Stereotypes to the right of them, stereotypes to the left of them, the politically correct volley and thunder at every image that might offend the sensitive soul of the approved victim. Dartmouth’s comic Indian mascot turned into an unsmiling noble savage, then was abolished altogether. First the Frito Bandito’s politically unacceptable gold tooth disappeared, then it was noticed that he himself wasn’t particularly p.c. either, and he vanished into the sunset. Aunt Jemima lost her culinarily reassuring but racist (and weightist) avoirdupois and transmuted into a jazzy Diana Ross lookalike. Yet a fountainhead of politically incorrect imagery remains free to corrupt the souls of America’s youth: the animated cartoon, especially as practiced by the long shadow of that dead Euro-American white male, Walt Disney.
Disney is full of attacks upon the sensibilities of the politically correct. Scrooge McDuck has done untold harm to the Scots among us, who are full of generous impulses yet find few role models of a careless liberality with money. Lady and the Tramp is shockingly p.i. with its Chihuahua much worse than the above-mentioned Bandito and with its pair of Siamese cats, who do nothing to promote positive attitudes toward Asians. Even Lady has been denounced as a paradigm of 1950’s containment, who trades her sexual liberty for a marriage license and a leash. And the crows on the fence in Dumbo simply pass beyond the pale.
Most recently, Beauty and the Beast perpetrates the most harmful of sex-role caricatures. While Belle is an acceptable mix of Madame Bovary and a bluestocking, the men in her life are a non-nurturing chauvinist lot: an absentminded professor, a macho jock, his Best Buddy, and the Beast, who is, of course, a beast. Speciesism, too, raises its ugly head: the wolves, whom we know now to be gentle and kindly mammals, are shown attacking human beings. There has been much inappropriate laughter in movie theaters. In the groves of academe, where such things are properly understood, the mirthful would no doubt be packed off to reorientation seminars.
You may have noticed that we are getting a little carried away. But what the attackers of stereotyping miss, and what this application of their method to Disney demonstrates by a reductio ad absurdum, is that cartoons and their verbal equivalents are funny because they depend on caricature, on exaggerating slight characteristics into prominent and universal ones. Caricature is nothing new, nor is it purely the domain of the ephemeral or of low art. Giulio Romano’s Mannerist masterwork, the Sala dei Giganti (Palazzo del Te, Mantua) is a lofty foreshadowing of Disney’s best in its exaggerated postures, its parodies of Michelangelo, its grotesque expressions of horror, its movie-screen scale, and its witty blend of spatial special effects, mixed media, and lighting from natural and artificial sources. Giulio’s scene of the ruin of the giants is a tour de force, partly horrific, partly grotesque and funny, and entirely appropriate to the playful character of a festival palazzo: caricature and entertainment, but undeniable art.
Nor need the animated film feature be dismissed as inconsequential or nonart. Many have begun to suspect as much: Beauty and the Beast is the first cartoon to be nominated for Best Picture. Disney has always evinced a taste for cartoons based on stories with a tragic or pathetic element. Bambi, which has become a byword for unendurable and saccharine cuteness, conveys a strong dose of the original tale, which grew out of the mass slaughter of the First World War. The German Expressionists (Bambi is an expressionist novel) plumbed the depths of sadness and suffering in both the animal and human world. “All being is suffering” is the motto borne by Franz Marc’s painting of the death of animals. What strong heart among us remains unmoved by the death of Bambi’s mother?
Sadness, too, is a strong element in the fairy tale, or more properly the folktale, and Disney often increases the sadness by tightening up the story lines and giving them a definite timeframe. For instance, in Beauty and the Beast the prince has a time-limit on his redemption: he must make someone love him before the last petal falls from a rose.
Much of the power of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast may derive from its primary source of cinematic influence, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la bête. First, Disney borrows some of its best visual effects from Cocteau, in fact some of his most famous theatrical and cinematic inventions. The overall dark tone of Disney’s version and its phantasmagorical architecture is also reminiscent of Cocteau, who shot most of his exteriors among the bizarre animal sculptures of the chateau at Raray. Disney’s talking objects, the clock and the candlestick, the teapot, cup, wardrobe, and all the rest, also find their source in La Belle et la bête. In Cocteau’s film, the invisible hands described in the original fairy tale become terribly visible, but disembodied. Real arms sprout from walls and tables to hold candelabra or pour drinks; caryatids whose eyes follow La Bête’s measured courtship breathe out smoke at appropriate moments; La Belle’s bed unmakes itself to receive her, and most important for Disney, her mirror and the door of her room explain themselves to her in disembodied voices. The helpful, magical talking object is of course a staple or a stock character in the folktale as Robert Darnton explains in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, a French story in which the Devil’s daughter and her lover make a daring escape by the clever ruse of leaving two talking pâtés in their beds to make their excuses. Perhaps they are the ancestors of Disney’s Food Folies-Bergere.
