It?s no secret to my friends and family that my favorite movie is Disney?s the Hunchback of Notre Dame. While discussing the movie (in regards to feminism) with a friend, she asked me, ?What do you think about Esmeralda? I feel like her character is over sexualized, and the creators didn?t need to draw her the way they did??
While the Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn?t pass the Bechdel Test, (in fact, there are only two female characters with speaking parts thatcometomind, and one of them dies less than 10 minutes into the movie) I still find it to be an incredibly empowering movie for women. The movie has many important qualities and moral lessons to be learned, including justice to the mistreated, not judging based on stereotypes or appearances, being religious doesn?t automatically make you good, Jesus was himself a poor outcast, don?t take life for granted, and many others. However, I?d like to focus on the movie as it revolves around Esmeralda.
For those of you who have not seen the movie (I highly recommend watching it, it?s 91 minutes and available on Netflix) the Hunchback of Notre Dame is the story of a man named Quasimodo who lives in the bell tower of Notre Dame. He?s forbidden and terrified to leave for fear of ridicule of the public people and punishment from his master, Frollo. Frollo, the Archdeacon, wishes to rid the city of Romani ?Gypsies?*, whom he considers to be sinners and thieves guilty of witchcraft. He calls Captain Phoebus from the war to help him in this endeavor. OneRomani, in particular, that has attracted a lot of attention is the beautiful Esmeralda.
Now, throughout the movie, each of these men (Quasimodo, Frollo, and Phoebus) become infatuated by Esmeralda. It?s a popular complaint that she doesn?t end up with our hero, the lovable and sweet Quasimodo by the end of the movie. Instead she gets together with the handsome and charming Phoebus. A lot of people use this as evidence of ?nice guys finish last?, and feel Esmeralda was being unfair in her choice of Phoebus (again, her choice). However, this choice is very important to show how women should be treated. To illustrate this, I?ll explain the three relationships that the men have towards Esmeralda:
First, Quasimodo. He?s sweet, timid, naive and very loving. His banishment to the bell tower gives him an appreciation and longing for the life below and makes him an excellent protagonist. With his only real human interaction being the cruel Frollo, it?s no wonder that when Esmeralda enters his life, he sees her as an angel. Even the animation changes to give light and a soft glow to Esmeralda, representing how pure and angelic Quasi sees her. In his eyes, she can do no wrong.
Contrast this with Frollo?s image of her. Though not blatantly stated, Frollo?s feelings are that of lust. He has a whole song devoted to his lust (Hellfire) and how ?she will be [his] or she will burn?. Literally. He refers to her as a siren and a witch and treats her as the epitome of sin itself.
Lastly, we have Captain Phoebus. Though he works for Frollo, it?s pretty clear from the beginning that he is a defender of the weak and will battle against injustice. In this aspect, he and Esmeralda have a lot in common. Their relationship had rocky beginnings (literally a sword fight in the cathedral- which ended in a draw), but they were able to obtain a mutual respect between one another. While she is escaping from a series of guards, Phoebus even exclaims, ?What a woman!? they look out for each other, and they treat each other as equals.
The different between the way that Phoebus treats Esmeralda and the way that Quasimodo and Frollo treat Esmeralda, is that the latter two were both on the extremes. Frollo saw a corrupt temptress and only sexualized her, while Quasi saw her as an angel who could do no wrong.
But why is that such a bad thing? Don?t women want to be treated as Queens and angels?
It is good to be kind and to think highly of your partner, but Quasi goes beyond that and puts Esmeralda on a pedestal. To never think your partner could do wrong is a destructive mindset in a relationship. Not to mention, it puts the other party member in an uncomfortable situation. To acknowledge flaws is how you help your partner learn and grow together. Quasimodo?s relationship with Esmeralda would not have been a healthy one.
However, I would like to note that even though Quasimodo is heart broken that Esmeralda doesn?t fall for him, he doesn?t take this heartache out on her or Phoebus (okay a little bit on Phoebus)?? instead, he comes to acceptance and even offers the two of them his blessing (by representation of clasping their hands together at the end). This is so important to remember when a man is rejected by a woman. It?s important to remember that women have agency, and that women don?t owe men their love just because a man is kind. Thank Quasimodo for this example of how to be rejected and be okay with it (as opposed to Frollo?s reaction to being rejected, which is to burn all of Paris and execute Esmeralda. This guy needs to calm down)
Returning to the beginning of this post, I want to take this time to talk about Esmeralda?s sexuality in the movie. It?s often difficult for modern media to differentiate between when sexuality empowers women and when sexuality dehumanizing them. Some media justifies their sexist displays of women by saying they?re ?empowered?. So how can we tell the difference?
When women are sexualized andobjectified, they?re treated more as objects than people. Their sexuality is more important than their overall personalityorvalues. Often in movies and video games, we see this when the camera zooms and pans over parts of women?s bodies that are more erotic. Many female characters are included only for sexual appeal, and given no real personality to match it. (for more on women treated as sexual objects, please refer to this video by Feminist Frequency)
For Esmeralda, her sexual appeal is obviously an aspect of her character. However, it is not the only aspect, nor is it the main aspect. Esmeralda is known for her kindness towards others, her cunning and skill, her anger and frustrations towards injustice, and so much more. As well, her outfit is reasonable for her character?? that is to say, it has mobility and is realistic (bikini armor anyone?)
There are a couple controversial scenes where Esmeralda?s sexuality come in to play. The first is during the Festival of Fools, where she performs on stage in a rather sexy red dress. Some compare her to a stripper in this scene (especially when she twirls around a spear she uses as a makeshift pole). However, Esmeralda is known for being a dancer, we saw earlier that that is how she makes ends meet and for her this is her job, dancing tends to be alluringandsexy. While it may seem like a lame excuse, Esmeralda truly does choose her sexuality here, because this is not her behavior throughout the whole rest of the movie. In fact, once she is done with her performance, she changes out of her costume and goes back to her normal life (aka fighting injustice). The scene isn?t random and isn?t gone to waste. This is what causes Frollo?s obsession with her. My only issue is the dress may be a bit too tight (air suction tight, is that possible?)
Which leads to the second controversial scene: during the song Hellfire, Esmeralda appears in the fire as Frollo?s imagination. Her poses and behavior are erotic (which then lead to an image of her being burnt at the stake). This is because this is how Frollo envisions her?? His lust is manifest in this sexualized display. Originally, her depiction in the fire was intended to be naked, but I?m so glad they decided against it in the final cut.
Esmeralda is my favorite Disney female, and her example is one that many can look to for strength, courage, kindness, love, confidence, and so much more. I?m so grateful for this movie for introducing such an inspiring, three dimensional character.
*Gypsy is actually an offensive slur towards the Romani people.
*Gypsy is actually an offensive slur towards the Romani people.