Tag Archives: Hans Christian Andersen

Long live the Queen

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Amy Good kicks off today’s musings with her thoughtful post about the challenge in writing supernaturally empowered characters.  While it’s important reading for anyone crafting a story that includes such elements (guilty), it got me thinking again about Frozen and what a pivotal moment for the cinematic portrayal of women the character of Queen Elsa actually is.  You’ll forgive the inklings of hyperbole creeping into that statement, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.  (For additional insightful reading on Frozen and its depiction of women, be sure to check out Emmie Mears’ take at Searching For SuperwomenDebbie Vega’s at Moon in Gemini and Liz Hawksworth’s at The Stretch for Something Beautiful.)  I touched on this briefly in my original take on the movie, written the evening after I saw it, but as the movie has sloshed around my subconscious for the last several weeks, and I’ve listened to “Let It Go” more times than should be healthy, I’ve realized that there’s a lot more here worth exploring in greater detail, and some of these other great posts have crystallized – pardon the obvious pun – my thinking on the subject.

To delve more deeply into this character, we have to go back to her long-simmering genesis.  Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen has been around since 1845, and Walt Disney himself had long wanted to give the classic tale the animated treatment.  The stumbling block was always the title character, how to create a compelling version of her that would give modern audiences something to sink their teeth into, and several attempts fell by the wayside and were abandoned.  Even as the movie finally got underway in the latter half of the 2000’s, the story team still couldn’t crack the Queen.  The first stroke of inspiration involved making her the sister of the protagonist, Anna.  The second, and indeed the masterstroke, was in stripping Elsa of her villainy.  If you look at some of the original character concepts (just Google it, there are too many hyperlinks in this post already), Elsa was going to be your tired and typical wicked witch, with Anna presumably forced to fight and ruefully defeat her.  And then, so the legend has it, the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez brought a draft of Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go” to the producers – planned originally as a “look how eeeeevil I am” strut in the vein of similar ditties belted out by Disney villains past.  Of course, that’s not what the Lopezes delivered.  “Let It Go” is a triumphant refrain of self-realization, not something you’d hear from the lips of Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, Scar or any of the Disney baddies that had come before.  Surely, then, Elsa could remain a good person, grappling with her own fears of who she’s become, and figuring out a way to integrate all the parts of her soul into a complete and confident being.  And to give that arc to a woman with magical powers is a blast of fresh Arctic air.  Full marks to screenwriter/co-director Jennifer Lee.

The wicked witch is one of the most regrettable archetypes in literature, because it originates from a fundamental place of (male) discomfort with the idea of powerful women.  We dudes have to face it and deal – women are always going to have powers that we don’t.  They can bear children, i.e. create life; short of bad Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies we’re forever out of luck on that one.  To be completely candid and even a little NC-17, women can arouse us physically in a way we can’t really reciprocate.  And even more to the point, we will never figure them out, no matter how long we spend in their company, how many writings of theirs we read, how many times we beat our heads against the wall when they do something completely unexpected and seemingly out of character.  They’re piercingly right with that old refrain – we just don’t understand.  We won’t.  And everyone knows what the typical human reaction is to something we don’t understand.

I recall reading once that the biggest driver of the persecution of witches in medieval Europe was that era’s version of the American Medical Association, that is, the assorted doctors of the time who were peeved that women were doing better at healing the sick with herbs and other natural lore than they were with the presumably university-endorsed “leech and bleed” treatment.  Invoking a mistranslated Bible verse and calling every second woman a witch was, to them, simply an effective way of eliminating the competition in the medical field.  To say nothing of how many other men probably hurled the charge when an innocent woman failed to return their romantic advances.  The witch became a catchall for everything men didn’t like about the opposite gender, and slithered her way into the darkest pages of the fairy tales that endure to this day.  Always out to cause mischief and throw up barriers to true love and occasionally eat a child or two.