As for the story line itself, the Disney version also borrows heavily from Cocteau. Cocteau transformed Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s original story considerably: hers was the familiar, pleasant, moralizing tale of outward ugliness and inner beauty, demonstrating the importance of looking beyond externals to the beauty of the spirit. Behind it, however, lurks the original folktale of the animal bridegroom, an archetype that deals with woman’s revulsion from the male and her reconciliation with him. In these stories, the beast-bridegroom, a caricature of the male, shocks and horrifies his bride with his violence, his aggression, his hairiness, even while attracting her. She tames and gentles him and comes to love him. taking a certain pleasure in his force. It is so, as Bruno Bettelheim maintains, that the types of the folktale prepare its hearers for the real events of their lives.
Cocteau as a surrealist returns to this mythic dimension of the story, to explore and make real images of the unconscious and the deep and mysterious currents of human existence. Cocteau is the first to split up the good and bad qualities of the male and female archetypes between, on the one hand. La Belle’s family and friends, representing the mundane and reprehensible, and on the other. La Belle herself and her Bête, the embodiments of essential man and woman in relationship. The two sisters arc vain and frivolous, silly, mean, all the stereotypes we dislike in women, while La Belle is their opposing counterpart, modest, serious, gentle, loyal, loving, compassionate, in short, beautiful. Similarly, Cocteau divides the male persona between the ineffectual father, the rascally but attractive up-and-comer Avenant, the brother Ludovic in the role of Best Buddy, and naturally La Bête. Cocteau’s characters are not fully realized, nor are they meant to be. They are recognizable stock characters, who fall somewhere on the continuum between archetype and caricature, quite appropriate to the fairy tale. Because his characters are stock types, Cocteau can even get away with the stereotyped Jewish moneylender, rather an audacious stroke in the France of 1946. Yet no one takes offense: the immediately recognizable type simply symbolizes the predicament into which La Belle’s father has fallen.
Because he uses the stock types of the fairy tale as his main characters, Cocteau can more safely investigate the archetypal relationship between man and woman, that is, between her beauty and his beastliness. For Cocteau’s La Bête is indeed a beast. Unlike Leprince de Beaumont’s gentle monster, Cocteau’s La Bête pricks up his ears at the whiff of passing game, leaves mangled animals on the grass, comes in bloody from the kill with his hands smoking, and, while resplendent in Christian Berard’s silk and velvets, is wondrously furred and fanged, inarticulate, full of depths of violence and aggression. Still, aware of his own beastliness, he is unnerved by La Belle and cannot bear to look her in the eyes. In turn she looks at him first with fear and loathing, then takes pity on him, letting him drink from her cupped hands rather than lap water from a pool like an animal. From pity springs compassion, and from that, affection and an eventual admission of love.
Here then is the ancestor of the central premise of the Disney version. Disney’s Beast is not particularly pleasant at the beginning: he and the village suitor share the most obnoxious character traits of the male. While Gaston is simply a macho pig who can think of nothing but hunting, fighting, and himself. Beast is initially even worse. He embodies, and so in a sense caricatures, the violence of the male. He terrifies everyone who encounters him by his appearance (half buffalo, half lion) and temper. It is his violence that repels Belle, yet it saves her life. Beast rescues Belle when she flees his castle and is attacked by wolves, but only at the cost of the rending of his own body. She nurses him back to health and slowly gentles him. The movie is full of sentimental, but very true, songs about the “tale as old as time,” the transforming powers of love on the rough male character.
Beast, respecting her intellect, gives Beauty access to his library, which is on the scale of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and falls in love with her. He lets her go to rescue her father, although he knows that time has run out and that he will stay a beast forever. The villagers attack him, led by Gaston, in a scene taken from the attacks on Frankenstein’s and Dracula’s castles. Gaston attacks the despairing Beast, who does not fight back, until he sees that Belle has returned. He vanquishes Gaston, but Gaston stabs him in the back. Gaston falls to his death, but Beast dies, too.
