Have you heard the song “Let It Go,” from the soundtrack of the latest Disney blockbuster, Frozen? Chances are, given its runaway success at the box office, that by now you have. But probably not as many times as I have.
I’ve been hearing “Let It Go” and other songs from Frozen a lot lately. On Spotify, while my four-and-a-half-year-old twin daughters are eating breakfast. A cappella versions by the girls in the car on the way to preschool (I join in sometimes, but am asked to stop because the song is “not for boys”). On YouTube, where the girls get to watch the video as a reward for not being fussy. In my head as I’m mowing the lawn, walking the dog, reading, talking on the phone, lying in bed trying desperately to think of anything else that might drive it away and let me go to sleep. It’s catchy, is what I’m saying.
Last week, my daughter Livvy was sitting on my lap as she and I sang along to “Love Is an Open Door,” the duet from the scene in the movie where the heroine, Anna (the sister who does not have the dubious gift of freezing things with her mind), falls in love with Hans, the prince from a neighboring kingdom who seems to be falling in love with her as well. We got to the end of the number, where the last two lines are spoken rather than sung.
Hans (Me): Can I say something crazy? Will you marry me?
Anna (Livvy): Can I say something even crazier? Yes!
And then, as both of my daughters do whenever they hear this song, Livvy added, “But you should never marry someone you just met.”
“Right,” I said.
“That would really be crazy.”
“Because you should get to know them first.”
“You and Mommy didn’t get married until you knew each other for years.”
“You need to be careful about who you marry.”
A couple days after Christmas, my wife and I took our daughters to see Frozen. It was their first time seeing a movie in the theater, and if you asked them now, they would probably tell you it was the greatest thing that has ever happened to them. We waited so long to take them to a movie because they’re pretty sensitive kids; by “pretty sensitive,” I mean they have been known to scream in fear during episodes of My Little Pony. But before taking them to see Frozen, I let them watch the trailers and YouTube videos for the movie, including the scariest parts—i.e., wolves and snow monsters. So they were prepared.
It was fitting that this should be their first real movie, since it’s essentially about a complicated relationship between two sisters—the elder of whom (Elsa) has the power to create ice and snow from thin air but is unable to control it. Elsa shuts her little sister out of her life for Anna’s (the non-superpower-having sister’s) own protection, and finally banishes herself to an ice castle on a mountaintop. But in doing so, she accidentally puts her kingdom into a deep freeze. With the help of an ice-monger, his reindeer, and an adorably clueless snowman, Anna must find and rescue her sister so that Elsa, who’s since become the Ice Queen, can thaw out their homeland. I thought my daughters would be able to relate to that; the complicated-relationship-between-sisters part, at least.
I did have a few reservations about going to the movie. One big reservation, anyway: Princesses. Why, why, why can’t Disney make a film with a female hero who is not a princess? I have simmered down since the princess panic I had last year about this time, but I still chafed at the idea that my kids’ first movie-theater movie would involve not just one but two princesses. And despite mostly positive reviews, there was some criticism of the fact that, in the process of adapting the story from the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, Disney had squandered almost every opportunity to depict a feminist heroine.
I had also read Gina Dalfonzo’s piece on The Atlantic. Spoiler alert: In Frozen, the charming prince Hans—who declares his love for Anna in Act Two—turns out to be a heartless bastard who mocks the seemingly moribund princess in Act Three, revealing that he only wanted to marry her so he could kill her older sister and usurp the throne. Dalfonzo argued that this sent a potentially devastating message to the target audience: “There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core,” she wrote, and went on to say this twist could be “traumatizing” to six- or seven-year-olds who aren’t sophisticated enough for such a harsh dose of reality.
I figured that, while this subversion of the Prince Charming trope could be a shock to the system of a kid who is old enough to have been beguiled by the fairy-tale romance narrative usually slung by Disney, my girls were so innocent that there would be no cherished beliefs to shatter. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to use moments and themes from my kids’ favorite stories to talk about ethics, relationships, and respect for self and others; or at least to get them to not treat me like the evil step-sisters treat Cinderella. When it comes to love, though, I usually don’t even get into it. During the inevitable wedding scene, I’ll just say, “Yup… they’re getting married,” and redirect their attention to other issues like why being smart or kind or brave is important.
But here, I thought, after learning of this potentially-traumatizing-to-kids plot twist, was a teachable moment I could get behind: Regard the handsome charmer who sweeps you off your feet with great caution and skepticism.
In terms of my didactic expectations, Frozen delivered. And then some. Not only was Prince Charming a jerk, but also, the act of love that saved Anna from death wasn’t between her and the ice-monger to whom she had grown close during the quest for her sister, as the movie led us to believe once the prince’s villainy was revealed. No, it was an act of love between sisters that saved the day in the end! I could hardly wait to get out of the theater before I pointed that out to my girls.
Once we were in the lobby, I squatted down to talk about the theme of sisterly love triumphing over seemingly insurmountable challenges and thwarting cruel interlopers. But they were already having their own conversation:
“No, I’m Elsa!”
“No, you’re Anna!”
“Anna doesn’t have any powers! I’m Elsa!”
“No, I’m Elsa!”
And so on.
Since then, they have moved past which one of them can shoot freeze-rays to have some pretty substantive discussions (insofar as four-and-a-half-year-olds are capable of such things).
For the record, I asked them if they were upset or scared when they found out that Prince Hans was a bad guy. They answered that they were “surprised,” but not upset. Aside from whom you should and shouldn’t marry, we have been talking about what love is—something I would never have attempted in the context of The Little Mermaid or Cinderella.
“Love is kissing,” one of my daughters said as we sang along to the part of the soundtrack where some trolls explain that you can fix flawed people with true love. “And some other things like hugging.”
“Well,” I responded. “You might kiss someone you love, or hug them, but love means—”
“I know,” my other daughter interrupted. “When you care about what happens to someone else more than what happens to you. Like Elsa and Anna care about each other. You already said that. Now let’s listen to ‘Let It Go’ again.”