Saturday, December 28, 2013

Well, Nobody's Perfect (Sisterlove, Racism, and Disney's Frozen)

Last night (or tonight, if you want to be technical about when I'm writing this - I write these things the night before, don't you know?) I saw Frozen for the surprising second time. Partly, this was a result of my sister's intense desire to see a movie and my family's intention to see a movie that wouldn't make anyone cringe (we'll talk about how fun it was to watch American Hustle with my dad next week). But another part, the reason I actually went back, is because I really wanted to sort out my feelings about this movie. It's not Turbo, which made me immediately and irrevocably angry, and it's not Lilo and Stitch, which made me coo with delight.

Instead, this is a movie that has good and bad parts, like most things, I guess. It's got things about it that I love, like Olaf and Sven, and things I hate, like all that cultural appropriation business and the comedy relief but awkwardly kind of racist trolls. And it's got things I feel pretty neutral on - everything else. Oh wait, except for Anna and her "look at how quirky and clumsy and silly I am!" persona. I was slightly more annoyed than neutral on that one.

Anyway, I don't think it's a bad thing that this movie is slightly more complex to analyze than your average kids flick. I think that's actually a great thing. Granted, I would love it if the film had managed to do without the things that pissed me off, but nobody's perfect.

(Except for Pacific Rim. Holy crap do I love Pacific Rim. Aaaaaaaa, Pacific Rim.)

The problem I have with this movie is that it's a very nice movie, with a surprisingly good ending, but that it never quite manages to stick the landing. It's not bad, and I think on balance this movie is actually more of a good thing than a bad thing, it's just...why did it have to have those bad things in the first place?

Allow me to explain. (SPOILERS from here on out.)

The film starts when Elsa (Idina Menzel as an adult) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are little kids, the princesses of the small kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa has a magical gift - she can create ice and snow - but she's not able to control it. When some childish fun gets out of hand, Elsa accidentally hits Anna with a ray of ice magic, and it nearly kills her sister. Their parents race them off to get help from the awkwardly stereotyped trolls. The trolls are able to heal Anna, but in so doing, they remove all her knowledge of Elsa's magic. And Elsa is warned that if she doesn't learn to control her magic, she could really hurt someone. So their parents take them home, and Elsa becomes an elective hermit, desperately trying to control her powers, while Anna is hurt by her sister's sudden coldness and the distance between them.

Years pass, the girls grow up, and tragically their parents pass away. Elsa becomes queen, and there's a coronation. Unfortunately for Elsa, but fortunately for Anna, the castle must be opened up for the coronation, and that's where the trouble starts. Anna goes mad with freedom and launches herself at the nearest available and sympathetic guy - Prince Hans (Santino Fontana). Hans and Anna, both romantics, it would seem, decide that they've both found "The One" and that they need to get married. Right now.

Weirdly, Elsa doesn't love this plan. When she refuses to give Anna her blessing, Anna freaks out and starts the big emotional confrontation that Elsa has been afraid of pretty much her whole life. Because Elsa's magic is linked to her mood, it's not super helpful when her sister freaks her out. Elsa panics and accidentally starts an ice storm before being run out of the castle by people accusing her of being a witch. She flees up into the mountains.

Anna, realizing that this was kind of a jerk move on her part, chases after Elsa, only to find herself woefully unprepared for the wilderness. So she hires some help: Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a weird, antisocial ice deliverer whose business is down the tubes now that Arendelle is stuck in an eternal winter.

There are adventures and mishaps, and a lovably misinformed snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), and finally out heroes reach Elsa's ice castle. Anna goes in and tries to reason with Elsa, but Elsa's working on some pretty hardcore repression and isolation feelings, as well as about ten years of emotional crazies to work out, so it doesn't go very well. Elsa accidentally lashes out and hits Anna in the heart with another ice ray. And then chases them out of her castle with an abominable snowman.

Kristoff realizes that there's something wrong with Anna and takes her to the trolls to be healed (because the trolls adopted Kristoff and Sven at some point, a cute but kind of weird plot point). The trolls try to set the two of them up before realizing that Anna has ice in her heart, and can only be saved by an "act of true love". Kristoff lovingly brings Anna back to Arendelle so that Hans can kiss her and save her life.

Meanwhile, Hans isn't in Arendelle. He's come looking for Anna, and in the process found Elsa. He brings her back to Arendelle, only now in chains, and keeps her in a cell while they try to figure out what to do with her. The storm gets worse. Elsa kind of figures that this isn't going to end well, and that the only way out is for her to get as far away as possible.

