a sparking gold ball gown with long gold gloves, two pairs of Barbie shoes, and an enchanted mirror. It was one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received.

Beauty and the Beast became an instant hit in my family. We delighted in calling my mum Mrs. Potts, and howled with laughter when she told us that “it’s time to get in the cupboard, Chip.” My sister and I acted out the part of Gaston’s three bimbette admirers, using our staircase to swoon on.

Many academics and parents warn about the dangers of princess culture. For example, Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter considers the rise of the princess, the dominance of pink and purple merchandising, and the deleterious effect of the princess on young girls. Lego bricks need not be pink and purple, and the word princess does not need to slapped across all girls toys. But by focusing on young children and the Disney Princess brand, scholars ignored those girls who grew up with the princess movies. Girls like me, who grew up to follow their dreams first, and men second. It is these girls, the original Disney princess generation that I study.phdpfbelle2In teaching Disney, I encourage my students to think about their own relationship to the company. Most enter my classroom die-hard fans or dedicated skeptics, with strong opinions on the Disney princesses. Schooled in literature on unrealistic body expectations, and the limited choices available to princess characters, students today are well versed in the dangers of princess movies, even if they themselves like the movies.

As one of my course requirements, I assign a research paper posing the following question, “should Disney princess movies of the 1990s be seen as feminist?” My students always ask me what I think, however, I rarely divulge my opinion, and instead challenge them to reach their own conclusions. However, as Disney fans around the world excitedly head to the cinema to see the new Beauty and the Beast, I’ve decided to answer my own assignment. And my answer is yes.phdpfbelle3I grew up with a long line of positive female role models, who taught me that I could do anything. My mother was the leader of this group, but it also included the dancers in my beloved Noel Streatfield books, Judith Kerr’s courageous Anna and her flight from Nazi Germany, Scarlett O’Hara’s faith in tomorrow, and even Elle Woods’ determination to succeed at Harvard. Disney’s women were part of this world. They taught me that girls could be feminine but also intelligent. Like third wave feminists of the 1990s, Disney taught me that you could have brains and beauty; you did not have to choose.

With the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid, the Walt Disney Company entered a new period of prosperity under the direction of Michael Eisner. It was the first princess movie since Walt’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty, and there were marked differences between the two eras of princess films. Unlike Cinderella or Snow White, Ariel had interests and ambition of her own. She dreamed of adventure and life beyond her ocean world. Her body, while still unnaturally proportioned, was newly athletic. She swam, dove, and, in time, danced and ran. Unlike Walt’s princesses she was also defined as a teenager, and acted like one. She defied her father, had secrets, and found her own ways to get what she wanted.

While she ultimately still married the handsome prince, the movie showed partnership and teamwork between the leading figures, as Eric and Ariel worked together to defeat Ursula. Moreover the prince, Eric, also had personality. He too refused to settle down when told to, and he mocked his older advisor, Grimsby. Disney animation now focused on character development and three-dimensionality. Eisner princes—Eric, the beast, and Aladdin—looked distinct, whereas Walt’s Prince Charmings were vapidly interchangeable. Developing the prince created heroes worthy of a new more adventurous heroine.phdpfbelle5Two years later, the studio released Beauty and the Beast, a film more consciously pro-feminist than The Little Mermaid. Beauty was the first princess film to be written by a woman, Linda Woolverton. With Beauty, Woolverton became the first woman to write an animation film at the Walt Disney Company. Woolverton pushed to make Belle interested in books. She made Belle adventurous, defiant, intelligent, inquisitive, and imperfect—a lone strand of hair repeatedly falls into her eyes, taking her from a picture perfect princess to fallible woman.

Unlike Ariel who had to physically gain legs for marriage, Belle does not change. Marriage is not inevitable and she does not spend the film pining for a distant price. Indeed, the film does not end with a marriage scene. It is the Beast that has to learn the meaning of true beauty and love. He must win her mind before he wins her heart. Sacrifice and compromise cements their relationship. When they forgo etiquette and sip soup from a bowl, they create their own traditions and norms together. In letting Belle go, the Beast makes the ultimate sacrifice, recognizing that Belle’s happiness is more important than his own. This is an entirely new type of prince.

Beauty and the Beast is the first Disney princess film to contain a male villain, and it is his preposterous masculinity that makes him villainous. The femme fetale villains of Walt’s era obsessed over beauty, and Gaston is similarly fixated with his own looks. He displays traditional symbols of masculinity—strength, rugged good looks, and hunting ability—but is mocked for this. Indeed, his hyper masculinity becomes camp.

In rejecting Gaston, Disney’s Belle rejects the expectation of marriage and happily ever after. She mocks Gaston’s visions of domestic idyll as “positively primeval.” She finds happiness in her herself, and her books, and neither needs nor seeks the approval of those around her.

This wasn’t tale as old as time, for Disney this was a radically new tale.

