Defining Yourself with Penelope

Released in 2006 by Summit Entertainment

Penelope (2006, USA) was produced by Summit Entertainment and directed by Mark Palansky. It tells the story of a young woman named Penelope of blue blood descent who is cursed with the nose and ears of a pig,. To break the curse, Penelope (Christina Ricci) must find someone who can accept her as she is ’til death do they part. Her mother has been the driving force behind finding Penelope a husband, hiring a matchmaker and inviting blue blooded sons to speak with Penelope before seeing her. Penelope, meanwhile, is growing tired of the life and doesn’t develop the courage to try something different until she meets Max Campion (James McAvoy)–the only young man who didn’t run at the sight of her face.

Penelope is a story about growing out of the legacy given to you and finding your own person. Your name and your appearance don’t define who you are; you do. This theme of defining yourself outside your name and appearance is embodied in the characters of Penelope and Max/Johnny.

(spoilers ahead)

For Penelope, her lesson comes through growing out of her appearance and learning to like herself for who she is–a lesson that everyone who watches this movie should walk away with. At the start, Penelope relies on others to bring the power to break the curse. After several interactions with Max/Johnny, she gets the courage to take charge of her own life and venture around the city she lives in but has never seen. In the end, she defies the wishes of her mother, declares that she likes the way she is, and breaks the curse herself. During the resolution, Penelope leaves home, not to find herself again, but to grow into the person she’s been all along.

Meanwhile, for Max/Johnny, the lesson isn’t about liking yourself, it’s about you staying the same no matter your name. When we first meet Max/Johnny, we believe he is Max Campion, a blue blood who has previously gambled away the family fortune. Towards the end of the movie, we learn his real name is actually Johnny Martin, not a blue blood but still struggles with a gambling problem. Penelope inspires him to stop gambling and start leading an honest life again, even if it means starting from the bottom. Even though the audience believes his name is Max for most of the movie, Johnny doesn’t change his persona to fit into a fake name. He’s still remains a man with a gambling problem either way.

To bring gender issues into the mix, it would make sense that Penelope, the young woman, would be the one to embody the lesson of liking who you are. With impressionable young girls seeing contorted images of beauty all over visual media, learning to like yourself for who you are despite appearances is a powerful lesson. No matter what you look like–tall, short, broad-shoulders, awkward nose, small toes, huge hands, impressive chin hair–you should like yourself. There’s power in liking yourself.

Penelope also faces the demands of others attempting to impose their impression on her. For starters, we have Edward. At first, he’s convinced Penelope will attack him solely based on her ungainly appearance. Over the course of the movie, he does not grow out of that. He’s unable to look Penelope in the face on their wedding, and he openly admits to gagging at the thought of kissing her. Penelope leaves him at the alter. Then we have Penelope’s mother, shrilly pushing Penelope into what is not necessarily best for her. Even when her daughter has a normal nose, she has something to say about Penelope’s appearance. Penelope deals with this by moving out.

Penelope is a timeless movie with a modern-day lesson. Recommended for children and adults aged 8 and up.

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