Fun fact: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is speculative fiction. And I’m not just talking about the Disney version with the talking gargoyles. Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris) was published in 1833 but set in 1482: historical fiction is speculative fiction.
To be honest, I’ve never finished the novel (though I’ve tried at least five times through high school and then college), but the Disney movie has been my favorite Disney film (and possibly my favorite animated film) since it first premiered in theatres in 1996. Three-year-old me couldn’t really appreciate the score by Stephen Schwartz that uses real Latin in the lyrics, or realize how dark and sexual the whole premise is. But three-year-old me could appreciate Esmeralda.
In my childhood games, I danced around my living room with a scarf trying to mimic her. I had all her lines memorized and I wanted to be her. Without having the words or understanding, I wanted her self-assuredness that her body was hers. As a teenager when I returned to my favorite childhood film, I found a greater love for her bravery. She was the first female character I idolized. She was the first female character who could give voice to my burgeoning understanding of myself as a queer woman, and later a Jewish woman on a majority Christian college campus.
As an adult, I know I can’t “be” her and to try would be cultural appropriation and exoticization of Romani culture. But I can still aspire to her bravery. She was the woman who stood up from the crowd and rescued Quasimodo from public humiliation and torture. She was the woman who shouted “Justice!” and demanded justice not for herself in that moment, but for all people who are oppressed.
If you’ve forgotten how daring this woman is, if you’ve never seen the film, or if (like me) this moment in fiction is a defining moment in your life, take another look at this scene:
Esmeralda is more than a favorite female character. She is one of my heroes. She’s a reminder that if one of us is suffering then we are all suffering and must take a stand to end injustice in all its forms. Esmeralda is a reminder to stand up for what we believe in. Because yes, “God Help the Outcasts” but we are also responsible to aid those in need.