Join 3,434 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


And now they know
May 12, 2014 12:36 AM   Subscribe

So, in writing about Elsa, from Frozen, as having an iconic value in an emerging canon of a new trans creative mythology, of course I’m not saying that’s what Disney intended. What interests me is not the official image, but how the image gets ported into a kind of dynamic sensation of sympathy within a collective group. The number of trans women who told me — “I never liked princesses, but I get Elsa.” What are we all detecting in her at such a shared resonance?
Imaging Frozen's Elsa as a trans symbol. (trans 101)
posted by MartinWisse (71 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
The comments section led me to another interesting essay along the same lines.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:07 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Interesting find, but I think the “I never liked princesses, but I get Elsa" sentiment is common to a LOT of women, trans or cisgender.That's part of the reason there are still 5 hour waits to meet Anna and Elsa in Walt Disney World and why people are buying Elsa dresses on eBay for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:53 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


I watched Frozen because previous Metafilter threads (like this one and this one) convinced me it was subversive in a really noteworthy way. I wasn't as impressed as I thought I'd be (it was kinda subversive, but not dangerously so), but Let It Go is a great anthem for any individualist movement. Without that song and that sequence, I'm not sure that you'd get the readings of Elsa being a trans symbol. This is a particularly good article on the song as a coming out anthem.

From the previous Metafilter threads, I thought that Frozen would subvert Disney's typical reliance on a good/evil dichotomy to manufacture narrative conflict. But unfortunately, there were obviously-evil villains in the movie, and whatever conflict was caused by the villagers' fear of Elsa was hardly depicted and dispensed with really quickly. (It sounds like part of the longstanding problem they had with the script was not knowing how to deal with a princess who could be read as evil. I thought the solution would be to take the notion of evil out of the movie, not make other characters the villains.) This was disappointing, because I hate the acculturation of children into thinking that the world is driven by forces of good and forces of evil. It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals. Mary Poppins is the closest that I can think of, but it's not a very plot-driven film, so the central conflict (the parents not having time for their kids) is hardly a centerpiece. Are there any movies that better fit the bill?
posted by painquale at 3:04 AM on May 12 [14 favorites]


From the Fresh Air (yes I know there is weird Terry Gross hatred on Mefi) with the songwriters, I got the impression that the entire story of the movie had been re-written repeatedly and 'Let it go' was Elsa's acceptance of becoming evil and being ok with the village being destroyed and her evilness.

FWIW, and no disrespect to the trans community, if you're watching Disney movies above the age of 7, let alone trying to flesh out meanings as they relate to your life, that seems really odd to me. These movies are made to be played nonstop by the kid crowd until the dvd is entirely covered chocolatey fingerprints until it just wont play. The wink-wink, nudge-nudge of adult jokes and voice talent only seems to make it weirder to me.
posted by efalk at 3:18 AM on May 12 [9 favorites]


The wink-wink, nudge-nudge of adult jokes and voice talent only seems to make it weirder to me.

from my personal experience, those are there to both keep me from going insane and make me willing to take the little one in the first place
posted by kokaku at 3:25 AM on May 12 [20 favorites]


It's nice if Disney moves a couple of millimetres away from recycled cliches, and I understand the wish to have popular content (even kids' stuff - especially kids' stuff?) in the 'emerging canon of a new trans creative mythology', but this does seem a little over-appreciative of really not very much.
posted by Segundus at 3:29 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I hate the acculturation of children into thinking that the world is driven by forces of good and forces of evil. It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals. Mary Poppins is the closest that I can think of, but it's not a very plot-driven film, so the central conflict (the parents not having time for their kids) is hardly a centerpiece. Are there any movies that better fit the bill?

Personally I think the problem isn't so much that good is opposed to evil, but that evil is exteriorized and anthropomorphized as a "villain". Bad shit does exist in the world, and we (people in the subject position of the protagonist, who identify as good) need to tackle it. But often what we need to fight isn't specific individual people so much as systemic issues and dispersed patterns of behaviour. Global poverty and factory farming cause much more death and suffering than Maleficent or Ursula the Sea Witch.

Bambi and Finding Nemo come close to having this sort of orientation to evil, I think. The antagonists ("Man" and the dentist/little girl) aren't so much villains as human patterns of behaviour.

There's plenty of other classic children's stories that don't really have forces of evil at all, though. Anne of Green Gables, for example.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:41 AM on May 12 [15 favorites]


Let It Go is a great anthem for any individualist movement.

Works when a kid at WDW loses a balloon.

Let it go, let it go
it is one with the wind and sky!
Let it go, let it go,
they won't ever see you cry…


Does not work when you sing it at the ballon vendors, though they will laugh.
posted by eriko at 3:50 AM on May 12 [14 favorites]


@painquale of all the things that were disappointing about Frozen, the way they shoehorned in a traditional villain was towards the top of the list. The movie would have worked just as well, if not better, without turning prince whatshisname into a card carrying villain. Hell, a message about rushing to fall in love without knowing the guy seems like a really good thing for little girls to hear. Having him and Anna try a kiss only to find that he isn't her "true love" and kissing him does nothing to fix her would have been fantastic.

Instead they turned him into a stock villain.

