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Lake Charles, Louisiana, United States
Hello, and welcome to my blog! I like to write about children's literature, fandom studies, video games, feminism, and pop culture in general. I've recently earned my Ph.D. in children's literature ( Fall 2012) at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I also teach English (composition, British literature, and women's literature) at Sowela Technical Community College. Oh, and I like cats! [Banner image artwork by Yuki Midorikawa]

Monday, December 16, 2013

GIRL POWER!! (almost) -- Frozen and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

They're strong female characters ... honest they are.

Note: I will indicate when I’m about to go into ***SPOILER ALERT*** territory for each film, so no worries on that account.

This weekend I saw two highly anticipated films (well, at least highly anticipated for me): Frozen and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. On the surface, you wouldn’t think either of these films had anything to do with one another. But I’ve been thinking about both of them—especially about what’s bothered me most about both of them—and I don’t know. Perhaps you’ll be surprised by the conclusions I’ve drawn; perhaps you’ll agree with me, or disagree with me.

I’ll start with Frozen. First, and this may have nothing to do with Disney or the film itself, but the film was preceded, as usual, by several previews for future films. The first I remember had to do with Lego characters come to life. The main character is a male “everyman” kind of Lego guy. There is a female Lego who will obviously be or become his love interest. And then throughout the rest of the preview there was only one other female Lego with a speaking part (a Wonder Woman Lego—there was also a Batman Lego, a Gandalf Lego, and other male famous characters). Two speaking females in a preview that featured perhaps 10-15 speaking characters.

The next preview was for a film called The Nut Job. This appears to be about a squirrel and a mouse who are obsessed with stealing nuts. There were ZERO speaking female characters in this preview, and possibly zero female characters shown at all—one of the animals may have been female, but the scenes moved so fast I couldn’t tell. Either way, none of the main characters appear to be female.

The next preview was for the Smurfs sequel. As usual, Smurfette is the only speaking female character.

The final preview I can recall is for a film based on the Coca-Cola polar bears. Two characters talk in this preview, a father bear and his son. There are three other bears. I’m going to assume this is not a polar bear family with two dads (perish the thought) and suggest that the other adult bear is female. Perhaps one or two of the remaining siblings is female. But they didn’t speak during the preview.

So that’s three speaking female characters in four previews. Combined, the four previews probably had about 20-30 speaking characters.

Finally, there was an animated short featuring old school Mickey and friends. In the short, Minnie is kidnapped and Mickey has to save her. “Help! Help!” she screams throughout most of the segment. Mickey eventually rescues her, and they dance and almost kiss (another character humorously jumps between them before their kiss can happen).

Okay, finally, onward to Frozen.

***SPOILER ALERT** (for Frozen—proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the film, or skip to Smaug)

At this point, I’m already frustrated by the portrayals of female silence and helplessness I’ve just witnessed leading up to the film, so I am probably a bit of an ogre for the first 15 to 20 minutes or so. I found the dialogue amateurish and the pacing way, way off. But then we get to the coronation party, and things finally seemed to come together, narratively speaking.

I do want to say before I go any further that two things I loved about Frozen were the songs and the relationship between Elsa and Anna. These were perfect; Anna’s song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and Elsa’s “Let It Go” brought tears to my eyes.

Now, on to the stuff that bothered me.

Of course there is romance. To be honest, I thought the song between Anna and Hans was quite cute. The writers seemed to be showing how these two dorky souls had managed to find one another, and a genuine spark was struck. Of course, it’s ridiculous to meet and fall in love with someone in one day, so Elsa’s refusal to bless their engagement I felt was fitting (and doubtless a conscious rejection of old school Disney Princess romances). But it seemed clear they liked each other, and I liked that neither seemed all that “traditional.”

When Elsa offers a firm “NO” to Anna and Hans’ request for a blessing, it kind of tells the audience that true love doesn’t just happen the way it does in fairy tales (read: previous Disney films). I liked this, but it was expected. Disney is not about love at first sight anymore. It’s too savvy for that; it knows audiences have rejected that kind of romance.

