I thought I loved you all along.
When you were sitting cross legged, hands in your lap, looking directly at me, still and afraid to break an unspoken conversation, illuminated by a porcelain moon,
that’s when I knew. the very moment I took note of how every part of you was delicately hand-sewn into my soul, I knew. I still know.
Cold dew glistened like a death sweat on the heartrending yellow foliage. A pale sun, marked by the seal of the disease, inserts the needles into the insects , maybe hoping to fix the wounds… or to give them a quick death.
Little wasp curled in the arms of black earth, like an embryo in the womb of Autumn… Poor wasp quietly surrendered to the power of the cold. The last memories become dark spots on the fallen leaves. It was like a map. My frozen hands collected these letters and hid them in the diary - to remember the little deaths of 53 autumn day.
As a father of two young daughters, I have noticed the following thing about mainstream kids’ films these days. Or maybe it’s not true and I think I’ve observed something but I’m just being stupid. Perhaps you can help me decide which it is.
It crept up on me slowly. The girls are 10 and 7. Think how many times I’ve seen Frozen, Tangled, and all the rest. Literally hundreds of times each. And it took that many times, all those endless rewatchings in full or in part, for me to see at last what was right in front of me.
It’s always easy to point out how other cultures work, what their assumptions are about life and how these are expressed and reinforced through their arts, their plays and poems, music and dance, their comedies and tragedies and adverts and menus and dirty jokes, everything.
You can do the observation and the reading, make the connections, reach an intellectual understanding of that culture (even sometimes develop a profound personal relationship with that culture, like George Harrison did, or that fella Lawrence of Arabia).
Much, much harder to do it with your own culture. Too close to it. Can’t see the wood from the trees. The underlying assumptions of our own culture are embedded continuously in our human sensoria from day one of our lives. They are reinforced every day in a million ways. But sometimes, after endless repeated viewings of the last 10 years of mainstream kids films, you begin to see a pattern.
So, my first intimation of this whole thing was when we were all at the Odeon watching Wreck-it Ralph (Disney, 2012). It’s all happening inside computer games, all the characters are real, and this Ralph’s a bad guy in his own particular game. He wrecks things, that’s his job. But he really wants to be good, so he tries to steal some big shiny medal reserved for the good guy characters.
It all goes wrong and he’s thrown together with a little girl character called Vanellope from a different game. She’s got a glitch, she’s not working properly, everyone hates her, so she’s got it tough. She wants the medal to fix her glitch. Long story short, Ralph doesn’t get to be the good guy by stealing a medal. No, that dishonesty in pursuit of some showy ideal of social acceptance isn’t the way to Wreck-it Ralph’s redemption. It’s the growing maturity he develops through his relationship with Vanellope.
After a rocky start and a later betrayal, he eventually becomes the little girl’s champion, her protector, a father figure to this outcast. At the end of the film, Ralph’s voiceover tells us that the best parts of his day are when he can look out of his game and across into Vanellope’s game, where she is now a princess. Proudly watching her enjoy her wonderful new remade life, he concludes:
“Turns out I don’t need a medal to tell me I’m a good guy. Because if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?”
Nice ending, I liked it. It touched me, sitting there in the dark with my beautiful girls on either side of me. Then we went for a Nando’s.
Some time later, we all went to see The Croods (Fox, 2013), which was about a family of cavemen. The story is narrated by the daughter, Eep, who is constantly frustrated by her father’s inflexible and conservative approach to leading the family. The father – named Grug and voiced by Nicolas Cage - insists they mostly stay inside their cave with the entrance boulder firmly lodged, to keep out all the sabre tooth tigers. Poor Eep, who is portrayed as adolescent, is going mad from boredom, confinement and the suffocating rules her dad insists on to protect them all in what is quite a hostile world.
Anyway all this stuff happens, all adventures and that, and basically he – Grug - has to learn that times change and old habits can become repressive, that his daughter is growing up and needs freedom to explore the world in her own way. Eep in turn has to learn that all her dad’s hyper-vigilance and over-protectiveness is part of the enormous commitment, love and effort he invests in his role as a parent. The encounter with the new – personified by Eep’s clever new boyfriend – is resolved at the film’s ending with the Grug and Eep having negotiated the transition from daddy-little girl to daddy-young woman.
It was quite good, very pretty looking. As we were coming out, I was thinking about how it’ll be when our two are in their teens. Will I be like Grug the caveman dad was, or will I be a bit more sensitive and understanding in the first place, without all the adventures Eep and her dad had to go through? And then I realised that both this film and Wreck-it Ralph were basically about the relationship between a father (or father figure) and a young girl.
