Roy Edroso catches a conservative blogger over-reacting to that wildly subversive, almost Almodovarianally transgressive bit of filmmaking, Mulan II.
The blogger didn't like it, mainly because she objected to its theme, which she sees as being that a child's inclination to follow her own heart should trump any demands to do what grown-ups regard as her duty.
I just watched Mulan II (I have two young girls), and -- I kid you not -- "my duty is to my heart" appears to be the explicit message of the film (as it was in the Princess Diaries II). In the immortal words of Ryan O'Neal at the end of What's Up, Doc? -- that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. If you want a succinct and hilarious refutation of the idiotic notion that one's duty is to one's heart, watch the "Be Like the Boy" episode of The Simpsons.
Nothing I'd argue with here. But she's not done.
Duty is a category which is by definition separate from "heart." It represents all those things -- family, tradition, state, law -- which have a claim on us that transcends personal affection and selfish desire. For goodness' sake, what does our generation make of Antigone?
Antigone. And as if Sophocles isn't heavy duty enough, she then drags in Edith Wharton and The Age of Innocence. To which Edroso responds, essentially, Lady, it's only a movie!
"This woman is actually subjecting her afternoon child-quieting videos to strict moral-aesthetic analysis." Not that there's anything wrong with that. "It can be useful to examine the moral underpinnings of a work of art," Roy allows. But, come on! "This is fucking Mulan II!"
The blogger, Kate Marie of What's the Rumpus?, says she got into blogging because she was:
Fascinated by the blogging phenomenon and [I] think the blogosphere has provided a sorely needed counterweight to the entrenched biases, journalistic laziness, and eminently unwarranted arrogance of traditional media.
Or, in English, she's another right wing dittohead who wants to whine about how the rest of the world should think just exactly as she's been told to think by her favorite wingnut blowhards.
So I can understand Roy's exasperation and his urge to usher her out the door as quickly as possible, as if he's the pastor and she's one of the parish shrews and tattle tales who's burst into his office to complain that the other ladies in the Altar Society aren't using enough Lemon Pledge when they polish the pews.
There has been a contingent of scolds doing this sort of thing for over a decade. One of its early practitioners, Melanie Kirkpatrick, plagued the Wall Street Journal in the 90s with similar kernel-picking exercises. Here's one of her classics, in which she faults Paul Rudnick's AIDS comedy Jeffrey for not being more about duty and honor. She thought the play's model should have been Camille.
This would seem an unusual recommendation to an author of light comedies, but you have to remember that, for a certain type of person, even pop art is not at all about pleasure -- it is about morality, or rather, that modern, debased version of morality called Values.
What horrible lives such people must lead, seeing dark messages everywhere -- in children's entertainments, in TV shows, in popular songs. Sounds like paranoid schizophrenia without the relief of upswings.
Bye bye and buy bonds, Kate Marie. Nice job, Roy, except, and I hate to say this, I have to side with the wingnut on this one.
In general, I dislike morals in movies and books, and that "Follow your/Listen to your/Be True to your heart/self/dreams" one really boils my onions, as I've said here before.
First off, following your heart is a really bad idea. This is why we have civilization, so people don't do that.
Hearts are like pirate caves. They are reputedly full of hidden treasures but usually when you open one up a whole lot of bats, spiders, and angry bears come rushing out, and there's no gold.
Second off, to have this message keep popping up again and again and again and again and again and again and again in children's movies and TV shows is very frustrating to parents because most of what we do all day long from the time the kids start to crawl to the time they graduate from college is pick up the pieces after the little darlings have followed their dreams, listened to their hearts, and been true to themselves.
Good parents talk themselves blue in the face trying to convince their kids not to follow their hearts. Followed hearts generally do not lead children into good grades, good company, decent colleges, and stable marriages.
(Of course, this is, like everything else in life, a yin and yang proposition, and I'll have to deal with the yang in another post.)
And yet this stupid moral, which is damn near amoral if not immoral, is about the only moral Hollywood seems to know.
The people who make movies and shows for kids stick it into everything, as if it was a law that all children's entertainment has to include it. They put it into stories that already have other, better morals, that even have contradictory morals. It's in Jackie Chan's recent embarrassment, Around the World in 80 Days, even though you'd think that the lesson Jules Verne built into it, Be open to adventure, would have been enough and even though that lesson can even be read as a variant of the Follow Your Heart lesson so that putting Follow Your Heart in there on top of it is redundant. And they sneaked it in at the end of A Series of Unfortunate Events, even though throughout Lemony Snicket's books the Baudelaires keep finding themselves in situations in which they have to decide that following their hearts would be the wrong thing to do.
