I had a mild stroke on November 29th this year, when my sister and I went to see Frozen 2 and I realized that the film was an anticolonial story about how settlers can make amends with the indigenous people whose land they have stolen.
Royal sisters Elsa and Anna discover that the Northuldra people living in the local “haunted” forest have actually been trapped there for decades, because their grandfather angered the spirits in an act of violence against both the tribe and the land. It turns out that to make it right, they have to break a dam that for generations has been keeping a giant waterfall from destroying their city/ kingdom/ city-state (?) of Arendelle. To their credit, Anna and Elsa immediately break the dam (the citizens are already evacuated, by the way), and everything is put to rights.
This was the week of Thanksgiving, aka the settler holiday, and I was watching a movie about how the only moral choice for white settlers is to break down their entire society and build a new one. The film makes it clear that without destroying the dam there could be, and I quote, “no future for Arendelle.” It actually kind of reminds me of the reveal in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok: that Odin, Thor’s father and supposed good guy, had founded Asgard’s empire through a bloody conquest of the Nine Realms.
So Marvel and Disney are woke now. What a world. Really takes the sting out of the fact that when Disney animators went on strike against the company’s unfair employment practices, good old Walt reported them to Joe McCarthy. Or that Captain Marvel, the MCU’s first female-fronted film, didn’t happen until seven years after the original Avengers movie was released in 2012, and eleven years after the first Iron Man. Or that Disney doesn’t pay its theme park employees a living wage. Or even that both these countries have effectively ruined the market for indie films by flooding cinemas with so many superhero movies and live-action remakes that indie studios struggle to book opening weekends for their films.
But really, I think that what really freaked me out was something a bit more intuitive, more gut level. It’s about Orwellian doublespeak, and what it means for the intelligibility of media criticism going forward.
Imagine this: It’s 2030. Earth has just officially passed the point of no return on catastrophic climate change. The last polar bear died long enough ago that it doesn’t even feel weird anymore that they don’t exist. Alt-right violence has intensified due to the influx of an estimated one billion climate refugees coming into Western countries in search of asylum. Tensions between increasingly fascist national governments in the West and the huge influxes of refugees from global-South countries will almost certainly lead to genocide, but no one will talk about that until it’s over.
If you’re a millennial in your mid-twenties now, perhaps you have a young child in 2030. You take them to see the latest reboot of Frozen, brought back in part by the “#snowstalgia” trend making every movie feature CGI snow to remind people what snow was like. Olaf is confirmed as a genderqueer demiromantic asexual, and the ending culminates with Elsa leading the people of Arendelle in a full-scale leftist revolt. You’ve heard that the sequel is going to be an examination of the practicalities of running a communist state, with reindeer as the Bolsheviks. Oh, and Elsa finally gets a girlfriend.
After the movie, your seven year old critiques the Maoist analysis implicit in the film’s assumptions about nationalized media. “Don’t they know that to achieve Trotsky’s permanent revolution, the necessary conditions for revolution must always be present? Though, as a de facto national media outlet itself, it makes perfect sense for Disney to align with the regressive left.” She’s dribbling soy ice cream down her chin again, and you smile as you wipe it off. You knew what some of those words meant in college, but now you work eighteen hours most days for Amazon and just haven’t managed to retain the information — though you do package a lot of volumes of Marx. Sent to the children of billionaires, going through a phase.
You look across the table at your seven year old, this bright young life you made with your own two ovaries, or testicles as the case may be. I have no idea what this is like, but for you it will probably be like taking every unfulfilled dream and longing of your entire life and giving them a second chance to happen exactly the way you want them to, except that second chance might die if you put them to sleep on their stomach. It’s like going on a roller coaster with a puppy, but right before the big drop your heart seizes, because you realize the puppy doesn’t have a seatbelt but you’re too late.
How are you supposed to plan for the economic precarity you’ll face in a decade, especially considering the economic precarity you face now?
But then you remember a song from one of the earlier Frozen movies called “The Next Right Thing.” Anna sings it right after she finds out someone she loves is dead (no spoilers!), and the song is about her forcing herself to push onward even when things seem hopeless. All you have to do is “the next right thing,” put one foot in front of the other, and you and your loved ones can get through anything. You might not start a communist revolution (or the anarcho-syndicalist revolution, like your daughter wants), but you can keep your loved ones close, and make each holiday season merry knowing you love each other, even if not all of you are around to celebrate due to conflicting work schedules you don’t get until the day before.
Except here’s the thing. Disney characters may talk about being brave and doing the next right thing, but in reality the Disney animators did the next right thing, and Walt Disney physically attacked one of them on the picket line. Some of those animators made twelve dollars a week, equal to $220 in 2019, and probably had families to buy turkey and stuffing for that November, so they stood up to the man who would have been a billionaire in today’s dollars. That man was rich enough to freeze his own head, but he went to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and made sure some of them never worked again.
Hypothetically speaking, here’s what happens if you do “The Next Right Thing” without taking stock of the bigger picture. In the ’40s, the “next right thing” might have been working as a scab at Disney’s studio so he could crush the union. In the present, you could be a scab for Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk. You might even end up donating your blood platelets to help rich people form literal scabs on their own bodies, much like people who donate their plasma today. Or maybe you’ll decide that the next right thing is promoting an animated film about how imperialist countries destroy the environment, despite the fact that the company that made it has broken sales records for the amount of cheap plastic toys they’ve sold to fans of said film.
Only thinking about the “next” right thing risks the kind of nearsightedness that will never bring about the (anarcho-syndicalist) revolution your daughter wants. It won’t even get Elsa a girlfriend; the only way to do that is to convince Disney that giving her one will gain them more profits from young queer people than they’ll lose from people in red states and that One Million Moms group. The questions we should be asking about Disney do not involve media critique; the most pressing questions center around how we can change the dystopian state of affairs that makes us dependent on an amoral corporation for public discourse.
We demand (beg?) better politics from Disney movies because only such monstrous agglomerations of capital as Disney can spread ideas on such a massive scale. That fact is what we should be trying to change.