Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why We All Need to Stop Caring About Spoilers

Though the concept of a spoiler has been around since before the advent of the internet, it's a concept that has blossomed and is thriving in internet-savvy culture. Homicidal outrage is expressed whenever crucial plot points are revealed on social media and everything, from reviews to forums to twitter feeds to recommendation lists, is littered with spoiler alerts. I've warned readers of spoilers myself, if only to avert the seemingly inevitable explosion of gut-wrenching ire. Though the most frightening reactions tend to be over television spoilers, films and books are often the focal point. One of the most famous episodes of extreme outrage over a "spoiled" story happened in 2005 when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out and - obligatory spoiler alert - Dumbledore dies at the end. People went bananas, but it wasn't really because of what Dumbledore's death meant for the books themselves. People were furious because they knew it had happened beforehand. The spoiler was everywhere and even those who weren't reading Harry Potter lost their minds. Ten years later, the spoiler alert has perhaps equaled the cat video in ubiquity. But it's really time we stopped caring.

Though one study indicated that spoilers may actually enhance our enjoyment of the story, that's only one - and perhaps the simplest - reason to stop caring if a story is "spoiled" for us. The idea that knowing plot details beforehand could "spoil" a story is in and of itself a fallacy because it's predicated on the assumption that a story is merely a plot. A story, however, is much more than that and what happens is rarely as interesting as why. Plots are essentially unoriginal, variations on ancient narratives that might evolve, but retain a central thread  - the wanderer journeys home, the lovers are separated and reunited, good battles evil and the world is redeemed, etc. We actually know the outcomes of most stories immediately based on superficial factors, like genre. Caring about spoilers means believing that character, nuance, setting, and ambiguity are mere trimmings, while plot reigns as the god of fiction. It encourages stories with shock endings and twists, which often lead to inconsistent characterization, sensationalizing, and lapses in logic. It becomes more important to surprise the viewer or reader than involve her in the story.

In a lot of cases, caring about spoilers is a lost cause anyway - Odysseus returns to Penelope, Jesus dies on the cross and is resurrected before ascending to Heaven, Romeo and Juliet die. But, even beyond ancient stories that sustain our cultural consciousness, some books and films have been permanently "spoiled" and that's just the way it is. Harry Potter defeats Voldemort and you know that whether you've read the books and seen the movies or not. Norman Bates did it in his mom's dress and you know that whether you've seen Psycho or not. Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy get together in the end and you know that even if you've never read any of Jane Austen's novels. Every single person watching The Tudors knows Anne Boleyn's head is going to roll.

Genre can be a complete giveaway and so can design. Even if a reader knows absolutely nothing about The Talented Mr. Ripley, the book is a crime novel, shelved in the mystery or crime fiction section. My own copy, a red Vintage edition, has the outline of a body on the cover. Ergo, somebody is going to be murdered and it's essentially impossible not to know that going in. Romance books and movies in ninety nine cases out of a hundred end with the lovers reunited. American films made between the mid 1930s and late 1960s will never let a criminal get away with it. Almost every fantasy novel (or movie, or TV series) paints a scenario in which good is pitted against evil - good always wins. In fact, the only fantasy series that I can recall the final ending of which remains in serious doubt is George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and that's because he's twisted the morality of his characters so far beyond moral duality that there are no good guys left.

Bizarrely, the film industry relies very heavily on familiar material - books, comics, and stories "ripped from the headlines." All films adapted from other material, particularly from recent news stories, are, by their very nature, "spoiled." Any adult watching Reversal of Fortune almost certainly knows that Claus von Bulow was acquitted on appeal of the attempted murder of his wife, but that doesn't make the film less interesting. It becomes far more interesting and what's more it gives the filmmakers latitude to play with narrative ambiguity, teasing out alternate scenarios and interpretations without ever settling on a definitive truth. Because we know the verdict going in, it can be set aside and our attention can be focused on the whys and why nots, the deeper, less knowable, and perhaps unknowable aspects of the case. Some of the greatest mystery films do the same thing. In Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, the first scene is also the last - we don't know how Walter Neff came to be stumbling into his office bleeding to death in the middle of the night, but we do know he's bleeding to death in his office.

