Soooo… the trailer for the new Disney movie Frozen is out – and the early reviews based on advanced screenings have started coming out as well.
I’m going to be honest here. I am a major Disney fan. I have many happy memories of watching Disney movies while growing up and wishing I was a Disney Princess. Coincidentally, just this week I’ve been playing a montage of Disney soundtrack songs on YouTube over and over again. Disney is just so much fun.
But also controversial. Frozen hasn’t yet been released and it’s already had its fair share of controversy. Like its head animator commenting that female characters are really hard to animate because it’s hard to keep them looking pretty while expressing emotions. And the complaints that the original Hans Christian Anderson fairytale has been tweaked and nipped and watered down to pretty much any same-old, same-old average Disney tale. Which kind of adds fuel to the comments that Frozen pretty much kind of looks like Tangled, just set in snow.
I’ve also been following the controversy surrounding Frozen and its stereotypical slender blonde Snow Queen character with some interest. Well, not much interest at first. I have to admit, when I first caught wind of this debate, the idea of a white Snow Queen doesn’t really faze me after all, she represents snow and winter and ice and that’s all about pale shades and glassy brittleness, right? That would make sense. And of course there’s the point that when people think snow, they think Scandinavian folk with blue eyes, blonde hair and milkmaid skin. Furthermore, I’ve never had much of a problem growing up with westernised Disney characters – I always felt I could relate to them in spite of color and I never felt I was lacking something because I wasn’t pale and blonde and blue-eyed. (side note: one reason for this might be because I grew up in Malaysia where I never had the experience that other non-white children did growing up in western societies where they most definitely stood out from their peers and also got singled out for their differences, sometimes positively, often negatively. Back home, I was always the one trying to stand out because I didn’t want to be just like all the rest of my peers. And I’m beginning to realise how lucky I am that I had that kind of childhood growing up.)
But I digress. Let’s get to Frozen’s good points. Frozen has some great aspects to it. It looks like a great movie. It’s the first animated Disney movie to be directed by by a woman – Jennifer Lee. And from the early reviews based on advanced screenings, it looks like Frozen does feature some very strong, smart and courageous heroines who can take care of themselves perfectly well without the need of a man. It sounds like a great story, one more focused on the issue of sisterly love than on girl-falling-in-love-with-prince and it sounds like a movie I would happily watch. (Plus, it’s got Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel in it and I am a huge fan of both artists) However, there still remains those niggling stereotypes which Frozen has thus far failed to address, much to its and Disney’s detriment.
I’ll be clear on this. I do love that Disney has tried to incorporate some really strong, non-white Disney Princesses into its movies – Pocahontas was a favourite (I so badly wanted a raccoon and a hummingbird for a while). Jasmine is another favourite (love the earrings, Jas!) I am obviously a huge fan of Mulan, the Asian Disney Princess who kicks ass, gets punched in the face, can take her man down in a fight and also single-handedly saves her entire country from brutal invaders. I love that Lilo and her sister were gorgeous, naturally curvy beach girls with awesome tans. And let’s not forget Tiana and her go-getter attitude – someone all girls (and boys) can look up to.
Some people might say, ‘Yes, see, look at your examples – Disney already has plenty of non-white protagonists so I don’t see what the fuss is all about if they decide to make their latest heroine white and blonde.’ Yes, but the point is Disney already has so many white characters in its films. And there are so many other nationalities out there in the world, why not make use of them? Why not have a Japanese Disney Princess? Or a Haitian Princess? Or an African Princess or an Indian princess? Or why can’t we have more than one Chinese Disney Princess or more than one African-American Disney Princess? Why are there only one of each ethnic minority? Is this the Disney version of the token ethnic character where There Can Only Be One?
For those who point out that this is a cartoon set in a vast snowy country and that people in such surroundings are usually pale and blonde, Feminist Disney does a great job of pointing out that if they really wanted to, Disney could have, say, created a Saami princess if it was thinking along the lines of a movie set in a Nordic country. When I read that, it was a complete eye-opener to me and I began to get excited. Like, creatively excited. I was thinking, “You know what? That sounds awesome. I would love to see a Disney cartoon set in vast snow lands that could feature the Saami people. That’s something that’s never done before and it would have definitely piqued my interest a lot more than the usual traditional white Snow Queen!”
I wasn’t even thinking of the race issue then. I was just so intrigued because it was something different. One piece of advice that keeps getting passed down to aspiring writers is don’t stick to the stereotypes. There’s already so many narratives out there about forbidden love with vampires or country boys setting out on sword-and-dragon quests to save the world or ancient grey wizards mentoring young reluctant heroes or poor girl meets noble, rich king that the best way to stand out from the crowd and deliver a plot that publishers and literary agents weren’t bored to death with was to turn these narratives on their head. Make your story something special and different instead of the boring old tried-and-true. Keep pushing your boundaries. Aim for something better, something new, something that would make people stop in their tracks and take a second look and go, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before – that’s so cool!’ Break all the rules. Think outside the box. Be brave. Be strong. Be creative. Be unexpected.
And I think that’s one of the reasons Disney was struggling so much in the past – why Disney cartoons were starting to look tired and stale compared to, say, Pixar. The Pixar guys were were the ones pushing the boundaries and taking the risks. They were the ones putting out movies about stuff you’d never think would work like a robot that couldn’t talk (which meant a movie with hardly any dialogue in it) or a fat middle-aged retired superhero. They took a gamble on something new and different – and the gamble paid off. Now Disney’s bought Pixar and while the animation studio is still producing amazing stuff like Up, I’m not so impressed by other things like Monsters University which was obviously meant to capitalise on its predecessor’s success and, while it was a fun watch and a good story, it didn’t really wow me all that much. Everything in Monsters University was so predictable, you knew what was coming from a long mile off, unlike Monsters Inc. Disney needs to push its boundaries and be new and exciting again to be relevant to the new generations – and why not start by incorporating some new, exciting, unexpected characters?
As for those who say Disney’s just trying to maintain its sales targets and stick safely to keeping its predominantly Western white market happy by pushing to them role models with physical characteristics it could identify with? Well, for one thing, the world we’re in right now is a global world. Boundaries have changed a lot with the advent of technology like the Internet and super fast planes – this isn’t the 1400s where it takes years to travel between Europe and Asia anymore. You need to start thinking about marketing to a global audience.
And for another thing, I honestly don’t think that having non-white non-stereotypical dominant characters in a movie would really turn off a white mass market. Just like I didn’t have any trouble with relating to white Disney characters while growing up, I don’t think white American girls or boys will have trouble relating to, say, an Indian Disney Princess or a Samoan Disney Prince. I think what we identify with most is their inner attributes – of courage or honesty or intelligence or kindheartedness. Anyway, that’s really what we should be teaching our kids, even in a Disney movie that’s supposed to be just entertainment (because kids are natural sponges absorbing everything in the world, even the most minor details, and you can be damn sure they’re learning something even when they’re watching a cartoon) - is that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts – it’s what’s on the inside.