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The Grimorum Arcanorum

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Chapter Six: The Pumpkin and the Handgun - Elisa Maza and the Disney Heroine Tradition

By Constance Cochran

Something A Little Different ...

When the first episode of Gargoyles aired in 1994, Disney animation had given the world plenty of female heroines who safely fit the description "spirited and independent." Even the fairy tale princesses of the Disney films of the 40's and 50's (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) have a certain confidence to them. Just watch the beautifully staged scene between Cinderella and her stepmother in that ornately decorated bedroom -- Cinderella may be repressed, but she never flinches; Cinderella holds her back straight, the stepmother sits up in bed radiating quiet, dignified menace. There is the sense of two women of very strong wills clashing. In the 80's and 90's, there are Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Esmerelda, Pocahontas, and now Mulan, who poses as a man in the Chinese army and learns martial arts, defeating the leader of the Hun army.

However, the first time Elisa Maza stepped out of her 57 Chevy, flashed her badge, and crouched on a New York City street wondering "What could be strong enough to make claw marks on solid stone?" we knew that here was something different altogether. She barks at the gawking crowd to "get back -- or you'll end up street pizza." She ventures forward to investigate even after a falling piece of building that must weigh several hundred pounds nearly crushes her. Drawn with that impossibly narrow Disney-heroine waist, and gorgeous, long, blue-black hair, visually Elisa is like any other Disney heroine (apart from her ethnicity -- but there is always Princess Jasmine for precedent). That is, until one sees the ubiquitous jeans, red bomber jacket, and -- surprise! -- a badge and a gun that are more than just decorations (as they seem to be with Miranda, another Disney Afternoon heroine who happens to be a cop). Elisa in action fits equally with the female characters of well made prime-time live action dramas as with her animation heritage.

Heroine's Quest, Hero's Quest

Elisa has her own quests, that go far beyond a vague longing for what lies beyond the river bend. Her goals are more concrete than a character like Belle, who does seek self-fullfilment, but in dreamy terms. She is a detective who initially wants to find the truth and protect her city. As the series goes on, this quest expands to include protecting the newly awakened gargoyle clan. However, Elisa's quests parallel, but are not mere adjuncts to, the hero's quest -- to protect the innocent, to find the way home, to find love. Not every previous Disney heroine's quest solely involves finding love. Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Esmerelda seem to initially seek self-fulfillment, a quest that expands to include the quest for love. But in the case of Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine, the finding of true love emerges as an answer to their self-fulfillment problems, or an escape from a repressive environment. In Elisa's case, as with Pocahontas', her love for the hero in fact compounds the problems; after some initial tension, Esmerelda's romance with the knight Phoebus seems less complex than her friendship with Quasimodo.

Mulan arrived a few years after Elisa, and in many ways she is the most complex and modern of the Disney heroines. Her quest is the sole driving force of the movie, the catalyst that moves the plot; this is more usual with the modern Disney heroes, like Aladdin. While both Belle and The Beast have strong quests, Mulan's seems to overshadow Shang's. His quest is simpler and more focused -- become a good military leader, which expands to avenging his father's death. Mulan seeks self respect; the protection of her father; the protection of her beloved country; the bringing of honor to her family name; and most importantly, her own self-respect. As in the case of Elisa and Goliath, neither the hero nor the heroine seem to have love in mind when they start out, although Mulan seems as if one facet of her quest might be realizing her own physical desirability -- although this can be classed under the "self-respect" quest. As with Elisa and Goliath, the love happens along the way, by accident.

