4 Reasons Why Christian Feminists Should Watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame

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To say my love for Hunchback of Notre Dame has been deep and abiding would be an understatement. Esmerelda’s face graced my 3rd birthday cake, and my relationship with my Quasimodo finger puppet was unbreakable (until I lost it at my grandparents house sometime around Christmas 1999). HND was my first true pop-culture love.

Some might say it was inappropriate for me to watch as a 3-year-old, but my parents weren’t concerned. Any dark themes or sexual innuendos went waaay over my head until, years later, I revisited the movie at age 16. It was just as beautiful as I remembered, and the movie remains one of my favorites to this day.

Many of my peers shy away from HND, still haunted by memories of mobs and hellfire, but I believe that HND’s themes brought up important conversations ahead of its time. Here’s why HND is a must-watch for Christian feminists everywhere:

1. Nuanced conversations about the church.

Almost the entire movie takes place on the grounds of one of the most famous cathedrals in the world—Notre Dame—and the culture surrounding the church in 19th century Paris. Judge Claude Frollo, the villain, has spent his life praying all the right prayers and is considered “godly” by society’s terms, and yet his actions are motivated ultimately from a place of selfishness, hate and fear. His legalism is ultimately what drives him to the brink of insanity, causing him to attempt to take out Quasimodo and an unconscious Esmerelda.

And yet, even more important than Frollo’s legalism is the frank conversation about the gypsies and their exclusion from the church. In Esmerelda’s God Help the Outcasts, she sings, Yes I know I’m just an outcast/I shouldn’t speak to You/Still I see Your face and wonder/Were You once an outcast too? HND raises the idea of a Jesus that is from the outskirts, a Jesus that considers the outsiders his people and seeks them out in his community. Esmerelda voices her doubt of a faith that excludes minorities, and her sinner’s plea contrasts deeply with the “Pharisees” prayers shown during the song.

 

2. Representation of diverse women and their sexuality.

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Okay, “diverse” is a little extreme since there’s really only one female character in this story, but she’s a woman of color and is a member of a people group ostracized by society. That was pretty unusual for ’90s Disney, to say the least. Esmerelda isn’t portrayed as some kind of whore, but she’s also not the innocent virgin with doe eyes (*cough* ARIEL *cough*). She is nuanced. She’s smart and has a great sense of humor, and yet she doesn’t take any handouts. She’s outspoken. She’s sexually confident. To see that in a Disney movie is pretty much unheard of. And yet when Frollo makes sexual advances, the message the writers send is that she was not asking for it. Which leads me to point #3. . .

3. Open conversations on consensual relationships.

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Frollo: You think you’ve outwitted me. But I’m a patient man. And gypsies don’t do well inside stone walls.

*Frollo inhales her hair*

Esmerelda: What are you doing?

Frollo: I was just imagining a rope around that beautiful neck.

Esmerelda: I know what you were imagining.

Frollo: Such a clever witch. So typical of your kind to twist the truth to cloud the mind with unholy thoughts.

It’s pretty subtle, and yet the language is still clearly there. The unwanted sexual approach of a man with more power, a man who has painted her to be the one seducing him. It has all the hallmark signs of rape culture. In his mind she is the one seducing him, rather than the reality—the unwanted advances of a man who doesn’t like to hear “no”.

This would have been such an easy scene to leave out of the story, but I think it portrays something important about both characters: Esmerelda’s temporary helplessness and Frollo’s physical display of dominance over her sends chills down my spine every time.

The misinterpretation of Esmerelda’s sexuality is not unique to Frollo, however; Quasimodo also assumes her warmth towards him is something more. So when Esmerelda chooses the blonde, winsome Phoebus over Quasimodo, his shock and grief are understandable. But he doesn’t try to change her mind. He doesn’t decide he’s going to force her to do whatever he wants. You know what he does? HE ACCEPTS HER “NO”, AND HE MOVES FORWARD WITH HIS LIFE. Quasimodo is the biggest person in this story, because he stomachs the rejection with dignity, choosing to care for both her and Phoebus as their lives are placed in jeopardy. Being the hero doesn’t always mean you get the girl, and Quasimodo ultimately understands that being a nice guy does not make Esmerelda owe him anything.