In more than one case, I wish I'd had spoilers. Our Mutual Friend quite literally infuriated me - not because I knew what was going to happen, but because I didn't. In Dickens's last novel, Bella Wilfer, a coddled young woman hoping to marry her way into a fortune, is taught a lesson by her guardians and husband, who deceive her for over a year to cure her of her mercenary ways. Although her husband is actually a wealthy heir, he fakes poverty and isolation to inspire Bella's pity and convince her to marry him, giving up all her hopes for a comfortable life. She does. Dickens keeps this dubious scheme, which he purports to be a most moral one (though it sounds like coercion and infantilization to me), completely hidden from the reader. We discover with Bella her, and our, deception, and though she is delighted with her moral reeducation, I am not. I don't need to agree with the morality of either authors or characters, but this particular deception is neither entertaining nor convincing. Despite meticulous plotting, this twist comes out of left field and our understanding of the characters' personalities and motivations collapses. Our Mutual Friend would be a much better novel if the reader knew the deception being practiced upon Bella, if only to be able to make sense of the bizarre denouement. Had the novel been "spoiled" for me, the final revelations might have been strained and tiresome to reconcile with the characters as described, but perhaps not so completely impossible to swallow.

If a spoiler really does "spoil" a story, then that story didn't have much merit to begin with. In fact, only once in my life has a spoiler so totally destroyed my enjoyment of a book that I didn't bother finishing it. In my case, the book, or rather books, in question was the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. I had read the first novel for a book club and continued the series. At one point, I was confused about a character and went on the online wiki, only to learn that the main character, Tris - okay guys, here's the spoiler - dies at the end. I never finished the series. Why? I didn't bother because I didn't actually care about Tris or Four or any of the other characters, whose names I swiftly forgot. I didn't care what happened to dystopian Chicago or the faction system. I was just as satisfied reading a short plot summary as I would have been actually reading the book or watching the movie. The problem wasn't that I knew what happened - the problem was that I didn't care why it happened. And why waste time on a story if you don't care about the characters?

If a spoiler really can spoil a story, then the story isn't worth telling. There are too many great books, films, and television shows out there to read or watch something solely for the plot when one could get a great plot, and great characters with complicated motivations, and a fascinating setting, and more profound meanings and ambiguities. I'd rather know why than what every time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

10 Books for Fans of Swashbucklers

Few Hollywood genres are as enduringly entertaining as the swashbuckler - I'm personally quite fond of swashbucklers about pirates, and I've also written about women's roles in swashbucklers. They combine action and romance with pageantry and, in most cases, impressive stuntwork. Their literary forbear is principally the historical novel, as pioneered by Scott and Dumas, and they are often rooted in legends of dashing heroes who perform their formidable deeds in service to a monarch. Here are ten great literary swashbucklers:

Westmark (and its sequels, The Kestrel, The Beggar Queen) - Lloyd Alexander 
Alexander's trilogy is set in the fictional country of Westmark where the aging and increasingly senile king mourns his lost daughter and sole heir. After Theo's master, a printer, is murdered during a raid on the shop, the young man goes on the run, joining the carnival showman and master imposter Count Las Bombas, his servant Musket, and ragamuffin Mickle. Discovering the chief minister's evil designs of usurping the throne, the quartet is swept up into a civil war. An exciting, morally complex fantasy adventure that needs no magic to keep the pages turning.

The Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio
One of the great classics of world literature, The Decameron is a collection of one hundred stories set in Medieval Europe, within a frame narrative about a group of young Florentines on the run from the plague. The tales range from the tragic to the salacious, the spiritual to the scatological; a few that will particularly appeal to the swashbuckler fan are: II:4, in which poor Landolfo becomes a corsair, IV:5, in which Lisabetta buries a precious relic of a former love in a basil pot, and V:3, in which Pietro and Agnolella are accosted by robbers.

