For the non-parents out there, let's quickly review the tidal wave from Arendelle that swept over the parents of the world in the last 12-15 months. I was planning to see Frozen when it hit the cheap theaters but didn't. Because it never got to the cheap theaters. It stayed in the full price theaters morphing from regular showings into special sing along showings right through the DVD release ($1.2B global box office). In June, the Billboard Dance Club Songs list was topped by a Disney song (Let it Go), and for the better part of a year parents had to sell heirlooms to buy Frozen birthday party decor off eBay. A year after it released, we went to Disneyland where Kate expected to meet Elsa and Anna. We got lucky. We had 3-day passes, so we got into the park an hour early one day. That day, G speedwalked from the entrance to the "Meet Elsa and Anna" fastpass line (yes, Elsa and Anna have their own fast pass line), waited in line for 45 minutes to get fastpasses, and managed to get passes for 2:20 in the afternoon. They ran out of passes before the park opened for general admission. When we returned at 2:20 we waited in line again for over an hour to actually meet Elsa and Anna. Apparently, before they implemented the fast pass system parents were waiting in line for over 5 hours to meet the princesses. A YEAR after the movie released.
The fanatical devotion that surrounds this film left quite a few people scratching their heads about what caused such an uproar. Certainly Tangled (Rapunzel), and the Frog Princess (Tianna) didn't produce anything like this. Why this one? I thought it over for a while and ran some ideas past G. It turned out we had independently come to basically the same conclusion. The way our kids put it was, "She's a princess, but with powers," which is a major departure from previous Disney princesses.
Not so sure? Let's review some other Disney princesses:
- Snow White - Beautiful, kind, sickeningly optimistic and helpless before a simple disguise. She ends up waiting, half dead, for her prince to save her.
- Aurora - Beautiful, loved by everyone, so trusting she dances with strange men who show up in the forest, but ultimately helpless before spinning needles. She ends up stuck in an enchanted death sleep, waiting for her prince to save her.
Of course these are really old examples. Maybe a more modern one will be better:
- Ariel - Beautiful, but rebellious, and honestly not so bright. Helpless before a witch with a lousy sales pitch. She loses the guy, and gets transformed back into a mermaid after getting her father turned into a worm. She's stuck waiting for her prince to knock off the witch and then STILL needs her dad to save her from the disappointment of losing her first
infatuationlove. (Assuming that being transformed into an alien creature and separated from your family forever counts as being saved.)
Now let's talk about Elsa. She makes awesome stuff with her mind and a gesture, and runs a kingdom (without a guy even!). Halfway through the movie she "loses" her princess status and becomes Queen Elsa of Arrendelle. Most importantly, she does all this despite feeling unsure of herself. When she can't keep her fears in check anymore, she gives up the act, exiles herself for everyone's safety, and finally gets to revel in her own power. "Let it Go" captured the hearts of millions of girls. They will have to grow up a little before they really understand why its working title was "Elsa's Bad*** Song".
Disney is sending girls a big message here. You don't have to feel perfect. Hiding your abilities won't help in the long run. You can make awesome things. You can be powerful. This movie is about getting girls into STEM. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)
No, I'm not really kidding. Elsa describes her own soul as a spiral of frozen fractals. She likes to be alone, and her skin looks like she's never seen the sun. She can make her own dress, bridge, castle, and probably whatever else she wants to. And she's been doing it since she was little with no training. She can't stop changing the world around her even when she tries. Can you say "power geek" louder than this?
Someone at Disney really gets it. They understand what's keeping girls out of STEM. That's not really a surprise since I'm pretty sure "they" is John Lasseter (current Chief Creative Officer at Disney and former Pixar exec) and his Pixar cronies. Sound crazy? Lets review the "Pixar princesses": Merida (Brave), Ellie (Up), EVE (WALL-E), Sally (Cars), Mrs. Incredible. This group and the old Disney princesses have never met and it's not hard for me to see where Elsa belongs (or Anna for that matter). Since Elsa's real heritage is a computer animation studio it's not hard to convince me that the subliminal message coming from her is a whispered "grow up and work for us".
Admittedly what I'm about to say could be biased, because I have a small sample set to work with but here goes. I haven't seen girls treated with discrimination in the engineering workplace since I started working full-time a decade ago. At least not in the traditional "you wouldn't understand, why don't you go get us some coffee" way. I can't imagine a team where people wouldn't listen to a woman's technical input just because she was female. I'm sure it still happens in some places, but I really don't think fear of being treated like a secretary is the issue.
The issue is at the social level. In a STEM workplace some girls will end up uncomfortable. A girl who shows up with a Luis Vuitton handbag and a perpetual manicure because that's how she rolls will likely get professional respect for good work, but she won't be one of the gang unless she's willing to keep her Paladin Blood Elf leveled up to the max or brew her own beer or something equally off the beaten path. But that's just work, not life.
The bigger problem is outside of work. The social scene is pretty harsh on girls who get serious about technical stuff. If a girl wants to go into biology that's OK. That's on the softer end of science. But as soon as a girl says words like "astrophysics" or "focused ion beam", the guys who were going to ask for her number disappear faster than doughnuts at a hack-a-thon. Not only that, but the girls who were going to invite her along to the next Neiman Marcus shopping trip forget to call her and all her relatives stop buying her gift certificates to Ulta and start buying her pink screwdrivers. Halfway through college G started telling people at parties she was an "EE" major because a lot of them would just assume that meant Elementary Education and then treat her like a regular girl.
In the long haul, treating girls like they changed just because they are going into a new professional area needs to change, but for now girls need Frozen. They need Let it Go to sink in deep so they won't freak or feel guilty when someone is intimidated by them. They need to know that even if you do technical things, and do them well, you can still be a normal person with normal relationships because their abilities don't define them. It will be a tough process but the more girls go into STEM, the more people will realize that being smart and competent in math and science doesn't magically transform a girl into an evil step-sister or a witch. Or a boy.
I really think that ~15 years from now we'll see a small uptick in girls entering the STEM workforce, just from this movie. But to be honest, I have to find people to hire from now until then, and I don't care if they are male or female. If you have a daughter, or sister, or friend who hides what she can really do, and isn't heading down the STEM road just because of social pressure, do me a favor: open a door, climb a mountain, build a snowman. Only love can thaw a frozen heart.