If memory serves me (which it often does not), the daintily illustrated, Woolworth-framed copy of the poem If for Girls that my mother gifted me with sometime in later childhood had formerly been a gift to her from her own mother. This maudlin feminization of the equally gender-stifling If for Boys written by Rudyard Kipling was made popular in the 1950s by advice columnist Dear Abby, furthering its reach into the homes of millions of mid-century pre-teens and their families.
One poem urging the 10- or 11-year-old I was to keep a “sweet and gentle spirit” and reminding me that Dreaming (read aspirations) leads to disaster, does not female oppression make. But the words certainly stuck. Add them to a childhood filled with Saturday movie matinees watching Disney animated films: Technicolor wonders unfailingly (and unflinchingly) fixated on the some-day-my-prince-will-come theme of princesses (or would-be princesses) waiting for that that magical kiss which would free them and sweep them up into a world of male-dependent security and royal status. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella. And the message was delivered.
But not dutifully followed as I moved, with my whole massive cohort of Boomers, into the gender-transforming and then gender-bending years of the late 1960s and beyond, not without conflicted and confused feelings about what it was to be a girl growing into a woman.
This string of Disney Princess movies which, as one film critic pointed out last year, is now a massive empire, with films like The Little Mermaid perpetuating the giving-it-all-up-for-romantic-love trajectory (she trades her voice and passions for the love of a man). With few exceptions, these pink-costumed princesses have stayed within the lines of the most conventional and stereotypic female behavior, provoking a persistent backlash with articles and books asking “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” and petition campaigns asking Disney to rethink and reimagine these oversimplified, mono-dimensional characters that seem, at the least, to feed into limiting the horizons of young girls and, worse, triggering body fixations that trigger disproportionate concern with physical appearance.
It is awards and awards nomination season in the movie world, with the roll out of critics, screen actors, screen writers, foreign press — the previously laughable but now much looked at Golden Globe Awards — and then the Oscars. Frankly, perhaps my favorite season (if coincident with the more traditional winter holidays). The movies aimed at adults with hopefully more gravitas, more depth, more excellence, are usually timed to open (somewhere) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s eve.
Good for the careers of actors and other film professionals. In terms of prestige, of industry clout (or machismo), important for the studios that bankroll and produce them.
But these movies and this time of year is not what really matters, bottom-line-wise.
Labor Day (and the official start of the football season) signals the end of summer and the end of the much depended-upon summer movie-watching season. Ordinarily, Hollywood sets its box office sights on what is segmented as the young male audience, by bringing out its multimillion-dollar techno amazing action films. This year was no exception. No question that Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a superhero film based on a Marvel comics team, was the major blockbuster, yet Maleficent, a sleeper hit starring Angelina Jolie about the backstory of the villain of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale outperformed all the other big boy films: X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and The Amazing Spiderman 2 in the theater.
Not only did it start strong Memorial Day weekend — the most competitive time for summer movies, we are told — but stayed strong, spending eight weeks in the top ten.
It may well be called the stealth hit of the summer, one entertainment reporter noted, because it is a female audience-aimed, female-driven narrative about a villain and mother figure (Maleficent) who we want to succeed. As one blogger observed, it turns a familiar fairy tale with that too familiar sweet takeaway about rescues and happy endings into a powerful new myth exploring what happens when women are robbed of their power.
Female protagonists are cropping up more on the big screen these days, making a dent in the ratio of three-to-one male characters in family films, showing themselves to be less one-dimensional, less pastel, darker, more complex. In movies like The Hunger Games films, Divergent, and The Fault in Our Stars.
And then there’s Frozen.
This latest Princess-populated movie is the biggest drawing animation film ever with over $1.27 billion dollars in box office and Blu-ray and streaming sales. Directed by Jennifer Lee, the first-ever female director of this genre of Disney movies, Frozen is perfectly described by New York Times critic Stephen Holden as featuring a beautiful but withdrawn princess with destructive freezing powers she can’t control — and later on won’t; an adorable snowman with buck teeth and a carrot for a nose — blithely attracted to situations where he just might melt away; a picture-perfect prince who turns out to be a cad — and the perky and infatuated younger sister princess who comes to her senses, sooner than later.
