What About True Love?
I saw Frozen at last over the weekend. It definitely stands as one of the best Disney animated features all time (though arguably not the best, I’ll grant, even if it is in the running) and is certain the best since The Princess and the Frog, easily eclipsing Tangled and whatever else slipped in there beneath my notice. What I found interesting about Frozen is, I feel, nothing different that what a lot of us found interesting about it: in the first place, a fantastic score and soundtrack, and in the second, an actually complicated and nuanced approach to the concept of ‘love’ – something that fairy tale style movies have almost never done. I feel this is important, since trying to show children that love is a simple concept is both erroneous and potentially hazardous to their emotional development. Nowhere is this more keenly observable than in the scores and scores of emotionally damaged adults who proceeded into the stormy waters of “true love” with all the same innocence that Anna does in the film.
I am no expert on love. I would say that, possibly, no such expert exists, but then again I’m no expert, so what do I know? All that said, what I can say about love is that it is a dangerous and complicated thing, not to mention elusive. When you think you have it, you often don’t. When you do have it, you often fail to realize this until it’s gone. Then, for those lucky few of us who get it, have it, and hold on to it, you are still constantly in doubt about it; you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop or, perhaps, wondering why it is constantly changing if this is the Real Thing.
Frozen cleverly illustrates this problem by constantly moving the goal-posts for Anna. Is she in love with Prince Hans? Kristoph? Well…no. Not yet, anyway. Obviously she loves her sister, Elsa. We take that as a given in the story; despite the fact that it is the central conflict of the film and the only thing in the movie of any permanence, we instinctually allow it to play second fiddle in our hearts to the good ol’ Princess and Prince falling instantly in True Love. We, like Anna, miss the good thing right in front of her in favor of the flashy new thing that gets waved under her nose. This is a grand metaphor for love itself – so easily missed and overwhelmed by simple infatuation.
A few years back I had a student submit to me an argument essay claiming that love didn’t exist – it was a myth and a fairytale. Love, she said, was simply chemical stimulation in the brain responding to basic physical attraction that was essentially unsustainable. You can’t be really in love, she claimed, as sooner or later you would come down from your ‘high’ and, therefore, no longer love that person. I pointed out to her that her perspective better demonstrated a misunderstanding of what comprises ‘true love’ than it did disprove its existence entirely. I asked her how she then described the love between parent and child, between siblings, and between those couples who have stayed together for decades. She equivocated. I didn’t press the issue; an 18-year old girl is entitled to be disenchanted with love if she wishes.
What the student had done was mistake eros for philia – the passionate desire for another for the loving respect and admiration of them (read up on the Greek definitions here). In principle, eros and philia combine to make what we call true, romantic love. We both desire our partner (considering him or her ‘ideally beautiful’ in the philosophical sense) and respect and care for them and their well-being (as we admire and are fond of them). Without some sense of both eros and philia, we can’t be said to be in Romantic Love. Among the sisters in Frozen, philia is the operative form of love at play and the movie (correctly, I feel) places greater emphasis on that than it does eros. Philia is the love that transcends time and self. It is the meal; eros is the spice.
To say that eros is superior to philia is to be completely blinded by the fairy tale mystique. Yes, being head-over-heels infatuated with someone is an incredible, almost indescribable feeling, but it’s a phase. Spend your life looking for it to perpetuate ad infinitum and you will get yourself in the wrong state of mind. Obviously we should desire our partners, but the person who truly loves you is not the one that you spend half an hour challenging to hang up while making googly noises on the phone. It’s the one who holds your hair out of your face while you throw up, the person who makes sure you make it home on time, the person who can’t wait to listen to your stories and laugh at your jokes.
To love another is to put yourself at their mercy – your desire and respect for them means their approval of you is of utmost importance. To be loved is to be at someone’s mercy and have that someone always grant it. It is to be infinitely exploitable yet never exploited. It is trust and friendship and (yes) desire. You don’t find it on every corner, and it doesn’t show up all at once; even the fastest love affairs have to grow into themselves before they’re mature and ready for the world. For this reason I love Frozen because it has the courage to tell us that Kristoph and Anna are not yet destined for one another but that Elsa and Anna already are.
Wherein I Dissect Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
By all accounts, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a fine film. The characters are engaging, the music is enthralling, the animation is beautiful, and the story is a perennial classic – what’s not to like? There is, however, some material inherent in the film that raises some troubling questions about the appropriate roles of men and women in modern society and that is not immediately obvious at first glance. This should hardly be a surprise, of course, as Disney is rather famous for doing this sort of thing. Rather than ascribe sinister motives to Disney, however, I think it perhaps more apt to see how our own preconceptions of gender roles and social order are reflected within the film and how we are correspondingly blind to these same preconceptions. In brief: Belle and Beast’s relationship is not perhaps the most positive or realistic model to be held up before our children’s eyes as a demonstration of ‘true love’ and our belief in Belle as a modern, liberated feminist model is also, perhaps, somewhat misplaced.
