Frozen heroism

After my children's school talent show featured at least two of the movie's songs, and I'd heard bits and pieces of “Let it go” sung multiple times around the house, a couple days ago I finally watched the movie Frozen. Warning: spoilers ahead.

My husband had seen it earlier, having watched it with our daughters one day while I was at work. My oldest daughter had already seen it in a theater with some friends. My husband expressed some consternation over the way these Disney-Pixar movies typically portray the male characters, and he's convinced it's getting worse. Now that we have a son, he's deeply concerned about the message he will get should he watch those movies. I'm wondering what kind of ideas of manhood our daughters are absorbing.

My husband is right in that the movie Frozen pretty much sets the men up to either be villains or failures. The character Kristoff, who helps Anna with her quest to go find her sister and bring her back home, despite having made his living by braving the winter elements up to the point at which they meet, from that point on blunders his way through the elements only to have Anna repeatedly save his butt by her quick thinking and athleticism. This, despite the fact that up to that point Anna pretty much spent her life locked up inside her castle.

In the climax scene Kristoff is just about to perform the heroic act of true love which will save Anna's heart from completely freezing, but is prevented from doing so by random movie stuff–I had a difficult time following that particular scene but it involved a lot of snow, ice, and wind. He was close, so close, but Anna beat him to it, actually sacrificing herself to save her sister Elsa's life. Don't worry if you haven't seen the movie–it all ends happily ever after. Later on, Kristoff has a chance to vindicate his love (Anna) by confronting the villain who cruelly took advantage of her trust, but Anna brushes him aside and goes and punches the villain herself.

I don't have a problem in principle with a woman confronting her own villain, but it bothered both my husband and me to see her go about it in a way that showed utter disrespect to the good man, the one who actually did love her. I realize that in real life, we women often make the mistake of treating our men that way, but we don't need to have that behavior reinforced in our movies.

The movie was actually set up more to be a girl's quest. Elsa inexplicably shuts Anna out of her life, and runs away when her emotions get the better of her and she can't control her power to freeze everything around her. Anna goes after her to find out why, as well as to bring back summer. Although poorly developed, there is a story line about how Elsa has closed herself off from Anna for fear of hurting her, but Anna doesn't know why, but finds out during the course of the story. They have to both learn to trust each other, work with rather than suppress their feelings, and they discover that love conquers all, even the power to create an eternal winter. All of this could have taken place without involving any men at all. The loud and clear message was that they didn't need any men to help them in the slightest. So why bring the men in? My husband says the men were put there in order to be brushed aside. And I can't argue with him on that point. It would be better to leave men out than to bring them in for no other reason than to insult and otherwise dishonor them.

My issues with the movie are a bit more general than decrying the disrespectful way the heroine treated the man in her life. I'm not as concerned about how men in particular are treated, but I had some real issues with how people in general were treated in that movie. It happened that the man Kristoff took the brunt of such poor treatment, but it's applicable to men and women alike.

The scene in the movie which bothered me the most was the troll scene. When Elsa strikes Anna once again with her freezing power, that time it hit her heart, which would in the end kill her. Just like Anna and Elsa's parents had in the beginning, Kristoff takes Anna to see the trolls, because they can help.

The trolls do help–they tell Kristoff and Anna that only an act of true love can unfreeze her heart–but not until after they thoroughly demean Kristoff to Anna. They believe that Anna is Kristoff's lady friend and they take it upon themselves to inform Anna about every last weak, annoying, or disgusting habit Kristoff has. No detail is left out. The trolls do say that even with all those qualities Kristoff is a good and likeable guy, but primarily, he's a “fixer-upper.”

The humor in the trolls' song stems from the fact that many of the habits and characteristics mentioned do tend to be more the habits of men. They were poking fun at the ways in which men often behave privately in ways they wouldn't behave publicly.

But that's the crux of what bothers me. We all have things about ourselves we'd prefer others not know. We all have bad habits and secret sins. We are all a work in progress, or to borrow the terminology of the trolls' song, “fixer-uppers.” When two people get to know each other more intimately than most others, as in having been raised together, or gotten married to each other, then they will know about more of these private matters about each other.

A loving sibling or spouse or best friend will protect the dignity and honor of the loved one by not broadcasting the loved one's secret faults and weaknesses. A loving person will not set out to deliberately humiliate the other by sharing all those details with someone the other person considers to be special.

And yet that is exactly what the trolls do. They sing a very long and torturous song detailing all of Kristoff's faults. It's clear that they and Kristoff go back a long ways so they know about these things. Both Kristoff and Anna weakly protest this litany of Too Much Information, but in the end they find there is nothing they can do but shrug it off. Trolls will be trolls, I guess.

