Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Frozen vs Little Mermaid: Two Anthems, Two Generations. I want vs I am.

How is a daddy supposed to deal with Disney?

My daughter, who is not quite 5, sings "Let it Go" at me approximately eight thousand times a day. What she lacks in intonation she more than makes up with the verve and gusto with which she goes after the song, not to mention the slamming of the door, the stomping of the feet, and the high volume.

I have vivid memories of a cousin of mine, who I shall not name, singing "Part of your World" with equal gusto in the early 90s. I can remember her singing, "Bet'cha on land! They understand! Maybe they don't reprimand their daughters," in front of her father. Oh, the pathos and power of it all.

The placement of these songs in the narrative structure of the movie differs. They both involve transformation, but Ariel's renders her mute (so the lobster gets to do the good singing) capable of only, as Ursula the sea witch says, "body language." Mermaid parents - teach your daughters to write and use sign language, ok! It's followed by the fairly awesome "Under the Sea," then reprised, before Daddy comes in and wrecks the place. "Let it Go," on the other hand, is after the big transformation.We already know what Elsa can do, but it's when she takes something she had perceived as horrible and turns it around.

They are, though, the signature songs with a female solo vocalist, defining their characters, and influencing a generation of Disney-loving girls, including (sigh) my daughter.

Disney isn't the worst, I guess, but princess culture is so powerful and generally so awful. Beauty and the Beast is basically a story of violent partner abuse in which Belle excuses her abuse as he has "just a short temper." Merida (Brave) kind of rocked, but of course Disney immediately tried to shift her from unkempt archer badass to heavily made-up hour-glass figure ballgown wearer. Little Mermaid, for that matter, is about a girl with a crush so bad that she radically disfigures her body in order to get her man. But Frozen, well ... On the 47th viewing, this week, I'm beginning to think it's not so bad. Maybe Stockholm syndrome (which likely doesn't actually exist) is to blame, but let's look at these songs.

"Part of Your World" (click for the YouTube) finds Ariel in her cave of "land stuff." She sings about her belongings - "Wouldn't you say I'm the girl, the girl who has everything?" Then she says no, "I want more," it's not enough! The animation has her sighing, swooning, eyes lifting towards the surface.
Flippin' your fins, you don't get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
Strolling along down a - what's that word again? Street
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin' free - wish I could be
Part of that world
What would I give if I could live out of these waters?
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?
Bet'cha on land they understand
Bet they don't reprimand their daughters
Bright young women sick of swimmin'
Ready to stand
She wants to go somewhere else. She asks, "When's it my turn?" This is a song about I WANT.

I've always seen Ariel as the quintessential spoiled princess. She has everything. Her daddy sometimes is a little mean to her, but that's no reason to endanger the whole mermaid population (and her father) by signing herself away to the sea witch. Ariel is given good advice by Sebastian (I think that's his name), her lobster friend, but ignores it. [Update - I haven't watched this movie in a long time. Seanan McGuire notes that he destroyed all her personal possessions and points his trident at her. Triton is ALSO an abusive father]


Elsa, on the other hand, hasn't been a pampered princess below the sea, whining about her lack of the hot boy. She's been locked away, orphaned, abused, repressing her emotions. She's been given bad advice - conceal, don't feel, hide your identity. It's not necessarily her parents' fault that she was given the bad advice, but it's still bad (especially because it turns out that feeling MORE - feeling love - is the secret to controlling her powers). In many ways, both of these girls are abuse victims and there's a painful dysfunctional sadness to much of the first third of the movie.

Still, Elsa begins with a complaint too at the beginning of her big number:
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know
That complaint about "be the good girl" could take it off into a teenage-rebellion kind of mood, but it doesn't stay in that space, but abruptly shifts (the music carries it too. I'm a musician but I lack the technical vocabulary to describe the key changes, the modal transitions, etc. Just trust me, they are relevant):
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Still a little teenage rebellion. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Punk will never die!
Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand
And here I'll stay
Let the storm rage on
Later, she notes, "That perfect girl is gone." She's finding her powers, and sure, it all goes terribly awry, plunging the land in endless winter, nearly kills her sister and hands over her kingdom to a manipulating evil prince - but at least she's embracing her power and her identity, and damn the consequences. Although the consequences catch her later. And it's fine if she wants to do it all in a super sparkly dress. This song is "I am," not "I want."

