Another Defense of Frozen: The Subversive Appeal of Disney’s New Breed of Fairy Tale
I dug Frozen. I laughed. I cried. I gasped at the third act reveal. In the wake of Dani Colman’s essay for Medium asserting the film has a problem with false feminism, I feel the need to tell you why. I hope you can stand another defense of Frozen.
(You may also enjoy the original Defense of Frozen.)
Like Nathan Greno & Byron Howard’s Tangled, Jennifer Lee’s Frozen depicts working through dysfunction in families of origin to create functional families of choice. The underpinning theme that “your parents can fail you, but you must not fail yourself” is a far cry from the “obey your parents or someone will die” ethos of Pinocchio, Bambi or The Lion King. This message is hella progressive. It’s so progressive it’s downright subversive.
From Tangled, Rapunzel’s recovery from isolating, belittling, gaslighting Mother Gothel deserves its own essay, from her “I love this/I hate this” post-freedom freak-out to the film’s revealing popularity on the /r/raisedbynarcissists subreddit.
But where Tangled followed only one survivor, Frozen follows three.
(Spoilers ahead, and Frozen has more than one tasty twist worth preserving, so proceed at your own risk.)
Elsa the Scapegoat
When an uncomfortable truth about one daughter leads to an accident with the other, Elsa and Anna’s well-meaning parents seek expert (troll) advice which leads them to a total crap-garbage solution: “Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let it show.” We know this is a crap-garbage solution because
- It shifts the community’s burden of safety onto Elsa, a nine-year-old girl
- It confirms Elsa’s fear she is defective
- It drives her into isolation
- It destroys her family relationships
- It does not change Elsa’s uncomfortable truth one iota.
It is super meaningful that, even at her coronation, even trying her best, Elsa has nearly no ability to conceal her true self. Trying causes only suffering. Her power to freeze stands in handily for feminine sexuality, homosexuality, gender dysphoria, religious conversion/rejection, mental illness, disability or any other condition a family might prefer to remain firmly closeted–so long as the human cost remains closeted as well.
The solution that Elsa eventually discovers–after she breaks with the family–is to friggin’ practice. If her parents had disregarded the troll sage’s advice, taken her to a remote hillside to train, while saying, “Hey, let’s explain to Anna that she can’t go to the gun range until she’s older,” a whole lot of suffering could have been avoided.
Alas, trolls suck at boundaries. This will come up again with Kristoff.
EDIT: Heckle enthusiast random_tangent corrects my memory of the troll sage scene:
What happens when she lets go? Aside from a career in architecture and a love of geometry, Elsa embraces a slinky dress, declaring this awakening includes body-ownership and hinting it includes sexual discovery. If ever a young woman deserved a day to lock herself in her bedroom with a hand mirror and Tori Amos’s “Icicle” on repeat, it’s Elsa.
I do wonder what Huma Munshi has to say about how cheaply Elsa purchases her freedom. I would have liked Frozen to raise the stakes of Arendelle’s pitchfork mob attack, to explain that eternal winter is bad because people will starve and have Elsa be okay with that (“it’s their turn to suffer”; but then to require more action for social order to be restored at the end.
Her subjects wouldn’t have to like her, but they would have to respect her. Balance can’t be bought without the enfranchised chipping in…
Anna the Golden Child
The parents assign Anna a childhood role and don’t permit it to evolve as she matures. Can’t teenage Anna probably handle the truth? Doesn’t infantilizing her just increase the whole family’s misery? Doesn’t it set everyone up for disaster?
The trouble with being sheltered is you don’t know when it’s happening to you. Anna grows up insulated from reality, and with no outside perspective, feels more and more sorry for herself. The pity party goes on so long that it impairs her judgment.
We the audience are so well-conditioned by Anna’s POV, as well as 75 years of Disney princess tropes, that we’re blind-sided by Hans’s completely accurate criticism: “You were so desperate for love, you were willing to marry me, just like that.”
What graduate of a dysfunctional family hasn’t thrown themselves into a dysfunctional romantic relationship, ever lowering themselves and the bar of acceptable conduct for their partner, lest they face rejection from another loved one?
Thus collapses Anna’s delusion that “Love is an Open Door.”
Alas, true love is not a binary state.
It takes effort to get outside her own skull and see someone else’s point of view. Realizing that Elsa is due that effort, Anna sacrifices herself to protect her sister, as her sister tried for years to protect her. The balance is restored, and one hopes they walk away with new understanding of boundaries and interdependence, and perhaps someone slips them each a copy of Codependent No More.
Kristoff the Engulfed
We have already established that trolls suck at boundaries. They raised Kristoff.
That is why he prefers to sleep in the barn with his reindeer, Sven.
In case that’s vague, that is why he sings “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.”
“People will beat you and curse you and cheat you”?! Sounds like somebody’s been spending time with Mother Gothel.
That is why he warns Anna to brace herself before she meets his family. Their refusal to hear “no” is akin to Pervocracy’s ‘Missing Stair’.
