Monday, September 12, 2005

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn is one of the best cartoons of all time. A Japanese animation released in 1986, it was dubbed into English. It stars the voice talents of Alan Arkin, Mia Farrow, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury and Jeff Bridges. It tells the story of a unicorn who finds herself to be the very last known unicorn in her world. Armed with a little gossip about a red bull from a zany butterfly, she sets out on an adventure to find her kind.

From a feminist point of view, the Last Unicorn is a fabulous movie. There are an equal number of strong male and female characters, each with his or her own vulnerabilities. The magician, Schmedrick, has a kind heart and is guided by his own home-brewed sense of wisdom, but isn't without haughtiness when his spells actually work. The cook, Molly Grue, is a strong, independent woman though unable to guard her emotions, quick to flare into anger or to break into tears. The prince, able to kill dragons and execute other dangerous tasks, cannot find a way to woo his beloved. The unicorn, though brave and powerful, is a creature confused and sometimes intimidated by how the world has moved on without unicorns. In the end, as prophecied by the butterfly, she is brave, but it seems that almost everyone was a hero. Compare this to Disney movies like "Toy Story" where the only female character, "Little Bo Peep" waves goodbye as all the boy toys go off on an adventure. Or "The Little Mermaid" where Ariel can have what she wants as long as she doesn't talk. Or "Snow White and The Seven Dwarves" where the first thing that Ms. White does after a murder attempt on her life is clean a strangers' house.

These days, the following scence is repeating in my head. In this scene, Schmedrick the Magician and the Unicorn are travelling to the castle of King Haggard, and Molly Grue spots the unicorn from her hiding spot. She confronts the travellers.

MOLLY GRUE: (gasps) No. Can it truly be? Where have you been? Where have you been? (yells) Damn you, where have you been!?
SCHMENDRICK: Don't you talk to her that way!
UNICORN: I am here now.
MOLLY GRUE: (laughs bitterly) Oh? And where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent, young maidens you always come to? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this? (She begins crying.)
SCHMENDRICK: Can you really see her? Do you really know what she is?
MOLLY GRUE: If you had been waiting to see a unicorn as long as I have...

Recently, I was approached by a professor outside my department to write a paper regarding diversity in computer science education. We'd been having a discussion about the lack of women in computer science, and he pointed out that I have the makings of a good paper on the subject. It's one thing to gripe with my female colleagues about how my department sucks. It's another to have a professor say, "Your knowledge on this issue is legitimate."

I feel like Molly Grue. Entering my fourth year in graduate school at a place where I don't feel a sense of belongness or even particularly welcome, I wonder, "Damn you! Where have you been?!" On the other hand, I'm happy to have a professional relationship with someone who thinks that diversifying cs education is a task that needs dedicated people and resources, that it is a legitimate research endeavor. I'm happy and relieved to finally see the unicorn.


JP said...

Wow, that is very cool. Congratulations!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

What a great post! I'm glad you found your unicorn.

(I'm delurking mostly because I haven't seen the movie, but the novel The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle is one of my FAVORITE books ever...if you haven't read it, you'll love it!)

Jane said...

Thanks for a really great post. Sometimes you need that person that just lets you know that s/he believes in what you're doing and affirms that all the struggle is worthwhile and that your work is important. Way to go!

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

One thing I haven't done, NKOTH, but definitely should do is actually read the book. A trustworthy source reports to me that "The Last Unicorn" is a rare movie that actually stays pretty close to the book. Still...

I think I'll keep it to myself that I'm referring to this guy as my last unicorn. He might be a little weirded out by that.

I'm glad you all enjoyed the post.

Barb said...

Hon - that's so cool. Really I'm so glad to see someone has listened to what you have to say and wants to give you the audience to actually do somethhing about it.

I'm so proud.

Lucy said...

Good luck with the paper. That's great that the professor recognises its value.
I haven't seen the Last Unicorn, but Neil Gaiman mentioned in his blog a while ago that there's a sequel too:

RussianViolets said...

Congrats, and thank you for reminding me of that movie. I remember loving it when I was a kid.