Let us examine first what it is that we see in Belle that makes her seem such a strong female character. In the first place, she is inquisitive and not moved by popular opinion – she thinks for herself. She sees right through the arrogant Gaston, she ignores the townsfolk who find her odd, and she defends her father against critics even when it is socially unacceptable to do so. There can be little doubt that Belle is brave. She’s also ambitious and headstrong. In the clearest exclamation of her personal goals, she sings the following immediately after turning down Gaston’s marriage proposal:
I want adventure in the great, wide somewhere,
I want it more than I can bear.
And for once it might be grand,
To have someone understand,
I want so much more than they’ve got planned.
This is a girl who wants to escape, a girl who wants to do something with her life. She isn’t going to marry that ‘boorish, brainless’ Gaston and massage his feet before the fire like a good little woman – she’s going to go out there and experience things, see it all, learn and grow. This is inherently admirable in our current society and, even though the film is twenty years old, we believe and want these traits in our daughters and sisters and in ourselves (as case may be).
Consider, however, how the action of the film serves to co-opt Belle’s dreams even while we cheer along the way. Belle, in the end, does not get the adventure she bargained for at all. If we are to assume that ‘they’ plan for Belle to wind up settled down with a good, strong man in the state of holy matrimony (a reasonable assumption, given the society depicted), then the only thing they don’t anticipate is which man it is she settles down for. Yeah, she doesn’t marry that jerk Gaston and live in that village, but she does marry some other jerk and lives easy commuting distance from that self-same village. The primary difference is the level of wealth, ultimately; the Beast is rich and has a massive library and a staff to serve Belle’s every need, while I doubt Gaston can offer similar accommodations in his rustic hunting lodge. We, the viewing audience, are meant to interpret the ‘adventure’ of Belle’s life as being kidnapped by a bitter, selfish man and then spending all her waking hours ‘repairing’ his personality by, essentially, mothering him into decency. Then, with her man thus repaired, she can marry him and live in his giant house with all the books and fine meals. Belle’s tale, then, is not one of freedom from societal concerns and social equality as it is one of domestic self-determination; she gets to pick and shape the man to spend her life with, and nothing more.
It must also be understood that Belle’s relationship with the Beast is not a healthy one. Remember: the Beast kidnaps an old man for trespassing and seems perfectly content to let him freeze to death in his tower until his attractive daughter shows up. The deal then becomes ‘I let your father go, you live here as my prisoner.’ Let’s skirt around the fact that this is a criminal act in and of itself and get to Belle’s reaction to this: She gives her word, and thereby binds herself to a man who is brutish, who denies her food, and who even threatens her for almost touching his stuff to such a degree that she flees into the night in terror. He, of course, saves her from the wolves, which makes her forgive him for his earlier misdeeds and decide he is misunderstood. They then have a snowball fight and everything is okay. Later, the Beast releases her from an imprisonment he had no right to levy in the first place so that she can save her father. She then proceeds to defend the Beast’s reputation to the townspeople and, in the end, decides to stay with her captor. Now, besides the fact that what I’ve described involves a lot of the tell-tale signs of an abusive relationship/Stolkholm’s Syndrome, we can see that the film is operating under the assumption that a woman can and, indeed, should expect to ‘fix’ her man and readily make excuses for his anti-social behavior. People, though, aren’t like cars or houses – one should not have to ‘renovate’ them to make them safe partners and, furthermore, one can’t reasonably expect such renovation to hold.
Now, of course, the film portrays the change in Beast as genuine. There is no indication that Belle is in danger of a resurgence of his terrible former self, for he has finally ‘learned to love’. Furthermore, in Gaston we can see true selfish wickedness and we are never given any reason to suspect his personality might be otherwise. This, for some, stands as proof-positive that the concerns expressed above are just so much academic hand-wringing, but that more indicates our acceptance of the potential reality of such a story than it does the inaccuracy of the critique. What I mean is this: we believe this story as reasonable because we believe such stories are plausible and, indeed, ideal, even though reality shows us this isn’t true. We accept the fact that Gaston – the rustic, self-made, hardworking man – is the villain while the Beast – the spoiled, selfish, rich kid – is the hero without reservation or doubt simply because the story shows it to be so, without ever thinking about what the story is getting us to agree to in the first place. When stripped of the story’s ‘spin’ (or so to speak), we can see that Gaston is not, necessarily, the worse choice. He is portrayed as such by the writers, who have chosen Beast as the victor because that’s what the original story has laid out. This original, of course, was written in the 18th century and primarily serves as a moral guide for what kind of husband a woman should seek and, furthermore, the kind of rewards she will receive in exchange for obedience to said husband and father.
So it is that we blindly accept a story that is, essentially, not so far removed from the centuries-old original. In it there is the window-dressing of female liberation, but what is really shown is a changing understanding of how women ought to find themselves a husband to support them. Now, this doesn’t mean the movie is a bad one – as said above, it is a wonderful tale – but we should be careful to allow our daughters to view it as a kind of ideal; it is not. The Beast is not the kind of man that should be married after a mere weekend’s courtship (and neither is Gaston, for that matter), and to suggest to our children that such behavior is ideal or even normal is potentially destructive. Like all fairy tales, it needs to be understood within a kind of cultural context that children aren’t necessarily equipped to understand. That doesn’t mean they can’t view and enjoy such tales, but parents should take care to present other and more positive role models for girls by way of comparison.