4. Justice and compassion as important qualities.

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Frollo: How dare you defy me?

Esmerelda: You mistreat this poor boy the same way you mistreat my people. You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help.

Frollo: Silence!

Esmerelda: Justice!

Religious genocide runs rampant in the Parisian community as Frollo searches the city for gypsies. When Esmerelda frees Quasimodo at the Feast of Fools, she speaks up for her people in a crucial setup for the witch hunts that occur later in the movie. She is advocating for her people, for the people who do not have the platform or power to speak up. It is the woman in the story who leads the rest of the characters in caring for those who are less-than. It is she who moves towards reconciliation in the last scene, when Quasimodo is welcomed into the city and finally feels a sense of belonging. Ultimately, Esmerelda is the pivotal character in this story and its messages: it matters to speak up when we are told to remain silent. There is room for all of us. We are all worthy of love and belonging. That is what makes the magic of HND so unique, and so invaluable.

It ends with us: the toxicity of gender roles

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Whether you’re male or female, you received messages growing up about gender. Maybe they were spoken out loud, like being told that “women want love and men want respect”, or maybe they were more subtle, like the way you were supposed to dress or whether your boyfriend had to ask your dad permission to take you on a date. Messages about our manhood or womanhood deeply shape who we perceive ourselves to be and our confidence in our interactions with the opposite gender.

To write this article, I posted a Facebook status asking what messages people received about gender. Here are a few of their responses:

For women:

  • “Don’t be too successful or don’t share your opinions too freely or else you will scare men away.”
  • “I was warned against ever making the first move or pursuing a man; it’s the woman’s role to wait patiently and passively and the man’s to pursue. If you, a woman, go after a guy, you are a slut, and you don’t know how to wait on the Lord. (Also, men don’t like it and won’t date you.) I kissed him first. There were no objections.”
  • “Men want respect; women want affection.” . . . Being told that as a woman I didn’t want to be respected was actually very hurtful (and a little insulting).”
  • “Only guys have strong sexual drives and struggle with sexual sin.”

For men:

  • “You should have more friends who are boys, otherwise you’ll start acting like a girl.”
  • “‘If you like romcoms, you’re probably gay.’ Good romcoms are pretty amazing. Sue me.”
  • “Always beware of sexual sin, which amounted to, be afraid of the woman you love at all times. I have since chilled out after realizing that being afraid of my girlfriend wasn’t loving to her or to me and was no way to live.”
  • “The idea that young men and women can’t be friends seems to have led at least a few young men in my life to be completely unable to have a female friend without either developing romantic feelings for her, or developing delusions about said friend having romantic feelings for him.”

You or I may not have experienced all of these messages, but they all have one thing in common: the restrictive boxes that exist around gender in our Christian community hurt more people than they help. When we tighten our grip on definitions of manhood and womanhood, we make people who deserve to belong in society—a 30-something single, a full-time working mom, a guy who doesn’t like sports—feel like untouchables instead of equally valuable members of our church community.

The only party that benefits from suffocating gender roles is the fear inside of all of us; fear that society will change if we relinquish the rules we’ve clung to for hundreds of years.

And these messages are passed down from generation, to generation, to generation. Do you know how they’re being spread? By the generation that came before them. You’d think we would learn, having been wounded by the same messages, but somehow we keep repeating them instead of nipping them at the bud.

It needs to end with us. Let’s make this the last generation that ever has to deal with that crap, because it really doesn’t do anything to positively benefit society. Why inflict the same pain on your future kid that you experienced now? I am convinced that in order for the next generation to be better off than we are, we must intentionally work to rewrite the narratives that we receive—if we don’t, we will unintentionally pass them on. Because apathy is not a neutral attitude; it positively benefits the structures that already exist in society.

And maybe, one day, we will wake up in a world that has taken another step toward loving others better.