Both Elisa and Mulan stand in a man's world and possess physical as well as emotional strength. Some of the previous Disney heroines, although outspoken and quick-witted, cannot take the villains on in a physical fight. Both fulfill roles traditionally held for men without losing their own personalities and sense of being female. Nonetheless, in arriving at a sense of self-worth, Mulan has to hide her femininity, deepen her voice, spit and swagger and pretend to be what she is not. Her character lives in medieval China, though, while Elisa is of the 1990's, after the feminist revolution. Unlike Mulan, Elisa is allowed the luxury of being tough in a man's world, while also retaining her physical desirability to men. Greg Weisman, the creator and executive producer of Gargoyles, has commented on Mulan that she "never becomes a modern or post-modern feminist. She and her comrades never escape the prejudices that they have been trained and raised in. At best, they see Mulan as an exceptional individual, but they do not see her as archetypal or as proof that women can do more than traditional roles ascribed to them. We do. We see it. But they never learn." (Greg Weisman, Monday, June 29, 1998 at 06:33:08 PM; the Station 8 comment board). It is worth pointing out that the climactic confrontation between Mulan and the villain takes place with her balanced out on a protrusion from a high building, using her wits and agility to outsmart the villain, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the confrontation between Elisa and Mace Malone at the end of "The Silver Falcon" on the Chrysler Building.

The Gold Bikini

Perhaps uniquely to all Disney heroines, Jasmine and Elisa are the only ones who deliberately use their physical desirability to distract a villain. As with Jasmine, the tactic involves both a costume change -- although Jasmine's was involuntary (see gold bikini, Leia and,) -- and a totally new personality. Both women are faking -- Jasmine pretends to be under a magic spell, while Elisa pretends to be a cop gone bad. In Elisa's case, though, her behavior is part of her own deliberate and determined quest to bring down Tony Dracon and stop his protection racket. Jasmine kisses Jafar to distract him so that Aladdin can grab the magic lamp; she is caught up in her hero's quest, while Goliath becomes caught up in Elisa's ("Protection"). Elisa never kisses Tony Dracon, or has to kiss anyone to whom she is not genuinely attracted. Her change of costume also isn't as skimpy as Jasmine's (who seems to share Princess Leia's indignity in the first 20 minutes of Return of the Jedi). Whether this makes Elisa a more modern heroine than Jasmine cannot readily be determined. Kissing Jafar took guts. It does seem, though, as if Jasmine's strongest weapon in the final battle is sex, while for Elisa that part of the arsenal is used to a more limited degree, and a proportionately smaller amount of the character's "screen time."

"Excuse me, are those your wings?"

The other Disney heroines should not be assumed to be wilting flowers. Disney heroines generally have more to them than meets the eye, and their apparent vulnerability actually masks strength, just not physical strength. Belle and Jasmine's strong wills seem to far outstrip their physical strength. Pocahontas and Mulan possess more of a balance between the two. Mulan learns martial arts; Pocahontas can outrun, outswim, and outclimb any other character in her film, and is usually shown running like a deer. Ariel seems to fall somewhere in between, a more physical character than Belle but not as able to tangle directly with the villain as Mulan. In the episode "Golem," Elisa punches a crook with a style worthy of Mel Gibson's character in the "Lethal Weapon" series (she taps him on the shoulder, and when he turns around, grins cheerfully -- "Hi!" The next thing seen is her fist hurtling towards the camera). Elisa balances this with the morality and spirituality of previous Disney heroines.

Most Disney heroines, although invented by a 20th century studio, have their basis in characters and legends of medieval or earlier times, or in fairy tales (although in Mulan's case, the medieval precedent is revolutionary beyond its times). Look a little closer, and one may find that despite her strengths, Elisa falls into the more traditional role more often than might be suspected. However, far from making her character appear weak or old-fashioned, these incidents seem more like a homage to place her firmly in the tradition of the women of history, myths, and fairy tales. She undergoes some of the classic archetypes -- transformation (Ariel); enchanted sleep (Aurora); attraction to something "other" (Ariel; Belle; Pocahontas); incurring the particular hatred of a jealous female (Aurora, Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel).

