( When a film is more than 10 years old I don’t think too many SPOILER warnings are necessary, however, in case you haven’t used these last 16 years of Zorro watching opportunities wisely then here lies your warning: SPOILERS throughout. No trigger warnings! Yay! Say what you like about family friendly cinema but it contains a lot less potentially triggering content than its age restricted counterpart and from where I’m standing that seems like a good thing)
“I’m afraid my heart is too wild” – Elena
Now I have loved Zorro since I was a wide-eyed child of 5, or, more accurately, I have loved its heroine, Elena de la Vega, played by the surprisingly Welsh Catherine Zeta Jones. When I was little I wanted to be Catherine Zeta Jones. I kind of wanted to be an actress but, more importantly, I wanted to be Spanish, and, like Catherine herself, I did not intend to let my Britishness to hold me back in this endeavour. For me Catherine Zeta Jones was Elena, and for me Elena was the height of womanhood. Now this particular ideal of womanhood, one might say, was not too far from that Ideal Woman the bad old patriarchy is so keen on. As a beautiful woman who loves Our Hero instantly despite his masked rogue ways and persistent persecution of her father (or the man she thinks is her father because of course she is really the daughter of the old Zorro, the equally Welsh Anthony Hopkins) she does not seem the perfect candidate for Feminist Film Star of the year. In my mind, however, she was very importantly different from this generic ideal because she doesn’t just love Zorro, she wants him. She sees Zorro and she is filled with, so called, “impure thoughts”. When she finds that he has broken into her house to steal her dad’s secret gold mine plans (classic California) she simply smiles to herself and rushes out to fight him; a fight which leaves her gasping in her underwear and talking of how “young and vigorous” Zorro is. Now I understand that this is not how most women react when men break into their homes and steal their secret plans. It is in some ways a horrible male fantasy in which women are delighted to have their privacy violated and their clothes ripped off. But what I saw was a woman expressing her desires, the first woman who I had seen to even really have desires. Not, like so many heroines, seeming to hate the men who later break their wills and convince them to give up the single life they enjoy, nor placidly waiting to be claimed as Our Hero’s well earned prize. Elena sees what she wants and goes after it, even when she is a 19th century noblewoman who regularly attends confession and what she wants is very specifically not marriage but sex – Antonio Banderas is much less interesting to her as an eligible young nobleman. To others Elena may be generic – and to many she may very understandably be an offensive caricature of a Fiery Latina who is not even actually a latina – but to me, when I was 5, she was a wonderful woman who taught me that women could want to have sex too.
But enough gushing, 5 stars is, after all, far from a perfect score
The Bechdel Test – Developed Female Relationships
(Not a good start. Sadly Zorro falls prey to the Dead Mother trope whereby mothers are basically useless as parental figures when alive but are excellent for worshipping after death – see the works of Shakespeare for further examples. Elena, therefore, has no mother and no friends to talk to. She does talk to a woman in the market who used to look after her when she was a baby, however Nanny is not a name and thus does not qualify their conversation for the Bechdel test)
STAR: Non-stereotyped Female Characters
– STAR: Developed, Prominent Female Characters
(I think I’ve pretty much covered this one. Elena may be alone but she has fears and desires and she reacts in a very sensible way to all the things that happen to her (bar arguably her running-after-bandits habit) She is also really good at dancing and sword fighting which is cool but is not what makes her interesting, once again this is not about Strong Female Characters, but about interesting ones)
STAR: No Excessive Air of Misogyny
– No Rigid Adherence to Gender Norms
(Now this is the 19th century, so women, and by women I mean Elena the only woman in this film, are not exactly liberated. There are more references to Elena’s wildness when she acts out, (read=speaks in public) than I care for. However Elena does seem to live a pretty unfettered existence, she wanders around as she pleases, chats with bandits, learns sword fighting, all that jazz. The world of this film is not one where I’d hate to be a woman (at least not a rich woman, but that’s a whole other thing). Having said that there is no issue made of actively overturning oppressive regimes – at least not explicitly patriarchal ones – and Elena may know how to fight but she is not Zorro. Also her father does kind of give her to Antonio Banderas at the end which is kind of ok because she’s really into him and kind of not ok because you cannot give people to other people, they are not presents)
STAR: No Excessive Female Exposure or Sexuialisation
– No Objectification of the Female Body
(Ok so I think only its PG rating really earns The Mask of Zorro this star. Catherine Zeta Jones’ heaving bosom which swells impressively over her corsets is rather prominent, for want of a better word, and there is that scene where Zorro strips Elena of all of her clothes excepting her lovely long bloomers using his sword. In another’s hands this would be awful but with Elena’s obvious arousal, the fact that she voluntarily started the taking off clothes trend and that we see nothing behind the ample cover her hair provides I think this star is still justified. If there are no lingering shots of individual parts of the actresses’ bodies I’m pretty much happy)
STAR: No Gratuitous or Trivialising Scenes of Rape or Male Violence Against Women
– No Threat of Male Violence Against Women
(Again I must applaud a film where I am never worried that the heroine will be raped. However people do attack her and the man who she has always known to be her father does put a sword to her throat. Which is unpleasant. So all is not fancy free and safe and lovely but I doubt anyone would find it traumatising)
So, The Mask of Zorro gets 5 stars and 4 Bonus points. 1 for the many Mexican/California women who are actually Latina of which Nanny and her daughter are the most vocal examples, Elena’s mother is also played by Mexican actress Julieta Rosen. 1 for the working class women, again Luisa Huertas as Nanny is their main representative. True the fact that Our Hero is essentially a 19th century Bruce Wayne – an aristocrat who dresses in a mask and cape to fight for the good of the Common Man – doesn’t demonstrate a particularly nuanced political approach to the issue of class. But it’s more revolutionary than most films, and, although not a woman Our Hero is very much a representative of The People himself. 1 for “unglamorous” women, again we’re looking at Nanny and the other older and more dishevelled women in the crowd scenes who demonstrate that all women are not perfectly polished. The last one is for women in masculine roles by which I mean the sword fighting. Sword fighting alone does not make a character interesting but as a general rule I think a woman with a sword is better than one without one.
And there we go. In summary: Catherine Zeta Jones and her sex drive rock my world, I appreciate the toned down misogyny that apparently is only to be found in films aimed at children and I like a film set in the past that doesn’t immediately throw in a heavy dose of patriarchal values as if they were ok with the justification that THAT IS WHAT THE PAST WAS LIKE. 5 stars well earned.
*A note on the history of Zorro. Firstly I recommend the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zorro some serious Zorro fan has composed that bad boy, there’s a lot of info there. I am afraid to say that I am entirely unfamiliar with any of the other Zorro films or books or anything, despite being such a die hard fan at the age of 5. However I thought I’d pick out some of the things that I find most intriguing. Maybe one of you will have read them, or maybe you would like to. So I am interested in The Queen of Swords the 2000 TV series in which a woman plays a character so like Zorro that the good people at Zorro Productions Inc tried to sue them. Obviously that sounds excellent, a woman Zorro. There is also, apparently, a novel called Zorro by Isabel Allende who I have always admired from a distance but have never read at all and there are many Spanish films about Zorro which may solve the cultural stereotyping we are unfortunately burdened with in The Mask. So those are my top tips for any further Zorro research and with that I bid you goodnight and urge you never to fear that your heart is too wild, it is almost definitely not wild enough*