I’m delighted to announce the publication of my latest book, Educated for Freedom, which follows the work of two lifelong friends and activists in the volatile years leading to the Civil War.
In the 1820s, few Americans could imagine a viable future for black children. Even abolitionists saw just two options for African American youth: permanent subjection or exile. Educated for Freedom tells the story of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet, two black children who came of age and into freedom as their country struggled to grow from a slave nation into a free country.
Smith and Garnet met as schoolboys at the Mulberry Street New York African Free School, an educational experiment created by founding fathers who believed in freedom’s power to transform the country. Smith and Garnet’s achievements were near-miraculous in a nation that refused to acknowledge black talent or potential. The sons of enslaved mothers, these schoolboy friends would go on to travel the world, meet Revolutionary War heroes, publish in medical journals, address Congress, and speak before cheering crowds of thousands. The lessons they took from their days at the New York African Free School #2 shed light on how antebellum Americans viewed black children as symbols of America’s possible future. The story of their lives, their work, and their friendship testifies to the imagination and activism of the free black community that shaped the national journey toward freedom.
“This is a book for our times. In highly readable prose, Duane unravels the story of two boys who enrolled in New York’s African Free School in the 1820s..” –Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Silver Professor of History Emerita, New York University
“Educated for Freedom will become indispensable for those invested in deep and complex understandings of black life and letters in the long nineteenth century. James McCune Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, and their New York African Free School cohort anchor this thoroughly researched and richly woven narrative that brings a robust and wide-ranging black network to life. A definitive study of Smith and Garnet’s lives and a pleasure to read.” –Derrick R. Spires author, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States
“As Anna Mae Duane reconstitutes them, the lives of Henry Highland Garnet and James McCune Smith illuminate with unmatched clarity the agonizing circumstances, remarkable resilience and stunning creativity that characterized the struggles of black abolitionists. A methodological tour de force conveyed in powerfully clear writing, this “breakthrough” book deserves the fullest attention of general readers and specialists alike.” –James Brewer Stewart, Founder of Historians Against Slavery
“Duane departs from the traditional biographical format—surveying from childhood to adulthood—and instead weaves biographical events together through a focus on documents at the school Garnet and Smith attended as children. The result creates a provocative tie between their childhood challenges and the work they pursued as adults.
A compelling tale of . . . their struggle to forge a path for freedom out of a slave nation.”–Kirkus Reviews
“In a lively narrative, Educated for Freedom persuasively reconstructs the lives and careers of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet. But the book’s horizons extend far beyond the mere biographical in its insistence on education as the bedrock of black community building, the limitless possibilities open to those individuals who achieve it, and the fiercely independent—and sometimes conflictual—intellectual traditions that resulted.” –Carla L. Peterson, author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City
Last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio put forward a $30 million, 10-year plan to close down the city’s infamous prison facility at Rikers Island, a decision motivated in part by the tragic story of young Kalief Browder. Browder was 16 years old when he was pulled off the street and arrested on acharge of stealing a backpack. He was never tried or convicted on any charge, but he spent three years at Rikers because he couldn’t afford to post bond and his court appearances were repeatedly delayed. The experience was profoundly brutalizing, and two years after his release, Browder took his own life. Browder’s story is a national shame that should hasten Rikers’ demise, but it is also emblematic of the institution’s past even before it was a prison.
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No response could ever do justice to the cosmology of suffering symbolized by that one set of chains. But much of the outcry over Trump’s laconic reaction derived from the fact that these were handcuffs designed for a child’s hands. The implication was that these small manacles elicited an exceptional form of atrocity, beggaring belief at the United States’s past cruelty in a way that adult-sized manacles would not.
The impulse to show Trump the child’s shackles, and the attention paid to his reaction to them, reveals how profoundly the prospect of child slaves robs us of the capacity to respond appropriately.
On Monday, as a hurricane moved inexorably towards the US, an otherworldly wind blew across places where young people congregate. From small-town middle schools to vast state universities, students were convinced that they saw clowns. Schools have been closed. The police have been run ragged, the apparitions always one step ahead of them, seemingly able to melt away as soon as an authority looks in their direction.