One of the many sources I show in my class is Traci Hines’ Disney Chickz video, which combines classic Eisner era princess songs with those of the Spice Girls. Hines imagines what would happen if the princes dumped their princesses, concluding that with friends and girl power they would be just fine. In worrying about the possible dangers of princess culture, we’ve overlooked the positive messages given in Disney’s princess films. Girls of the 1990s, like Hines and me, appropriated the princesses on their own terms. They longed for the library, not the beast, they saw the dangers of mob mentality through the actions of the townsfolk, and they saw an outsider figure who ultimately found the place she fitted.

While I envy my parents for witnessing Beatlemania and the rise of Rock and Roll, I consider myself lucky to have grown up in the 1990s. I was part of a generation of girls that grew up with Disney’s princess movies, entered their teenage years at the dawn of the Spice Girls, and went to college with the Gilmore Girls. A brown haired book lover, I followed my dreams and found adventure. Eventually, I married a man who loves my brain, and we danced to Spice Girls songs at our wedding.

As people all over the world rush to see the new Beauty and the Beast, I remain hesitant—I don’t think it can be done any better than the 1991 original. I heard the message loud and clear the first time. And for that, I am forever grateful.phdpfbelle1

O-Bam-A! O-Bam-A!

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On a crisp blue day, the sun shone bright and low in the November sky. New England’s yellow and orange leaves crunched underfoot, as I navigated the twisting wooded paths of my new campus. Unable to vote, I felt a twinge of embarrassment whenever people approached me and asked if I had cast my ballot. That night I gathered with my new American friends, and watched the beginning of a new era in American life. Tears fell as the hopes and dreams of a nation were encapsulated in the figures of an African-American family standing on the stage in Chicago.

I began my life in the United States on a student visa, three months before Barack Hussein Obama became president. His presidency transformed America from the international embarrassment of the Bush era, and once again recast the US as the Promised Land. His presidency has been an example of decency, diplomacy, and possibility throughout my American life.

Eight years later, in the potentially crucial swing state of New Hampshire, Obama spent the last day of the election campaign rallying for Hillary Clinton at the University of New Hampshire.  And so on a similarly bright blue day, I found myself back on campus—this time a green card holder with an American husband—waiting in line to see the president speak.

Parking in a distant car park, I waited for a shuttle bus to take me on to the campus. The air seemed thick with possibility. Students, many of them first time voters, spoke excitedly about the significance of the UNH community to the election. In front of me, I met a journalist taking a day off from his usual local crime and obituary work, and behind me a seasoned protestor who regaled me with tales of her international Eco-protests.

Scores of people lined the streets in queues that snaked all over the campus. We found ourselves enveloped into the waiting line, and soon were passing through metal detectors, and discarding all our food and drink at security.

In the brilliant sunshine, I sat on the ground outside the Whittemore center and listened to the UNH band perform. Last time I had stood there it was at my graduation.

At 12 o’clock the doors opened and we were herded into the arena and offered a choice of seats or floor. With a long wait ahead I chose seats, my seasoned companions chose the floor.DSCN7059.jpgIn the hours that followed, neighbors were friends. People saved seats, and shared pretzels, Sour Patch Kids, and anecdotes of elections and rallies past. Springsteen’s We Take Care of Our Own blared across the arena, and a sea of “Stronger Together” posters tiled the floors and walls.dscn7067Excitement grew with each entrant to the stage—from local politicians to local choirs. Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly reminded people of the importance of common sense gun law and universal health care, while Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan talked about local concerns, pleading with voters to vote not just for Hillary but for Democrats up and down the ballot ticket.

After several hours of waiting, a secret service agent took to the stage and ceremoniously placed the seal of the president on the front of the lectern. And then the crowd went wild.

The president ran in from the side of the stage, shirtsleeves rolled up and arms waving. The atmosphere was euphoric. I have never felt the excitement of politics in this way before, never felt part of something so much bigger than me, or part of a force for such good. My heart raced and tears streamed down my face.

Chants of “O-Bam-A” and “Four More Years” thundered through the arena, amidst the deafening applause. The president graciously accepted this thanks, but channeled the passion into support for Hillary. He spoke of the democratic possibilities afforded by Clinton, and of her experience and superiority as a candidate. When the crowd booed at mention of Donald Trump, Obama shouted “Don’t Boo, Vote.”

He understood the crowd, and combined chants and interactivity with careful reasoned rhetoric. Obama is a natural orator with incredible command of a stage. His was more than just a speech for Clinton, it was a rally for American democracy. Talking about the importance of grass roots campaigning and getting out there to meet people, he spoke with such prescience and understanding about the state of America and its politics. He understood the divides, and worked to fire up the next generation to get involved and believe.dscn7193He spoke for about 35 minutes, and then almost as quickly as he arrived, the president left in a sea of black-suited agents. In a daze of excitement and Springsteen songs, the crowds exited the arena, carefully clutching their “Stronger Together” posters.

Standing outside in the dark, we were “fired up and ready to go.” As the spectacular presidential cavalcade sped through the campus, election day seemed simply a formality. Among the crowds of people–of all races, genders, and ages–the first female president seemed the inevitable heir of the first African-American president.

