Sometimes it feels like my daughter is the only girl in America who hasn’t seen “Frozen.” But it doesn’t matter: among the girls in her school, the movie and its characters are their lingua franca, filling the conversational spaces with their favorite characters, lines and dresses from the movie. When we line up before class each morning, Anna and Elsa’s wide-eyed, conspiratorial faces stare at us from dozens of backpacks. At the school’s Halloween carnival, the Elsas were only outnumbered by the ninja turtles.
My daughter is five, blonde-haired and blue-eyed and, like many kids her age, she has intense emotions she doesn’t know how to control. In other words, she’s smack in the center of Disney’s demographic Venn diagram for “Frozen.” On our way home one day, she told me, “Mommy, Elsa has hair down to her waist!” On another day, she reported, “Mommy, it’s Ahn-uh, not Anna.” More recently, she came home from school with a whole homemade book about Olaf the snowman, drawn as a three-lumped figure with a U for a smile and no nose, his stick arms splayed.
We haven’t shown it to her for the same reason we haven’t shown her any Disney movies in the first years of her life: both her dad and I strongly dislike Disney and many of its films’ messages. I asked her once whether it was weird that she was talking with other kids at school about a movie she hadn’t seen. “Not really,” she said lightly.
I was born in 1973. At the time, there were three “Disney princesses,” although that category didn’t really exist then. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty: that was it. I saw their movies a few times each, mixed in with “Bambi,” “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Lady and the Tramp” and all those others, most of which weren’t based on fairy tales. For girls of my generation, the whole princess message was largely diluted by other stories, and I was personally much more interested in tales about animals than in ones about practically grownup women having one crisis after another on the way to getting married. When my parents read to me at bedtime, and later as I learned to read on my own, the stories that appealed to me more were the ones about kids. “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Snow Queen,” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” were more my speed.
At the same time, my mom raised my younger brother and me under a kind of liberal, hippie philosophy. I wasn’t allowed sugar or chocolate for the first few years of my life; it got to the point where my recurring childhood dream involved finding a stick of gum in a drawer, but waking up before I could unwrap it and get it all the way into my mouth. When my classmates started playing with Barbies, my mom refused to buy the dolls for me, though she wouldn’t explain why. Strawberry Shortcake dolls were similarly off limits, but I had a giant box of Legos, a microscope and all the books I wanted.
By the time the next Disney princess came along — Ariel, in 1989 — I was 16. I’d read the original version of “The Little Mermaid” by then, the one where she dies at the end, as well as older versions of “Cinderella,” in which the stepsisters cut off their toes. Those versions felt a lot more honest to me. I’d been through two difficult years of high school. There was the usual stuff: feeling like all my body parts were the wrong size, making new friends and having old friends break up with me without any warning. There were also sharper traumas. I’d already had a painful and sexually abusive relationship with an older boy I thought I loved. One of my best friends had been killed in a car accident. My mom, who had a congenital form of emphysema, was getting sicker — even though she had once told me that moms never get sick.
For all these reasons and many more, I’d fallen in love with Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses and the Doors. My teenage rebellion was a quiet, internal one, a great hidden cavern like the vampires’ lair in the Lost Boys, carved out by my massive, legitimate adolescent emotions and adorned with posters of Jim Morrison and Axl Rose, who had replaced Duran Duran and Madonna in a matter of months. I studied Morrison’s poetry, unable to make sense of it but loving the idea anyway. I read his sensationalized biography, “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” so many times that most of the paint on the paperback spine cracked and fell off. I fell under the sway of his darkness, his wild daring, his ability to take risks and tell outrageous stories in a way that I couldn’t.
By then, I had little use use for princesses, let alone the ones Disney depicted, the ones who experienced little real pain and whose stories always ended happily ever after.
My mom died when I was 22, long before I thought to ask why she didn’t let me have sugar or play with Barbies, or what her take was on Disney and its depictions of women. Looking back, I suspect she didn’t want me to fall prey to Barbie as the female ideal or succumb to the gravitational pull of cartoon-merchandise tie-ins. She fared less well as my brother got into his preteens; our house was littered with Transformers, He-Man figures and G.I. Joes. As a family, we even went to Disneyland once. I only remember it being sort of fun. Although I thought the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was pretty cool, we all got nauseated and banged up on Space Mountain and went back to our hotel with sunburns and motion sickness.
Shortly before my mom’s death, when I was away at college and she was in and out of hospitals a lot, I discovered Tori Amos’ music the way you discover a new best friend. Her songs offered a space I could crawl inside of, where I could simultaneously be held and feel safe while I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had. Tori, like any good scholar of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell wove fairy tales into her confessional songs.
Campbell himself was a proponent of fairy tales — particularly ones that hadn’t been cleansed of all their gory bits — as a vehicle for psychological self-understanding. In his commentary on a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, he wrote, “The ‘monstrous, irrational, and unnatural’ motifs in folktale and myth are derived from the reservoirs of dream and vision. On the dream level such images represent the total state of the individual dreaming psyche. But clarified of personal distortions and profounded by poets, prophets, and visionaries, they become symbolic of the spiritual norm for Man the Microcosm. They are thus phrases from an image-language, expressive of a metaphysical, psychological, and sociological truth.”