And yeah, the way they brushed off the true problem of the story, the fear of the other that drove Elsa out, kind of grated. If they'd made the villain fear of the other rather than an evil prince things would have been better.
posted by sotonohito at 4:03 AM on May 12 [12 favorites]


Really.
posted by cavalier at 4:05 AM on May 12


FWIW, and no disrespect to the trans community, if you're watching Disney movies above the age of 7, let alone trying to flesh out meanings as they relate to your life, that seems really odd to me.

You don't think that seeing these things below the age of 7 influences how kids flesh out things as they relate to their lives for the rest of their lives?
posted by Etrigan at 4:26 AM on May 12 [11 favorites]


Of all the things that were disappointing about Frozen, what its wild success amongst people above 7 years of age implied about that demographic's exposure to non-traditional values and storytelling was towards the top of the list to me.
posted by Quilford at 4:30 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


You don't think that seeing these things below the age of 7 influences how kids flesh out things as they relate to their lives for the rest of their lives?

No I do think that it's really awesome to expose children to ideas of acceptance, of what society might consider 'the other' in people to be ok. I just think it's really, really weird to hear grown people get excited for the next Mike Meyers/Albert Brooks/Hugh Jackman/Ellen Degreneress/McDonalds/Theme Park tie-in extravaganza. Like, it's ok to hate on Michael Bay, because obviously he's pandering to explosions and shit, but I've noticed I get more funny looks telling adults that a) I haven't seen the latest Disney or Pixar on purpose and b) I won't shell out $20 for the movie with snacks than I ever do telling them that I'd rather do just about anything else in the world.

Since these movies have lost the traditional voice talent of cartoons, and replaced them with known comedic actors the consensus seems to be that these are legitimate adult movies. Call me crazy (and many have) but I think they're poorly done tropes with 50% of the budget spent on securing voice talent to make sure the adults are clued into the celebrities, and the other half on what are really cool CGI 'animations'. Personally I'd rather watch a movie with a great story with unknown actors than blatantly obvious cash grab that are blockbuster animated movies, cause if you're kid isn't watching them, s/he's the weird one out.
posted by efalk at 4:47 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]


Well, I suppose I need to see it now so as to have an actual opinion.
posted by Samizdata at 4:49 AM on May 12


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

Hayao Miyazaki. I think almost none of his films are about good vs evil dichotomies.
posted by Omon Ra at 4:52 AM on May 12 [45 favorites]


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

Part of the reason for this is that (the vast majority) of children are not developmentally really for such stories. I teach undergraduates, and my cohort of students (17-25) are at the age where they transition through a number of learning/reasoning zones (although some do not), and "all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals" is really late in that process. You will notice very few films aimed at the 18-25 demographic meet your criteria either. Films based on them to some degree will not make sense to large parts of the target audience.

Now, there's a lot of things you can do within that framework, though. Showing villains who operate out of comprehensible ideological drives or not-necessarily-evil-in-themselves motives rather than motiveless malignancy or villains who are "defeated" by converting/challenging their priorities rather than killing or beating them up, for example. But that fairly hard good/evil dichotomy seems to have a basis in neurological and/or conceptual development. The pity is the number of 30+ year olds who still cling to it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:58 AM on May 12 [25 favorites]


Since these movies have lost the traditional voice talent of cartoons, and replaced them with known comedic actors the consensus seems to be that these are legitimate adult movies. Call me crazy (and many have) but I think they're poorly done tropes with 50% of the budget spent on securing voice talent to make sure the adults are clued into the celebrities, and the other half on what are really cool CGI 'animations'. Personally I'd rather watch a movie with a great story with unknown actors than blatantly obvious cash grab that are blockbuster animated movies, cause if you're kid isn't watching them, s/he's the weird one out.

Eh, in a lot of ways, the formula for a successful kids' movie seems to be having well-integrated material for both children and adults. I'm not sure what the balance is, but you need characters who are broad enough and plots that are simple enough so that young children don't get lost but enough for their parents (whether that is the voice actors or "bonus" jokes or character/plot elements) to be at least vaguely entertained. I do not watch a ton of kids' movies, but it seems like a tricky thing to do. Most of the Genie stuff in Disney's Aladdin, for example is "wacky" for the kids but made up of Robin Williams' already-dated celebrity impersonations for the parents. As a result, it seems still-watchable for kids but not so great for the new generation of parents who don't get the cultural references, either.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:04 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Interesting find, but I think the “I never liked princesses, but I get Elsa" sentiment is common to a LOT of women, trans or cisgender

Lots of people might empathize with Elsa because her story involves isolation and shame, but those feelings are highly relevant to trans women. The way you phrased your comment, it's like you're saying that since so many cis women like Elsa too, there's nothing worth saying about how/why trans women like her. Trans experiences aren't a subset of cis experiences.

FWIW, and no disrespect to the trans community, if you're watching Disney movies above the age of 7, let alone trying to flesh out meanings as they relate to your life, that seems really odd to me.

Trans people are especially deprived of representation in culture (and RL communities for that matter). What representation there is often negative. Not knowing what that's like may explain why it seems odd or insignificant for an adult to worry about that stuff. On preview: or it could be because you're a crank.

