Halloween is upon us, and a flock of superheroes, witches, and Disney princesses are about to knock on my American friends’ doors. And if the US on Halloween is anything like Israel on Purim, a disproportionate segment of this flock will be wearing Anna and Elsa costumes.
I don’t know what it is about Frozen that captures the hearts of three-years-old girls so completely. Is it the magic? The costumes? The fact that there are two heroines instead of the traditional one? Whatever it is, it works. My three-years-old daughter can barely understand the movie’s (let’s admit it, rather convoluted) plot, but she asks for it on a daily basis. When I say “no” she cheers herself up by putting on her improvised Elsa costume and singing a bizarre version of “For the First Time in Forever” for hours on end.
And she is not alone: Anna and Elsa have almost completely displaced the other Disney princesses from their place of pride in many American clothing and toy stores, and I recently saw them featured in posters in both Eastern and Western Jerusalem. When something wins hearts and minds across political divides in the Middle East, you know it’s special.
But special or not, my first viewing of Frozen left me terrified.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that living, caring parents don’t make for very good fairy tales. From Cinderella’s dead parents to the passive-aggressive impostor-mom in Disney’s Tangled, absent or problematic parents allow the protagonists to evolve as independent characters, and set out on the kind of adventures that a loving support system would prevent. Imagine a Belle whose father actually took care of her (and not the other way around), or an Aladdin who wasn’t orphaned at a young age.Such people wouldn’t have been forced to set out on their own, and find love and happy endings at high costs.
But with Frozen, Disney goes a step farther. The parents in this story are loving, caring individuals who want what’s best for their girls. They’re not, in fact, so different from their viewers at home. But instead of taking such paragons of good intentions out of the picture altogether à la other fairy tales, Frozen leaves them in just long enough to make horrible mistakes and mess their daughters up. Their presence, well before their absence, creates the problems that get the story going, forcing us to face a terrifying truth: Our good intentions, wonderful though they are, may well pave the way to our children’s hell.
Look at Elsa for example. The trolls warn the royal family that Elsa’s powers will grow and be triggered by fear, and that she must learn to control them. The king responds by isolating his daughter in a locked room and preaching emotional detachment. How, pray tell, will these measures prepare her for the trials of a future queen? Practicing apathy on her own is all well and good, but how is it supposed to help once she will inevitably meet her subjects and advisers?
And yet, while it’s easy to spot the king’s mistake from an outsider’s point of view, we could easily be erring in a similar way. Fairy tales often express our deepest fears and desires. In this case, once you strip the story from magic, the king’s actions represent the very natural inclination to protect our children from discomfort and harm. It is terribly tempting to avoid whatever might cause our children stress or pain, be it competition or new challenges, and sugar coat over their failures and mistakes. But as Kari Kubiszyn Kampakis warns us in “Prepare the Child for the Road”, over-protecting our children sets them to fail as adults:
“One day, our kids will experience Big League stress. Their rejection, disappointment, and adversity will be adult-sized. And unless they learn healthy ways to cope with Little League stress – and experience the pride and confidence that come when they push through an obstacle and emerge stronger on the other side – they won’t be ready for the Big League.”
Anna’s problems are a variation on the same theme. In their eagerness to protect her from Elsa’s powers, Anna’s parents left her ignorant of the real reasons behind her sister’s isolation and her own lonely existence. They were so busy protecting Anna from the obvious danger, that they totally missed the subtler risks lurking underneath the surface. By letting her roam the empty castle all on her own, and interpret Elsa’s behavior as personal rejection, they left her starved for companionship and approval. Is it any wonder that Anna developed the low self-esteem and bad judgment that made her ripe for the villain’s taking?
(And when we don’t tell our kids about the predators out there, because “they are too young, we should protect their innocence”, aren’t we running the same risk?)
Frozen is just a story (and a brand, and a worldwide industry, and an obsession that unites little girls around the globe, but that’s a discussion for another time). But it’s the kind of story that puts us in front of a mirror, and doesn’t let us hide behind a simple “but we are nothing like that” dismissal. Because sans the magic (and in my Middle-Eastern case, the snow and ice as well), and unless we’re very, very careful, this story could well be about us.
And this is why from all the many costumes you might see tonight, I find the Elsa ones the scariest of all.