Danger, Will Robinson! Frozen spoilers ahead.
Slate takes heat for its contrarian editorial model — and embraces it, via the #slatepitches hashtag — but Amanda Marcotte’s counter-contrarian piece on Disney’s Frozen hits the bullseye.
In “Frozen Teaches Girls the Dangers of a Whirlwind Romance,” Marcotte responds to an essay in The Atlantic by Gina Dalfonzo, titled “Frozen‘s Cynical Twist on Prince Charming.”(I know that makes this a response to a response, but I’ll keep it short.) Dalfonzo’s concern is that the movie’s major twist — that the charming prince Hans is actually a manipulative villain — is likely to shock and disturb young viewers. “That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child,” she writes, “and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members.”
Maybe, maybe not; I’d say Toy Story 3‘s near-Holocaust is a little “more surefire,” but that’s splitting individually rendered hairs. (If you want disturbing, try Tangled, which is a textbook portrayal of an abusive parent.) While I wasn’t emotionally invested enough to be unsettled, Frozen‘s twist took me entirely by surprise, and I pride myself on being marginally more movie-savvy than the average seven-year-old. So let’s stipulate that children will be surprised as well, and that if they’ve seen enough prince/princess romances to know the template, they’ll be taken aback by the departure from it.
As a parent, I find it hard to imagine showing my four-year-old daughter Bambi, and I cringe at the emotional abusiveness of Rudolph’s father in the Rankin-Bass cartoon. But let’s be honest: As a child who spends much of each day with fellow four- and five-year-olds, she’s already been exposed to cruelty and deception. But should entertainment provide a safe space where that never happens? Dalfonzo thinks so.
In real life, of course, there are tragic situations in which a child’s trust is misplaced, and that child has to be protected from those who were supposed to take care of him or her. But isn’t that all the more reason for stories to function as a safe place, where children can find role models and people to trust? As C.S. Lewis put it in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” (Lewis, it’s worth pointing out, was arguing against those who took the position that fairy tales are too frightening for children. Were he alive today, though, the existence of Frozen suggests that he might find himself arguing against those who wanted to make them overly frightening.)
Considering that Lewis was writing in a time when the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were common currency — just try “The Red Shoes” on one of today’s easily scarred tots — I don’t think Frozen would faze him unduly. For me it’s axiomatic that children are savvier than we given them credit for, and our culture’s investment in their supposed innocence says much more about the adults were are than the children we were. (Two-year-olds can be adorable, but they’re also sociopaths.) As Marcotte points out, Frozen is the latest step in Disney’s open wrangling with the happily-ever-after framework it’s done so much to promote. Like Brave, the first Pixar movie initiated since its merger with Disney, Frozen is a princess story that’s not quite a princess story, disorganized in ways both frustrating and productive. It’s about the princess! No, wait, it’s about her sister! Hey, look at this cute snowman!
There’s so much hand-wringing in the media as of late about the supposedly bad romantic decisions of young women, but what goes undiscussed is how we blanket little girls in fairy tales and other stories that cheer-lead the whirlwind romance. Then we get angry at young women — or liberals — because women so often have to go through a series of charming users before they learn how to date more effectively. Seems like the writers of Frozen are doing their part to correct that problem. Parents might not enjoy having to mop up the tears right now, but the long-term lesson to girls to proceed with caution is one they should be thanking Disney for.
Like any parent, I want to protect my child. But part of protecting her is preparing her for the fact that the world is not always a nice place.