Miraculous Ladybug: Mashing up myth and melodrama

Miriam Riverlea writes about a French animation for tweens that explores how to handle negative emotions, with the help of superheroes, mythology and more . . .

Miraculous Ladybug . . .

Recently my children have become quite obsessed with an animated cartoon, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir.  Currently being shown on ABC3, a children’s channel in Australia, the show first screened in South Korea in 2015, and has since been distributed in several western countries including the United States, Britain and Ireland.  It is a cross-cultural production by French animation companies Zagtoon and Method Animation, collaborating with studios in Japan, Italy and South Korea. 

Set in Paris, the story revolves around teenager Marinette Dupain-Cheng.  She is artistic, pretty, and a kind and loyal friend, yet gets comically awkward in the company of her classmate, Adrien Agreste.  Marinette has a secret crush on Adrien, and has another secret besides.  With the help of her ‘kwami’ Tiki, a tiny, magic creature who lives inside her handbag, Marinette can transform into the superhero Ladybug.  Resplendent in red and black, she is lithe and vivacious, and has a steadfast sense of justice.  In stark contrast to Marinette, Ladybug is confident and self-assured.  In addition to superb fighting skills, her special yoyo allows her to soar between roof tops, and she can call upon a magic lucky charm to supply her with a special object to counter her enemies’ powers. 

Ladybug is supported by another superhero, Cat Noir.  As his name suggests, he cuts a svelte figure in his sleek black cat costume, and is able to summon the earthshattering force of a cataclysm.  He is devoted to Ladybug, but she spurns his affections, which seems a bit foolish, given that Cat Noir is actually Adrien in disguise.  The characters remain ignorant of what is patently obvious to viewers, and much of the fun of the show derives from the comedy of errors of unfulfilled romance and hidden identities.  I’ve been enjoying watching my children cringe and giggle as they witness sexual tension for the first time. 

Mythological mashups. . .

But there is another reason I am enamoured with this cartoon.  Amid the melodrama, Miraculous borrows from the world of mythology, folktale, and popular culture, particularly in the formulation of the supervillains whom Ladybug and Cat Noir must combat each episode.   The show’s villain is Hawk Moth, a sinister masked figure who preys on people experiencing negative emotions. 

Watching over Paris from his stark lair, he transforms a white butterfly into a dark purple ‘akuma’, and releases it into the city to find its vulnerable target.  This person becomes ‘evilised’ or ‘akumatised’, a process which exaggerates an element of what they are feeling into special powers.  Using telepathy, Hawk Moth endows them with a new name, and charges them with the task of stealing Ladybug and Cat Noir’s miraculous, the special talisman that gives them their magic powers.  (In another twist, Hawk Moth is actually Adrien’s father, the successful but reclusive fashion designer Gabriel Agreste).

Each episode runs to the same formula.  Someone in Marinette’s life, a classmate, family member, or member of the local community, is transformed into a villain bent on causing destruction as they seek to achieving their goals.  A number of these characters draw on mythology.  In Dark Cupid, a boy becomes a malevolent version of Eros, shooting arrows that transform positive feelings of love and friendship into hate.  In the episode Syren, Ondine a talented swimmer becomes an evil mermaid who wants to build an exclusive underwater kingdom with the boy she likes.  One villain takes the form of a huge spider, drawing upon the African folktale figure Anansi, in another, an ancient historian becomes the Pharoah, using the powers of the Egyptian gods to resurrect Queen Nefertiti.  And from what I’ve read, previous holders of the Ladybug miraculous apparently include Hippolyta the Amazon and Joan of Arc.  In this way, the show’s creators have developed their own kind of Miraculous universe that simultaneously celebrates French culture (Paris’ food, iconic architecture and landmarks play a big part in the setting), Oriental traditions (Marinette is guided by Master Wang Fu, the immortal guardian of the miraculouses, which resemble the animals of the Chinese zodiac), as well as ancient mythology from the classical and other traditions. 

It’s not necessary to be familiar with particular mythic figures to appreciate these storylines, in fact, subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny isn’t particularly constructive.  Rather, what this kind of wholesale borrowing from the world of mythology or folktales highlights is that it these characters have come to function in our contemporary world as a kind of treasure trove of material for telling new stories.  In the episode Heroes’ Day, Hawk Moth simultaneously akumatises lots of his supervillains, who come together to fight Ladybug and Cat Noir at the spiritual centre of Paris, the Eifel Tower.  It is a mash up not only of all the evil characters from previous episodes, but also one which brings together diverse figures from myth, folktale and popular culture. 

