Tongue in cheek, a few of my friends will wonder aloud how I can be so very obsessed with Disney if I’m a feminist. Wink, nudge.
Though these jokes are, well, jokes, they hint at common cultural understandings of Disney’s relationship to women and feminism. Comments that I’ve heard imply that being a feminist can, somehow, be quantitatively determined by one’s hobbies and likes and, once graphed on some X-Y axis or other, that feminism is negatively correlated with an appreciation for Disney movies. Similarly, some Disney princesses are seen as more or less feminist by virtue of their hobbies. Merida from Brave is a feminist because she doesn’t care for marriage and likes archery, but Ariel, from The Little Mermaid, isn’t a feminist icon because, well, she obsesses/lusts/romances over a prince and surrenders her voice in an attempt to win him over. However, this reading of Ariel is too easy, too clear, an analysis that lacks the messiness that comes hand-in-hand with desire and obsession.
Strangely, however, instead of rigorous feminists accusing Disney of this mish-mash of oppression, the protests against Disney show up on my Facebook feed from casual allies, non-feminist men, brogressives, and teenagers engaged in various sub-cultures. Protesting Disney is no longer the foray of feminists who, in any case, have been long-time fans of complicating narratives, a tradition in which I am happily cemented. Just as male comic book nerds protest the antiquated gender roles in Twilight, so too have these groups accused Disney of not following some make-believe feminist handbook. I’m left hearing sarcastic comments or well-meaning comments, both annoying, that caricaturize the meaning of strength and reconstitute feminism as a rigid set of rules instead of an analytical category with emancipatory possibilities. What of Virigina Woolf, who declared that “a feminist is any woman who is honest about her life?”
I’m not interested in rescuing Disney from its errors—of which there are many—but I am interested in complicating dominant narratives surrounding Disney heroines and how our very rejection of romance, a rejection based on a belief that Strong Women just don’t do this and that and they especially don’t obsess over boys, is a form of reifying traditional gender norms. Not only does rejecting infatuation create social problems (goodbye, teenage girls, your problems matter no more), but the existence of uncontroversial female characters who don’t make mistakes, experiment with love, and aren’t obnoxiously demanding risks veering into Mary Sue territory. In Frozen, Disney avoids controversy by constructing a plot where good people react to situations beyond their control. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is an active participant in her own plot; she makes mistakes that she then tries to fix, or makes decisions that the audience finds disagreeable but that she defiantly claims for herself. In fact, Ariel’s entire character is marked by defiance and resistance, making her a more compelling but polarizing character.
I enjoyed Frozen, as I was instructed to enjoy the film—I couldn’t help but feel like the film was green-lit with the approval of a focus group consisting entirely of my clones. But as I watched the film, I shifted uneasily in my seat because, though Disney had created a story focusing on sisterly love instead of the usual male-female romance, the plot was underdeveloped because the main character, Anna, was written as a parent-approved role model. The desire to avoid the criticisms that have usually stalked Disney princesses suffocated Frozen like a pageant parent who scrubs her child clean and only allows her to perform in ways approved by the judge. The result is a delightful movie, a movie that we expect. But is creating a clean-cut and uncontroversial character a sign of progress?
Disney’s Frozen was a film that was self-aware of its legacy, as illustrated by the song “Love is an Open Door,” where Anna falls in love and becomes engaged to Prince Hans in the course of a 3 minute song-montage on the night of her sister’s coronation. Like many contemporary young adult films and books, an inevitable love triangle occurs once Anna leaves the castle in search for her sister and befriends Kristoff. He asks her, in absolute disbelief, how she could become engaged after knowing someone for one day. (And he also insists that all men pick their noses and eat their boogers, a statement which I refuse to empirically verify.) Anna retorts that it’s true love, duh. Disney engages in some fun inter-textual analysis where it pokes at its own films. Historically, their films have featured heroines that have hopscotched into a life of happily-ever-after once the obligatory two-second kiss has been bestowed by a prince whose name the audience doesn’t even know.
Instead of focusing on the love triangle, however, Frozen is a story about sisterly love, though still featuring the theme of sacrifice commonly found within Disney. Its strength lies in its characters grappling with notions of responsibility and learning what love truly means. However, despite its excellent passing of the Bechdel test, Frozen has a number of problems with plot. Here I grated my teeth. Because I was supposed to fall in love with Frozen and I kind of did—finally, a Disney film that could meet my feminist credentials. Except, as a wannabe storyteller, I could see the problems caused by trying to keep Anna controversy-free and within the box of “appropriate role model.”
Frozen’s plot seems to advance through convenience instead of character agency. Ariel must choose between her obsession and her family, a decision which infuriates casual Disney watchers—how could she choose a boy over her family? How could she give up her voice for a man? But Anna isn’t required to make this decision. Instead of Anna rejecting Hans, admitting that she may have made a mistake, Hans is conveniently revealed to be a Bad Guy who used Anna as a way of becoming king. This plot-twist is also familiar, though Disney seems to have gender-bent the trope. Margaret Atwood once remarked that Victorian love-triangles often featured ailing wives dying conveniently so that the path would be made clear for the heroine and the dark, brooding hero to get married without facing the prospect of actually divorcing, a decision which would remove sympathy from the male lead. Anna’s good-heartedness is solidified when she is omitted from having to make this difficult decision; if Hans had been good and she had broken off the engagement then she becomes too complex, too authoritative, too unsympathetic.
