Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Frozen Has No Feminist Implications, but Its Main Characters Still Deserve a Little Compassion

I liked Frozen. I even somehow, inexplicably, related to Frozen. When I saw it, months after everyone else did, I cried through half of it. I don't have a good grasp on why. Presumably there are reasons for this, reasons I should probably address on my own. For now, I can only say that I was sad for Anna, and sadder for Elsa.

When I read this article, I hadn't seen the movie yet, so I didn't have an opinion on whether or not it deserved all the accolades it was receiving. It is, however, my instinct to defend such critiques against those who complain "WHY do we have to analyze everything? You put this much thought into a children's movie?"

Two reasons. First, analyzing films and conducting studies on various trends provides us with valuable information.  As parents, we actually care what kind of messages are being crammed into our children's heads. Does one film matter? Not really. But the accumulative messages conveyed by all the media our kids will consume over the course of their lives does.

Secondly, some of us just enjoy analysis. It's fun for us. It takes almost no effort at all. If you don't fall into that camp, don't bother. Problem solved. Go find your own fun.

However, even I, who positively loves to pick apart every detail of any kind of narrative, felt Dani Coleman was laying it on a little thick with The Problem With False Feminism. After I saw the movie and read it again, I felt that way even more. I found myself having thoughts I usually can't stand to hear expressed, such as "It's just a movie. You're taking this a little seriously."

Even so, I was disagreeing with some of her points with equal fervor, and taking it just as seriously as Coleman did. Because that's how I roll, and that's apparently how she rolls, too. We have that in common. As a matter of fact, I agree with her assertion that the praise Frozen has received is over the top. It's not revolutionary or especially progressive. It's certainly not subversive. There is one slight deviation from the typical fairly tale, a two-second long interaction toward the very end. As touching as it is, if you blink, you'll miss it. Frozen is no radical feminist manifesto. However, it isn't anti-feminist or falsely feminist, either. It's neutral.

It's not the movie I want to defend, though. It's the characters. Dani Coleman's criticisms of Anna and Elsa are mighty unforgiving. Coleman has set a standard so impossible and unreasonable no one could ever live up to it, and then gotten angry with the two lead characters for failing to do so. So harsh is her article that I felt the need to leap to Anna and Elsa's defense, even though they don't really exist. Are they good role models? We don't have enough information to say. While Coleman charges that they're emotionally crippled, morally bankrupt, socially inept, unintelligent and have poor judgement, we can only judge them based on their handling of a situation so dire and unheard of there is no blueprint for handling it well.

Now, these characters are poorly developed. Not because it's a bad movie, but because it's strongly plot-driven. We know very little about Anna's or Elsa's personality, because we rarely see them outside of a crisis situation, and that mostly happens during a montage designed to give us a sense of what their childhood was like. Anna pines away for Elsa on one side of the door, while Elsa stands on the other, unable to explain why she can't open up. It's as hard for Elsa as it is for Anna. So painful she grows to resent Anna for making her do it, over and over.

So many of Coleman's assertions are based on information we don't have. But that won't stop me from doing a character analysis, because after the beating they took from Dani Coleman, Anna and Elsa deserve a little compassion.

What we do know is this. These two sisters are the victims of either terrible parenting, evil trolls, or both, and all of their actions can be easily understood when we keep this in mind. "Personal responsibility!" you protest. "People need to stop blaming their parents for everything. Stop whining and take charge of your own life. Blah, blah, blah, soundbite, soundbite, soundbite." Let's get one thing straight. People have good reasons for being who they are. Not excuses, reasons. I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it again and again, as long as there are people in the world who don't get it.

Elsa and Anna in particular have lived in isolation in a castle for all of most of their lives. They do not have other influences or role models. They have zero life experience and they don't know anybody. Coleman, however, seems to feel that having problems that are a totally expected response to your life experience means you're a traitor to all womankind.

Anticipating this argument, Coleman claims Anna has only been isolated for three years, from the time of her parents' deaths to the time of Elsa's coronation.

But think about it logically. After the ice incident as children, Elsa may be isolated — both by her parents and by her own fear — but there’s no reason for the King and Queen to isolate Anna too.

Never mind that an extended period of isolation is well known to be psychologically devastating, and three years is inarguably an extended period. If we're going to think about things logically, you know what people can't do? Create snowstorms, or cast icicles with their fingers. Frozen relies heavily on its artistic license. If we're going to think about it logically but in context, if Anna wasn't forced into isolation when her parents were alive, why on earth would she be after they died? She's obviously not one to withdraw when times are hard. There is no reason for Anna's parents to have isolated her, it is not compatible with their royal duties, and yet it is strongly implied that they did. Why? Because the entire plot depends on Anna being desperately lonely. Period. Evidence for this appears in both Anna's initial "I wish" song, which is not "For the First Time in Forever", but "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" She says she's so desperate for company that "I've started talking to the pictures on the walls." Later, when her parents leave for their fatal voyage, Anna reacts as if they are her only company. Because they are.

Coleman compares Anna unfavorably to Rapunzel, Jasmine and Aurora, which is not only an emotionally unevolved way of looking at things (people are different - deal with it), but doesn't take into consideration that Rapunzel is impossibly well-adjusted, we have no reason to believe Jasmine's isolation differed from anyone else of her station, and Aurora grew up in an unconventional but very loving situation. She was the darling of not one, but three fairy godmothers who adored her.

