(please excuse the title, i can’t and won’t attempt to explain myself, just place me under a rock and ignore everything i ever say ever again)
I watched Sinbad recently. I had a lot of thoughts about the titular character and how irritating it is that he doesn’t really ever grow up.
That probably requires explaining, because in this movie Sinbad actually gets down on his knees and puts his head on an executioner’s block, fully, legitimately, intending to die for a crime he didn’t commit, to spare his friend.
He’s still a baby man, though, and I would like to go into it. But it’s going to have to wait, because before I can focus on Sinbad, I want to discuss this movie broadly.
And by “discuss this movie broadly” – I of course mean “write gibberish about Eris.”
Eris. Is ALL. That matters.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has one of the best animated villains… ever.
Showing a still image of Eris is egregious. She has to be seen in motion to be truly appreciated, but this movie is one of the hardest to find clips of on Youtube (at least, it was when I stared writing this. Now there are a bunch! Go watch them).
Whoever animated her should have been given Oscars. They should simply have been handed Oscars. All of them – if The Academy actually cared or understood anything about animation, they would have done so, I say.
She’s also voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer, which is great because Michelle Pfieffer may actually be the best.
Well voiced, well animated, and, completing the trifecta: she’s well written. Somehow, miraculously, they got this character right.
Eris is the goddess of discord, and she has big plans to throw the world into chaos by getting the new heir to Syracuse wrongfully executed through a little manipulation of the flawed status quo. She flirts and whooshes around while she’s doing it all. She changes her size like Alice does in Wonderland – but she does it on purpose, to great effect. She’s murderous and sneaky and spiteful and extremely feminine, and the hero she’s up against who eventually gets the better of her is one of those *adorable* sexists, and yet, somehow, Eris works.
So Disney women villains.
Disney women villians, yes.
LET US COMPARE.
(the isolation delirium has set in, I believe)
I’m pretty sure Eris is more powerful than any Disney villain. Ursula is quite formidable once she has the trident and is not to be messed with even without it, but she’s a demoted goddess if anything, and she can be killed with a boat. Maleficent is scary and effective, but she’s no goddess. Those are the only two I’d say come anywhere close.
But Eris is the literal goddess of discord.
Nobody is more calculating than Lady Tremaine. The Evil Queen is a bit calculating for sure, but Lady Tremaine is maybe the only real match for Eris.
But Eris’s schemes are on a whole other level – Tremaine wants her grandson to be king, but Eris wants to topple whole governments, and her plan is way more sound than Lady T’s is.
So… hold on to your hat, I have a bit of a revelation for you: all of the Disney canonical women villains are sneaks. I think we’ve found the answer to the “how does the culture view women” question.
The Evil Queen masquerades as a harmless beggar woman with a harmless basket of apples to appeal to Snow White’s kind heart.
Lady Tremaine does a lot of little subtle things that neither Cinderella nor any onlooker who isn’t a mouse can call out as unfair or straight up abuse without sounding at least a little bit paranoid.
Cruella sidles up to Anita and Roger trying to buy the puppies, and when rebuffed, hires people to steal them.
Madame Mim cheats in her wizard duel.
Maleficent, in the scene that is only not the standout scene because of the cake scene, pretty much seduces Aurora into touching a spinning wheel from the shadows.
Ursula disguises herself as Vanessa, but also, her entire deal is emotionally manipulating people into selling their souls to her so that she can put them in a garden for seemingly no other purpose than to be extremely fracking scary.
Yzma invites Kuzco to dinner to show there are no hard feelings – fully intending to murder him and take his place on the throne.
Mother Gothel steals a baby and raises her to be obedient because she needs her magic to stay young. She also very cleverly manipulates the Stabbington Twins.
And Assistant Mayor Bellweather! You know what she does.
There are plenty of male villains who are also sneaky. But there are also a lot of male villains whose sneakiness is 10000% bad-dad specific. They are just pretending to be a better person than they really are, to the complete and utter disappointment of whoever the hero of the day is (Pixar likes this one: Up, Monsters Inc, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Coco, etc). Their de-maskings are often kind of devoid of flair, like Ernesto’s kind of was in Coco.
Some male villains are just evil, but with less lofty evil goals than the likes of Maleficent or even Mim (such as Ratcliffe, or Frollo). Now, those ones lie, and they emotionally manipulate, but it’s to serve their larger purpose of… genocide. So. And they really don’t sneak the way other villains sneak. They believe they are in the right and most of the bad things they do are them trumpeting all about how right they think they are.