As with Ariel, the transformation allows Elisa to become for a time the same species as the male being she is attracted to. Ariel, a mermaid, longs for Prince Eric, a human, and with that longing comes the desire to "become a human" herself. Only when she gives up part of her identity (her voice) to give up a bigger part of her identity (her species) by becoming human does she have a chance with Eric. Ultimately, Ariel regains her voice, but keeps her new form. In the Gargoyles episode "The Mirror," the transformation archetype is turned upside down. Goliath and Elisa share a friendship bond initially, although viewers always saw the undercurrent of attraction. However, Elisa has no apparent longings to become a gargoyle to win his affection. In fact, when Puck turns her into a gargoyle, she shows considerably less enthusiasm about gliding than Ariel shows about learning how to walk. The writers of Gargoyles then take things a step further. Just when Goliath starts noticing Elisa's attractiveness (now that she's the same species), Puck turns the gargoyles into humans. Elisa and Goliath are back to square one, and Goliath also does not seem thrilled about his new form. "The Mirror" concludes with hero and heroine restored to their original forms, and a final acknowledgement from Elisa that "that's the way things are." In her world, no sorcery can remove the facts of life. And ultimately, one of the strongest messages of the show is that even without magical intervention, love between two very different characters, from vastly different backgrounds, can triumph. It is a message affirmed more strongly by Aladdin than The Little Mermaid -- but in the case of Gargoyles, both hero and heroine undergo the transformation. In Aladdin, it was his transformation from street rat to desert prince and back again, his lesson to be learned.

During a few key episodes, oddly Elisa is placed out of the battle. Both times, however, so is the majority of the population of New York City. In the first case, during "City of Stone," both Elisa and Fox Xanatos (a heroine in her own right, but we'd be here all day if we started discussing that) are turned to stone while their respective love-interests reluctantly join forces to save a beleaguered city. In the second instance, while all of New York, including Elisa, was put to sleep, Fox came into her own, playing a key part in protecting her newborn son from Oberon. But Fox herself has magical traits. Elisa is just a plain old mortal. Still, was the omission on purpose, or a convenience for the writers? It is highly doubtful that they could not think of anything for Elisa to do during "City of Stone" or "The Gathering." Perhaps it was too contrived finding a way to make her immune to both spells.

As for falling in love with someone very different from herself, the overtones of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale are evident in Gargoyles. Ariel, a mermaid, loves a human. Pocahontas, a Native American, falls in love with John Smith, a white European male bent on conquest of the New World (never mind the historical discrepancies, there isn't time). Belle, a human, grows to love a prince cursed in beast form. But Goliath's curse is not his form. In fact, his gargoyle self is one of the few strengths he has left, aside from the remaining members of his clan. He is not going to turn into a handsome human male if Elisa loves him. In a figurative sense, one gets the feeling, though, that in Elisa's eyes, Goliath becomes handsome because she loves him. Of the four films, Pocahontas, though by far not the best film of the group, shares its realism with Gargoyles. Pocahontas also stays behind when John Smith returns to England to fulfill her destiny with her people. What is so amazing about Gargoyles is that Disney once again explored the issue of forbidden, or difficult, love, and this time, found a way for the characters to overcome certain obstacles and stay together without sacrificing any of the modern realism. (This essay has been equating a species difference with a cultural and ethnic one, did you notice? Relax, it's already been debated on

Snow White had the evil queen, Aurora had Maleficent, Ariel had Ursula the Sea-Wtich, Cinderella had her evil stepmother; Elisa has Demona. Demona is (and has been) the subject of several essays all to herself -- is she heroine or anti-heroine? Insane or misunderstood? Does she deserve our compassion or our hatred? The answer is yes. In that sense, Demona is the greatest of Disney villainesses. She has the poise and magnificence of Maleficent, the dignity of the evil stepmother, the power of Ursula, the guile of the evil queen. Added to that are her vulnerability, and the fact that we first get to meet her as a good character, a heroine herself. LIke Ariel and Elisa, Demona also undergoes a magical transformation -- she is made immortal, and she becomes human by day. The parallel adds to the tension between Demona and Elisa, making it one of the most interesting villainess/heroine conflicts.