Personally, my favorite part of Frozen is where Anna is running around literally picturing herself in these heteronormative romantic scenarios, but instead of it being presented as a near-religious activity that will definitely lead to magic dresses and chariots, it's presented as naïve and incomplete.
posted by bleep-blop at 5:07 AM on May 12 [23 favorites]


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

I still remember the first time I figured out that antagonists didn't have to be sociopathic evil bullies, and could in fact believe themselves to be on the right side. It was Les Misérables, and I was about thirteen, and this realization blew my mind.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any children's movies that have "good guys" and "bad guys" without presenting the bad guys as unequivocally evil. A few Dr. Seuss books play around with this (The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book come to mind). I think Adventure Time does really well with presenting the Ice King as a sympathetic and ultimately pitiable - but still obviously wrong - villain.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:09 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


And, of course, none of this really challenges Aoife's thesis -- which is that the movie has a personal resonance with her and may do so for other trans women. I don't think this is any kind of definitive statement on how Frozen can/should be read; it's just one person saying that she found some kind of meaning in the film and you might find that interesting.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:10 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


Part of the reason for this is that (the vast majority) of children are not developmentally really for such stories. I teach undergraduates, and my cohort of students (17-25) are at the age where they transition through a number of learning/reasoning zones (although some do not), and "all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals" is really late in that process.

But why not think that this is because the 17-to-25-year-olds have grown up with stories that conform to traditional good-vs-evil narratives? Maybe it's not that you have to be old enough to grok nontraditional stories... you have to be young enough. I know some parents who have not let their kids watch any TV or movies except a select few. When these kids do watch movies like Metropolis, they ask questions about the characters' motivations that you wouldn't expect older students to ask. They haven't been trained to ask questions like "Which one is the good guy?", so they don't ask these questions.

It might well be that there's nothing biologically innate or natural about the good-vs-evil storyline; it's just something that almost all cultures acculturate their children to really quickly. And then later on, we have to grow out of the biases we've been indoctrinated into. This is an empirical question, but the cultural explanation for certain types of story being prominent makes a lot of intuitive sense to me.
posted by painquale at 5:16 AM on May 12 [20 favorites]


And yeah, the way they brushed off the true problem of story, the fear of the other that drove Elsa out, kind of grated.

Except it wasn't the fear of the other that drove Elsa out, it was her fear of self. Her lack of control didn't help matters, but it's not like a pitchfork mob chased her to the mountain. Part of the resonance of "Let it Go" is that it really deals with Elsa accepting herself- with an ironic twist that she's still isolating herself as much as she did in the castle.

One of the wish fulfillment elements is that fundamentally the community is willing to accept Elsa- it's outsiders who act as rabble rousers that are a complication.
posted by happyroach at 5:16 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

Hayao Miyazaki. I think almost none of his films are about good vs evil dichotomies.


The witch in Spirited Away was pretty evil-for-evil's-sake, as I recall.
posted by Etrigan at 5:17 AM on May 12


Hayao Miyazaki. I think almost none of his films are about good vs evil dichotomies.

He has some villainous over-greedy humans here and there. I don't remember a lot of moral dilemmas. I do remember lots of kids doing chores obediently, and lots of just having to hope that Nature was a little more merciful than it was mighty and terrible, whilst flying.
posted by bleep-blop at 5:19 AM on May 12


I'm cis and I still haven't seen Frozen so I'm not sure I can substantively contribute to this conversation at all, but I just wanted to mention that I saw a Elsa as Sub-Zero shirt this weekend at a party and was highly amused.
posted by kmz at 5:24 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


The witch in Tangled was far more complex than I expected. She stole Rapunzel for her own means of eternal youth and beauty, but grew to care and love for the child in a twisted way that was reciprocated by Rapunzel in genuine affection. When she died, it wasn't just an evil vanquished, but a complicated loss for Rapunzel.

Finding Nemo and Lilo and Stitch don't have obvious villains either.

Frozen has a much better soundtrack than most animated films - I've watched Tangled so many times but can't remember the theme song at all.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:32 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


I've watched Tangled so many times but can't remember the theme song at all

That's because "I've Got A Dream" is crowding it out of your head - talk about your showstoppers.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:40 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Lots of people might empathize with Elsa because her story involves isolation and shame, but those feelings are highly relevant to trans women. The way you phrased your comment, it's like you're saying that since so many cis women like Elsa too, there's nothing worth saying about how/why trans women like her. Trans experiences aren't a subset of cis experiences.

Of course they aren't, but the feelings trans people have aren't irrelevant to other human experiences, either.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:42 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


No I do think that it's really awesome to expose children to ideas of acceptance, of what society might consider 'the other' in people to be ok. I just think it's really, really weird to hear grown people get excited for the next Mike Meyers/Albert Brooks/Hugh Jackman/Ellen Degreneress/McDonalds/Theme Park tie-in extravaganza.

I think when you grow up never seeing any representation of yourself in pop culture, this isn't something that weird. I still go all Scooby/ aaahhhrooo?? /Scooby when I see something with a lesbian character on TV or in the movies and I'm gonna be 50 in a couple years. Don't underestimate the power of that need.
posted by rtha at 5:44 AM on May 12 [17 favorites]


I still remember the first time I figured out that antagonists didn't have to be sociopathic evil bullies, and could in fact believe themselves to be on the right side. It was Les Misérables, and I was about thirteen, and this realization blew my mind.