Then there are just those who are not sneaky at all: Shan Yu, Callaghan (wearing a mask is just not fabulous enough to count as sneaky), The Horned King, and Gaston (“elaborate” plan aside. I don’t think he’s smart enough to truly be sneaky).
Some sneaky male villains include Jafar, Scar, King Candy/Turbo, Edgar, and Hans. Leaving Hans aside, what we have here are four rather effeminate male characters.
I’d love to go into great detail with all the Disney (and Pixar!) villains and discuss which ones are maybe feminine and which ones are maybe queer-coded, but for now, I’m going to leave it at this: the sneakier you are, generally, the more feminine you are, as well.
And that one holds for Eris.
What I like specifically about Eris’s sneakiness is that she delights in it. Playing Sinbad, she has this grin on her face that does the job of convincing the witness that she really is the devil-may-care thief, but she’s really just smiling because she LOVES PLAYING PRETEND.
The joyous female villain who has fun while she does villainy! So necessary. And I don’t think we’ve seen her since Snow White’s step mom laughed for forty years while she prepared a poisoned apple, in 1930.
The Sexy Ones
Disney likes to do a thing with their female villains, and that thing is that they desexualize them.
This can be a lot of fun, sometimes. Sexy female villains are often kind of upsetting to watch and/or read
because as we have said so many times before, they are bad and badly written because sometimes you can’t help but pay some attention to the misogynist male writer behind the curtain who writes them as a weird kind of revenge porn, so, at least Disney doesn’t tend to do that. And throwing up a towering image of a powerful woman who is at the top on her own, without any sickly sweet romance, without some man – barking out orders, actually, at men – wielding awe-inspiring amounts of power – yeah, that’s fun to watch. That they all fail is less fun. That sometimes the desexualizing is done in the form of jokes about their appearances is also less fun. That their evil and their power is tied, inextricably, to their being sexless is not fun.
Of course, there’s Ursula*. Ursula is sexy. I don’t know that the movie knows that she’s sexy, but, she is.
But Ursula is unconventionally sexy. She’s fat, and wants to be fatter, and in 198whatever when this movie came out right through to 20whatever year this is now, “fat” and “sexy” – especially for women – only go together if you’re working against the overarching cultural narrative that there is one body type alone that can be considered sexy and attractive.
There are two women villains that are could be considered sexy in theory. There’s Madame Mim** in “beautiful” mode. She does a little dance and everything. I don’t think this counts because the point of it is that she turns back immediately into a shorter, fatter version of herself that we are meant to understand is the True Mim. Vanessa is another take on exactly this, but I kind of think everything Vanessa does is way less sexy than anything Ursula does, which is kind of cool.
There’s also Mother Gothel***. She’s like the Evil Queen in that she’s conventionally attractive, but the True Mother Gothel is old and aged. This is like how the “True” Evil Queen is sort of the form she both takes the most joy in and dies in, which is also aged and old.
Also I don’t know that Mother Gothel is animated in a sexy way at all. Her voice is certainly there, but she seems pretty asexual to me, and I’m using that term not as in that’s what I think her sexual orientation is (but, yeah, I do think that, sorry), but that she just isn’t doing anything sexual, at all, ever, on the screen. Even though she’s in love with her reflection.
*Ursula: unconventionally sexy and the movie either doesn’t think she’s sexy or is deliberately like, “yeah, she’s sexy, but unconventionally, OK.”
**Mim: she’s only doing an act; she pretty much states herself that it doesn’t count
***Gothel: she has time for one thing and one thing only: chasing, imprisoning, and keeping eternal youth even though she’s barely satisfied, and also her “true” form is old which, according to Disney and a lot of other jerks, can never be sexy
Eris is sexy in a way that doesn’t require an asterisk, because she’s got a conventionally attractive body type and she has a conventionally attractive face with conventionally attractive amazingly animated fluid lustrous beautiful hair AND Michelle Pfeiffer’s voice SO.
She might as well be in charge. We have basically arrived here as a society anyway.
Eris in her own right
Eris’s elaborate scheme is ruined by Sinbad being simultaneously stupid and noble. His nobility: he decides to go and die for a crime he didn’t commit so that his friend, the heir to a throne, won’t. His stupidity: he never realizes that in doing so, he’s conning Eris into keeping her word and giving back the book of peace.
