Image credit: Oh My Disney
Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1997, McDonalds released a series of plastic plates to go with their Happy Meals, plates with the likes of Hercules, Philoctetes, Zeus, the Muses, Pegasus, and Megara. One afternoon, I was lucky enough to get a Meg plate with my order of chicken nuggets. However, not even a week afterwards, I dropped it, this coveted piece of plastic—or my sister did, or my dad, I can’t remember who exactly. But someone dropped the Meg plate and it hit the kitchen floor with such force that the plate broke in two, right down the center of her purple dress. I was totally devastated. For reasons I could not explain as a seven year-old, I was deeply attached to Meg’s character, and therefore, the broken plate felt personal, felt particularly upsetting to me.
I grew up during the Disney Renaissance, a decade of creative resurgence for Walt Disney Animation beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 through Tarzan in 1999. Like most of the Disney films from my childhood, I have seen Hercules probably one hundred times or more. It is decidedly my favorite Disney movie, despite the excess of puns and dense vocabulary, the fast pace of the jokes, and the sharp tonal shifts. I am willing to forgive these things because of the risk, nuance, and vulnerability of the characters.
However, I can remember getting into many impassioned conversations with my college friends about the “best” Disney movies—often the conversation came down to Beauty & the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). These were films with clean narratives, star-studded casts, and musical scores that won Academy Awards. I loved these films too—they were undoubtedly “strong.” However, it seemed they were the only Disney movies in conversation and, therefore, felt too “safe” for me. My friends poked fun at Hercules for being a “dumb” movie, for being “messy” and “unmemorable.” Even recently, watching Lindsey Ellis’s “Hercules, Disney’s Beautiful Hot Mess: a Video Essay”, I felt a strong urge to defend the film against its critics. I don’t consider myself a person intensely committed to fandoms, but this is one I feel inextricably connected to.
And why? Truthfully, it is an overly-complicated movie in terms of plot and dialogue, more so than “stronger” films in the Disney archive. But Meg, voiced by the brilliant Susan Egan, is the nucleus that pulls me towards and through the narrative. She was such a formative part of my identity growing up and, I would say, one of the richest characters I have seen in animated film. Let me to try to unpack why this is, going through the film somewhat chronologically. To be honest, the whole film seems revitalized by Meg’s first appearance on screen—she brings an energy that enlivens the narrative, with her guttural scream and that dramatic hair flip. Until this moment, we have come to know Hercules as a person who is earnest and unassuming, someone who is not exactly socially savvy or experienced in the world. Early on, we see that Hercules is excluded socially, being called a “menace” and a “freak” by his community, and then becomes further isolated while training on the island with Phil. By the time he enters “society” to test his skills as a hero, Hercules comes across as extremely naïve, bashful, and “inarticulate”—essentially, the total opposite of Megara.
Unlike the damsel doll that Hercules trained with, Meg is not what Hercules expects or what we expect for that matter. She is independent, fierce, authoritative, uses vocabulary like, “rippling pectorals”, “pinto”, “upholstery”, throws out self-deprecating comments like: “My friends call me Meg, at least they would if I had any friends.” Meg’s diction is notably witty and sarcastic, instantly setting her aside as distinctive and fresh. Many recent articles on this subject, including “7 Reasons Why Megara Is the MVP in HERCULES” (Nerdist) and “11 Reasons Megara from ‘Hercules’ is Super Underrated” (Bustle), Meg’s sarcasm is emphasized as being atypical. In the past, Disney’s classic canon has showcased female characters who often spend the majority of their stories in demure silence waiting to be swept off their feet (The Little Mermaid, Cinderella), in a death-like sleep (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty), or floating through the world as beautiful but infallible figurines (Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin). It is extremely refreshing, amidst these tropes, to have a character who is vocal, smart, and explicitly imperfect. It is rare and surprising to see a character in a Disney movie express disdain—a tone that’s established elsewhere Hercules as well, through Phil’s disappointment in failed heroes of the past and the city of Thebes where its citizens seem world-weary and pessimistic. There is a widespread atmosphere of disenchantment in the diegesis of the movie—something Meg embodies perfectly, acting as a character foil for Hercules. While Hercules is eager and genuine, Meg is unimpressed and bitter, thinking she can see through his “innocent farm-boy routine,” not allowing herself to be fooled by his wholesome demeanor.