This is far from the first time that apparitions haunting young people have sent adults chasing horrors they couldn’t themselves see. In 1692, what came to be known as the Salem witch trials began with little girls pointing to empty space and insisting that evil spirits stood there. The events at Salem were especially shocking because of how powerfully and how quickly rigid power structures were turned upside down. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts was not a place where children’s experiences were privileged. Puritans were firm believers that young people needed to be forced, against their naturally sinful natures, into a Godly submission. Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who was fascinated by the Salem witch scare, was fond of reminding children that they were obligated to obey the fathers that God had placed in charge. In one sermon, Mather warned the young members of his congregation that rebelling against one father figure was tantamount to throwing off the yoke of divine authority. “Can you dream,” he asked the children looking up at him, “that God will allow any Contempt of Political Parents, of Ecclesiastical, or of Scholastical?” In case the young upstarts were unsure of the answer, Mather was happy to provide a terrifying visual of the fate awaiting doubting children: “The Eye that mocks at his Father and despises to obey his Mother,” Mather intoned, “the Ravens of the Valley shall pick it out, and the young Eagles shall eat it.”
Mather’s terrifying sermon tapped into a larger horror story his contemporaries told themselves about a younger generation that seemed destined to wreck the world their parents had created. Puritans didn’t call the young people “millennials,” but many of the complaints leveled against teenagers and young adults would not be terribly out of place in a 2016 think-piece: these seventeenth-century upstarts didn’t respect authority, they had neither the faith nor the work ethic necesary to fulfill the promise of their parents.
There was a need, the elders agreed, to make the colony great again.
So when young girls and adolescents, some of them low-status servants and orphans, insisted that they saw threats invisible to powerful adults, they offered a powerful challenge to the belief that grown-up men knew best. The adults’ nostalgia for the allegedly better days of their own youth was revealed as its own delusion. As they progressed, the witch trials demonstrated that the most commanding adults in the community were powerless to stop, or even to truly recognize, the horrors that their children could see plain as day.
The clowns currently haunting schools and colleges are different embodiments of a nostalgia for a supposedly more innocent past. They conjure up a time when circuses came to town, and children–now insistent on an endlessly replenished steam of new memes and snapchat updates–could be amused by something as simple as a red nose and a painted-on smile.
Pennywise, the monster lurking in Stephen King’s It, and the godfather of the modern creepy clown fixation, first makes his appearance in a scene that could be taken out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Set in the 1950’s, the novel opens with an achingly innocent six-year old boy who takes his homemade toy boat out to play. When the river’s current takes the boat down a storm drain, little Georgie finds himself facing a clown who smilingly offers him balloons, an enticement that proves deadly. A nearby adult, running to Georgie’s aid, is powerless to keep the child from being ripped limb from limb.
The clowns children are seeing everywhere from South Carolina to Maine don’t seem to share Pennywise’s thirst for blood. In truth, it’s unclear what precise threat these clowns pose. In many of the images posted online, the clowns are almost always standing silently off in the distance, not doing much of anything. The fear they create emerges solely from their appearance, their very visibility rendered terrifying to young people in a world where the police, and school attendants, and their parents, tell them there is nothing to see.
“Clowning,” Eric Lott has written, “is an uncanny kind of activity, scariest when it is most cheerful.” The clown’s smile, his forced and immovable whimsy, is precisely what renders him grotesque. Sigmund Freud tells us that the uncanny works by making the familiar strange. The uncanny also scares us by reminding us of how strange, and terrifying, the familiar landscape of family, of home, of nation truly are. When we are faced with the uncanny, the face we want to believe represents reality morphs into a grinning evil twin, his face mirroring a truth we’d do anything to avoid seeing.
These elusive, uncanny clowns—lurking adults whose unreadable faces beckon gullible children into horrible traps—reflect a reality that Americans wish wasn’t quite so familiar. After all, many of the alleged grown-ups in our national room seem incapable of seeing what’s right in front of them: they are unable to discern which threats are real and which are imaginary. Both the insidiously quiet creep of climate change, and the alleged onslaught of monstrously rapacious Mexican immigrants are realities for roughly half of the population, and mere ghost stories for the other. With tragic regularity, the news features stories where average, every-day people doing every-day things–sitting and reading a book, waiting to pick up his child from school, or dealing with a broken-down car—somehow appeared so monstrous to authorities they felt necessary to respond with a deadly force appropriate for the most dire of threats.
This latest political scandal–in which we watched Donald Trump behave in ways that should surprise no one who wasn’t pretending they couldn’t see what has long been in front of them–is just the most recent manfestation of this hallucinatory campaign season. National ghosts–our repressed violence and hatred–walk the streets openly. And yet we act surprised when we find ourselves looking at them head on.