The family in Frozen are a the very model of a secretive, dysfunctional family. This may be the parents' fault, but it's also entirely possible that they, too, are the victims of a band of trolls who have hatched a long-range plan to take down the royal family. In which case, heaven help Anna when her relationship with Kristoff unfolds. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. If Kristoff does turn out to be bad news, should Anna be further maligned, or should she be offered the same compassion we would (hopefully) offer anyone who has suffered two abusive relationships in a row? I would suggest the latter.

The trolls' intentions do seem suspect. What's with erasing Anna's memory of Elsa's magic, but preserving her memory of how much fun they used to have? How could this possibly be in anyone's best interest? It guarantees Anna will know she's been abruptly abandoned, but have no way to process it, thus internalizing Elsa's rejection. If I'm to give the troll the benefit of the doubt, I'd say the intent was to halt the danger but preserve the relationship, one more thing king and queen royally screwed up.

Ultimately, both sisters seem to have significant attachment issues. Elsa is overly suspicious, while Anna is overly trusting, seeking connection anywhere she can find it. Because really, what's the difference? She has no way of understanding appropriate boundaries. The only difference between a complete stranger and an immediate family member is that a complete stranger hasn't betrayed her yet.

Furthermore, the troll who revived Anna implies that Elsa's power/affliction is unusual, but not unheard of. So why didn't he offer Elsa and her parents any kind of guidance? Either he did and the king and queen were too proud to accept, or he could have, but didn't. Once again, if Elsa and Anna's parents weren't being grossly negligent, or the trolls are out to get them all. Why were their parents so negligent, aside from the fact that it was necessary to move the plot along? The same reason any parents neglect their children. Sometimes out of indifference, but more often because they do not have the internal and/or external resources they need to properly meet their children's needs. In this case, Elsa's parents were at a loss for what to do with their ice-princess daughter, and even if they were offered help, they didn't feel they could accept it.

Coleman accuses Anna of being unintelligent, and Elsa of "cripplingly self-repression". Of course, she's right about Elsa's repression, and in her sole moment of generosity, she acknowledges it isn't Elsa's fault. One wonders why she has decreed that this one road block out of so many isn't entirely a self-created character flaw, but it doesn't matter. Even with her small nod to the possibility one of Elsa's problems is a logical response to her situation, Coleman's doesn't lay off the harsh judgement. Not even a little bit.

We have no way of knowing if Anna is intelligent. Coleman feels she's a bad role model because she leaves the house without a coat. We know she displays exceedingly poor judgement during the roughly 24 hour period in question, but does that necessarily mean she's stupid? How on earth would she know how to handle anything at all? No, she is not remarkably resourceful, but how could she be? Necessity is the mother of invention. Having all of her material needs more than taken care of, Anna has, up until the day she is called upon to embark on her hero's journey, never had the opportunity or the need to be Rosie the Riveter. Although her emotional needs are as neglected as her physical needs are provided for, Anna is unprepared for the challenge that is suddenly thrust upon her. You would be, too. Her impulsiveness could be an understandable product of her situation, age and personality. Everything but leaving Hans, a man she'd met a few hours ago, in charge of the kingdom in her absence, is forgivable. That was bad. But again, Anna has attachment issues. She truly doesn't know any better.

Anna is rude to Kristoff. True. Conversely, Kristoff is rude to Anna. This is because they're coming from the same place; both terribly under-socialized. Assuming he's presenting himself honestly, in Kristoff, Anna has found the soul mate she thought she had in Hans. He's someone who instinctively understands where she's coming from, because his past isn't so different from her own.

Most outrageously, Coleman accuses Elsa of having antisocial personality disorder. In laymen's terms, she's calling her a sociopath, and it's absolute nonsense. Yes, she causes great destruction, but she is responding to a threat like a cornered animal every time. She's unaware of some of the harm she has caused, but feels terrible about anything she knows about. We're not just talking guilt here, but deep deep-seeded shame. Saying she takes no responsibility for her "actions" is laughable. What exactly does Coleman propose she do? Elsa doesn't know how to control her powers, and has even less an idea of how to undo what she's done. If she had caught an infectious disease and set off an epidemic, would we call her a sociopath? Would she be refusing to take responsibility for her actions if she didn't somehow magically cure everyone who caught it? 

Part of the problem seems to be that, after fleeing the kingdom, Elsa allows herself a brief period of happiness for the first time since she was maybe six years old. Yep, that is one evil Snow Queen. 

Avoidant? Well, yeah. First of all, Elsa rightfully believes she will only make things worse for everyone by staying. Secondly, she probably would have been burned as a witch if she hadn't run. It's hard to fault her for not staying to face the music under those circumstances.

The bottom line is, having problems doesn't make one a feminist nightmare of a poor role model. Battle scars aren't evidence of weakness. If a girl sees the film and looks up to either sister, it will be for qualities she has projected onto her, because we never get a real sense of who Anna and Elsa are. A child's takeaway is confidence, forgiveness, and the idea that true love's kiss need not be romantic. You'd best think twice before you hand your life over to some perfect-seeming prince charming. If it seems too good to be true, it is. This is something responsible parents tell their children, which may explain why Anna didn't know. And of course, we make sure children understand that none of this adds up to a hill of beans if you aren't drop dead gorgeous, because as far as almost all media is concerned, that's just true.

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