Friday, April 20, 2018

Castafiore: An appreciation

So, the other day I was in the grip of my periodic Bianca Castafiore appreciation, and when I asked on Twitter if anyone else on the planet felt the same way, well...

Yikes, you people. I am not alone. That makes me so happy.

The Adventures of Tintin is a wonderful series of Belgio-French graphic novels which I’ve written about elsewhere, probably most famous now for its film adaptation by Stephen Spielberg in 2010. I pretty much cut my teeth on Tintin (and Asterix), and as a kid, I loved the series’ sole recurring female character, Bianca Castafiore. As an adult, I still love her. If you only know her from the Spielberg film, you’re kind of missing out.

Bianca Castafiore...where to begin? Well, as an internationally-famous opera singer (whose only hit seems to be The Jewel Song from Faust), Castafiore first turns up in King Ottokar's Sceptre helping our hero, Tintin, by giving him a lift through some mildly fascistic army checkpoints in a small Eastern European country. As the series progresses, this flamboyant, larger-than-life middle-aged diva continues to recur, mostly as a running gag. Tintin’s sidekick, the crusty old Captain Haddock, can’t stand her; she makes the most of this by flirting outrageously with him while mispronouncing his name. In The Castafiore Emerald she takes a leading role, unveiling new shallows of ditzy self-absorption. No wonder some Tintin readers can't stand her.

I love her.

She's a beaky blonde with a Wagnerian bosom, but even at my youngest and princessyest I was mesmerised by Castafiore's fashion sense, her jewels, and her ability to get the upper hand in every situation, even her own trial by a kangaroo court in a totalitarian banana republic. (Solution: belt The Jewel Song until the court is cleared. Then hurl badly-cooked pasta at the jail warden on a daily basis). These days, I find her even better, if possible. This post is my long-deferred attempt to explain why.

If there was one phrase to describe Bianca Castafiore, it would be "subversively feminine." She breaks pretty much every rule. She's not particularly young, not particularly beautiful, not particularly clever, and (it must be admitted) not particularly angelic. Even as a child I could identify with that, and I identify with it a lot more these days. Yes, despite existing completely outside the usual mold for female supporting characters in boys' adventure stories, Castafiore is one hundred percent feminine awesome. Neither young nor beautiful? Fascist dictators still swam to her dressing-room with champagne after her performances to spill state secrets, and that's not counting the megalomaniacal tycoons and absent-minded professors she charms. Ditzy? Quite, but that would be to overlook her solid streak of old-fashioned cunning: even if you overlook the fact that she's a world-famous diva who makes millions in a job at which she's clearly excellent (if you like opera), you have to be impressed by how she uses her femininity as a weapon, including scolding wilting, abject men for cruelty to "a poor weak woman". And insensitive? As a bulldog, but watch carefully and you'll realise that nearly every time she shows up in person (her voice is ubiquitous), she winds up saving the day.

Vintage fiction has one way of seeing women, and contemporary fiction has another. In vintage fiction, women are often helpless, sweet, young, and pretty. Castafiore shattered that by being middle-aged, rich, and cunning. In contemporary fiction, women are more often tough, hard-bitten feminist role models, and Castafiore doesn't find much purchase here either: she's a ditz, she's a flirt, and she's a fashionista.

This isn't to say that there aren't some tremendously feminine characters in contemporary storytelling, or that vintage fiction couldn't give us strong female characters. But Castafiore is everything a woman isn't supposed to be, whether you look to the 2010s or the 1950s. And she gets away with it, because deep down inside, although she maybe isn't the kind of woman we hope to be, she's the kind of woman we suspect we really are.


Unknown said...

ahhhh I love it, thanks so much for this!! I loved your insights on her character - I guess I understand why I always felt drawn to this fascinating character.

xavier said...

Yeah. I always wished Herge had Haddock and Bianca married off. I think the comic tension would be fun. Better if she'd gotten pregnant with boy and girl twins


Suzannah said...

Emmeline - anytime ;)

Xavier, I can't imagine that happening! Poor Haddock, he really would go crazy!

Joseph J said...

This must be the most serious treatment Castafiore has ever received, but well deserved. She is a legend. I was a little disappointed to discover that the English translation of the Jewel song in the comics doesn't really match the original lyrics. In my head I always sung it to the tune of the Phantom of the Opera, and I guess it will have to remain that way.

xavier said...

Perhaps but the hoary old story of the beauty taming the beast would've been fun with good comic
One of things that irritated me when I was a youngster was the dynamics between the 2.Reading it in French I picked up undercurrents of an unhealty relationship between the two. Maybe I'm overreading bit i always thought that she could moderate his irascibilit and still have fun adventures with Tintin

xavier said...

No Tintinist myself, so I must pass this. An Asterixian through and through, hovewer. Always nice to meet another.

Anonymous said...

you have to be impressed by how she uses her femininity as a weapon, including scolding wilting, abject men

yes, women do love to scold men.

it's curious that this English Common Law is no longer enforced. because women certainly haven't changed.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

I like this break down of Castafiore...nice insight Suzannah! Was an avid Tintin reader when younger and always rather laughed at poor Bianca. :)

Suzannah said...

Joseph, I know...I don't usually write serious discussions of characters like Castafiore, but I've often found myself wanting to say what I said in the post!

Terzo, I'm amazed! An Asterixian but not a Tintinist? I know Herge didn't approve of the pun-based humour in ASTERIX but I could never choose between them like that! :)

Bob, I should probably elucidate that it's not the scolding I find admirable, it's the chutzpah behind it and the ability to use social ideas of femininity as a weapon.

Andrew, thanks! I think she was probably intended to be a ridiculous character; but she's got a solid core of awesome as well :)

xavier said...

I agree i like both Asterix and Tintin. Why deprive yourself of among the 2 best comics ever :)

Anonymous said...

Potiphar's wife used her femininity as a weapon quite effectively ... for a time.


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