Friday, May 18, 2018

Of Mail and the Male Gaze (A Post-Mothers Day Post)

The U.S. Postal Service, looking for ways to convince us to buy stamps, has of late become focused on American popular culture. Flipping through a recent catalogue, I find the ever-popular Love stamps (suitable for wedding invitations and the like), as well as stamps celebrating American heroes, natural wonders, and holidays. I felt a pang upon spotting a stamp (first issued on January 30 of this year) dedicated to the great Lena Horne. Not only was she (as the catalogue puts it) “a trailblazer in Hollywood for women of color,” but she was also a sultry, sexy, powerful singer whom my parents adored. As they frequently reminded me, her musical numbers were featured in many a big-studio musical (like Ziegfeld Follies and Till the Clouds Roll By) in such a way that they could easily be snipped out when the films were shown in the Deep South. But Horne got an actual role as the femme fatale in one of my parents’ movie favorites: Vincente Minnelli’s all-black musical from 1943, Cabin in the Sky.

To be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, you need to be dead. But it’s also OK if you were never actually alive. The category of fictional characters on postage stamps now includes an assortment of Disney villains. Yes, villains! Here’s how the catalogue explains their presence:  “The Disney villains were a little scary when we first met them in the movies, but we learned that they couldn’t hurt the good guys. So now, children can enjoy sharing them with friends . . . .” Aha! It’s a ploy to convince kids to pen letters (and also send the USPS’s Disney-themed-postcards) instead of just texting. Far be it from me to discourage little ones from mailing off letters to their grandmas. In an era when letter-writing has become a lost art, I’m all in favor of a gentle nudge in the direction of the mailbox.

In studying my sheet of Disney Villains stamps, I found myself thinking back to classic films I still remember fondly: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio. And of course there was Snow White, the landmark 1937 film that was the world’s very first full-length animated feature. Naturally, each of these movies boasts an evil character who’s part of the postal service stamp array. The other villains on my sheet come from more recent Disney: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. But here’s the thing: of the ten Disney Villains represented: fully six are female. And of these six, most are mother figures Like the beautiful but deadly stepmother in Snow White, as well as the conniving stepmother who favors her own daughters over the heroine in Cinderella. I’ve read Bruno Bettelheim and others who’ve commented on the secret meanings of fairy tales, so I know it makes sense for children to see their own moms as sometimes morphing into wicked witches when their tempers are aroused. Still, it’s dismaying that there are so many evil women out there in the world of animation. Count them: Malificent, the Mistress of All Evil who dooms the Sleeping Beauty. Cruella de Vil, who makes puppy dogs into coats in The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Ursula the Sea Witch  who tricks Ariel into giving up her tail in The Little Mermaid.

I guess all this feminine evil is an effective counterpart to the sticky-sweet Disney princesses. But in the #MeToo era, I’m noticing there’s only one potentially lecherous Disney male, the chauvinistic Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Otherwise, leave it to Hollywood to make the women the bad guys.

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