This article is a guest post by Mariel Marchetta, co-author and editor of “God, Robot” and “Tales of the Once and Future King”.
Parody and subversion often overlap with each other. However, a parody does not have to be subversion, and in fact can exist within a superversive story. So what exactly is the difference between parodying something and being subversive?
There is nothing wrong with parody; in fact, one of my favorite Disney movies is a parody of its own movies, Enchanted. After reading Justinian Wright’s excellent article on the problems of Frozen, and the lively discussion in the comments section about how it flew in the face of all the Disney fairytales that came before it, I started to doubt myself. After all, why was I insulted by the flagrant subversion of true love in Frozen, yet love Enchanted, which makes fun of every Disney trope under the sun?
Well, because Enchanted loves the tropes, and Frozen hates them.
In Enchanted there was a fantastic scene where Giselle, the protagonist, has become stranded in New York City and is staying in an apartment with a man named Robert and his daughter. She decides, while they’re gone, to clean the house by calling on all the animals in New York City.
Of course, this is where parody comes in. Since it’s New York, rather than bunnies and squirrels, the apartment is flooded with rats, pigeons, and cockroaches. Rather than being grateful, Robert returns home and is disgusted to see them in his house.
Why is this a parody and not a subversion? Because the apartment is clean.
Because while it winks at the audience and goes ‘well if you think about it, this would look kind of silly’ it still works.
So what if Enchanted worked like Frozen?
Well, if Enchanted were of the same spirit as Frozen, Robert would have chased all the animals out…and later that night he, his daughter, and Giselle would have become gravely ill because in real life, having animals clean your apartment is a terrible idea; after all, they have so many awful diseases!
You get my point.
In fact, to make an even more direct comparison to Frozen, there is actually a plotline somewhat similar to the infamous ‘Hans and Anna’ plot. Giselle is in love with Edward and planned to get married the day after they met. Robert encourages Giselle to get to know Edward. It’s ridiculous that she would marry someone she just met! She needs to actually go on a date with him, get to know him first. When Giselle is poisoned and needs true love’s kiss to save her, Edward’s kiss doesn’t work.
If this was subversion, the love Giselle had for Robert’s young daughter would have been what ultimately saved her.
But this is what’s so brilliant about Enchanted; it wasn’t Edward’s kiss that saves her. It’s Robert’s. A man she had known for only a few days longer than Edward.
So the concept of true love at first sight is made fun of, but Giselle does need to be saved by true love’s kiss from a man–and it works!
And Edward, ultimately? Ends up falling in love and marrying Robert’s former girlfriend, Nancy.
Just like Giselle, he only knew her for a few moments before he decided to marry her–but this isn’t portrayed as a bad thing. It works!
The most subversive element of the movie is that Robert, Giselle’s love interest, is divorced and works as a divorce attorney. But there is even a scene where Giselle bursts into tears when she meets a couple at Robert’s practice that is divorcing. Robert rebukes Giselle as ridiculous.
But later? The couple tells Robert they no longer want to get divorced.
Giselle believes in true love, and it works!
Enchanted is full of moments like this. Robert questions how everyone knows the song Giselle is singing as she leads Central Park through a rousing musical number. Robert tells Giselle that there’s no way doves will know where his girlfriend lives, but Nancy later calls to thank Robert for the flowers Giselle sent using birds. The trope is observed; the trope is made fun of; the trope is played out and works. That is the fine line between parody and subversion.
So when it comes to Frozen: Elsa telling Anna that she couldn’t marry a man she just met is a funny observation of a trope that is kind of silly if you think about it.
Having that man turn out to be a sociopath that tries to kill Elsa and steal the throne, because that trope was always secretly ‘problematic,’ is subversion and spits on Disney.
So what if Frozen had taken a leaf from Enchanted’s book?
Hans and Anna go to Elsa. She rebukes their request for her blessing. Marrying a man you just met is ridiculous.
Later, Hans goes to find Elsa and bring her back. The scene works the same as it did in the movie–he stops the guard that was going to kill Elsa, saving her life and taking her back to the castle. When he confronts Elsa, he tells her that he didn’t kill her because she’s Anna’s sister. Everyone else is convinced that she is a monster; Hans knows that Elsa isn’t, because he trusts Anna.
At the end, Hans isn’t evil. His true love’s kiss isn’t enough to break the spell because Anna has fallen in love with Kristoff–a man she has known for all of one or two days. Kristoff’s love is what saves Anna. It works!
And Hans acted in Elsa’s stead to care for her kingdom, and saved Elsa because he wouldn’t allow Anna’s sister to die. It was ridiculous for Anna to trust a man she had just met–but Hans proved that Anna was right to think he was a good man. It works!
This isn’t getting into the problem of Frozen’s rotten moral philosophy. But at least then Frozen would have been a fairytale. And Frozen would have still been able to poke fun at Disney without undermining decades of traditional Disney tropes.
Enchanted is the perfect example of making fun of your source material done right. It jabs at every fairytale trope under the sun. But at the end of the movie, those tropes still save the day. True love’s kiss rescues the princess, the prince whisks off a woman to marry that he’s just met, and everyone lives happily ever after. I’d go as far as to say that Enchanted is an underrated and very superversive parody. Well, except for the part where the princess grabs a sword to go after and slay the dragon…but no movie is perfect.