Cocteau’s scene of the death of La Bête played further on his division of the male persona into Avenant and La Bête. At the end, Avenant, who would take La Bête’s treasure and magic by force, is shot and transformed by magical powers into a monster like La Bête, while La Bête, redeemed by La Belle’s admission of love, transmutes into the Prince, played by Jean Marais, who also played Avenant. While admitting her affection for the now departed Avenant (she never admitted it to him), La Belle is a little disturbed by the Prince’s resemblance to Avenant—actually, by this time she preferred him as La Bête (and so do we).
Disney’s ending is less ambivalent, attempting something that suggests the people at Disney have studied literary criticism. J.R.R. Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories” defines the opposite of the catastrophe, the eucatastrophe, the sudden and unexpected good, so unlooked for that it takes the breath away and gives a glimpse of evangelion, the good news beyond hope and even beyond imagination. For Tolkien this is the heart of the fairy tale. As Beast dies and the rose loses its last petal. Belle tells him that she loves him. The rain and her tears mingle. But then the rain begins to turn iridescent, and the body of Beast is lifted off the ground by a power that suspends it in midair. Light streams from inside the body, and Beast is transformed from within. He returns from death and is now the Prince, who weds Beauty. The castle, which is mostly covered with nightmare figures and gargoyles, is washed by the rain and light into a Rococo chateau, and the demons into cherubs. The movie strikes deep chords here: Redemption and Transformation through a sacrificial Love-Death.
Disney Studios has always had a taste for capturing the essence of a place. Peter Pan is filled with scenes of J.M. Barrie’s London (now lost forever to the Blitz and development). Beauty and the Beast is a study in the French chateau: Disney’s dark castle is a composite of many in France, embellished and amplified, to the delight of the architectural historian who recognizes snippets of Chenonceaux and Chambord, bits of Versailles, and a little of the Orangerie thrown together and multiplied. The beast’s chateau in its monstrous state recalls the incrustations of French Gothic, where the gargoyles stand for the distortion and deformity implicit in the disordered state of evil.
When the cleansing rain of tears comes, the dark chateau is transformed into an evocation of the playful, erotic beauty of the Classical and Rococo pleasure palace. It is the architecture proper to the fairy-tale ending, the Never-Never Land of magical eroticism and romance implied by “happily ever after.” Is this a caricature? a cliche? a fondly recognized truism? Is it art? or a theatrical parody of art?
More than architecture is being parodied here. The Gothic horror of the earlier chateau recalls the caricature-stereotype of the horror movie set as much as any genuine monument. The rousing of the villagers mentioned above is a direct descendant of the Frankenstein genre. The ballroom scene recalls many a romantic black-and-white (probably now colorized) costume piece from the 1940’s. Beauty and the Beast exchange snappy banter like a cartoon Hepburn and Tracy, and the two burst into song in the conventional pattern of the musical comedy, or, more exactly, the Viennese light opera. Disney uses theatrical and cinematic stereotypes-cum-cliches as a form of gentle caricature, fondly acknowledging his sources, just as Cocteau did with the fairy-tale types, to abstract and explore truths about males and females in relationships.
If Disney’s sex-role stereotyping flirts with censure in the present political climate (though Beauty has yet to be tarred with the same brush as poor Lady), its political tendencies as revealed in animated cinema should be a logical target for p.c. wrath. Fantasia is a case in point. Disney’s Fantasia was released on videocassette in 1991, but the doyens of political correctness have not yet pounced upon the ultimate sin: cinematic fascism. We most recently saw the movie during the Persian Gulf War, in a restored 1930’s movie palace. The manager, after asking ladies to remove their hats, said that the screening would be preceded by a newsreel from 1940, the events of which had chilling resemblance to the events of our own day. He said that just as the audience of 1940 escaped from the news of the day into the new type of entertainment that Fantasia represented, we could for a while escape our own problems.
The Movietone newsreel, narrated by Lowell Thomas, contained a summary of the events of I940. It was not a happy year: the evacuation from Dunkirk, the shelling of the French fleet in North Africa by the British, the bombing of Chungking by the Japanese, Roosevelt’s attempts to rally the democracies against Hitler, Chamberlain’s fall and funeral and Churchill’s accession, the bombing of London and Coventry, the preparations for mass conscription in the United States. These events were more than sufficient cause for anxiety.
