Wednesday, 1 January 2014

When is a pixie not a pixie?

This post is about the Disney film Frozen. YOU MUST SEE THIS FILM. You must see it. This post will assume you have seen it, so DO NOT READ until you’ve seen it. Go! See! Now!

Ah, what can I say about Frozen? Its virtues are as uncountable as the stars. It’s got all the good points you’d expect from a modern animated feature - breathtaking visual splendour, supreme attention to detail, perfect timing - as well as the best of this genre’s screenwriting talents: good pacing, a compelling narrative, spot-on dialogue (including great comedy), rounded characters with personal journeys that play off each other. Also, and this is no small matter, it has an awesome and actually quite novel use of superpowers. Oh yeah, and the music is joyous beyond all reason.
And there's a frost giant! What more could you want?

But most of all, the reason why I wholeheartedly embrace the Frozen cult, why the whole thing makes my heart thrum with delight, is its treatment of women.

But how can you say this, I hear you cry, when the film is set in a fairytale medieval kingdom with useless princesses, where men have most of the positions of power, and the characters are all more or less gender normative?!

Hear me out while I explain why I think Frozen is the most gender-revolutionary film to have ever come out of Hollywood, or the most revolutionary film with a talking snowman at least. Yes, Frozen doesn’t do much to challenge gender stereotypes. Rather, what makes it special, I will argue, is that it completely overturns how such stereotypes are capable of being used as actors in a mainstream motion picture.

The Sexy Villainess

I have heard it said that one of the potentially troubling ways in which Frozen conforms to conventional gender narratives is that when Elsa first unleashes her ice powers, she simultaneously transforms her appearance, suddenly taking down her hair, developing new curves and acquiring a suggestive new cut for her dress.

This plays to an old and ugly trope of women only ever being openly sexy, or embracing their sexuality in any way, when they are also evil. This trope in turn plays to the even older and uglier archetypal dichotomy of the Madonna and the whore. So much of Western fiction, including Hollywood, has deployed this horrible vision of all women as either chaste and virtuous, or depraved and sexual.

But Elsa utterly and exuberantly overturns all this in the course of her magnificent solo “Let It Go”. The song is clear beyond the slightest doubt: she is not turning evil. Rather, she is embracing her own power, and staking a claim for her own freedom. It’s a song about about doing as one choses, free from the demands of a judgemental society. Elsa’s unleashing of her powers is a metaphor for becoming a fully-fledged actor, in the true sense of the word. This is a theme throughout the film and it’s at the crux of why I find it all so exciting and revolutionary.

Yes, the new dress reveals a shapely leg, but this is the same leg that with a single stomp is capable of raising up an entire castle. Her ice powers are linked to her sexiness not because they are both bad things, but because they are both glorious and awesome to behold. And because they are both things that she is now free to enjoy fully as a responsible adult, an actor in control of her own body and her own actions - all on the very day that she has come of age.

I first saw Frozen with my ten-year-old sister. She absolutely loved it, and the bit she liked most was “Let It Go”. All through Christmas, she’s been strutting around the house doing the sexy-empowered walk and miming Elsa’s ice powers. I couldn’t be more thrilled. My older sisters never got such awesome role models. 

My sister should aspire to nothing less than magical superpowers.

The Love Thing

For all her sexuality, Elsa doesn’t get a love story. This is another clear statement that embracing sexiness doesn’t mean you have to find a guy if you don’t want.

Instead, it is the other sister-protagonist, down-to-earth Anna, who gets the romantic subplot. This is another complaint I’ve heard made against the gender roles in Frozen. At the start of the film, Princess Anna, alone in the big empty castle, dreams of finding a man to love. How predictable.

But again, Frozen’s treatment of romance is a lot more nuanced than you might expect. First of all, the song in which Anna mentions she wouldn’t mind finding a boyfriend is the “First Time in Forever”. The first part of the song has Anna singing about how she can’t wait to meet other people for a change:

Don't know if I'm elated or gassy
But I'm somewhere in that zone
Cause for the first time in forever
I won't be alone

Then she has a brief bit about how as well as meeting new people, she might meet “the one”. Then the song switches to Elsa, who sings about how she has to stay strong and “don’t let them in”:

Conceal, don't feel, put on a show
Make one wrong move and everyone will know

Then they duet, with the same lines:

It's only for today
It's agony to wait

Where Anna is looking forward to it, and Elsa is dreading it. In short, the song is fairly straightforward character development, highlighting the very different kinds of people the two sisters have become. Anna’s thoughts about “the one” should be taken in this context - she’s open to meeting people and sharing her life with them, while her sister is not.