The King of Ireland's Son - Padraic Colum
This 1916 children's novel based on Irish folklore is, in my opinion, the best such narrative of the twentieth century. The eldest of the King of Ireland's sons goes on a quest fraught with danger and magic to win the heart and hand of Fedelma, the Enchanter's daughter, kidnapped by the King of the Land of the Mist. The book's complex narrative structure, witty sense of humor, and gorgeous descriptions elevate it above similar children's fare and it is a perfect book to read aloud. Though comparable in content and flavor to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, The King of Ireland's Son is much more fun.

The King's General - Daphne du Maurier
A stirring adventure set during the English Civil War, The King's General is one of du Maurier's best novels. Honor Harris at eighteen rebels and pursues a romance with the dashing, dangerous Richard Grenvile, but she is crippled by a riding accident on the eve of her wedding. The two lovers retain a bond, both emotional and political, as the war rages and Grenvile rises through the ranks to become a dreaded general. Du Maurier was inspired to write the novel when a secret room with ghastly contents was found at the estate Menabilly in Cornwall (also the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca). 

The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
Surely the most beloved and frequently adapted swashbuckling novel, Dumas's great classic follows d'Artagnan, his doughty companions Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, and the villainous Cardinal de Richelieu, as they vie for control of the French throne. While most cinematic adaptations simplify the politics of the novel and prettify the heroes' reckless violence and whoring, the novel is altogether a more complex beast: deeply critical of the monarchy and blind loyalty to its excesses and richly expressive of a wide array of political and moral points of view. An essential classic for any swashbuckler fan. 

The Adventures of Robin Hood - Roger Lancelyn Green
Though there have been seemingly countless adaptations of the Robin Hood legend, Roger Lancelyn Green's version is perhaps the most readable. Green links the various Robin Hood legends, drawing from sources from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, to create a linear narrative with consistent characters, following the hero from birth to death. Ostensibly written for boys, the book will appeal to any reader fond of a Medieval adventure; Green was also a friend of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and like them a member of the Inklings, so this book should be of particular interest to fantasy readers.

Quest for a Maid - Frances Mary Hendry
I fell in love with this novel when I was a child and it's one I've returned to many times. Set in 13th century Scotland, the book follows Meg Wright, the daughter of a pagan Viking and sister to a witch, who must guide the princess Margaret to claim her throne after the king dies under circumstances about which Meg knows far too much. Though it is a young adult novel, it's a thrillingly good one and is a rare literary swashbuckler with a female character at the center of the action. I also recommend Monica Furlong's Wise Child, another brilliant young adult novel set in Medieval Scotland.

The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Set at the height of the Terror, when Robespierre was most fiendishly enamored of the guillotine, this novel follows stunning French actress Marguerite, married to the silly fop Sir Percy Blakeney and anxious to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise devoted to rescuing condemned French aristocrats from execution. Though the politics of the baronial authoress are rather too baldly elitist for my taste, The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the most essential novels for the swashbuckler fan. The best adaptation, from 1934, stars Leslie Howard. 

The Lady of the Lake - Sir Walter Scott
There would be no swashbucklers without Scott, founding father of the historical novel. In this book-length narrative poem, a particularly sophisticated reimagining of the Scottish Highlands and their legendarily feuding resident clans, the beautiful Ellen Douglas, daughter of the sworn enemy of James V, is pursued by the graceful young Malcolm Graeme and the fearsome warrior Roderick Dhu. Though the vocabulary proves challenging (I had to run to a dictionary to discover what "pibroch" and "falchion" meant), The Lady of the Lake is a dazzling work of romanticism. Fans of swashbucklers will also love Scott's novels, particularly Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Waverly.