Me too. And not just that Javert believed himself to be on the right side, but that some parts of what he did were in fact on the right side.

Like, it's ok to hate on Michael Bay, because obviously he's pandering to explosions and shit, but I've noticed I get more funny looks telling adults that a) I haven't seen the latest Disney or Pixar on purpose and b) I won't shell out $20 for the movie with snacks than I ever do telling them that I'd rather do just about anything else in the world.

It's pretty recent that you don't get this response to Disney movies, too.
posted by jeather at 5:49 AM on May 12


I think when you grow up never seeing any representation of yourself in pop culture, this isn't something that weird.

There are two separate things being discussed here. One is this, the identification with a particular character or representation that you describe; the other is that a non-trivial part of the audience of children's movies (especially the slightly smarter ones, like Pixar movies) is adults who aren't going just because they are taking a kid.

I get the first one totally -- people will look for representation wherever they can find it, no matter how imperfect or flawed, and it's a signal that media producers should be hearing that wider representation is badly needed. The second makes no sense at all to me, honestly. I have no interest in going down the path of "your favorite band movie sucks," but it's hard not to when I hear people talking about these movies, especially the not-so-good ones.

Part of the reason for this is that (the vast majority) of children are not developmentally really for such stories. I teach undergraduates, and my cohort of students (17-25) are at the age where they transition through a number of learning/reasoning zones (although some do not), and "all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals" is really late in that process. You will notice very few films aimed at the 18-25 demographic meet your criteria either. Films based on them to some degree will not make sense to large parts of the target audience.

Another thing that happens more or less at that same age, from what I saw when I was in college and what I see undergraduates doing today, is an extended moment of reembracing childhood movies and stories. Maybe it's part of the brain transition you describe, or I've assumed it is a last moment of grasping at simple stories and uncomplicated pleasures while knowing that adult life is imminent.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:59 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Frozen would appear to be widely appreciated then, given the latest PhD comic.
posted by Slackermagee at 6:03 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

"Brave" is this writ large.
posted by h00py at 6:25 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]


The first thing one should when seeing something animated is to immediately assume that it is a "kids only" movie. Just because something is animated doesn't mean it isn't a wonderful film that anyone of any age can enjoy. Disney does not set out to make a movie just for kids, they set out to make a film that the entire family can appreciate and love. The fact that transwomen (among others who find themselves in an outsider role) are connecting with the film is evident that its creators succeeded in this goal.
posted by Atreides at 6:26 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


But why not think that this is because the 17-to-25-year-olds have grown up with stories that conform to traditional good-vs-evil narratives?

Because, as I understand it*, the model pretty much works across cultures. There are definitely cultural inputs (further research have shown that women express things somewhat differently (in large part) due to societal expectations, for example). The general outlines of the development patterns seem to be neurological -- young children have many stages of reasoning and moral development that at least seem unconnected to cultural input, and there is no reason to believe this development is limited only to young children.

I think the more important thing is that children need a narrative where the HERO is RIGHT and the VILLAIN is WRONG, because their developmental stage leads them to understand the world in absolutes. That doesn't say anything about why the hero is right and the villain is wrong, nor how that conflict is resolved. You could probably right stories that are designed to "prime the pump" as development proceeds, but playing against development is more likely to create a story that is unsatisfactory for the audience.

*I get much of the research second- or third- had via "pedagogical best practices" literature. A behavioral psychologist might come by and say something more definitive.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:28 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


The witch in Spirited Away was pretty evil-for-evil's-sake, as I recall.

It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure she was rehabilitated by the end. It seemed like she was more intent on helping the protagonist grow as a person than to actually play the Wicked Witch from Oz or something.
posted by Atreides at 6:29 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I just saw Frozen a couple of days ago, so it's fresh in my mind.

I wasn't impressed by "Let It Go" at all, to be honest. As a song it has been overhyped; it's the sort of annoying thing I'd expect to hear from... I don't know, whoever is doing Top 40 stuff? The message behind it... it seemed like it was simultaneously trying to be triumphant, but signaled the character was in pain and pretending not to be. I'm not sure that's a theme I'd really want my kids, if I had them, latching onto.

I appreciated how Anna set out to save Elsa and wound up saving herself, despite the setup where Kristof was going to be the "surprise" true love.

On the other hand, Elsa had the weird proportions of a Bratz doll, and I could have done without that.
posted by Foosnark at 6:33 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Well I think that she BOTH left to protect the people from herself and ALSO to protect herself from the people--- and what's more, being free meant she could BE herself, and love herself because she and everyone else were safe. But the people were definitely afraid and upset with her for her out of control powers, it wasn't JUST about her self acceptance. I guess what I mean is talking about the relevance to trans experience of finding a safe space where you can totally be yourself and stay safe from the fear and anger and policing of others about who your supposed to be... I think it all makes sense to me.