Not a dick: a man’s perspective on modesty

There is so much to be said about modesty – more than what can be summed up in one blog post – and after my post about modesty and yoga pants, I realized there is so much more to the topic than what I can address as a woman. My dear friend Austin has offered to share some of his thoughts, and I’m so excited for you to read them. You can find him on Twitter at @LindnerAustin and Instagram at austincarrmusic.

 

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I’m a man. And I generally like to think of myself as more than a penis.

As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s honestly how I feel whenever a heated conversation about modesty begins. The two sides of the debate form opposing lines, ready to attack the other side with thrown words or rocks at the drop of a hat. And without a doubt, whenever the “modest is the hottest” team steps up to defend turtlenecks and floor-length skirts, one of the first things out of their mouths is “Do you want men to lust after you? You know guys are more visual creatures. You know they can’t help looking. You don’t know how hard it is to be a man.

Bullshit.

This argument is used to justify too many things in today’s society. Assault, sexual harassment, rape, really anything can be pacified with a good “boys will be boys” mentality. And as one of these “boys” myself, this logic has always seemed offensive.

It implies that I am little more than an animal. That I will uncontrollably lose my cookies at the slightest mention of the word “sex,” or if I walk past a girl in a mini skirt. That my hormones and sexual instincts control my life on a day-to-day basis and I am constantly resisting the urge to mate with anything that moves.

It implies that I am stupid. That I don’t know lusting after a woman is wrong, because I haven’t been taught not to. I never had the chance to attend “Human Decency 101”, so I get a hall pass. It’s okay girls, I didn’t mean to grab your butt- I’m just an idiot.

It implies that I have no restraint. That I have no power over my body whenever a girl with yoga pants walks in the room. That I’ll turn into an unhinged rapist if a girl’s shirt slips a centimeter too low.

And the part that bothers me the most about these statements is when I hear guys saying the same thing to excuse their own behavior.

Living on a college campus, I hear things like this all the time.

“If you wear yoga pants, how can you expect me not to stare?”

“Girls should really consider how distracting they can be before putting on stuff like that.”

Growing up I understood these sentiments. Yeah, why does she have to wear that? If she dresses like that, she’s obviously a slut. Which means I can stare. Because she wants me to stare. Right?

Society told me that I wasn’t responsible for these feelings. It told me that when a girl trespasses some invisible line in the modesty department it is suddenly okay to judge her. To view her as less than a person. To objectify.

But after maturing a little more, I realize how selfish this line of thinking is, to demand that someone slap some more fabric on her body for the sake of my own comfort.

Lately I’ve heard a lot of guys comparing “immodest” women to food (go figure). These pro-modesty dudes say things like, “When you dress like a slut it’s like you are turning yourself into a big mac, and then asking us not to look at you or touch you. How can you expect us not to try something?”

Look. I get it. Big macs are the bomb. And I may instinctively want to snatch a big mac out a stranger’s hand if I’m in public around lunchtime, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to. And it definitely doesn’t mean that I have the right to complain about all these strangers walking around with their slutty, unwrapped hamburgers. Or request that everybody around me refrain from eating big macs in my presence because of my own issues and preferences.

I may love a good burger, but I’m not an animal running on pure impulses. I’m a human, and so is the burger-woman. And we both deserve to be treated as such.

And maybe a good place to start would be to stop comparing the opposite sex to inanimate junk food.

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Something that Hannah has mentioned before that I wholly support is the idea that lust is a choice, not a reaction.

I may be instantly attracted to a woman wearing a bikini walking past me at the beach. I can’t stop the quick rush of those feelings, it’s biological. But that isn’t lust, which seems to be where a lot of guys get tripped up.

Lust is turning around to get a better look. To imagine what’s underneath the fabric. Lust is shying away from her face so you can see her only as a body, an object. Lust takes time and active thought.