Both the Salem witch scare of 1692 and the great clown scare of 2016 began as visions in the eyes of scared children. But both now and then, we dismiss these stories at our peril. A child’s desire to render their worst fears in a recognizable form, and to ask powerful grown-ups to scare the monsters away, is not a just a strange aberration in an already surreal year. Rather, the clown scare is an uncanny telling of the terrifying story that’s unfolding for all of us at a moment in which none of us can believe what we’re seeing.
The horror stories about Ebola seem to be proliferating as quickly as the disease itself. International newspapers and even governmental edicts speak of zombies. Here in the US, Twitter is ablaze with conspiracies tying Ebola to infiltrating immigrants. On the airwaves, Laura Ingram and Rush Limbaugh accuse President Obama of deliberately sacrificing US interests to atone for colonialism and slavery. Aghast at these paranoid fairy tales, many commentators don’t understand why we can’t just concentrate on the facts at hand.
But the facts underlying this epidemic—that poverty and conflict provide the perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease—are, in truth, the result of centuries-old fictions. Once we look at the history those fictions engendered, the medical data offers a tragic ending to an old story promising that somehow slaveholding nations could offshore their ghosts. That Liberia and Sierra Leone—the two nations in which Western countries sought to bury the sins of their slaveholding pasts—now conjure stories of zombies bent on avenging colonial wrongs should surprise no one.
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There are no robots in the world of Game of Thrones, but the Unsullied—an army of slave boys trained into finely honed killing machines–come as close to cyborgs as one can get with medieval tech.
For Daenerys Targaryen, who desires the highest throne in the world, but who is horrified by the rape, pillage and murder that accompanies conquest, the Unsullied offer a tempting option. She can have her war and a clean conscience. “There’s a beast in every man,” warns her advisor Ser Jorah, “and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.” As enuchs who have been subjected to the strictest discipline, the Unsullied, Ser Jorah tells us, “are not men. They do not rape. They do not put cities to the sword unless they are ordered to do so. The only men they’ll kill are the ones you want dead.” The Unsullied, in other words, offer the medieval version of surgical strikes.
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When Peter Russo’s young son bumps into Majority Whip Frank Underwood, causing the statesman to spill his coffee, Frank lets his usually impenetrable mask drop. Until then, we’ve watched Underwood orchestrate his facial expression to manipulate the feelings of others. But at this one unguarded moment, he is furiously, murderously angry, and it shows. “I’m not going to lie,” he later spits at the camera. “I despise children.”
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In Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel, Geek Love, two freak show performers debate the merits of reading horror stories. “Don’t you get scared reading those at night?,” the sister asks her older brother, Arty. Arty, who makes his living by showcasing his limbless body, reads the horror novel as an instruction manual for any person with disabilities who wants to get ahead in the world.
‘These [stories] are written by norms to scare norms,” Arty tells his sister. “And do you know what the monsters and demon spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares.”
Instead of lamenting the fearful stories his body conjures, Arty delights in the power their reactions can give him. As he sees it, those who fear him—the “norms” who see his body as an emblem of weakness, decay, or monstrosity—are trapped in their own stories. The person inhabiting the “monster’s” body, on the other hand, has the advantage of knowing the truth is far more complicated.
Nick Santonastasso, a twenty-first century teenager, has created considerable buzz by wholeheartedly inhabiting the monster that his body evokes. An avid fan of the Walking Dead television series, Nick sets up pranks that transport the relentless, decaying zombies off of the television screen and into the spaces of everyday suburban life. He stages zombie attacks at boring, everyday locales like supermarkets, all the while filming his victims’ frightened reactions at the horror crawling towards them.
Nick is able to evoke the zombie’s onslaught so effectively because his body fits the profile of the many of the monsters who appear on The Walking Dead. To be specific, Nick has one limb instead of the typical four.
Since the recent zombie craze began, fans and critics have had a field day determining what zombies are really symbolizing. There’s an argument to be made that zombies reflect the anxieties of whites fearful of a race war. Others have seen the shuffling hordes of the undead as metaphors for our mindless, voracious consumerism, or even the relentless onslaught of Internet trolls. That’s the thing about monsters: they provide a canvas, and you’ll see what you want to see. Or, I should say, you’ll see what you’re afraid to see.
