Friday, March 21, 2014

Frozen (2013): A Bettelheimian Analysis

The fact of me seeing and enjoying a contemporary movie is such a rare occurrence that I decided it should be commemorated in a blog post, so I’m reviewing Disney’s Frozen (2013)-- even if it means I’ll have to repair my credentials as a highbrow in the weeks that follow.  More seriously, I've found myself ruminating about this movie to an unusual degree, which suggests to me two things: 1) that it is a quality film-- reasonably thoughtful and well-scripted; and 2) that it is probably a rather poor film for young children, who face very different crises of identity and consciousness than we do and often ruminate on very different subjects. 

But first: no review of a new animated feature from Walt Disney Studios would be complete if it did not rake the movie over the coals of Political Correctness.  Far be it from me to deny myself the pleasure of joining the swarms of P.C. scorekeepers who have descended this year on Frozen (2013), as they have on each of its predecessors, to start checking off boxes marked “race,” “gender,” and “class."  Why do we get such a thrill out of this?  Probably, we are somewhat embarrassed by the frank enjoyment we have gotten from the nostalgia and wish-fulfillment on screen and feel the need to distance our adult, “rational” selves from this childlike response, and the easiest way to do this is to hunt down pretexts for criticizing what we have enjoyed, and thus kicking away for others the same ladder of fairy tale pleasure we have just ascended.  The other, related explanation is that reviewers and “culture and media studies” gurus want to simultaneously get paid to watch kids movies and to seem clever while doing it—two goals which, in the absence of political moralizing, might seem irreconcilable. 

There were one or two aspects of Frozen, however, which really did cry out for the intervention of us P.C. referees.  One was the concerning fact that the only identifiably non-white voices in the film belonged to “Trolls” rather than humans.  The first Troll who speaks on screen is unmistakably a stereotype of a heavyset black woman, for instance, and was evidently voiced by a black actress.  Am I reading too much into this? It’s “seek and ye shall find” where bad racial politics in Disney movies are concerned, after all.  Well, I would be more hesitant to cry unconscious racism here if children’s animated films didn’t already tend to feature black and Hispanic voice actors in unsympathetic and comical roles, and very seldom in heroic ones (James Earl Jones’ Mufasa performance standing here as at least one majestic exception).  It’s also not like Disney hasn’t been called out on this so many hundreds of times already that it couldn’t possibly have known better. 

In short, I don’t think it requires a hyperactive liberal conscience to worry that this habit of casting minority actors as unlikeable or subhuman characters might convey a damaging message to kids, especially in conjunction with the faceless and liveried white servants who populate the castle scenes in Frozen.  The unconscious message being, I take it, that there exists one class of persons who live “real life,” and who are the consistent objects of our attention; and another class, lower in status, which exists primarily to observe and help along the members of the former class.  When of course the world shouldn’t—and in fact does not—work this way.  We are all the heroes of our own stories, as David Copperfield says.

It is the gender politics of Frozen more than anything else, however, that have inspired commentary.  Predictably enough, the film represents one more last-ditch Disney effort to present itself as acceptably feminist; and equally predictably, it has still raised journalistic hackles for not going far enough in this direction.  Says one critic: “It encourages young women to support and stay loyal to each other—a crucial message when mean girls seem so prevalent—as long as some hunky potential suitors and adorable, wise-cracking creatures also are around to complete them. […] It all seems so cynical, this attempt to shake things up without shaking them up too much.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that the people who make these movies are mostly Hollywood creative types and pretty much just like the people who raise these sorts of objections in their education and political outlook.  Never mind that the creators of this film are clearly falling over themselves in Frozen to forestall exactly the sort of criticism this comment represents.  Let’s just assess the claim on its merits.  Do the “hunky potential suitors and adorable, wise-cracking creatures” in Frozen “complete” the heroine?  Or do they just help her along?  Without giving away any spoilers, I think most viewers who watch the movie through to the end will incline toward the latter view.  Meanwhile, it is only one of the two main female characters who shows any romantic inclinations in the film—the other, Elsa, the Nietzchean creatrix, is never seen with a suitor of any gender or any degree of hunkyness.

