For the longest time, Steven Universe and Frozen were on top of the world. One of the main reasons being that, allegedly, they were very ‘progressive’. Frozen got praised for being about two sisters, for showing that girls don’t need men to save them, that romance wasn’t the center of the plot, etc. Steven Universe got praised for showing LGBT couples, having lots of women with diverse body shapes and kicking ass, for having an unconventional lead, etc. Recently, Zootopia has gotten a lot of praise for delivering a ‘timely’ and ‘important’ message on prejudice. Yes, it seemed that media for children and families had finally grown up.
But let’s take a closer look at each of these pieces of media, shall we?
For a movie who gets lots of praise for not being about romance and being about two sisters, Anna and Elsa sure don’t spend a lot of time together in Frozen, let alone together being sisterly to each other. Anna spends more time with Kristoff, who condescends to her repeatedly but she still ends up together with him. Elsa barely gets any screen time and doesn’t get a chance to really grow and develop. She gets one moment to be confident with her powers (the “Let It Go” sequence), but the rest of the movie she’s constantly scared and unable (or unwilling) to fix her mistakes and is awkwardly put into a sexualized outfit even though she’s not sexual whatsoever. You can actually read a breakdown of Frozen‘s problems HERE, with this being my fave part:
What else does Anna have going for her? She isn’t intelligent, no matter how many words she can spit out per minute. If she were, she wouldn’t rush into an engagement with Hans, nor — for that matter — leave a man she barely knows in charge of her kingdom while she rides out in the snow without a coat. She’s certainly self-absorbed, using the first opportunity to make Elsa’s coronation all about her; and she’s vain, believing absolutely in her ability to talk some sense into Elsa despite having had no relationship with her sister for what looks like roughly ten years. She has no awareness of her surroundings (riding out in the snow without a coat), no awareness of her own limitations (the cringe-inducing mountain climbing episode), and no awareness of the consequences of her actions (provoking Elsa not once, but twice). She’s outspoken, yes, but she’s also rude; she’s condescending towards Kristoff and belligerent towards her sister; and she has no ambition beyond finding her one true love.
(As you can imagine, this is EXACTLY why Anna is one of my least fave characters of all time).
For Steven Universe, while I will admit it started off pretty strong, it began to unravel after awhile. Ruby and Sapphire are a positive queer couple, but they’re barely onscreen. Garnet (who is queer and black-coded) used to be a strong, caring, and supportive character, but now has almost no character of her own (just there to talk about fusion and give pithy wisdom to Steven at convenient moments). Pearl, who is supposed to be a mentally ill lesbian, is a HORRIBLE character, constantly endangering Steven and Connie without apologizing for it, acting territorial of Rose, actively resents Greg (to the point where he’s not allowed to live with his own son), and manipulated Garnet into fusing with her, violating Garnet’s boundaries. Every butch character (Jasper, Bismuth, Eyeball Ruby) get demonized and put on the shelf while the more feminine characters (Lapis and the Diamonds) get sympathized with and even redeemed despite also doing bad things. All the women of the show (the Gems and Connie) revolve entirely around Steven, who has pretty much taken up the leader position of the Crystal Gems (yes, go to Homeworld and expect to be executed without consulting the Gems first) despite being so much younger.
Zootopia, to its credit, isn’t really that harmful (to an extent). But there’s nothing in it about it’s message about prejudice (which is pretty much meant to be a metaphor on racial issues) that hadn’t been done before, and done BETTER, by The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That movie candidly and uncompromisingly takes a look at genocide, ableism, misogyny/rape culture and religious hypocrisy and makes a very clear statement: don’t just TRY to make a world a better place, DO IT, or these things will happen. But what happened?
The Hunchback of Notre Dame still tends to get shunned for being too dark, while Zootopia is constantly adored and is much more successful.
This brings me to my main point.
If something is popular (like VERY popular, not just well received), it can never be truly progressive. Why? Because, by and large, society will accept liberal messages up to a point. Then it starts to make us uncomfortable, and we’ll dismiss it as being “too PC” or “too heavy handed”.
Keep in mind, we still live in a world where inserting women and non-white people in any major role still causes controversy. My favorite example is the 2016 version of Ghostbusters. It’s a movie that features not one, but FOUR older women as main characters, are not sexualized whatsoever, are allowed to be unconventionally attractive, do not depend on men at ANY POINT, support each other, and are shown to be confident and skilled in science and history. And of course it bombed and is scorned by audiences. While I will admit it’s not necessarily a masterpiece, the amount of bile it gets is really unwarranted (it’s not like the original movie is going away forever), but it doesn’t surprise me that it got the reaction it did.
I’m not saying that everything that is a huge hit is regressive, or that you can’t find any empowerment from the above media. I’m saying that, in order for something to really be revolutionary in terms of how different groups are represented and how important messages are conveyed, it needs to CHALLENGE the audiences. Make them think. Not just pat themselves on the back and feel better because what they watched wasn’t just another show or man revolving around a white straight man. (And just because something features a white man doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be progressive, just read my posts on Wreck-It Ralph.)
Will such media reach great success? Probably not. But maybe they’ll inspire enough conversations to get an individual to start looking at things from a different perspective and make positive changes in their life and community.