Monday, January 27, 2014

Did Disney’s Frozen Melt My Ice Cold Feminist Heart?

Disney's incredible box office hit, Frozen, threw me into sort of a feminist conundrum.    Like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd -- in this case, of feminism.  But with respect to Frozen, I feel more like a weak consumer sheep, bowing down to the tyranny of sexism and gender stereotypes that pervade our culture.   

Feminism remains a very important word, and movement, for me.   I have two young daughters.  We are a smart, sarcastic, self-possessed crock pot full of Adam’s ribs.   We like math puzzles and Greek mythology and fart jokes.  We like Pokemon and Avatar and even Lord of the Rings -- because it has wizards and a few immortal girl elves.     When a boy in my daughter’s third grade class said women can't vote (he said that like, yesterday, not in 1960), she corrected him.  Then called him sexist, under her breath.  She thinks the fact that there hasn’t been a female President yet is stupid.  That’s an exact quote.  I agree.

But I could do a better job upholding my values.  We talk a lot about respect and equality. But we are also a Justice thneed--wearing, pretty pop star music listening, busty mermaid show watching clan of second-sex cave bears.  My kids like getting their nails painted.  Oh, so do I.  My older daughter tilts her head to the side when I take her picture, like she's already practicing her teen pose for Instagram.   My younger daughter, play with Barbies.  She has about 12 of them, in fact.   I would say they come in all shapes and sizes, except -- really -- they’re all the same shape and size.  Here is a recent picture of them, all dressed up.  With nowhere to go.

 I try to sneak my feminism in sideways, by expressing my disapproval when we play with the dolls.  Sometimes I'll talk for them in lame high pitched voices and say things like, “Seriously, Mindy, I think my design professor will totally worship my ensemble today: black satin mini shorts and fishnets and this totes awesome fur coat."  Then I dress them in six and a half inch black wedges, and make them fall on their faces when they try to walk.  

But who am I kidding?  I’m the one who bought the dolls.  And what good does it do to mock the pretty girls like they're dumb?  No good.  They can’t help it that they all have long legs and big baby eyes and silky hair.  Some women do look like that.   I saw two of them last week on Rich Kids of Beverly Hills.   They seemed like terrible human beings, but one can't generalize from a sensationalized reality show.  And let's be honest, that is the feminine ideal my kids see all the time, even in their cool role models.  Those Barbies look exactly like Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez and Beyonce.  

Which brings us to Disney.  I don’t think the Disney corporation is standing in the way of feminism any more than anyone else, but its products often bug me more.  In fact, we’ve had a ban on the Disney channel in our house for some time now.   There are too many Girl Wants To Be Pretty shows.   Too many Girl Wants to be Famous Pop Star shows.  Too many sassy rich kids who have everything except nice manners shows.   

And OMG, all those princess and fairy tale movies!  Why, in 2014, are they always the same?   Young girls locked up in a tower with their beauty and weird magical hair.  Or in a castle with a Beast.  Or in a house in the woods with moody dwarves.  Or in a secret room, safe from poison needles.   Talk about people who don't come in all shapes and sizes.   You can give them black skin or native American clothing or an Asian historical context.   But even with all their different cages and traps and curses, they are all -- still -- shaped like Barbie.

Gender stereotypes from ancient times drive these stories.  But why hasn't the narrative changed with feminism?  The old stepmother witches made sense in early modern Europe -- when mothers died young, and men remarried for economic reasons, and stepchildren might get favored -- but now these old gals just seem like they're having a bad time with menopause.  Or -- as is the case in our society with many older women -- they are sad and bitter because they've lost their beauty and can't afford plastic surgery.   And then, the princesses are usually helped or saved by... guys.  Guys who are brave and quirky and handsome.  And that is lucky for those young beauties because -- despite all their wealth and royal upbringing -- they somehow never picked up any useful skills.  Except maybe baking donuts.  And reading books.

And now, there’s Frozen.  Frozen does challenge some old narratives.    Love at first sight with the handsome prince?   That turns out to be a bad choice, because he’s a murderous lying swindler.   The act of true love that can melt the frozen heart?   It turns out a woman doesn’t have to wait for a guy to show up with his loyal animal sidekick, because she can do it for herself. Or more accurately, for her sister.   The competent male lead love interest?  Kristoff is characteristically brave and handsome.  But he’s also like real guys, in that he is socially awkward and cranky and acts like he was raised by rocks.  Which it turns out he was.  But that’s okay too, because they’re a magical and sort of ethnic big family of rocks, who will make really loving rocks-in-law. 

And where is the mean evil witch in this episode?   Well, in my view, the main heroine in Frozen is Anna, the pretty, sweet, surprisingly buxom younger sister with doe eyes and a silly but likeable personality.   But instead of being pure evil, the ice queen in this movie is likeable too.  It’s Elsa, I think, Anna’s fast-growing-into-a-vixon-in-her-sweet-ice-pad older sister, who can’t help that she’s icy, and anyway, it’s ok because her less intimidating sister knows she’s cool and sticks up for her and helps her return to her Caucasians-only kingdom, and banish the corporate lobbyists back to Holland forever.  This ice queen, moreover, is perfectly happy being a powerful spinster, because she can make an awesome ice skating rink whenever she wants.  Which is obviously better than getting married. 
We may never know why Frozen has been so popular, breaking box office records and depleting the merchandise chests at Disney.  I have my own opinion, based on why own my girls love Frozen.  Especially my daughter who is almost 10, and walks around the house singing her heart out.   I heard a great NPR story about how the ballad, Let It Go, speaks directly to this age group.   And in my view, the lyrics -- that perfect girl is gone -- really do add up to a modern feminist mantra Are they also a cheap Disney marketing ploy?  I guess so.  But the fact that so many real women were involved in the writing and producing of this story makes me think that it represents real change.  That Frozen is popular because Frozen is something new, for a new generation of feminists.  