At last, Anna and Hans are reunited, only for Hans to reveal that he's a jerkface who doesn't love her and only wants her crown. Which actually makes more sense than the alternative, so that's okay. He leaves Anna to die and goes off to kill Elsa.

But what's that? Kristoff and Sven riding back in to kiss Anna and save the day? Yep. Except just as Kristoff and Anna are finally in kissing distance, Anna sees Hans about to kill Elsa, and races in between them to save her sister. And that's the act of true love that saves a frozen heart. Awwwww.

Elsa uses the power of love to save Arendelle and is accepted as queen again, Hans gets punched and thrown in jail, and Kristoff and Anna get their kiss. Oh, and Olaf gets to see summer without melting. Everyone gets what they want. Except for me, sadly.

Look, I actually really like a lot of things about this movie. The whole thing about true love not just being romantic? Love it. The bit where it's Anna's act of true love that saves her? Amazing. The thing where Anna finds her true love and everyone questions her because she doesn't really know the guy and it turns out that they were right to question? I need that in my life.

But there are other things I really, really don't love. For starters, why the hell is this movie so white? I get that it's set in a fantasy European kingdom, vaguely based on Sweden or something, but do the animators really believe that brown people were only invented a hundred years ago or something? Have they not heard of the Sami culture, the indigenous tribes native to Scandinavia who are, and especially were at the time this story is set, quite brown?

I mean, clearly they've heard of the Sami, since they use Sami chanting over the beginning credits, and therefore almost literally define cultural appropriation. Using an element of the culture out of its context for the purpose of making oneself look more interesting or dramatic? Check, check, and check. Also, they obviously know what the Sami looked like in the 1800s, as Kristoff, the blond white guy, is wearing an incredibly accurate Sami wardrobe and performing a traditional, protected Sami job - reindeer training.

So, I don't think we can claim full ignorance on this one.

And, as I mentioned above, the trolls are there too, a sort of uncomfortable bit that really doesn't mesh with the rest of the movie and has deeply weird overtones. The trolls are the mystical sages of the kingdom, but they're just kind of there. They perform the filmic role of the magic black man - that is, they are an othered group that performs no function in the story but to serve and advise the white protagonists. Also, they perform a literal minstrel show and "love experts". Like most things, I don't think this is intentional, but it sure as hell made me uncomfortable.

I don't love that this film felt the need to rely on a love triangle to get through, and when the real love story is that of the two sisters, I kind of wish we'd spent more time with the two of them, letting them really feel the relationship. I wanted more. Less of the boys, more of the girls. Which is a pretty usual complaint.

This is not to say that I thought the movie was bad. It isn't. It's quite fun, actually, and I ended up adoring Olaf, who I was all set to hate with the fire of a thousand suns. He's just too cute to hate!

Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad here. It's a movie about the true love of sisterhood, and given that I went to see this movie with my sister (twice), that's something I can get behind. I just wish that one of these days I could have a movie like this where I don't find problematic things lurking in the bushes when I want to enjoy it.

We all have dreams.

Some dreams are more realistic than others.

18 comments:

  1. I don't understand the obsession surrounding race in Disney movies. It's like, if there isn't a black person, a Latino/Latina person, or some random other person of a race other than white, in the movie then everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that the movie is racist. Having a black person in the film simply for the sake of there being a black person is racist in itself. Disney not including a dark-skinned person in this movie is not racist in the slightest especially when you consider who wrote the original story. Hans Christian Andersen was surrounded by white people on a daily basis and there is not much of a chance he encountered many people from other races. Therefore, it seems appropriate and logical that all the characters in the film should be white. And who's to say that Kristoff's outfit was supposed to be hinting at this "indigenous tribe" you are talking about? He was wearing fur and had a reindeer with him. He could have been wearing the fur because it was warm and he could have been using a reindeer instead of a horse because reindeer are better at moving through the snow. And the music played at the beginning of the movie could have just been used because it sounded good. Who's to say it had any kind of meaning? And you saying the trolls are a racial stereotype is waaaaay stretching. They didn't have any stereotypical voices, they perform any stereotypical actions, and they didn't wear any stereotypical clothing. How you came to the conclusion that they were "black people" is beyond me. And I might add that the love triangle was there to show that trying to marry a person you've just met is not a good idea and that the person you didn't expect could possibly be the love of your life. I know you acknowledge that the film is good, but frankly I'm sick of everyone dragging race into everything. The only way racism is going to stop is if people stop bringing race into the picture.

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    1. Okay, first, race is important in Disney movies because we're nice people and we want kids of color to feel like they get to play in the Disney sandbox too. And that only really works if they get to see themselves on screen.

