Sunday, 29 June 2014

Disney Democracy

Hasn't the Disney Princess thing always been about democracy?  True Love, ballroom dancing and tassels and sequins for all?  Well, except the Bad Guys, because hey, if you want a story, somebody's got to be a bad guy and they can't get those things or what would the be point ... although come to think of it that sociopathic prince in Frozen gets all of them, moreorless... eh?  

Wanna hear a secret?  Drama and democracy aren't compatible.  And the jury's out on whether Hans is either a Prince Charming or a proper antagonist.  

Disney must surely have selected the princess fairy tales as the most compatible with the Horatio Alger rags to riches "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" - an archetype often expressed in coming of age stories.  All Disney Princesses must be abuse survivors - they usually survive domestic slavery, though occasionally coma (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White) or being sold into slavery to somebody with no particular agenda (Belle).  The horror of their backgrounds is exceeded only by the horror of their eligible princes - two necrophiliacs, a Monumental Sulk, a Foot Fetishist - the list goes on - and for these features one must hold the selected source material responsible.  Fairy tales are famously terrifying - and famously moralising, functioning as a how-to guide to survival and thriving in the middle ages (and earlier).

They are also so very old - Cinderella goes back over 2000 years at least - embodying numerous variations of the coming of age story  and adapting across cultures while retaining their archetypes: the poor girl rescued by marriage to a rich man, the neglected child who grows up to be belle of the ball.  Not so American, but totally archetypal, and socially controlling of women.  Kindness and intelligence are often as important in fairy tales as beauty because these girls are locked into patriarchal power structures, which are dependent on the moral as well as practical qualities that women bring to unpaid work; the span of the film encompasses a princess's whole butterfly-lifespan of freedom, and in those patriarchal structures lie first their hell and then their happiness.  And most importantly, the bridge from one of those to the other is a Glittery Dress. It's a vital merchandising part of the Disney machine.  And fair enough, because glittery dresses are fun and pretty and what small child doesn't want one?

In the case of Frozen, the demand for the glittery dresses (Elsa's snow one, of course) has been so intense that Disney has come under fire for its inadequate stock of dolls and costumes.  Apparently the market for these has been double that of merchandising for Tangled.  

Holy crap, what have Disney done so right?  Is it the plunky music?  Judging by the success of many shouty ballad singers on talent shows, Let It Go really should be a sure fire hit, and indeed you probably don't know a child who hasn't heard it.  Is it the fact that there are as many main male characters as female?  Disney has been trying to extend its Princess Appeal to the small boy demographic, and my three nephews certainly watched bug eyed and muttery with interpretation throughout, and then told me it wasn't a "girly" film.  Or is it the demise of the Prince?

Poorly parented, the Frozen heroines grow up neglected and isolated, one by fear of her own abilities (which she has been taught are solely destructive by her muggle parents), and the other by the withdrawal of her terrified sister and early death of their parents.  So far, so Disney.  But then Elsa pops out of her Howard Hughes room and forbids her sister to marry "a man you just met", even though he is a Prince.  Previously, remember, a Disney Princess marries a man she just met when she was unconscious. In the case of Snow White, he wasn't even picky about her waking up.  Bossy sisters, eh?

After Elsa's social anxiety and annoyance with her affection-demanding sister result in a huge Winter Incident, she flees, pursued by Anna the redheaded optimist goes after her and meets an ice harvester, to whom she decides only to give a sledge and some innocuously Disney kissing at the end of the film.  Because the Prince has turned out to be a Complete and Utter Git.  Is it the death of patriarchy in Disneyland?  Is the Prince too undemocratic, does even a humble worker deserve a princess?  Are men not entitled to own women any more?

These Big Questions have led various commentators to suggest that, along with Elsa's refusal to end up with a man at all, in spite of having to rule a kingdom (sic) by herself, this is a feminist realignment of Disney Princesses.  For my money, possibly the strongest realignment of values is the fact that the antagonist/villain is actually young, attractive and male.  This is modern morality with some punch; "don't trust the boy who looks too good to be true", as opposed to "don't trust the old woman who is plainly an evil sorceress".  It suggests a girl should be jolly careful about whom she shags (rather than recognising wickedness in the parental figures on whom she depends) and that posh isn't necessarily trustworthy.