So then, of course, the *ahem* hits the fan, and Elsa disappears. Anna goes to look for her, leaving Hans in charge. Hans proves to be a considerate interim leader; he offers free food and cloaks to the people during the magically-induced winter. Later, when he goes to track down the missing Anna, he tells the others to find Anna but not hurt Elsa.

Enter Kristoff. Initially, there is excellent chemistry between Anna and Kristoff, though it isn’t romantic. They don’t appear to be attracted to one another. Anna hasn’t forgotten Hans, either. The rock troll song “Fixer Upper” is thus incredibly awkward; the trolls get the wrong idea about Anna and Kristoff—or do they?

I’ll be honest. At this point I still thought Kristoff was meant to end up with Elsa, and Anna would be with Hans (after a more suitable “let’s get to know each other better” period). But the end of this number—and this is way, way towards the latter half of the film—made me realize things weren’t going to end up in that manner.

So Anna returns to Arendelle and is reunited with Hans—who turns out to be a villain. This is the twist that almost made me walk out of the theatre.

Watch out kids. He's evil.

Elsa has been captured at this point and is in an Arendelle dungeon. Fortunately, she manages to free herself. Once again, she attempts to flee the city so that she does not put anyone in danger.

Anna is dying from an earlier accidental attack from her sister. She is aware of Hans’ betrayal and now realizes Kristoff is the one who loves her (note that she has spent approximately 24 hours more with him than Hans). So, basically, she decides to love him, too. There is a smaltzy scene at the end when the two are trying to run towards one another, but are hampered by the magically wintered weather.

Hans goes to attack Elsa, who is helpless in her grief, believing Anna is dead. Anna runs to protect her, but finally turns to ice. Elsa weeps over her sister, and her love for Anna is what both brings Anna back and helps her to finally control her powers. The End.

Disney so wanted this to be a girl power kind of princess story. But the drama with the princes actually made it more about them (and the romances) than about the sisters.

If the pairings had been Anna and Hans and Elsa and Kristoff—or if either male character had never existed, and the other were paired with Anna, with no outside conflict—then the focus would have remained on the relationship between Anna and Elsa. There was plenty of villainous outside drama in the form of an “evil” diplomat character who planned to have his cronies kill Elsa. The “Evil Hans” doppelganger (there is seriously zero indication throughout the first hour or so of the film that Hans isn’t as dorkily nice as he seems to be) would thus have been unnecessary.

In the end, we are left with two helpless princesses: one overcome with grief and her inability to control her own powers, and the other who has literally turned to ice. The penultimate moment is when Elsa’s love saves Anna, but this scene is bookended by Hans’ betrayal and Kristoff’s return.

This isn’t really a story about sisterhood. This is not the story of Anna and Elsa. This is the story about Anna and Elsa… but also about who Anna should marry. It’s something of a Princess’s Guide To Picking A Prince. Anna is told that her initial choice is wrong, so she goes for the other one. Why? Because he was nice to her. Sure, Hans was nice to her, too, but he turned out to be evil. Definitely not husband material, that one.

Early on, Anna gets told she’s stupid for thinking she’s in love with Hans. Instead of letting her experiment and try to have a relationship with the boy she likes (rather than just marry him straight off), she’s told she’s stupid—and this turns out to be true, because Hans is, in fact, evil. The alternative is that she love Kristoff instead. He’s nice and not evil. Better put a ring on THAT one.

CONCLUSION:

1. Judging from the previews, filmmakers still feel uncomfortable producing films that reflect the gender diversity of their audiences. Male to female character ratio in films for children still seems to be about 10/1.

2. Disney still cannot make a “girl” movie without making that movie about romance. Note that I’m not saying a movie featuring a female lead can’t have romance in it. But it doesn’t always have to be ABOUT that romance. It can be about… well, sisterhood, for example. Or the relationship between a mother and her daughter (see: Brave).

All right then. On to Smaug.

***SPOILER ALERT** (for The Desolation of Smaug)

So, this isn’t really a movie review, but I’ll just say I really loved the film. Fantasy nerd and self-professed elf lover here. Plus the amount of fabulousness Lee Pace’s Thranduil brings to the film is reason enough to watch it.

My one criticism, which kinda-sorta relates to the same issues I had with Frozen: Tauriel.

