“So, here is a riddle to guess if you can/ Sing the bells of Notre Dame/ What makes a monster and what makes a man?/ Sing the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells of Notre Dame.” — Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, 1996.
Well, with an intro like that, I’ll bet you’re all wondering what brought THIS on. So, I shall share with you — with a great deal of talk that happened over the last two weeks or so about a certain someone whom is not funny even though that’s supposedly his job and shall remain nameless (But, I’m sure you can figure it out), I got to thinking about victim-blaming and men’s role in women’s rights throughout history.
And, oddly enough, I found myself simultaneously watching the Disney movie quoted above and reading the book it was based on, ‘Notre Dame de Pari’ by Victor Hugo, so I’ll be bringing up the topic of feminism as it comes across in both these versions, but not in the way most do — that is, by talking about the female lead — but rather about the main masculine characters. Let’s start off with the feminist qualities portrayed by Quasimodo.
Both in the book and in the film, he’s cut off from Parisian society because of his deformity and raised and cared for by Dom Claude Frollo. In the book, his outward appearance is played as a contrast to his inner ‘beauty’ or how good he is as a person, as well as to serve as a direct foil for Captain Phoebus, whom is handsome and charming, but rotten to the core on the inside (A change Disney made in the film, which makes the least sense to me when you consider they’ve done good-looking, hero archetype-seeming characters who turn out evil, like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, but that’s for later… ahem) So… where do I claim there’s feminism in his character, especially given that Victor Hugo’s main impetus for writing the book was to draw attention to how the church Notre Dame de Pari was deteriorating and actually had little to do with social issues? Well, from his treatment of the gypsy, Esmeralda, which was preserved faithfully in the transition to the 1996 Disney movie.
Because she is the first person to treat Quasimodo with even a little kindness — no, Dom Claude Frollo does not count because in both versions, he treats the hunchback rather coldly — and though the extent and circumstances differ, Quasimodo decides that she is a basically good person, despite all of the talk of her being a witch, a murderess, a whore, etc. This could be interpreted two ways; one, as the dehumanizing idolization which, admittedly, is just as bad as misogyny; or the other, which is that he thinks, even if she IS any of the aforementioned labels, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’m inclined to think the latter, because of how devoted he remains to Esmeralda. In the book, she shows him only a little kindness, only once, and after that, she acts repulsed and fearful of him, not even giving him the time of day after he rescues her from being hung as a witch. But Quasimodo continues to see her as a good person, going to great lengths to protect her from townspeople as they storm the cathedral and being truly devastated when she dies. In the film, Disney developed their relationship into a mutual friendship, wherein Esmeralda is slightly less superficial and more generous, but she still only sees Quasimodo as a friend (which I almost think is crueler, if only because she doesn’t mean to be — it’s like the Friendzone trope ramped up to eleven) and Quasimodo gets his heart broken as Esmeralda and Phoebus kiss, right in front of him. Ouch. And yet, he willingly goes to save her, even knowing she won’t love him back — the writers even gave him a little speech about it, claiming “she already has her knight in shining armor and it’s not me”. But he still does, because he loves her, and does not expect anything in return. And that is a key tenant of feminism in men — Esmeralda doesn’t OWE him anything; sex, love, whatever. And he doesn’t expect it, either. That’s pretty powerful, especially given that the movie was skewed for kids.
But, wait — there’s more. Where Quasimodo embodies pro-feminist traits, the villain, Frollo, is the direct opposite. In the book, he is a priest who dabbles in sorcery and alchemy (a sign to the God-fearing Christian readers of the time period that he was a hypocritical bad egg), while the film has him as a judge committing terrible acts such as murder and attempted infanticide right on the church steps while claiming that it’s what God wants him to do. What a dick. In both cases, however, he is unwilling to accept his own flaws and blames it on outside forces. The most notable is his pursuit (today, we would call it ‘stalking’) of the gypsy, Esmeralda. In the book, he first attempts to kidnap her — ‘cuz, y’know, nothing says romance like attempting to wrestle a woman down a dark alley against her will — then follows Phoebus to a rende’vouz with Esmeralda, attempts to murder him in a jealous rage and leaves Esmeralda to be blamed for it, and then attempts to get her to sleep with him by offering to use his authority with the church to save her — all the while claiming that she owes it to him because, just by being so damn sexy, she must be a demoness sent by Satan to tempt him. Oh, of course she is.
