On Esmeralda

During quarantine, we’ve been drinking a lot of vodka and watching Disney films, which has been cathartic as I cry every time (a good way of releasing pent-up emotions). Even though I regularly watch my favourite Disney flick The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (mostly when very hungover) I have more clearly realised how fabulous the character of Esmeralda truly is. In comparison with the whole back catalogue of Disney female protagonists, there is no competition.

First glimpse of Esmeralda (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, Disney Pictures, 1997)

First of all, let’s clear something up. Don’t you dare tell me she’s not a bona fide Disney Princess! She is a beautiful gypsy princess and she doesn’t need a crown or a king for a daddy! She’s Queen of the Outcasts! How rock ‘n’ roll is that? She is strong and independent and fights for justice for the outsiders! All these themes of classism, racism and misogyny are as relevant now as they were in the 15th century, needless to say.

It always annoyed me when, as a child, I would be flicking through Disney Princess magazine (my best time) and you would rarely or never see Esmeralda even though she was my absolute favourite. She was always left out of the official canon even though lame bitches like Aurora and Cinderella made it onto every piece of merchandise.

Generally the most common princesses you see are Belle, Ariel, Aurora and Cinderella, though I haven’t conducted an official survey. This representation suggested that a princess had to be white and rich and married to a prince, none of which applies to Esmeralda. In recent years it must be said that Tiana (‘The Princess and the Frog’) has made it to the big leagues which is nice, you see her more often than Pocahontas, but still doesn’t make up for Esmeralda’s abandonment.

Disney films in recent years have become completely de-sexualised and that is a problem for me. I have little to no interest in tit-less Rapunzel or the pubescent Frozen sisters. Esmeralda had big girl problems: she was a grown woman, she was constantly marked out and exploited for her looks, sexualised and assaulted as a powerless minority. In the novel, Frollo constantly gave her the choice of becoming his sex slave or being burned as a witch, and she never gave in.

The book Esmeralda is very different but just as great as the Disney version. She’s only supposed to be about 16 years old but she is active, makes decisive choices, defends herself, and has sexual agency. The whole of society is against her, and it’s no surprise she eventually dies a horrible death being strung up by an angry mob. Unlike the grown-up film version, she is more mysterious, more vulnerable, and more concerned with surviving than making grand gestures and saving others. She’s in mortal danger for a lot of the book. But she fights to the end.

Despite these differences, the character of Esmeralda in the book and in the Disney film, for me, have more in common than any other film depiction, and the atmosphere conveyed by the wonderfully evocative music and animation are also close to the book, despite the huge variation in plot. Most of the other versions depict Esmeralda as white and/or insipid. Really she has the most interesting problems, complex character and hardest life of any Disney heroine, and most literary characters in general. In the Disney version, yes she is sexualised, but that is an intrinsic part of the plot, and using her sexuality as a dancer is is an appropriate profession for that time and place. And real women are sexualised and sexual. And funny, unpredictable, empathetic, angry, vulnerable and everything else that is Esmeralda.

And, lastly, her character design is fantastic. She is so otherworldly, so unusual, so fucking beautiful. You can see how she sticks out a mile from anyone else in Paris. I love the way she looks. Those bright green eyes. And that red dress! Perfection.

To sum up, Esmeralda isn’t the best Disney character because she’s the most beautiful, or has the best clothes (though I think she does). It’s because she has truly important battles to fight, overcoming racism and sexual exploitation, being completely disenfranchised; she struggles to retain her independence in a world that’s always trying to strip her down; and most importantly she makes her own choices, about who to help and who to love, who to fight and who to protect.

She truly is the finest girl in France.

*Disclaimer: I am aware that ‘gypsy’ is an offensive term to the Romani community, but I felt that its use in the original novel and subsequent films makes it hard to avoid*

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