Four things we can learn from Frozen (that don’t involve wedding dresses)

There have been rumours of “official” Disney wedding dresses for some time, and now the collection is finally being released for sale. Designed by Alfred Angelo, “America’s largest family-owned bridal company”, you won’t be surprised to hear that the dresses come with hefty price tags.

But considering that Disney has been peddling wedding fantasies for decades, you might be a bit taken about that a lot of the dresses are  well  pretty horrible. The designs are boring and, honestly, tacky. You might be rolling your eyes at my surprise, but seriously, if Disney’s going to be selling wedding dresses, why aren’t they beautiful? Why aren’t they closer renditions of the impossibly lovely, possibly beyond the laws of physics gowns worn in the films that become women’s wedding fantasies? It seems obvious that the dresses should have some value for what they are, rather than what company they’re made by.

We all see Disney films. Disney has been selling the dream of weddings and true love, floaty dresses and being treated like a princess for a long time. The garb has always been part of the package. We all absorb the stories and the patterns that they tell  and we’re all a lot more savvy now than we used to be. We understand that telling girls they should only want things that are pink and fluffy is bad. We understand that applying particular social standards of sex and gender toys, cakes, and stories isn’t healthy for children, or for the adults that they grow up to be.

So times change, and Disney heroines have become increasingly active over the last twenty years. Stories haven’t always been defined by princesses waiting to be saved – they’ve set out to save other people, like Belle, or competed to save themselves, like Merida. And Frozen has been applauded as being the most progressive of them all.

The girls don’t need a guy to save them, but they save each other.  “True love” is familial as well as romantic. Love at first sight can’t always be trusted, and the convention of getting married to someone you’ve only just met is satisfyingly lampooned.

Characters are well-rounded. Female characters are particularly well-rounded, and not defined by their female characters or the social structure of femininity. That’s one of the reasons that the Frozen wedding dress rubs me up the wrong way (aside from the fact that it’s ugly as hell). Frozen is one of the stories that’s founded on the power of non-romantic love, and in which girls aren’t rewarded for their good behaviour by marriage into the higher social order.

Also, they’ve made the dress based on Elsa’s caped ice gown. She’s the one who doesn’t engage in romantic love, and is suspicious of her sister’s sudden, fairytale engagement. But, as the article above notes, Anna isn’t the one who sings “Let it Go”.

For me, the dress – ugly as sin, corporate cash-grab – is the epitome of a missed point.

As a writer, and as a teacher of creative writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about the importance and the value of stories. I’ve had a few thoughts banging around my head about the things that Frozen can actually teach people – especially young people – and now seems an appropriate opportunity to share them. And please, if you think that my points below sound over-complicated, don’t patronise children. They’re a lot more clued-up than society stereotypes them as. The students that I tutored this summer, none of them older than 12, had a detailed, hour-long discussion, completely unprompted by me, about how you should never judge someone based on their gender or the colour of their skin, and how all of those kids were prepared to intervene and speak up for people who were being bullied. They restored my faith in humanity.

So, for them, and in a quietly intellectual protest against Disney’s hideous dresses, here’s what I think is the real value of Frozen and the things it can teach our kids.

 

1. Well-meaning parents can, and do, make decisions that affect their children badly. 

I honestly think that this is one of the most important things that any child can learn. The idea that parents and teachers are always right, that adults never make mistakes, and that they can and should be trusted inherently, can cause a lot of damage to children as they learn to navigate a big and complicated world.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect your children. Elsa is shown to have loving, caring parents, who make a big mistake that they believed was the best way to protect both of their daughters from the fallout of Elsa’s powers. This doesn’t make them bad people, though it does mean that they made a bad parenting decision.

I think this is one of the most important parts of the film because parents, especially in fairytales, tend to fall into much more simplistic roles. Usually, they’re dead, which allows the child greater freedom, but also sets up the need for a mentor and a potential villain in the step-parent replacement. But while the fairytale’s focus on the child can provide inspiration for individual behavioural choices, this overarching cultural pattern doesn’t necessarily help the child understand his or her relationship to her own parents. And it doesn’t always help that parents don’t have examples that they can point to to say, “Sometimes parents make mistakes out of love. That’s the way life is, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t love you and want what’s best for you.”

And I think that’s something that parents need to accept. Yes. You’re probably going to fuck up at some point. Let it go. Once you accept the possibility of a problem, you become much better at solving the problem. Ignoring the problem is ignoring your child. Don’t close the door on the problem, because, like Elsa’s powers, it’ll grow until it’s overwhelming.

