Recently, on a cold afternoon in New York, I stopped in the Disney Store in Times Square with my four-year-old son. A handful of little girls and their mothers sat around a video screen, entranced by footage of an ice princess, Elsa, who was hunched under a heavy cape and unnamed humiliations. But soon Elsa had worked herself into the fit of emboldened indignation that is the power ballad. Her song appeared to have been written by an actuary tabulating the most memorable catchphrases from the past year’s selection of self-help and empowerment books. “Conceal, don’t feel.” “The perfect girl is gone.” “Let it go.”
Elsa erected ice castles. She discarded the cape, and gave herself a new dress with a slit exposing her right thigh. Like Sandy in Grease before her, Elsa traded her flats for heels and stamped the floor, “You go girl” attitude zinging from unleashed icy blond hair. Elsa whirled away triumphantly because nothing, apparently, says that you have let go of the past as much as a good makeover.
A few weeks later, on Facebook, my friend Kristina Reed, a veteran kindergarten teacher in San Francisco, posted: “So, hey Frozen, what’s with the ice queen’s freaky coquettish strut and the trampy magic snow dress? Now I have five-year-old students singing that earworm song and walking like they’re on a runway.”
I responded immediately. I, too, had disliked the video and the subliminal messaging. Other mothers, however, ones with daughters, defended Frozen, saying it was nice to have a movie centered on the relationship between sisters, instead of a romantic quest.
“Totally looks like sexy walking to me and every teacher I know,” Kristina said.
At first I chalked up my dislike of Frozen to a bad attitude; unlike Elsa, the cold has always bothered me and this winter was interminable. But now it’s spring and little children are still singing “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs, while appearing to audition for America’s Next Top Model. A 12-inch Elsa doll, long since sold out in Disney Stores, commands over 50 dollars a pop on eBay. More than one person has confided to me that they believe “Let It Go” is a lesbian anthem. Yael Sadan, a licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Brooklyn, wrote to me in an email: “As a mother of two girls, I am totally frustrated and annoyed by (Disney’s) princess propaganda. I was so uncomfortable with Elsa’s new found freedom dance and how sexy it was. But… I have had grown men in my sessions referencing it regarding points that I am trying to make as a therapist.”
For some reason, Frozen has been catapulted out of the realm of standard Disney fare and granted it the power of a cultural mirror.
The dancer and choreographer Luam Keflezgy was born in Eritrea, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Biology. Today, Keflezgy works as a dancer and choreographer. Her résumé boasts a who’s who of female performers who currently embody a quality we call “diva.” Alicia Keys. Rihanna. Beyoncé.
Keflezgy’s read of Elsa’s “sexy walk” was that it was an attempt by Frozen’s to give Elsa a touch of Beyoncé. The biggest change pre- and post-makeover, according to Keflezgy, wasn’t so much Elsa’s walk, as it was her high heels. “That surprised me,” she said. “A princess wears slippers. Obviously they wanted to give Elsa a fabulousness moment. The problem is, it doesn’t fit the character.” For Elsa is not a true diva.
According to Keflezgy, divas are often misinterpreted. “People think that to be a diva is to be a master of the universe, so you don’t have to care about anyone else. But that’s not it at all.” To be a true diva, was not, as Elsa had done, to build a massive ice fortress in which to hide out from the rest of humanity for 13 years. It is Keflezgy’s philosophy that to become a diva, one must do three things. One: Acknowledge her flaws. Two: Embrace those flaws. Three: Embrace her power. In the case of Alicia Keys: “We explored where she is now in her life. She is now a mother. We worked on her walk, her curves. I helped her explore who she is, and helped her to wear this confidently.”
“A princess wears slippers. Obviously they wanted to give Elsa a fabulousness moment. The problem is, it doesn’t fit the character.”
When I moved to New York in 1998, I had my requisite day job, but at night I worked out a belated childhood fantasy of learning to dance. Class was a fascinating cross-section: the occasional silicone-enhanced pole dancer; off-season Rockettes; a wounded corps member from the Miami Ballet. But class was overwhelmingly filled with kids from around the world who wanted to become professional dancers. To do so, they needed to expand their “vocabulary.” In class, every hip thrust, chest jut, and head roll was dissected, then “implanted” into the body to be deployed in a routine devised to express “ferocity” and “attitude.”
“How are you going to stand out in an audition?” the teachers would holler. “Gimme attitude!” It was terrifying.
It was particularly challenging to “work it” for anyone with a mostly ballet background (yours truly), or from a non-western country. But I adjusted. The emphasis in ballet class on a rigid and unattainable ideal had made me continuously aware of my flaws: too long-waisted, too short, too fat. Jazz, on the other hand, exploited everything I thought was a weakness. The use of hips and shoulders in choreography means that dancers who might look too thick in a tutu, look powerful in jazz. There is a reason why choreographers speak of “making” a dance “on” a body; they do not “choreograph for you.” Excellent choreography feels like you are wearing the most perfect pair of jeans. When you look in the mirror, all your flaws momentarily evaporate, and you see yourself as a purely powerful, free individual. Jazz class was frequently like this for me.
Occasionally I saw a ballet dancer try out a hip-hop class and giggle, unable to escape her rigid torso. Whereas the hip-hop dancers liked to imitate ballet dancers, flicking their wrists, leaping into the air with exaggerated exuberance. In our modern world, what use have we for pointy-toed simpleton princes intent on goodness, and anorexic princesses with delicate hands?
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a contemporary Disney heroine would also mirror this vocabulary. With each new Disney film, once earnest princesses have been replaced by sassy girls delivering one-liners. Why shouldn’t she shake her booty too?
From time to time, we would have a visitor in class, a young girl of 15 or 16, usually from Florida or Georgia, there with her shadow-of-a-mother lurking in the doorway. When asked, the girl confidently would explain that she was in New York “to audition for agents and shows.” This was the late ’90s. The girls always reminded me of Britney Spears, she of the python-dancing and booty-short-wearing, before her publicized breakdown. Like Britney, these girls had no problem rolling on the floor or jutting out their still developing breasts. Really? I would think. Do you know what you are doing?
I talked this over with my friend Vicki Fischer-Jenkins, a professional dancer and teacher at a performing arts school in New Jersey. As a long time instructor of young dancers, Fischer-Jenkins teaches all the isolations and turns that any dancer today has to be able to do. But these moves in and of themselves, she insists, are not sexual. They are meant to be empowering. “When we were rolling around on the floor in our class,” she said, “that was adult material. That is not something I would ever teach a young girl.”
Now more than ever, I wonder why it is that a story about a girl coming into her power, and finding a way to relate better to other people, to solve a problem in the world, or to empathize with others, is so hard to come by.
At my request, Fischer-Jenkins reviewed Elsa’s “sexy walk.” She could see what I was talking about, and she laughed at the heels, the slit up the dress, the chest thrust. But it was wrong of me to think that these moments came from hip-hop or jazz. Elsa’s moves during her catwalk, Fischer-Jenkins said, originated from pageant culture and from dance competitions.
Not too long ago, Fischer had been a judge at a competition somewhere in the Midwest. The girls had worn bra tops and booty shorts and danced with poles to a song called “Bring on the Men.” The girls were all 11 years old. The audience hooted and hollered. Fischer had been appalled. What she saw at the Midwest dance competition—indeed, what she and her colleagues have complained about so much that points at some contests are now awarded for age appropriateness—is more common, the further away from the coasts she goes.
Elsa’s catwalk moment, then, wasn’t an empowering move derived from the jazz and hip-hop of New York and LA. Elsa’s sexy walk was a reflection of the Honey Boo Booing of America.
Paul Taylor is a modern choreographer and an avowed genius, whose style fuses ballet technique with movements from African and Caribbean dance. One of Taylor’s masterpieces, “Cloven Kingdom,” contains the subtitle, “Man Is a Social Animal,” and utilizes music that alternates between the percussive 20th-century pieces of Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller, and the musings of 17th-century Baroque composer Correlli. At some points, women wearing long stretchy skirts engage in a variety of African dance-infused steps. Their male counterparts wear suits and pose languidly like aristocratic Europeans. Occasionally, Taylor gives both groups similar steps: the same arabesque at an angle with the torso tilted forward, or the same gesture, with the elbow of one arm resting on the palm of another. Depending on who is dancing, and what music is playing, the moves may look courtly, or for lack of a better word, tribal. Throughout the piece, three dancers wearing mirrors on their heads join the fray, a nod to the idea that we are always, whether we know it or not, projecting onto others, and seeing ourselves there. It can be a struggle to know what’s real.
Dance reflects the culture. The princess of a ballet is, in many ways, the last vestige of Romanov Russia, her striving to be like the royals of Western Europe. Jazz and its many derivatives reflect a growing multicultural world, and a celebration of the implied freedom when so many cultures live together peacefully. But, says Keflezgy: “I find that the further away you get geographically from the culture that created jazz or street jazz, the more it is diluted, and the less it is understood.”
My old high school friend Allison, mother to five, is not in the Frozen fan camp. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) “I never want my kids to hang on to an empty, one-sided, used-to-be-something-meaningful relationship. Anna waited like 13 years for Elsa to get herself together. What a waste. Alone in the castle waiting on what?”
I confess my read on Frozen’s plot is the same. It is, to me, a strangely hysterical take on female friendship. Elsa’s sister, Anna, engages in an act of self-sacrifice, which neutralizes Elsa’s borderline personality-disorder-infused-freezing power. Then Elsa is cured, and Anna comes back to life, because apparently the reward for sacrificing oneself so wholly and completely in a codependent relationship, is rejuvenation.
“It’s like we think that in order to be powerful, we cannot be good,” Kristina Reed, the kindergarten teacher, said, “What is wrong with being good?”
Now more than ever, I wonder why it is that a story about a girl coming into her power, and finding a way to relate better to other people, to solve a problem in the world, or to empathize with others, is so hard to come by. Personally, I never understood the notion that goodness is necessarily boring, anymore than I grasped why, for example, the best characters on soap operas are invariably villainesses, whose worth is only redeemed after they endure some humiliation, often a rape. I’m beginning to think that the problem isn’t so much with the creators of these stories, as it is with us, the audience, and what we want to see, and in the ways in which we like to see ourselves.