And it reminded me of when we went swimming and then to see Hotel Transylvania (Sony, 2012), in which Dracula has a teenage daughter who is going mad from boredom, confinement and the suffocating rules her dad insists on to protect her from a world hostile to monsters. Dracula learns much the same lesson as cavemen Grug, and Dracula’s daughter learns much the same lesson as Eep. The encounter with the new – personified by the daughter’s non-monster boyfriend – is resolved at the film’s ending with the father and daughter having negotiated the transition from daddy-little girl to daddy-young woman.
Then we saw Epic (Fox, 2013), which didn’t do especially well at the box office, despite starring the voices of Colin Farrell and Beyoncé, but which my two girls enjoyed. In Epic, tiny little people live in the woods, riding on hummingbirds, hanging out with snails, defending their kingdom against wicked bad imp things that want to take over the forest, all that kind of stuff.
The main character is MK (short for Mary Katherine) a teenage girl who, following the sudden death of her mother, has to go and live with her dad (her parents having divorced some time during the daughter’s childhood. The problem is that the dad, an eccentric scientist type called Professor Bomba, is obsessed with his self-appointed life’s work, which is to prove the existence of the tiny little woodland folk.
He spends every waking hour on this project, which everyone else – including the late ex-wife – sees as a sign of the his insane inability to drop the crazy forest business and engage with the real world. Unlike the earlier dads, Proefessor Bomba is physically unimposing. He lacks the brute strength and aggression of Ralph or Grug, or the scary range of evil powers contained within the tall, broad-shouldered figure of Hotel Transylvania’s depiction of Dracula.
Professor Bomba is skinny, short, gangly, weak chinned, round shouldered, stooped. With a pair of wire rimmed glasses perched on his long nose as he scurries around his maps and charts and tiny bits of acorn, gabbling and digressing and tripping and bumping and dropping stuff, he is a classic geek caricature. An adult geek, though, long past his prime, lost in his obsessions. A man-child, socially isolated, lacking people skills, emotionally immature.
Unable to connect with his bereaved adolescent daughter, Professor Bomba hides himself still further in his endless, fruitless research. MK is going mad with the frustration of enduring this almost autistic father, but then she suddenly gets shrunken down to tiny size and becomes deeply involved in the adventures of the little woodland people, who are facing an existential threat to their community because of baddies.
As the plot unfolds, it become urgently necessary that MK, missing from the big world for about a day and a night by now, should manage to alert her dad that (a) she is less than an inch high and is currently running around on top of his cluttered desk, and (b) that she is in a position to totally confirm, vindicate, and justify her loony dad’s life project – the little woodland people really do exist. Professor Bomba was right all along. But it’s difficult for MK to get any of this across because relative to her dad she is so tiny and so quiet.
The plot, then, very clearly turns on whether the father and daughter are able to communicate effectively; specifically, on whether the daughter is able to communicate with the father, and whether the father is able to receive and respond to his daughter’s attempt to communicate.
So by now I was starting to notice this, how very common a theme it is in kids’ movies, the relationship of a father (or father figure) to his offspring, with a bias towards the offspring being female. And how the typical plot set-up will involve the father having to overcome character flaws in order to restore his relationship with the kid, while the kid comes to appreciate that these very character flaws aren’t so much flaws as essentially positive traits taken too far and enacted too rigidly.
Bored at work one night, I drew up the following list of things that occurred to me on pondering all this.
• While these movies focus on the character of the father/father figure and dramatize his difficult relationship with his offspring, their interest in the mothers is negligible. In both Hotel Transylvania and Epic, the daughters’ mothers are dead when the film begins. In Wreck-it Ralph, Vanellope is essentially an orphan, and the movie shows her gaining a father figure in the massive slab-like shape of Ralph. What she does not gain is a mother figure.
In The Croods at least we see an actual living mother. Her name is Ugga and she has precisely zero good lines, key scenes, or significant intervention in plot events. Cheap laughs around Grug’s mother-in-law take up more airtime. Ugga’s sole response to her husband’s troubled relationship with their daughter is to gently chide him while hugging his arm and turning sympathetic eyes on him.