I think the story line of Frozen could have been just as good without that one guy turning out to be "the bad guy" I actually don't think you need bad guys in stories, I think it's a sign of a storytellers limited ability to command an interesting plot to rely on the villian vs hero dynamic an dI honestly wish we would uh... "let it go" with that dynamic. I do feel like we feed it to kids when, while they might gravitate to such plots due to lack of development I don't actually think it's a NEED kids have that we have to spoon feed it to them because they like it. We could help them grow without feeding the narrative they want to hear.

Sort of like how people gravitate for competitive games where there are winners and losers when you can also design cooperative games where everyone is working towards one goal and not trying to beat or out perform each other but simply to develop and grow their own skills.
posted by xarnop at 6:43 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


I haven't seen Frozen but have now spent a bit reading Aoife's blog and she seems awesome. Thanks for the post.
posted by radiocontrolled at 6:46 AM on May 12


I think the more important thing is that children need a narrative where the HERO is RIGHT and the VILLAIN is WRONG, because their developmental stage leads them to understand the world in absolutes. That doesn't say anything about why the hero is right and the villain is wrong, nor how that conflict is resolved. You could probably right stories that are designed to "prime the pump" as development proceeds, but playing against development is more likely to create a story that is unsatisfactory for the audience.

That describes children's movies and TV shows perfectly (as well as the small amount of children's theater I've seen), but some of the classic and most beloved children's books don't fit that mold at all. Many of the Caldecott and Newberry winning books I grew up with don't have "good" or "bad" in them at all, at least in my hazy memory. And the same is true for some books for older children, like the Little House on the Prairie series, say -- there are "evil" characters or themes that show up from time to time, but in no way is a simplistic good/evil tension the major attraction of the books.

I'm not the most well read in them, but at least some of the pre-bowlderized (i.e. pre-Grimm) european folk tales and some of the Greek myths don't fit those neat lines as well, at least in modern terms -- others of course do, like making the bad stepmother dance to death in red hot iron shoes, say.

So while I'm fully on board with the idea that children's minds are different and not fully formed, they are certainly capable of appreciating, understanding, and enjoying stories that are far more complex than a Disney movie. I think we make children's movies in bright colors and loud sounds because that's what works for marketing and that's how we imagine childhood, not because they are uniquely suited for children's development.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:46 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]


And, of course, none of this really challenges Aoife's thesis

"Aiofe's thesis" is so incredibly pleasing to say out loud
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:52 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

The gold standard here is "My Neighbor Totoro," which doesn't even have clashing goals or conflict at all. And it is absolutely magnificent.

No I do think that it's really awesome to expose children to ideas of acceptance, of what society might consider 'the other' in people to be ok. I just think it's really, really weird to hear grown people get excited for the next Mike Meyers/Albert Brooks/Hugh Jackman/Ellen Degreneress/McDonalds/Theme Park tie-in extravaganza. Like, it's ok to hate on Michael Bay, because obviously he's pandering to explosions and shit, but I've noticed I get more funny looks telling adults that a) I haven't seen the latest Disney or Pixar on purpose and b) I won't shell out $20 for the movie with snacks than I ever do telling them that I'd rather do just about anything else in the world.

If you're intentionally avoiding Pixar films then you are avoiding some of the greatest storytelling of our generation. Not all of them, of course, but man ...
posted by jbickers at 7:00 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Because, as I understand it*, the model pretty much works across cultures. [...] The general outlines of the development patterns seem to be neurological.

These are good arguments, but I am unpersuaded. You can explain cross-cultural phenomena either through innate mechanisms, or by showing that there is something adaptive about cultures developing in a certain way. It's probably adaptive for cultures to dehumanize out-group members and treat them as incapable of moral reasoning. So there is reason to think these cultures would independently hit upon ways of training their children to do so, and these cultural practices would become sticky.

Even so, I'm not sure that independent cultures really do share the Manichaean good-evil trope in their story structures. The children's stories of most other cultures we can name have surely been contaminated the stories of western cultures. Stories are one of the West's most influential exports. I don't think most cultures untouched by the West even have a separate sort of story that they tell to children and only children.

As far as the neurological and behavioral sciences data go (I assume you're thinking of researchers like Piaget and Kohlberg): it's for these sorts of reasons that I'm skeptical that they tell us anything about moral development unconnected to cultural input. The populations tested tend to be, by and large, populations of Western children. Actually, there is evidence that Kohlbergian stages of moral reasoning are culturally specific.
posted by painquale at 7:01 AM on May 12 [8 favorites]


I'm not the most well read in them, but at least some of the pre-bowlderized (i.e. pre-Grimm) european folk tales and some of the Greek myths don't fit those neat lines as well, at least in modern terms -- others of course do, like making the bad stepmother dance to death in red hot iron shoes, say.