That is why the trolls manhandle Anna (“strong teeth!”) and greet them both with the most belittling show tune ever penned:
Contrast how pushy the trolls are (speaking about Anna and Kristoff in the third person directly in front of them, physically hurting them) with how trained-not-to-offend Anna is (“We’re not… I’m not…”)
That is why no boundary declaration stops their tide, since they’re prepared to argue down other people’s needs.
That is why even the adorable kid troll is indoctrinated into a bizarre, age-inappropriate, parentified role (“I don’t see no ring!”)
What graduate of a dysfunctional family can’t relate to being called “socially impaired” by the very people who contributed to that state?
In case the viewer doesn’t follow the mania, the trolls eventually hint that they’re willing to kill Anna’s fiancé: “get the fiancé out of the way and the whole thing will be fixed!”
I wouldn’t have minded escalating this scene to inflict more pain on our heroes (banged knees and nosebleeds) and drive home the element of harm in engulfing family, but its impact on Kristoff’s character couldn’t be more clear.
It adds a hint of melancholy that the trolls do eventually concede that “everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper.” They do love Kristoff, and they may be capable of introspection. It will be painful to help them not suck at boundaries so much.
We’ll get into the casting of the film’s lone person of color as a troll in a moment.
Olaf the Rejected
Poor Olaf. He is made and abandoned by Elsa in the same instant, and she doesn’t recognize him when he comes to her, full of hope and worship. She dispatches him along with the others by sending Marshmallow, so the dysfunction cycle continues with Elsa as parent.
To make this clear, and increase the reward of balance being restored, I would have appreciated a scene with Elsa personally rejecting Olaf (“you expect too much from me”) and turning her back on his grief.
Clearly my theater had not enough inconsolable kindergarteners for my taste.
There should be more stories like this
Tellers of stories this progressive have a responsibility to make these stories accessible to marginalized audiences. Better still when those audiences see more and more representation among the creatives themselves. Brenda Chapman, Jennifer Lee, Lauren MacMullan, Kristina Reed are all doing their part to make above-the-line a place of welcome, and technology has democratized storytelling on the ground, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Will the heroine of Disney’s next princess movie, Moana, need to reject the strictures of her village in order to save it, How to Train Your Dragon-style? Sure hope so. More about that in a bit…
(Sidebar: Will Malificent‘s Aurora get the chance to confront her parents about their decision to isolate their daughter while withholding knowledge about her health? Could the sex education allegory be any more obvious?)
So nothing about Frozen is problematic?
Whoa, now. Let’s not lose our minds. There are
- Brown faces in the crowd with no brown human speaking parts. Frozen‘s multicolored extras are better than nothing but worse than plenty, and I hope Hollywood soon evolves past “get in front of the camera but quiet, please, we’re rolling.” (See also: Master of Laketown’s Speech in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug.)
Reminds me of a story involving Howard Dean, the South Carolina primary, and the predominantly Black choral group his campaign blocked the exit of, forcing them to stand next to the stage during his televised speech. Dear Black people: you deserve better.
- Magic-washing. Maia Nkege Wilson rules the vocal school as maternal troll Bulda, but the troll-soul/magic-washing/PoC-as-flavor issue deserves its own essay.
- Cultural appropriation of an indigenous, marginalized people–the Saami. Kristoff’s Saami origins are magic-washed, as well.
- Seriously Anna and Elsa look exactly the frip alike. Now that I’ve seen them smell chocolate together, I understand what Lino DiSalvo‘s animators were up against:
To paraphrase Anita Sarkeesian’s usual caveat on Feminist Frequency, it is OK to enjoy some aspects of a piece of culture while being critical of others, e.g. it is OK to know every word of The Nightmare Before Christmas while being aware that its Ken-Page-voiced Cab-Calloway-inspired gambling cannibal is problematic as hell.
(Sidebar: Ken Page also provided the voice of King Gator in All Dogs Go to Heaven, source of Nostalgia Chick’s “Big-Lipped Alligator Moment” and oh God he’s a New-Orleans-gumbo-loving cannibal with a bone through his nose ARE YOU KIDDING ME DON BLUTH WHAT THE HELL FOREVER.)
Why are we still talking about Frozen?
The movie is a nose-busting, collarbone-breaking runaway hit.
In January, Frozen became the highest-grossing Disney animated film ever, with an opening that beat The Lion King (not considering inflation or re-release).
On February 5, its music became the longest-running Billboard #1 film soundtrack since 2003’s Bad Boys II, slot-blocking Lord and Beyonce. BEYONCE.
There will be descendants made and influences felt at Disney as well as DreamWorks, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Aardman, Blue Sky, LAIKA, and every other studio with a pencil sharpener and a bank account. What Frozen‘s got, we’re going to see by the boatload.
Will Disney, with its regained status as creative, technological and economic royalty, extend its scepter to viewers who don’t look like Anna and Elsa? Where are the next Jasmines, Mulans and Tianas? Where is the suggestion American Indians exist past 1650? Where is the gender-bending “Prince and the Pauper” that somebody should hella make?
