Friday, August 9, 2013

The Dry-Eyed Stoic: How We Lose Sympathy With Crying Heroes

In fiction, characters suffer. They have to suffer, or we wouldn't read their stories. They face inner demons, terrifying minotaurs and personal losses. Heroes have to make hard choices, sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils or working with an antagonist they'd rather throw off the cliff.

Sometimes the suffering becomes too much. The hero just wants a tub of ice-cream, five hours in front of the TV, and sobbing time. Lots of sobbing time, with someone offering shoulder pats or even a hug at awkward moments.

"Big whoop," we say and wrinkle our noses. "Go back and fight that monster. Finish the mission." 

Readers view crying as a weakness, in classic literature, or as a sign of breaking down and giving up. This dates back to Homer's Odyssey, in which the title character's son, Prince Telekamhos, loses a crowd's sympathy when he expresses his grief and rage about suitors invading his home:

"He spoke in anger, bursting into tears,
As he threw his scepter onto the ground.
The crowd was motionless with pity"
(The Odyssey, Book 2, 87-90)

Image Source:

"Pity" is the key word here; Telemakhos at the age of twenty can technically become king, but he has to prove himself as a leader. By displaying unbridled emotion, he shows immaturity that the crowd cannot support, and the suitors take the time to defend themselves. Only his father Odysseus, who rarely breaks down during the story and is a mean warrior, can return and use excessive violence on the suitors. By "excessive," I mean slaughtering each and every last one for attempting to hit on his wife, threaten his son and heir, and usurp the throne of Ithaca.

Still, we seem to have a prejudice against heroes showing weakness even when they have legitimate reasons for doing so, or when they go through so much suffering. People did not like the fifth Harry Potter book, for example, because they found Harry moody and angry at everyone. They forget that only a few months before Harry saw Voldemort murder a decent Hogwarts kid because said kid was in the way, got cut up for blood, had to fight a man a hundred years older than him, and saw his parents return as echoing ghosts to protect him from the Dark Lord. And then, after returning to Hogwarts, where he's supposed to be safe, a teacher he trusts betrays him and reveals how deep the plot went; then the Prime Minister of Magic refuses to believe the threat, despite the fact that Harry's traumatized.

Not enough? Consider the early Disney heroines. Most of them are criticized for not being strong women, which they aren't, I admit, or being flat characters. The male protagonists, excluding Dumbo, Pinocchio and Simba, rarely shed a tear, because they are usually grown men. But we have to examine the context as well:

Edit: most of the Disney images came from Fanpop, and thus were not reproduced. I have instead linked to them in their paragraphs to give proper credit and so that you can see them.

Snow White is thirteen years old and a servant in her own household. She doesn't even feel dressed enough to welcome her dream prince, because of her rags and shyness. Let's see, stepmother tries to kill her with an assassin, she's lost in the woods and frightened after said assassin spares her life, and she no longer has a home or a friend. Cue the rabbits, deer and birds!

Image Source:

Cinderella puts up with a lot and still finds joy in her life. She's a servant and the younger of three stepsisters, based on what her stepmother says, and all she wants is one night out, to be like other girls and to get a chance to dress up. Her stepmother weighs the odds against her with lots of housework and no time to fix together her dress. Cinderella accepts that she can't go, then explodes in joy when seeing her mother's gown made over. Oh happy day, with pink and pigtails! Surely now she can have her night out and meet the prince!
Then   . . . her stepmother goads the other two sisters into tearing apart this treasured hand-me down, leaving Cinderella standing in a heap of ripped fabric. Any girl would burst into tears, even a cheerful one who's borne her siblings' tantrums and bad-tempered cat.

Image Source:

Alice has an excuse: she's ten years old, and she cried in the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She also breaks down later in the film when she cannot exit Wonderland and its irritating nonsense.

There is no screencap of Wendy from Peter Pan, because Wendy shed a single tear. A single tear. While walking the plank and thinking Peter was dead. This after getting kidnapped and having every female in Neverland trying to kill her or seduce Peter.

We have exceptions to context, however. Sleeping Beauty is the flattest character to come from Disney. I won't deny that. But she has probably heard the tale of the murderous spindle, and up to her sixteenth birthday she has lived a normal life as a peasant girl. Then she meets a guy, invites him to her house, and finds out she is a cursed princess, betrothed to a prince. Her crying is more "why can't I have what I want on my birthday?" then "oh my god, I am going to get killed by a pointy object and why couldn't we wait another day to return to the castle, so that destiny won't happen!"

In other words, Aurora never had control over her life, except for the sixteen years she had as a peasant girl. She was doomed the minute Maleficent arrived on the scene. So there's a legitimate reason to break down, right before the evil fairy pricks her finger with a spindle.