Handling negative emotions

Central to this show is the power of emotions, and the destructive impact of negative feelings.  It is revealed that Marinette’s optimistic personality renders her less susceptible to being evilised.  There are other times when the series seems to engage with psychoanalytic themes of desire, projection, and self-perception.  In Weredad, Marinette’s father, the baker, becomes akumatised.  He is determined to protect his beloved daughter from being heartbroken, and like a fairy tale giant, seeks to trap her within a thorny prison that resembles Jack’s beanstalk and like Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted castle.  Helping children to manage their emotions is a key aspect of children’s texts, and these stories, with their predictable, repetitive formula, play out scenarios that are both familiar and fantastical. 

Once Ladybug has captured the akuma transformed it to its original white colour, she uses her special power to return everything to the way it was.  There’s something very comforting about this resolution.  A swarm of red and black creatures flurries across the city, repairing the damage of the fighting and returning the person who was evilised back to their normal self.  They often seem a bit sheepish about what they have done, and Ladybug offers them absolution for their crimes.  Ladybug and Cat Noir transform back into their everyday teenage selves, with their secret identities safe for another day, another episode. 

Miriam Riverlea

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Sharing the Light of Myths: Beauty and the Beast

In the spirit of the approaching festive season, I asked my colleagues to send me information about discoveries they’ve made this year, while working on the Our Mythical Childhood project.  I’ll be sharing them over the next few weeks–short snippets of scholarship that I think of as Saturnalian Surprises (Saturnalia being the feast of Saturn that ran roughly from 17-24 December).  Our Saturnalian Surprises will appear over the next few weeks. 

Our first snippet comes from Katarzyna Marciniak, of the Faculty of Artes Liberales, University of Warsaw.  Katarzyna is the brains behind the whole Our Mythical Childhood project, so who better to start us off.  She’s created a world of mythical scholarship, finding inspiration in unexpected places, and here, she shines a light on an iconic tv show from the 1980s, the CBS romantic drama, Beauty and the Beast, showing how it draws on myths as old as time…

— Liz Hale

 

Sharing the Light of Myths

My Favourite Mythical Discovery in 2017 was in fact a re-discovery from my childhood: mainly, the series “Beauty and the Beast” of 1987–1990. While working on my paper for the Our Mythical Hope stage of the ERC project, I came across a remake of the series and the enchanting live-action version of Disney’s famous animation. Both productions brought me back in memory to the tale as old as time, rooted in the ancient myth of Eros and Psyche.

The series of 1987–1990 is truly unique because it contains numerous literary quotes, thus acquainting young people with classical culture – in the broadest me aning of the term – namely, with such authors as Virgil, Ovid, Milton, Shelley, Kipling, Rilke, Tolkien, etc. The richness of this intertextual web of references is not surprising once we note that among the writers for the series was George R.R. Martin, today world-famous for his “Game of Thrones”.

Classical Antiquity manifests itself also through mythological motifs. For example, the Beauty of the series, a lawyer named Catherine Chandler, is brought to the Underworld in New York by a lion-like creature Vincent in the role of Orpheus à rebours, for he saves her life when she falls the chance victim of an assault. There is also an episode entitled explicitly “The Song of Orpheus”. Moreover, the series’ authors seem to be aware of the ancient Orphean relationship between the Word and the Music and they make ample use of masterpieces by such composers as Beethoven, Chopin, Vivaldi, etc., offering us total immersion into the mythical experience of art.

The myth and the fairy tale work together so that we can retell the classical story that is an everlasting source of the rays of hope – exactly as the series’ protagonists repeat at the ceremony called Winterfest: “Even the greatest darkness is nothing, so long as we share the light”.

In one of the episodes Vincent reads from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” about “those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples…” And he assures us: “We must not be frightened”. Indeed, Classical Antiquity will not let us fall. We only need to remember and to share the light of myths.

Vincent reading from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” on YouTube:

–Katarzyna Marciniak

P.S. If you wish to read more on the series and other Antiquity-inspired works of culture, look for our ERC volume “Our Mythical Hope”, ed. Katarzyna Marciniak, in preparation for publication.