A Love Letter to The Emperor’s New Groove in Two Parts

~Bewaaaare the groooove~

~Grooooooooove~

This is me in Grade 9 (baby):

  • My best (and sort of only) friends were two girls who were way too intense for any of our own goods
  • Through them I discovered the joy of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in theatres. Seven times.
  • Through them I discovered the joy of Beyblade, a truly ridiculous show
  • I wrote poetry about death because of course I did
  • I still had braces
  • The braces are probably why I wrote death poetry
  • I watched a lot of bad horror movies, because my friends wanted to
  • I watched Holes many more times than was technically necessary, because my friends wanted to (and also I wanted to; who am I kidding)
  • We ate a lot of Chinese food
  • I had to pick a side when my two best friends had a friendship-ending, common decency-ending fight over a guy who, we much later found out, was gay

and

  • Before that fight, they made me watch The Emporer’s New Groove

Despite how tumultuous that year was, I look back on it fondly. Thankfully things got a lot better in the ensuing years, and probably it’s because things got better that I can’t remember defining movies and TV shows that I was watching from, say, grades ten or eleven, when I had other friends whose drama was mostly kept politely off to the side.

My grade nine media consumption was a lot of fun and also kind of all over the place. And apologies to RotKBeyblade (heh), and Holes, but The Emporer’s New Groove is the piece of media from my early high school career that I love the most. It wasn’t just a well-made and/or hilarious distraction. The Emperor’s New Groove is the one that, I think, shaped me the most. I guess I’ll try to articulate why.

Let’s start with Yzma

Yzma is far and away my favourite Disney villain. She’s not the one I think is the scariest, she’s not the one I think is the most compelling, but I do think she’s the funniest, and the one I can actually muster up some sympathy for.

Three and I have gone through all of this before but still, for comparison’s sake:

  1. The scariest villain, according to me, is probably the Horned King from The Black Cauldron, mostly because of the scene where his dragon things chase Hen Wen. Oh and the Gurgi thing. Yzma has nothing, scariness-wise, on him. Honestly, she has nothing scariness-wise on any of the other scary villains either.
  2. The most compelling villain is a bunch of them, but mostly I think it’s Ursula. I like that she manipulates people’s vulnerabilities; there’s a lot to consider there. Comparatively, Yzma is just a disgruntled employee who is also a bad person.
  3. The other funny villain is maybe Captain Hook. His humour comes entirely from being repeatedly injured by Tic-Toc and Smee’s unlikely tag team. Yzma, I think, is funny in her own right at least some of the time.
  4. I have some sympathy for Dr. Callahan from Big Hero 6, but only in that I feel bad for him. None of his actions are justified. Yzma’s murder attempts are not justified and are of course morally wrong but on the other hand, who can blame her, really?

I was recently thinking about how not-all-that-awful apart from murderous intentions she is, and then “The Kronk Thing” occurred to me. “The Kronk Thing,” is, in case you’re wondering, the sort of jokey implication on Kuzco’s part that Yzma has Kronk around because he’s attractive. And, following from that, all of the other implications. Which would make Yzma a sleazy boss figure.

So: Yzma and Kronk

Kuzco says, describing Kronk to us, “Yzma’s right hand man. Every decade or so she gets a new one. This year’s model is called, ‘Kronk.'” And later, at Yzma’s dinner party, there’s an uncomfortable conversation while Kronk runs off to attend to his spinach puffs.

“He seems… nice,” Kuzko says.

“Heh heh, he is,” Yzma replies.

“He’s what, in his early twenties?”

“I’m – uh – not sure.”

And then there’s an awkward silence until Kronk returns.

See, maybe it’s just that Disney wouldn’t let the animators go all in showing an older lady being all over her much younger, easily manipulated employee, but, to me, the Yzma/Kronk relationship reads as a completely professional relationship and/or an oddball friendship. In both instances, one isn’t pulling their weight. Kronk, bless him, doesn’t really have the conniving wits with which to function properly as Yzma’s evil henchman. And Yzma is not doing her part in their supportive friendship. Kronk even tells a squirrel that Yzma has a harsh exterior and is almost impossible to connect with.

Again, to me, that’s friendship and a work partnership. It’s not romantic or sexual at all.

This moment is maybe the most suggestive between them:

I’m talking about Eartha Kitt purring, “Kronk, darling… but now, all is forgiven.”

And, yes, it’s Eartha Kitt.

And she is lounging suggestively on a couch.

But she seems mostly interested in whatever tiny animals’ legs those are that he’s handing her.

And her purring and lounging can entirely be about her feeling content now that she’s the emperor and Kuzco is “dead,” rather than her being attracted to Kronk and wanting to act on it.

Whether it’s Disney being toothless and we’re just supposed to take Kuzco at his snarky implications or if their relationship is not meant to read as sexually exploitative to anyone other than Kuzco, what is on the screen is on the screen, and what isn’t, isn’t.

Soooooo I’m going to read it as a platonic working relationship.

A Note on Sexualizing and Desexualizing Women Characters

This is a nuanced topic (that I once sort of got into). Sexualizing a female character doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and desexalizing a female character also doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Personally, I really liked that Moana didn’t have any romance in her story, mainly because she’s a fourteen-year-old girl and she doesn’t need any. I also really like that Merida actively pushes against marriage for the entirety of her story, finally convincing her mother that she shouldn’t be forced into anything she doesn’t currently (or ever) want.