Kidnapped (and its sequel, Catriona) - Robert Louis Stevenson
Nearly all of Stevenson's novels could be considered swashbucklers and Kidnapped is one of the best. It follows David Balfour, a naive but resourceful orphan who seeks his fortune in 1751. Discovering that he may have been robbed of his inheritance by a miserly uncle, he attempts to make a claim, but his efforts are soon cut short when he wakes up, bound hand and foot, on a ship captained by a slaver. An exciting adventure on a par with Treasure Island and The Master of Ballantrae, this novel and its sequel, which follows the hero's romance with the beautiful Catriona, are two of Stevenson's best works.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Is Disney's "Robin Hood" a Libertarian Manifesto?

The ancient legend of Robin Hood has been endlessly adapted across all artistic media and its politics bent and readjusted just as endlessly. In 1973, the Disney studio reframed the legend and repopulated it with animal characters, their accents indicating class and character traits rather than nationality (almost all of the nobility have British accents, while the peasant characters tend to have American accents). Like many Disney films based on fairy tales and British and Chinese legends, including The Sword in the Stone, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and, most interestingly, the Disney Renaissance films The Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Mulan, there is an unquestioning adherence to the ancient idea of a monarchy ordained by God. Since most of these films operate under a dualistic good v. evil morality, the "rightful" heir to the throne is invariably a good guy, while pretenders are bad guys. Robin Hood also bows to this view, which is, of course, deeply embedded in the mythology of Robin Hood, and necessary if he is to be framed as a hero.

The fact that the government is a monarchy however is less important than how good and evil within governance is defined. King Richard's style of governance is largely unexamined, since he doesn't arrive until the final scene in the film. We're told that he pardons Robin Hood, imprisons Prince John and his cronies, sentencing them to hard labor (they're last seen in a shallow quarry pit), and presides over the wedding of Robin and Marian. His departure for the crusades is explained in this version as the result of hypnosis - Prince John's adviser Sir Hiss apparently convinced him to leave by hypnotizing him, therefore leaving the way open for John to seize the throne. His "crazy crusade" is thus rendered a mark of fallibility, a foolish undertaking, but not a blameworthy one. Richard is the "good" king primarily because he holds the right of inheritance, while Robin is a "good" man because he is a loyal partisan in favor of Richard.

Prince John's style of governance is characterized as evil, firstly because it is "unnatural." As long as Richard is alive, John can be no more than regent. The fact that he aspires to hold the throne himself delegitimizes his regency in the eyes of his subjects, though in actuality he has the full right to rule in Richard's absence. John's villainy is expressed by his paranoia, his ineptitude, his temper tantrums, and his mother fixation. At bottom, John is "the phony king of England" because he's childish. But his most salient policy, as well as the one his subjects object to most vociferously, and the one against which Robin works most tirelessly, is John's continually escalating taxation.

The sheriff of Nottingham is primarily, in his own words, "your friendly neighborhood tax collector," and he's portrayed stealing money from Robin disguised as a blind beggar and snatching it from a crippled blacksmith, the church poorbox, and a six-year-old bunny, who was given a farthing for his birthday. Those unable to pay their taxes are chained and imprisoned, with some offenders sentenced to hard labor. John, meanwhile, hoards the tax money, even sleeping with it. The role of government under Prince John is to acquire as much money possible and spend as little as possible. Taxation is thus, within the world of the film, a malevolent manifestation of greed and miserliness.

Other Robin Hood adaptations have approached the issue of John's fitness to rule differently. In the greatest Robin Hood film, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, Prince John does indeed squeeze the peasantry with ludicrous taxation, but his motive is not a simple matter of greed. There is a strong prejudicial element to John's policies in this version. The Saxons, of whom Robin is one, are oppressed by the heavy taxation, to the point of starvation, and they face brutal, often lethal, punishment for petty crimes, in contrast to the Normans, who enjoy greater freedoms and lower taxes. Marian, a Norman, is convinced to take Robin's side when she observes the misery of the Saxon peasants. Furthermore, John excuses the absurd tax rates with the claim that he needs it to ransom Richard, taken prisoner by an Austrian rival; naturally he has no intention of paying any such ransom. Thus, in this version, the taxation itself isn't the problem; ethnic oppression, in the service of ambition and deception, is the real root of John's evil.