The Rescuers gave us Penny, another little girl in a bad situation. Orphaned, kidnapped and taken to the southeastern swamps where she has to risk her life to get a prized diamond. Running away has not worked, thanks to her kidnapper's prized alligators, but she still prays that someone will help her.

Image Source:

Ariel has several moments. She verges on tears when singing "Part of Your World" but only breaks down when Triton destroys her grotto, her sanctuary and Prince Eric statue which probably would have kept her in the ocean. We don't see her tears, interestingly enough, till Ursula hypnotizes Eric into forgetting about Ariel, and then we have a worthy cry-fest that only lasts until Scuttle conveys some important information.

Belle just bargained with the Beast to stay in his castle forever in her father's place, and she wasn't even able to say goodbye. She has just lost her old life and has decided to stay with a furry, bad-tempered monster. Can anyone blame her for bringing on the waterworks?

Note that she and Ariel are the first princesses to shed actual tears on screen. Not the head tucked into shoulders position that hides the reddened face, although Belle does that later when she's alone in her room instead of out in public.

Jasmine tries to run away from the Palace, meets a helpful street rat and gets him arrested. For "kidnapping" her, when he saved her hand from a mean apple seller. Not only did a nice person die, as far as she knows, but he did it because she knew so little about the marketplace or hiding her identity. We  viewers know that Aladdin isn't dead, despite the Cave of Wonders, but Jasmine doesn't. And she doesn't find out till the very end of the movie, after a spectacular magic carpet ride.

Mulan has just disgraced her family, twice. She cannot play the part of a Chinese maiden. Her father plans to battle despite being old and tells her she needs to find her place. After a few hours of sobbing in the rain, she makes up her mind to take his place. Then she sheds a few tears after the army finds out she's a woman, only putting them away when Mushu manages to comfort her, and when she realizes that China is still in danger.

We see a noted difference here. Instead of cute birds and sidekicks, or a fairy godmother coming to cheer the heroine up, she decides to take action. Actions that have serious consequences in terms of breaking the law and developing her character. When she gets caught, and don't chide me because she had to get caught, it's part of the narrative, she suffers further dishonor. Because Mulan doesn't give up, however, and strives to do what's right even if it's against the law-- saving China with a few fireworks and cross-dressing comrades-- she earns her father's respect, after expecting to come home and disappoint him.

As the years passed, Disney realized that a crying spell, however pertinent and realistic, would not win them brownie points. When they revived the Princess Genre, they made sure that tears were sparse.

In Princess and the Frog, Tiana has quit her day job, in hopes of making a down payment on a building to own her restaurant and live her daddy's dream. But New Orleans racism and finances hit her hard, and she is rock bottom despite the gown. Yet, as we can see, no tears. Not a single one. The rest of the movie continues in that fashion, with Ti suffering further disappointments and reminded how her father never achieved his dream.

Image Source:

Rapunzel, like Cinderella, puts up with a lot. She has an emotionally abusive mother who depends on her glowing hair, cannot step a foot outside her tower, and believes that she is frail. This despite her mean skills with a frying pan.
She only cries when her boyfriend dies, and she's unable to heal him, watching him stop breathing in her arms. They only include the tear because it was in the original fairy tale, and because said tear saves his life.
  Image Source:
Merida from Brave is the exception to this Disney trend, but she's a Pixar princess. Pixar plays with the "girl crumpled in a heap while sobbing her heart out" many times, including this nugget. Merida's mother, the Queen, has just burned her bow to a crisp and doesn't get that Merida played by the rules to win her own. hand. But does she whimper in her room for this? No, she gets on her horse and rides off, only stopping the sobbing when said horse throws her. The other two times that she tries involve no sidekicks comforting her; when locked in the tapestry room while her dad is hunting her bear mum, she decides to take action and attempt to mend the bond. The second time, the queen comforts her, and the tears become happy.  
Image source:

I'm not saying that Disney is heading in the wrong direction; it seems, however, that the company caters to the audience's taste of a strong, independent woman who keeps going even and refuses to cry at her lowest point. Because we hate the crying, it has to go.

I disagree with that fact. Heroes have to suffer to reach their goals. Sometimes they need that ice cream and give hours in front of the TV, because they get broken. They go through too much. They lose their prized possessions or loved ones in the heat of battle.

Allow our heroes to cry, please. Especially if they are girls. Let's have actual tears that spur the heroines to action, so that they don't need comfort or a plot device from a cute little critter, and so that they can keep the story moving.

Let's offer them Ben and Jerry's and reruns of I Love Lucy for a few hours. Then we can tell them to turn off the waterworks.

No comments: