19 November 2014

Frozen warmth (2) -- pop culture and social progress

Reactionaries bring considerable ridicule down on their own heads by fuming that popular films, TV, etc. are insidiously promoting liberal values.  Most of the time this just reflects the fact that, to them, anything which doesn't explicitly express their own cramped world-view can only be taken as propaganda.  But the fact is, in some cases, pop culture can indeed both encourage and reflect social progress.

The stunningly-successful film Frozen is the best recent example of this.  While the movie makes no explicit reference to real-world social issues at all, sharp-eyed viewers have noticed that the isolation and anxiety suffered by Elsa because of her inborn ice powers, and the reactions of people around her when she is finally "outed" ("Monster!  Monster!") are a strong metaphor for what many young gay people experience.  Here's a good overview:

.....and here is a detailed example of how the opposition views it.  Back in April I wrote about the controversy myself, though I hadn't seen the movie yet; now that I've seen it several times, I stand by what I said then.  It's not only a metaphor about gay young people, but could apply much more broadly, to any "difference" that provokes fear and hostility from the surrounding society.  Elsa's experience would make an equally good metaphor for growing up atheist in a religious culture, for example.  But that's a matter of detail.  The point is that there is a very strong message here about intolerance and the misery it causes -- the very intolerance to which the social enemy clings as a core part of its "values".

It's critically important that the message and the metaphor are just incidental, and quite subtle, in a movie which is really escapist entertainment (if I had seen it without already having read about these undertones, I would not have noticed them at all).  A movie with a central and explicit anti-intolerance message wouldn't have reached such a huge audience -- except for the minority which is already ideologically committed, people don't watch movies that preach at them (I don't either) -- people want movies that are fun.

How much fun is being had here, exactly?  Frozen made $1,274,000,000 just in theaters, more than two-thirds of that in foreign countries where the ticket prices aren't so inflated as here (it was released in 41 other languages besides English) -- the fifth-highest-grossing movie ever.  Despite being released less than a year ago, it's already becoming a bigger global pop-culture phenomenon than Star Wars or Harry Potter.  Mountains of DVDs, video games, and so forth have been sold (yes, a lot of money is being made, and that's a good thing -- movies like this should be encouraged).  People are taking it as inspirational in their own lives.  As happens when a movie fires people's imaginations, there's already a vast internet universe of fanfic and fanart, people making it their own in ways the filmmakers could never have anticipated (and -- yes! -- Elsanna shippers are now a thing).  The stunning song of self-liberation "Let It Go" is a phenomenon in itself, with 367 million views on YouTube so far.  None of this would have happened with a film that seemed "preachy" and pushed a "message" too explicitly; more to the point, the people who most need to hear it wouldn't have -- fundies would have refused to let their kids see the movie, and conservative-ruled areas like the Middle East might have banned it entirely.

For comparison, look at the dismal results of the cultural enemy's efforts to get its own message out via movies, like Left Behind or Atlas Shrugged.  Such movies failed (despite being based, unlike Frozen, on novels which had already been successful within their own subcultures) precisely because they tried too hard and too blatantly to push their makers' world-view -- again, nobody except the already-converted wants to go to a theater and be preached at.  They were also apparently just godawfully bad and inept movies, because most of the artistic talent and creativity is on our side -- an interesting matter in itself.

One can see the pattern elsewhere in mass culture.  Consider the character of Remus Lupin in Harry Potter -- a beloved and highly-capable teacher who is forced out of his job by pressure from hostile parents after being "outed" as a werewolf.  Kids who read the novels will remember Lupin if they later see a teacher lose his job for being gay or atheist -- and they'll know which side is the bad guys in real life.  The wizard-supremacist ideology of Lord Voldemort and his followers, with its emphasis on "pure blood" and valuing ancestry over talent, obviously stands in for racism, racial supremacy, and the exclusion of the "other", and perhaps for aristocracy is well.  The clomping literal-minded fundies made fools of themselves by screeching that Harry Potter was promoting sorcery and occultism, while these real messages (despite being far less subtle than Frozen) flew right under their radar.

There are other interesting touches in these works.  Did you notice that the "church" where the coronation scene in Frozen is held displays no crosses or any other Christian symbols?  Or that Elsa's father has at least one book that appears to be printed in the runic alphabet?  The kingdom of Arendelle is based on Norway at some vague time in the past, but apparently it's a Norway where Christianity didn't displace paganism.  As far as I can remember, in all the Harry Potter books there isn't a single mention of God or Heaven, even though the subject of the afterlife repeatedly comes up.

Explicit argumentation on social issues definitely has its role -- we wouldn't have gotten anywhere like as far as we have without it.  But pop culture can also help to subtly shift accepted norms and to change hearts and minds -- everywhere, not just in the West.


Blogger Green Eagle said...

"...most of the artistic talent and creativity is on our side -- an interesting matter in itself."