      Second, inclusion isn't racist. It's actually quite kind. And Kristoff easily could have been a POC. It actually would have made a lot more sense if he were Saami. There's more to race than just white vs. black, and Europe has a strong history of non-white indigenous cultures, like the Saami, whose story this originally is.

      And third point, here's a link to an article that debates your points much better than I can: http://thiscouldhavebeenfrozen.tumblr.com/faq.

      Thanks!

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    2. i know it's probably annoying for me to butt in and be the "devil's advocate" as it were, but disney is an independent company, not a government funded project. they can do whatever they want with whatever they make and i stand behind the saying "if you don't like it, turn it off". if you think disney is harmful to kids, don't let your kids watch disney movies. it's not their job to protect your children, it's your job as the parent of your own damn kids.

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    3. And turn on what? What wholesome TV show would parents of children of color turn to where there is an important character that is a person of color? It's about seeing something that looks like you in a positive light, you can't "turn off society" which ultimately the problem. People of color are almost always portrayed in negative and or stereotypical ways. Also, being an independent company doesn't mean they can't be criticized for what they create for the public. People can have whatever opinion they want about them and put it where-ever they want.

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  2. I think this can be analyzed quite simply. Somebody from Disney had a wonderful idea based on a snow queen. It looked promising, marketable, and the snow setting and trolls were new, so they rolled with it.

    The writers dealt with the story and constructed character profiles and motives, so the artists, drew whatever came to mind. Everybody loves animal sidekicks (i.e. Pascal, Maximus) so they threw in an animal that worked with snow. A reindeer, which was only Kristoff's friend. (He doesn't raise the reindeer for a living he cuts/sells ice)

    So imagine, assuming you have no prior knowledge of the Sami and you're the artist, someone speaks up, "Hey it makes more sense of we make someone look like a Sami". Do you know what a Sami looks like? No. Will it require you to spend more time in the studio? Yes. Can you draw a Sami version of everyone and many many more by this deadline? Probably. HRMM. Whaddoya say manager? (And considering that no one really knows the Sami (no insult intended), the approval board would question the art. Or maybe there are multiple artists, one that gets inspiration from Sami clothing, and the other draws the face, but in any case it's design inspiration. Disney isn't out there to spread a cultural message because god knows how sensitive people are.

    I'm looking at your link, but I see nothing explaining the connection between trolls, black people and racism. I don't understand how you came to that conclusion that the trolls are magic black people, and quite frankly I am equally disturbed that you can interpret them as such.

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    1. Expecting excellence out of Disney is not something I will apologize for. Nor will I apologize for wanting them to actually draw POC if they're going to draw the clothes. Laziness is never an excuse. And how would that make it better?

      As for the trolls, eh. Most people don't have a problem with them. But dang do they bother me.

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  3. Actually, if you just do a quick search, you'll see that the Sami people are actually what Americans would consider "White". So, in context, Disney was correct. Also, the Sami people generally think the movie is great and only a handful have complained about aspects of the movie. I always advise doing a little more research than Tumblr posts on these racially sensitive things before making your own comments, ESPECIALLY a movie review.

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    1. Yes, the Saami appear phenotypically white today. Maybe that has a little bit to do with forced intermarriage and the degradation of their culture in Scandinavian society? Historical records show that in the 1800s the Saami were much more visibly "non-white".

      I'm all for doing your research. But I think it's more important to examine motive. I don't think Disney was being malicious. I think they thought it looked cool and figured they'd use it. But in a way, that's worse. Because that says, "Hey, you have cool stuff. We're gonna take it and not say where it came from. Thanks!"

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  4. Please do better research. I know quite a bit about the Sami people and not just through Google searches and Wikipedia (although Wikipedia did a pretty good job.) They are NOT, I repeat NOT, colored in the way that I understand the term. Indigenous does not equal darker skin, etc. They have the same phenotype variations of any other northern European people. Genetically their origins are different from most Indo-Europeans, except for the Finnish. They have no Asiatic origins (although that was assumed at one point). They are closest to the Finns. During their period of intense oppression by the other Scandinavians (1800s to early 1900s), misguided efforts led to studies trying to "prove" how they were very different in look and origin from others (see--aren't they different so we have every right to oppress them!) That's when stereotypes of them having high and wide cheekbones and being short were perpetuated. Studies have shown though that that is simply a stereotype and not any more common among the Sami than any other Europeans.

    Those old pictures people try to use to "prove" that the Sami were people of color? They were weather-worn tanned people that spent most of their days outdoors. My cousin in Oslo looks like that and if you've seen pictures of him as a child you'd know how white he was originally.

