Thursday, January 16, 2014

Apparently, I REALLY liked Frozen.

Prompted by a Facebook conversation with my cousins, and having just seen the movie with Sana, I was inspired as a writing exercise, to write about the Disney movie "Frozen." It is far out of the normal concerns of this blog, but since I wrote it, I thought I might as well put it out there, so that my readers can see happens when ninety percent of my household's pop culture intake is Princess related.

The headline question of Akash Nickolas’s Atlantic article on the storytelling innovations of Disney’s “Frozen” was “Did Prince Charmingreally need to be reinvented?” Nickolas saw the “bad prince” of that movie as a manifestation of how society tends to devalue the interests of girls and argued that subverting the Prince Charming trope was yet another example of “shaming girls’ fantasies” ­– part of a dishonorable tradition that sees the narrative clunkiness of Star Wars forgiven while the ham-handed writing of Twilight books is eviscerated in the popular media.

That proposition that “women’s” stories are mocked for faults ignored in entertainments catering to boys cannot be doubted. And there is also no doubt in my mind that a huge component of that is due to a discomfort with girls’ sexuality: look at how Carly Rae Jepsom and Justin Bieber were treated by the media when they first came out. Both made bubble gum pop, both catered to the same young, largely female demographic, - heck, both were even Canadian. Only one was made the constant butt of Late Night comedians, because only one of them was a crush object for little girls. No one would care about the saccharine blandness of Bieber’s music were it not for the gender of his fans.

So, in that sense, Nickolas is correct that the entertainments of girls are subject to a critical rigour that boys are not. But is Prince Hans of Frozen a reaction to that criticism? More to the point, is Prince Charming, in any form, really that central to the “Princess” fantasies of little girls?

The very short answer is no, not in the Disney movies that created him nor in the folklore they pilfered in order to do so. Can you name any character trait of the Prince in the original Snow White movie? Of course not; he has none. Even in the original fable he shows up only after Snow White has been poisoned: Disney introduced him earlier in their version to make his habit of kissing non-consenting coma patients less creepy. And in the Grimm version it isn’t some magical “true love” kiss that saves the Princess, it is the clumsiness of the Prince’s servants. He essentially wrests the Princess’s unresponsive body – which he had never laid eyes on before - from the seven dwarves that had been diligently caring for her. In carrying her coffin away his porters slip, thereby dislodging the poisoned apple from Snow White’s throat.

Prince Philip of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a similar cipher – he at least is brave, in that he fought a dragon, but he defeated it only because he’d been given a magic sword and shield. Other than that – another young man feeling entitled to plant kisses on unconscious women. In the original story, Sleeping Beauty had been asleep for nearly a century before her eventual rescuer was even born. That is somewhat creepier, but at least in Grimm’s version, he didn’t wake her with a kiss: they actually talked for an hour or two before getting married (at least in one sanitized version of the story – the Italian version is much more brutal. More on that later).

The examples go on: in the story, Cinderella rejected her suitor three times before he tracked her down and browbeat her into marriage, in the movie he doesn’t even search for her in person. In the Little Mermaid “Prince Charming” nearly marries another within a day of meeting her, in the book he goes through with it, causing Fish Girl to die.

Can you spot the elements not found in Hans Christian Anderson's "Snow Queen"?
So, to Nickolas’s central question: did Prince Charming need to be reinvented? The answer is, he already had been. Disney’s “Prince Charming” was the reinvention, for the Princes of the original stories were anything but. Snow White’s Prince forced her mother to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance at his wedding to her stepdaughter until she died (if Snow White objected to this barbarity, no record of it survives). Sleeping Beauty’s rescuer eventually led her to live with his mother-in-law, who tried to eat her own grandchildren.

Even with Disney’s conventions, it was inevitable that “Prince Charming” would be undermined the instant he became an actual character in the story, rather than a deus ex machina swooping in at the end.

Prince Hans was not the first not-particularly-noble Prince to occupy that role: the sometimes amphibian Prince Naveen was a womanizing layabout, the genie-enabled “Prince” Ali was a imposter and a thief, and “Flynn Rider”/Eugene Fitzhubert of “Tangled” a professional criminal. Every single one of them had a discernible personality. It is a fairly stock “charming rogue” personality, but even that is more than the prototype Prince Charming for whom Nickolas yearns.

 The Princes acquiring a (shared, transplantable) personality is a mere side-effect of a happier event, namely the Princesses in question developing characteristics and agency of their own. Again, can you imagine the Disney versions of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty having a conversation? 

“You like animals? I like animals too! What about housework – do you do that? Me too! My hobby is being verbally and physically abused – what about yours?”

Belle: “I like to read!”

[Awkward silence]

“And sing!”

[Dainty cheers!]

That started to change with the Little Mermaid. Mind you, her hobby was, if I recall correctly, plundering undersea graves for their riches, but it’s a start. Modern audiences can no longer accept the notion that girls should marry the first person to wake them up, and so Princesses are given time to actually get to know their Prince, and become agents in their own stories.   And the more the Princesses became real people, the more their love interests needed to be real people as well.

So, hardworking underprivileged Tiana gets the lazy scion of royalty Naveen, cloistered innocent Rapunzel gets the hardscrabble man-of-the-world Flynn and Princess Anna – denied the natural bonds of family and starved for human affection of any kind – gets the cynic Hans, for whom family was a real obstacle and affection a tool for his own ends.

