The “New” Fairy Tale: “Brave” and “Frozen”, Finally “Feminist”!

A quick post on Disney’s newest princesses.

The movie “Brave” is the older movie that came out in 2012, awhile “Frozen” is on a long run currently still in theaters and has become a big hit with both boys and girls. In both these movies, I was excited to notice that the relationships that are revealed as most important and the ones connected to the main “conflict” of the story, are between the main female characters, mother and daughter in “Brave” and sisters in “Frozen”. Both movies focus on relational conflicts between the two female characters, with the male characters in supporting roles or pushed very much to the side of the action…

One unfortunate part is that in each one you have the stereotypes of the archetypal females, such as “the ice queen”, the “cold” type of woman who doesn’t seem to have “needs”, the very rigid and insensitive mother in “Brave” and the distant rejecting older sister in “Frozen”. The young girl in “Brave” is actually a well fleshed out character with contradictions, but the young girl in “Frozen” is a little too flat, portrayed as “naïve”…. Unfortunately, I ultimately prefer the earlier movie “Brave” because the main character is much more appealing and “full”.

When I saw “Brave”, I was very excited to finally see a princess movie about a princess not wanting to get married. The main driving force of the plot is Princess Merida’s wanting to escape her mother’s rigid enforcement of her getting married and getting married when she the queen wants. The movie turns the princess meets prince and lives happily ever after on its head in many ways. Merida is the antithesis of the typical Disney princess; her hair is neither blond nor black; it is red and wild. She loves archery and horse back riding. She is smart, adventurous, independent, unique, and, well, brave! Her mother is not dead and not an evil stepmother, but nonetheless not very open-minded. Her father is not dead either, but like most of the males in the movie, he is portrayed as rather impotent and does not “do” anything to help his daughter, as his wife is the one in charge. He also is missing one of his legs due to his fight with a bear. All of the “suitors” are also portrayed as rather helpless and hapless. Merida is the best archer and they are also portrayed as rather unintelligent and slow. Even Merida’s little brothers are not very developed; they mostly want to eat sweets. Even though, these are castrating portrayals of males, it seems ok that Disney does this, as forever, we have been subjected to portrayals of females as weak, innocent, and needing a man to complete their identity.

The main conflict in “Brave” is between mother and daughter, who want different things. The mother does not listen to her daughter’s plea to be left alone and not forced to marry, so Merida ends up turning her into a bear. By the end of the movie, the daughter and mother have both changed, grown and evolved; they now appreciate each other and have become closer. The mother “lets down her hair” and opens up, and the daughter, having saved her mother and got her back to being human, mends “the bond” between them. Instead of the movie ending with a wedding, it ends with the mother and daughter riding off on horseback together, with their hair getting swept and swirled by the wind, both having learned a valuable lesson and become closer in the process.

Hair is a big thing in fairy tales and movies based on them, which is why I focused on it in describing “Brave”. The color and kind of hair, the hairdo, all of it is meaningful. In “Brave”, the mother tries to “tame” her daughter’s red locks but they return to their natural state of wildness and the mother’s hair goes from being tightly controlled and “perfect” to loosening up. In the movie “Tangled”, the most recent portrayal of Rapunzel, I noticed that the wicked person looks like a Polish woman with very dark curly hair, and I think some grey streaks, which struck a cord as it looked like my own hair is currently. Of course, the whole fairy tale Rapunzel is centered on her long hair and a whole blog post could be written about that. Anyway, in “Frozen”, hair is again metaphorical and symbolic. Anna, the narrator and main character, has a white streak in her red brown hair from when her older sister almost “froze” her as a young child. Later on in the movie, her hair turns completely white when her sister has frozen part of her heart. Her hair turns back to its regular color at the end of the movie when the conflict between the sisters is resolved.

