I get a lot of questions about my scholarship, most of which hinge around the basic query “So..what exactly do you do?”
My academic answer to that is “I study children’s literature from a gender and sexuality perspective with a concentration in theatrical performance; that is, I use my studies to consider the intersection of gender and sexual expression in texts geared toward children while using the constructs of dramatic tradition.”
My shorter answer to that is “I get paid to read books and watch movies and beat them to death with critical analysis about gender until I sometimes can’t enjoy them anymore.”
I like to read very deeply into things. Probably too deeply into things. It can sometimes get in the way of my overall enjoyment of something. There have been plenty of times in which I’ve watched a movie and come away from it with a small complaint about how the gender roles were treated that can threaten my enjoyment of the entire film. Usually I can keep it under wraps until I can find a good outlet to discuss it, but sometimes it just can’t wait. It drives the boyfriend bananas, because he’s one of those people who can just watch a film, decide if he liked or disliked it, and then that’s the end of that. I find this skill downright magical, although it’s caused some headaches at times because he just wants to watch a damn movie and enjoy it for what it is, meanwhile I’m practically writing a conference paper in my head about it by the time we’ve gotten back in the car.
I have taught on the animated films of Disney in the past, and I plan to teach it again this semester. I find the entire paradox of my enjoyment in Disney films fascinating. On one hand, the single-minded portrayal of all women becoming or being born ‘princesses’ and that the heroines are always princess with the exception of Lilo (who is what, like, twelve?) is kind of gross, and the story usually ends with a wedding after a very brief courtship, and usually it’s a “love at first sight” kind of thing, and the prince or male hero is usually duller than a box of hair (Prince Eric, Aladdin, John Smith, I COULD GO ON, THEY ARE ALL BORING), and the evil villain is usually a stepmother, or alternate female figure, and usually she’s insanely beautiful in an ice-cold way, or she’s a giant behemoth with enormous boobs.
Do not get me wrong – I am completely obsessed with Disney movies from a genuine place in my heart. It’s just that as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to see all of the messed-up things that Disney movies teach girls: value is only imparted if you are a Princess, beautiful with a superbly thin waist with a rope of hair the size of most people’s upper torsos, and the end of the movie (or life) is the saying of marriage vows to a person you probably met like a day before. It’s not that great for boys either – heroics and bulging pecs are the way to happiness (like, all of them) or you have to be a seriously complicated dude with rage issues that can only be fixed with lurve (looking at you, Beast).
This tradition of two-dimensional animated characters – two dimensional in more ways than one – was something that increasingly bothered me about Disney movies in general. I was pleasantly surprised at the giddy vulnerability in Tangled, but I thought they could have done more with the character of Mother Gothel. There was still a cardboard sensibility to the females in the script, and I hoped they would continue to work on this aspect of the tale. (Although how great was it that the girl did all of the saving?!)
When I heard about the newest installment in the Disney Princesses canon, Frozen, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”, I assumed Disney would be making a LOT of changes to the plot. After all, this is a story about a woman who kidnaps children by putting enchanted ice splinters in their eyes and hearts. So I was all prepared for the Disneyfication Effect: you know, the same one that made it possible for the Little Mermaid to not die at the end of the story in a weird religious allegory about animals having to ‘earn’ their immortal souls.
A ton of my friends saw it around Christmas, loved it and begged me to go see it as soon as possible. Then I read some critical articles that argued the merits of Frozen being a ‘queer fairy tale,’ and immediately made plans to see it at the earliest time possible.
Which explains why yesterday, at 3:10 PM, I was in a nearly empty theatre, ready to watch a Disney movie by myself. While wearing sweatpants, because only girls can wear sweatpants to a movie theater and not look like perverts.
I cannot even begin to describe to you the emotions I felt watching this film. It was as if Disney and the directors took all of things I loathe about traditional Disney Princess movies, jettisoned them, and replaced them with narratives that are downright inspiring to young girls, and even girls who aren’t so young like myself. In order to get my thoughts a bit more linear, I’ve compiled them into list form. And most of these things revolve around Elsa, because ELSA IS AMAZING.
1. It’s a love story about two sisters. “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” made me cry like a total loser in the first five minutes of Frozen. Elsa’s powers aren’t really explained although the Stone Trolls ask if it is something she was ‘cursed with’ or ‘born with’ and they definitively say she was ‘born with it’ (and I could read that in queer theory about six thousand ways to Sunday but I’ll spare you) and the entire reason they keep her from using her powers is because she doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and because she once nearly killed her sister and has to keep it on the DL. Those little moments prior to that injury, when the girls are swinging themselves around the great castle hall in the magic snow, just gave me so many flashbacks to playing with my sister during snow days and it made me cry even more. THEN they had to kill the damn parents! The moment the film cuts to Elsa sitting next to the door while her room fills with snow – I was blubbering like a damn baby. Not to mention the fact that the ‘curse’ of the movie’s plot could only be solved by True Love, and the True Love ends up being the love Anna and Elsa have for each other, and the big declaration of Disneyfied love is just two sisters being like “I love you! I miss you!” AHHHH IT’S SO GOOD.