I found myself returning to those stories, first buying myself a fancy, hardback edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales from a bookstore in my college town, and later digging into the pre-Grimm versions, which were even more raw. And then I began writing. I recast some of the most painful experiences of my adolescence as retellings of fairy tales, making fables of all that hurt, trying to spin crap into gold.
Peggy Orenstein is roughly the same age as I am, but her Disney experience growing up was very different from mine. “God knows, I was a Disney kid. I still have my bona fide mouse ears from [the] 1970s, monogrammed with an embroidered, loopy yellow PEGGY. I wore out my Close ‘n Play on my Magic Mirror storybook records of “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and even Cinderella,” she writes in her book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” “But until I had a daughter, I had never heard of Disney princesses. As a concept, I mean. It turns out there was a reason for that. They did not exist until 2000. That’s when a former Nike executive named Andy Mooney rode into Disney on a metaphoric white horse to rescue its ailing consumer products division.”
Mooney says he attended a Disney on Ice event and discovered that many of the little girls were dressed up in homemade princess costumes. At that moment, he realized what a massive missed opportunity this was for the Disney corporation. Within a year after the first merchandise launched, Disney product sales topped $300 million, and by 2009 they’d reached $4 billion — predominantly on merchandise connected with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel and Belle, according to Orenstein. In 2014, Frozen products sold an estimated $500 million, Jim Silver, CEO and editor-in-chief of TTPM, told Advertising Age.
“I do not question that little girls like to play princess: as a child, I certainly availed myself of my mom’s cast-off rhinestone tiara from time to time. But when you’re talking about 26,000 products (and that’s just Disney), it’s a little hard to say where ‘want’ ends and ‘coercion’ begins,” Orenstein writes. Later, she says, “I have never seen a study proving that playing princess specifically damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. And trust me, I’ve looked. There is, however, ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional views about femininity — especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior — are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers. They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners use condoms. None of that bodes well for Snow White’s long-term mental health.”
I read Orenstein’s book when it came out, less than two years after my daughter was born and before she’d seen any media directed at her. I bought it knowing full well that it would reinforce my anti-Disney feelings, although Orenstein came at it from a different angle. While I resented Disney for turning psychologically cathartic (and even sometimes feminist) fairy tales into tame, G-rated tales of impossibly beautiful girls who wind up in some kind of romantic happily-ever-after scenario, Orenstein resented Disney for hawking those latter scenarios to young girls and their parents in a way that both cost a lot of money and seemed to create a renewed era of compulsory femininity.
There’s one more anti-Disney voice in the household: my partner, my daughter’s father, a life-long anti-authoritarian and longtime proponent of the free software and creative commons movements who resents what Disney did to American intellectual property laws. In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act did just what its name implies, making it so that works of corporate authorship were protected under copyright laws for 120 years after their creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is sooner. Works of personal authorship are copyright for the life of the author, plus 70 years. The Walt Disney Company lobbied exhaustively to support the passage of the act (earning it the nickname “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”). Mickey Mouse’s own copyright was due to expire in 2003 — and now doesn’t sunset until 2023. Snow White, herself borrowed from the public domain for Disney’s 1937 film, won’t see her celluloid copyright run out until 2032. How many more Snow White dresses, sheet sets and other products can Disney sell between now and then? How many Frozen backpacks and Elsa gowns can it hawk before that film’s copyright lapses in 2108?
For all those reasons, my partner and I decided pretty early on that our child wasn’t going to watch Disney movies, have Disney merchandise or go to Disneyland. In particular, we wanted to avoid anything that put money in Disney’s pockets, but we also didn’t want her to learn what Disney has to say about women and girls in its “princess” films. There are, for example, implications that you’re only worth a story if you’re of royal birth, or if you’re slim and a very specific kind of beautiful. These films also imply that it’s important to secure the love of a man (which happens even to Frozen’s Anna, despite its reputation as a “feminist” story), and that such a thing exists as “happily ever after.” The stories are trite and formulaic, and do little more than keep young minds mildly entertained for a couple of hours, without teaching them very much about themselves.
We haven’t entirely succeeded in keeping our money out of Disney’s hands, in part because Disney now owns so many children’s fiction properties. I wanted our daughter to see some of Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful films, particularly “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Ponyo.” But Disney handles home-video distribution of Miyazaki’s work, so when my brother bought her those movies as a Christmas gift, Disney got a cut. There’s something to be said, I suppose, about supporting the one attenuated arm of Disney that actually provides pro-girl messages, including the two strong, inventive, everyday girls who star in “Totoro” and the wonderful retelling of “The Little Mermaid” in “Ponyo,” which focuses on the importance of lasting friendships rather than on giving up one’s voice to snare a man.