I want to disagree with you about that. Yes, the vast majority of people I've worked with in my 3-decade career in film production are liberals, but they leave that behind when they come to work. They are craftsmen who are doing nothing but trying to make the best movie they can, and they don't spend a second thinking about how to cram some ideology down people's throats. And once in a while, we actually manage to make something worth watching. The kind of people that produce things like Atlas Shrugged don't give a damn about film; they only care about mesmerizing people into buying into their nonsensical political garbage. That is a perfect recipe for making a bad film, and it seems to work every time. The last time a right wing film was a blockbuster was Triumph of the Will.

19 November, 2014 16:13  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I'd vaguely heard some talk about this movie and its "gay" agenda. I haven't seen it, but now, after reading your post, I look forward to doing so.

I just wish this era of acceptance of people for who they are had come sooner. I had a childhood friend, a girl, who killed herself because she was "different."

That memory and remembering others who have suffered for not being like everyone else haunts me.

19 November, 2014 21:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Green: I was thinking more of people like writers and directors, the ones who do make the decisions about what movies "say". Their views certainly come out in their work.

The fact that the "craftsmen" are mostly liberals too does matter, though. Teabagger types who had the talent for those jobs might well refuse to work on movies whose message they disagreed with. If there were any teabaggers with those talents.

As for your second comment, don't come here and insult me by calling my (and a hell of a lot of other people's) viewpoint "ludicrous", especially when you don't address any of the evidence people propose for it.

Shaw: As I say, it's rather subtle, but I think you'll pick up on the same undertones.

It's a terrible thing when the corrosive power of bigotry turns on young people who don't even have an adult's psychological mechanisms for coping with it. It still happens, though society is now making some effort to deal with it. But the Christian Right here still bitterly opposes every effort to stop bullying and harassment, and the situation is even worse in countries where religion is more influential.

21 November, 2014 03:37  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

None of this would have happened with a film that seemed "preachy" and pushed a "message" too explicitly; more to the point, the people who most need to hear it wouldn't have -- fundies would have refused to let their kids see the movie, and conservative-ruled areas like the Middle East might have banned it entirely.

Well, I suppose in the above scenario the film might've gained some viewers by being seen as "forbidden fruit", but, yeah, the number turned off by its preachiness would probably have been far greater.

This entry puts me in mind of a piece of sage advice I got from a book on writing by Stephen King. In it, he stressed that story was the most important part of a novel, and he was right - it's the thing that's going to keep the reader turning the pages, after all. It's something I strive to keep in mind with my own creative writing - my job is to tell an entertaining tale above all else, not beat the reader over the head with some message, no matter how worthy the latter thing might be!

Your praise of Frozen encouraged me to check the movie out myself only a few days ago. I was flying back from a Christmas holiday in Europe (that a sibling was kind enough to treat me and the rest of the family to!), and needed some way to fill in the 18 or so hours I'd be spending in the air, so watched a bunch of movies the airline was offering, one of those movies being Frozen. And, as was the case for so many others who've seen it, I found it blew me away, what with its gorgeous animation, great songs, and emotional plot - while watching it, there were many moments when I found myself surreptitiously wiping my eyes* or not-so-surreptitiously blowing my nose!

*A bit ironic given the movie's message, I know, but unfortunately some of the bullshit macho crap I was indoctrinated with as a kid (albeit more by my peers than my parents) has proven very hard to shake off!

07 January, 2015 05:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Yes, the message, if there is one, has to emerge organically from the story. If it looks like a story created just to deliver a message, people won't keep turning the pages.

So you do creative writing? I still wish you would get a blog -- or do you already have other venues for it?

I'm glad you were impressed with the movie. It took me a while before I actually watched it myself, but it blew me away two (and, apparently, a few hundred million other people).

07 January, 2015 06:25  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

So you do creative writing? I still wish you would get a blog -- or do you already have other venues for it?

It'll happen eventually - I promise! - I think it's largely a matter of me learning to organize my time more effectively, which is something I'm really striving to do right now. I'm not normally in the business of making New Year's resolutions, but that can be one for this year!

As for the creative writing, I've got a piece of original fiction I need to get finished (a fantasy novel that was originally going to be one book, but now probably comprises enough material for two or three), as well as some Dr Who fanfic. The last thing is actually what I'm spending most of my time trying to get finished right now, mainly so I can just put something out there, and see what people who don't know me (and therefore won't feel obligated to say nice things about my stuff if they don't like it!) think of my creative writing skills. Not sure if Dr Who's your thing, though I'll send you a link to it when it's done. As fanfic goes, it's actually quite original, so intimate knowledge of the show it's based on probably isn't required.

Sorry BTW for taking so long to respond to your comment, and being rather scarce around your blog in general. For some reason, my body clock had a really hard time resetting itself when I came back from overseas earlier in the month; the upshot of this was I suffered some terrible insomnia (and was consequently a veritable zombie for days on end). I also caught a rotten cold (presumably during the flight home), which knocked me around for a few days. Not happy!

18 January, 2015 07:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I've liked what I've seen of Dr. Who (mostly some of the earlier series), though I'm not familiar with all of it. Thanks for sending a link, and please let me know about anything else you post. There seem to be a lot of sites for fanfic, and some people even post shorter works on blogs (mostly tumblr).

I certainly understand about the jet lag. Glad to see you whenever you can drop by.

21 January, 2015 03:21  

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