However, the reviewer might have a point that the romantic subplot is inappropriate in this film.  It chiefly reflects adolescent concerns and identity issues, in other words, and asking younger children to relate to such things is asking too much.  I would imagine, in fact, that it could even be damaging.  So much of the media already directed at pre-adolescent viewers in our society teaches them to want to adopt and imitate teenage identities and concerns – to worry about dating and romance and peer status conflict, etc. when these may in reality be incomprehensible and even threatening to prepubescents.  If kids go along with this emulation of teenager patterns, they will feel profoundly at odds with themselves – even ashamed.  They may conclude that there is something wrong with them, for having childlike inner feelings that are so distinct from the adolescent ones society seems to expect and approve.

I suspect therefore that the proper viewership of this film may be quite distinct from its "target audience." Many adults I know have enjoyed Frozen quite a lot—mostly Millennials like me, whose collective journey out of adolescence has been a notoriously abortive one.  My sister teaches in a high school in Massachusetts, meanwhile, and assures me that her (female) students are all totally gaga over this film.  But what about the young children toward whom these sorts of movies are actually aimed and marketed?  Did they like it— and really like it?  We don’t know, because we can’t really trust statistics on this subject.  Kids in this age group don’t make their own movie-going choices, and are often ritualistically planted by their parents in front of all animated films, regardless of quality or age-appropriateness.

We could try to make some guesses, however.  My chief aid in this is Bruno Bettelheim’s classic study of Western fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment (1977).  Bettelheim was an eminent child psychologist in his day, and while his book contains some Freudian clichés that have not aged well, it is also full of insights.  Chief among them is Bettelheim’s central claim that children process their emotions and conflicts through stories, and the way in which they do so is so dissimilar from the ways in which adults make sense of their own feelings, that most of our attempts to speak directly to “what’s on the child’s mind” will fail.  Our best bet, says Bettelheim, is to trust in folk stories that have been related for centuries or longer.  Their longevity and their staying power in our collective memory suggests, says Bettelheim, that they answer to the child’s way of seeing the world in a way that rationalistic adults could not have otherwise foreseen. 

Fairy tales succeed, says Bettelheim, because they don’t hector (as “fables” do, by contrast); they don’t preach or moralize.  They also don’t simply mirror a child’s reality back to her, which would be a frightening experience and violate the protective distance which sits between us and the fairy tale world and which makes conflicts in that other world less unsettling in this one. 

I’m not sure Frozen stacks up according to Bettelheim’s standards of what a fairy tale should be.  The world it presents, while supernatural, obeys too much the logic of adult and teenage reality.  This is especially true, as already hinted, in its portrayal of romantic relationships, which conforms to an adolescent model.

We could dispute first of all whether it makes any sense to depict romantic relationships in films aimed at prepubescent children.  One could argue that no, it does not: such relationships aren’t on the radar of most kids at that age and are likely to be of little interest and relevance to them.  I know for one that if you had plopped me in front of Frozen as a child I would have writhed in agony for the whole two hours.  What I wanted at that age was not love and marriage, but to project myself into vast moralized conflicts between implacably opposed principles of good and evil.  My imagination didn’t dwell on future weddings or candlelit dinners, but on the number of Rivendell archers you could fit along the roof of my house, and how long they could hold out against the advancing spawn of Mordor.  (Though let it be noted amidst my ignorant armies clashing by night that I was a male child—all you retrograde sexists out there can attach significance to that fact if you so choose.)

But if we really must have romance in kids movies, the dialogue between the partners should not be patterned after 1940s screwball comedies the way it is in Frozen.  The sort of banter and teasing that the chief romantic couple in this film trade back and forth is no doubt delightful to adults and adolescents: it is clever and was well-executed for what it attempts.  But this sort of flirtatious sparring only makes sense to people old enough to have experienced sexual tension in their relations with other people, and the incongruous mixture of mutual frustration and fascination that it creates.

