[This is probably going to be a really ill-formed rambling thought, but it interested me…]
So, on a whim, I watched the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame tonight.
And I noticed an interesting theme running through the film, though I’m not sure it was intended to come off exactly this way.
First, the villain Frolo is clearly a symbol of sexual violence—he smells Esmeralda’s hair against her wishes, she calls him right out on what he really wants, and he has an entire “villain song” about how she will be his or she will burn. This is somewhat dark for a kid’s film, but it also clearly portrays desiring someone against their will as the actions of a villain…
Which is interesting when compared to the arc of Quasimodo’s attraction for Esmeralda.
Clearly, Quasimodo is the hero, the main character we are meant to root for and identify with. He’s made very sympathetic from the start, and Esmeralda bonds with him. The narrative seems to establish them as the potential romance of the movie—given that they are a male and female pair who interact positively, in a movie with exactly one speaking female (if you don’t count Laverne the gargoyle), and he’s the hero.
But then there’s Phoebus. A handsome “jock” type character, not necessarily portrayed as cruel—in fact, the opposite, helping her out and resisting Frolo. But still, not the hero.
What made me really pay attention to this interesting set-up is the song that the gargoyles sing to Quasimodo that basically boils down to the words: “She has to love you” (emphasis mine). The point of the song is that Quasimodo is not the typical handsome guy, and she’ll love him because he’s different and he’s kind—sort of the classic Nice Guy TM motto.
But… she doesn’t have to love him. In fact, right after that, she brings over another guy (wounded Phoebus) and asks for Quasimodo’s help, which he gives, and then she kisses Phoebus in front of him. Quasimodo is hurt—he cries, there’s a refrain of the love song he sang about her earlier. It’s a painful moment—though he says nothing to her, and still promises to help Phoebus.
After this moment, after he learns that Esmeralda’s in danger, he does resist. He even says, “She already has her knight in shining armor,” as if that’s a reason not to help her. But after recalling a tender moment between them, he goes after Phoebus to help him warn Esmeralda.
Now, I think the argument could be made that perhaps Quasimodo still holds out hope that Esmeralda will love him back, and hopes to earn more Nice Guy points. He does look sad when Phoebus and Esmeralda reunite with a kiss.
But here’s where the narrative goes against what typical male-driven narratives do… When Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda at the end, heroically saving her, she still doesn’t love him. He hasn’t “earned” her love, even by saving her.
And he’s okay with it! He even smiles and places her hand in Phoebus’s, smiling as they kiss, clearly blessing their relationship. No bitterness, no resentment (okay, it’s a Disney movie, but still…).
And he’s not given a consolation girl at the end—just friendship. As if to say that friendship is enough.
So while Frolo is clearly the villain because he doesn’t respect Esmeralda’s right to say no (and he’s racist against her people and a hypocrite and murderous as well, of course), the heroic arc that Quasimodo sort of goes through is learning to respect Esmeralda’s right to love whoever she wants, no matter how heroic or helpful he is, and to help her anyway. She doesn’t pick “the hero” and she still gets a happy ending, along with the guy she loves.
I mean, I don’t think the movie is actually portraying this as “the arc” of the hero, but in how many other movies do we see the main hero Nice Guy TM “win” the girl at the end, even though there’s more handsome guys and she’s so beautiful and so on…
I just thought it was interesting to see a kid’s movie go a different route. I don’t know the original narrative, so I don’t know how close they stayed to it, but still. Interesting.