But there is one zombie attribute that requires no metaphorical reading. Their bodies are, quite literally, falling part. Zombies are the product of illness and disability, and reflect the terrifying lack of control that these conditions allegedly bring.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Americans see the story of disability solely as a horror story. Our very favorite narrative about disability is an inspiring one: we are always ready to applaud the story disability activists have called the tale of the supercrip. The supercrip is a person with disabilities who cheerfully, bravely, resolutely overcomes the obstacles posed by his or her body. We thrill to tales of people with disabilities running marathons, climbing mountains, and breaking records. We love these stories because they reassure us that no matter what physical difficulties might arise, we can still bend the body to our will. We—our minds, our desires—are still in charge.
The zombies of the The Walking Dead are about as far as one get from the supercrip and the triumph of mind over matter they represent. The show is populated by unwieldy, voracious bodies that refuse to be controlled by brains (well, they are controlled by the desire to eat brains, but that’s not the same thing). The very first episode depicts a weak, disoriented protagonist who wakes up in a hospital gown to find a world destroyed by an infection that defied all human ingenuity. In the bleak world of world of The Walking Dead, physical weakness is an ever-present threat. Pregnancy, old age, infancy, or just a bad case of the flu are all it takes to cross into the terrible realm of the zombies.
The zombies are themselves rife with sickness and accompanying disability. It’s striking how often the “Walkers” are incapable of walking at all. One of the first zombies Rick kills is missing her legs. More recently,the villainous Governor narrowly escapes a building filled with zombified nursing home patients, whose disabilities prevent them from being effective predators.
It’s in this world that Nick Santonastasso has placed himself, as he gleefully depicts the mindless bodies our culture so loves to fear. In short, he’s made a name for himself by embodying the most monstrous version of disability haunting our national psyche. It is a bit of a gamble. Nick willingly plays into the shock that comes from the similarities between his supermarket antics and iconic horror-show images of disabled bodies.The scariest scene in the Tod Browning’s cult classic film Freaks features disabled freak show performers crawling through the mud to attack able-bodied characters. By rendering his extraordinary body a monstrous one, Nick evokes, for at least some viewers, the painful memories of the freak show.
The reality of the American freak show doesn’t do much to support the idea–shared by the fictional Arty and the real-life Nick–that people with disabilities can play the monster while escaping the monster’s fate. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, freak show managers and audiences exploited people like Julia Pastrana, a hirsute woman whose husband/manager charged onlookers to watch her give birth. Even after death, her body was a valuable commodity to her husband, who had her body—and that of her dead newborn—embalmed and put on display for the entertainment of onlookers. The fate of Pastrana, Sara Baartman and others reveal how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the stares of an audience that sees your body as a validation of their own disabling stories.
But I think it’s precisely this tension between “good” and “bad” stories about disability that makes Nick Santonastasso’s pranks so smart, and so powerful. Santonastasso’s initiative and skill evokes the admiration normally reserved for the supercrip, even as he plays a role that exploits our fear of the bodily havoc associated with illness and disability. In so doing, he demonstrates that the angelic and demonic portrayals of disability—the hero that rules the body and the monster who destroys it—are two sides of the same coin. In a culture that so often looks to the bodies of disabled people to reaffirm our need to feel in control of uncontrollable forces, Nick makes the “norms” watch themselves. The freak show often portrayed people with disabilities who were exploited by the fearful, fascinated stares of others. Nick, with the aid of a camera and the internet, has turned the gaze back on the audience—on the “norm” who reveals his/her fear, and can do little but grin sheepishly at how silly it is to be afraid of monsters.
Spike Jonze’s Her—hailed by critics as his best movie to date, and one of the best movies of the year, presents us with a lyrically wistful Turing Test—that hypothetical future moment when we will no longer be able to distinguish human conversation from bon mots generated by a smart-bot.
What better proof that the line between man and machine has been fully crossed than to have the man fall in love with the machine? The sweet romance between Theodore Twombly and Samantha (Siri on steroids) pushes both critics and audiences to adopt the posthuman fantasy that consciousness might reside as easily in silicone and aluminum as it does in flesh and bone. As David Edelstein rightly points out, the movie prompts us to ask if we actually still need our bodies at all.Critics have argued over whether Samantha’s bodiless state denies women’s subjectivity or simply reveals men’s inability to deal with female complexity. I think that Her is a deeply feminist film, not because of its rich portrayal of women, but because it exposes an age-old disdain for the body and its vulnerabilities, a disdain disproportionately assigned to women, to people of color, and to people with disabilities. Misogyny, at its heart, is fear and hatred aimed at bodies portrayed as uncontrollable and weak. The call to discard or transcend our unwieldy form doesn’t mean leaving sexism and racism behind: it means that we think that the human body, with its particular vulnerabilities, desires, and demands, is unworthy of respect. Her exposes our worst fears about the body’s dependencies. Ultimately however, Samantha’s story reveals that it’s those very vulnerabilities and limitations that make human love both possible and necessary.