Adult or teenage behavior based on sexual tension will be incomprehensible for kids who haven’t been through puberty—and it may even seem threatening to them.  When preadolescent kids see adult romantic partners, they perceive them as parents, not as fantasy versions of themselves.  And within the child's simplistic model of how parents should behave, if they love each other (and romance always means love in Disney), they should be nice to each other.  The only romantic relationship I can recall liking or relating to as a kid in a Disney film was that between Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and it was because the pair were just straightforwardly kind and polite to one another – and therefore seemed like proper parents.  (I suppose there was also my proto-Red thing going on too, in that they were both comrades in a struggle against injustice.)

For young children, any grade of tension and frustration between two people means conflict and hostility—nothing more.  The idea that people might express their mutual interest and attraction to one another through squabbling would be a confusing and upsetting one to kids for this reason.  I suspect therefore that if you could really know what pre-pubescent children felt while watching Frozen – and not just what they claimed to feel, in emulation of parents or older siblings—you would find that they were made uncomfortable and even somewhat angry by the romantic subplot.

Supposing the filmmakers had nixed this plot, however, I don’t think they should have lost the main male love interest, Kristoff, who I think is constructed along acceptable Bettelheimian lines.  There is something atavistically gratifying about his role in the film as at once a loner, who lacks the obvious sources of protection from a surrounding society, and nonetheless a "good guy," who cares for other people.  Bettelheim offers a description of the ideal type of the fairy tale hero which suggests why this might be so: “The hero is helped by being in touch with primitive things – a tree an animal, nature [reindeer and ice, perhaps?] – as the child feels more in touch with these things than most adults do. […] The fate of these heroes convinces the child that, like them, he may feel outcast and abandoned in the world […] but, like them, in the course of his life he will be guided step by step, and given help when it is needed.  Today, even more than in past times, the child needs the reassurance offered by the image of the isolated man who nevertheless is capable of achieving meaningful and rewarding relations with the world around him.” (p. 11).

Keeping Kristoff and ditching the romance was a completely viable option—it simply would have meant making his and Anna’s relationship a Platonic one.  It is strange how opposed Disney has always been to this sort of solution, and how fiercely committed the studio is to inserting romance in every storyline.  Presenting a Platonic male and female friendship in the film might have encouraged young children in the belief that the opposite sex is not “threatening or demonic,” which Bettelheim regards as one of the earliest attitudes that children must transcend in the development process (p. 12).  Flirtatious sparring, by contrast (this is my view-- Bettelheim says nothing on the subject) is more likely to reinforce the attitude that the other gender is threatening when observed at the wrong time of life—one in which all teasing reads as hostility.

The second feature of the film which may be developmentally inappropriate is the lack of an obvious “villain" in its plot.  Of course, there are in fact a few outright baddies in Frozen, but they are easily forgettable, and the central conflict of the film unfolds entirely without their intervention.  The basic problem which must be solved in the film is Elsa’s ambivalent relationship to her own magical powers, which have the ability to harm those around her but which also seem to grow more deadly and potent the more she tries to repress them.  This has profound symbolic resonances with the struggles of adolescence and early adulthood, as we will see below. For a young child, however, the notion that you can do incredible harm by meaning to do good, that you could have tendencies inside you that escape your control, might be too disturbing and too alarmingly real a notion to face directly.

Bettelheim defends the role of the caricatured villain in the fairy tale on the grounds that it is only by “externalizing” the principle of evil that a child can reassure herself that she can eventually conquer or subdue it within herself.  According to Bettelheim, a child recognizes on some subconscious level that the villain of a story embodies traits she also finds in herself.  But because the villain is also not really the same person as the hero of the story, the child can gain confidence in the belief that destructive and aggressive inclinations, even her own, are not all-controlling.