On the other hand, neither of these were even remotely "children's literature" when they were in their "first use." It's only by very careful editing that any myths can be made "child safe" by today's standards. (I was quite delighted to discover that part of the Horus/Set rivalry arose over a dispute about who exactly jacked off whom during a camping trip).
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:03 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I should also say: even if the Kohlbergian categories of moral reasoning really are innate and cross-cultural, the fact that children's stories are morality tales, in which the reader is encouraged to identify someone as the good guy and someone as the bad guy, could be a cultural innovation. Stories for really young children (like The Little Engine That Could) are about overcoming obstacles without there being any obvious villains. So why do all the stories for slightly older children suddenly need to have villains?
posted by painquale at 7:11 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Anyway, to get back to TFA, this reminds me a little of the "is Merida gay" discussion. I think it's kind of encouraging that Disney seems to be moving (if in small and maybe superficial/occluded ways) away from the heteronormative straitjacket of the traditional "princess narrative." Enough so that people who don't usually see themselves reflected in most pop culture can find something that affirms them (even if that was not (or not necessarily) the creators' intent).
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:16 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Beautifully written, touching and expressive. She really, really, made that point well. This is like the best of cross-cultural writing: the unfamiliar reader (me) is shown something they didn't even realise they weren't getting.

"Aiofe's thesis" is so incredibly pleasing to say out loud pronunciation, please?

Another kids' film with antagonists who aren't villains but who are terribly wrong-headed and inconvenient, is The Secret Garden. Lovely little moody, understated film.

Thinking about this theme, adults in Diana Wynne-Jones's books are frequently useless or vicious, or combinations thereof (viciously useless etc) - their deficiencies are sometimes part of the problematic context the protagonists operate rather than being big bad villain attributes. Conrad's Luck, I'm thinking of. But there are plenty of properly nasty adult villains too.
posted by glasseyes at 7:22 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Atreides: It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure she was rehabilitated by the end. It seemed like she was more intent on helping the protagonist grow as a person than to actually play the Wicked Witch from Oz or something.

Not so much rehabilitated as understood as part of the complex relationships between humanity and the spirit world. Chihiro's family trespasses into the spirit world without understanding the rules or acknowledging the damage done by other humans. Yubaba's role is to protect those boundaries and give relief to spirits seeking peace from the human world. There's no question about her loyalties when she rallies the bathhouse staff to aid in healing the stink spirit.

efalk: FWIW, and no disrespect to the trans community, if you're watching Disney movies above the age of 7, let alone trying to flesh out meanings as they relate to your life, that seems really odd to me.

I think one of the beautiful things about fairy tales, parables, and fables is that as a form, they're unambiguous in a way that you don't find in a lot of more realistic literature, and a great deal of screenwriting which seems to consist of meandering for episode after episode without much of a plot.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:23 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


sotonohito: "Hell, a message about rushing to fall in love without knowing the guy seems like a really good thing for little girls to hear. Having him and Anna try a kiss only to find that he isn't her "true love" and kissing him does nothing to fix her would have been fantastic."

This may be straying a bit from the topic at hand, but I'd like to point out that this is pretty much EXACTLY what happens in Enchanted. But I do appreciate that instead of going for the easy "just kidding, Kristoff is actually her one true love", they bypassed the romantic-love subplot entirely and put the cure on sisterly-love.
posted by specialagentwebb at 7:25 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


This was disappointing, because I hate the acculturation of children into thinking that the world is driven by forces of good and forces of evil. It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

I really liked how Elsa's parents were portrayed for a number of reasons, mostly because they aren't evil, they clearly love their daughters and want to protect them. But what they do to Elsa is pretty horrible and creates the central conflict of the movie. Sure, there is a cartoonish villain later, but the root cause of the situation is that her parents locked her in a room for years and told her that everyone she loved would die a horrible death if she ever felt any emotion.

I think that teaching kids that parents can be horribly wrong but not villains is a good and interesting message.
posted by Garm at 7:28 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


I think that troll king needed shaking.
posted by glasseyes at 7:36 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I think it's definitely possible to tell stories for kids that are morally complex and don't have a clear villain-- Avatar: the Last Airbender is my absolute favorite example of this.

I was ultimately disappointed in Frozen because I felt like the script wasn't terribly strong, and Hans' heel face turn felt like lazy storytelling.
posted by nonasuch at 7:37 AM on May 12


Thanks for this, I really liked her essay.
posted by Theta States at 7:47 AM on May 12


You can explain cross-cultural phenomena either through innate mechanisms, or by showing that there is something adaptive about cultures developing in a certain way. It's probably adaptive for cultures to dehumanize out-group members and treat them as incapable of moral reasoning. So there is reason to think these cultures would independently hit upon ways of training their children to do so, and these cultural practices would become sticky.

I'm not sure I understand what is being suggested here. Some group develops a cultural practice of dehumanizing out-group members, and then that helps the cultural practice to survive because the people practicing it become successful? Or does it help the individuals within the culture reproduce, and then they pass it on like a gene? Does "adaptive" refer to cultural or biological reproduction?
posted by clockzero at 7:53 AM on May 12


"Aiofe's thesis" is so incredibly pleasing to say out loud pronunciation, please?

The Aiofe I knew pronounced it "Ee-fuh".
posted by olinerd at 8:55 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I understand what is being suggested here.

I intended the former.

(But cultural evolution often refers to a more contentious process where cultural units can reproduce even when they are maladaptive to the individuals or groups who bear the units, and I don't want to commit myself to that. Small letters here to indicate that I recognize that I'm getting deraily and I'll stop.)
posted by painquale at 9:00 AM on May 12


I think it's definitely possible to tell stories for kids that are morally complex and don't have a clear villain-- Avatar: the Last Airbender is my absolute favorite example of this.

