I’m tickled pink (pun so intended!) to present POP!’s very first guest post, a vegan-feminist look at the 2006 romantic comedy Penelope from Shannon Davis, aka Vegan Burnout. Based on a Marilyn Kaye novel of the same name, the film stars a (be-snouted) Christina Ricci as the titular Penelope, a young woman seemingly born into wealth and privilege – save for her “unfortunate” porcine nose. Would it trouble the reader to know that, as a child, I longed for a cat tail, à la Catra? Beauty conventions and species boundaries, who needs ’em!? – Kelly G.
Caution: Spoilers ahead!
Sexism and speciesism go together like, well, movies and popcorn. Carol J. Adams wrote the book on this nasty little tag-team, and I for one am a smarter consumer of pop culture for it. I also love movies and popcorn, so imagine my surprise when, one snowy afternoon, I watched Penelope and found my vegan-feminist Spidey Sense a-tingle.
Penelope stars Christina Ricci as an otherwise gorgeous girl born with a pig’s nose as the result of an old family curse. (Women! pigs! obvious! parallel!) The curse, of course, can only be broken by the love of “one of her own kind”—unanimously interpreted to mean that of another aristocrat. Already, we have all the elements of a fairy tale—the perfect lens for examining cultural notions of beauty and self-love.
Penelope’s parents are a study in contrasts: her father, Franklin (Richard E. Grant), guiltily accepts responsibility for Penelope’s “disfigurement,” as his side of the family bears the curse; her mother, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara), is so terrified of what people will say that she fakes baby Penelope’s death to deter snooping reporters. She is so obsessed by her daughter’s nose that she bans anything pig-related, scolding Jake the butler when he plays “This Little Piggy” with the baby’s toes and forbidding her husband to eat bacon. Any notion of her daughter as animal is anathema to her—we’re meant to understand that she means well, but her fixation reveals far more about her than it does about Penelope.
Penelope grows up in secret, nurturing a love of horticulture and staging puppet shows by herself, never encountering the outside world. Jessica, meanwhile, has but one goal: groom Penelope for marriage. She hires a matchmaker on Penelope’s 18th birthday and is hell-bent on finding a man—any man, as long as he’s a blue-blood—to break the curse. (The focus on breeding calls to mind the ways in which, for women and animals alike, destiny is still often pre-determined.) After several failed attempts at allowing potential suitors to meet Penelope face-to-face (to a one, they scream at her ugliness and leap out the window), an elaborate courtship ritual is contrived. The young men wait in the library, where Penelope watches and talks to them through a one-way mirror. Her family, disturbingly, watches on closed-circuit TV, munching on popcorn, eager for her to find The One.
When the film begins, Penelope is 25, which means she’s spent seven years being rejected by every blue-blood in town. After a particularly disastrous meeting with histrionic snob Edward Humphrey Vandermann III (Simon Woods), Jessica senses that their options are running out, and suggests they double Penelope’s dowry. In a rare show of hurt and frustration, Penelope snaps, “If they can’t stand the sight of me now, what makes you think they’ll be able to for double?” When she later tries to soothe herself with junk food, Jessica slaps a Ho-Ho out of her hands and scolds, “Now you’re just going to make a pig of yourself?” “No, that’s already been done for me,” Penelope replies bitterly.
Vandermann, his ego wounded by a newspaper article branding him unstable after his rantings about a monstrous pig-faced girl, joins forces with tabloid reporter Lemon (the super Peter Dinklage), who’s been chasing Penelope’s photo since her birth. They hire anti-Prince Charming Max Campion (James McAvoy), who’s gambled away the family fortune, to pose as one of Penelope’s suitors. You know what happens next: over chess games and discussions of books, Max and Penelope develop a connection. He finds his errand distasteful—he’s uncomfortable with the idea of exploiting Penelope to get her photo, but he could really use Lemon’s money, too. In this pairing, it’s not the woman who feels pressured to marry for money. Max gets thisclose, too: unfortunately, when they’re finally face to face, it all gets FUBARed and he runs out of the library, leaving a distraught Penelope believing that yet another man is repulsed by her. “I’m a monster,” she cries, and her internalization of all the hatred directed at her is complete.
By this point, it’s clear that Penelope needs to take matters into her own hands if she’s ever going to break free of her gilded cage. So, that’s what she does. She steals her mother’s credit card, wraps a scarf around the lower half of her face, and braves the city alone. Frightened though she is by such foreign sights as joggers (she thinks they’re chasing her), she’s pleasantly surprised that no one treats her as an oddity. Her scarf? It’s a harmless eccentricity, easily overlooked by a friendly bartender and a sassy courier named Annie (Reese Witherspoon).