Meg’s sass is uncharacteristic of Disney, but so is her role in the larger narrative. Here, we have a heroine with a dark side, one who works for the villain, a femme-fatale figure. We learn fairly quickly that Meg is not exactly the ‘Disney princess character’ we expect. When Meg is approached by a pair of woodland creatures, we think, at first, these are the typical cutesy animals of Disney’s past. However, it is revealed the squirrel and bunny are Pain and Panic in disguise, immediately reminding us that Meg is not a Snow White or a Cinderella. “Aww, how cute,” she says to them, deadpan. “A couple of rodents looking for a theme park,” (no doubt, this is meta-commentary on Disney World). Meg is not the kind of girl to be followed by talking birds who help her get dressed in the morning—she is followed by demons of the underworld.
As to Meg’s past, the fact that she has a past is remarkable. It is clear from her backstory—that she sold her soul to Hades to save a former lover from death—that Meg was once a person who trusted and believed in the goodness of people. The details are unclear, but what we do know is that this man left Meg for someone else, destroying her faith in relationships and her freedom all at once. Her vulnerability is encased in sarcasm, which is intriguing to watch as a kid, prescient to the coming hurts of adulthood, and to watch now as an adult. Although I never sold my soul to the devil, I have fallen in love too and had my heart-broken by jerks and found it difficult to trust people or to trust my feelings. I am endeared by Meg’s caution and resistance towards relationship—when Meg sings, “No man is worth the aggravation”, I nod my head like yes, yes, yes in agreement. “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” works well as a self-reflexive twist on the classic Disney love song, where girls often swoon and pine, songs which are often “too cliché.”
I think too, we often have Disney heroines who are sexualized in their animation without conscious of their sexuality—I am thinking about Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Aurora who are seem fairly unassuming of their bodies in that way. The exceptions from the Disney Renaissance, I would say, are Jasmine and Esmeralda who have moments of exuding sexual confidence, but not to the extent that Meg does. It is clear that Meg is attractive—Phil hits on her, Hades is always calling her “dish”, “doll”, “sugar”, “babe”, “sweetheart”. Hades even makes an hour-glass motion with his hands over her body, saying: “Maybe I’m not throwing the right curves at [Hercules].” Meg is always being objectified by the men in her world. Yet, the key distinction here is that Meg knows she is attractive and this self-awareness makes her unique. Unlike the flock of adolescent fangirls—the “sea of raging hormones” that swarms Hercules—Meg moves comfortably in her body. When on their “date” in the garden, she flirtatiously sways her hips around Hercules, lets her dress strap loose, extends her leg in the air, intentionally falls into his arms, touches his shoulder without indecision. Even though her motives are not entirely innocent, I love that Meg is aware and assertive with her body. Even as a kid, I could tell that she was confident in her physicality and I knew that I wanted to be like that some day.
For me, the garden scene also highlights the opposite worldviews of Meg and Hercules at this point in the narrative. This scene emphasizes the sincerity of Hercules and the jadedness of Meg. This comes across clearly in the dialogue:
Hercules: You know, when I was a kid, I would have given anything just to be like everybody else.
Meg: You wanted to be petty and dishonest?
Hercules: Everybody’s not like that.
Meg: Yes, they are.
Hercules: You’re not like that.
Of course, in a flash of dramatic irony, we know that Meg is being dishonest with him. But this is a moment where her artifice is set aside and she speaks frankly: “Sometimes it’s better to be alone,” she admits, “That way no one can hurt you.” The rawness in her voice is disarming and very telling of her personality, mannerisms, diction. She is afraid of being hurt again, which is such a mature emotion for a cartoon movie to address.
I think this is why Meg’s betrayal of Hercules and his reaction is so poignant. Although Hades “owns” her soul, she does choose to pursue her freedom rather than protect Hercules. What’s worst, Meg knows from experience how painful it is to be deceived by someone you care about. It is intensely difficult to watch a character like Hercules, who has been consistently open and genuine, potentially turn just as bitter as Meg, “just like everybody else.” She threatens to damage the one person untouched by the disenchantment looming in this world.
In her video essay, Lindsey Ellis argues that there is not a real tension between Hercules and Hades since they don’t know each other, don’t meet until end of the film, and never fight each other directly. Hades manipulates situations, but ultimately lets minions and monsters do his dirty work for him. Ellis claims this is a failing of the movie, yet I have alternative reading. Maybe Hades was never the villain. To me, it seems that Meg is both the true protagonist and the true antagonist of the narrative. Her personal journey, her mistakes and eventual redemption—this is the real story. Hades is just a vehicle to create tension between Hercules and Meg, the liminal space between what’s right and what’s wrong where Meg constantly straddles the line. When offered deals from Hades, we know that she has been capable of selflessness in the past, but also chooses to betray Hercules in desire for her freedom. Even Phil and Pegasus consistently treat her like the villain—they dislike and distrust her right away, and are often irritated that Hercules likes her so much. “I knew that dame was trouble,” Phil says later, telling Hercules that she is a “two-timing, lying, scheming” woman, not “good,” not to be trusted. But I think we see this kind of doubt in Meg herself—questioning if she is worthy of love and companionship, if she deserves goodness. Even during the film’s happy ending, when Hercules returns to Olympus, she says, “Congratulations Wonderboy, you’ll make one heck of a god,” and turns to walk away. Even after he says he loves her, Meg seems to not believe that their relationship would work out.