But when Fantasia immediately followed, it became clear that the Disney film was not simply an escape from the terrors of life. The title was aptly chosen: fantasy, dreams, and myth are a means to transform our anxieties and to somehow enable the mind to deal with them or at least bear them. When imagination transforms our anxieties, it gives at least the illusion that we somehow control them.
It was clear from the start that Disney accepted the Führerprinzip. The Nazi version of the Great Man theory had its roots in the Romantic conception of the artist as titanic creator. In the 18th century the first violinist was the conductor; his job was to make sure everyone played on key and started and stopped at the same time. By contrast the Romantic conductor was a Great Man, a creator, who ruled massive movements of sound by his genius and force of will. Modris Eksteins, in his book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, examines how the aestheticization of politics transposed this concept into the image of the political leader. In Fantasia, the ten-times-life-size image of the conductor Leopold Stokowski is like the gigantic statues of the ancient world or their successors in both democratic and totalitarian societies of the 1940’s. In the newsreel, Roosevelt and Churchill were shown orchestrating opposition to fascism, providing leadership to the masses, just as Stokowski brings order out of chaos by imposing his will in leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. The brief jam session of symphonic jazz that the musicians engage in during one of Fantasia’s entr’actes is play, not the serious business of music.
Disney pursues the theme throughout Fantasia. Mickey Mouse (the Common Man or Everymouse) takes the role of the conductor in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence and finds it too much for him. One broom is too much for him to control, and the massed army of splinter-grown brooms (this is 1940) frighteningly engulfs him. He cannot impose his will in the least. He is powerless. Not so the Sorcerer, the Great Man. A single gesture of his hands, like Stokowski’s, brings the orchestrated broom-terror to a halt. Most menacing of all, in the final sequence, the Devil in the Night on Bald Mountain also conducts a fiendish symphony of torment. The conductor’s gestures, impotent with Mickey Mouse, creative with Stokowski, powerful with the Sorcerer, become terrifying as they work mass violence and destruction.
Even in the abstract sequence at the beginning, in which Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (by coincidence der Führer means the fugue theme) play, images of mass movements that threaten and overwhelm take shape as visual equivalents to the music. These movements continue in the Dinosaur sequence set to Le sacre du printemps, which depicts battle and mass destruction, both in inanimate and animate nature. Le sacre du printemps had gone in one generation from being a public scandal to serving as a cartoon accompaniment. But Disney chose the music well, for the prophecy of death and re-creation in the music had been lived out in the Great War and was continuing in the Great War, Part II. The threats of mass movements and mass death in Europe lurk disquietingly below the surface of the images of mass extinction among the dinosaurs. The columns of dinosaurs in the death march are eerily reminiscent of the columns of Belgian refugees in the Movietone newsreel.
In almost all of his movies, Disney is fascinated by loss and death (this extends from the death of Bambi’s mother to small-scale images of bursting bubbles and of leaves spiraling away in the wind); still he structures Fantasia as a tragicomedy. The thunderstorm sequence to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony presents us with danger under the control of semi-benevolent deities with a comic bent. The comedy modulates into farce in the inspired silliness of the Dance of the Hours. Classical ballet, realm of the impresario and mass choral movement, bears a certain resemblance in a very nonthreatening way to totalitarian movements. To replace the dancers with gawky ostriches, overweight hippos, and dashing alligators was a stroke of genius. The him concludes by setting the classic symbols of Good and Evil against each other in the juxtaposition of Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert’s Ave Maria.
But is Mickey Mouse a fascist? Does Fantasia support or undermine the Führerprinzip? Does it belong with Triumph of the Will, or with the Ducktators? What is the relationship of art, particularly art that caricatures or stereotypes, to the thing that it in some way represents? The recent report to the AAUW from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women raises objections to school textbooks’ stereotyping of women and girls, apparently both as a contributing factor to women’s low levels of self-confidence and as a gloss-over of the real problems facing women. But the objections seem to be not that women are stereotyped as such-and-such, but that they are stereotyped at all. By “stereotypes” the report seems to mean “generalizations,” and even as such, something forbidden (or as the new verbal code would have it, “inappropriate”).