Firstly, I don’t hate the idea of Tauriel. Actually, I love it. The Tolkien books are kind of a chore to get through, but on top of that, there are approximately five female characters in 1000 or so pages (Hobbit and LOTR combined—actually, are there any female characters in the Hobbit?). Yes, add some female characters, please. (Hello, Galadriel; so lovely to see the most powerful person in Middle-Earth yet again. Yes, I know you’re not in the novel. And I am totally okay with that.) Just, if you’re going to create a female character, try to avoid the following:

1. Don’t create her just so she can be The Female Character.

2. Don’t center her story arc around a romance.

3. Make sure she fits into the pre-existing lore.

Well, guess what happened? 

1. Don’t create her just so she can be The Female Character.

Yay for female elves who aren’t either Galadriel, Arwen, or random background harp players! I assume that since Tauriel is the Captain of the Guard that there will be other female elven soldiers in Mirkwood, right? Right? 

In fact, I’m sure there will be other female elves period, right? 

Wrong.

Yes, Tauriel is the official Token Female Elf of Mirkwood.

In fact, she is even referred to as “She-Elf” by a captured orc. Apparently there are elves, and then there are she-elves. It must be lovely to be the default gender. I guess I and half the human population on earth will never know.

2. Don’t center her story arc around a romance.

This was particularly disheartening because Jackson and his writing team did so well with characters like Arwen and Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings trilogies. In those films, Eowyn’s motivations for riding to Gondor were altered from the book in the best possible way. In the book, Eowyn rides to Gondor in hopes of meeting up with her unrequited love, Aragorn. In the film, Eowyn rides to Gondor in hopes of kicking ass. Which she does.

Arwen was initially written and filmed as participating in the Battle at Helm’s Deep. However, luckily the writers realized that Strong Female Characters do not have to be warriors. The much sought after “strong female characters” of late are actually simply well-written characters (who are also female). (See “I Hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall for further insight.) Arwen’s writers realized she did not need to be a warrior, though she did need to be more present in the narrative. And she was.

Tauriel’s writers (yes, the same people, but still) wanted her to be a strong female character. So they made her a warrior. But since she IS female, they also gave her a romance.

Let me get this straight. I'm 600 years old, 
but I ran away from home to be with a guy I just met. 

To put it briefly (this post is already long enough; I’m sure we can all agree), Tauriel’s motivations for leaving Mirkwood and disobeying her isolationist king are centered around romance (going to find Kili). They didn’t have to be. She was already vaguely set up as a character who was curious about the outside world—hence her interest in a dwarf, an outsider. But she leaves Mirkwood for decidedly that reason. Her final scene is as a healer at Kili’s bedside. Note that this mimics the book version of Eowyn, who puts down her sword and shield to become a healer.

I think it’s important to point out that Tauriel’s actress, Evangeline Lilly, herself a Tolkien fan, was initially reluctant to take the part. She only agreed to do so if there would be no romance for Tauriel. Unfortunately, this all eventually changed. A love triangle was even added, something she was very adamant about not taking part in—though Yours Truly believes the love triangle is only partially constructed, boosted by the wrongful assumptions of Thranduil regarding Legolas’ supposed interest in Tauriel.

So far, Tauirel’s role in the film is 1) Female Elf, and 2) Kili’s love interest. Try to reduce the part of any male character in the film similarly. You can’t, can you?

3. Make sure she fits into the pre-existing lore.

This one is a nit-pick, and not really related to my issues with Frozen. But I do wish the writers would explain to us why someone so young is the Captain of the Mirkwood Guard. Or why she’s the only female guard. When you’re so caught up creating The Female Character, you may tend to forget things like depth, plot, and background. Ah well.

So there you have it: my thoughts on both these films. Criticism aside, I will say that I enjoyed The Hobbit immensely and am planning on giving it a second and third viewing if possible before it disappears from theaters. As for Frozen, it tends to jump wildly from amazingly well-written (those songs!) to shabbily written and paced. I can’t recommend it, especially to the parents of young children (for the reasons written above).


Caveat: I was in the theatre with two families; one had a girl, the other a boy. The boy and his family left an hour into the movie. The girl wondered aloud, “He’s bad…?” when Hans was revealed to be a villain. My thoughts exactly, kids.