The November release of Disney’s latest animated feature, the fairy tale Frozen, has prompted a vigorous debate about the nature of Prince Charming fantasies. The story follows two sisters, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), who is born with potent magical powers and, urged to hide them, isolates herself from her younger sibling, Anna (Kristen Bell), who becomes particularly desperate for human connection after the girls lose their parents. When, during Elsa’s coronation, Anna hastily enters into an engagement with Hans (Santino Fontana), the youngest son of a neighboring king, the two have a bitter falling-out. Elsa flees the kingdom, Anna pursues her with help from a young ice salesman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and Hans takes over in their place, ultimately revealing himself to be an opportunist who proposed to Anna as part of an elaborate plot to find a kingdom of his own to rule.
Some critics, like the Daily Beast’s Melissa Leon, have said that Frozen’s treatment of Anna’s whirlwind romance, are what makes the movie special. “Anna is being ridiculous,” she wrote. “But unlike Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, the world of Frozen knows that.” Others, like Akash Nikolas, writing at The Atlantic, have wondered whether the movie’s twist is an attempt to take girls’ fantasies away from them, in a way we’d never imagine culturally admonishing boys: “ There’s a counter-argument to be made that he merely provided a safe object of desire for young girls, many of whom have amorous desires but are immature and unready to deal with sexual relationships. In this way, he’s a harmless romantic idol who can help usher girls into adulthood as they aspire to healthy relationships.”
I’d like to sketch out a third option. Rather than declaring Prince Charming fantasies good or bad, I think Frozen is part of a tradition of adding heft to Prince Charming himself. And that’s a good thing.
An unnerving part of so many Disney romances is not that characters spot each other across crowded rooms and feel instant attractions, but how little Princes Charming often develop in between our first introduction to them and our heroines’ embarkation on their Happily Ever Afters. The princes in Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, three fairy tales that are part of Disney’s first Golden Age, have essentially no personalities whatsoever, and no qualities other than dedication to the young ladies in question, which is sometimes expressed in terms of physical courage. There’s nothing wrong with approaching the possibility of romance with optimism and an open heart. But for that optimism not to lead to conversation, or to joint activity, much less to sex, seems like a poor reward.
I think it’s no mistake that Disney’s second Golden Age — The Little Mermaid somewhat excepted — tended to emphasize the pleasure of getting to know another person, and liking what you find. Beauty and the Beast does away with the initial spark of mad attraction altogether, and Gaston’s sense of entitlement to Belle is an infinitely more toxic critique of love-at-first-sight narratives than anything in Frozen. Rather, Belle and the Beast fall in love over their common interests, their common project of helping the Beast recover some of the dignity he had as a human, and their common pleasure in being seen more clearly and more affectionately by each other than by the world at large. Aladdin, which followed the next year, gave Jasmine and Aladdin a classic meet-cute, and then spent much of the movie using their false assumptions about each other as the most significant hurdles to them building a successful relationship. And in The Lion King, romance grows out of childhood friendship, and ultimately out of shared political engagement, rather weighty stuff for a children’s movie, but charmingly expressed.
Frozen might have been a dud if Hans had only been a jerk. But, so help me, I found myself with some sympathy for the guy. Sure, he attempts a clumsy takeover of a kingdom that isn’t actually his. Hans is dumb enough to lie about having married his fiancee and her having died in his arms without actually making sure she’s dead. And he’s stupid enough to try to kill Elsa in front of Kristoff, who may be a commoner, but is, after all, a witness. But part of what’s sad about Hans’ decision to scheme his way into ruling Arendelle is that he might not have needed to do it.
Hans and Anna have an important shared experience in common: being overshadowed by extremely powerful siblings, whose needs and priorities have limited their experiences and their abilities to exercise their talents. If Hans had been patient enough to develop a real relationship with Anna, that might have been the basis for a strong mutual affinity. Sure, he wouldn’t have ended up ruling Arendelle, as long as Elsa was alive, but he would have been one of the three most powerful people in the country, instead of thirteenth in the line of succession. And maybe Hans’ behavior during Elsa’s absence, including distributing blankets, soup, and glögg, was just an act to curry favor, and he would have turned out to be an awful despot, in keeping with the tactics he uses to try to seize power. But maybe he would have been a thoroughly decent king. Either way, Hans is the architect of his own misery, and a lot of other people’s. But Frozen is a more interesting movie for drawing out his motivations, even in cursory fashion.
Some of the young adult fiction that’s stuck with me longest has taken a similar approach to Prince Charming archetypes, shading in both the successful suitors and the bad fits. In Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Princess Cimorene runs away from a marriage her parents are trying to arrange with Prince Therandil, a terribly conventional man who bores Cimorene to tears. But as she gets to know Therandil better, Cimorene comes to appreciate that he’s just as much a prisoner of the thinking she’s been trying to throw off her entire life. And when they get into a pinch with an evil genie, Therandil proves himself not entirely useless — ultimately, Cimorene helps set him up with another princess with whom he’ll be much happier. It’s not so much that Therandil’s evil that the pair are mismatched.
In a subsequent novel, Cimorene does get her meet-cute, in the form of Mendanbar, King of the Enchanted Forest, who’s initially too irritated and worried about the fact that magic is leaking out of his kingdom so fast that it’s starting to die to notice Cimorene as anything more than a partner in solving his problems. But their joint interests — his in saving the forest, hers in keeping dragons from being blamed for the forest’s ailing health — ends up being the basis for an incredibly deep romantic partnership. Giving Mendanbar actual problems, responsibilities, prejudices, and priorities both drives the action of the novel, and makes it clear why he and Cimorene end up loving each other so much. It’s still a story about a princess who finds her king and lives happily ever after. But they live happily ever after for actual reasons, not because that’s what the kind of story they’re in requires and the person writing it can’t be bothered to fill in the details. In Frozen, Anna’s relationship with Kristoff follows a similar trajectory: they’re brought together by a bargain, but over the course of their adventure, it becomes clear why each cares for the other.
Something similar happens in Tamora Pierce’s Song Of The Lioness quartet. In these novels, the main character, Alanna, conceals her gender so she can train as a knight, and ends studying alongside Prince Jonathan. Ultimately, they become friends, he learns that she’s female, and in their teens, they commence a long-running love affair. But while the relationship is, in many ways, a source of affirmation for Jonathan, who gets to be loved for himself, rather than his title, and for Alana, who gets to be valued as a woman instead of concealing her gender, it’s also not built to last. Jonathan, in his position of head of state, needs a woman who affirmatively wants to fulfill the function of queen, and who’s suited for that task. And Alana, who’s worked so hard all of her life to become a knight, needs a partner who can accept her profession and allow her to take physical and psychological risks in service of her calling. First love leads to a real, meaningful relationship, but also one in which the participants grow enough to realize that they can’t make a life-long commitment to each other.
The answer, in other words, might not be to torpedo the Prince Charming fantasy, but to modify it. I’m all for preserving the dream of true love, and an open-hearted optimism about all the possibilities that could follow eyes meeting across a crowded room. But high expectations for their Princes or Princesses Charming, and the courage to know that even a failed True Love is survivable are big things to dream for, too. Girls deserve all of them.