Gender Roles – Women
Gender Roles – Men
Room for Improvement:
Self-Esteem and Body Image
Gender Roles - Women: 5 Stars (Spoilers)
Esmeralda is a fierce gypsy who earns her bread by dancing in the streets - and isn’t afraid of standing up to injustice. From the beginning Esmeralda is compassionate and kind, but she is also a fighter. She not only sees the humanity in Quasimodo when everyone else treats him cruelly, but challenges Minister Frollo for permitting such monstrous behavior. She is accustomed to defending herself in the streets and has to learn to see past her pre-conceived notions of soldiers to open her heart to Phoebus. Esmeralda’s character is an encouraging example of the ways that strength and compassion can compliment one another.
Gender Roles - Men: 5 Stars (Spoilers)
Quasimodo is a mixture of brute strength and deep sensitivity. He is strong enough to lift grown men off the ground and to scale the cathedral walls, but he is also timid and shy with no sense of confidence or leadership. Much of this stems from the fact that he is deformed and ugly and has lived his entire life as a recluse. Quasimodo proves to be an engaging character despite these setbacks, broadening our limited concepts of what it means to be a hero.
Phoebus, on the other hand is a more traditional male lead. He’s courageous, tall, and handsome, rarely displaying any weakness or fear. He also has a good heart, however, which may be the only reason to reluctantly accept the fact that Esmeralda choses him over the deformed bell ringer. It's noteworthy that Phoebus’ heroism isn’t driven solely by his love for Esmeralda. He nearly sacrifices his own life to save the Miller’s family not knowing that Esmeralda is watching from the shadows. He rushes to their rescue because he sees what a wicked man Claude Frollo is and because he won’t stand aside and watch innocent people be killed.
Self-Esteem and Body Image: 2 Stars
The film dedicates a surprising amount of attention to Esmeralda’s sex appeal. Part of this is essential to the storyline, as Claude Frollo, who considers himself to be a holy man, is tormented by his desire for her. This emphasis on Esmeralda’s sexuality however, is also included in places where it doesn’t need to be. During the Festival of Fools, Quasimodo stumbles into her dressing room and we catch a glimpse of her quickly covering herself, with one bare leg lifted through the slit of her robe. Later, when she dances for the crowds, there is an undeniable erotic bent to her movements, which ends with the cartoon equivalent of a pole-dance. While sexuality in and of itself is not a degrading quality, it seems out of place in a children’s movie and also distracts from Esmeralda’s more compelling qualities.
Plot: 3 Stars (Spoilers)
Although The Hunchback of Notre Dame largely focuses on Quasimodo's struggle for acceptance, he could not have found this acceptance without Esmeralda's influence. She not only rescues Quasimodo from the crowds at the Festival of Fools, but also helps him understand that he’s not the monster that Frollo says he is.
Esmeralda is given other opportunities to shine - such as rescuing Phoebus from drowning -but it's disappointing that she doesn't play a larger role in convincing the townspeople to change their perceptions of the curious bell ringer. The film might have had a stronger impact if the citizens of Paris had come to recognize the humanity behind Quasimodo's hideous appearance and apologized for their earlier cruelty. But strangely enough, the people that Esmeralda lives among and fights for seem just as cruel as Quasimodo's heartless master.
Character Development: 2 Stars
Esmeralda’s character starts off strong, but there isn't much follow-through on her original crusade against injustice. She challenges Frollo at the Festival of Fools for his treatment of her people, and yet we see no interactions between her and the rest of the gypsies. She is introduced as an unexpected and promising leader in the gypsies’ fight from freedom, and yet not a gypsy is freed, not a law is changed, and not a battle is won. Of course, Esmeralda was never meant to be the protagonist of the film, but there is still so much about her and her cause that is never explored or explained.
Love: 2 Stars (Spoilers)
By far the most disappointing aspect of this film is the love story between Phoebus and Esmeralda. Esmeralda shares some touching moments with Quasimodo at the top of the cathedral, enough to convince him that she might actually fall in love with him despite his awful face and form. Esmeralda selfishly encourages this misinterpretation by flirting and kissing him on the cheek - but before long, she's kissing Phoebus right in front of Quasimodo's eyes.
In reality, this is the only ending we should reasonably expect. It’s frustrating that beautiful women are so often expected to fall in love with someone unkempt and ugly. To see their inner beauty, even though they are reviled by the rest of society. And yet, even this strange mythology has its limitations. We applaud the fact that Beauty falls in love with the Beast because we know her love will transform him into a handsome prince. But if the ugly hunchback is going to stay an ugly hunchback, we can't seem to see the story through to the end and celebrate such a lopsided romance.