Thursday, March 20, 2014

The third thing (Frozen, continued)

Sometimes when I make a passing comment about how a certain tangent is best left for another post, it's just a figure of speech. But when I invoked that scenario in regards to Disney's Frozen the other week, I totally meant it. So here's where I dig deeper into the avalanche of emotions the flick set off in me. Which is not to say that this is completely separate from any consideration of my children (today is Thursday, after all) but rather that rather than trying to guess how they are perceiving the movie as its ostensible target audience, I'm now trying to sort through how I perceive the movie, as a parent.

It's a well-worn trope that Disney heroes and heroines have to be at least partial orphans, and Frozen checks that box as well, although it puts a slightly different twist on it. There are no wicked step-mothers or step-fathers here, nor corrupt guardians, nor material deprivation. For a time Elsa and Anna are raised by their parents in what seems to be a fairly happy home, then the parents die, and then Elsa and Anna just basically carry on. They still get to live in a castle with servants, and Elsa is still in line to receive her rightful coronation as queen when she reaches the proper age. The fate of the king and queen is sad, but not life-wrecking. The subversion is that all the life-wrecking happens while the parents are still alive, and is in fact perpetrated by the parents themselves.

Parents give their children two things, as the old saying goes: roots and wings. Really we should extend that list to three things, and to the aforementioned I'd add "crippling insecurities". And (my perpetual risk of projecting too much notwithstanding) I'd say Frozen agrees with me on that. The most generous interpretation you could possibly give to the thought process of the king and queen would be something along these lines: their first concern was to make sure Elsa did no harm, so they isolated her, and eventually they would have helped her learn how to control her powers so that she could live a normal life without risking harm, but they died before they could get to that part of the plan, so Elsa was permanently isolated. And as I say, that's the best case scenario. Worst case, they always intended to imprison her forever, in which case their untimely deaths was really one of the best outcomes Elsa could have hoped for.

You may or may not have heard some mutterings and squawkings around teh interwebs about how Frozen is all about promoting the "gay agenda". (There really aren't enough scare-quotes in the world for that stupid phrase, but for brevity's sake, I'm referring directly to the hysterical reactionary outcry.) The one article on the subject I took the time to read was a reaction-to-the-reactions, and claimed that the original freakers-out offered little or no evidence to support their claims, as if it clearly went without saying that the film's intent was totally transparent. So cue the rampant speculation: is it because neither of the female leads is married by the end of the movie, thus undermining heteronormative values? Is it because one girl saves the other with love, which gender aside is very literally and specifically sisterly love, which is a thing that totally exists independent of sexuality? Theories abound, but here's mine: when the king and queen decide to take drastic measures for Elsa's own good, their edict is: get in the closet, and stay there. I mean, sure, the closet in this case is a well-appointed boudoir in a royal palace, so it's not the same level of child abuse as locking a kid in a dark enclosed space with the old coats and the broom, but that's beside the point.

There's also a very telling moment early on when the Troll King asks Elsa's parents about her powers, and whether she was "born with them, or cursed". Elsa's father admits she was born that way, so if there's any commentary embedded in there it's not so much to paint the king of Arendelle as an anti-gay bigot as a way of trolling (seewhatIdidthere) any anti-gay bigots in the audience with the (admittedly false) choice of seeing gayness as either something innate or some kind of punishment, taking away the "well people just choose to be that way and could just as easily choose not to be that way" option. But in any case, the fact remains that Elsa cannot help who she is, and her parents react by commanding her to deny who she is, locking her away until she can totally negate herself. And this, as they say, does not end well.

I went to visit my dad and my step-mom and my sister back in January, and they had all seen Frozen at that point. My sister (she's 15) was obsessed with the movie, of course, and specifically she was fixated on the micro-genre of videos people were posting to YouTube around that time featuring small children singing along with karaoke versions of "Let It Go." I was amused enough by both toddlers doing their best to out-belt Idina Menzel and my sister's fascination with same, despite lacking a frame of reference, and my dad felt compelled to try to give me at least a little context. He said, in effect, that "Let It Go" really was the theme song for all teenage girls, everywhere. And that assessment from him keeps coming back to me now that I've seen the movie for myself, because ... oh, man. Growing up with my father was no picnic, I've copped to that before. He has gotten better, or at least mellowed in his old age, and I do think that raising a daughter after bringing up three sons has widened and softened his perspective on certain things. But to claim that "Let It Go" is an adolescent girl anthem, full stop, and implicate that it's therefore his own daughter's theme song, that is just the saddest thing I can think of. I get that he was trying to show that he gets it, somehow, about "girl stuff", like "emotions". But I think he was off the mark, or at least I very much hope so.

It's a great song, don't get me wrong. It's a showstopper. My wife says that it gives her chills, and she hasn't even seen the movie (yet). But the lyrics are a running indictment of Elsa's parents and how they actively screwed up her life and made her miserable and that is what she needs to let go of. Right? I mean, am I crazy here, or are Elsa's parents just the worst? I'm not claiming to be the world's foremost expert on child-rearing, but I'm pretty sure that growing up is supposed to be a process of learning who you are and how you fit into the world, what your strengths are and how best to use them and what your weaknesses are and how to compensate for them; parenting is simply assisting with that process, creating a safe space in which it's possible at a minimum, making it easier or closer to painless wherever you can as a bonus. All of that learning and knowing falls under the heading of acceptance, the opposite of which is rejection. I watched Frozen and I saw parents rejecting their child and brainwashing her into rejecting herself, denying her love and giving her nothing but fear which she internalized until she snapped. I had an interesting conversation with the little guy after the movie about whether or not Elsa was the "bad guy" of the story, and I was pleased that he didn't think she was, as he had basically picked up on the fact that she was scared of hurting people and made a series of bad choices out of good intentions. I did not follow this up with any more questions about who the villain (or villains) of the piece might be, if not Elsa, although of course in my mind it's pretty clearly her mother and father. Truly they are Disney's greatest monsters!

OK, fine, that's going a bit histrionic. Still, it was heartbreaking on some level to process Elsa's side of the story, requisite happy ending notwithstanding. Elsa gets damaged, and then she gets fixed, but as I have taken great pains to point out, her parents are the cause of the damage and not around to see the repair. Honestly, my oversimplified distillation of parenting above elides over a crucial point, which is minimizing the inadvertent harm done along the way. And of course that's the hardest part. It's so easy to look at a child and see what doesn't quite work about them and yield to the impulse to overcorrect. To a child that seems hypersensitive, we tell them to toughen up. To a child that seems hyperactive, we tell them to calm down. To a child that seems hypercurious, we tell them to mind their manners. That's the job, as defined by the social contract. I'm not saying that kids should run rampant and give vent to their ids every waking moment of the day. The tricky part is separating things out in terms of the child's sense of acceptable behavior and the child's sense of self. "What you just did was wrong" is a fine thing for a parent to teach their child; "You are a bad kid" is a lesson that's treacherously easy for a child to take away from that teaching. Shaping and molding, good; completely changing, or causing to question the validity of their identity, bad. Easy to say, but hard to live up to. At least I assume that's the reason why dwelling on Elsa's origin story makes me cringe so very much.

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