M, who is five, is obsessed lately with Frozen. I’ve heard her sing “Let it Go” so many times that I want to claw my ears off. In fact, we downloaded a Japanese version, so that if she was singing it over and over she’d at least be learning something, She acts out the characters, hums the score, and chatters about the plot constantly. It’s also opened some interesting lines of conversation.
I was talking to a friend recently about M’s obsession with Frozen, and she mentioned that she didn’t really like Frozen that well; she felt it was contrived and that Brave was a much better movie about a strong princess. Anna still fits the princess mold, in that she does all those standard princess things–wears a pretty dress, goes to a ball, gets married at the end (even though not to the prince.) Merida, however, dislikes the fancy dress, rails against being a princess, and refuses to get married at the end. Both Frozen and Brave deal with familial relationships: Anna with her sister, and Merida with her mother, and the bulk of both movies deals with repairing these relationships. There’s one clear difference I noticed between them, though: in general, the adults in my life preferred Brave, but all the little girls preferred Frozen.
I asked M about it; she liked both movies, but she saw Brave two and a half times and never asked to watch it again. Frozen has been requested so many times I’ve lost count. I asked her about why she preferred Frozen, and the gist of her reply is this: “Brave was okay but it was too scary. I didn’t like when the dad tried to hunt the mom. Sometimes it was kind of boring. It wasn’t as funny as Frozen. And Merida was cool; I liked that she could shoot and I liked her as a person. She’d be a good friend, I think. But she really wasn’t a very interesting princess.”
That’s it, right there. For a little girl obsessed with princesses, it’s all about the sparkly dress, the ball, and the wedding. Merida doesn’t fit. Merida’s tale is about her and her mother learning to accept each other as Merida grows up. It speaks to those of us who were teenage girls or the mothers of teenage girls. Brave, with its PG rating, intense ending, and anti-princess storyline is really aimed at a much older audience. It doesn’t reach a five year old the way it reaches an adult. As an adult, I was hoping M would latch onto Merida and her “I’m my own person” story, but she didn’t. (And once she acquired a Merida doll, it promptly was changed into a much sparkier dress.)
Frozen, on the other hand, had all the princess elements, as well as the reindeer and the snowman, which M found hilarious. I didn’t mind them as much as I thought I would; they fit more seamlessly into the narrative than other Disney “comedic relief.” The story was quickly paced, bright, and held her attention. Because of that, M and I were able to have deeper conversations about it. I asked M why Merida didn’t get married, and her response was that the princes weren’t appealing. I did feel that Brave faltered there; the princes weren’t remotely interesting, so Merida’s turning them down wasn’t such a big deal. It might have had more resonance if the prince was ridiculously awesome and she still chose her own company. Anyway, Anna in Frozen meets the prince and agrees to marry him immediately, and everyone else tells her that’s completely idiotic. And, at the end, the prince turns out to be a manipulative bastard.
This hit home for M. At the end, M said, “Wow, she’s sure lucky she didn’t marry that prince. I guess you were right; she should have gotten to know him better. Hmm.” M thought critically about that. She talked about how lucky Anna and Elsa were to have each other, how Anna chose the brave, funny and kind man over the handsome but slimy prince, and how maybe meeting a guy at a ball didn’t mean happily ever after. This was such a refreshing change from, say, The Little Mermaid, where the princess rips apart her body and family for a man she saw for five minutes and never spoke to, or Cinderella, where the prince is so oblivious he cannot remember the name of the woman he loves nor what she looks like.
Does Frozen have flaws? Certainly. Narrative-wise, Elsa’s transformation from frightened girl to Snow Queen really doesn’t make much sense, and the trolls are completely out of place. But the messages my daughter took away were perfect.
The other thing about these two movies is that the age when girls tend to be most into princesses is three to six years. While Brave was a great movie, when my daughter saw it at four, she was so scared she had to leave the theater. Because Brave is better for an older group of children, it misses that critical “princess” demographic. Frozen is perfect for that younger set. So, if we’re trying to send a more modern “princess” message to our young girls, Frozen did the job.
Ultimately, though, we just need more movies about princesses who understand that love comes in all forms, be it mother, sister, husband or your sense of self.