“…………… I didn’t lie!” No shit, Sherlock. Isn’t this man a cynical con artist thief type dude?
Anyway he had to be such a dummy, because if he had known that Eris was never going to let him die, so long as he went back and pretended to be willing to die, then he’d still be lying and she would have been well within her rights to keep the Book of Peace. In order for everyone to live happily ever after, the main character has to do a stupid, basically.
I’ll return to Eris’s palpable, beautiful frustration in this scene in a moment. First, I want to talk about her amazing plan before it was ruined.
Peace in Syracuse + Syracuse’s friends and allies is dependent on a magical Book. As soon as that Book gets stolen, everyone loses their minds. The criminal must be brought to justice so they can get their Book back.
Let’s see if I have this straight:
1. Accost the likely thief
2. Behead him when he won’t give up the booty
4. Peace restored
It gets more hilarious, though. Eris’s true plan isn’t even about the Book. She knows that Proteus, noble heir apparent, was Sinbad’s childhood friend, and will believe him when he says, truthfully, actually, that he didn’t steal the book. He’ll step in, and the stupid laws of Syracuse will state that if the true criminal doesn’t return WITH the stolen object, the stand-in gets beheaded.
1. Imprison the heir to the throne as a stand-in for the likely real criminal who has refused to give up the booty
2. Execute the heir when the guy who already wouldn’t give up the booty WHEN HE WAS IMPRISONED AND HIS OWN LIFE WAS AT STAKE doesn’t show up with the booty
4. Peace restored
I’m not doing a CinemaSins thing. Yes, this makes no sense, but I think the movie is so much better because of it.
Sinbad’s whole deal is “the freedom of the sea” (and also “the freedom of a life of crime and casual misogyny” but we won’t talk about that), directly compared to Proteus’s life of noble duty and sacrifice. Proteus even discusses this with Marina, the principled and antagonistic love interest. The conflict is more pronounced in Marina – she loves the sea (and for some reason, Sinbad) but she also feels that she has a responsibility to stay on land and be a politician. In the end, boringly, she chooses Sinbad and the sea, while Proteus is happy for them from his life on land as a public servant monarch.
And before this, everyone, including the king, is super frustrated with the confines of the silly law that have them needing to execute their heir, who is a principled, good politician, even though it will right zero wrongs. But they still go along with it, because it’s “the right thing to do??????????!”
I’m going to suggest that it’s not.
The charm and romance of Sinbad’s pirate life is enriched by the restrictions apparent in civilized society, which is one great thing about this movie. Then at the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s Eris, in all of her chaotic glory.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t help sympathizing A LOT with her. She sees some silly rules and restrictions, sees how incredibly easy they’d be to shatter, and goes for it. She’s like a cat, spying a battable object close to an edge. Of course she’s going to swat it off and ruin everyone’s day.
Here’s a statement that I’ll apparently make: Eris’s attempt to bring down Syracuse is more fun, clear, engaging, and has way more to say than the Joker’s similar attempt at Gotham in The Dark Knight. (In my opinion. But I’m correct.)
If I’m only correct for one small detail, it’s this: Eris would absolutely have succeeded if not for the change of heart of one itty bitty man. The Joker is proven wrong by whole groups of people (some do try to prove him right, granted, but ultimately they cooperate and prove him wrong). If Sinbad hadn’t felt all his pesky feelings (and he tried really hard to not feel all his pesky feelings – EVEN MARINA, who is likely the reason he’s feeling all his pesky feelings, tried to convince him to not go back) Eris would have succeeded. Everyone else, all the principled political class of Syracuse and surrounding, were apparently fine to let the good prince die, because them’s the rules. They were apparently giddy to play right into Eris’s hands.
And this is why when Eris is fuming, sneering, scowling, and then, eventually, gracefully disappointed but moving on to new projects, it’s so easy to sympathize. You were so close, lady. I feel your pain.
BECAUSE NOBODY LEARNED ANYTHING.
Is it not, then, that it is you, Syracuse, and not Eris, who are the real agent of chaos????????
At least at the end of Aladdin, another story where some rando exploits the silliness of the ruling class for his own gains, the Sultan is like “Oh wait I can just change the law.”
There’s none of that here. I guess it wasn’t important.
That of course means that if Eris ever tried again, this time knowing not to rely on someone like Sinbad to stay selfish, she’d DEFINITELY succeed.
Dun. Dun. Dun.