Since I’m not a woman, who are the ones most affected by the modesty debate, I honestly don’t know how to address this issue as a whole. Modesty is a complicated topic, dealing with things like self-expression, cultural standards of respect, public decency, and freedom of choice. The answer isn’t as clear as society often tells us, with nasty sluts on one side and respectable women on the other.

All I know is I plan to view members of the opposite sex as people, even when it may seem easier to objectify. Even when I have a society-supported excuse to act like a bundle of sexual impulses.

But I know that as a man, I am more than my genitals. I don’t need to be coddled because of my sex. And one day, I plan to teach my future sons the same thing. Not to see themselves as boys being boys, but as men who respect the people around them, no matter what they are wearing.

 

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_MG_0601I’m a college student studying journalism and music. I try to tell the truth in a funny and genuine way. I love fast walks on the beach and collecting sharks’ teeth to throw at my enemies. Also I Boggle. 

 

The yoga pants witch hunt: missing pieces of the modesty conversation

 

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It’s getting to be that time of year again. You know, the one with all the articles about women’s modesty and how we should be dressing to prevent men from sinning, and are bikinis really okay?

I have waited several years to write about modesty, because I know it’s a hot topic and people tend to feel very strongly that their way is the right way. And you know what? You’re entitled to your opinion. Whether you rock a floor-length denim skirt or short-shorts, rock on my friend.

But there’s 3 things I keep missing in our conversations, on both sides, that I’d like to talk about.

 

1) Modesty culture has no boundaries.

Reading and listening to conversations about how someone else’s sin is my fault gives me anxiety like you wouldn’t believe. Why? Because there is no male responsibility in modesty culture. There is very little accountability for the way a man chooses to look at a woman, because the woman is responsible for the outcome.

What else does that sound like?

“You made me beat you.” “You made me get angry.” “You made me break up with you.” A classic sign of irresponsibility is putting the responsibility of our emotional well-being on someone else.

(For clarification: it is also our responsibility to make sure we are not a threat to the safety of others. A woman should not have to dress a certain way to protect herself. If you think you may be teetering on the edge of making some bad decisions, it is your job to take the necessary precautions.)

The argument with this is “why cause your friend to stumble?”, and I think that’s a great thing. Yes, let’s do what we can to help out those we love. But when that attempt at prevention causes you personal anxiety, fear and stress, therefore causing you to stumble, it’s only making things worse. If this is about community supporting one another, let’s all do our part by taking responsibility of what’s ours to be responsible for, and not put unnecessary pressure on each other to take care of us.

Once you become an adult, your well being is your responsibility. Male or female.

 

2) Pressure. Pressure. Pressure.

This whole modesty thing puts an insane amount of pressure on women. There’s no biblical standard for what is considered modest – in fact, the Bible only refers to modesty as wearing inexpensive clothing, not hiding your sexuality.

What’s unacceptable in New York is acceptable in Los Angeles, what’s acceptable in Chicago is unacceptable in rural Indiana. Women are harassed when they’re not wearing enough, and ostracized if they’re wearing too much. Whether we like it or not, there is not a one-size-fits-all (pun intended) rule for what women can and cannot wear. So keeping up with the latest “acceptable” and “unacceptable” when all we want is to just be comfortable is completely exhausting.

Believe it or not, most women I know don’t put on yoga pants to flaunt anything or taunt anyone – they’re widely sold, not too expensive, flattering (confidence boost!) and seriously the most freaking comfortable things I have ever worn. Not to mention they stretch. God bless ’em.

 

3) Modesty culture shows a routine disrespect for men.

I could write an entire blog post about just this point (hey who knows, maybe I will one day), but for the sake of your attention span I’ll keep it brief.

When women are taught they must manage the emotions and desires of men for them, it really says men will never have the capacity to be your equal emotionally. Men will never learn how to listen instead of fix (which, by the way, is not a male thing but rather a coping mechanism for someone who doesn’t know how to sit in emotional discomfort). Men will never learn to remain interested in your thoughts and emotions while you’re sharing your heart with them – that’s just too much to ask. And if they can’t do those things, they definitely can’t control their lustful thoughts when they see a girl in a bikini at the beach.