In that sense, Hans’ villainy was required for the story: he was the ying to Anna’s yang. In other ways, his role in actually advancing the plot –menacing Elsa, betraying Anna ­– could have been filled by any generic baddy. His relationship with Anna was superficial, and thus so was the betrayal that Nickolas decries. This was by design, because the movie was ultimately about the relationship between the two sisters.

It is that relationship – and not Hans’ knavery – that is Frozen’s true innovation, overturning not only Disney’s own established tropes, but also those of the fairy tales the Mouse Kingdom mangled to do so. And it is here that Nickolas’s contention that there is a “Prince Charming” fantasy object for girls goes from being wrong, to being wrong-headed.

The primary purpose of the folk tales passed down from European peasants to their children, collected by the Brothers Grimm or imagined by Hans Christian Anderson, was to provide instruction to children both about the evils of the world, and about their duties to the world. The original tales were as brutal as the times out of which they were born – thus, in some Italian versions of Sleeping Beauty she was raped into consciousness.

But the point of almost all of the “Princess” stories was to prepare young women to leave their families. And to do so they had to a) be prepared to accept that “fate” would provide them with a husband they would love (as they rarely had any choice of their own in the matter) and that b) they needed to cast aside their own families for their “happily ever after.”

Parents, and their step-proxies, are uniformly absent, evil, or useless in both the Disney movies, and the stories on which they are based. Mothers (edited into step-mothers to make the stories more digestible for the parents reading them) are depicted as particularly malign. Fathers are usually ineffectual against their daughters’ abusers or conveniently dead.

This carries on a long tradition of societal misogyny in which independent women – the Maleficients of the world - were suspicious at best, but it helped solidify patriarchal culture in another way. They sent the message that it was wrong for daughters to trust their mothers if they were to become mothers themselves. Submit to your husbands ladies, and don’t listen to the older woman who has already made her way in life, might have your better interests at heart, and might  effectively subvert your man’s authority over you. Mothers-in-law are threats to the sovereignty of a husband over his wife – thus why they remain a bogeyman in popular culture today.

To reach their destiny, in other words, women have to walk away from their natural inheritances and turn their backs on their natural affections. Nickolas’s counter example of boys’ equivalent fantasy objects, comic books heroes, makes the contrast even more explicit. Spiderman needs to avenge his failure for his father figure (Uncle Ben), Bruce Wayne is avenging his father and striving to match his contributions to Gotham, Superman is driven by his father’s words and wisdom, Tony Stark the scion of the Stark dynasty, Luke Skywalker hero worships his conception of Annikin, and his reconciliation with Vader saves the galaxy. It is in embracing their inheritance, and accepting their power, that men become their true selves in these stories.

Not so for girls. Removed of the distracting gore of the source material, Disney’s movies make this subtext of fairy tales fairly explicit. After Snow White’s Evil Stepmother dies by misadventure in the movie, Snow White logically became the de facto Queen. Yet she walks away from her throne (or rather, is carried), to become the consort of prince she just met in a country whose name she is not even told. Sleeping Beauty was betrothed at birth – it was happenstance that she was rescued by the Prince she had to marry anyway.

This isn’t just a technical point: to achieve their “destiny” in Disney movies, the women not only need to abandon their legal and familial inheritances, but also their essential selves. Rapunzel had her healing power taken away from her by her “prince” in order to be saved, Ariel gave up her kingdom, her friends, and her very body to hook her two-legged Kingfish.
Now THERE's a romance.

Getting back to Nickolas’s article, let us be clear: “Prince Charming” is a Disney invention, not a timeless fantasy of little girls. And it is absolutely ridiculous to assert that girls want “Prince Charming” over nuanced storytelling in an article predicated on Frozen breaking box-office records. Prince Charming is a trope invented by Disney that is sending a very specific message, and the particulars of the “Prince” had been undermined even by Disney long before Frozen.

Despite that undermining, the underlying message that “your man is your destiny” had remained constant throughout every Disney princess movie until this year’s offering. Even here, men folk are not being hard done by: Anna and Elsa’s father is portrayed as good-hearted if wrong-headed. Anna gets an actual love interest, one who was prepared to risk death to try and save her. While no expert in such matters, he was equally handsome, by cartoon standards, as Prince Hans, and at least as brave. Princess Anna – and by extension, the little girls for whom she was an avatar – was not denied her rescuing hero. So, if Anna and all the little girls bobbing along in her spunky wake were not denied a “Prince” at least as princely as Aladin’s Ali or Rapunzel’s Flynn, to what was Nickolas objecting?

Anna and Elsa were the first Disney Princesses to have any important siblings at all (Merida, having been conceived by Pixar before being bought out by Disney is not canonical) and the only ones with sisters. Again, Brave aside, they are the only Princesses that had any real family by the end (Rapunzel’s parents were aspirational objects, not people: they didn’t even have lines in the movie).
In short, Anna and Elsa saved each other: they gave up nothing – not their inheritance, not their family, not their true selves and not Elsa’s magic powers. The faceless interchangeable Prince Charmings were a Disney invention, the Princes of Grimm Brothers are artifacts of a culture based on the subjugation of women. Neither are in any way “fantasy” objects demanded by little girls – they were stories we made up in order to scare and control them.

For centuries, little girls have been told to fear their own strength, to fear the stranger, to fear the woods and even other women. In Frozen Elsa could not be controlled and, with her sister, conquered the fear that caused her such pain. In doing so, they upended centuries of lies, and struck a blow against a much greater evil than Prince Hans.