Jessica and Franklin, meanwhile, are losing their minds, but can’t figure out how to find their daughter without drawing attention to her. “Think ‘pig,’” Franklin says in exasperation to a private investigator confused by the fact that Penelope’s parents have no photos of her. “So, she’s a fat girl,” he clarifies, making a note. Here again we see the overt, unfavorable association of women and animals. To their further chagrin, the drawing that runs of Penelope, next to the headline, “Have You Seen This Pig?” is the one that Edward earlier described to a sketch artist: hideous, be-fanged, stringy-haired, snarling. Penelope has been reduced to a porcine vampire-zombie. Fed up with the speculation and the drama, she makes a deal with Lemon to sell him her photo herself. A brief session in a photo booth gives her back her power.
The headlines that accompany her photo most clearly highlight the intersection of speciesism and misogyny. “Behold the Pig-Faced Girl,” trumpets one. “‘It’ Exists,” declares another. Indeed, she does, but Penelope’s pig nose renders her less than human. She’s a discovery, a new species of creature to be gawked at. In her naïveté, she marvels at the hordes of paparazzi clamoring to photograph her: “They’re not running,” she says in wonderment. She knows that she is a freak to them, but she’s a freak on her own terms.
Of course, Penelope becomes everyone’s darling. Amusingly, her newfound public adopts the same welfarist attitudes her mother did, and Pig Latin is banned from schools. Even Edward Vandermann, who insisted that she belonged in a cage, is cajoled by his embarrassed father into asking for Penelope’s hand in marriage. “Things are different now,” she protests when her mother urges her to accept with a reminder that Edward could break the curse. “You’re just a talking pig to those people,” Jessica says harshly, and we see that Penelope’s public coming-out has done little to change her opinion of her own daughter.
Penelope and Edward’s wedding day arrives, and amongst the sparkling champagne and artful bouquets, there is much anxious breath-holding. What will Penelope wear? Can Edward go through with it? Will he break the curse?
Duh, of course not. Before she can repeat her vows to Edward (who mumbles his without looking at her), Penelope realizes what a farce the whole “curse” deal is and runs off to her room, her only sanctuary. Jessica pleads with her to reconsider, to think of the family, but Penelope, who has finally taken steps to create the life she’s always wanted, cries, “I don’t want a whole new me. I like myself the way I am!” Those words, Penelope’s words of self-acceptance, break the curse. Her pig nose disappears, replaced by one that looks an awful lot like it, only human. “I had had the power all along,” she muses in a voiceover.
Jessica is appropriately contrite, even though Penelope still comforts her, as she’s done for years. She’s not changed, though: In the same breath, she goes from admiring Penelope’s new nose to suggesting a nose job so she can look her best. She’s chronically unhappy, and Penelope feels sad for her, but she’s through with absorbing her mother’s unhappiness. In a further magical twist, Jake the butler is revealed to be the witch who cast the curse so long ago. Before he disappears, he kindly renders Jessica mute, so her manic shrieks are reduced to soundless flailing.
“Wait a minute,” you’re thinking. “This is a fairy tale. Penelope’s broken the curse, but she has to get her man, too.” And right you are. Max, the broke-ass high-born gambler, is actually Johnny, who is equally broke-ass but nowhere near as aristocratic. However will Penelope find him again? A nifty subterfuge is introduced on Halloween, when little girls everywhere don scarves and pig masks to “be” Penelope. As she knocks on Johnny’s door, Penelope puts on a pig mask of her own. He doesn’t recognize her at first, and the mask allows them to slowly reveal their true feelings, much as the one-way mirror did during their first meetings. When they finally kiss, it’s with her mask on. Johnny realizes that she never needed him to break the curse in the first place. And they lived happily ever after.
On the surface, Penelope is a sweetly modern fairy tale about loving yourself and defying shallow beauty conventions. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find thoughtful, if accidental, commentary on the joint subjugation of women and animals. While I was glad to see that everything didn’t automatically fall into place for Penelope once she broke the curse, I found myself wishing that she had kept her original nose, a la Cyrano or Roxanne. Or Shrek, even, another movie with a subversive-yet-kid-friendly message about beauty. Speaking of kids, the wisest voice in Penelope comes in the form of one of her students. “It’s not the power of the curse. It’s the power you give the curse,” he supplies helpfully. Wise words for us feminists as we keep fighting our own curses, which are too often also those of our non-human sisters.