Disney consents

(or that damned troll scene)

I’m going to be talking about Frozen for the rest of my life, aren’t I?

So I wrote this article. I sent it around to a few friends, it unexpectedly lit up tumblr, Twitter and Facebook like the Electric Light parade, and now people I’ve never met are offering to rearrange my face for me. Weird.

I get it. Not only is this the internet — and thus a forum with a pretty rocky record for intelligent discourse — I wrote an article critically deconstructing a movie an awful lot of people loved; and worse, I’m standing by everything I said.

“Everything?” I hear you cry. “You mean you didn’t make a single mistake in the whole thing and everything you said is a hundred per cent true?”

This is seriously how internet discourse devolves.

No, that’s not what I mean, and I think you’ll find it’s not what I said…but we’ll handle bastardised quotations and quoting out of context in a different article. For today, I’m concerned with a couple of Twitter-based reactions from someone who seems quite firmly in the rearrange-my-face contingent: not because I worry he’ll show up on my doorstep with a set of brass knuckles, but because he and others in his camp seem to be fundamentally, possibly willfully, misreading what I’ve written.

I have a lot of issues with Frozen, and many them are genuinely subjects for debate. My strong feelings on what makes a compelling female character, for example, may be fundamentally different to someone else’s strong feelings on the same subject. Unless one or the other of us is somehow completely misguided — thinking physical beauty is the only necessary qualifier for “strength”, perhaps — that’s just fine. But there are areas in which I think the problems with Frozen represent more than just a difference of opinion, and the most fundamental of those are the joint issues of agency and consent.

Whatever else it may or may not do well, Disney absolutely champions consent. Going as far back as Sleeping Beauty, Disney takes a story that originally had no regard for its heroine’s agency (in the original, the princess only wakes up when her baby from the prince who slept with her while she was still asleep sucks the splinter from her finger), and finds a way not only to let Aurora and the prince fall in love before her enchanted sleep begins, but to let both of them express their distaste at the arranged marriage to which they were contracted at birth. It’s a little contrived and relies heavily on coincidence, to be sure, but compared to the original story, it is a decisive and bold statement in favour of consent and agency.

Fast forward to the Disney Renaissance, and even if we only look at the princess stories, each of them still champions those same ideals. The heroines’ agency (or desire for agency) is typically what catalyses the story. Ariel reists being told she cannot visit the surface; Belle refuses both the societal demand that she give up her books, and the Beast’s commands while in his castle; Jasmine escapes the palace life that allows her no agency at all, and so on. Disney princesses, as a group, resist violations of their agency; they seek first and foremost the ability to choose.

One of the most important choices any Disney heroine makes is whom (if anyone) to court or marry. It’s important to note, by the way, that I don’t think that this is a statement that a real woman’s romantic choice is the most important one she will ever make. Honestly, that depends entirely on the woman. What it is, is Disney’s shorthand for a woman’s ownership of her body — a shorthand that has been present in storytelling for centuries — and this is where I have to address the Twitter comments directly.

Ow. The burn.
The woman from that article genuinely thought that the troll musical number was the equivalent of a rape scene.

Note: for the love of God, please read the penultimate section (not paragraph) of the first linked article, or none of this will make sense.

There are a number of things Disney will never show us, no matter how relevent they may be to at least some of its audience. Open homosexuality (for sadly disappointing reasons). Violent spousal abuse. Sex. Rape.

Don’t misunderstand me. Disney is first and foremost a family entertainment provider, so there is nothing wrong with the line in the sand being pretty far up the beach. If I had young children, I certainly wouldn’t take them to see a film with a rape scene, or a scene of someone beating their spouse to a bloody pulp. Disney holds the market share it does because parents know that, by and large, it is safe. No one is ever going to leave a Disney movie trying to explain to their child what the word “fuck” means, and that is definitely, definitely a good thing.

But another reason Disney holds the market share it does is because it has historically shown an admirable willingness to tackle complex, adult themes. From the systemic gender-discrimination in Mulan, to Simba’s misplaced guilt in The Lion King, to Frollo’s crisis of faith in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney films are full of complex, multi-faceted, mature issues that, dressed up in colourful animation and catchy tunes, become much, much easier for children to digest, and for parents to explain. Disney has, at this point, a very well-developed language of signifiers — many borrowed from the fairy tale culture Disney appropriates — for issues and themes too adult to actually show on the screen, and the best-known of these is marriage/betrothal/True Love’s Kiss™ as a signifier for the consensual relationship between a man and a woman.