If Bettelheim is right, and I think he is, then presenting Elsa as simultaneously a good person and the source of the destruction and aggression that set the plot in motion might be a mistake, in a movie intended for young children.  Suggesting directly that you can be “your own worst enemy,” rather than suggesting this indirectly and symbolically, as fairy tales do through externalized villains, might be overwhelming to young children—it might, in fact, destroy the confidence they have built up that destructive inclinations can eventually be mastered.  So Bettelheim would say, at any rate, if he could view it.

This is why Frozen probably should have been marketed as a film for adolescents and young adults.  If it had been, there would have been very little for me to complain about, apart from subaltern Trolls.  After all, these older age groups need fairy tales too, which help them to resolve their own inner dramas: and Frozen does very well at that, especially in its Elsa storyline.

The teenager, after all, is only just starting to bring to conscious awareness her own power to create and destroy, and she finds that she cannot do away with these powers or repress them out of existence—yet such repression is precisely what adults and peers and “society” seem to expect of her.  The struggle of the adolescent is therefore to free herself from “bad conscience,” as Nietzsche would call it, and accept her own creative and destructive power as a part of who she really is.  This is achieved in the first part of Elsa’s storyline, and the “Let it Go” show-stopper is the triumphant moment of emancipation (“Here I stand,” says Elsa, like Luther in the Diet of Worms).  It is also most likely the only moment in Elsa's storyline that the teenagers in the audience are likely to respond to at an emotional level, even if they accept intellectually that it is not "supposed" to be the end of the story. 

The young adults in the audience, by contrast, are far more likely to respond to the latter half of Elsa’s story.  The question that needs answering for them is not so much how to free themselves from what they perceive as an alien moral code.  Most already have more “freedom,” in the negative sense, than they ever wanted.  Their concern is how to make use of their freedom to create meaning in their lives, which requires a sense of values-- but one that is not just a retreat into the child’s dependence on authority.  The teenager is only too happy to learn that life is just “the restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (to quote Hobbes).  "Meaning" is provided for her by authority structures-- she already has more meaning than she can stomach.  The young adult, by contrast, finds the Hobbesian idea to be the most disturbing possibility of all.  She needs reassurance that by “letting it go,” and ridding herself of "bad conscience," something good will come out of her too, and not just the desire for conquest.  She needs to understand that her individual personality is not just a refined instrument of destruction.  Again, without giving away spoilers, the ending of the movie is meant to provide this sort of reassurance.

This is all developmentally spot on.  Why then, we might ask, didn’t Disney simply market this as a film for teenagers and young adults?  Well, it is a product of the theory of “family entertainment,” which holds that there should be “something for everyone” in a film if it is not to be simply an unremitting bore for Mom and Dad and Big Sis.  The idea, I guess, is that the young kids watching Frozen will enjoy the snow man and the reindeer while the older ones will enjoy – you know – the actual story.  

Needless to say, this theory is driven by the logic of marketing, and not by any awareness of the emotional needs of young children, who in fact need stories that speak directly to them, and not simply goofy characters and pretty colors to distract their minds.

The Elsa story line which works so well for teenagers and adults is likely to be confusing and maybe even hurtful to young children.  They are not yet suffering from the knowledge of their distinctive individualities, and they have not yet had any of the experiences of the young adult who, perhaps, really did “let it go,” at some point, and found that she hurt people by doing so without intending it.  Rather, the young child’s pressing concern is to gain trust and security in a world that is much bigger than he is and is full of danger and the threat of abandonment.  To gain confidence in such surroundings, the child needs to know there are good people (and animals) in the world who will help him along.

Who is going to offer the stories to young children that they need if it is not Disney?  Where in society can parents go to find them?  If one could rest assured that parents would simply read to their kids from old stories, and leave the movies to teenagers, the absence of such stories in Disney movies would be less disconcerting. 

But I suspect what is happening and what will continue to happen in our society is that young children are increasingly being exposed to adolescent concerns and models of identity, to the exclusion of the stories they need.  Kids will conclude from this that they are supposed to think and feel like teenagers, even though they don't naturally think and feel that way.  And the attempt to be something you’re not, as Frozen itself reminds us, can only lead to trouble.  

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