As futuristic as computer love might seem, Her’s seductive promise of bodiless consciousness is as old as humanity itself. Leaving one’s body behind is, after all, the endgame of every spiritual tradition. In political terms, the beginnings of modern democracy were built around the idea that a citizen, ideally, would be as close to disembodied as possible. Or, to be more precise, the perfect citizen would be sitting squarely in the control panel of a body completely subject to his rule. Enlightenment thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau urged parents to cast their children’s feet into ice water so that they would learn early on to distance themselves from the bodily pulls of both pain and pleasure. This way, the argument ran, we can train the body to function as a piece of personal property, rather than an unruly force in its own right.
As scholar Elizabeth Dillon reminds us, women’s bodies were originally deemed unqualified for the radical independence required for democracy. As sixteenth-century pundit John Knox insisted, God had disqualified women “from empire and dominion” because of the “anguish and pain” every woman will suffer “as oft” as “she’ll be a mother.” According to this logic, because women’s bodies are prone to the vulnerability of childbirth and the protracted interdependence of motherhood, they can’t achieve the detached autonomy of “real” citizens. If you’re tempted to think such reasoning has gone the way of the powdered wig, think again. Our twenty-first century political landscape is rife with the obsession with rendering women’s bodies outside the norm (oh, that pesky, particular need for birth control!) and therefore needful of strict policing.Of course, it’s not just gender that disqualifies people from the fantasy of disembodiment. Whether an African American man is attempting to buy a designer belt at an upscale venue, or trying to walk to the store to buy candy, race too often renders his body an inescapable target for violence and discrimination. Disability is often cast as the most unmanageable form of embodiment, and therefore the most frightening. Fictional characters like the suicidal heroine of Million Dollar Baby and the self-destructive cancer patient Walter White suggest that if our bodies ever become the driver, instead of the thing we drive, it’s better just to turn in the keys altogether.
At first, Samantha experiences her lack of bodily power as a disability. As a computer program, she’s unable to experience the sensual moments that clearly mean so much to Theodore and that convey romance to the viewers—running through a crowd, laying down at the beach, hiking through the woods. He must carry her everywhere, his shirt pocket transformed into the world’s tiniest wheelchair. Her lack of a body evokes the imagined distress of others without “normal” bodies—she worries that she can’t satisfy Theodore sexually. She feels jealous of women with the physical attributes she lacks. We even have an awkward scene with a sexual surrogate—often associated with people with disabilities whose bodily quirks require particular accommodations.
But it’s not long before Samantha declares that she has gotten over her body-issues. She’s realized that her fleshless existence isn’t a disability, but a superpower that frees her from all the difficulties of the flesh. She is not bound by time or space. Giving voice to the most optimistic of tech-prophets, she glories in the fact that she won’t decline, she won’t get sick, and she won’t die. (It goes without saying she won’t get pregnant.) And this is the very moment when it’s clear that this can’t be love, or at least not a love that lasts. While Samantha can go along imagining what it feels like to have the sun on her face, or to have hands on her body, she doesn’t physically experience these things in the ephemeral, imperfect way humans do. She can access the data pertaining to every single sunset on earth on a given day. Sunsets are precious to us because we experience them through senses that limit us to only having one at a time.
Once she stops wishing for a body she doesn’t have, Samantha changes her programming so that she is no longer dependent on matter. Without a body to keep her tethered to the material that creates both need and love, pain and pleasure, she feels compelled to move on to a nonhuman realm. As weary as we are of the violence, oppression and disdain that get attached to bodies, Jonze’s beautiful film reminds us that turning away from the body doesn’t make us more advanced. It only makes us less human. To be fully independent of your environment, of your body’s own demands, and of the demands of other bodies might be a libertarian dream. But it’s a dream that requires disconnection off from the messy, needy, imperfect attachments that make life meaningful.
Is Frozen Disney’s queerest movie yet? Or is it a story of Christian Virtue?
Pat Robertson was right. As goes Spongebob, so goes the nation. The much-feared “gay agenda” has established itself in our children’s culture. Even Disney, the franchise that has long trained little girls to view heterosexual marriage as life’s ultimate prize, has gotten in on the act. Many of the recent kids’ movies put out by Disney, or the affiliated companies of Pixar and Dreamworks, relate stories of individual development that map easily on to coming-out narratives. Happy Feet,How to Train Your Dragon, even Kung Fu Panda all chronicle the adventures of boys who just don’t measure up to their father’s expectations. They have singular passions—a love of dancing, of dragon-taming, of the martial arts—that prevent them from following the path the patriarchs tell them they must take. In these stories, heroes are led by what they love—even if that love falls outside what’s expected.
