A Letter to Santa
This Christmas, what I’d like for Christmas is equality. I’d like some cultural icons that I and my daughter can look up to. I’d like a world where she can grow up safe, strong and not inhibited by the constant pressure of everyday sexism.
I must have been a little bit good this year, because Santa has been kind. Hollywood has spat out not just one but two films with decent heroines. I’m not just feeling festive. I’m feeling hopeful.
I’m not going to talk about the OMG-I-Love-it-So-Much Catching Fire. I’m going to talk about my six year old’s choice – Frozen.
As countless internet memes eloquently express, Disney Princesses have a lot to answer for – generally encouraging passivity, beauty over brains and the idea that most things in life can be solved by a bit of lip action with a wealthy and powerful man. I’m not including all Disney heroines in this. There is, after all, the most excellent Mulan. But generally speaking, I’d say this Buzzfeed post has the right of it:
For those that aren’t familiar with it, Frozen is Disney’s latest princess movie, an animated adventure loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s the Snow Queen. Elsa, the eldest child of the King and Queen was born with an ancient power – she can create, transform and manipulate ice. After an accident in which she harms her sunny little sister Anna, Elsa parents are determined to help her bind her powers and hide their daughter’s power from the world.
The consequence of this is that Elsa becomes terrified of her own powers and determined to protect others from them. She isolates herself, shuts out her sister and tries desperately to control herself, her emotions her power. This is where the film’s title comes into it’s own. Elsa becomes emotionally frozen, her potential stunted.
In an empty castle, denied companionship, Anna’s strength of personality, her persuasiveness, creativity and warmth are denied too. And when their parents are unexpectedly killed, the daughters they leave behind – despite their best intentions – have been warped by their actions. Elsa is fearful, controlling and brittle. Anna is lonely and vulnerable to emotional manipulation. It’s an unexpectedly realistic scenario – their parents’ over protectiveness is the very thing that leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the challenges they face.
There is a prince in this film. And there’s a humble man love interest too. But neither of these plot elements are paramount. The real story here is all about Elsa and Anna. Their story. Their empowerment.
For me, the most powerful moment in the film is when Elsa, having lost control of her powers, flees to the mountains. There, in the isolation of the peaks she sings Let it Go – a song about unbinding her powers and becoming the person she has been terrified to be.
Of course, that isn’t enough. Elsa might have realised the creative potential of her power but she is still frightened of herself. She drives Anna away – injuring her again in the process – and refuses to believe she can right the wrongs she has done to her people. She doesn’t believe she is fit to rule.
Weirdly, at the point in the movie, I was reminded of two things:
1. Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In
2. The ‘monsterisation’ of female power in Ancient Greek myth
Sandberg describes being a natural organiser and leader – a little girl who liked to take charge of her siblings. Despite an incredibly successful career as COO of Facebook, appreciating this ‘unfeminine’ trait in her younger self is still a struggle, “there is still some part of me that feels it was unseemly for a little girl to be thought of as so… domineering.” As Sandberg explores, powerful women are considered unlikeable.
Moreover,we take failure hard. Sandberg tells us that women take failure much harder than men – and that has the potential to stunt us. “The internalisation of failure and the insecurity it breeds hurt future performance, so this pattern has serious long-term consequences.”
What Elsa is experiencing when she has that early set back is what many, many women experience – we are taught to dislike our own power and those of our sisters and we hammer ourselves when things go wrong.
Fear of female power has very deep roots in our culture and psyche. In Graeco-Roman myth many, many monsters are female (think Medusa the Gorgon, Echidna, Scylla, Charybdis), and powerful women (think Clytemnestra, Medea, Circe) are viewed as highly dangerous. With the honourable exception of Medea, nearly always these females meet the same fate – death or defeat at the hands of a male hero who takes their power from them.
One theory is that this mythic pattern remembers an older matriarchal power structure being over thrown and sublimated by patriarchal rule. A key aspect is the monstrousness of the female, either in form or behaviour. Unless you are a goddess, powerful women are bad news.
In Frozen this is played out in full. Not only do the (male) guests view the manifestation of Elsa’s ice power as monstrous – she believes it of herself too. And in believing it, she becomes a monster – creating terrible creatures out of ice and snow and nearly killing the sister she loves.
And that’s where it starts to get interesting.
It would have been so easy for Disney to make Elsa into a baddy – a Maleficent or a wicked stepmother. It would have been so easy for them to have made the film into a classic love story, where Anna Gets Her Man and is restored by True Love’s kiss. Even in Tangled, feisty Rapunzel is dependent on Flyn Rider to save her.
Frozen turns all that on its head.
The true salvation in this film doesn’t lie in romantic love, far from it. It’s not even about the overriding importance of family love – because whilst Anna’s unflinching refusal to give up on her sister is critical, it is not the Big Thing (though many would disagree with me about that).
For me, true salvation in this film is self realisation – the moment when Elsa not only gives her powers full reign, but opens up and starts to believe in herself – becomes unfrozen. In so doing, she is able to win back her kingdom and is restored to her position as Queen. Not Queen consort. Not Queen in waiting. A fully fledged queen who owns her power and is able to use it for good – AND is loved for it.
After two millennia of stories that paint a different picture, that’s pretty subversive stuff.
Disney is the myth-maker of our times. And as all great storytellers do, Disney holds a mirror up to us.
For the first time, I like what I see.
So thanks Santa for bringing me Frozen.
And a Happy Christmas to you all.