 

2. Being close to someone doesn’t mean that you necessarily understand all of their story, or why they make the decisions that they do. 

Elsa and Anna might love each other, but for a long time, they don’t understand each other at all. Elsa’s powers, and the way she’s been told to treat them, form a barrier between them – and, in fact, between Arendelle and the outside world.

They both make mistakes because they don’t understand why the other doesn’t understand them. The impasse of communication between them – Elsa hiding her powers, Anna’s years of unhappiness at the unexplained isolation – is something that can spring up very easily, between close friends, siblings, or even parent and child.

Fairytales and stories aimed at children frequently offer a simplistic view of the world, where “good” agrees with the hero, and “bad” is the source of problems and conflict. In reality, of course, life is far more complicated, and Frozen doesn’t shy away from that.

Sometimes people want and need different things. It isn’t hard to communicate this, but it can be very hard to accept. Elsa’s powers can be treated as a metaphor for a number of different things that might make someone “different” from other people. The lesson in Frozen issn’t just that people are different, though. It’s that it’s okay to have different needs, but that learning how to cope with different peoples’ needs can be a complicated and painful process.

Frozen also shows that our ignorance of other peoples’ issues can be difficult, but shows that the real problem is an unwillingness to learn how to deal with other people’s needs.

 

3. It is easy to become absorbed by your own pain and to miss the reasons for someone else’s actions.

Children are all a little bit solipsistic. Their own pain is often more real than anyone else’s, because they don’t always appreciate that other people are the centers of their own worlds. In a kid, it’s natural, and it’s something they need to grow out of. In an adult, it’s self-centred, and it can be damaging to assume that someone else understands the reasons for your pain.

Anna is a little guilty of this – yes, it isn’t fair that she is shut out of her sister’s life and that her parents lie to her for a very long time, but her own hurt and isolation prevents her from seeing that there might be a reason for it. Similarly, Elsa is consumed by the problem that her powers present and misses the damage that her absence does to her sister.

I’m not saying that Elsa is at fault here – she’s a child, she’s legally incapable of being at fault. Their parents have mishandled the situation, and, because they are the adults and have a far greater breadth of experience and education, they should have seen that their solution – to hide Elsa and ignore her powers – wasn’t working.

Of course, the story-based argument could be that they’re running a kingdom. But it’s still valuable to remember that other people’s actions are as valid and important as yours are – and that you might be as much of a mystery to them as they are to you.

In conclusion, points 2 and 3 can be summarised thusly: the choices that we make affect other people as well as ourselves. We must be aware of the way that we affect other things as we move through the world, just as we encourage that other people are aware of the way they affect the world and us. That includes the stories we tell ourselves, which is why I started writing about the lessons we learn from stories in the first place.

 

4. Actions speak louder than words – but words are necessary, because it’s easy to misinterpret actions. 

The crux of Frozen is that Anna chooses to act to protect her sister, rather than waiting to be saved herself. She puts Elsa’s safety over her own, just as, in her isolation, Elsa prioritised Anna’s safety over her own happiness. Choosing to act, being empowered to make choices, is something extremely important for a child to learn. But they must also be able to explain why they act they way they do. Through understanding that every act is a choice, a person is empowered to assess situations and make better choices. If you don’t realise that you’re choosing something, it isn’t really a choice – and it means you’re trapped in a lack of knowledge that you might not even realise is a lack of knowledge.

Anna’s unhappiness stems from not understanding why her sister suddenly rejected her, apparently dividing their family. These are actions that are never given an explanation. Once they acquire the information to provide context, the basic tension of the plot, and the problem of their relationship, is resolved. Elsa gains control over her powers when she understands that love and communication are all the situation needs – are all they’ve ever needed, really, it’s just not what their parents encouraged them to do.

Accepting that people make mistakes, that we all have plenty of learning to do, and that ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away are valuable life lessons. Learning that you don’t have to buy into the surface of the story, but you can delve into the reasons behind it and question them, is important for people to become well-rounded members of society. And this is why that dress misses the point of the film: Frozen encourages and empowers people to make choices, to understand situations, to realise that love can be true even when it’s complicated and painful. That’s something completely at odds with the role of marriage in traditional fairytales, which rewards good girls with a wedding that secures their social standing.

Disney’s released a dress inspired by a character who sings about letting go of a judgemental society’s fear of her and her powers, designed to be worn by brides who love Frozen. It’s ironic that they’ve emboded the conclusion of the traditional fairy tale in an expensive piece of “Let it Go” merchandise, because the value of Frozen is clearest when it’s set against the cultural history of tales that told girls to lie down and shut up until the handsome prince turned up to save them.

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