Like Snow White's evil queen, Demona uses a magic mirror to look in on her rival ("The Mirror"). In Demona's case this rivalry is literal -- she and Goliath were once mates, and now Goliath seems drawn to the other woman, and a human to boot. This is also unique; the evil witches of the films envy the heroine her beauty, her youth, her place in society, her superiority to the villainess' own offspring. Demona hates Elisa not just because she is a member of the despised species, but because Goliath may love her instead of Demona. Like Ursula, Demona uses spells to try to bring down Elisa (using Puck's spells in "The Mirror"). However most of Demona's plans extend far beyond individual hatred for Elisa -- she simply wants to get rid of the entire human race, and if that includes Elisa, so much the better. Never have two Disney female antognists confronted each other so repeatedly, and with both in such active roles. Ariel and Ursula come close -- Ariel physically grapples with Ursula in one scene, trying to regain her father's trident. Elisa and Demona grapple directly in "High Noon" -- "You fight like a rookie," Elisa crows in triumph, as she bests Demona in human form.

"It's a family business"

Angela, Goliath and Demona's daughter, may better fit the term "heroine" than Elisa, with Demona in the evil queen/evil stepmother role. Except Demona's one redeeming feature is her love for her daughter -- which leaves Elisa as the primary hated target. Also, Angela, like Elisa, before Mulan was unique in the tradition in that both her parents were alive. One of Angela's parents is all but lost to her, which leaves Elisa and Mulan in similar family units. Even Elisa's and Mulan's mothers echo each other visually, if not in personality -- plump, steady-looking, comforting. Mulan's father was a soldier; Mulan becomes a soldier. Elisa's father is a cop; Elisa is a cop. Previous heroines who were half-orphaned were always left with a father with whom they had very little in common (Jasmine; Belle; Ariel). Elisa and her father meet and talk out some of the show's conflicts over a cappucino.

What About the Furries?

This essay has confined itself to the human Disney heroines. It cheated, and compared a Disney Afternoon character to film characters (with the exception of Jasmine, who is both -- may Elisa one day be the same). There is only one other Disney Afternoon human heroine besides Jasmine and Elisa -- Miranda. Miranda is also a cop, but the bullets in Miranda's world are not real; she seems to live in some version of Toon Town, while Elisa is shot and even goes flatline in "Deadly Force". Miranda is spunky (cue Ed Asner's voice saying "I hate spunk!"), but no great leap forward; apologies to "Bonkers" fans. This author has not seen many episodes, and has not much upon which to base comments. Nevertheless the Disney AFternoon has produced some of the most modern of heroines -- from the entreprenuerial Rebecca Cunningham (species: bear) on Tale Spin, to the sharp-witted Daisy Duck (species: well, duck) on Quack Pack to the immortal Gadget Hackwrench (species: mouse), everyone's favorite girl mechanic/inventor [Outside of TGS --- eds.]. In some ways, the tv shows have provided better heroines than the movies. It would also be intriguing to explore the differences and shared traits between Elisa and the elegant, pampered, yet indomitable Ms. Bianca, or to Nala, or Lady. Ultimately, Elisa has more in common with the classical heroines, not the furry ones. The show in which she exists is full of myth and legend and history, so it is fitting that her pedigree comes not from the more modern settings of the Disney Afternoon shows (with again, the exception of Aladdin), but from the films that mostly draw on fairy tales, history, and legend.

Also, as Aesop discovered long ago, it is easier to hold a mirror up to human nature using animals as a conduit. Over the decades, the animal Disney heroines have emerged as tougher and less conventional that the humans, because it was safer to do so. Miss Bianca of The Rescuers predates Ariel of The Little Mermaid by a decade or so. Lady of Lady and the Tramp was exploring the back alleys, sunrises, and spaghetti dishes beyond her sheltered surroundings long before Belle wondered if there was more than "this provincial life." It seems a greater feat to have a human heroine that expresses the modern need for substance and strength as well as beauty. How gratifying, to find Elisa, her bomber jacket, and her badge hidden among the furries.

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