These complications are not present in Disney's Robin Hood. All subjects to the English crown, barring those few like Sir Hiss who enjoy the dubious and changeable favor of Prince John, suffer under the taxation. The misery is universal. But, Prince John takes his paranoid need to destroy Robin to such great heights of evil that he proves himself a poor monarch. He plans to lure Robin into a trap by hanging Friar Tuck (in most versions, it is Robin, rescued by the Merrie Men, who risks the noose). This is, obviously, a nasty plan indeed, but Sir Hiss explicitly registers his shock that John could consider executing a man of the church. This attack on the clergy is framed as a moral wrong because of Friar Tuck's position as a spiritual leader - not because hanging itself is bad -  and proves John's undoing.

Thus, the two main expressions of Prince John's badness and unfitness to hold the throne are his tax policies and his failure to hold the church sacred. These are deeply conservative sins, but while the first is certainly in tune with American libertarian politics, the second is absolutely not. The expressed politics of Disney's Robin Hood are not libertarian, but there is a strong libertarian shading that may prove rather disturbing to those who may not want their children to grow up believing that paying taxes is a form of evil social oppression. One also hopes that children watching the film come away simply convinced that death by hanging is an appalling thing, but the film in fact doesn't condemn capital punishment: it condemns capital punishment for "untouchable" authority figures. Overall, Robin Hood's moral simplicity lands it squarely in the conservative camp, both fiscally and socially.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Disney Depictions of Boyhood: An Analysis

Much feminist criticism has been leveled at Disney animated films' depiction of girl- and young womanhood, with the understanding that children's films are teaching films, intended to instill broad moral and social standards. I've written on this subject myself. The Disney princesses in particular are invoked constantly as problematic female role models for young girls. Until Brave, there were no Disney princess characters who did not have a male love interest and even in Brave, the catalyst for the central conflict is a rebellion against the traditional romantic-sexual paradigm. The set of standards for girls, refracted through these female characters, is fairly uniform, though it evolves somewhat over time. All of this is well worth discussing. However, Disney films are as widely seen by little boys as little girls and I've begun to consider what these films have to say about boyhood. How is the ideal little boy supposed to behave? What qualities should he have? What sorts of goals should he be working towards? While it's certainly true that boys have a far more diverse range of role models than girls do, the Disney films seem to have an outsize influence and it's worthwhile to think about what Disney boyhood looks like.

For the sake of this analysis, I'm considering only depictions of human boys and excluding examples like Simba (The Lion King) and Bambi. There are five Disney animated films that explicitly deal with male coming-of-age: Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, and Aladdin. All of them follow pre-teen or teenage heroes through a period of development that culminates in a shift in identity and role in the world, with the exception of Peter Pan, who, given a choice to make that shift, rejects it.

Pinocchio is explicitly framed as a narrative of moral development. Pinocchio must demonstrate moral worthiness in order to be granted full humanity. His sins, many committed in the most naive innocence, include shirking school, lying, smoking, drinking, gambling, and overeating. He eventually achieves his wish to be a real boy with an act of extreme selflessness and heroism, saving Geppetto and the household pets from the ferocious whale, Monstro. Pinocchio's bad habits are indeed the sort of vices most parents would wish to discourage in their offspring, but the larger conclusions to be drawn from the film are rather disturbing. First, Pinocchio's motivation to be a real boy is not his - it is his father's. Thus, Pinocchio is a child acting under the imperatives of a paternal, and frankly patriarchal, directive. Second, Pinocchio is actually a complete innocent. He doesn't have to reform so much as be told what is wrong and what is right. His moral agency is less his own than it is Jiminy Cricket's. Third, the actions that entitle him to full humanity, an obvious metaphor here for adulthood, is life-threatening heroism and a willingness to sacrifice all for his father. If Pinocchio were female, this film would by intensely misogynistic; in either case, the film demands stringent and severe adherence to a patriarchal system.