In a sense, Frozen features characters that are the victim of circumstance rather than their own choices, a writing mechanism which shields them from the controversies that have plagued other princesses who have made questionable decisions. Anna discovers the true nature of love by saving her sister, a type of selfless love that is above criticism but a role that girls and women have traditionally been expected to fulfill anyway. Anna’s life is never seriously in danger, of course, (and not because Disney is the creator—the studio has made a number of darker films) and so the question of her sacrifice, plot-wise, is compromised. Discovering the meaning of selfless love is an important part of human development, but a theme that would have been sharply criticized had Anna sacrificed herself for Kristoff instead of Elsa—a claim that I cannot prove empirically, but which I feel confident in asserting upon observing how we treat teenage girls trying to understand their sexuality –poorly. Despite Anna being distinctively cute, Frozen is relatively free of sexual desire minus short bursts of puppy love and infatuation with Hans, which are shown to be a Big Mistake when Hans reveals his duplicitous nature. In the end, Anna faces a choice; be rescued by true love’s kiss (from Kristoff) or sacrifice herself to save Elsa. She chooses the latter.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is an undeniably darker story, though the original story by Hans Christian Anderson is even more bleak. Whereas Anna and Kristoff share a bumbling and endearing kiss at the end of the film, Ariel spends much of The Little Mermaid lusting after Prince Eric’s body. She wants to be human, wants their legs, to know what it feels like to walk. Eric is a prince, but he’s also a body that is imbued with symbolism—he’s not only Eric, but a representation of everything she wants. She gushes over him, and once she saves Eric from the peril of the sea and returns him to land, pauses to admire him, leaving no question that her crush is based on sexual desire. It’s this sexual desire that makes Ariel a controversial character.
Though Ariel is often condemned for leaving her family for “a boy,” she is, to me, a more interesting character because she made a difficult decision with moral consequences that cannot be waved away with a magic wand. It is precisely Ariel’s aggression, stubbornness, and ability to carve out her own plot by making questionable decisions that leaves a lasting impact. The permanence of her decision makes Ariel’s sacrifice more impactful than Anna’s sacrifice, the latter whose decision we know will have no lasting consequence because love will act as a magical healer and “save the day.” Ariel’s decision to marry Eric, however, isn’t heroic—heroism is selfless, and her desire to marry Eric is tainted by the fact that she’s doing something for herself. In the real world, she might be called selfish or a bitch.
She crushes hard on a human prince, has a hoardish obsession with collecting human artifacts, and eventually exchanges her voice for a pair of human legs so she can pursue Prince Eric and, if he falls in love with her in the requisite time period, will remain human forever. These human legs come at the cost of engaging with Urusula the Sea-Witch—but only after her father, King Triton, discovers her cave of human objects and destroys all that she loves, objects which are the source of her knowledge and curiosity. This tough-love disciplinary approach is for her own good—an argument as novel as the Old Testament when Adam and Eve were tossed out of the Garden because Eve just had to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Ariel becomes Eve, obsessing over artifacts that promise to unfold secrets but with the potential to unbridle her sexuality. Eventually, her decision to give up her voice for a pair of legs is shown to be a mistake, because post-1990 Disney films always comes with the “be yourself” moral message. However, the film is perfectly clear that her father was also mistaken to control her. Some audiences remember the former message, but not the latter.
I am still surprised when people condemn Ariel, especially when her father is the one who believes that her desire for human knowledge is a source of harm and whose destruction of her possessions drives her into the arms of Ursula the Sea Witch, a character who functions as some kind of fat woman quasi-capitalist obsessed with creating unfair contracts in hopes of usurping the monarchy and the “rightful” king—she’s worthy of admiration, really. Ariel is the prototypical Bad Woman, removed from the roster of Acceptable Feminist Heroines (by those who parody feminism?) because she has sacrificed her family for self-fulfillment. We’re condemning Ariel for her disobedience.
In the end, her father realizes that it’s unfair to prevent Ariel from being happy and, with his magical trident, grants her legs. The reconciliation between Ariel and her family mirrors the ending of Bend it Like Beckham, but the latter is situated as a British “girl power” movie because the main character wants to play soccer, a goal that is valued more than romance in the hierarchy of fictitious Approved Feminist Activities. (And because the main character of Bend it Like Beckham is brown, and we’re more comfortable seeing brown daughters rebel against their fathers because our own orientalist inclinations lead us to view their family structures as innately oppressive—but girls rebelling against white men? Well, that just won’t do.)
My conclusion is fairly trite and I don’t mind admitting it; imperfect characters make for compelling stories. Restraining ourselves and making characters that shy away from controversy can actually reaffirm the gendered expectations that we’re trying to avoid. Often, what we do not question, such as selfless love for family, is steeped in normativity. Allow teenage girls the agency and the opportunity to make mistakes, to lust. Stories can do many things, and at the very least we should, on occasion, be challenged. Stories also deserve our criticism, of course, but they deserve levelled, thoughtful, and nuanced criticism that does not unintentionally reproduce a hierarchy of values that only congratulates selflessness and condemns self-fulfillment.