I also love Avatar, but Ozai, Azula, and some of their henchmen are definitely very clearly villains--even though Azula has moments of sympathetic behavior, she is ultimately a psychopath. This is a definite weakness of the show, for me, especially since Zuko, Iroh, Ty Lee and Mei are such good examples of characters with complex motivations that sometimes lead them to do bad things, even though they are decent people.

I'm in favor of Frozen because an 8-year-old girl described the climax to me as the part where "the sisters save each other!" There was nothing like that for me when I was young.

It was also recently shown at the GLBT youth group I work with. A lot of people can relate to it and I think that's awesome!
posted by chaiminda at 9:02 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


Re "Why do adults watch cartoons/read children's lit" well:

a. I like animation. Disney is not my favorite (CGI in general still gives everyone doll-like vinyl skin, which is unsettling to me, but now the norm) but they're impossible to ignore, especially when they took over Pixar. But if you want to see what's happening in animation, you will have to go to some kid's movies, because that's most of what's in theaters. Looney Tunes were definitely for adults as much as for children.

b. many children's tales, as others pointed out, can be reinterpreted/enjoyed by adults precisely because they have no clearcut "villain." They can also carry surprisingly heavy themes beneath the surface. Because they are written by adults who bring their own adult insights into their work, regardless of who it's written for. Who is the villain in Harriet the Spy, for example? (there's a lot in that book about her parents, by the way, that I totally missed as a kid, but find fascinating as an adult. So that is one kid's book that rewards re-reading when older). Or Charlotte's Web?

I think there is this fear among some people that adults reading books for kids signals that we're all sliding backwards into immaturity in this culture. But is the Hunger Games less mature or more mature than 50 Shades of Grey? What age group is The Lord of the Rings for? Does it really matter?
posted by emjaybee at 11:08 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


I think it's definitely possible to tell stories for kids that are morally complex and don't have a clear villain-- Avatar: the Last Airbender is my absolute favorite example of this.

I adored Avatar but... really? Ozai wanted to murder a child after, essentially, exterminating said child's entire race in order to prevent being stopped from taking over the world, all while abandoning his son for not wanting to also murder people. Did he need to, like, strangle Appa on-screen or something?

It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

Took me some time but first I thought up was Field of Dreams, though I guess that's not really a kid's movie.

But if the argument is that kid's movies tend to have "bad guys," I don't really find a fault in that. Human brains develop. We went from Greek Myths to Knights to Cowboys through written history; the basics of narrative is the good vs. evil quest. The important part is allowing children to understand how that narrative is expanded upon as they grow and understand more about storytelling. "Good guy fights bad guy" is not necessarily the best recipe, but if you're teaching someone to cook, it helps to start by showing them how to boil water.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 11:09 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Actually now that I think of it: pretty much anything E.B. White wrote would classify as a children's story devoid of "unreasonable" antagonists.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 11:11 AM on May 12


I see a few people saying that "the director has said they didn't intend for it to mean X" or "the songwriter said it is supposed to mean Y".

I would like to remind everyone of certain realities of the animation process. Every single frame of the film is the result of creative decisions made by a number of people - the producer, the director, the scriptwriter, the songwriter, the voice actor, the storyboard artist, the background artist, the character designer, the lead animator, the assistant animator. Any and all of those roles may be plural in the case of any given shot.

Big-budget animated films like Frozen are made by hundreds, even thousands, of people. If my experience in the animation industry is any guide, a not-insignificant percentage of them are queer and/or trans. When they put something of themselves in the work, they may or may not include that aspect of themselves - deliberately or not. There are a lot of people working in the animation industry who spent their youth watching cartoons obsessively and latching onto the rare occasions where someone like themselves showed up; we* are going to leap at any chance to slip more of that in for the next generation to feel more normal.

I mean, I sure saw that song as something that could be recontextualized into a coming out theme too. I also saw that the ice palace Elsa built as she sang that song looked a hell of a lot like the crystal palace Dr. Manhattan built on Mars in Watchmen.

I have also heard first-hand stories about renowned directors scurrying around drawing little penises in the background roughs of TV shows after everyone had left the studio for the night. Some of which possibly slipped through. Animation in the US is seen as "for kids" but the people who make it are highly-trained adults, who sometimes act like mischievous teenagers.

Basically I'm trying to remind you that the postmodern "death of the author" is especially true in the case of animation.

* I no longer work in the animation industry so 'we' is not 100% correct here but I assure you I am far from the only transwoman to ever work in the LA animation scene, let alone the entire world of animation.
posted by egypturnash at 11:14 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Frozen is a great coming-out story, but, as others have said, there are tons of narratives you can fit into it, like chronic illness, mental illness (lampshaded in the movie as "a problem with germs"), being gay - I'm sure there are asexual people who see themselves in Elsa, too. It's heartwarming that there's so many people connecting to Elsa's story as a positive narrative, but I also see that as symptomatic of an underexplored, underused blank slate of a character. Elsa goes from being repressed to imprisoned to hunted, and the rare chances she gets to act, rather than react, happen without much character interaction. Maybe that's the price of telling a story about repression and isolation, but it seems to me that even the Beast in his lonely castle got more character development and interaction than Elsa. Note that I am not suggesting the addition of sassy talking furniture to Frozen as a means to remedy this.