It's worth noting that Pinocchio's docility and sweetness are entirely Disney inventions. In Carlo Collodi's novel, the little wooden puppet is rude, nasty, selfish, and fully aware that he's breaking rules. The literary Pinocchio is a mascalzone, a rascal; the cinematic Pinocchio is an innocent.

Peter Pan
J. M. Barrie's creation is a difficult one to analyze, given the sheer scale of its cultural influence. While Peter Pan in the original play says, "I am youth! I am freedom!" and culturally speaking we see him as a symbol of the anarchic child spirit, he is intended, fundamentally, to represent the very essence of boyhood. As such, even though his character alters very little throughout Disney's film, Peter Pan functions as the definition of boyhood. What is Peter Pan really like? He is a leader, a fighter, a conqueror, a kidnapper, a rescuer of women and children, a sadist, and a short fuse. He greets acts of extreme cruelty against those he dislikes with hilarity - i.e., any nasty thing that happens to Captain Hook or Smee - and resolves any such acts against those he does like by staging a heroic, devil-may-care deliverance - i.e., catching Wendy as she plummets to the rocks and whisking Tiger Lily above the rising tide. Peter Pan is also roguishly charming and uses his charm to attract the attention of girls, flitting among them according to whichever flatters him most at any given moment. What is most disturbing about Peter Pan is the fact that he is utterly incapable of responding to people as anything other than pawns to be deployed in his adventures - the Lost Boys are his army or a gaggle of sons to boss around, as the mood strikes him.

The only genuine, lasting emotional connection that Peter has is with Tinker Belle. She ties him even more strongly to his permanent childhood, a female being with exaggeratedly sexual features who is utterly unattainable sexually, temperamental, capricious, fascinating, but defined by her attachment to Peter and without an identity outside of that attachment. In the play, Peter explains to Wendy that every child used to have a fairy, and it's implied that Tinker Belle is his. Her continued presence indicates his stunted growth, his pure inability to grow up. As a role model, Peter Pan is shockingly bad, the precise sort of figure that supports the deeply misogynistic adage, "Boys will be boys." Violence, sadism, arrogance, selfishness - according to Peter Pan these are the fundamental qualities of boyhood.

The Sword in the Stone
Though on a deeper level this film, like Pinocchio, is about moral development, it is more literally the story of the young King Arthur's education with his tutor Merlin. I consider this one of the most unfairly underrated Disney films. Arthur, or Wart as he is called, is a good kid. As Merlin says, he "throws himself heart and soul into everything he does," he's humble (a rare and precious quality) and selfless, he shows great respect for his elders and for animals, and he has a strong sense of justice. Arthur has no truly bad qualities or habits. His only moment of rebellion against his boorish guardian Sir Ector is motivated by his abuse of Merlin, rather than his extreme disciplinary measures. As the destined heir, "ordained by Heaven," to the throne of England, one expects Arthur to be, in miniature, the dazzling monarch that united his knights with affection for his person. Throughout the film, he learns that the intellect is mightier than brute strength, that love is the most powerful force in the world, and that true learning trumps superficial cleverness. Throughout his adventures, he is rescued, not once, not twice, but three times by Archimedes, a squirrel, and Merlin, thus absolving him from the need to demonstrate heroics beyond his abilities.

Arthur is a strong role model, but his character lacks the deviously subversive qualities of most children. As a result, he may be a positive ideal, the polar opposite of Peter Pan, but just as Peter represents the most negative expression of boyhood, Arthur represents a childish type of nobility and even maturity - qualities only a very extraordinary boy could hope to imitate all the time.

