the tangled heart of a heroine

I recently watched the movie, Frozen. Halfway through, I understood why it had become so beloved. But by the end I did not understand at all.

I loved how the sad and shamed princess Elsa spent years shut in her room after she was told by her father to stop feeling, conceal her true self, because of her magical power. And I loved the bitter lie she sang after running away to a lonely mountain of ice: "the cold never bothered me anyway."

I know these seem strange things to love, but I am a writer who is drawn to complex characters. And I expected great things from Elsa. But she proved to be self-absorbed and unwilling to take responsibility for her actions. Anna was just plain annoying. And Hans broke my heart, even though I knew what was coming, because I felt his plotline reflected the cynicism and darkly self-mocking humour of our modern society, which isn't something I'd want my young daughter to be learning.

I far prefer the movie Tangled, with its realistic emotional complexities - Gothel's narcissism, the king's grief, Rapunzel's inner conflict after she escaped the tower - and its sincere, uplifting sense of humour.
We definitely need to see more complicated, difficult heroines in our daughters' movies and literature. Heroines who are sad, defended, angry, hurt. And we need to see them rescued by true love (whatever form that may take), so our girls know that even the difficult people, the ones who lock themselves in a tower, are worthy of effort and love.

But we also want heroines who accept responsibility for the consequences of their acting out - even though its hard, and it hurts, and it may take a long time. I don't require every heroine to be an lovely princess - but I want to watch her work towards becoming one, despite the obstacles in her path and in her own heart. Elsa never really did this work. And Anna, whose immaturity was her character flaw, saves the day with an impulsive move rather than something mindful which would have shown her growth.

Some of my favourite heroines are irritable, barely likeable women who secretly manipulate other people to get their own way - Lessa of Pern; Sybel from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Tenar of Earthsea. All of them make terrible mistakes and have to find a way to fix matters, not the least so they can live with themselves. All triumph, and gain the sort of love which draws them into human company after a long time of isolation, a bitter and silent time when they had to be too strong for themselves because there was no one else to help them. Their hearts are cold and hard - and yet tangled with emotion inside. They may be rescued from their towers, but each still has to rescue herself from her pain, and grow something good from its wastes.

That is the message I want our young girls to learn. You will be hurt, repressed, or silenced, at some point in your life, and you will run away or throw storms because of it. Trust other people to bring you out of silence and coldness. Most men are good men. Most people knocking on the door of your ice castle have something you need to hear. Listen, and open your own heart.

But it doesn't end there. The real story of courage and love begins afterwards, with the clean-up, and feeding the people you left hungry, and repairing the things that were broken, including hearts. Doing that hard, mucky work is what makes a true heroine.

Art by Stephen Mackey


  1. I loved Tangled too - witty and with great characters. I enjoyed Frozen very much and was happy to see that a princess didn't have to be saved by a prince - nice to break the stereotypes...

  2. A very thought provoking piece Sarah. I have seen neither of these films so cannot comment on them. These days I seem to be drawn to books which have an old woman at their heart; wise old women who have seen it all and who go their own way - maybe I am drawn to them because of my age , looking for similarities or a different way of living or answers to questions that I can't fathom the depth of. Life seems so simple when you are young; black and white; but as you get older there seem to be far more grey areas. I seem to have gone off at a tangent but your posts do make me think a little bit harder, which is a good thing :) The illustrations you have chosen are simply beautiful.

  3. Exactly my feelings about "Frozen," even though so many people I know loved it. I haven't seen "Tangled," but now I will.

  4. so agree about the heroines, and the real work of being one...and i love mackey's fairies.

  5. this is so good for me to read/heart today.
    thank you ~