Is all generalization, then, politically incorrect? Surely of all forms of generalization, caricature is the most precarious, the most prone to be used for immoral purposes, for dehumanization of the caricatured victim. Effective caricature is amusing because it shares the incongruity of all humor. The incongruity consists in abstracting a few typical or stereotypical features from a concrete person or group of persons. The isolation and exaggeration of those features becomes the focus, indeed the locus of the humor. It points up folly; it reveals unfortunate truth. It is a form of play, but therefore necessarily a form of struggle, a wrestling with reality that occasionally ends in a pratfall. Is play forbidden? No wonder Punch is dead. Lest we take ourselves too seriously, caricature of the self recommends itself to us all—we should be well supplied with humor.
But what about caricature of others? Here the relationship of art to life is more complex and depends on intent, which necessarily factors an element of morality into the equation. The same caricature can be blameless or quite the opposite, depending on how it is used. Take the ease of another film, a cartoon of a sort, though not an animated one: Jacques Feyder’s wonderful 1935 farce La Kermesse héroïque. The story is set in 17th-century Flanders under the Regents; the officials of a small village are terror-stricken at the prospect of the Spanish commander-in-chief’s overnight billeting in their town as he passes through with his army. The mayor, and in fact all the men of the town, go into hiding. Pretending to be recently deceased, the mayor chalks his face and lays himself out in state, while his councilmen keep solemn vigil. Meanwhile, outraged by their husbands’ cowardliness, the townswomen march out to greet the visiting duke and make accommodations for the temporary occupation. Some prove very accommodating indeed.
The resulting situation is delicious: stereotypes are turned on their heads; the women take the men’s traditional roles while the men take the women’s. The occupying army is alternately sentimental, effete, rowdy, and ultimately benevolent. Through it all the characters slip in and out of tableaux vivants of famous Dutch and Flemish paintings: the indignant town council mutters together around a carpeted table in the poses of Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Draper’s Guild; their wives, equally indignant, forge their countermove posed as Hals’ Regentesses. The mayor, spying out his wife’s suspected infidelity, parodies the imposing central figure of the Night Watch. His wife, fresh from the Duke’s embraces, stands in the attitude and dress of one of Vermeer’s models of domestic virtue. Not only does the film continue the venerable Flemish literary and artistic tradition of the world turned upside-down, it turns the great art of the Low Countries topsy-turvy to add to the fun.
The film’s fate in later years, however, strikes a chilling note. In the occupied France of 1941, Feyder’s film was widely promoted by the Germans as an illustration of the advantages and benefits of a happy collaboration between the occupied and the “civilized” occupying army. Suddenly the playfulness turns deadly earnest. Here, then, is the danger of caricature: like any art, it can be put to evil use. Political philosophers, from Plato onwards, have assumed a simple correspondence between viewing art and a life formed by the viewing of art. The poets told fables of the gods’ immorality; they must therefore be banished from the city, lest they corrupt morals. Such a simple correspondence is indeed possible. Stylization and caricature, even the merest generalization, can lead to dehumanization.
That is the danger of art. Art generalizes. The artist aims at recognition, at the moment when the viewer says “Aha” and understands what the artist is representing. To do so, he must generalize. Generalizations, stock types, folk and fairy-tale heroes and heroines, stereotypes, caricatures, beauties and beasts are but markers on a continuum. If we ban generalization on the grounds that it may be used immorally, we ban all art. Art necessarily abstracts something from reality. It is therefore, as Plato said, less than reality, a copy of a reality, which is itself a copy, a flickering of shadows on the wall. But the Neoplatonists would counter that art captures something of the archetype that may not be clearly visible in the reality itself.
This is not to say that art and morality are divorced from each other. Art, even great art, can be used for immoral purposes, can be a fleur du mal that should be restricted or suppressed. However, the solution to the misuse of good art by evil intent, whether high art or caricature, is not to banish it, but rather to school the viewer in a doctrine of moral law and philosophy in which art has its place. Both the Beautiful and the Good are necessary to the life of society. That way the caricatures that are crude, vicious, and intended to inspire hatred are dismissed with disgust or scornful laughter, like the graffiti on rest room walls.
And here is our quarrel with the enforcers of the politically correct in art, who have once again banned Huck Finn and Nigger Jim from the schoolroom. Because of the political hatefulness of the “n” word, schoolchildren are to be robbed of the acquaintance of two of the most sympathetic characters in all of American literature. Politics, the willful grasping of power, is the ultimate measure of art in the minds of these deconstructors.
Locke believed the antidote to the misuse of liberty is more liberty. The best antidote to the misuse of art, high or low, is more art, so that the aberrations are lost in a sea of valid and compelling explorations of reality.