The Jungle Book
Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves who longs to remain in the jungle and, thus, never grow up into manhood, is the most nuanced of the five boys. Though he can be disobedient, bad-tempered, disrespectful, and foolhardy, he is also brave, quick-witted, enthusiastic, and affectionate. His most troublesome flaw, as far as his elders are concerned, is his refusal to acknowledge his own vulnerability. Although he has no human guardians, he is perhaps the most treasured by his carers, beloved by his adoptive wolf parents and protected even at the risk of death by Bagheera and Baloo. When he does face Shere Khan, he does so with bravery and quick thinking, but it's made obvious that his survival of the encounter is only possible because the older, stronger Baloo intervenes. Mowgli's growth into manhood is precipitated by his first glimpse of a girl, symbolizing a sexual awakening that propels him to leave behind his jungle childhood and enter the human world. Of the five boys, Mowgli follows the most typical path from boyhood to adolescence. He has both negative and positive personality traits and, in the end, chooses to move forward of his own accord.

Aladdin is about eighteen years old (making him a closer counterpart to the princesses, all between the ages of fourteen and twenty). At the beginning of the film, he is a streetwise thief who dreams of acquiring money and property. His dreams get more ambitious when he gets a look at Jasmine. A promise to the Genie, to set him free after he grants two wishes, proves problematic when Aladdin realizes that he can't keep up the illusion of being a prince without supernatural help. His use of deception to acquire what he wants - Jasmine and the glamorous life that comes with her - is excused when he defeats Jafar with a mixture of physical fighting prowess and clever thinking. He makes the right choice, keeps his promise to the Genie, and is rewarded with what he hoped to get all along because the sultan is thus convinced he's worthy. Though the film steadfastly sticks to a spoken message that it's important for Aladdin to accept who he is and live that reality, the film's fairy tale conclusion contradicts that message completely.

What's disturbing about the ultimate message of Aladdin is that his success is framed as a reward. By marrying Jasmine, he acquires the wife, money, and property that he wanted, and he becomes an absolute ruler - a deeply worrying prospect given that he has no education and no understanding of how to govern a country. In other words, Aladdin hits the jackpot because he's acted out his own fantasy. Aladdin hasn't accepted who he really is because that fantasy posits him as something else entirely. Aladdin is, in most respects, a terrible role model. He lies and cheats, gets in trouble when he's with Jafar who lies and cheats better than he does, and has success when  he's with people, like the sultan and Jasmine, who don't lie and cheat. Though he does become less selfish, his basic attitudes remain the same and his transformation into a fairy tale hero, complete with a woman as a reward, doesn't instil strong self-esteem, but rather teaches that acting the hero guarantees a prize.

There are several salient points to be made about attitudes towards boyhood in Disney films. First, there is more diversity in terms of roles and character traits among the five boys than there is among the Disney princesses. This, in itself, entails that the prescribed set of behaviors is less constricting for boys than for girls. Second, boys are given latitude to learn from their mistakes and improve their basic characters, something granted to only the more recent Disney heroines. Further, self-improvement for boys is usually predicated around a reward-system; similar rewards for girls entail either submission to standards for female behavior or having been rescued. Pinocchio becomes a real boy, Mowgli enters the man village to the siren song of a flirtatious and apparently attainable girl, Aladdin gets the princess plus her kingdom and wealth, Arthur gets the throne of England. With the exception of Arthur, destined to be king, these rewards are predicated on the fulfillment of active tasks, usually heroic in nature. There is no question of not getting what they want because they became stronger, less selfish, more capable, and smarter. They win; they defeat the bad guy. In contrast, the girls, even including Mulan and Merida, must already be strong (usually in an emotional sense), capable, and smart before their adventures begin, and, with the exception of Merida, all of the Disney princesses begin their stories as deeply selfless characters. Even Merida, who learns to be more selfless, never comes close to the self-centered behavior of, say, Peter Pan or Aladdin.

These depictions of boyhood include some disturbing lessons for little boys. Violent behavior is portrayed as heroism within a simplistic dualistic moral paradigm and girls are frequently depicted as rewards for those heroic acts. An aspiration to manhood is often an aspiration to possession, whether of objects or girls. That being said, many fine qualities are also encouraged in these stories of male growth, including greater selflessness and regard for one's parents and friends, independence and creative problem solving, and a love for learning. Over all, Disney films have a healthier and more eclectic set of attitudes towards boyhood than towards girlhood.