The idea for this post started with, of all things, a serious discussion of the movie “Frozen.” (BTW, if you don’t think it’s possible to have a serious discussion about the movie “Frozen”, you should leave now, because we’re going deep.)
I got a text from my brother that was pretty much a play-by-play of an argument he was having with my nieces, which started when he said that Elsa, the snow queen in “Frozen” with the great solo, was not the hero of the movie but was, in fact, the villain. My brother is a typical dad, in that he occasionally likes to say things to his children that he knows will infuriate them.
My brother’s argument was that since Elsa is the cause of most of the problems, at least in the first two-thirds of the story, (Spoiler Alert: Hans is a douche, and we all hate him.), then she must be the villain. This, naturally, the girls would not stand for and his assertion was immediately met with the double-barreled fury that can only come from two, avid Disney fans when you commit the heresy of saying their favoritest princess in the whole world is really the bad guy.
His 9-year-old apparently communicated something along the lines of “shut your damn mouth”, but, you know, age appropriately. And the 8-year-old demanded they watch the whole movie right then so that they could point out just how wrong he was.
Needless to say, it is never, ever, a good idea to call into question the role models of little girls, especially when you live in the same house as they do.
But, as usually happens with me, this sparked a very serious discussion about what Elsa’s role actually is. As I am a writer, and coincidentally, a good uncle, I felt it was my duty to defend the girls’ position.
No, I told my brother, Elsa isn’t the villain; she’s the primary antagonist.
I am continually surprised that people often confuse Hero and Villain with Protagonist and Antagonist. Although, it makes sense why they would. Even now, you might be wondering what the distinction is. Aren’t they the same thing?
Well, no, and “Frozen” is a good example of why.
In the movie, Elsa plunges the whole kingdom into eternal winter after an argument with her sister, Anna, wherein it is revealed that Elsa has snow powers she’s been hiding from everyone. This sets off the primary action of the story. Elsa runs away, Anna follows her. There are songs; there are snow monsters. Love, betrayal, happily ever after.
So, my brother was correct that Elsa sets off and continues most of the action in the story and predominantly in a negative way. Eternal winter, summoning a snow monster, accidentally freezing Anna’s heart. But does that make her the villain? And if she’s not a villain, then what is she?
This is where the difference between hero/villain and protagonist/antagonist come into play. To put it succinctly, hero and villain are moral judgments about a character; they tell us the kind of ethical choices the characters are likely to make. Heroes do heroic things. Villains do villainous things. Protagonist and antagonist, on the other hand, are roles characters play within the story. The protagonist is the primary character in a story. They are the ones we, as the readers are meant to follow, root for, or connect with. The antagonist is whoever is against them, and it doesn’t have to be a person either. It can just as easily be a faceless tyranny, or the System, or racism, etc.
(On a side note: this confusion is one of the reasons I rarely see people get the concept of “anti-hero” right, which is a subject I could on for hours about, but I’ll spare you.)
And here we can see why it’s understandable we would mix these words up. 9 times out of 10, the protagonist of a story is going to be a hero. Those are just the sorts of stories we write most often. In the same way, 9 times out of 10, the antagonist is going to be a villain of one kind or another. But a protagonist is not, by definition, heroic, they just inhabit the primary role in the story. That’s what protagonist means, “first role”. Nor is the antagonist automatically villainous; they merely stand opposite the protagonist.
So, is Elsa a villain? Well, that really depends on how you view her choices. I say, no, because I understand everything she is doing as a byproduct of repressed emotions. (I told you we were going deep here.) Yes, she causes harm, but there’s not a malicious quality to her choices. She is confused, hurt, and lashing out.
However, she is an antagonist in that her role is counter to her sister, Anna, who is the protagonist. She makes choices that waylay and counter Anna on her heroic journey.
(Oh, dear, we’ve wandered into monomyth. Someone stop me! Stop me now!)
Complex, I know, but that’s what I love about stories. Even the ones that seem straightforward, (what could be simpler than the plot of a Disney movie?), turn out to make us ask serious questions about morality and the roles we tend to put people in.
Yes, in case you hadn’t guessed, there’s a moral here.
Some of the most complex, and best, stories out there are about protagonists and antagonists who do not fall into the hero/villain dynamic. Two different comic book franchises are bringing out movies this year with a protagonist and antagonist who are both heroes. Some of the most popular series feature a protagonist who doesn’t make heroic choices, which means that their antagonist is often a heroic counterpart. Some of the most dramatic stories are about people who are neither hero nor villain but simply people.
And what do we learn from these stories? That people are complicated. That just because someone is against you doesn’t make them the villain. That just because you think you’re right doesn’t make you the hero.
And before you tell me I’m reading too much into this, remember, stories have been the primary means of transmitting information since the DAWN OF TIME! Stories teach us how to view the world and, consequently, other people. We can see everyone who doesn’t agree with us as villains, or we can recognize that sometimes good people can land on different sides of the same issue. (As cliché as it may seem, “they aren’t bad people, they just make bad choices” turns out to be true.)
That, I would argue, is the primary lesson of “Frozen”. Villains don’t all look the same, and just because siblings fight doesn’t make either of them the bad guy.
So, no, Elsa isn’t the villain, and if you ever find yourself debating that issue with two, tiny, blonde firecrackers, I would advise you to “let it go.”
(Image by Chaitra: http://itspinkpot.com/creative-convex)