Frozen, pink triangles, and revisionist history

Recently, I did an interview about my children’s book for my local NPR station on a show called Insight. Beth Ruyak, the host of the show, noted the title of my book (This Day in June), and then asked, “Why June?” I responded by telling her about the Stonewall Riots, a three-day series of protests that occurred in June of 1969. One night, the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village frequented predominantly by people who were gay and/or transgender, was raided by the police (which was not uncommon at that time). Instead of hiding, or fleeing out the back door, the patrons of the bar resisted arrest and fought back, resulting in what many consider to be the beginning of the modern-day LGBT rights movement. The following year, in June of 1970, the first Pride parades took place, in New York City and Chicago.

So I tell this story, and Beth listens to me. Then she takes a breath and says, “I know about the civil rights movement. I know about the women’s liberation movement. But I hate to say that I’ve never heard of the Stonewall Riots before.” She was clearly embarrassed, and I reassured her by saying, “You’re not the only one.” And I meant it – I wasn’t just trying to make her feel better. Because many people don’t know what the Stonewall Riots were. And many people don’t know about other elements of LGBT history and culture – because nobody ever told them.

Try this quick quiz:

1.  Why is the pink triangle used as a symbol in the LGBT community? What is the meaning of the rainbow flag?

2.  What were the Compton Cafeteria Riots?

3.  Draw a picture of the Transgender Pride flag, and identify the meaning of each element.

4.  What was the Mattachine Society?

5.  What was the Pink Scare?

If you answered all five questions correctly, then congratulations, you’re a true LGBT scholar. But if you missed one, you’re in good company. And if you had no idea what the answer was to any of the questions, please don’t beat yourself up. Because it’s Not. Your. Fault. How are you supposed to know any of this if no one ever told you? If our stories are told in ways that distort reality, or if they’re not told at all, then we end up with an entire generation of people who have no knowledge of their roots. And that, in my opinion, is very dangerous.

Let’s use a metaphor to bring this to life. One of the most popular films of this past year is Frozen, the wildly popular Disney animated feature. Before I get started, a major disclaimer: I have not seen Frozen in its entirety. Nor has my daughter. And yes, I do realize that we are probably the ONLY people on the planet who have not seen this film. We watched about 20 minutes of it during a long flight to New York, and then my daughter got bored and wanted to take a nap.

Here’s a synopsis of Frozen, written by Walt Disney Animation Studios:

Fearless optimist Anna (voice of ‘Kristen Bell’) teams up with rugged mountain man Kristoff (voice of ‘Jonathan Groff (II)’) and his loyal reindeer Sven in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom.

What isn’t stated in this plot summary is that Frozen was inspired by a fairy tale called The Snow Queen, a story written by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a lengthy tale, told in a series of “stories.” The fairy tale begins with a “magic mirror,” created by a troll, that makes everything beautiful look ugly and bad. This mirror breaks, its shards falling down to Earth. Fast-forward centuries later, and we find ourselves with Kay and Gerda, two friends who like to play together. One night, the Snow Queen throws a piece of the mirror into Kay’s eye and another into his heart, causing him to be mean, negative, and nasty. Later, the Snow Queen lures Kay to her ice palace, and the rest of the tale involves Gerda’s journey to find the ice palace and rescue Kay. After escaping a witch in an enchanted garden, being ambushed by robbers and rescued by a robber maiden, traveling by reindeer, and being given a magic potion by a Laplander, she is transported to the ice palace, where her love for Kay becomes the weapon that defeats the Snow Queen.

OK. So let’s compare Frozen to The Snow Queen.  Both involve a journey and a rescue. Both have trolls and a reindeer. Both have, well, snow and ice. But in terms of similarities, that’s about it. A lot of creative license was used in Disney’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale – they chose to tell the story that they thought would make money, rather than preserve the integrity of the original. As a result, Frozen really is nothing like The Snow Queen. Most children have no idea that Frozen was based on a classic fairy tale – and that the original story included themes of loyalty and the power of love, vivid metaphors (the shard in one’s eye and heart, for example), and a refreshingly feminist girl-rescues-boy storyline (rare for fairy tales, which usually involve weak females being rescued by a prince). Ask a child to tell the story of The Snow Queen, and I’ll bet money that they’ll look at you with a blank stare. But you better believe that pretty much every kid (except mine) has seen Frozen – and can sing the songs and recite the dialogue. While the popularity of this film rises, a piece of classic literature is slipping away. Because no one is telling children about it.

Just like no one told you about the pink triangles and rainbow flags.

Just like no one told you about the Compton Cafeteria Riots.

Just like no one told you about the Mattachine Society, or the symbolism of the Transgender Pride flag, or the Pink Scare.

If you didn’t know the answers to some (or all) of the quiz questions, look them up. Then tell someone else about it. Because the only way to preserve history is to pass it on.


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