An article I read in The Atlantic sparked a lively email discussion among my ParentMap colleagues about the popular new animated Disney film Frozen. Entitled “Does Prince Charming Really Need to be Reinvented,” it delves into both sides of the argument of romantic love, Disney style. Is it a dated, unrealistic notion whose time to be debunked has come, or does the fantasy provide a way to teach girls to go for nice guys?
My colleague Natalie, who has younger daughters, was appalled by the film’s emphasis on finding a guy, instead of focusing on doing something worthwhile with one’s life. She was also bothered by the sexy dress and hairdo donned by Princess Elsa when she broke free from convention.
“I am sick of seeing privileged, swooning, love-struck, boy-crazy heroines (even though they are ‘kind’ and ‘good,’ another anti-feminist trap),” she said. “Even the icy sister wasn't a great role model, because to be herself she had to either separate herself or get her uniqueness under control (conform).”
Sigh. I was that mother once. The mother who banned Bratz dolls from the house and had a hard time coming to terms with Barbie. The mother who tried to find every opportunity to empower her daughters and let them know that they don’t need to rely on a guy for happiness. The mother who saw their future in black-and-white.
And then my daughters became teenagers.
“I could prepare a PowerPoint presentation on why Frozen is the best Disney film ever,” my nearly 15-year-old daughter M. gushed.
I am bewildered so often these days by living in a house with two teenage girls, so their preoccupation with an animated princess film and its signature song, “Let It Go,” seemed amusing but inconsequential in the grand scheme of life with teenagers.
But after that email exchange, I decided to see for myself what this film is really about. Accompanied by M., her friend H., and H.’s mother C., we went to the movies to see what may be the last Disney movie I will ever watch in a theater (sniff).
C., who works in an elementary school, told me that at recess, girls had been acting out the film. Reminiscent of Twilight, they decided whether they were “Team Anna” or “Team Elsa.”
“I’m definitely Team Anna,” H. admitted, explaining that she identified with Anna’s awkwardness. She didn’t say so, but I’ve known H. since she was in kindergarten, and I am aware that, though the awkwardness will fade, the pluck and bravery that Anna demonstrates have always been part of H.’s DNA.
M. is Team Elsa. She keeps her cards close to her chest and is uncomfortable expressing emotion.
Yet, she is a teenage girl. Emotion rules.
Let it go
For teens, and for parents, even those who remember their teen years with clarity, the emotional intensity can be shocking.
Every time Elsa expresses strong emotion, her hands unleash a power that is frightening to her and to those around her. So she keeps her individuality concealed by gloves.
Ever seen a gaggle of teenage girls?
With their uniformly straight hair, Uggs and skinny jeans, they look like a flock of birds getting ready to fly.
First, they’ll fly in close formation. But eventually, you hope they will rise and fall, based on their individual needs. And maybe they’ll take the time to look around and see things for themselves.
Just as they always have, teens seem most comfortable experiencing emotion through music, and these days, also via the Internet. If you're a teen, it's easy to rally in support of a collective cause or express collective happiness or sorrow.
But expressing individual emotion is scary.
Conformity and acceptance are the hallmarks of teen existence and, some experts say, a necessary stage before they are ready to fly on their own.
The challenge, as Elsa discovered, is to learn to control your emotions, but not too much.
I feel pretty
“I can understand why Anna wanted to find a guy, after being locked up in the castle for all those years,” M. said.
Teens are emerging from their cocoons. And eventually, most of them, straight or gay, somewhere in between or still figuring things out, yearn for a love connection.
We saw Frozen shortly before the Winter Ball at M.’s high school. The weeks before the ball were fraught with awkwardness and anxiety, the nervous phone calls between boy and girl, the weeks of speculation and discussion over who would be going with whom. Timeless, first formal dance stuff.
Then came the dress.
For M., the dress was a talisman against the rush of emotion she felt. She chose it, not because it was what everyone else would be wearing, but because it was the dress she wanted to wear. During the nerve-wracking weeks leading up to the dance, there was always the exciting prospect of wearing the dress.
And, on the night of the dance, I looked at M. and her friends, each beautiful in her own way, and saw that they were well on their way to letting their individuality emerge. Later, M. described what others, OK girls, had been wearing, and I was pleased by the fearless, free-form expression.
How to dress has been a question that has plagued feminists since the beginning of the movement, and though I think some strides have been made (goodbye shoulder pads and power suits), I think we still have a way to go. When was the last time you heard a guy criticized for dressing too sexy?
For many women, part of being female is enjoying dressing up. During my early career days, in a conservative work environment, I remember raising eyebrows when, first, I chose to wear pants to work (yes, really) and later, when I started wearing brightly colored power suits (they still had shoulder pads).
The few women who had shattered the glass ceiling where I worked dressed in drab, non-threatening garb. Only two or three dressed like French women. People talked.
Do nice guys finish first or last?
“What’s with the relationship between Anna and the Prince?” I asked M. “There was no inkling that he would be a jerk.”
“Oh, that was like an Internet relationship,” she said casually (while I nervously wondered how she knew). “Guys will troll you on the Internet and tell you how gorgeous and wonderful you are, even though they don’t know you.”
OK. I will choose to believe that my daughter knows the difference between false flattery and true regard. I will choose to believe that she will never allow herself to be misled by the former. I will choose to believe she would never chat with a boy she doesn't know on the Internet.
The guys in Frozen represent what a wise, non-threatening gay male confidante of mine (yes, Olaf the snowman is the wise, non-threatening gay male confidante) referred to as “violas and saxophones.”
“Violas are steady. They’ll never let you down, but they are kind of boring. Saxophones are sexy and exciting. But you should never trust a saxophone. Saxophones will break your heart.”
Teenage girls are trying to distinguish between violas and saxophones and their own tangled-up feelings over which they prefer. Taciturn teenage guys don’t make it any easier, though recently I have been heartened by reports of emotionally supportive guys and guys who allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable.
I hope M. and her peers will learn that in truth, there are more options than these musical extremes.
I married a cello, or maybe he’s a bassoon, but not until I was nearly 35 and had established myself in a career first. Hey Disney, how about continuing the story and showing that love is not a zero-sum game?
The most poignant part of the movie for me, but an aspect of it that my daughter, who calls herself a “budding feminist,” can only begin to appreciate, is that Elsa ends up alone.
As a career woman who wanted to get married and raise a family and who quit not one, but two careers for the people I love, I like to think that this was the manifestation of the sentiment expressed in the film by Olaf, the supportive snowman: “Some people are worth melting for.”
But let’s get real, it’s a lot more than that.
Do you think it’s an accident that Princess Anna gets the guy, but Elsa becomes queen and stays single? Admonishments to “lean in” notwithstanding, it’s hard to run a country and raise a family, even with help.
It shouldn't still be this hard. Where are the meaningful legislation and meaningful workplace practices that allow both men and women to lean in and lean out?
Will M.’s generation be the one that finally solves the dilemma of finding work-family-life balance once and for all?
In the end, Frozen wasn’t the best Disney movie I’ve ever seen, though I’d be hard-pressed to say which is.
The Winter Ball is over now, and M. returned to her jeans and Uggs.
I’d like to think that her one night of breaking out of the mold, of putting herself out there, along with everybody else, reveling in her beauty and even giving in to emotion, will be liberating. I'd like to think that she and her peers, female and male, will take what they saw in each other that night and realize that people are multifaceted.
And I’d like to think that one day Disney will create a movie in which the parents aren’t killed off and the heroines get to experience the full expression of what it means to be female over a lifetime, in all its confusion and glory.