It’s well documented by now that Disney’s Frozen is dominating at the box office. This past weekend, it pulled off a rare feat when it reclaimed the top spot in the U.S. a month after its release, and it has now passed the $300-million mark to make it Disney’s most successful animated film since The Lion King. Critics and audiences have also praised its subversive plot, which focuses on the relationship between two sisters and turns Prince Charming into The Villain.
Frozen isn’t without its detractors, of course. In a post for The Atlantic, Gina Dalfonzo wrote that she found the latter twist too scary for children: “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 argues that children need a very clearly defined hero-vs.-villain trope because they’re not mature enough to appreciate nuances.
But there’s another argument to be made against Frozen’s villain, and it has to do with the implicit notion that there was something wrong with the Prince Charming fantasy in the first place. The assumption is that it needed correcting because providing girls with idealized images of romance and romantic partners is inherently bad for them. Jezebel contends that the twist “undoes the very cherished tropes of the other films… It is a counter to the steady diet of falsehoods, and frankly, it’s high fucking time.”
But was Prince Charming himself ever really bad? There’s a counter-argument to be made that he merely provided a safe object of desire for young girls, many of whom have amorous desires but are immature and unready to deal with sexual relationships. In this way, he’s a harmless romantic idol who can help usher girls into adulthood as they aspire to healthy relationships. Providing girls with this fantasy is arguably important to their psycho-sexual development. Last year, The Huffington Post made a similar argument for boy bands, and Prince Charming belongs in that category right alongside teen idol actors like Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. A few years back, popular fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo argued that giving Kurt on Glee a Prince Charming in Blaine was necessary for gay boys to see, because few or no images of romantic love in film, television, or music videos specifically relate to their desires. (Indeed, Disney has often appealed to gay boys as much as girls: Pinocchio thinks traditionally masculine activities like drinking, smoking, and swearing will make him a real boy and help him earn his father’s love; in The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s father doesn’t understand her and she wants to be part of another world; and now even Frozen is being credited with a queer subtext with Queen Elsa’s song as a drag anthem.)
Furthermore, it's insulting to assume that girls can't separate fantasy from reality. Most people don’t assume boys will try to leap tall buildings in a single bound by watching Superman, so why don’t parents or other adults think girls can maintain the same cognitive dissonance? What the Prince Charming fantasy does is encourage girls to aim for good guys. It is aspirational, the way superhero films encourage boys to emulate honor and honesty.
Unfortunately, though, it has become all too common in our culture to shame girls for their fantasies. Much of the vitriol aimed at boy bands, romantic comedies, and Twilight is precisely because girls enjoy them. If it is assumed to be a “girl” priority, popular wisdom seems to imply, then it must be silly.
But why do “boy” priorities get a pass when they are equally silly? The world of superheroes is replete with ridiculous dialogue, magical powers, and over-the-top plots, yet comic books and films based on comic books are annually treated with more seriousness and reverence by scholars and critics alike. This is despite the fact that the world of superheroes is often heavy on violence and scant on romance. Which is more likely to be a relatable experience: falling in love, or killing a supervillain to save the planet? “Boy” fantasies frequently have little application to the real world, while “girl” fantasies are at least grounded in real-world desires.
In 1960, literary critic Leslie Fielder published the provocative Love and Death in the American Novel, in which he argued that the American novel is incapable of dealing with sex, and instead focuses on violence and death in a prolonged state of boyish immaturity. Yet he could have been writing about the state of American films today where violence gets more audience-friendly ratings than sex from the MPAA in a culture dominated by superhero franchises that are primarily aimed at boys. The aforementioned Huffington Post article states it plainly: “We champion the culture of teenage boys every day—giving them all the comic book heroes, sports stars and porn any human could conceivably consume. Can’t we give teenage girls one thing without demonizing them?”
Shaming girls’ fantasies has become so pervasive that even the marketing for Frozen seemed reluctant to acknowledge its association with girls. The title was changed from The Snow Queen to Frozen (just like Rapunzel became Tangled) to reassure boys that it was not a fairy tale. And the film’s first trailer featured only the snowman and the reindeer in a scene that is not even in the film. It’s not hard to imagine that this was designed to avoid alienating boys with the sister-sister plot. Alarmingly, this seems to suggest that even Disney has perhaps been shamed into hiding its “girl” fantasies despite decades of making billions on exactly that.
The problem with past Disney films, then, wasn’t the prince but rather the princess. The Prince is just an object of desire; the Princess is the subject that girls vicariously identify with. It seems fair to say that everyone wants straight girls to aim for good guys, but most don’t want them to think that aiming for guys is their primary objective—so it is crucial not to keep portraying girls and young women in Disney films as passive and sighing (think Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty). In this way, contemporary Disney heroines may be an attempt to correct past mistakes. Similarly, few people would admit to wanting girls to think that their only value is in being conventionally attractive; to its credit, Disney has recognized the importance of showing heroines who are well-read (Beauty and the Beast’s Belle), hard-working (The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana), and even boyish (Mulan).
Ultimately, Frozen’s surprise villain may be an effective, surprising plot twist, but it is also another instance of shaming girls’ fantasies—only this time within an otherwise terrific film that wants to give girls more. The truth, though, is that there is nothing wrong with girls (or boys) dreaming of Prince Charming, as long as it’s not the only dream we give them.