I’m taking this opportunity to let everyone know that I liked The Princess and the Frog before it was cool. How is it possible to like a Disney blockbuster before it’s cool? Well, back in fourth grade, one of my favorite books was The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker. According to the credits of The Princess of the Frog, the movie is actually based on Baker’s book, though you’d barely be able to tell by comparing the two. Unlike the movie, the book isn’t set in New Orleans, and it has no shadow man, no crocodile, no firefly, no jazz, and no restaurant. Pretty much the only similarity between the book and the movie is that the girl turns into a frog when she kisses a frog-ified prince. The Frog Princess, is of course, based on the classic Grimm fairytale “The Frog Prince,” which, according to Wikipedia, is a retelling of folktale that has existed in various forms since at least Roman times.
“Everything is a Remix” immediately reminded me of this favorite childhood movie/book combo, especially when it discussed “multiple discovery,” or the way our culture often independently produces similar works or ideas. Of course, I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes at Disney, but, according to the Wikipedia article on The Princess and the Frog, at one point, Disney originally had two different films in development based on “The Frog Prince” story, and only one was based on Baker’s The Frog Princess. Those two ideas were combined, leading to the production of The Princess and the Frog we know today. Is it possible that “multiple discovery” applied to E.D. Baker and Disney? We’ll never know, but judging from the examples in “Everything is a Remix,” it’s highly likely that this classic fairytale resurfaced in two independent imaginations around the same time, and then, once Disney saw Baker’s work, it decided to just skip ahead and remix her remix (of a remix). After seeing so many examples of blatant cinematic borrowing and repurposing in “Everything is a Remix” (Looking at you, Star Wars!) I’m just impressed that E.D. Baker got any credit it all.
My junior year, the Springville High School drama department was destitute. Or, at least that’s how it seemed when our drama teacher pitched The Mikado for our yearly musical. This announcement, which all the drama kids had gathered to hear, was met with a resounding “huh?” What even was The Mikado?
Well, The Mikado is a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta first performed in 1885. Set in a Japan, with a cast of all white actors (more on that later), it was a smash hit when it was released, and, to this day, it’s still vaguely floating around in popular culture. Most importantly, The Mikado, is in the public domain. All of the sheet music, lyrics, and script are available online, for free. In comparison, the rights and materials for a modern musical can cost thousands of dollars, and our high school apparently didn’t have that kind of cash lying around (at least, not for the arts). So, we put on a show that only our grandparents recognized, and included a plot summary in the program, because even us kids, who had been rehearsing for months, still didn’t actually get what was going on.
With licensed musicals, deviation from the script is prohibited, but, with The Mikado, it’s become a tradition. The song “As someday it may happen,” in which an executioner sings about his list of potential victims, has been continually rewritten for subsequent performances of the show. While the original version criticizes “lady novelists” and “people who have flabby hands,” our version criticized texting audience members and the rival high school. More importantly, our director also decided to nix the yellowface and set the show in 19th century England, instead of Japan.
This week’s readings helped me to better understand why copyright laws exist. Ultimately, they promote creativity through fairness. However, this week’s readings also made me even more grateful for works like The Mikado, which, thanks to the public domain, are now free for any high school to clumsily perform on budget. To use Lessig’s terminology, our show became part of RW culture, because we could legally change up the show’s material. Both copyright laws and publicly accessible works have their place in promoting creativity.
Image: me performing “Three little maids from school are we,” one of the show’s better known songs. Accessed via my dad’s blog https://beitemmett.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-mikado.html
In Feminist Frequency’s video essay “Damsel in Distress (Part 1),” Anita Sarkeesian discusses the iconic, but highly problematic, Damsel in Distress trope and its widespread employment in video games of all kinds. Inspired by the abundance of damsels of distress in everything from mythology to film to propaganda, video game creators have frequently used women in need of rescue as motivation for their games’ protagonist. Sarkeesian points out that this trope, which portrays women as objects, rather than actors, is perpetuated not just because of continued misogyny, but also because of nostalgia for these formative, yet sexist, games. Fans of classic video games will pay good money to revisit the games of their childhood, guaranteeing that games based on the Damsel in Distress trope continue to be played and loved by new generations of gamers. I didn’t grow up on video games, but, as I reflected on my childhood medium of choice—books—I realized that I too am nostalgic for misogynistic stories.
Growing up, I absolutely loved Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson. The Newberry Award winning story focuses on Marly, a young girl in 1950s America whose father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In attempt to heal her father, Marly’s family decides to move to her grandmother’s old house in rural Pennsylvania. As Marly observes the changing seasons and the change in her father, she grows to love her new life on Maple Hill. I’ve reread this book multiple times, and I’m always captivated by its quiet simplicity and reverence for the natural world. And yet, this last time I reread it, I noticed something that I hadn’t before—sexism. And a lot of it. An abundance of 1950s-style gender roles that continually impact Marly and her mother.
For example, when the family first arrives at Maple Hill, Marly is about to set off and explore the house, when her mother reminds her to get back in time to clean the old dishes before dinner, saying: “Marly—this is the first place we women have start to dig.” Marly expresses her pride at being included in “we women,” but I only wondered where Marly’s dad and brother were. (They obviously weren’t included in dish-duty.) Another time, Marly tries to go exploring with her brother, but he won’t let her come, because she’s a girl. Marly laments the fact that she, as a girl, is always too afraid to explore by herself, while her brother does it all the time. Later on, Marly’s brother won’t let her help make maple syrup because she’s too weak to carry the buckets, an idea that Marly protests until her brother gives in. While I’m sure that as a little girl I was already aware of these kinds of harmful stereotypes, I now wonder how much Miracles on Maple Hill further contributed to my own internalized misogyny.
And yet, I still love it. Nostalgia will forever tie me to it, the favorite book of my childhood, in the same way I imagine that gamers will forever love The Legend of Zelda or Mario Brothers. Though the Damsel-in-Distress sexism of those games is fundamentally different than the sexism in Miracle on Maple Hill—Marly is less objectified—they both still perpetuate outdated ideas about women.
After the last time I read Miracles on Maple Hill, I wondered what I would do if, someday in the distant future, I have a daughter looking for something read. Would I recommend Miracles on Maple Hill, knowing the idea of womanhood it perpetuates? (Would there be any books left to recommend?) If I were to pass Miracles on Maple Hill on to my future daughter, I can’t magically get rid its sexism. Although I hope I’m wrong, I doubt society itself can get rid of its own sexism by then either. And this is where video games come back in. Books are static. There’s no new version of Miracles of Maple Hill scheduled to be released in the future. You don’t have to constantly upgrade books as the technology to experience them advances. Video games, however, are constantly updated and revamped. If FIFA and Madden can change their players and graphics every year, why can’t countless Damsel in Distress games change their portrayal of women? The constantly changing nature of video games provides the perfect opportunity for at least one medium to leave its sexist past behind and create a new kind of nostalgia, one that can fully embrace the past without hesitation.
(I posted this before 9 but I forgot to include the image cred, so here it is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Miracles_on_Maple_Hill_1956_cover.jpg)