a child having a temper tantrum,
a lovesick teenager,
or a mother realizing her son is no longer a child (you need to see this). There are an infinite number of images that could have occurred to you, but probably very few of you envisioned a male politician.
Why is that? I ask because on a list of 10 Politicians Who Turned on the Tears in Public, nine of them are men. Of course, I realize this discrepancy is a reflection of the number of men in office, rather than evidence of which gender is more likely to cry. That said, the fact remains that many so-called unemotional and steadfast male leaders are actually crying just as much if not more than their supposedly weak and mentally unstable female counterparts. Yet, it was not that long ago (2008 US presidential election) that a huge stink was made when
Hilary Clinton became teary eyed on the campaign trail. At the time, many people attributed Clinton’s “lapse” either to her being an overly emotional woman or, worse, a cold-hearted dragon lady who was feigning tenderness for the sake of her political ambition.
Believe it or not, these intractable archetypes come from fairy tales. Those childhood stories that seem like harmless fluff are in reality extremely influential and effective at transmitting and proliferating messages about cultural norms of identity. We grow up hearing the stories and seeing the movies, and soon we become accustomed to identifying the stereotypes. We are primed to label women as impotent or evil and unable to control their emotions and to expect men to be valiant, strong, and always dry-eyed.
The daily onslaught of stories and imagery based on these socially constructed roles makes us inured and oblivious to their impact. So, for example, when Disney changes a few things in their latest princess movie Frozen, we fawn all over the improvements while blindly accepting some of the more insidious and arguably more important messages about identity.
The underlying premise of Frozen is that Queen Elsa must learn to restrain her unbridled and dangerous emotions. When Elsa loses control of her intense feelings or really openly expresses any negative ones, people get hurt. Elsa has magical superpowers to transform and create things out of ice and snow, but when she becomes angry, frustrated, or scared, her powers become a liability.
As a result, the queen spends most of the movie sequestered or in self-imposed exile. Eventually, Elsa escapes and sees the light, realizing that if she just allows sisterly love into her heart, it will melt both the ice and all of her bad, unwanted feelings.
Surely, Disney knows enough about fairy tales to recognize the long and detrimental history of categorizing women as “hysterical,” incapable of benignly governing, and often not fit for society. My guess is that Disney honestly hoped that Frozen would refute some of those unfair representations of women. Nevertheless, I worry that many of their misdirected efforts have been glossed over and ignored because we assume all of their intentions were good.
Frozen does contain some intentional and positive variations to several of the sexist tropes that we’ve come to expect from Disney, but looks can be deceiving in more ways than one. After seeing Frozen, I couldn’t help thinking about the relief the Trojans must have felt as they pulled that giant, beautiful horse into the safety of their city, assuming that the Greeks were turning away in defeat.
War analogies might seem melodramatic, but it is a constant fight. I am not saying that Disney consciously wants to attack people, but they certainly wield a great deal of power to affect perception. And it is not just narrow definitions of femininity that need alteration.
Just last week on Twitter, a man who suffers from bipolar disorder was complaining about the lack of resources for men with BD, in particular for fathers who need support. This shortfall stems from our prejudices about both masculinity and mental illness. Statistically, men are just as likely as women to suffer from BD and obviously fathers and mothers are equally responsible for their children. Yet just four years ago, the US 2010 Census counted the 32% of children at home with their fathers as “children in childcare.” Unfortunately, though, facts and figures can’t compete with centuries of rich story telling. Thus, myths about mental health, male stoicism, and fatherhood prevail.
Wilhelm Grimm, Walt Disney, and others manipulated and bowdlerized fairy tales to suit their sexist agendas, and many movie corporations and authors continue to follow in their footsteps. However, the truth is we are all products of our culturally determined and limiting ideologies. When I watched Frozen, I wasn’t seething (or celebrating) at every turn. For every five sexist bits that infuriated me, there were probably five others that made me smile, and ten more that I have learned to accept. It would be nice if there were some kind of unified, clear-cut bad guy in all of this. There are certainly an awful lot of older, white, wealthy, heterosexual, mentally “not-ill,” Christian men in power. Still, I fear we are all complicit victims and perpetrators.
I first wrote this post enumerating the ways that Disney screwed up their opportunity to break the mold with Frozen, and I would still be happy to count the ways with anyone who’s interested. I realized, though, that telling you what to see or how to feel will not solve the problem. Disney and the like will continue to persuade and guide us as long as we let them. You have every right to enjoy movies like Frozen or The Avengers, but know that how you interpret and digest those movies will likely have an impact on whether you think Obama’s crying is genuine and praiseworthy and Clinton’s tears are calculated and nefarious.
I believe the Trojans were not foolish in valuing the beauty and artistry of a monumental statue. If you think about it, that gorgeous horse with all the Greek warriors in its belly could have been an asset in more ways than one. The mistake was not in appreciating the appearance of the gift; it was in failing to examine the circumstances. The Trojans looked at the situation out of context and lost perspective as a result. If they had been more aware of their biased judgement or willing to consider their own fallibility, things might have ended very differently.