I find it reassuring that this song about embracing one's true self, no matter how weird or seemingly monstrous, is the big hit from Frozen. My daughter wants to be Elsa, not Anna. Anna has songs before "Let it Go," and in another movie the charming, "Love is an open door" might have carried, or the classic "I want" song, "For the first time in forever" might have picked up the attention. But that's not the story of this movie. It helps that Anna's sweet love duet turns out to be with the Machiavellian would-be-murderer Hans. Hard to romanticize that relationship. The YouTube video above has been viewed 176 million times.

In many ways, Anna represents the new princess model better than Elsa. She's plucky, determined, gets seriously abused in body and mind, but recovers through the power of love (from her sister) and the actions of a cute but imperfect boy (rather than Prince not-so-Charming). Sometimes when my daughter comes home and tells me about playing Frozen during recess, she say that she was Anna. She lifts her hand in the air so that she can freeze Hans' sword. Not usually, though. Usually, she's been Elsa, letting it go, using her ice powers for awesomeness.

I like the idea of a generation of girls punching their fist in the air and shouting, "The perfect girl is gone!" over rolling their eyes and sighing, "Maybe they don't reprimand their daughters" or "I want more." And if the message of Frozen is more complex, and perhaps more troubling, than the song - the song is living a life of its own divorced from context, much as "Part of Your World" did.

On the whole, I can accept this as an almost five-year-old's power anthem. I'm sure Disney will find a way to screw it up, but for now ... Let it go! Let it GOOOOOO. Here's my daughter just hanging out, singing, and making it most of the way through the song before she runs out of steam. It may not be polished or perfect, but it's real.




3 comments:

emobullshittery said...

Oh, that's a cute video :) (particular gusto for "I DON'T CARE" - you're going to be in for some trouble when she gets into her teenage years :p)

I have fond memories of going to see Disney movies in the cinema with my dad. I would watch the film, he would pointedly fall asleep. I doubt he could get away with that now in the days of stereo surround sound. One of those was The Little Mermaid, but my memories are very foggy - I don't think I related to Ariel, or her story made much of an impression on me. It was more like "oh, lots of fish, singing lobsters, yay".

(Lady and the Tramp though? My parents informed me that, to their embarrassment, as an infant I stood up in the cinema shouting "Look out!" when one of the dogs was about to be run over by a train).

Reading the lyrics from Ariel you posted, I kind of see it as wanting what you don't have. It actually reminds me a bit of the Jungle Book "I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you do, you see it's true, an ape like me, can learn to be, human too". Ariel seems to elevate and romanticise the idea of being human somewhat.

I haven't watched Frozen, but I did see Brave - and really, really wanted to like it but was a bit disappointed...

Dealing with Disney though, introducing her to alternative takes on things might be good. I think Ponyo is an excellent companion/response to The Little Mermaid, for example. Other Ghibli films are also wonderful and very invested in showing strong girl leads (My Neighbour Totoro and the Secret World of Arrietty are also lovely).

David Perry said...

I love Miyazaki. She's ready for Totoro. I havne't seen Ponyo but should.

Most of the animal Disneys are ok, I think. I haven't thought through all of them.

emobullshittery said...

I've hesitated in suggesting Ponyo is age appropriate, because that's down to you to judge, but it's definitely the 'youngest' Ghibli film I've seen in terms of demographic (which I don't think means dumbed down - just aimed more at younger kids).

It does very much seem like it's responding to the Little Mermaid, in that Ponyo is a fish who decides to become a human child (against her father's wishes). It's a very different take, though, in that it's ultimately more about the genuine friendship between fish-girl and human-boy. It still has Miyazaki's central concerns about self-determination in female heroines and environmental issues - just the pace is far less calm and measured than his other films. It's fun though.