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  5. The Sami's are WHITE and have always been WHITE.

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  6. If anyone is being racist against the Sami its you. The Sami people are native to Northern Europe and - like all peoples native to Northern Europe (such as Norwegians) - they look like Northern Europeans (duh!). Here's the Sami parliament (presumingly consisting of Sami people that are less mixed then the average Sami):

    http://media.snl.no/system/images/14344/standard_Sametinget-2009-2013_mainimage.jpg

    Of course you can find individual Samis with darker complexion, just as you can find many ethnic Swedes with a Mediterranean appearance. The claim that Samis are non-white is however based on nothing else then your own absurd notion that only non-whites can be indigenous and hence that the samis must be PoC since they are indigenous. If anything you are the one guilty of cultural appropriation, trying to steal and reinterpret the Sami identity to serve your own moral
    posturing.

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  7. In fact you're repeating actual racist stereotyping that was invented in the early 20th century trying to prove that the Samis are alien. The stereotype of Samis as Asiatics that you're reproducing was a part of the anti-Sami ideology that was used to justify their forced integration.

    I think you should apologize your local Sami, or in case you cant find one, to Jesse Jackson.

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  8. You all make some good points. We all know that Disney has a history of racism, how do I know this? Lets just say my family has been deeply involved with disney in the past. (The only hint you guys are getting lol) Again it is important to have Disney characters to look up to, especially one your own race. I dont really think its fair for us to expect the majority race to understand it, so the best bet is to try and do things ourselves. Race isnt the only issue. Seriously on one hand you can count how many Disney kings and princes there have been. And majority of them are animals. Aladdin was originally all about the story of (Alideen) but somehow it ended up being all about Jasmine. So now there is no one to show young boys who they can be like there is for females. Dont give me the notion that boys dont need a prince to look up to. I say they do simply because an early imprinting of a prince can dictate chivalry in their lives. Im aware there are human Princes and kings within Disney but the story is never focused on them individually, it seems to be focused on what they can do for the princess in the story, and if he cant end up giving her a happy ending then he is not her true love, or wounds up being the bad guy.

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  9. Awwww... thank you for loving me and indulging me, Sister! TRUE SISTER LOVE FOREVER!!!! ;)

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    1. Are you going through my old articles and looking for references to yourself? You narcissist! :D

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  10. I don't know how to even start to explain to you and other Americans who think like this, how wrong and misguided you are, but I'll attempt to say my piece none the less.

    First of all, I see this line that the Sami are indigenous. Well, they are no more indigenous than other northern peoples. There were people in Denmark and southern Sweden and Norway some 11,500 years ago (possibly my ancestors), at a time and place where there were no Sami (the Sami lived mostly further north).

    Second of all, I see you and other misinformed Americans calling Sami people brown and "people of colour". I'm not Sami but I'm Norwegian and I would think I know more about our fellow Sami citizens than you or any American would, and I can assure you that the Sami are not "brown". You people in the USA have an obsession with so called "race", while here in Norway we don't have this obsession. We care more about culture and ethnic groups. Norway, Sweden and Denmark haven't had any indigenous dark-skinned people in its history, as far as we have been able to record it.

    Third of all, trolls are an integral part of Norwegian (and probably Swedish) folklore, and they are either depicted as small and mischievous/funny or big and threatening. What Disney did with our folklore isn't up to us, we weren't asked (funny how you don't mind this cultural appropriation), but I can assure you in our folklore we have no links to black people, especially since our lore is thousands of years old. Please, I ask you to widen your mind and not see so called "race" in anything.

    Fourth, I want to touch on your claim that the story of "Frozen" is Sami and it's therefore cultural appropriation. No it's not. The story is based on a fairytale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In Denmark, there are no (nor were there ever) sny Sami people throughout history. Your claim is patently false. Furthermore, on your claims of cultural appropriation, I find it curious how you accept the appropriation of native Norwegian culture by your American Disney company, including traditional painting technique rosemaling, elements of our traditional dress bunad, eelements of Norwegian architectural styles, and of course the soundtrack where both native Norwegians Christine Hals and Sissel Morken Gullord contribute. Hals sings and Gullord plays an ancient Norwegian instrument called bukkehorn (goat horn). I guess it's OK to exploit some cultures but not others?

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  11. I had no idea about the Sami. I really liked Frozen, but it could have been a hundred times better if they had skipped the awkward trolls and added the Samis... I'm going straight to reading more about them right now!

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  12. WHY IN THE FUCKING NAME OF WALT DISNEY ARE WE ARGUING ABOUT A DISNEY MOVIE AND THE UNDERTONES.IN IT?!?!

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