Dear reader and friend: are you sure you want to encourage this belief? Are you sure you want the message you send to your daughter, niece, or friend be that they will never find a partner who can actually do life as an emotional equal? That they must always manage the emotions of their husband?

My entire life my brother went above and beyond most boys his age in emotional maturity, and as a result many of his friends growing up were girls. And you know what? I spent years trying to convince my brother that bikinis were sexually tempting, and he was the one who talked me out of it. He offered women respect when I only gave them judgment.

It’s time to let go of the yoga pants witch hunt, and instead offer people respect. Kindness. The benefit of the doubt. Regardless of what they’re wearing.

Still Feminist: A guest post from Esther Emery

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Esther is a new friend of mine, and I am so excited to have her on the blog today! You can find her blogging at www.estheremery.com and tweeting @EstherEmery.

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My feminism has been through the weeds. I dragged it through my conservative phase, discussing female Biblical heroines with complementarians and trying to dive into the sisterhood.

And then I dragged it through a crash course on intersectionality.

It had become impossible for me to ignore the ways in which white feminism as an entity (through the actions of white women) has been violent towards people of color, especially women of color and queer or trans people of color. Hashtags like #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen and #YesAllWhiteWomen were hurtful but also eye opening. I stopped writing about feminism for a while. I tried writing about allyship, and even the troubles with allyship, but that didn’t go very well either.

I’m not going to tell you how and when this happens. Because that’s a really good way to get into fights. I’ll just tell you that when you are ready to see it, you will see it.

And when you see it a little – this is my experience – that’s the beginning to seeing it a lot. I was rocked right off my feminism. I lost my grounding. I felt like maybe I should just stop, because maybe I’m doing more harm than good.

There is a lie to this, of course, but there is also a truth. There is both a lie and a truth in the voice that says, “You can’t work on justice issues, because you don’t have enough of the characteristics of the oppressed.”

The lie is this idea anyone is unable to work on justice. Anytime. Ever. I can always do something. The truth is that I can’t assume that the interests of justice line up with my own interests. Anytime. Ever. I can always be the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

The lie wants you to lie down, be quiet, go away, shut up. The truth wants you to be transformed. The lie wants you to settle for the way things are; change nothing. The truth wants you to simultaneously seek change within yourself and within all the structures you inhabit.

It is necessary that I locate myself in systems of oppression, as accurately as possible. But this is not because the work of liberation is owned by some certain band on the pyramid. This is because exposing these would-be invisible structures by which humans are tracked differently from one another is the knowledge that unlocks our possibilities. When you can see the structures that divide, and the powers that oppress, then you know what the hell it is you’re trying to change.

From where I am located – as a white, Christian activist – I have to do the really quite unpleasant work of interrogating the systems which I inhabit.

This is unpleasant because people’s feelings are everywhere. This is unpleasant because if I communicate my concerns about/to someone who is particularly not interested in hearing them, I could be identified as “angry,” or “a troublemaker” or just silently shut out.

But I’ve been a feminist since I was fifteen. And I’m thirty-five. So that’s familiar.

Choosing/learning to speak from a more intersectional perspective is all the things that feminism has always been for me. Destabilizing. Invigorating. Humbling. It’s the end of a sentence I started with my own angry/beautiful cry twenty years ago.

This journey has never been exactly safe. But it has made space for breathing. It has never really been clear. But it has been a dialogue with truth. I guess the only difference is that in the teenage version I felt only one step away from the promise, while now I know it is a long, and dusty road.

I can’t be unseated from the truth of my own story, even as I open and yield to the revelation of experiences that are not my own. I have a source. I have a real life context. I have a place where I live. And right here, in that place, I can be taught to listen better to the truth of the whole world.

So I guess I’m still a feminist after all.

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estheremerywriterEsther Emery used to direct stage plays in Southern California. But that was a long time ago. Now she is pretty much a runaway, living off grid in a yurt and tending to three acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at www.estheremery.com. Connect with her on Twitter @EstherEmery.