To be fair, Disney’s earliest animated efforts did little to dispel this archetype.  Snow White had the Evil Queen, Sleeping Beauty had Maleficent, both characters of tremendous power, beauty and irredeemable evil (noteworthy that Maleficent’s name comes from the Latin maleficium, which means “wrongdoing.”)  We also had the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and a long, verging on infinite line of fantasy films both sumptuous and cheap featuring scantily-clad and/or hideous magical ladies waylaying our heroes with a combination of spells and wiles and cackling laughter, leading up to Tilda Swinton’s White Witch in the Narnia series, Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mila Kunis’ Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s Evanora in Oz: The Great and Powerful.  Such an easy path to tread for screenwriters half-assing their way through a script assignment.  What is the usual fate of these legions of empowered women?  Death.  Depowering and humiliation from time to time, but usually death.  It’s what they get for stepping outside the natural order, for interfering with the cause of love and freedom, baby.  When it’s at the hands of a man with a sword, the metaphor becomes even more painfully obvious.  Man conquering the unremitting darkness that is woman with his you-know-what.  Cue the Viagra ads.

In Frozen, Elsa’s cryokinetic powers are vast, verging on goddess-level.  We’re not just talking a blast of ice cubes here and there.  She blankets an entire kingdom in an eternal winter.  In the “Let It Go” sequence, she builds a stunning palace of ice with a few waves of her hand and stamps of her feet.  She can defend herself easily against a squad of armed men, and most importantly, she can create life.  With a mere flicker of her magic she conjures Olaf the snowman, an autonomous being with his own unique personality, and also her hulking hench-monster Marshmallow (who, if you stayed till the end of the credits, proves he has a softer side as well.)  To my recollection, the last time a female character as powerful as Elsa appeared on screen was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.  Like Elsa, Jean Grey in that movie was a woman born with incredible abilities she couldn’t control, and also like Elsa, attempted to live within constraints placed upon her by men, until her powers eventually exploded and injured those she cared most about.  Of course, how did that all work out?  Predictably, Jean turned evil, disintegrated a bunch of people, and had to be put out of her misery by a man with metal claws (more below-the-belt symbolism), after she begged him to kill her.  Impaled through the cold, dark heart just like the wicked witch deserves.

Frozen does not end with Elsa being saved or murdered by a man, or losing her powers.  It ends, ironically, with Elsa becoming even more powerful – gaining strength from her sister’s love and learning to thaw what she has frozen.  Achieving a balance and serenity within herself.  One of the most delightful little moments from the end of the movie is watching Elsa create a skating rink for her subjects and them having fun with it, because it signifies that she hasn’t had to sacrifice what makes her special to find acceptance from the outside world.  In her review, Debbie mentioned that some critics of the movie have suggested that Elsa should have had a love interest.  I can’t think of anything that would have so wrecked the essential message.  A woman’s journey to realizing her power is one she has to take on her own, without some barrel-chested dingus patting her hand and telling her “there, there.”  Ultimately, Anna’s sacrifice was about showing Elsa she needed to love herself, and that she could, because her sister would always have her back.  I can’t see that having worked as well or resonated as deeply if Anna was Andy.

What is Frozen telling us menfolk, then?  That a powerful woman isn’t someone we should fear, or try to cage.  That she isn’t someone we need to conquer or subdue in any way.  That we do best to help her figure out who she is and the extent of what she can do by staying the @#$@ out of her way.  And that the greatest thing we can do when she uses that power is cheer.

Unfreezing creativity

You can emerge from a great movie in any number of frames of mind:  stirred to action, moved to tears, smiling ear to ear or even enraged beyond words.  And then there are those movies that have a different and in some ways, more profound effect.  They come along at just the right moment, when you’re a bit discouraged by a recent course of events, when the well is drying out and replenishing itself with doubt instead.  Movies that embrace your simmering creativity and stoke your desire to tell stories, because they remind you of the possibilities inherent in the blank canvas by pushing the limits of what can be done with it.  They disarm and enchant the cynic and turn him into a dreamer again, fingers twitching to fill hard drives with a wealth of new words.  Frozen, Disney’s magnificent animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, did that for me.

