Two days ago I posted about some outrage from religious groups toward the movie Frozen. They claim the story pushes a “homosexual agenda” on children, and their proof, among other things, is that Queen Elsa never goes after any of the men in the film.
But the fact this is even up for discussion leads me to a question, one borne out of purely selfish motives. In order to tell a story that is both compelling and marketable, in light of this sort of debate, I have to ask:
Does the heroine need a hero? Does the female lead require a love interest?
The “compelling” part is easily dealt with. A story needs whatever makes it work, whatever gives it power. Effort spent jamming a hackneyed romance into a story will be obvious, through a hollow feeling, a lack of resonation with the audience, or an eye-rolling “This character is stupid” reaction from a reader.
The wise editor and skillful writer can look at parts of a work-in-progress critically, seeing when some subplot does too little to advance the overall narrative. Every word counts, and must earn its keep. Maybe the part that gets cut is a romance, maybe it’s a really cool action sequence, maybe it’s entire characters getting merged into one. There’s only so much time in a movie, so many pages in a book.
The more difficult question is how a work will be received by the market. Disney’s princess movies are known for a formula. The princess meets a prince. With his help, she overcomes her internal conflict, resolves the external problem, and they live happily ever after. Now, they’ve stepped away from the formula a bit with Brave and Tangled. But apparently Frozen went too far, despite the romance between Princess Anna and Kristof. After all, Queen Elsa never shows interest in any man…
Because the story isn’t about her falling in love.
Consider some of other movies (and books) with a female lead: Hunger Games and Divergent.
Even though both leads fall in love over the course of their respective trilogies, Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior give the distinct impression that they can handle things without Peeta or Four, thank you very much. Both are concerned with staying alive in an unfamiliar situation. Neither goes into their adventure searching for a man, because that’s not the theme of the story. Instead, they meet and bond with allies, who through shared adversity become something more.
The authors fit romances in, and that weaves nicely into the plot, giving added conflict and tension as characters’ goals diverge (hehe). The stories aren’t dependent on their romantic arcs. They can be just as compelling without that element.
But the romance boosts the books’ marketability. Some readers might not care about a dystopian setting, but they’ll look past that to read a coming-of-age story they can relate to. Some readers might not care for either of those all that much, but they’ll take it alongside a plot of budding romance. And some readers might just be catching up on the books in order to understand the movie – or better yet, to avoid a years-long wait to find out what happens next.
I said I had a selfish motive. When this controversy about Frozen first “came out,” one of my first thoughts was my current writing projects. One book series has two female leads. Another has a female lead. None of the three have love interests (at this moment in writing drafts and planning).
Is that wrong? I don’t think so.
In fact, the thought of conjuring up a lovely face to accompany them, stuffing scenes and chapters in to create romantic tension and bonding… that feels wrong.
None of those characters are interested in romance during the timeframe of the story. When your world is falling apart, love isn’t always your first thought.
That’s not saying it can’t happen. Certainly it can, and it works in a lot of stories as one element, perhaps even the main theme.
But that leads right back to the original question: What’s the point of the story?
Once I know that, I write what fits and cut the rest. (ideally)
Back to Frozen, can you imagine fitting a romance for Elsa into that plot line without taking away from the impact of the sisterly bond at the center of the story?
One of the bloggers at the center of this controversy responded to some of her critics. And she quoted a friend, Jonathan Wilson, who took a reasonable stance:
“Frozen can certainly be successfully applied as an allegory for homosexual struggle. The authors may or may not have had that in mind when they wrote it. But Frozen is good enough art to rise above a specific allegorical meaning. It demonstrates broad applicability to many different human experiences. That is why it appeals to so many people.”
Remember, entertainment has to be marketable. A wide variety of stuff can be covered by this blanket.
Art is compelling. That means the field narrows significantly, and the artist keeps only what fits.