All of them moving forward a plot, as Holden has written, where treacly kissy-kissy endings are not enough anymore. The princess in this story has to show her mettle and earn her happily-ever stripes — in an unconventional but welcome way. Yet, he is quick to point out, love in this film story is still the solution to everything, even if it turns on sisterly, instead of sexual, affection.
[Parenthetically, the original Snow Queen tale written in 1844 by Hans Christian Anderson, on which the scrupulously secular Frozen was based, is a far more convoluted story of two siblings and their tempters. It is filled with Christian symbolism, references to the Lord’s Prayer, passages from Matthew, and a redemptive moral about salvation through the power of Jesus’s love.]
However the right notes have been hit for girls (and boys) and others — including an enthusiastic GLBTQ audience — the message of coming out authentically, being one’s true self in terms of gender identity and roles striking a powerful chord — Frozen has not only been box office magic but has, like so many other major studio films — created an ever expanding sub-industry of related dolls, games, and clothing merchandise for both girls and grown women, filling the entire backs of box bookstores and the coffers of mail-order houses.
I have spent many a Sunday early morning, coffee cup and scissors in hand, scouring the weekend papers for evidence of this product spin-off, including Black Friday specials on a preschool-size Frozen vanity, a miniature Frozen ball pit, and a Frozen computer lap desk.
Following the movie version, Frozen has turned into another entertainment commodity — an ice show, complete with a blizzard created by a snow machine and a video projection canopy over the ice, transporting audiences to Arendelle, the North Mountain, and beyond. All of this along with $15 sno-cones and $28 plastic sticks (magic wands).
In the New Year, Disney plans to spin out Frozen wedding dresses for $1200, a summer Adventures by Disney tour of Norway starting somewhere around $5000. Not to mention Frozen apple and grape juice, flavored yoghurt, and toothbrushes.
A billion dollars in product endorsement by animated figures in a fantasy film.
But nothing has been more lucrative or long-lasting than the popularity of its soundtrack, 12 weeks as number one on the Billboard chart, $1.4 million albums sold, and most astonishing, Let it Go, as a single from the movie, was voted the Oscar-winning song of the year in 2013. It has hit almost two million dollars in sales, with no signs of fading away.
I am not, in general, an early repeat moviegoer, but in the case of Frozen, I saw it twice in a few weeks, the first time at a nearly empty weekday afternoon sing-a-long screening, where it was just me and a temporarily mute cluster of homeschoolers. Enchanted by the visuals and the clever language, I watched it a second time with adult friends who ordinarily stick with Sci-Fi — Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like. They were equally engrossed and uplifted, with the soundtrack playing an integral role.
Why the appeal?
In what is an increasingly-used crowd-sourcing, focus group for sermon writers (or what we are affectionately calling Sermonaters), I posted the question on Facebook: Why do our daughters and granddaughters like Frozen so much? Not unexpectedly, my oldest son shot back the question — why not boys as well. As the father of a three-year-old son, he wanted to weigh in that Frozen‘s impact on boys is more relevant to girls than its direct impact on girls because of the way boys relate (and take cues) from female characters.
For girls, in addition to great interest in and longing for the hair styles and dresses they see on the princesses Anna and Elsa, they are attracted to Anna’s loving spirit and Elsa’s independence. The sisters as two strong leads when many of the cartoons out there feature male superheroes. The freedom to act they see in Elsa, the “ice” princess, once she flees the palace and makes her way up the steep and foreboding mountain.
For the parents and grandparents of the girls who are watching Frozen — over and over — the lessons therein are about not buying into the old fairy tale dream of girl meets guy and they fall in love immediately and forever. They’re about following a complicated sibling relationship. They’re about the gifts and challenges of innate power.
Real sisters. Real girls. (Perhaps not quite.)
The lyrics to the hit single Let it Go, which have been translated into at least 25 languages by now, have been analyzed by some as being essentially feminist, in the spirit of Simone De Bouvoir, for whom independence and freedom are the ultimate goals. In the song, Elsa moves from being that good girl “you always have to be” to a girl with no right, no wrong, no rules — the perfect girl gone, the storm raging, which does not bother her anyway, alone in an ice palace. An existentialist heroine bordering on amorality, the stuff of a great song and story.
A far and, in some ways, a dangerous cry from those other princesses of movie lore.