2. “Disney marriage plots” are dismissed as the utter bullshit they are. Frozen not only questions the concept of heteronormative ‘true love’ being the only thing in existence that matters to a young girl, it totally parodies it. When Anna and Prince Hans get engaged (after knowing each other for a total of 3 hours) and ask Elsa for their blessing, Elsa’s response is like:
Meanwhile Anna thinks this is all totally reasonable and the two get into a bitchfight that seems so utterly real to my own experiences with an older sister. And then of course Anna does end up with a dude at the end but it’s not the entire plot at all and it doesn’t culminate in marriage – it culminates in Kristoff nervously asking Anna if he can kiss her and she just plants one on him while he stammers. I gotta admit though, “Love is an Open Door” was an adorable song and the bit “We finish each other’s -” “Sandwiches!” made me laugh a LOT because it’s an inside joke.
3. Prince Charming can sometimes be anything but. I sort of learned this lesson already in The Princess Bride, but when the twist happens and Prince Hans reveals his true colors, I legit felt my heart sink down in my feet. Because what girl hasn’t had that happen to them? Who hasn’t thought they had met THE ONE and then suddenly, through means varied and complex, found out that they were putting on their best face for the cameras and were really vindictive, vicious assholes? When Prince Hans said to Anna “If only someone loved you” it immediately sent me back to the sixth grade dance when I saw the guy I had a crush on dancing with someone else. Unlike The Atlantic which argued that this moment in Frozen is bad for little girls because kids want to see people getting married – um, no? – I think this is an amazingly teachable moment. It shows that you have to get to know someone before you commit to them. It shows that face value sometimes isn’t all there is. And it shows that sometimes hot guys are assholes.
4. Olaf. Olaf was damn adorable. Not going to lie. Plus, they really made it feel like he loved Anna and wanted to help her out and I thought that was really nice. And Kristoff seriously struggling with telling Olaf that heat will make him melt was kind of fantastic.
I have many, many things to say about Elsa. Anna was a wonderful leading character, and Kristen Bell’s voice is absolutely gorgeous, but don’t get it twisted – this was Elsa’s movie. I’ve already discussed a little bit of the other reasons why Elsa is so wonderfully amazing (her total shade-throwing at Hans and Anna, for one). I think what makes Elsa such a fascinating character is that she isn’t a technical villain, nor is she a hero. She’s just a human being who had something awful happen to her when she was a child and is deeply scarred by the experience and doesn’t want to hurt anyone else again, least of all her sister whom she loves more than anything but can’t show it.
I think, however, if I want to isolate my commentary to one moment/scene that defines why I absolutely love this entire movie, it would be this.
Other than the fact that Idina Menzel could sing the phone book and I’d be on board, where do I begin with this flawlessness? Elsa not bemoaning her powers or thinking they are a curse to hide, but actually flipping the switch and deciding to be her true self? The transformation of Elsa from a stiff, fearful block of ice into a RuPaul-esque snow goddess, hip-snapping realness and all? It’s a surprisingly sexual scene, especially when she rips her bun out and when she gets into that glittery dress; she is shaking her hips like there’s a damn drumbeat underneath her feet. The entire song builds like an orgasm. Yes, I said it and I’m not taking it back. Elsa is literally letting her hair down, finding her voice, and relishing her power. It isn’t a curse in this moment; it’s a damn blessing. Although it is kind of weird that the song lyrics go “that perfect girl is gone” and then the camera pans up and Elsa is like the literal image of icy perfection. But what can you do.
The metaphorical power of this scene is not to be denied – it can be read as an allegory of kids who are prescribed as ‘different’ being able to show what they’re capable of. Additionally, Elsa doesn’t have to give up her powers at the end of the film; she just figures out how to use it in a way that’s the most beneficial to herself and others. Let me clarify that point: Elsa didn’t have to give up the thing that makes her special. Not even as part of a plot device. Even Ariel had to give up her voice for a dude! Elsa don’t give up SHIT for NOBODY.
|WHIP YO’ HAIR, ELSA.
I could literally write a thousand pages about this one scene, but I will just say this – I think Elsa is one of the most complicated and fascinating characters Disney has ever committed to celluloid. Her big number isn’t about love, or metaphorical dreams that aren’t really attached to anything solid. She wants to be herself, and she’s finally getting the chance to express her emotions. And she doesn’t end the movie with a man or anything, she ends it with a better understanding of herself.
And now I’m going to stop, because I’m threatening to overload this post with too many feelings. I’ll wrap it up with saying: Even if you don’t like Disney movies, do yourself a solid and see Frozen. It’ll be worth your while.
“Some people are worth melting for.”
PS. Also, playing in front of Frozen was the preview for Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent which looks magnificent.