• The absent, dead or marginalised mother can also be seen in: Despicable Me (Universal, 2010), which like Wreck-it Ralph, is about a stereoptypical bad guy – in this case, a bald supervillain named Gru - discovering a path to redemption by taking on a paternal role, ending the film as the doting adoptive father to adorable orphan girls Edith, Agnes and Margo (they have to wait for the sequel, in which Gru finds love, to get their adoptive mother, but at least when she arrives she’s all cool and kickass etc.)…
• …and in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sony/Columbia, 2009) the visionary but chaotic young inventor Flint Lockwood has a hard time connecting with his rigid, emotionally closed widower father Tim, who can only relate to his son in traditional male discourse (especially the angling metaphors meant to give his son life guidance but which merely fly over the young man’s head).
Flint’s mother, who died when he was a boy, appears only in the golden glow of his memory, where she appears as an endlessly gentle and inspirational figure, evoking a kind of Blessed Mary Mother of God vibe. As in the movies mentioned above, the plot of Cloudy… gives us the story (albeit as a more of a subplot than elsewhere) of an emotionally rigid dad learning to connect with an offspring. The offspring meanwhile comes to understand better the value of the father’s ways (depicted at the conclusion of the sequel, in which Flint finally joins his father on a fishing trip, is hopeless at it but takes firm guidance from his father, and enjoys himself hugely)….
• …and also in the movie version of Paddington (2014, StudioCanal/Heyday Films), in which the bear’s struggles to fit in with family life in London are one of the two main plot motors. The other is Mr Brown’s struggles to adapt to having a bear living in his family home. (The Nicole Kidman kidnap stuff isn’t a plot motor in this sense, it’s just some peril to keep things moving, the threat is arbitrary and as such non-essential).
The key to the film is given in a flashback to Mr and Mrs Brown’s early days as a couple, before they had children, razzing along on a motorbike, him with long hair and a moustache, her riding pillion, high in the saddle, whooping along with Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild. They pull up outside a hospital, Mrs Brown dismounts, and we see that she is very heavily pregnant. She is, in fact, about to go into the maternity ward. High on adrenaline, they exchange a few words. She chirps, not gonna let this change us, are we? He bellows back, no way baby! They do a big high five and walk into the hospital.
Then it cuts to them coming back out of the hospital with the baby. Mr Brown is now dressed entirely in beige, carrying the baby chair, is being hyper-cautious and rather pompous in clearing people out of the way, and is heading for a beige Volvo estate. The joke, of course, is how quickly and completely fatherhood changed Mr Brown from an exciting free spirit into a boring and repressive old fart.
The chaos represented by Paddington Bear is a direct challenge to his authority. The more Mr Brown tries to clamp down on the bear, the more his family turn against him. He finally has a Damascene conversion, realises that to love and accept Paddington in all his chaos will improve his other relationships too, heal the breach with his children and with his wife.
We have, in short, another plot about a man overcoming the excesses of his male-gendered psychology in order to reconnect with his children (using the bear as a surrogate child in this instance).
Again, the plot has little for the mother to do. A writer and illustrator of children’s books, Mrs Brown’s role in the film is to be disappointed by her husband, symbolised by her inability to create in ink on paper the male hero character she needs for her new story. Near the end, Mr Brown takes up the fight to save Paddington, embarking on a dangerous rooftop escapade, at which point Mrs Brown’s vision of her husband standing at the window ledge turns him into exactly the character she was trying to picture for her story, and in a pretty clever double meaning she exclaims, My hero!
The twin plot motors of the movie, I say again, are provided by the confrontation of Paddington and Mr Brown. The mother is merely reactive, the emotional journey of father and child (in the form of the hapless bear) forms the story’s core.
• I’ve reeled off seven films there that all have the father/father figure’s relationship to his kid/adopted kids/adopted bear as key to the story. You may now happily reel off as many kids’ movies in which this is not the case as you see fit. Frozen. The Lego Movie. Inside Out. Wall-E. A Bug’s Life. Up. Toy Story. None of these huge movies contains the pattern I’m suggesting here. There are no dads learning to be dads, kids learning to appreciate their dads, not in these or many more films. How, therefore, can I claim (as I seem to be doing) that this type of plot (the paterno-centric type) is disproportionately represented among kids’ movies in general? Because – where are the materno-centric kids’ films? (Apart from Freaky Friday, of course, both versions of which are brilliant.)
• Movie versions of fairy tales and stories from the worldwide folk tradition more often deal in substantial ways with mothers and mother figures of course, but as with all the evil stepmothers, wicked queens, and ugly witches in these tales, the attitudes to gender are remnants of a much older world and can be either reproduced or subverted in the re-telling. Disney’s Snow White is a reproduction, Disney’s Frozen a subversion.
• Even when a mother is more visibly and audibly present in a kids’ movie, her plot tends not to revolve around the difficulty of reconciling the excesses of her own personality with the demands of a growing and changing child, as in the dad-centric plots I’ve mentioned above.
There seems to be a sense that parenthood is natural to a woman in a way it isn’t to a man. A depiction of a woman who, despite loving her kids, is crushing their emotional lives is extremely rare in kids’ movies, while the depiction of a man in the same situation is reasonably common.
• Also, while these movies are obviously critiquing some repressive aspects of heteronormative masculinity – the violence and anger of Ralph, the brute aggression of Grug, the authoritarian control freakery of Dracula, the perpetual immaturity of Professor Bomba – they are also careful not to do too much violence to them. In each case, these very traits are also valorised, acknowledged as important, necessary, noble. How so? Like this:
• In The Croods, Grug accepts he has lost contact with his children’s changing emotional needs, but in mitigation offers: “I guess I was busy keeping them alive,” as he is show doing throughout the film, his bravery and loyalty never in question, only his methods. Towards the film’s end, Eep echoes and affirms these words in talking of her dad’s rules: “They kept us alive”. The bottom line value of enormous physical strength and a ready store of energetic aggression is also suggested by Wreck-it Ralph.
The authoritarianism and repression of Grug, along with those of Mr Brown and Dracula, are balanced by the loyalty and protectiveness that comes along with the package. The safety and security of the offspring’s (and the wives’) very existence is shown to be supplied by the father, using the same male-gendered characteristics that in excess lead to the alienation of the offspring. Even the immature absorption of man-child geek Professor Bomba, the failure to engage with socially-approved values which alienated his late wife to the point of divorce, is redeemed – he was right about those little forest people all along! And in his stubbornness we are shown a hint of nobility.
• So although these films embark on a critique of traditional masculine-gendered attributes, it is a mild and partial critique, one that simultaneously validates and affirms the underlying value of those same attributes.
• These films have hit my weak spot, again and again. I have found myself welling up in the dark, my beautiful girls on either side of me munching popcorn, almost in tears at these touching resolutions between these strange, dysfunctional dads and their (usually) daughters. That last line from Wreck-it Ralph kept playing in my head like an earworm tune: “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” I, like all the other dads in the audience, have felt that doubt, about whether we can actually do this, be a good dad. The film makers know this. I have been emotionally touched up by these movies, right in my most tender spot, over and over. These are our bedtime stories.
The dads in these movies are allowed to be monsters, bad guys, supervillains, cavemen, overgrown boys, pompous beige pricks - all the things we fear fatherhood will make of us, or that will be exposed by the experienced; they’re allowed to physically and emotionally dominate, stifle, ignore, snoop on, lie to, deceive, marginalise and threaten to kill the boyfriends of their kids, and still end up as the hero. The journey of a man to full emotional maturity implied by his adoption of the parental role is depicted in these films as a fascinating, moving, indeed an epic story.
• If a woman in a kids’ film is depicted in these ways – as a monster, a baddie, a quasi-autistic nerd, an emotionless grumping machine – she’s far less likely to be the hero, a mother who grows and changes through being a parent, and more likely to be the villain of the piece (evil stepmothers, nannies, etc.) A plot in which a woman is shown to be not a natural parent and who has to grow into the role is extremely hard to find.
Freaky Friday, the honourable exception of course, shows us a repressive mother who has failed to understand her teenage daughter, who in turn underestimates her mother’s positive qualities.
Also, the sequel to How To Train Your Dragon (Fox, 2014) deserves a special mention, with a plot that revolves entirely around an autonomous and free-spirited mother, Valka, who leaves her patriarchal society in disgust at its brutish and aggressive culture, in the process leaving behind her only child, the boy Hiccup.
Valka’s great disagreement with her community is over the treatment of dragons, which the Viking men see as mindless threats to be destroyed with violence, but which Valka understands to be creatures with their own lives and minds and priorities. She becomes a great tamer of dragons, using kindness and respect.
In his mother’s absence, Hiccup grows up to embody these same virtues, bringing him into exactly the same conflict with the patriarchal society of his tiny island. He eventually succeeds in changing the whole culture of his tribe to one of peaceful coexistence with dragons. In this sense, Hiccup fulfils his mother’s vision by overturning the oppressively male-gendered nature of their homeland. The complex and layered morality of this plot does full justice to the decision to have Valka, a mother, walk out on her child, against which there remains a massive and demonising taboo in our own society.