The story of a bond of sisterhood tested by fate, magic, misunderstanding and a heck of a lot of snow and ice, Frozen is visually sumptuous, befitting the pedigree of its studio, and uncommonly emotionally profound.  The two princesses of the vaguely Nordic realm of Arendelle are the playful young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who possesses the power to create ice and snow.  They are inseparable until Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic, at which point their well-meaning royal parents decide that the two would be better off kept apart, for their own safety, and Anna’s memory altered to remove her awareness of her sister’s abilities.  Years later, after the girls have been orphaned, Elsa is poised to be named Queen of Arendelle until a confrontation with Anna over a rash decision to marry a handsome prince she’s just met results in Elsa’s long-suppressed powers bursting forth and blanketing Arendelle in eternal winter.  Shunned by her people, Elsa flees to the distant mountains, pursued by Anna who has faith that her sister can be convinced to bring summer back to the realm.  I’d prefer not to say more at the risk of being spoilery, but despite some red herrings dropped early on that suggest you’re in for the typical schmaltz about princesses in towers and the conveniently available square-jaws they always fall for, and despite the prominence in advertising of the goofy living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the story goes in a much more mature and welcome direction, keeping the relationship between the sisters as the emotional linchpin – while dazzling your eyes with some breathtaking animation work, especially in any scene involving Elsa’s magic.

Given what I’ve discussed at length here before in terms of the onscreen portrayal of women, how refreshing indeed to find a story that both passes the Bechdel test and gives depth and complexity to a female character with supernatural powers!  The clip I’ve linked above is my absolute favorite moment in the movie, because not only is it a terrific song belted out by a sublimely talented Broadway veteran at the top of her game (even calling back a little to her famous interpretation of Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”), but it’s a scene of a young woman embracing everything about who she truly is and reveling in the wonders of what she can do with her amazing gifts.  A triumphant coming out of a sorceress, if you will, and a scene of unbridled joy.  We don’t get to see that very often, if ever.  Women with powers in movies are usually punished for them – they have to give them up to attain the life they really want, or, they choose to use them for evil and must therefore be destroyed (usually by… sigh, a virtuous man).  While Elsa does cause some inadvertent mayhem that must be undone, the resolution of the story thankfully doesn’t require her to abandon what makes her unique.  She adds to her life instead of taking something away.

As a man writing a novel in first-person from a woman’s point of view (a fantasy about a woman with magical powers, no less), those issues are always top of mind for me.  It’s too easy to venture down the well-trodden, familiar path at the end of which lies the execrable Mary Sue; the collection of cliches guaranteed to please no one, least of all the author.  Experiencing Frozen, though, shows me that it can be done, and done extremely well, and the positive response to the movie by both audiences and critics proves that these kinds of characters can touch hearts.  Magic has always had a lingering visceral appeal, and too often literature and cinema adhere to the conservative religious view that there is something fundamentally wrong about it, forever at odds with how the world is supposed to function.  Yet it’s something that we all still seem to want in our lives – in the first encounter with a new love, in the twinkle in the eye of a child waiting for Santa, in the wish made on the shooting star.  Why can’t the world be magical?  Why can’t we make it that way?

Writers have our own magic to offer.  We have these crazy ideas and wild emotions that we are somehow able to transmogrify into a collection of permutations of 26 letters that cast spells upon those who read them, with the very effects I mentioned off the top.  When we’ve suppressed that nature for too long, because day jobs and other obligations have gotten in the way, or we’ve just been too downright lazy to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we risk not a catastrophic explosion like Elsa, but a gradual withering away of our spirit.  We get mopey and find little to be happy about in what should be fulfilling lives.  What we need to do is have a “Let It Go” moment instead and revel in what we love and what we know we’re meant to be.  Sometimes it takes a reminder; a movie like Frozen that assures you that storytellers are capable of some wondrous things.  And then you want to get back to your own fictional universes and start pushing your own limits again, typing until your fingers fall off and you’ve created magical palaces of skyscraping prose.  Hoping somewhere in the back of your mind that one day your story will have the same impact on somebody else – and the cycle of creativity will continue, forever unfrozen.