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I Didn’t Think Of Ursula From The Little Mermaid As A Feminist Until A School Role-Play Contest

Posted: July 9, 2020

We all cheered for Ariel but did we try understanding Ursula at all? It was a second-grader during a role-playing competition who changed my perspective!

Right now, Indian schools, especially in the metropolitan cities are gung-ho about making classrooms as lively as the real ones! Right from the regular teaching sessions to mock tests and even competitions, they are doing it all. Meanwhile, I had a nostalgic moment about the day my teacher persona got altered by the tangibility of a little girl’s feminist act.

‘Do you remember dressing me up for a role play or fancy dress competition at school?’ I asked my mother after returning home from an eventful day at school. She mulled over the question and replied dryly, ‘Ah, yes! You became a Nataraj pencil and uttered that famous tagline they advertised on television in the nineties.’ Uh, oh.

I relived my childhood as a teacher

They say you relive your childhood once you become a parent. Well, can we say the same for a teacher? Perhaps. As a fresher teacher, I found myself indulging in a lot of comparison (‘in my time’ being my favourite refrain). There was a lot of introspection on how my students zeroed in on decisions or reacted to situations. And some wondering of how I would have fared or done things differently, if placed in a similar context. Is that called reliving? Perhaps.

It is certainly an insightful time, observing forty opinionated, energetic and independent souls handling academic and informative curveballs every single day. That calls for all age groups, mind you. Be it a kindergartener or a high schooler.

I experienced my horizons being widened, albeit in a hundred different ways. At times, it became too confusing to comprehend or jot it all down as a note or memo, considering the workload and syllabus completion deadlines.

I teach teens so this was a new experience

I teach middle schoolers and that meant thinking like a teenager when planning lessons, especially lead-ins. However, one fine day, I was invited to the junior school to judge a competition.

For starters, the junior school was an unknown territory. Secondly, to my delight, it was a role play competition! Not at all a double whammy! It was the first time I was donning that responsibility. Thus, I was mindful of carrying it out impartially and transparently, expecting to choose a winner amongst the conventional characters we get to see in such competitions.

I looked at a few participants peeping from the stage and giggled at the no nonsense look they gave us judges. The judgement sheet had four neat columns titled ‘Creativity,’ ‘Body Language and Confidence,’ ‘Clarity of Speech’ and ‘Expression of Feeling.’ So comprehensive, I thought.

The competition started and we had girls and boys acting nothing less than swashbucklers, each time they stepped onto the stage. This was the second grade, so safe to say that they must have had a decisive say in their choice of role. You just cannot force them to do as you please.

The winner was quite unexpected!

We had a Harry Potter, Gandhari, APJ Abdul Kalam, Neerja Bhanot, Baba Ramdev, Charlie Chaplin, Pied Piper, Dracula, Sania Mirza, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kalpana Chawla, Mother Teresa and a slew of fairy tale characters. And all of them did just fine. But it was a short, feisty girl playing ‘Ursula – The Sea Witch’ who was adjudged the winner.

What was so enchanting about her that caught our attention? It was the purple and black gown, the long, fake nails, a face painted meticulously to reflect a pale purple complexion, the head spewing old age in the form of cotton and the scheming eyes and scowling teeth. Yes, it was certainly creative.

I mentally applauded the parents’ effort. But it was also the narrative she’d chosen to share with the audience. The glorifying of her magic, voluptuousness, independence, ambition, manipulation, flamboyance, all the while throwing her sassy sense of humour like confetti around.

It was this decision of moving beyond the usual jingoistic, pseudo feminist or angel in the house trope (which others had unconsciously exhibited) And taming the dragon herself – being that unapologetic damsel in control. It was a new school experience for a millennial soul like me and I knew she had blown our socks off, hands down.

I learnt new things about fairy tales journeying to feminism

Not to say that the other portrayals were any less path breaking or feminist. We very generously awarded special mentions, in addition to the three awardees, to encourage and applaud them all. But that young girl made me introspect, unlearn and relearn something.

I figured you could opt for run of the mill ideas while still searching for the peripheral narratives or that spark of eccentricity while at it. We all cheered for Ariel but did we try understanding Ursula at all? At least, I didn’t, as a child. To rectify my ignorance, I made a mental note to watch the recent Disney releases to see how they’ve journeyed from fairy tale to feminism.

I kept thinking on how, If given a chance, I would have zeroed in on Hua Mulan, Gargi Vachaknavi, Sophia Duleep Singh or Noor Inayat Khan. But then decided to stick with my trusted Nataraj pencil (and slyly include Joshua Dickerson’s Cause I Ain’t Got a Pencil, eh?)

Picture credits: Still from Disney’s original animated movie The Little Mermaid (1989)

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