Although the trolls have behaved in an unloving manner towards Kristoff, and it's clear that this is how they normally behave, they are the ones who know that ultimately, it's love which will solve Anna's problem (and along with it all the problems of the world). They can rattle off in a most unconvincing way this line about it taking an act of true love to unfreeze Anna's heart, but it's clear they know absolutely nothing about such an act because they don't practice even basic love. They treat someone they love in a most disrespectful manner. After the song you are left to believe that either Kristoff is incredibly stupid for having allowed them to get so close to him, or they have utterly betrayed him. But the movie acts as if none of that is any big deal. They get the secret to unfreezing Anna's heart and the story moves on.

It's a little bit murky what the ultimate act of true love ends up being because there's so much action surrounding it. The best I can gather is that Elsa is fending off her pursuers who want to kill her by throwing ice at them. Anna, although much weakened from the cold and her heart being more and more frozen, somehow manages to catch up with Elsa and puts herself between her and one of her would be killers. Meanwhile, Kristoff, who's riding as fast as he can on his reindeer, just can't get close enough. Elsa, aiming for the killer instead hits Anna and she freezes solid, while the killer's arrow bounces off her now frozen hand.

When Elsa sees what happened she immediately breaks down crying and hugs Anna. And it's that breaking down in tears, that regret over what she'd unintentionally done, which turns out to be the act of true love. Anna then thaws out and Elsa from that moment on miraculously knows exactly how to control her powers. Somehow, though, that same regret and tears expressed the very first time Elsa accidentally hurt her sister as a child didn't have any kind of positive effect.

From the point of view of the epic story, I found that epic act of true love to be lame at best. Crying over your mistakes and realizing how your actions have hurt someone you love is a very good start, but it is not the sum total of true love. Nor is true love something you're suddenly going to learn to perfection after an entire lifetime of being decidedly unloving.

And finally, you don't make the epic transition from selfishness to sacrificial love while still maintaining all your other unloving characteristics. Anna may have been willing to die for her sister, and for a few seconds of screen time, she actually did, but there is no indication that she cultivated that kind of love in her ordinary dealings with the people in her life, and certainly not Kristoff. Once the dust (or should I say, the ice?) had settled, she was back to disrespectfully brushing Kristoff aside, as she with perfect technique punches the villain so hard he falls off the bridge into the water.

In the end, Anna and her sister are close again. Elsa figures out overnight how to control her powers. It turns out her parents' advice to stuff her feelings as a way to control her power was the worst possible thing she could have done. She needed to let herself feel her emotions and most of all, to rein in this power with the greater power of love. Anna recovers physically from the exertions involved in her epic sacrifice but gives no sense of heroic love having in any way changed her into a more habitually loving person.

In fact really, the overall though rather subtle message I get from the movie is that love is basically cheap and meaningless until some substance to it becomes necessary to move the story. The trolls can talk about love right after acting very unloving towards their friend. Elsa finally gets in touch with her inner pain and that's called love, and in the movie it's powerful enough to thaw an entire frozen person as well as end the eternal winter–at least the second time around when it was convenient to the storyline.

There's also the more harmful message that no matter how unloving you might be in normal life, when the opportunity to demonstrate epic love comes your way, you will quickly rise to the occasion and do it unflinchingly… and then go back to business as usual. Although I do believe heroism can happen like that, and yes, people do rise to the occasion even with no prior moral preparation, I don't think it is smart to count on that happening. Heroic love is actually a choice you make and a way of conducting yourself every day of your life. Most of the time it manifests in the ordinary things, but those ordinary things prepare you for the extraordinary epic moment if you get one. First of all, we don't all get our epic moments, but we are all called to love. The choice to not love in the ordinary matters could be a choice to not love at all. Second, for every unexpected hero who does rise to the occasion and act heroically even after not having lived heroically up to that point, there are probably hundreds who completely blow it.

Heroic love, like anything else, needs to be practiced. There may be the occasional prodigy, but most of us are going to behave in stressful times just in a more exaggerated manner as we normally do. If I'm not practicing love in my ordinary moments, odds are good that I will completely blow my epic moment when it presents itself. Rather than encourage me to practice love day in and day out, the movie Frozen instead encourages me to selfishly fantasize about being some big hero in some hypothetical future epic moment while making no effort to actually prepare myself for that moment. And unlike in the movie where love won out in spite of the characters' lack of virtue in ordinary affairs, in real life not cultivating virtue in ordinary life is more likely to lead to an eternal winter of frozen heroism.


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