There are both rights and wrongs implied in Valka’s choice, but ultimately her story remains a noble one with a resolution not unlike those of the paterno-centric plots we’ve discussed. The film allows the mother a full and complex range of motives. And even more pleasantly surprising than a story that allows a woman to walk out on her kid without being demonised (and getting eaten by a monster or something) this story goes further and clearly shows that the decision was morally defensible, inspired by high ideal rather than low conniving, adult and complex and redeemable.
• Have a quick scan of mainstream media and you’ll quickly see that the two categories of human being that they are the most interested in – as measured by total presence in films, magazines, newspapers, websites, movies etc – are men, of all ages, and young women. The careers of male actors in the mainstream tend to continue unabated by the years, from the hot young handsome chiselled star-in-the-making through to the still-sexy smouldering older megastar.
Women, as a category, become less interesting to the mass media as they move away from their teens and early 20s. Beyond their 40s, women’s representation in the media drops off sharply. In this sense, the focus on a dad and his (often adolescent) daughter fits the pattern almost too well.
• See also Finding Nemo (Disney 2003), Chicken Little (Disney 2005), and the way director Tim Burton turned the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros. 2005) into a paterno-centric story (which it certainly wasn’t in either Roald Dahl’s original nor in the 1971 version with Gene Wilder) by introducing a weird subplot where the reason why Willy Wonka’s obsessed with sweets is because his dad was a horrible dentist who threw his candy in the fire, and who he has to go and visit and be reconciled with at the end in order to complete his emotional arc. See also the ur-text for the dad-centric kids’ movie, Mary Poppins (in which the mother’s only role is to be lightly mocked for being a suffragette, while the father’s dressing down from his bosses at the bank is given full comic-epic solemnity).
• In summary then: when it comes to parenthood, women are naturals. Men aren’t. But it’s okay, because all the bad things about men are based on good things and we couldn’t really do without them. Also, it makes a great story whereas the stories of mothers are largely boring.
• So we’ve come down to this, a set of clichés, broad-brush, inaccurate generalisations, obscuring more than they reveal, slanted to valorise and flatter men, reaffirm their centrality, and frankly uninterested in mature women.
Received opinions, in short. And these were a few little hints I’ve had on the methods by which those opinions are received.
You are cordially invited to the Royal Birthday Ball for the 19th birthday of Princess Anna of Arendelle on the thirteenth of March.
Your attendance will be most welcome.
Sincerely, HRH Queen Elsa of Arendelle .
(And in the back )
Wow, royal letters sound so FORMAL how are we supposed to get people to come? Shh, don’t tell Elsa I added this! PLEASE COME BRI, I CAN INTRODUCE YOU TO PRINCES (Hans isn’t invited though, sorrynotsorry) AND YOU GET TO WEAR A PRETTY DRESS AND THERE’S A 19 LAYER CHOCOLATE CAKE. WE FEAST ON CHOCOLATE FLAVORED EVERYTHING.
Also Sven and Olaf say hi. Kristoff says he’ll save you a dance. You know what, so will I! Come?
Ps. Just asked Elsa, she said she’ll dance if you come! Yayyyy!!!
Chocolate, princes, and dancing (with you and Kristoff)? Count me in! Tell Elsa we’re gonna boogy ‘til we just can’t boogy no more! March can’t get here soon enough!
I love this so much. It put a big goofy smile on my face. I have to take a request from you Trish. I just have to. ❤️
Part of the “I’m bored and in a place where I can’t draw… Put a letter in my box from any of the characters of Frozen. It can be serious, pen pal, romantic, silly, etc… I’ll pick the one I like best and do a drawing of their request sometime this week.” thingie
An Open Letter to the Fictional Lesbian Shippers of Tumblr:
I would personally like to extend an enormous fangirl thank-you to the Frozen fandom (more specifically, my fellow Elsanna shippers) on Tumblr for introducing me to Once Upon A Time and – for which I owe an even greater debt of thanks – to Carmilla.
Then I must thank the Creampuffs for turning me on to the Gay Women Channel, and also getting me hooked on The 100.
Thank you to the fandom of The 100 for turning me on to Faking It, which I just binge-watched over the course of about 12 hours.
I ship Elsanna, Hollstein, LaFerry, Swan Queen, Clexa, and now, thanks to you saucy bitches and your awesome show recs, I can now add Karmy to my arsenal of fictional lesbian ships.
So thank you, Tumblr. For giving me new things to obsess over rather than being an actual adult :)