Ultimately, Meg proves herself to be “heroic” in the same way she did with her first love. She willingly gives her life to protect someone she cares about—it is a decision she makes without hesitation, revealing a selflessness that disproves any distrust on the part of Hercules, Phil, or Pegasus. She is redeemed and shows herself to be a “true hero,” just like Hercules when he rescues her soul from the underworld. By the end of the film, as Amy M. Davis argues in her book, Good Girls & Wicked Witches, Meg “has lost her bitterness and [has] been restored to the kind, selfless, trusting nature which led her to give herself up for a lover’s life in the first place, and she becomes a happier, more trusting person, perhaps not so naïve as Hercules, but nonetheless just as honest and selfless” (209). When you think about it, Meg demonstrates that she is just as “god-like” as Hercules. They save each other. This reciprocal demonstration of sacrifice, of willingness to give everything for each other—this moves me more than other climactic moments in Disney. Aladdin frees Jasmine from an hourglass of sand, Eric drives a ship into Ursula’s body saving Ariel at the bottom of the ocean, the prince kisses the princess out of slumber. Meg does not stand helpless on the sidelines, waiting to be saved—she becomes a hero herself.
Hercules is not a perfect film, but overall, it has elements that are endearing, that make me think through characters like Meg filled with complexity and contradiction. She is both self-possessed and insecure, biting and tender, very flawed and very human. I love this movie because it shows us something so uncommon in Disney films: deviating from a formula that has worked and taking risks, even though those risks may fail. I would much rather watch a bold, interesting failure than watch a boring success.
This movie truly shaped my ideas about adulthood, about mistakes, loneliness, self-confidence, self-sacrifice, and healing. Amidst the jokes and jargon, Disney is exploring some intricate, layered ideas here of trust and intimacy, which invite multiple viewings and readings. This is why I always come back to this film—I always feel like I learn something new about storytelling, about relationships and finding one’s place in the world.
Recently, I watched on the D23 Expo from afar via social media, hunting through photos for cosplays for a Meg, but finding instead a lot of Snow Whites, Ariels, Rapunzels, Belles, and Auroras. I was disappointed. I felt as though my favorite character had been forgotten—a notion reflected as well in the current “Disney Princess” franchise. Whenever I walk past a poster of these princesses in the toy aisle of Target, with CGI newbies such as Rapunzel from Tangled and Merida from Brave, it strikes me that Disney has moved past its late-Renaissance characters like Megara. Although she is not technically a princess, I wonder why there is no room for her in the current marketing for Disney. Each of these characters are important to somebody, and I would want young girls to see their struggles with adulthood reflected in someone like Meg. I too had been hurt by relationships, I too had made wrong decisions I regretted, I too had learned to love and trust again. Through these experiences, I was glad to have a model in Meg, an emblem from my childhood who stood for courage and spirit, who showed me it was never too late for forgiveness. I still want to emulate Megara and want to do so without apologies, to do so with this essay—I think she would like that.
Davis, Amy M. “Chapter 6: Disney Films 1989-2005: The ‘Eisner’ Era.” Good Girls & Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation. United Kingdom: John Libbey Publishing, 2006. 208-09. Print.
Garis, Mary Grace. “11 Reasons Megara From ‘Hercules’ Is Super Underrated.” Bustle. Bustle, 04 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 June 2017.
Hercules. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Animation, 1998. DVD.
Hercules, Disney’s Beautiful Hot Mess: A Video Essay. Perf. Lindsey Ellis. YouTube. 3 Oct. 2016. Web. 1 June 2017.
Ratcliffe, Amy. “7 Reasons Why Megara Is the MVP in HERCULES.” Nerdist. 12 June 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
Emily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Day One, Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, THRUSH, and elsewhere. She has two chapbooks, My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press) and darkling (Platypus Press) which were published in 2016. Her first full-length collection, tenderling is forthcoming in 2018 from Stalking Horse Press. You can follow her online at @exitlessblue.