One of the themes of the books is that hearts contain a lot of conflicting things, that along with love and compassion and other noble urges and desires they can hold hate and greed and anger and fear and despair. If he does nothing else, Count Olaf follows his dreams, listens to his heart, and is true to himself.
(Again there's a yin and a yang. Esme Squalor is almost as villainous as Olaf but she never follows her heart---she follows fashion. Hearts, she might say, are not In!)
Those Disney made for video sequels---Pochantas II, Mulan II, Little Mermaid II, Simba's Pride, Return to Neverland---are especially egregious offenders on this score. I don't know why or how this happens, since the originals are mostly free of it. The first Mulan was more about what Kate Marie wishes Mulan II was about, doing one's duty. Yes, Mulan saves the day in the end by being true to herself---that is, she uses her head, a case of following your brains more than following your heart---but the reason she is there to save the day is that she has sacrificed herself to her duty.
You can argue that because she defies tradition in order to go for a soldier she is being true to herself. But defying tradition is almost irrelevent to her decision. She puts on her father's armor in order to save his life. That's following her heart, in a way, but it's not what the makers of Mulan II and their like mean when they preach that gospel. In their version, Mulan would go for a soldier because she wants to be a soldier, soldiering is her dream, soldiering makes her happy and so she should do it and everybody else needs to get out of her way.
In the original, following one's heart is a complicated proposition, it isn't easy to even know what your heart wants you to do, and success and happiness result from a combination of doing your duty and being yourself---but only if you understand that being yourself means using your talents to help others and that often means you have to put aside your dreams, ignore your heart, and sacrifice yourself.
I'm not sure about the sequel, because our kids have shown no desire to see it, thank goodness. One of the other things the Disney video sequels have in common is that they are pretty crumby. The animation is cheaper, the storytelling is more simplistic, and they often can't get the original stars to do the voices. Dan Castellana is wonderful as Homer Simpson, but he makes a very poor substitute for Robin Williams as the genie in Return of Jaffar. I'm betting Mark Moseley doesn't come close to filling Eddie Murphy's shoes as Mushu.
But enough of the sequels and too many other Hollywood products are full of it, so I don't doubt that Kate Marie is right about its message.
"It's just a movie," Roy says. But kids learn about life from the stories they're told, and the stories they're most familiar with are the ones on television and in the movies. So it's good to be careful. Doesn't mean that everything they watch has to be educational and morally uplifting, anymore than everything they eat has to be broccoli and sugar-free.
The trouble is that the makers of these movies don't think "Hey, we're just making a movie here, let's just have fun."
They think, "We need to have a moral." And then everybody in the room pipes up together, "I've got it! How about 'Follow Your Heart?'"
I'd rather there was no moral rather than it always being that moral. I don't want my kids fed a steady diet of intellectual Ho-Hos and Mountain Dew. But it would be nice if the makers of kids' movies would stop serving them the same old spinach.
It's funny, though, that one of the things conservatives liked about The Incredibles back when they were insisting it was a Republican movie was its theme, which they, thought, mistakenly, was Be true to yourself.
And the moral of our story is: Roy Edroso has posted a thoughtful, and righteous, rebuttal, in which he makes clear a point I glided over here. His quarrel is not with parents who don't like Mulan II for whatever reasons. He's standing up to what he sees as a general right wing assault on art, an attempt to reduce it all, from children's videos to Sophocles into neat little lessons fit for inclusion in Fast Billy Bennett's Book of Hypocrisy for Children. As Roy puts it,
Bad art is too bad, but what I really can't abide are the folks who are so freaking obsessed with values that they treat the great works of our civilization as lessons in deportment. It is a miracle that Sophocles call still speak to us across the millennia, but the more these nuts succeed in convincing people that Antigone and Creon are just a more hortatory version of Goofus and Gallant, the further the play's mysteries will recede into obscurity.
And Our Girl in Chicago, who did me the honor of making a quote from my post here one of her Fortune Cookies at About Last Night, swung by Roy's to drop off this comment, reconciling Roy's points and mine fairly neatly, I think:
It seems to me Roy and Lance are deeply in agreement on some level--the Disney folks who make Mulan II the vehicle for a bumper-sticker-worthy sentiment and the critics who set that up against a different bumper sticker are both enemies of art, no? No matter which b.s. you roughly sympathize with.
Also, you should check out J. Bryant's comments to this post. She has some good objections to my point.