Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A feminist fairy tale?

I was sent this post as an email recently:

This is the fairy tale that we should have been reading as little girls!

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a beautiful, independent, self-assured princess happened upon a frog as she sat, contemplating ecological issues on the shores of an unpolluted pond in a verdant meadow near her castle.

A frog hopped into the princess' lap and said: "Elegant Lady, I was once a handsome prince, until an evil witch cast a spell upon me. One kiss from you, however, and I will turn back into the dapper, young Prince that I am and then, my sweet, we can marry and set up housekeeping in your castle with my mother, where you can satisfy my needs, prepare and serve my meals, clean my clothes, bear my children, and forever feel grateful and happy doing so."

That night, as the princess dined sumptuously on lightly sautéed frog's legs seasoned in a white wine, onion and cream sauce, she chuckled and thought to herself:


It makes you laugh, for it subverts the traditional expections of the "fairy tale" quite nicely. There are some points, however, where it falls down.

Firstly, this is still a fairy tale reality where princes can be turned into frogs. Despite what David Blaine proclaims, in this real world, magic is all sleight of hand and misdirection. And princesses are not always beautiful, no matter what small girls think, wearing pretty dresses and lightweight crowns. Think Princess Anne, here, and you're getting my point (though that's not to say that Princess Anne is not an admirable person in many ways).

Secondly, no princess would have to prepare the prince's meals and clean his clothes: that's what servants are for, even now. And no fairy tale ever claimed that the princess would ever have to do that for him. The other bits, however... well, those were always skated over by saying that the couple fell in love.

Thirdly, and this is the point that started me thinking, if the prince has been changed into a frog by magic, isn't the princess in the end actually eating the prince? Which is pretty gross, if you think of it like that. Cannibalism is not necessary, even to make a point.

So, if you want a fairy tale re-told, you can't do better than read the stories and novels of Robin McKinley. McKinley is one of my favourite writers: she has written original fantasy ("The Blue Sword" and "The Hero and the Crown"), and one of the most fantastic vampire novels ever published, "Sunshine", as well as her fairy tale retellings. These include The Princess and the Frog (in which the princess and the frog save each other) and The Twelve Dancing Princesses as short stories; Beauty and the Beast, twice (as "Beauty" and "Rose Daughter"); Sleeping Beauty (as "Spindle's End"); and, most movingly and horrifyingly, in a re-telling of the usually-bowdlerised Donkeyskin, "Deerskin". Not all are in print in the UK, except her most recent books, but most seem to be available from Amazon.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Film review - Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls comes with a clutch of Academy Award and other nominations: it's an adaptation of a Broadway musical telling the story of a sixties' girl group, called the Dreamettes, later The Dreams. Three Detroit friends and singers, Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Larell (Anika Noni Rose) attend a talent show one evening for the chance of a week's residency at the theatre. Although their act goes down well with the crowd, they don't actually win. Instead, they, and Effie's brother C. C. (Keith Robinson), who writes their songs, are offered another chance by an agent, Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) to sing back-up for a more established act, the womanising Jimmy "Thunder" Early (a stunningly be-quiffed Eddie Murphy). Reluctantly, the girls accept this gig, and the story of the Dreamettes begins.

The film charts their rise, as they break through restrictive playlisting practices with the help of Taylor and a lot of dodgily-gained money to gain the top of the pop charts. Along the way, Effie loses it, Deena gets the lead singer gig in place of Effie (leading to a climactic R&B number sung by Hudson which prompted a round of applause in the cinema last night!), a replacement, Michelle, is found (Sharon Leal), and the Dreamettes become Deena Jones and the Dreams as their appeal crosses over to both white and black audiences.

Although the disclaimer at the end of the film states that any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental, this is arrant rubbish. The Dreams are very clearly based on The Supremes, with Deena being a rather nicer Diana Ross, and Effie based on Florence Ballard, with Curtis a thinly disguised Berry Gordy.

As to the performances, well, Murphy and Hudson deserve their acting nominations. Hudson, in particular, given that it's her first film role, and that Effie is such an important character. Beyonce Knowles reputedly lobbied hard for the part of Deena, even performing in costume and with choreography at her audition, though in the film, Deena doesn't actually do very much. Whether this is because Hudson's personality as Effie is so dominant, or whether Deena was meant to be a less important character is unclear. Certainly, her big number at the end of the film, Listen, was written for the film, and didn't form part of the original stage production. Foxx convinces as the morally ambivalent Taylor, who is willing to do almost anything for his groups to succeed, and becomes a control freak. Murphy, too, turns in a well-tuned performance that runs from hyper antics on stage, to depression and drug abuse.

The singing is excellent, with all the main characters singing their own numbers. It's a little disconcerting to find that some of the explanatory songs, forming part of the narrative, following on (more-or-less) naturally from the dialogue, but in the main, this is done well, and is usually not too silly. Suspend your disbelief, really, and imagine you're going to a filmed musical (but better).

One thing, though – if you don't like R&B of any description, don't go. There is a lot of singing...