Disney comes close to transcending the Happily Ever After pitfall–and then fails.
If you've seen Frozen, then you know that being a person of color these days is sort of like having magic powers—if you live in a society (like Arendelle) where people with magic powers are vilified and run out of many towns out of fear and misunderstanding of the foreign and unknown.
Frozen 2, released for streaming by Disney three months early to alleviate boredom from coronavirus quarantine, aims to amend Arendelle's society by tossing together a sh*t ton of magic, indigenous people, and the lies white colonizers tell. In many ways, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee gave postcolonial studies majors everywhere a dream come true with Frozen 2. Despite Frozen grossing $1.27 billion, it had a few problems, particularly with whitewashing its fictional depiction of Norwegian culture. Ahead of the sequel's record-breaking release, word spread that the filmmakers signed a contract with the parliament of the indigenous Scandinavian Sámi community. This time, when they heavily borrowed elements of Sámi culture, they worked to "collaborate with the Sámi in an effort to ensure that the content of Frozen 2 is culturally sensitive, appropriate, and respectful of the Sámi and their culture."
As a result, they leaned all the way in; the plot of Frozen 2 revolves around the awakening of the four elemental spirits that reside in the Enchanted Forest just beyond Arendelle. Long ago, a bloody conflict erupted between the Arendellians and the native people of the forest, the Northuldra, though no one knows who instigated the violence. The spirits were so enraged that they cut the forest off from the rest of the world, creating a mythical wilderness that Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) were warned to avoid by their parents.
But then Elsa has to go and belt out another solo on her balcony, the climax of which is accidentally awakening the four spirits, which attack Arendelle and drive everybody out of the kingdom. On the bright side, "Into the Unknown" is a ballin' track that's more lyrically interesting and edgier than "Let It Go"–it's sort of Elsa's version of being a Disney teen star trying to start a career in more mature mainstream pop music. The downside is that Frozen 2's runtime is 1 hour and 43 minutes, with a handful of convoluted sub-plots that include a weird Pocahontas send-up involving the former king and queen, the moral question of reparations for colonialism's crimes, and it turns out that Elsa and Anna are mixed race.
For context, the core demographics of Disney's princess movies are under 10 years old and barely have enough mass to hold down their theater seats. Reparations in a Disney film is a lot to throw at them.
(Elsa, Anna, and Their Indigenous Mother...Obviously).
For the record, I enjoyed Frozen 2 at least 175% more than the original, probably because the complexity and nuance of a postcolonial narrative work well for a viewer who wasted a year completing an Honors Thesis in postcolonial literature with respect to Korean-Americans' cognitive dissonance with Korean history...But we try to protect our children these days, and that includes being shielded from Edward Said's Orientalism until puberty. Inevitably, children will be forced to reckon with the father of postcolonial studies, anyway: "Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world's resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being." Holy sh*it, that's heavy for a nine-year-old! And yes, those are exactly the thematic stakes in Frozen 2.
The sequel managed to set the record for the highest-grossing film in Thanksgiving history because it's Disney's ideal woke version of colonization. The Enchanted Forest isn't just the home of the native Northuldran people (whose manner of dress and features were designed to resemble the Sámi); it's the scene of Arendelle's own Thanksgiving horror story. Long ago, Anna and Elsa's grandfather, King Runeard, made a peace offering to the Northuldran people by building an expansive dam to supposedly strengthen their rivers. In reality, he was weakening their forest so they would come to depend on Arendelle for resources (you know, like a colony). So while the Arendellians and Northuldrans are cavorting around the forest to celebrate their newfound unity, King Runeard murders the leader of the Northuldran people and sort of begins a genocide. And it's all because of a dam; as Inkoo Kang at Slate says, "Uh oh. Dams are almost always a bad sign in movies."
There's also a lot of rote talk about how "water has memory"; there's a hitherto undiscovered "fifth spirit" that unites all the other elements (thereby bridging the distance between magic and humans, because...reasons?!); and, oh yeah, Elsa and Anna's mother was actually 100% Northuldran. She saved their father's life at the Thanksgiving bloodbath and later married him, leaving behind her family and her home to join his shiny new world… That's Pocahontas. That's a straight-up riff on Disney's whitewashed, "noble savage" myth of Pocahontas.
As Edward Said wrote, "[A] white middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition 'it' is not quite as human as 'we' are." So while Elsa and Anna are on a quest to save Arendelle from the four spirits (and also seek out the source of Elsa's powers once and for all), there's a moment when Elsa stands in the forest surrounded by the Northuldran people and vows with the full gravitas of Idina Menzel's cavernous lungs to free the forest and its people. But don't worry–it's not a White Savior moment! Because now Elsa and Anna are half-Northuldran, which makes them coded as mixed-race people (and indigenous people, at that!), so they can't be White Saviors, according to Disney. Just look at how Not White they are:
Okay, yes, they're still among the whitest princesses to ever whitely save the day. But their heroic conviction to do "The Next Right Thing" (yes, that's a musical number) means that the heaviest gravity of the entire film centers on their mission to rectify their grandfather's betrayal—by destroying the dam. Doing so means destroying the city of Arendelle, imbuing this whole children's movie with emotional and moral anxieties over how far one is willing to go to rectify injustices of the past. South African writer Caryn Welby-Solomon acknowledges that "Elsa and Anna were not part of their grandfather's betrayal, but they are profiting off of it, and so it is up to them to right the wrongs." While the slapdash solution is too rushed to reach its full potential, she says the "'solution' is beautifully depicted, with Anna sacrificing Arendelle in order to save the forest and set the people free. It's a selfless act from the part of the oppressors that creates harmony between the two nations again."
But overall, it's just a "bizarre storyline," as Kang at Slate describes. It's mostly spooky—and plenty problematic—on multiple levels: "The idea that we should be willing to annihilate any and all current institutions (including the only home some people have known!) to correct historical atrocities sure is, uh, lofty. Framing reparations in this zero-sum way feels both simplistic and possibly counterproductive toward actual justice."
If there's a through-line to the Frozen franchise thus far, it's about discovering all the truths that are hidden by oppressive powers that be. While Elsa is sadly not a queer icon (yet), she's come a long way from the internalized shame of her father's "conceal it, don't feel it" bullsh*t and fears of being ostracized and rejected. Anna went from fighting against Elsa's restrictive lock-down of the castle (by developing terrible taste in men, but fine, she was desperate for freedom) to sacrificing the only home she's ever known for civil justice. Together, they seek to reverse the lies and revisionist history of their grandfather's generation perpetuated in order to maintain Arendelle's hegemonic control. Hell, all Olaf originally wanted was to experience summer, but the limitations of his frozen body stood in the way of his self-discovery until Elsa's magic overcame the cruel, ephemeral nature of snow…
Am I taking Frozen 2 too seriously? You bet your frozen ass I am. Because, despite all its flaws, this movie goes further than most to introduce the discomfort of self-discovery to children. One of the (many) problems with Disney's classic Happily Ever After trope is the erasure of marginalized people whose communities frankly haven't seen many happy endings. For everybody, growing up is about uncovering the lost or misfit parts of yourself by sweeping back the lies and deceptions sowed by institutions of power, whether that's society at large or your own family. But for young people of color, generational oppression just compounds the silence and shame already wrapped around the whole ridiculous business of coming-of-age.
What I'm saying is: If you come from Un-Happily Ever After people, then even a children's movie addressing difficult questions about how to relate to fraught history can help prime you for the real discomfort of discovering how deeply histories of injustices have affected your community and your family. It doesn't make it easier (it's not magic, after all), but it reaffirms that you're part of a larger context and a larger story.
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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