We’ve read a few of the original stories, too, including the version of Little Red Riding Hood in which the Huntsman cuts Red and her grandmother out of the wolf’s belly with a pair of scissors and they replace the meal with a huge stone, which kills the wolf when he tries to get up. But it’s clear she’s not ready for some of the others. I tried reading her “Hansel and Gretel,” but didn’t get farther than the conversations between the father and his wife about taking the children to the woods and abandoning him. It triggered my daughter’s anxieties about someday leaving us, and she burst into tears and asked me to stop reading.
I’m one of a handful of writers who has advocated for allowing children to set their own pace when it comes to violent, scary fiction, whether it’s video games or fairy tales. As Campbell and others have noted, these stories have important psychological messages for readers. The original fairy tales, violent though they may be, typically involve young kids triumphing over great hardship, evil and fear. G.K. Chesterson is paraphrased as saying, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” I’m not saying kids should read violent fairy tales before they’re ready — just that they’re all ready at different times, and we’re not doing them any favors by showing them Disneyfied versions of those stories, stripped of much of their power to provide catharsis and emotional transformation.
Almost 100 years after Chesterton, Gerard Jones wrote one of my favorite books on the topic, “Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence.” In it, he argues for letting kids play cops and robbers, superheroes and villains and other types of aggressive play. Children, like the rest of us, have aggressive feelings — and exploring those feelings helps them gain mastery over their emotions. In these games, as in many of the old fairy tales, kids aren’t rescued — they rescue themselves.
Nowhere is that more true than in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” the original folk tale behind “Frozen.” In the story, a young girl, Gerda, loses her best male friend, Kai, when a piece of the Devil’s “troll mirror” pierces his heart, making him mean and aggressive (who hasn’t had a friendship like that?). The following winter, Kai is lured away by the snow queen, who kisses him twice. The first time, he stops feeling the cold. The second time, he forgets Gerda completely. The Snow Queen takes him away to her castle of ice.
While everyone else in the village assumes Kai is dead, Gerda (who is likely no older than 10) sets out on her own to find him. Along the way, she meets, befriends, and negotiates with a variety of other characters, notably female characters from a variety of ages and backgrounds, who wind up helping her. One of the women says, “I can give her no greater power than she has already,” said the woman; “don’t you see how strong that is? How men and animals are obliged to serve her, and how well she has got through the world, barefooted as she is.” Gerda goes beyond the Arctic circle — again, predominantly on her own — ultimately finds the snow queen’s castle, melts the mirror shard in Kai’s heart with her tears, and helps him get home.
Rebecca Solnit writes about the value of exactly this kind of fairy tale in her book “The Faraway Nearby.” “Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route to becoming. … Fairy tales are children’s stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one. In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness — from beehives that were not raided, birds that were not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sown among the meek is harvested in crisis.”
When I began thinking about writing this piece, I decided I’d better actually watch “Frozen.” There was a chance, after all, that Disney had finally made a girl-positive story that truly broke free of the company formula. As I watched it, though, I was disappointed by Disney’s continued suggestion that impossibly gorgeous, slender princesses as the only girls whose stories are worth telling. It’s true that both main characters have legitimate flaws, and that Elsa’s uncontrollable, hurtful powers are tamed by the love of a sister, rather than a hunky prince charming. However, Anna, the film’s Gerda, accomplishes this “rescue” with the help of a variety of male characters, one of whom becomes her love interest by the end of the film. Why were the female helpmates of “The Snow Queen” turned into men? I fail to see how this is preferable to — or more feminist than — Andersen’s story.
As they say, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Now that our daughter is in kindergarten, we have a lot less say in what she sees and does during the day. After the first rainy day in her after-school program, she reported on the way home that they’d watched a movie because they couldn’t go outside to play.
“What movie was it?” I asked.
“‘Frozen!’” she said.
I paused, my heart sinking. “What was the movie about?”
She started to tell me about a girl who fell asleep for a long time, and another woman in black who could turn into a bat. Before too long, I realized she was describing “Sleeping Beauty,” not “Frozen.” She just assumed it was “Frozen” because that’s one of the only princess-driven cartoons she knows about. I tried asking her for more details, but she didn’t remember much. It didn’t make a strong impression, and that’s fine.
As it turns out, she’s never really been drawn to super-girly things. Her favorite color for a long time was dark purple, but it’s since changed to blue and red. She likes sparkly things but doesn’t gravitate toward pink or pastel clothing when we shop. Her bicycle is black, blue and red. Her preferred friends are boys because they can keep up with her taste for roughhousing and gross-out humor. Among other things, that means she’s even more exposed to superhero stories — Batman and Spider-Man in particular — than she is to princesses, Disney or otherwise.
However, recently she told me, “Mommy, I don’t like princesses.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I don’t know anything about them, and it’s hard to like something you don’t know anything about,” she said.
She had a point. Since then, we’ve spent some time talking about the princesses in stories, whose job is to be pretty and not a lot else. We also discussed real-life princesses, who often don’t get very many choices in their lives. Before long, as children often do, she lost interest and moved on to another random question.