Frozen and the Art of Diversity
I watched Frozen II twice in the winter of 2019. It was, in fact, the last movie I have watched in theatres since then. This is not because I particularly love the Frozen franchise. They are by no means the worst movies Disney has produced. Frozen II had some okay songs, and one great sequence where Kristoff channels the collective energy of every ‘90s boy band in existence.
Well, okay, there is another thing I liked about Frozen II. I was thrilled to see actual characters of colour – Black characters and Indigenous characters – onscreen, playing important roles in the story. Animated fairytales are generally starved of PoC. Sure, there’s been an increase in movies based on myths from across the world (especially East Asia), but most are still overwhelmingly based on European folklore. And, as such, their creators often never bother with diversity within their character designs. Most of the time, everyone important in these films is white.
That brings me to a question which many writers have been wrestling with recently: in a fantasy world based on medieval Europe, is racial diversity more important than “historical accuracy”?
I’ve seen many conflicting opinions on this. My mainstay, TVTropes, has listed Frozen II as an example of Politically Correct History, claiming that the inclusion of Black people in positions of power within an early modern Scandinavian society is ridiculous.
See, I take issue with this argument. I’m firmly in the “more diversity is better!” camp when it comes to crafting fantasy worlds, for one simple reason: they’re already fantasy worlds. The Frozen world already has a magical spirit queen who can shoot ice from her pinkies and spontaneously generate sapient snowmen. Are people seriously saying that’s more realistic than Black people in Scandinavia (a region which has had contact with the Middle East and Africa since the medieval era)? Frozen II is clearly not based on hard factual history. So why do people object to the presence of Black people in Arendelle, but totally accept the dude who can telepathically communicate with reindeer? Why is that more realistic than a society which isn’t racially homogenous?
You know what is real? The millions of nonwhite viewers, myself included, who stream into theatres to catch every animated movie which comes out. I love fairytales. As a toddler, and later a little child, I desperately searched for my own face within the films I saw. Occasionally a throwaway character would appear, like Shanti from The Jungle Book. But I, with my dark hair and brown skin and long nose, was never destined to find myself reflected in the main cast. If someone who looked like me did appear in a prominent role, chances are they were a villain: Mother Gothel from Tangled, with her heavily Jewish/Middle Eastern/South Asian-coded features, comes to mind. Of course there were exceptions – I fell in love with the movie Moana partially for this reason – but they are still far and few compared to the legion of milky-skinned, fair-haired heroes and heroines who populate the animated pantheon.
Yes, Frozen II had its issues. I thought the story was scattered and the music was mostly mediocre. But I loved the inclusion of people of colour. I gasped when I saw one particular heroic character onscreen, because there, in one of the most popular animated franchises across the globe, was a face which finally reflected mine.
As fantasy authors, we are already building worlds filled with magic and mythology. Why do so many of us balk at including racially diverse characters? How is being half-vampire more common in fantasy fiction than being half-Indian, or half-Black? When we’re given a chance to construct a universe from scratch, why shouldn’t we use it to represent a variety of cultures and ethnicities? Maybe it doesn’t match up with exact history, but that’s the whole point of fantasy – that it’s a departure from history. Fantasy is for us to shape and create, a tool we can use to bring joy to multitudes of readers and viewers. By and large, that is far more important than accurately representing every single detail of English society circa 1453.