Of course, Frozen is fiction and the sister princesses total fantasy. The impact this film and the characters therein may eventually have on the flesh and blood girls (and boys) that view it is yet, if ever, to be known. In a media-saturated world, one in which my 18-month granddaughter and three-year-old grandson are pretty much plugged into twin iPads at family meals: she still enchanted by the Frozen animation and songs, he having moved back or on to the Lion King, the impact of these “motion pictures” cannot be under-estimated. The values they do or do not lift up. The gender roles and limitations they do or do not portray.
In the meantime, out in the real-time world of girls in our culture and beyond, we can be heartened by the first-time-ever Sports Illustrated cover story about a girl who is a blossoming baseball star, Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old ace of the Taney Dragons, who captured national attention at the Little League World Series. While her team was ultimately eliminated, she was the star player nonetheless — with her blazing fast ball, waist length braids, and towering height, more than three inches taller than the average 12-year-old boy.
Her fluid motion, her hard throwing, her flexibility, her poise all won over the hearts of the crowd. These natural gifts and hard work and the media attention she has received may not, however, improve the odds of her going on, given the blatant scarcity of girls playing even high school baseball — only around 1,200 nationwide, versus almost 500,00 boys — and the lack of baseball teams at that are made up solely of girls.
Nonetheless, there she was — out on that mound — healthy and strong and gloriously unfrozen.
For many other of our girls today, the spotlight still never shines, and body shame prevails.
In her book, Mad, Sad and Bad, Lisa Appignanes wrote about the extreme dangers of the idealized images of glamorous womanhood — created by the entertainment, fashion, and diet industries, all three worth billions, which she says have combined to create a situation where fat is, for many girls, a nearer and greater terror than war, while thin is perfection, a dream sphere in which all problems — like in a good fairy tale — all problems will magically vanish.
With thin, our girls are told, comes true love, wealth, and happiness. And the fairy godmothers for the contemporary Cinderella carry slimming potions rather than a wand.
Before her tragic early death, the real life Princess Diana confessed her own body punishments — anorexia, self-starvation — and bulimia and cutting.
There are 14 million hits a year on the internet about anorexia. There are pro-ana sites, thin-spiration sites celebrating drastically lost weight, describing fasting states, how to keep the condition secret, how to hide unwanted food.
In real life and real time, one out of 50 adolescent girls is anorexic. Twenty percent of the girls and women with this eating disorder will die. And yet there are few, if any, public health services for anorexic girls and women. In most states, few, if any, programs for prevention or treatment of this that accepts Medicaid, and private insurance policies most often exclude mental health treatment, including self-starvation.
At the same time, child and teen obesity levels soar with every third child, every fourth adolescent massively overweight.
Girls Inc., an organization that focuses on the status of our young females, issues an annual report on their status. This year’s report, as in other years, describes idealized body standards, low self-esteem, and depression. Girls are vulnerable to unwanted sex, unwanted pregnancy (although the teen pregnancy rates are falling), and dating violence.
Our Unitarian Universalist values, as etched in our seven principles, support the inherent worth and dignity of all people, all genders, and justice and compassion in human relations, which would include equity in status and standing, with a commitment to seeing each other as full human beings. And a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which would ask us to examine the false pictures, the distortions that would cause girls on the way to becoming women so much stress and distress.
In that spirit, we have developed a religious education program for mothers and daughters (and there are other similar ones out there) called Side by Side: Mothers and Daughters: Exploring Selfhood and Womanhood Together, aimed at pre-teens. In it, they explore the many aspects of who we are as females, raise awareness of how our culture advocates one very narrow definition of female beauty and encourages conformity and consumerism, examine the messages that society communicates to young females, and become aware of the accomplishments of individual women and the qualities that contributed to their success.
What do we want for our female children?
Empowered, enabled, emboldened girls (and their families) with the focus and energy to engage wholeheartedly, authentically in life, in their communities, and the larger world in which there are too many other girls whose kidnapping, abuse, forced marriage, and forced childbearing merit our urgent attention as well.
Who deserve to be as fully and wondrously unfrozen.
I close with an updated — one of many — version of If for Girls, this one written by Gail Baker Stanton:
If you can trust yourself though others doubt you
And conquer fears that limit what you dare
So you can freely give to those about you
The skills and talents that are yours to share;
If you can take resources that surround you
And use them in the way you feel you should,
You’ll be a woman, and all those around you
Will be the richer for your womanhood.