I do remember the argument made around the time the movie was first out that not giving Moana a romance is like suggesting that women of colour aren’t worthy of romantic love. I think that is a bit of a stretch, but how women of colour characters are treated is a huge complicated discussion, so even though I think it’s OK if for 90 minutes she just self-actualizes and doesn’t worry about dating, I wouldn’t dismiss the argument out of hand.

And then there’s Elsa. She’s THE ice queen, and for most of her life, her reluctance towards marriage is clearly about her fear of her own ice powers. Now that those are sorted out, though, she could theoretically have romance, if she wants some. And considering how popular she is and how her story is already pretty well suited for a queer story, it would be nice if, should Elsa have romance, it’s with a woman. It won’t happen, but it would be nice. In this case, keeping Elsa romance-less, and the creators occasionally walking into interviews uprepared to answer questions about lesbian and/or WLW Elsa without doing the queer-baiting thing, result in all of us being hyper-aware that this particular desexualized female character could have been decent lesbian/WLW representation.

And sexualizing female characters doesn’t have to be bad. I think Esmeralda in Hunchback of Notre Dame is a really good example of where it works. Esmeralda is a complicated person. She’s kind and compassionate, and she acts when she sees injustice. She’s frustrated by people’s apathy in general and sometimes she’s a tad out of line. Just a tad. But a tad nonetheless.

She’s also the “finest girl in France” with entrancing entrances. And while Quasi’s romantic interest in her is depicted as pretty innocent, Pheobus’s isn’t.

Neither is Frollo’s but no one cares about him.

Esmeralda is angelic but also sexy. The movie, in my opinion at least, pulls it off. I think if she’d been too far over into the angelic side of the Madonna-Whore spectrum, the rebuke Frollo gets and keeps getting for being a creepy creep would have mattered less. Esmeralda is sexy, and that’s not all there is to her, and her sexiness doesn’t mean she’s less human. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve to be respected and treated with dignity.

But that doesn’t change that in the greater context of the Disney canon, generally, Disney seems much more comfortable and willing to sexualize women of colour than white women. Compare Wendy to Tiger Lily for the gross child version of sexualizing or not sexualizing characters. Pocahontas and Jasmine show more skin than Belle or Aurora. Yes, there’s Ariel. And yes, there’s Mulan. But the general tendency, at least through most of the 90s, is for women of colour to be sexualized more than white women.

So women of colour being sexualized more than white women is a problem, but there’s also the problem of older women being desexualized entirely. Consider the stoic, high necklines and frowny faces of Snow White’s Evil Queen or Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine or Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. Those are three powerful women, definitely, and barely that old. Tremaine is graying, but the Evil Queen is maybe in her mid-late 30s, and Maleficent looks like she’s in her mid-late 30s. But power for them comes with being desexualized, having men scrape and cower before them, and they’re also the picture of evil, so, yikes.

There’s also Ursula in The Little Mermaid, who is fat and somewhat sexualized. Her body is definitely there and she makes it obvious. She also isn’t fussed about being desirable, which puts her on par with the other three desexualized evil ladies. And she sashays around her lair and puts on bright red lipstick and puts mousse in her fabulous hair, so, who really knows. She’s a more nuanced one; there’s a lot to unpack there, as I already said.

Yzma is maybe the oldest of Disney villains, unless Maleficent is ancient (which she probably is but she doesn’t look like she is so whatever). Her age is noted in various ways. Sometimes, it’s noted in jokes where there might be a little sympathy afforded her, like when Kuzco tells her she’s completely obsolete.

But on the other hand, seeing a joke like this one:

is kind of disappointing.

I sort of like the joke at Kuzco and Pacha’s expense, like, “Really, you’d rather be stabbed to death than look at an old woman’s body?!” But it’s clear the joke is actually about Yzma. Yuuuup, horrifying old lady body. Shield your eyes.

The running joke about Yzma’s appearance is that people generally describe her as being “scary beyond all reason,” which doesn’t necessarily have to be about her age or even her appearance more generally, but I don’t really want to make an excuse for this joke. I buy the behaviour from Kuzco but Pacha, who presumably intends to grow old with Chicha, needs to get over himself, as does the world with it’s revulsion towards aging bodies, and in particular, aging female bodies.

Also, the movie is full of a lot of really good jokes, and also the gay panic resuscitation one. Why not cut this one out (and also the gay panic resuscitation one can go too) and put a better one in its place?

So while I really enjoy the nonsexual, nonromantic working relationship/friendship that is Yzma and Kronk, I do think it’s worth noting that the movie’s enthusiastic desexualizing of Yzma is there, and it’s stupid, and it doesn’t need to be there at all.

But, can we talk about Chicha?

Chicha is a pregnant lady and a mom. It’s hard to tell based on her outfit but it looks, to me, like apart from the pregnancy, she may actually be a Disney woman without a conventionally attractive/unrealistically proportioned thin body. Maybe. No matter what her body type actually is, she’s really conventionally pretty, and voiced all sultry by Wendie Malick. Her and Pacha are reasonably affectionate, even while she’s heavily pregnant.

Moms are desexualized all the time. Furthermore, in Disney movies, often they don’t even exist. In this movie, Chicha participates in schemes, gets to be funny and warm and likable, and even endures Yzma exploiting her pregnancy to surreptitiously plot with Kronk.

 

 

 

 

And that is pretty great.


This has been Part One. I don’t know when or where Part Two will show up, but it will, and I’m sure it will make a point eventually.

But until then, bewaaaaaare the groove.

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