“Frozen” is also fascinatingly different from typical princess material in so many ways. It makes fun of the main stereotype of most fairy tales, the idea of “true love” being between a prince and princess and that they fall in love at “first sight”, without knowing anything about each other, that they “complete each other’s sentences and complete each other”. The real “true love” in the movie is that between Anna and her older sister Elsa. Elsa does not know how to control her power to “freeze” things, and at first sees it only as dangerous when she gets scared by what she does to her sister. Her keeping alone and distant from her younger sister is done out of love and fear that she might destroy her with her power. The movie is seen from the point of view of the younger vibrant silly, exciting extrovert Anna who does not understand why her sister has always pushed her away, kept her out, left her alone, rejected and been “cold” to her. Elsa by nature stays alone and avoids people, supposedly due to her powers keeping her literally at arms length from everyone. One thing I noticed in reflecting on this relationship was that the whole event of Anna meeting her “suitor” on her sister’s coronation day and believing she had “fallen in love with him” and deciding to marry him really had nothing to do with her actually falling in love with this man or believing she was infatuated with him. The whole impetus to trust this man came from her I think finally going outside the castle and still feeling rejected by her sister. Her act of coming to her sister with this “fait accompli” and introducing him was more about her relationship with Elsa than any desire to marry anybody. She was essentially saying, “You won’t pay attention to me or let me in or be close to me, so I will go find the first man that is nice to me, spend the evening with him and then tell you that I’m going to marry him because if you really care about me at all you will actually tell me you don’t want me to marry him and ALSO be close to me again in the way that I want you to be.” The fake closeness she has with this stranger is more warmth she has experienced since her sister “dumped” her long ago, so of course she is very open to being with anyone who acts loving toward her. Even her interaction with the other guy, the one she meets when looking for her sister seems related to her sister. He is similar to the cold aloof Elsa in that he is a loner, content to do his work with his deer and not interested in interactions with other humans. He is not very friendly either. Perhaps she is drawn to him not only because he knows how to get around in the cold but because he reminds her of Elsa!

Another funny aspect of this movie is the way it portrays the older sister and younger sister relationship; the older sister stops playing with the younger sister and rejects her. She knows things the younger one does not know or understand. She wants to be left alone, while the younger sister craves her attention, is puzzled by the rejection and saddened by the change from playing together to being left to play by herself. How many sisters have experienced this? Of course there are other kinds of relationships between sisters, but the movie portrays one of the main kinds of older versus younger sister dynamics, where the older sister later comes to see that the younger sister is not as naive and ignorant as she once was; the younger sister has “grown up” and the dynamic shifts in adulthood to a different kind of appreciation of each other’s qualities.

Anyway, there is more to be said about these movies and their attempts to turn the stereotypical princess story on its head, but I must say, I am very pleased to see these mainstream Disney princess movies take on more complex and interesting themes, conflicts and plots, shifting from the unrealistic “true love” marriage tale to some more complicated focus on the family dynamic between two females, mother and daughter and sisters, older and younger and reveal two courageous characters who are fighters in every sense of the word… I wish I could have seen these movies when I was around 5 or 6 and thought marriage and having kids was awful!

The Pregnant Therapist, Continued: The “Recognition” Session

Finding Out About The Pregnancy: “Intrusion” in the Therapeutic Space
This post got so longwinded, I’m not sure what to do with it, so I will edit a few paragraphs, and save the rest for another post continuing this longwinded “pregnant” topic! At least it won’t take 9 months to write about it…
You are pregnant and in your office with your patient. There are now 3 heartbeats in the room.  Now, jump ahead to your fifth month. If your patients haven’t “guessed” yet about your pregnancy, this is the time in which you will have a lot of “pregnancy recognition” sessions and a few sessions where you might actually inform your patient about the pregnancy and help him/her prepare for the upcoming changes, such as your maternity leave.
In one of the books I mentioned in my last post, the authors remarked that there are many ways your patient may let you know that they have become aware of your pregnancy besides direct verbal comments asking if you are pregnant, including dreams and images, even discussion of the patient wanting or not wanting to have his or her own baby.
Sometimes a patient, usually a woman, will wait a few sessions to see if your belly is getting bigger, as many women are sensitive to body image and don’t want to make a big “mistake” and find out you have gained weight for some reason and are not pregnant. I’m sure this happens sometimes, as I’ve had a few patients tell me they get asked if they are pregnant, sometimes by strangers, and are not. (Not always people who are overweight, but nonetheless, an odd unpleasant experience no matter what you look like…) Of course this can be very wounding to a person and most of our patients are very careful not to hurt our feelings, especially if they already know what it feels like…
(Confidentiality note: these “stories” are made to be not identifiable, as I do not supply any identifying information beyond gender of the patient. In some cases where the gender is not important, I have changed that, but given the nature of pregnancy, often the reactions are different in women versus men, as well as children, teenagers, adults, older adults, etc…)
So by around five months into my pregnancy, I had to have the inevitable “Recognition” session with each patient. Each person reacted completely differently.
One person had discussed noticing it with another patient, a friend of his whom he saw once in a while, and the two discussed it and decided the one who noticed would say something so he did. I don’t remember much of that session as he was fairly honest about his feelings and reactions. Then the friend came for her own session and got distracted by focusing on feeling bad that she didn’t notice, and her friend did. This may have been a convenient way to avoid the real topic, but I pointed out that I actually saw her “not noticing” as a good sign. Given certain issues around boundaries she was grappling with, I observed that it was great she was able to be so focused on herself.
One patient had a very interesting reaction. As a woman with mother issues (just like the rest of us, who doesn’t have mother issues!) that were unresolved. ambivalent and complicated, she was overly sensitive to my being pregnant and told me she was very concerned that her own negative energy would “hurt” both me and the “baby”,even though I reassured her that this was not the case. She simply did not believe it and was convinced she was right. While I was on my leave, she communicated to me that she could not come back to therapy knowing I was a new mother and explained as thoroughly as possible the issues this knowledge was triggering and not wanting to process them with me despite encouragement…This is an example of a patient who cannot be comfortable during but also after the pregnancy, as opposed to the majority of patients who do return to therapy with their now mother therapist. Quite a few young female patients openly admitted to feeling a discomfort in the sessions and being very aware of my body changing from week to week. One person expressed this through chronic lateness to the sessions and had no interest in exploring the connection to my pregnancy… Of course I supported all reactions, and once I knew the discomfort caused by my actual body changing, I was more sensitive than usual about checking in with people a few times in the session to see how they were feeling about it.
This reaction is related to the conscious and unconscious feeling many patients have that the now pregnant therapist is and will become more and more sel preoccupied and unable to be present and focused in the patient. Most children feel this way and show it non verbally. Having a younger sibling does not always mean a child is more comfortable with the therapist having a baby. The therapeutic space belongs to him or her and many children feel the therapist is going to be inattentive and absent. This reaction at any age can be very real in many ways. The pregnancy is a very real intrusion as well as a big or little distraction for both therapist and patient.
For me, as I contined to view my work with patients, despite the changes of pregnancy, I continued to see my work as a good distraction for me from focusing on the pregnancy and the inevitable birth of the child and shock of now having a real human to take care of… I could not avoid talking about it at relevant moments and accepting that it was very disturbing for some. Even the people who ignored it completely, were nonetheless deeply affected by the change in the therapeutic space, however, they ndicating that it was easier for them to “forget” about this intrusion and sort of get rid of the belly in order to avoid some kind of discomfort. Other therapists that I’ve talked to during their pregnancy have expressed that it was increasingly difficult to focus on and care about their patients, especially therapists at very difficult often traumatizing jobs, so this concern is very natural and needs to be addressed even if the therapist or especially if the therapist is colluding with those patients to try to ignore the inevitable change, that the therapist will be taking a leave, some short, some longer, and the patient has no control over the timing of it in their own life’s journey and their own progress/process in therapy. The return of the therapist is also not in the patients’ control. In private practice, there is usually trust that if the therapist says she will return in two months or three, she actually will; however, I have known a lot of therapists in all kinds of jobs who have been unsure of whether having the baby will cause them to decide not to return to their job, or to return briefly and terminate. In short term settings, the pregnant therapist usually has more emotionally laden issues with the rest of the staff, rather than the patients who may be at the site, such as a hospital, very briefly. These patients tend to be the least affected by the therapist’s pregnancy, although in many cases, people still have strong reactions and transference towards the pregnant therapist, more related to their own particular feelings about mothers and mothering… Thus, short term sites can actually allow for some interesting issues to emerge in therapy and art therapy groups when the pregnancy is addressed in a less personalized way. Discussions that would not normally occur may happen due to the pregnancy bringing up a lot of issues and feelings…
There is much more to say about the topic of “Recognition” and lack of it (thus the therapist’s inevitable “Announcement”. When in the session to tell the patient and how are another interesting focus to be further explored, as there are going to be people who simply do not say anything and even admit to waiting for you to tell them, as well as those mentioned above who probably are avoiding it altogether…
To be continued…