When the guests arrive, of course, she does meet Prince Hans and enjoys a whirlwind romance. But this is again a set-up - transparently so, as the rest of the film’s events unfold. The love scene, where Anna and Hans have so much in common and are supposedly made for each other, is clearly a parody. With its “Can I say something crazy”s and its “Jinx”s, it’s openly making fun of how silly this popular notion of easy, unrealistic love is, just as much as XKCD #807.

Later, when Hans is revealed as the villain and the extent of how facile their love really was becomes clear to Anna, there’s an incredibly poignant moment where she sits miserably quivering with cold by the fire and says “I don’t even know what love is”. But the film does in fact have a whole song about what love is - the very intelligent yet comic “Fixer Upper”. Among the lyrics of this fun number is the elegant insight:

We’re not sayin' you can change him,
‘Cause people don’t really change.
We’re only saying that love's a force
That's powerful and strange.
...True love brings out their best!
...We need each other to raise
Us up and round us out.
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper...

These thoughts underly the all the changing relationships between the various characters in Frozen. The result is that the film presents a thoughtful, uplifting and kind vision of what genuine love is. Again, it entirely overturns the tropes we’re so used to seeing in these kinds of stories. And the message we’re left with is delightfully progressive: there’s nothing wrong with being a little bit romantic, but you should try to come to a fuller understanding of the complexities of love and of human interaction in general.

Manics Are People Too

Another complaint I’ve heard, and something which originally bothered me but which I have learned to embrace, is that Anna exhibits a lot of the features of a certain kind of romantic heroine - at least at the start of the film. She thinks of herself as dorky. She’s carefree and clumsy. She doesn’t know how beautiful she really is. She talks a lot about how she likes chocolate. She’s girly but has a tomboyish side. She’s whimsical, excitable, has big dreams, is in love with life and moves around everywhere really fast.

There’s no two ways of saying it: Anna is a manic pixie.

In the standard post-Whedon model of thinking about gender in mainstream movies, manic pixies are the Enemy. The are the antithesis of the Strong Female Character. We hates them, we does, my precious.

Who are you calling manic?

But a lot of pixie anger is misplaced. People often - understandably - get annoyed by their sheer annoyingness. No one likes a good looking person who pretends not to be good looking. And we instinctively distrust those who seem to be too perfect. And with good reason - manics have often been used by boring screenwriters as the dream girl for their male protagonist, basically just an object to be admired, with no real agency. They aren’t afforded basic character rights such as development over time (other than to reveal a tragic side which they already had). And they certainly don’t make any decisions or take any actions which meaningfully impact the course of the story.

But what if a manic pixie wasn’t written in such a lazy fashion? Despite all the aggravating outward appearances, Anna is not abandoned in the traditional manic pixie fashion. Indeed, she becomes the central protagonist of the film. Never does she rely on men to move the story forward for her. At every stage, she makes her own choices. It’s her story, she owns it, and at the end of the day it’s not at all difficult for even the most hardened pixie-hater to get behind her. Plus, she talks to Joan of Arc, so...kudos.

There are only two female characters in the film, but they get all the action. Everything hinges on them, their choices, and importantly, on their relationship. In this respect, Frozen brings to full fruition a trend that’s been slowly growing in Disney films over the last seven decades. Disney started with princesses with no agency whatsoever. Snow White has things done to her, never doing anything herself. The true love has to come and kiss her prostrate body to allow her to even live.