Consider the sub-plot about sisters.   Sister drama, and bad parents who mishandle it, are familiar tropes to a lot of grown women.   Most sisters can also relate to their sweet love for each other, because there is nothing quite like the sister bond.   The fact of their alienation -- that Elsa felt so overly responsible and Anna felt so lonely -- made me cry.  Like real salt water tears, not just pretend crystal Disney tears.   Not only do I have a younger sister, whom I love, but my daughters really are best friends.  And if anything came between them -- like ice powers or a frozen head -- it would truly be the end of me.  I don't believe a man could've written that script as powerfully.    And that quality of female subjectivity marks a BIG change from the hackneyed old story about one princess, one tower, and her singular quest to find a handsome prince.  

I can't deny that in some respects, I was disappointed.  Frozen doesn’t go everywhere it could have gone.   Like, it still trades in princesses, who look too good when they shouldn't.   I know Hollywood doesn't do ugly in general, but that is particularly true when it comes to women.  Even a cartoon guy can be dumpy and stupid looking, but never a princess.  And as for skills -- what kind of Swedewegian princess would trudge around in five feet of snow, and set off to climb an ice mountain in a long dress?   The frozen dress on Anna bit is funny.   Like, woman comedian funny.   But how about throwing on a snow suit on her, made of bison leather?     How about taking a walking stick, or using an ice pick, or grabbing an old pair of your dad's snowshoes?   Would that kind of practical clothing challenge the popular social worship of the perfect female form?  

Also -- if I'm being perfectly honest -- the younger daughter is fairly single minded about getting married, even if the narrative is turned on its head by the end.   Her loyalty and bravery are matched only by the depths of her low-plunging neckline.  And, alas, there is still a castle, and troubled princesses.  Do they both take epic, Ulysses-like hero journeys alone?  In a sense.  But frankly, they ultimately would have failed if one of them hadn't bumped into a guy with a reindeer-donkey and a real job.    

Thank you, Frozen, for moving in the right direction.   But that direction is long overdue.   It succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams because it retells the old fairy tale differently and moves it -- at long last -- a little further into the 21st century.   My younger daughter's favorite character was Olaf, the kind-hearted snowman who yearns for summer, and keeps losing his nose and his butt.    One day, maybe the hilarious comic relief sidekick in a Disney movie will be a female.   I want to see more Disney cartoons about cool superhero women with ice powers who find their way through danger -- but without a red carpet gown, or the help of a more competent guy.   

Because little girls (and I think little boys) are growing up with a more progressive awareness that most women don't end up living in castles.  Real girls won’t get very far up a mountain of snow and ice wearing a ball gown.  And if they're going to set out to battle the elements alone, our little modern feminists can't count on running into some random guy with a heart of gold, a clever reindeer, and a sled.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Firstly, may I compliment you on an interesting blog post. The parenting struggles struck a chord with me. I had a couple of thoughts about the things you felt disappointed with Frozen, if you will allow me:

1. In a discussion I had about Gravity, a commentator told me that Gravity was a sexist film because Sandra Bullock was an incompetent panicky astronaut who needed the help of her more competent male counterpart George Clooney to survive. I found that to be absurd because she progressed beyond that point of panic to use her wits to save herself, independent of George Clooney. I argued that male mentorship is a fact of life, a beneficial one, and that it doesn't undermine a woman's strength if she is able to progress beyond the point that she needs help. And that's how I view Kristoff's role in Frozen's narrative too.

2. Bildungsromans often start with a character that is stupid and/or naive who stops being that along the way. And that's sort of the point. Perfect, smart characters are flat and difficult to build a story around. So long as Anna's stupidity is something that the movie does not endorse and actually undermines by dumping her in ice water (unlike say Man of Steel which endorses leaving everyone to die because ends justify the means), I think the character works.

3. Lilo and Stitch is the best animated movie about sister relationships bar none. It has all the elements that the perennially unimpressed with Disney can't pooh pooh. However, there is something to be said about how a genre-bound reconstruction-deconstruction switch can have greater impact than a perfect movie that jettisons all the genre tropes just because the former has a ready audience. Lauren Faust has stated that Princess Celestia of My Little Pony should have been queen but Hasbro found princess ponies easier to sell than queens (Thanks, Disney!). She still ran with it to make a great animated TV series for girls. It's an imperfect audience that Disney and Hasbro market to and I don't see it changing until something like the Croods or Wreck-It-Ralph makes more money than something like Frozen. But within the princess genre, I think you can still do great things.

4. If the progress in Disney movies feels too slow, I think Laika might be a great animation studio to check out. Its output strikes me as the most progressive of the US-based animation studios. Boxtrolls will feature the first gay parents in a mainstream animated movie.