Before I went on holiday last week I had a burst of writing energy and, before I knew it, had four posts ready to be published. They are quintessential Harping On taking-silliness-seriously, and I am very excited to provide a little bit of light relief for myself and anyone reading this. I didn’t post last week because I was busy reading, swimming and sunning myself (more thoughts on that coming soon), so I hope that this Love Note series will more than make up for it.
As some of you will know, Disney holds a particularly big place in my heart. Fantasia is one of my top five favourite films of all time; Disney films in general are veritable nostalgia-fests when you need them; they provide the ultimate songbook for shower sing-a-longs; and can be hot topics for debate whenever the situation arises. Deconstructing Disney has long been one of my favourite past times (see here for an example), and I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. Like the fashion industry, such is the Walt Disney company’s power and reach that whatever its commercial and creative decisions, both good and bad, it affects us all even if we don’t care about them. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open to Disney and what they are doing than to keep myself ignorant.
In light of this, and on a lighter note, I have written my series of blog posts on four of my favourite Disney leading women. They are each inspiring, interesting and courageous in their own ways and have taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a woman with conviction, especially in the face of patriarchal bullshit. I hope you enjoy them!
Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996
Harping On legend has it that when I met Esmeralda at Disney World on my 5th birthday, I ‘lost my shit’. Esmeralda was very, very important to me. I had two Esmeralda dresses, a Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame pencil case, an Esmeralda doll and a tambourine. She was my absolute hero. She stood up to a repressed, privileged prick, Claude Frollo, who spent his entire life and career persecuting Roma gypsies like her, and actively abused and encouraged abuse of Quasimodo, whose mother he kills at the beginning of the film, who then hides behind his rampant sexual desire for her by calling her a witch. Like I said, a prick. She derides Frollo for his cruel treatment of those who are vulnerable and refuses to back down when told to do so. Esmeralda is uncommonly brave, standing up for what is right even though it comes at a great risk to her own personal freedom and safety.
One of the most moving parts of the whole film comes during her song ‘God Help the Outcasts’, with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Whilst every around her prays for glory, wealth and fame, Esmeralda declares:
‘I ask for nothing, I can get by
I know so many, less lucky than I
Please help my people, the poor and down-trod
I thought we all were children of God’.
Here, she clearly declares that she doesn’t want to ask for anything for herself because she knows of people who are much more desperate and worse off than she is. Esmeralda is selfless in spite of her own hardship, putting the needs, trials and suffering of her community before her own.
What is interesting is that whilst she addresses ‘God’ throughout most of the song, Esmeralda actually begins the song by speaking directly to a statue of Jesus. She demonstrates that in spite of the way she stands up for others and for what she believes in, she has internalised some of the xenophobic elements of medieval Paris, providing the caveat:
‘Yes I know I’m just an outcast
I shouldn’t speak to you
Still, I see your face and wonder
Were you once an outcast too?’
It is a moment of complete vulnerability as she enters a conversation with Jesus and subsequently God, a divine power that is bigger than her and whose help and comfort she needs. By adopting the language of her persecutors, with the label ‘outcast’, it suggests that she holds an internal belief that she is not worthy or good enough for finding refuge in prayer or communicating with God so candidly. However, she then goes on to draw a line of comparison between the two of them, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of Christian doctrine by suggesting that because Jesus was also considered an ‘outcast’ in his time, and especially in the run-up to his death, then it must be appropriate for her to speak to him. He was vulnerable, tried to help the needy and stood up to and threatened power structures, just she like she does. It is a beautiful, heartfelt moment, giving us a window into her internalisation of her ‘outcast’ status as a gypsy but also her ability to appeal to that which is vulnerable and considered by society as ‘unworthy’ in others, thus rendering everyone truly equal.
Esmeralda’s kindness and humility, coupled with her fiery resistance, her don’t-give-me-shit attitude towards future honey Phoebus, and her divine friendships with Quasimodo and goat Djali, make her one of Disney’s all-time greats. She is one of the most important and indispensable characters in the story and a true inspiration. She taught me that resisting injustice and standing up for others who are more in need of help than I am requires an immense amount of courage and bravery; never easy to do, but important beyond measure.