For the next twenty-four hours the world was full of promises. Of Yes We Cans and shattered glass ceilings.  Of “I voted” stickers, SNL impressions, and pantsuits.

Then the dream shattered, not the ceiling.

In the hazy light of our new reality, life looked different the next day. Yet somehow leaves still crunched under my feet, people still squished in together on the subway, and red brake lights still painted the gray I-93 corridor. The smoke still rose from the Holocaust memorial and curled into the sun, which too, still set. Everything and nothing had changed.

As the sun sets on this our second Camelot, there will be no glittering smiles, no little girls in J Crew coats watching their father shatter glass ceilings, no speeches with promises to protect democracy, and no belief in the “patchwork heritage” of the United States. Instead there is fear and America First, the promise to end health care for millions, to curtail minority rights, a partnership with Russia, a destabilized Anglo-American alliance, and, perhaps most importantly, inaction on climate change.

While there is no longer a President Obama, now more than ever, there must still be yes we cans.

God Bless the USA.

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The Kitchen Aid

phdpiefillingpartyring2For our three-year anniversary in February I decided to make my boyfriend a cake. Naturally, I decided it should have five tiers in order to fit moose decorations on the side of the cake. Five tiers’ worth of buttercream seemed a bit much, so instead I  resolved that it was time to learn to make frosting. I chose Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Martha insisted that you need a stand mixer to do this, however, the Internet told me it was possible to make it with a hand mixer, it would just be very difficult. I grabbed onto the fact that it was technically possible and scorned at the idea of difficulty. It really couldn’t be that bad. After all I’ve watched Mrs. Patmore whip cream by hand.

I actually got blisters from holding the mixer, and I believe I may have done permanent damage to my wrists. I had to keep taking breaks as I could not physically hold onto the mixer anymore and my hand seized up in a grab position. It does, in fact, take hours to make Swiss Meringue Buttercream by hand. I doubt Mrs Patmore would ever have been foolish enough to attempt it. You whisk it over the stove, then you whisk peaks, then you add icing sugar and continue to whisk until the end of time. At one point the mixture curdled and despite Martha’s advice not to worry it would come together again, I found myself alone in the kitchen covered in sticky sugary semi-whipped egg whites screaming abuse at Martha.

phdpiefillingpartyrings7After reading a lot of advice online, I did eventually manage to salvage the icing and produced a halfway decent cake. However, it was now clear that the hand mixer wasn’t going to cut it anymore: I needed a Kitchen Aid. Both of my sisters have Kitchen Aids, and my younger sister has been trying to convince me to get one since Christmas. Initially I ignored her advice but Swiss Meringue-gate had changed things.

For the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Kitchen Aids, indeed a couple of weeks ago my boyfriend practically had to drag me away from an Ice colored one during a late night Target visit. He kept telling me that the prices went down in May and I could look again then. Unusually I believed him. I should have known he did not actually know the Kitchen Aid sale schedule by heart; this is much more my type of knowledge. Unbeknownst to me, my wonderful Mummy had already told him that she was getting me one for my birthday. I had no idea and could not have had a better surprise when I opened the beautiful Ice colored mixer.

For my first Kitchen Aid experience I decided to make Party Ring cakes. Party Rings are my favorite English biscuit. For those Americans reading, they are small circular sugar cookies with a hole in the middle, covered in colored icing. They are a staple at English birthday parties, and were affectionately called finger-mice biscuits in my house as we wore them on our fingers before eating. Now that you can buy mini ones I tend to buy several packets when I’m home. I’ve wanted to try decorating cakes with them for ages, and the birthday Kitchen Aid’s maiden voyage seemed like perfect opportunity.

phdpiefillingpartyrings3For the first few days, I just looked at the Kitchen Aid, stroking it occasionally, admiring its industrial beauty. When I finally drummed up the courage to get it dirty, the Kitchen Aid worked like a dream. The Swiss Meringue Buttercream only took about 20 minutes in the mixer and I watched in awe as the machine did all the work of whisking and whipping my icing. The mixture did curdle, but it seems Martha was right, if you leave it alone the Kitchen Aid does bring the mixture back together. I’m sorry I yelled at you last time, Martha. I shouldn’t have doubted you and blame the blistered hand and the curdled egg whites in my hair.phdpiefillingpartyrings4Perhaps best of all, the arrival of the Kitchen Aid provided a fantastic storage problem and justified the purchase of another Ikea Raskog cart. The Kitchen Aid fits perfectly in the top shelf, and the additional shelves provided a welcome excuse to display all my other teal bakeware. My boyfriend, who was initially skeptical of the need for a new cart, now admits it is the perfect finishing touch for our kitchen.phdpiefillingraskogSince making these cakes, we’ve used the Kitchen Aid for whoopie pies, frosting, pie and pizza dough. It has even got the seal of approval from my bread-making boyfriend – high praise indeed. The two of us, both former vegetarians, have invested in sausage making attachments and casings and plan to finally have proper English sausages this side of the pond. Whether I can man up enough to use the meat grinder remains to be seen…. but at least I’ve mastered the Swiss Meringue Buttercream.