Later, in the 90s revival, princesses got a slightly greater share of the action. At the end of Beauty and the Beast, my personal favourite, it’s Belle’s love that saves the prostrate Beast. But Belle spends most of the final act locked up or weeping uselessly, and many of the film’s key decisions are not made by her. Later still, the likes of Pocahontas and Mulan brought the strong female character to Disney. But these films still depend on plots largely dictated by men, with the romantic element remaining central. 2010’s Tangled takes another step on the path, with the strong, pixie-esque Rapunzel taking the initiative to embark on her own journey of self-realisation. But after the realisation is achieved (the lantern scene), there’s a whole other weird section of the film where she gets kidnapped twice, is locked up at the first sign of defiance, tries to help but is stopped by a man who cuts her hair - her defining feature and a symbol of her sense of self - without asking her. The ending undermines her agency. And the only other female character in the film is a sexy villainess. So...yeah I was disappointed by Tangled because in many respects it has all the makings of a stellar film.

Frozen transcends all this and completes the journey properly this time, with female characters who are true actors. This is nowhere more apparent than the spectacular climax itself. Anna, on the point of death, is waiting for true love’s kiss to save her (although even at this stage she’s still trying her best to get to him on her own steam). Elsa is on her knees weeping into her hands, with another man approaching her to put her to death. The tropes are set up on their pedestals - the powerful sexy sorceress always has to die, the manic pixie needs a man’s love to happen to her.

At this point the sledgehammer comes down and smashes both tropes to smithereens in the most satisfying fashion. Anna leaves Kristoff in the dust and goes to Elsa’s rescue herself. She blasts Hans away, and is left frozen in a moment of pure action. Her own act of love and self-sacrifice saves them both.

The most obvious inversion here for audiences, I expect, is that a man’s love for a woman (true love’s kiss) has been turned around to become the sisterly love of two woman - a powerful epiphany in the character arcs of both women. But the greater inversion for me is that of action - instead of the lover saving the cursed victim, the cursed victim saves herself on her own.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

A few months ago, I wrote about a great article in the New Statesmen that powerfully demonstrates how ostensibly strong female characters are not good enough. One of its best points is that when men want to be strong, they can do so in many varied, interesting, complex different ways. When women are strong it typically just means they know kung-fu and are angry a lot of the time.

Frozen has shown Hollywood how female protagonists can be done right. Anna and Elsa are not Mulan with her sword, or Merida from Brave with her bow. They don’t know any martial arts. They don’t talk mean. They don’t take on traditionally male roles. Yet they are perhaps the strongest female characters Disney has ever created. And everyone loves them for it - remember, Frozen is Disney’s best performing feature since The Lion King. If we needed any confirmation that women can be gender normative and still marvellously strong, this is it. In fact their normativeness arguably makes their strength all the more thrilling.
It's not exactly ice powers though, is it?

But most of all, they’re complex. They’re more deeply and interestingly developed than many many male protagonists in Hollywood, and certainly much more so than the other male characters in the film. I particularly like Elsa’s story in this regard. She starts the film already troubled and multi-faceted. A sense of daughterly duty and respect for her parents clearly motivates her to stay disciplined and keep to the conceal-don’t-feel regime, despite how much she desperately misses Anna’s company. The coronation sequence is a masterclass in portraying the build up of these competing motivations, until they explode in a wall of ice-shards. Her self-banishment leads to the first major development in her story - the “Let It Go” song - where she finally lets all her pent up anxiety out, frees herself from her lifelong prison and embraces her empowered inner self.

This alone is more than most female characters can hope to achieve, but for Elsa it’s just the beginning. The “Let It Go” epiphany is only the first stage in her journey. The song, for all its glory, is also an acceptance of isolation. The ice castle makes it very clear that despite her empowerment, Elsa has merely imprisoned herself in a different form. And, rejecting those who try to help her, she soon winds up in a literal prison. It is here, and on the ice-sheet blizzard, that she realises the futility of such a shallow form of empowerment, and it is Anna’s love that teaches her a much more genuine form of self-realisation, one that embraces others. When Elsa says “of course! Love!” and then turns winter back into summer, it is ostensibly the height of Disnified cliche silliness, but audiences don’t react to it that way. Rather, for the audience, it feels natural, cathartic and uplifting - and this is entirely because it represents the final stage of Elsa’s difficult and complex character journey, where she finally heals the fractures inside her, completely masters her powers, and becomes a better person. She has thawed her frozen heart - and then you realise this was the theme from the very beginning, starting with the tone-setting opening song, “Frozen Heart”.

For a Disney princess to receive such treatment is nothing short of a revolution.

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