Kristoff is not the first democratic parti, however; Rapunzel in Tangled - for my money a better film, with infinitely better music, more charm and a sweeter relationship at its heart - is rescued by a thief, who changes his ways and whom she subsequently marries.  Much of the fan fiction for Tangled deals with her managing the transition from prisoner to princess, as well as Flynn/Eugene becoming less of a narcissistic criminal and more of a prince (or adult).

The role of drama, according to both Aristotle and modern Hollywood, is to catch the audience up in an impossible, unattainable world, where their betters live out to the fullest extent mankind's deepest fears and horrors, shock them by reversals, and allow them, by living out these feelings without danger, to walk out relaxed and revived.  Fan fiction is perhaps a measure of how successfully these films achieve this.  The tighter and more satisfactory the structure, the more inescapably believable the closure, the less the fan fictioneers have to work with.  The reversal in Frozen is stunning.  Anna turns away from her own salvation and thereby saves her own life, her sister's life, and the problem of Elsa's powers.  But it doesn't involve either of the male leads, or destroy the antagonist (compare this to Rapunzel's hair reversal, which kills and saves Flynn and destroys Gothel while never compromising her opposition to violence) and leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  Hans is still alive.  Kristoff is still an ice-harvester.  Both women are still single.

There is a huge amount of fan fiction for Frozen.  I think it's because the structure of the film leaves so many loose ends.  Fan fiction is like a chandelier, reflecting back a thousand different possibilities. Elsa has imprisoned Hans behind an ice door in her dressing room; Hans has been cast off by his country and become a vagabond; Hans has gone to another country and staged a coup there; Hans has had a sami remove a piece of the mirror from his eye and heart and become a different person.  Sometimes Anna is dating Kristoff, sometimes Hans, sometimes Elsa as her sister, sometimes Elsa in an alternative universe where they aren't related, sometimes in a version of Arendelle where they aren't related.  Anybody could be with anybody, even though it is a badge of honour for fanfic to keep their characters as "canon" - faithful to those in the film - as possible.

There's an inherent appeal to both Elsa and Hans, whose characters don't fit.  Handsome princes aren't supposed to be wicked; beautiful princesses aren't supposed to be so anxious they can barely leave their room or so powerful that they can change the world.  Hans at least knows what he wants; Elsa only knows what she can do.  She is near to a tragic character; flawed by her inability to control her magic, she seems only to want not to do harm, and this, like her voluntary isolation, perhaps speaks to girls and women, not as a function of feminism, but as a fact of their existence.  Elsa is essentially a terrified mess, and this is familiar territory to women frightened of their bodies, their destinies, their ability to control their lives.  She is silenced by her unfeminine power, by the fear of rejection that that power brings; again a horribly familiar experience for girls who are expected to sit quietly and not to shout out or be bossy.  She also functions largely as antagonist; she nearly destroys a country, she denies her responsibility as a ruler and hurts her land, and her reversal is a function of Anna's, not her own.  

The vast variation of relationships alone is indicative of some lack of fixedness in the Frozen universe; there are very few Tangled fics which deal with relationships or major character changes in the same way.  Rapunzel does not generally date the Captain of the Guard, or Mother Gothel, or either of the Stabbingtons.  Her character is strikingly intelligent and clear minded and determined.  Rapunzel appeals more straightforwardly to feminists, but her character is maybe less expressive of the attempts women make to deal with their own power, because she deals with it so well.  She has been warned about men and if anybody tries to hurt her she does not scruple to whack them unconscious with a frying pan.  Anna is violent towards both her potential suitors, but always in a depressingly passive aggressive, "accidental" and in Kristoff's case also unfair manner.  She knows nothing and shows no intelligent caution that might help her learn.

However, both Anna and Elsa end up happily anti-snobbery, welcoming men into their lives who have shown moral qualities - loyalty, kindness, friendship, tolerance, self-sacrifice - rather than those who have status, breeding or power, or place too high a value on these things.  Maybe a tiny step towards democracy, even though no story can be democratic - because what about Elsa, the nearly wicked queen and Hans the traitor prince?  The film leaves them unsolved, free to roam the wilds of FanFicLand and the upper echelons of 1820s society, with even rumours of an echt Disney sequel ... so thankfully democracy isn't safe for Disneyland yet.