Recently I was bored and decided to try something new on Netflix. Since Netflix is awesome, it suggested several things I might like, and to my delight, I soon found a fairytale with a female protagonist and Tim Curry as a supporting male character. That alone was enough to get me to watch, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much the movie subverted some typical sexist fairytale storytelling.
The Secret of Moonacre is the story of Maria Merryweather, a young girl whose mother died when she was young and whose father recently passed away. She discovers that her father lost all of his assets to gambling and she is being sent to live with her uncle in Moonacre Valley. The only thing her father was able to leave her was a book called The Ancient Chronicles of Moonacre Valley. Maria begins to read a story about a woman so pure and good that nature loved her and the moon blessed her with magical moon pearls, which is why people began to call her the moon princess. But when she reveals their powers to her father and fiance, they become greedy and each attempt to steal the pearls for themselves. The princess then places a curse on the valley using the power the moon gave her, declaring that the pearls must be returned to the sea or the valley would be cursed forever. When Maria goes to live with her uncle, she discovers that not only is this story true, but that she is the new moon princess and must break the curse on the valley.
This was a surprisingly feminist story featuring a young girl entering a dangerous and magical world who is able to take control of her own life and help others. Her magic comes from being good and pure, like the first moon princess, but this does not translate into the same sexist storytelling that many fairytales do when a woman’s strength is said to come from her goodness and purity. Nor is Maria a boring character with no faults: she is never put up on a pedestal, but rather her strength comes from the fact that she is able to use her virtues to overcome her faults.
In most fairytales of the Disney variety, when a woman’s power or magic comes from how good or pure she is, the story usually takes on more sexist overtones. We are presented with female characters who are good because they are docile and largely do as they are told; they don’t strike out on their own to save the day, but wait for someone else to save them. And while purity isn’t always explicitly explained, these female characters are always portrayed as wide-eyed and innocent as a means to imply sexual purity.
Maria, however, is hardly ever portrayed as meek and docile; rather, she is brave, clever, and resourceful. When Maria goes to live with her uncle Sir Benjamin, he is initially callous, cruel, and decidedly sexist toward her. He bars her from the library and study and often asks her not to speak or to stop asking questions. Rather than bear it patiently and kindly, Maria becomes defiant towards him even when he gives her rules that she really should follow. Her uncle explains that Maria should not go into the woods and that if she goes, he won’t be able to protect her. However, Maria goes into the woods on more than one occasion—first to defy her uncle, and later, when she discovers that there is a curse on Moonacre Valley and that she is the next moon princess, she journeys into the woods to find the moon pearls to save her family. Maria is not interested in sitting around to let others take care of things—she knows that this is something she has to do herself.
Maria never really has any active magic in the movie. She can’t cast spells in order to help people or herself. But instead she is able to see things others can’t and is able to awaken the magic in Moonacre Valley that has recently started to fade. She witnesses a magical unicorn that helps her and guides her, though no one else can see it. She also has a moment where she is able to look into a mirror and see the past between her uncle and his former paramour, the Lady Loveday de Noir, before pride and hatred tore them apart. That’s probably what I enjoyed most in this movie. While it had overt magical elements in the story, the movie makes it clear that it is Maria’s goodness that is the real magic. She is able to help both her family and the de Noirs to look past their pride and greed and finally break the curse.
But in this movie, her goodness has nothing to do with her being perfect or docile. Rather, it comes from her strength of character, her ability to put her own pride aside, and to reach out to others. It takes something normal and makes it this amazing magical ability. Maria learns that the original moon princess is not a princess in the traditional sense. Rather, she was just so pure of heart that nature blessed her with abilities and the moon pearls. This is further expanded on by saying that the moon princess truly believed there was good in everyone, but when her father and fiance are consumed by greed and pride, she doesn’t take any shit from them and instead curses them and the entire valley. The original moon princess story sets up a precedent of a heroic woman who is good and pure, but who is also powerful and doesn’t let others take advantage of her. This fits Maria to a T. Maria is revealed to be the next moon princess by the cook Marmaduke, who points out that only the true moon princess would be able to see the unicorn. She is not the moon princess because it’s a part of her bloodline; she inherits the title because she has all the same qualities as the original moon princess. She loves her uncle despite his treatment of her and reaches out to people in the Clan de Noir. Even before Maria goes to Moonacre Valley, we see how she is good to everyone, even the servants who lived in her father’s house. But like the original moon princess, she subverts our traditional understanding of what it means for women to be good and pure, because Maria does not bear her burdens patiently but is active in standing up for herself and taking charge.
Maria may have some of the powers of your typical fairytale princess, but her story shows how this same type of story can be portrayed without being sexist. Women don’t have to be tomboyish or constantly wanting to fight their enemies in order to be feminist. Maria saves the day with her love and goodness, but those are shown not to be passive qualities in women. Instead, they are active ones that you have to strive towards and work for.
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I loved, loved, LOVED the book upon which this movie was based; it’s my favorite book in fact! The movie was very disappointing to me; it took out a lot of the elements and motifs that I loved about the original story, including an entire character, and it changed the relationships between the characters quite a bit in a disappointing fashion (also the uncle is much, MUCH less of a jerk and more of an ignorant misogynist). The movie did do really well in translating Maria’s character over and keeping her spunky, independent and clever the same way I loved her in the book. It’s just that given everything that was changed or taken out, the movie pales in comparison to the story the novel tells. But we all know the books are usually better….😝
I greatly enjoyed the book, and did find the movie entertaining. What I like about it is the story creates a good coming of age story. It plays well to a strong message of sexual equality, without robbing the characters of their own choices of how they define themselves.