Chel, Fiona, Marina, and Astrid are my favorite DreamWorks ladies. Sadly, none of them are the protagonists—shame. I wanted to look at how DreamWorks approaches feminity and feminism through them.
Fiona and Marina fit the mold of Disney princess pretty well. Fiona is locked in a tower and guarded by a dragon—Rapunzel and Aurora vibes, anyone? Marina is pressured into marriage for the good of her country while secretly dreaming of adventure—much like Jasmine, Ariel, and Belle.
Then we also have Chel and Astrid. Chel, if we’re really trying to give her a Disney counterpart, could be Pocahontas. Chel helps Tulio and Miguel fit into her society, the same way Pocahontas helps John Smith understand her people better. Yet she also has the Ariel/Belle/Jasmine desire to see the world. Astrid I can’t really see fitting any Disney mold, except maybe Mulan for her warrior spirit. My point here is that we can see similar molds and storytelling devices in both houses.
But let’s dig a bit deeper into each charater and their femininity or lack thereof and what that says about being ‘strong.’
Chel is heavily sexualized. In one way, she represents the damaging stereotype of the ‘exotic dark skinned woman’ or ‘jungle fever.’ Jean-Paul Goude took pictures of his black lover in a cage, baring her teeth, like an animal. Chel has large hips and black women used to be exhibited in freak shows as sexual objects for their large backsides.
This idea that “black equals erotic” is fetishism in its purest form; it mocks “otherness” while pretending to celebrate it and defines human beings by their genitals instead of seeing them as whole people. [x]
Look at that title! The fact that video even EXISTS!!! ughhh
Chel’s sexualization, while it carries some heavily racial stereotypes, is also a result of animation. Sadly, there are numerous examples of it: Tinker Bell, Ariel, and Jasmine (also racially “Other”) are just a few examples of women in animation being exploited.
Let’s move onto some good! While Chel is not a fighter in the traditional way and needs saving by Tulio, she’s smart. She knows her culture inside and out, and maybe you can argue, “Of course she knows this. It’s her life. It’s been taught to her since birth.” However, without her, Tulio and Miguel would have failed. She filled them in on cultural norms, and it was her idea to help them cheat during the ball game. That was something creative she had not been taught at all. Chel is intelligent and creative.
As we touched on a bit, Chel is adventurous. Her introduction scene is important in establishing her character since she’s running away with gold she stole to start her life somewhere else. Chel wants to leave El Dorado and the only reason she partners with Tulio and Miguel to help them con the entire city is because she wants out. Chel is a pretty grey character morally. And I think that makes her very interesting compared to a lot of women heroes in animation that are good and kind (though there’s nothing wrong with that!).
Of course, Chel does get what she wants by the end of the film. She’s escaped and is ready to see the world. Chel, Miguel, and Tulio don’t escape with any gold to their name. Chel has gone full circle from stealing gold in her failed escape, to escaping and that being enough. Of course, now she also has her lover Tulio and friend Miguel, so do they take the place of gold for her? Or, is Chel Tulio’s gold? Does she remain an object the entire film, despite her moments of genius? I think that’s up to your interpretation, but the fact that we could read it this way makes me a little ill.
Fiona and Marina and Astrid
I thought these women went together pretty well and so they could share a section. Fiona and Marina are both royalty and both want more for themselves. Like the Disney princesses rebel against society’s expectations, so do these women.
However, their stories are very different. Fiona’s is ultimately about finding the beauty in yourself and accepting it, while Marina doesn’t really have a lesson to learn. Marina doesn’t have much of her own arc because she’s a supporting character to Sinbad and Proteus and also both of their love interest. Like Marina, Astrid is relegated to an awesome side character and overcomes her society’s stigma of dragons, but only because the plot needs her to.
Poor Marina. I love her. Marina needs her own film! Marina kicks major ass, literally, while also finally getting the adventure she wants. Basically. She saves Sinbad and his crew a bunch of times, while also sometimes being the damsel.
Meet my queen.
Astrid is also mostly a love interest and she sees dragons in a new light because well… how could Hiccup get with her if she didn’t? This is slightly rectified in How to Train Your Dragon 2 since Astrid has her own side plot and is a badass.
All three of these women are amazing fighters. Marina kinda learns on the job, but picks it up fast. Marina is also one of the only animated female characters ever to wear pants. She also has short hair which is traditionally seen as masculine, but I’m happy to see that stereotype fading away. Astrid and Fiona both have braids—which I just realized now. I think that’s actually a great, practical, and stylish way to have long hair but also have it out of your face for fighting.
Also, can we pause a minute to appreciate Astrid’s outfit. I love it.
Fiona’s green dress is simple and she also wears flats. Also a practical choice for her fighting skills.
I love how the outfits of these women matter and it also highlights Chel’s sexualization as something that was done because of her race. They didn’t do it with Marina, Astrid, or Fiona. Chel was singled out. Chel is also the only non-fighter of the group.
Do they share anything else with Chel? Are they morally grey? Fiona might be since she’s so guided by her quest to be beautiful that she prioritizes that over all else. However, Fiona is also governed by fear of what people will think of her when they find out she’s an orge, so I don’t think that’s quite the same. Fiona is a great example of what fear will do to you. Hell, she agreed to marry Farquad despite having feelings for Shrek because she was so afraid.
Marina definitely has a firm moral compass since she goes after Sinbad for not having one. Marina wants to save Proteus from his unjust death sentence and is there to make sure Sinbad is not going to go back on his word. Astrid gets more screen time in the second movie where we see she also wants to save the dragons with all she has, so she’s pretty straight and narrow, too.
This meta wasn’t to say that DreamWorks is better than Disney. The purpose was to look at different women and their portrayal. DreamWorks has its strengths like practical costumes and lots of different roles for women (princess, dragon rider, sea explorer, etc), but is also lacking leading roles, which is a problem.
DreamWorks has also done a good job of drawing women like people with different faces and body types, but they also seriously messed up Chel. So while some aspects are good, others still need work. Hopefully DreamWorks will provide us with some awesome leading ladies with franchises of their own in the near future. 🙂
What do you guys think? Does DreamWorks need more women in leading roles? Also: who is your favorite DreamWorks lady?