What’s next for Disney
(I’m not even getting into the roster at DreamWorks, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Aardman, Blue Sky, LAIKA, or the other studios I am surely forgetting and will have shame about later. I want to. I will. But not here.)
Slated for November 2014 is Marvel property Big Hero 6, starring a Japanese-American boy with a robot leading a coed team. It is easy to stay excited about this so long as you pretend it is Pac Rim meets Sky High and do not read the Wikipedia page for the comics do not go there do not. Helmed by Chris Williams (Bolt) and Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh; this has excellent potential to be fun and funny as long they do their research, cast real live PoCs for PoC characters, and start every work day with Rachel Rostad’s “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang”:
In 2015 arrives Pixar’s Inside Out, a “Herman’s Head”-style take on an 11-year-old girl’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. High concept, directed by Pete Docter (director of Monster’s Inc., writer on Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Up and more; and with a celebrity ensemble cast, this would be fantastic opportunity to cast a girl of color. Pete Docter himself hails from Minnesota, so I hope he remembers no state is a monolith.
Also from Pixar, 2015’s The Good Dinosaur suffered the removal of Up‘s Bob Peterson and so will probably be delayed, but I hope whenever it arrives, its city has room for lots of different kinds of people. I daresay to ride a dinosaur is the great unifying wish of all humankind.
In 2016, Disney’s Zootopia (directed by Byron Howard, Bolt and Tangled) and Pixar’s Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton, Finding Nemo) will have no human main characters, so let us set them aside and move directly to Disney’s Giants, a re-telling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and the first recipient of Frozen‘s family fairy tale inheritance.
Its likely holiday release means a three-year lapse since Frozen, and there will be no shortage of viewers looking for a new anthem to belt on the holiday drive to the family. With its male protagonist, Giants is poised to be the computer-animated Aladdin. Right now the plot overview is a mess, indicating the studio isn’t sure whether to go YA love-triangle or buddy adventure. I hope it goes HAM with the adventure, Aladdin-level funny, and Aladdin-y dashing PoC hero. You have no reason not to, Disney. NO REASON.
What excites and terrifies me is John Musker and Ron Clements’ inchoate Moana, a female-driven quest adventure through “a series of Polynesian islands.”
Musker and Clements are old priests of Disney animation, co-writing and co-directing Little Mermaid and Aladdin and thus piloting the story renaissance. Note they also helmed Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog, and while all those three have their merits–gorgeous design, face-melting animation, flashes of narrative brilliance and startling darkness–they are messy, distracted and lacking an emotional core.
The one true God of the renaissance was Howard Ashman, and we lost him.
So if Musker and Clements must have this movie, if for some reason Jennifer Lee doesn’t get the reins–if she is very busy making an action-comedy world takeover a la Phil Lord & Chris Miller, which is the only explanation I can think of–Moana must, must, must pick up a creative with the ability and the will to kill darlings, tap toes and murder hearts, or it will become another “PoC Disney princess movies aren’t popular” casualty.
I notice Moana has picked up a composer but not yet a songwriter. Welp, there are only two people with the talent, the experience, and the track record to knock the rust off Musker and Clements:
Yes, they’ve got a busy dance card through 2018, but please, Robert and Kristen Lopez, if not you, then who? If not now, then when? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to Avenue Q.
Like Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader does more voice work than you might guess.
There are a lot of books I need to read.
Actress, vocalist and vocal arranger Carmen Twillie provided the voice of Undersea Gal and Man Under the Stairs in Nightmare Before Christmas, but you may know her better as THE WOMAN WHO SINGS “CIRCLE OF LIFE” IN THE LION KING. So feel free to write her a thank-you note for your childhood.
That is all.
If you like thoughtful heckling, you might also enjoy:
- In Defense of Frozen — Hero design, homogeneity, and the BESM-ing of American big studio computer animation
- 8 Reasons Walter White is Wile E. Coyote
- Lois Lane’s Secret in “Man of Steel”
- Jack Reacher is Hilarious
- 3 Indisputable Reasons to Nominate My Face for the 2014 Campbell Award
It’s possible to take this social commentary stuff too far. For example, the idea of ‘people of colour’ (horrible pc expression) being marginalised is reading too much into it; try to remember that the movie was basically set in Denmark or Norway several centuries ago, so the main speaking characters are bound to be mostly North-European-looking. That’s not prejudice, that’s just the setting.
As another example, your analysis of Elsa’s character hinting at some ‘sexual awakening’ is again reading far too much into it. This is a film which was designed knowing that children would be watching, so it is highly unlikely the designers intended that. More likely Elsa’s behaviour can be described as ‘confident’. I think you really need to lighten up and stop over analysing.
Interesting post about Elsa’s father. Maybe his parenting decisions were based on being a King vs being a dad: http://justadadwithquestions.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/was-elsas-dad-so-wrong/
Where is the gender-bending “Prince and the Pauper” that somebody should hella make?