One thing I'm curious about is the idea of a trans narrative in which coming out isn't followed by a narrative of a process of transition. Without getting too specific, because I feel the temptation to nerd out off-topic-ly about anime, I'll say that I've seen much justified criticism of stories in which characters undergo similar changes without the difficulties of transitioning as being unsympathetic caricatures or naive fantasies of trans experiences. If I had to guess, I'd say that the difference with Frozen is that it devotes time and care to the internal struggles of repressing or embracing one's true identity, which naturally would make self-acceptance the central theme and coming out the pivotal moment.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 11:15 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals.

The Lego Movie is the most recent kids movie I could think of where both order and creativity are in conflict. And the movie comes down on the message that the constructive tension of both are needed to produce the best results.
posted by FJT at 12:27 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Re "Why do adults watch cartoons/read children's lit" well:

Art is art, and sometimes stuff created for children is damn good art. Especially when I go to the theaters and most of the trailers are for films that get their R rating by being:

* juvenile and violent, or
* juvenile and crude, or
* juvenile and crude and violent.

(Seriously, a tanning cream on genitals joke?)

Good animation these days addresses a juvenile audience and talks up, while live-action adult films address and adult audience and talks down.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:51 PM on May 12 [5 favorites]


I like how Honest Trailers put it.
When disaster strikes, watch Anna save the day by teaming up with her sister, a merchant, a hot guy and a snowman to defeat villains like her sister, a merchant, a hot guy and a snowman.
And you wonder why it's hard to tell who's the bad guy.
posted by eriko at 2:21 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


I like how the beautiful princess teamed up with the comic relief to the save the evil queen from the handsome prince.

Plus, 'Everyone's a bit of a fixer-upper' is basically an AskMefi thread in song form ("I'm not saying you can change him! Because people don't really chaaaaange!")
posted by Sebmojo at 2:26 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


I didn't think much of Frozen, but as I have a 5yro daughter it has been on repeat for some weeks. It interests me that it seems to be really strongly targeted at young girls, and successfully too. My 8 & 10 yro boys don't hate it, but would rather watch something else. My big 13yro girl has watched it but would also rather something else. But my 5yro is constantly acting out parts of the movie, and if Let it Go plays on the radio she mimics Elsa's every move.
It has certainly impacted her more than any other Disney or any other children's movie, and if I think about all my kids, perhaps more than any of them have been reached by a media property (although Thomas the tank engine in the pre-CGI days was a powerful tonic for the boys).
I don't know what it is, but Frozen seems to make these deep and intense fans more than comparable (and I would judge better) films like those from Pixar or Dreamworks.
posted by bystander at 6:03 AM on May 13


Good animation these days addresses a juvenile audience and talks up, while live-action adult films address and adult audience and talks down.

Nicely put. I think you have captured why I haven't seen a comedy at the cinema this century.
posted by bystander at 6:05 AM on May 13


It made me realize that I don't think I can name any children's movies where all the conflict is the result of reasonable people with clashing goals

Funny enough this was my read of the two real villains of Frozen. Sure, one of them was a sociopath (read: “evil”) but his motives were comprehensible and limited in a realistic way: he wanted his own kingdom. He even made it clear that he would have done this without murdering anyone if it would have been possible.

The Weaselton guy was just a stand-in for prejudice, but again: not unreasonable. The woman shot ice daggers out of her hands at his face for crying out loud.

And there’s an alternative read of Elsa as an antagonist in a strictly narrative sense. I honestly thought when she stepped into “Let it Go” that she’d emerge somehow as the Big Bad. (There's a line in there about being above good and evil…)

That’s three villains, all realistic and to varying degrees sympathetic.
posted by axoplasm at 12:47 PM on May 13


And there’s an alternative read of Elsa as an antagonist in a strictly narrative sense. I honestly thought when she stepped into “Let it Go” that she’d emerge somehow as the Big Bad. (There's a line in there about being above good and evil…)

One of the things I like about "Let It Go" is that it can be read two ways: either "People don't understand me so I'm striking out on my own!" or "People have rejected me, so I in turn reject them and their morality and choose power!" Apparently this is because the song was originally written for an earlier version of the story in which Elsa was frankly the villain. The song made such a good case for her as a sympathetic character that they retooled the story to fit it.
posted by The Tensor at 2:48 PM on May 13


I haven't seen the movie yet, but my understanding as someone whose daughter has watched the "Let It Go" video ten thousand times is that it's the middle stage of the dialectic:

THESIS: Elsa is constrained by her parents.
ANTITHESIS: Elsa rejects all conventional morality. ("Let It Go")
SYNTHESIS: Elsa reconciles with her sister and they move on as a new family unit.

It seems like a classic case of stalling out on "negation" so that you never move on to the "negation of the negation."
posted by gerryblog at 4:32 PM on May 13


« Older Richard Linklater's Boyhood casts the same group o...  |  "On 25 November 1953... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments