The Frozen sequel was announced over a year ago, and given the typical trajectory of Disney sequels, it’s time for the Arendelle sisters to get married. But let’s give Frozen credit where its due. The first film upended the traditional Disney princess narrative by grounding the story in the sisters’ relationship rather than a romantic one. Frozen is widely seen as a progressive film for this, as well as for Elsa’s released repression, characterized in “Let It Go,” or that-song-you-only-just-stopped-hearing-everywhere. Because they did so in the first film, we can reasonably expect the writers and producers of the upcoming sequel to approach their characters with sensitivity and integrity, and to approach storytelling with an awareness of their place in pop culture and their responsibility to young fans.
So when the Twitterverse created #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, my first reaction was to determine if this a gay Elsa would be a true Elsa– whether the movement would turn Elsa into a face for a movement instead of honoring her as a living, breathing character. As someone who analyzes cultural aesthetics for a living, my instinct is to make sure that the story and the character remain intact.
And yet, I think I need to question that instinct. What’s wrong with making Elsa a face of the LGBT movement? (in many ways, she already is) Why can’t lesbian women find representation in characters other than the few provided to them already? (I dunno, Alison Bechdel? Jessica Jones? Willow from a decade ago?) What’s wrong with tying artistic decisions in social justice, even at the risk of feeling too forced or too preachy or too politically correct? We have to allow our art to root itself in the society of its audience, not force it to exist in some sort of aesthetic bubble.
Besides, the more I think about it, the more Elsa seems like a incredibly natural pick for a queer princess. Shamed into hiding her icey powers from an early age, Elsa runs away from the kingdom at her coronation because she is unnatural, just as she nears adulthood. ‘Let It Go’ is widely seen as an LGBT and/or feminist anthem, as Elsa empowers herself by embracing the parts of herself she once repressed. There’s also a clear link between Elsa’s empowerment to her sexuality: the tightly-pulled hair comes loose, her dress transforms to show more chest and thigh, her hips…become some major hips. Elsa’s release feels like a sexually and emotionally transgressive act, clearly against the norms expected of young women, brimming with self-assurance and hope.
Elsa never expresses romantic interest in anyone of any gender, so she’s still a blank slate in that department. For all we know, Elsa might never need or want a lover. But Disney has a real opportunity here to continue creating a complex, fully-realized character for whom homo- or bisexuality could an option. #GiveElsaAGirlfriend isn’t just a politically correct move. It isn’t about the gay agenda. It is about a clear chance to honor a character’s arc, while also honoring the experiences of fans around the world who identify with her.
Manhattan Theatre Club always presents exciting and provocative pieces, and for this reason I jumped at the chance to get tickets for Tales From Red Vienna‘s first public performance. It also helped that the last time Nina Arianda, Vienna’s leading lady, worked with MTC, it was the totally mind-blowing Venus in Fur, one of my all-time favorite plays and performances.
I felt moved enough by this performance to discuss a larger issue at hand than whether the play was worthy enough of your hard-earned (or not… that’s cool too) cash. Those of us who read the press for the play know that the plot centers around a young widow who “reluctantly turns to the oldest profession’ in order to makes ends meet. So expect there to be a sex scene or two, right?
Well, the very first scene in Red Vienna delivers a sex scene, sure. But it’s also unmistakably a rape scene. Before a single word of David Grimm’s script is spoken, Arianda’s un-introduced character, who is later named as Helena, steps into a standard 1920’s era apartment. A few steps behind her follows an un-introduced man. Helena is dressed in black mourning garb and is visibly distressed by the man’s entrance. The man approaches her and begins to caress her, Helena still noticeably upset. She tenses up and resists, but the man forcefully lift her up on a table, lifts her dress, and has violent sex with her despite her protests. After he finishes with her, he fixes himself in a mirror, whistling a short ditty, while Helena remains on the table, watching his movements with an expression of disgust, anger, and fear. As soon as he exits, she begins to sob.
There are many reasons why a playwright might want to open a play with such a scene, but any of the reasons must be very seriously considered. I’ve never been one to complain about too much sex or violence in television and film. Violence can be artfully used to explore a theme or message, or it could be used purely for entertainment, and most people are usually able to tell the difference. A movie like 300, for example uses it abundant sex and violence as entertainment– more specifically for viewers to marvel at its carefully orchestrated battle scenes, epic visual effects, and some hot bods. Sex and violence in something like A Clockwork Orange might set critics pondering about what such images show about the characters’ relationships to each other and their interior lives, or how disillusioned youth reacts against society… or whatever. That’s not to say that 300 fans are less smart, or that they can’t make up their own theories of why so much violence is so penetratingly popular. But that’s really the face value of these movies and audiences usually know what to expect when they enter the theater.
The rape scene at Vienna‘s start is a shocking one. I felt the air in the theater immediately tense up and the couple next to me gasped and sighed “oh god” a few times. Sexual violence is an emotional and provocative issue, and its places the audience under a particularly imposing emotional duress. When you place a scene like that at the very start of the play, the aim presumably is to confront your audience bluntly with the themes and tones of the play, much like the first line of a novel. Obviously the play is about sex, marriage, and relationships, but this scene shows a sordid, aggressive, and abusive relationship. It’s a scene that immediately forces you to sympathize with the victim and hate the rapist. (I am of course operating under the belief that an act of sexual aggression is still an act of sexual aggression even in when it involves a prostitute.) A scene like this makes me assume that everything from this point on in the play is going to either lead up to this scene or depict its consequences. That doesn’t mean the rest of the play MUST be serious and brooding or political. It can have layers of humor and romance, etc. just like any other great play. But the rape must have a place in the play’s narrative, right? And we wouldn’t expect a quaint, cutesy living room drama, right?
Well, um, I mean… that’s kinda what we got. The scene immediately following the rape takes place in the same setting, a domestic living room, but the night’s proceedings are forgotten. There’s a wise-cracking maid (Kathleen Chalfant), who might have made a great supporting character in another play. In this one, it feels a bit out-of-place. Vernacular words like “stiffy,” as well as the maid’s ongoing dates with a town professor, are all not only anachronistic, but also uncomfortable after the play’s initial scene. In fact, nearly everyone in this play seems to talk as if Joss Whedon had co-writing credits.
To clarify, I’m not against humorous, light-hearted scripts. Nor do I necessarily have a problem with anachronistic material. But when you have a play about a middle-class widow who battles class and gender politics in 1920’a Vienna, and who has suffered a rape in the first scene of the play, there’s a responsibility to portray her circumstances with thoughtfulness and truth. Notable plays like Clybourne Park or Venus In Fur were brilliant because they took heavy subjects like gentrification and sexism and presented them with wonderfully entertaining, yet still provocative pieces.
[Spoiler Alert] There’s also the fact that Nina Arianda’s Helena ends up falling quite head over heels for the man of the opening scene (Michael Esper). In their subsequent encounters, there’s very little mention of the rape. In fact, Helena seems to be the one who is embarrassed by it. So… wait a minute. Vienna presents to us an intense scene that shocked us and made us hate this man for what he did. And now we’re supposed to believe that Helena’s experience weighs so little on her new love? This leads me to believe that Vienna’s opening scene is purely for shock value. It weighs little to nothing on the story or on her choices. It is only a easy way to voyeuristically instigate audiences with something that is consequentially ignored or forgotten later in the piece. This is a betrayal of the audience’s trust, as well as a poorly judged and inconsiderately manipulated depiction of sexual power.
A visit to a a family-style fusion restaurant leaves the narrator of this one-woman show obsessed with the question of whether it is possible to have a “neutral” narrative in America? “Neutral” in this context means free from any experience filtered through the lens of race or gender. She searches for the answer to this question for an indeterminate amount of time looking for one person who can claim to have a neutral life.
I don’t think I’m quite spoiling anything by saying that she finds none. No one can be freed of their circumstances, nor do we perhaps want them to be. Anyone with a “neutral” narrative is really just an empty shell of a person with no stake in their actions, waiting to be filled by outer forces, whether it be an over-demanding job, a love interest, or hey, an obsession with whether America has a “neutral” history. By the end of the show, we realize that our narrator is completely devoid of any self. While she is represented in this production by a young, black, professional, black woman (an excellent April Matthis), she could really be anyone. There is no mention of her race or gender, no reference to where she comes from or what defines her, not even her name. The monologue could just as easily been played by a white middle aged male. Her emptiness functions as the bare stage for our discussion on race and gender.
Overall, the show brings great insight into the function of race and gender in contemporary America. Some of the writing felt a little misguided, like the few opening spewing cliches about “change” and what a fickle force of nature it is– I don’t see “change” as a dominant theme of the play, nor something marginally explored. The ending, however, is jarring, demanding the audience to assess to what extent we produce assumptions of “neutrality” in our lives.