In the 1987 classic fractured fairy tale, The Princess Bride, as the dwarf genius, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), keeps sputtering that things which are clearly and visibly happening right in front of him are “Inconceivable!” the Spanish swordsman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), eventually tells him, “I no think that word means what you think it means.”
I have the same sort of attitude towards media properties that think they’re telling tales of positive intercultural relationships. As the mother of three African-American Jewish children, I am perennially on the lookout for kid-friendly entertainment that reinforces a message of genuine diversity. However, as someone with a master’s degree in media analysis, I often find myself adding another title to the “Nope, won’t be watching that list,” while mumbling (with an inadvertent Spanish accent), “I no think that word means what you think it means.”
Take, for instance, 2001’s Shrek. I’m sure that the people who wrote, directed and marketed the movie via a million McDonalds’s Happy Meals sincerely thought they were offering a story about judging people (ogres?) by who they are on the inside rather than what they look like on the outside, about true love crossing all sorts of cultural and ethnic (green is an ethnicity, right?) boundaries, and about families blooming in all shapes, sizes and shades. In other words, the perfect message for the interracial, interfaith child.
Except we have one little problem.
Shrek and Princess Fiona are not two different species. The beautiful princess is hiding a horrible secret. Come nighttime, she turns into an ogre, too. So, instead of being the story of an ogre and a human falling in love, it is the story of an ogre and an ogre falling in love. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Not that there is anything wrong with that.” But the message of the movie, ultimately, turns out to be the exact opposite of what it’s purported to be.
To be fair, Shrek is simply borrowing an archetype from Beauty and the Beast. Another classic tale turned animated feature that tells the story of a beautiful, brave girl who falls in love across species. Only to have the beast, in the end, turn into a human being.
(A parallel in adult literature would be Faye Kellerman’s books, wherein Orthodox Rina agonizes over falling in love with cop Peter, who isn’t Jewish — only to conveniently learn that he’s adopted and his biological mother was Jewish. Problem solved.)
Both tales, at their core, are arguably an homage to the original Hans Christian Anderson story of “The Ugly Duckling.” Since 1872, children have been taught that the fable’s moral is (take your pick) “True beauty lies on the inside” and/or “What makes you ugly in one culture will be considered beautiful in another.” In other words, like Anita warbles in West Side Story, “Stay with your own kind.”
Mark Pinsky, author of the book The Gospel According to Disney, argues that The Little Mermaid is a movie about the problems of intermarriage. Except that, once again, the characters don’t have to ponder the age-old question, “A fish can fall in love with a bird, but where would they live?” since Ariel, the fish (er, mermaid) in question becomes human in order to wed her prince at the end of the story.
At least Disney (and Kipling’s) version of The Jungle Book flat out states the above, instead of leaving it to inadvertent subtext. In the final scene, Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Tiger send Mowgli away from the jungle family that raised him to follow a pretty, little human girl and live among men. Because “The boy couldn’t help himself. It was bound to happen. Mowgli is where he belongs now.”
When it comes to children’s movies, it seems that the only way an intercultural relationship can work is for one party to completely turn their back on what makes them different — what makes them, in effect, them, be it the mermaid tail, the beast’s horns or conventionally pretty human form — and become the same, in appearance and attitude, as the object of their affection.
(In The Incredibles, we do see a reverse situation, which, to my mind, is no less disturbing. Instead of a story of faux intermarriage and forced conversion, we get one of near racist elitism. While the superhero family laments being ostracized and marginalized due to their unusual talents, they also stubbornly insist that superheroes can only be born. When Buddy, the “villain,” attempts to join them by building machines that duplicate their powers, he is mocked, rebuffed, and told he could never hope to become one of the elite. For a movie that whimpers, “When everyone is special, no one is,” they sure do have a closed mind about potentially different types of talents, i.e. brains a la Buddy versus brawn a la the Parrs.)
So the next time you get ready to take the kids to the latest animated flick or cuddle up with a recently restored and re-released DVD of a childhood classic, do it for the eye-popping animation, the Broadway-worthy tunes, the cuddly supporting characters and the hours of absolutely warranted family fun. But beware: if the back cover promises an inspirational moral about an intercultural love story — that word might not mean exactly what they think it means.