Because of that, Disney has a pretty strict binary when it comes to marriage: arranged/non-consensual marriage = bad; consensual/love-predicated marriage — good. For a Disney princess, an arranged marriage is a fate worse than death: it is a loss of agency, a violation of consent, and, on a metaphorical level at least, a loss of ownership over her body. Even the men, where relevant, reject the idea of arranged marriage or marriage that compromises their agency, and I bring this up because of one crucial scene.

I really recommend watching the whole scene through, because it is deeply unsettling, but just the one picture should give the general idea. I mentioned it in the last article, but it bears repeating: when Prince Eric is enchanted to marry Ursula/Vanessa in The Little Mermaid, every detail of this scene is deliberately designed to read as wrong. The vacant expression on Eric’s face; the conniving expression on Ursula/Vanessa’s, the music, even the colours are carefully chosen to make absolutely sure that every viewer in the theatre knows how fundamentally terrible this situation is. We as the viewers are desperate for Ursula’s plan to be thwarted: Eric’s being married without his consent is the worst fate a Disney character could endure, and an absolute violation of his agency.

In a very, very quick summary of the scene that gives me such pause in Frozen, the heroine, Anna — already engaged to another man — is brought by her travelling companion Kristoff to visit his family of trolls. Ignoring her existing engagement, the trolls use a jazzy song-and-dance number to try to convince Anna that she really wants to be with Kristoff, and the whole thing ends with Anna and Kristoff being perfunctorily thrown into a troll wedding ceremony and getting as far as “Anna, do you take Kristoff to be your trollfully wedded…” before Anna collapses from a heart condition. Without so much as being asked whether she has any romantic interest in Kristoff, Anna is thrust just as far into a wedding with him as Eric is with Ursula: in other words, she finds herself about to be married without having given her consent.

It’s played for laughs, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are looking at a near-violation of one of Disney’s most fundamental ethical tenets: that a woman has agency over her body, and must be allowed to choose to whom she gives it.

To call that scene a “forced marriage” is misunderstanding it on a basic, factual level, akin to saying 2+2=5.

It may sound like an issue of semantics, but hear me out: I did not call the scene a “forced marriage”. No one is tying Anna up (for very long, at least), forcibly shoving a ring onto her finger or holding a gun to her head. She isn’t even bewitched, like Eric. But the fact remains that she did not consent to being there. If Anna hadn’t collapsed in distress; if the wedding had been allowed to continue, what would have happened? I don’t know. You don’t know. The writers probably don’t know, and that’s alright, because they never needed to. The point remains that Anna is still very nearly offered up to a man whom she has given no indication of loving, without ever saying that she wants it.

So no, I don’t “genuinely think that the troll musical number was the equivalent of a rape scene”. I didn’t say that I did. What I did say is that “a non-consensual marriage is the closest Disney will ever get to showing us a rape” (emphasis added), because it is. Disney has no appropriate way of showing us a couple having sex, but it can show us a couple willingly committing to each other with a marriage or a first kiss. Likewise, Disney has no appropriate way of showing us a woman forced to have sex against her will, but it can show us a woman forced to enter into a relationship with a man. It isn’t a rape (I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it the equivalent of a rape) but it is the highest form Disney has available of a man taking control of a woman’s life and body against her will.

It is important — even crucial — to teach young boys and girls to take ownership of their bodies. But it is hard to do so before those children are old enough to understand all the myriad and horrible ways that ownership can be taken from them. It’s why the familiar birds and the bees talk begins with “When a man and a woman love each other very much…”. We know, as adults, that you can absolutely have consensual sex with someone you don’t love. But how do you explain that to someone who’s only just beginning to learn what sex is? You say it is something a man and a woman only do if they love each other, because even from very young, stories — yes, like those told by Disney — teach us that love is something you share with someone you trust and respect. Love is not shared by force or arrangement. It is shared by consent.

Perhaps marriage is an outdated symbol for love, or for ownership of one’s body. But it is part of the Disney language, and it is one we have been learning to recognise since 1937 — and, for those of us whose childhood stories were those of Grimm, de Lafayette, Perrault and Andersen, much, much longer. That’s why Disney has been championing consent in marriage at very least since Sleeping Beauty, if not since the beginning; that’s why it is so deeply, deeply disturbing to us when Eric almost marries Ursula against his will; and that is why it is equally as disturbing to me when Anna very nearly does the same thing in Frozen — and it is played for laughs.