The movie follows mostly the same vein, with Frollo being disgusted by her being a gypsy and a witch, and even mentioning it in his villain song that he thinks himself better than ‘the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd’. (Yeah, the words ‘vulgar’ and ‘licentious’ make their appearance in a Disney flick. Along with the tasteful scene of an old, creepy man sniffing a young woman’s hair as he twists her arm behind her back. Were the censors away from work that day?) And, in the very same villain song, he claims that she’s a ‘siren’ deliberately casting a spell to force him to desire her. I think the only major difference is, while the movie portrays the crowd of Paris being largely sympathetic to the plight of Esmeralda towards the end, in the book, everyone is against her because everyone thinks she’s a whore… because she DRESSES like one. Never mind that she’s a virgin, and she even has a scene explaining that she must remain a virgin if she ever wishes to find her birth parents again because of some superstition she has (Don’t ask, long story). So, we have victim-blaming AND slut-shaming — two for one, and under the name of the Almighty Mouse. For kids!
But didn’t I mention another male lead? Yes, Captain Phoebus — and this is where it gets tricky, because the book casts him as a philanderer and… well… kind of an asshole, while the Disney movie changes his character to be a secondary protagonist, and the man who gets the girl at the end. Honestly, the book is far more feminist in this respect than the Disney movie, as Phoebus is not the hero — in fact, he outright lies to Esmeralda to try and trick her into sleeping with him for a one-night stand while he’s engaged to yet another woman for her money and status, allows Frollo to spy because he wants the encounter to be over once he’s finished, and doesn’t even bat an eyelash as Esmeralda is being dragged away (twice, as once was at a trial for his ‘murder’ despite him being perfectly able to prove her innocence just by showing up) to be executed. The movie makes him a sympathetic protagonist who returns Esmeralda’s affections, risks his life and honor to defy Frollo by saving a family, and then attempts to protect the gypsies and save the people of Paris when Frollo totally loses it and leads the climax of the final act. Why do I say the book is more feminist in this respect, especially when Phoebus’ fate is that he lives, marries his rich fiance, and is never touched by any of the horror that destroys the other characters? Well, because of Victor Hugo’s treatment of the character — in the book, you never once are given cause to like Phoebus. He’s a horrible person and portrayed as such from all the exposition the narrator gives us, and the subtle indicator by the end of the book that, even though he’s gotten what he wants, his marriage will not be a happy one — perhaps with a hint of ‘Be careful what you wish for: You just might get it.’ Also, with the movie version, it falls back on the old standby of a hero being a good person/saving a damsel in distress, and then being rewarded with it by ‘Getting the girl’ (though, to give them some credit, it does appear to be initiated by Esmeralda, and their relationship is a little more equal than other Disney fare, with her saving him twice and only coming around after she sees him to be a decent person. I dunno — I mostly forgive the Disney Phoebus for Kevin Kline’s occasionally funny delivery and the light-hearted exchanges he has with Quasimodo: ‘Now… would you… put me down, please?’ Lol.)
All in all, Notre Dame de Pari gave us some impressive commentaries on gender roles and feminist ideals without even intending to. The Disney movie version, the Hunchback of Notre Dame managed to capture two out of the three main portrayals of these ideals, even working it into a format that was appropriate for children to see without losing the subtlety of the source material. If you’re in the mood for a good head scratcher on sexual politics, give one of the two a look. You certainly won’t regret it.
(But, please, DON’T get me started on the Hunchback of Notre Dame II. Ugh…)