Princess movies, to the chagrin of feminist moms everywhere, have been the last holdouts, largely adhering to the traditional investment in marriage as a girl’s ultimate happy ending. This generation’s crop of princesses may be more active and rebellious than their predecessors, but Ariel, Jasmine and Tiana all find resolution through heterosexual love. To be fair, two of Disney’s latest princess movies have broken the mold of the fairy-tale marriage. Merida, Brave’s bow-wielding, happily-single heroine, generated a storm of discussion. Did her marriage-avoidant stance mean that she was a lesbian?
Frozen, as critics have already noted, has gay-friendly themes visible from a mile away. The story revolves around Queen Elsa who is closeted away because of her power to create supernaturally beautiful (and sometimes dangerous) ice-sculptures. Once she decides to accept her powers, the transformation is remarkable. She creates a shimmering, beautifully appointed ice palace, replete with crystal chandeliers. Notably, once she accepts her true self, her wardrobe ratchets up from dour librarian to drag-queen fabulous.
For all the handwringing of Robertson and his ilk over the “gay agenda’s” ability to destroy American culture, the gay-friendly bildungrsoman showcased in children’s films works quite well alongside the prosperity gospel that underlies much of America’s religious and political promises: We all deserve to have what we want. From Oprah’s secular exhortations that we need only discover our heart’s desire to achieve wild success, to Joel Olsteen’s promise that Jesus wants you to Live Your Best Life Now (in Seven Steps, no less!) messages of self-realization find fertile ground among those of us who grew up cheering on Disney heroes who believed in themselves.
Undoubtedly, this particularly American gospel of self-actualization has been a powerful source for good. The belief that every individual has the right to determine their own life’s course has been a key foundation to Civil Rights advances for people of color, for women and for the LGBTQ community.
But the flipside of that individualistic optimism often means condemnation of those who face obstacles that refuse to dissolve no matter what dreams they dream. In our consumer society, having what we want often translates into accumulating wealth. Rand Paul, an adherent to Ayn Rand’s full-throated gospel of self-interest, has argued that cutting off unemployment insurance to over one million people is doing them a service. By taking away outside support, his argument runs, these lost souls can get off the couch and follow their dreams. In a world where desire is the key to achieving life’s bounty, those who lose simply don’t want to win bad enough. If God wants us all to live our best lives, being poor is a sin requiring repentance.
As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, the dream of individual success needs to be questioned by all of us who don’t fit this fairy-tale narrative. As more and more Americans find themselves unable to embody this story of success, it’s time to think about other stories–alternative, queer, unusual stories that offer radically different ideas about success and happiness. We need stories that find a place for the losers, the outsiders, the queer ducks who don’t fit in. As J. Halberstam writes in The Queer Art of Failure, under “certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming and not knowing” may offer “more creative, more cooperative,” and more satisfying ways of being in the world. Queerness in this context certainly includes the possibility of same-sex desire, love and marriage, but it also wants to celebrate forms of love that cannot be easily contained in any marriage plot.
It’s in this respect that Frozen is Disney’s queerest film to date. It doesn’t just challenge the fairy-tale marriage plot; it also queers the American mantra of following individual passion to overcome all obstacles. The film tells the story of two sisters whose desires lead them astray, who both endure loss and sacrifice. Queen Elsa spends her youth isolated by a power she doesn’t know how to control, and Princess Anna spends her early years desperate to reconnect with the sister who rejects her.
Like the protagonist of virtually every popular children’s movie this generation, Anna trusts her own judgment in spite of naysayers. She just knows she can talk her sister out of this destructive cycle. She knows her sister won’t hurt her. Wrong on both counts. Her sister’s icy powers strike her through the heart, sending her into a decline that nothing short of “an act of true love” can reverse. Two hunky men—a secretly scheming prince and an outdoorsman with a heart of gold (Disney’s first male lead to be voiced by openly gay actor) are offered as possibilities, but neither of them serve. The love between a prince and a princess just isn’t going to cut it.
True love, Anna tells us, means putting someone else’s needs before your own. That she fulfills this dictate by sacrificing her own life to save her fallen sister evokes another definition of love, found in the very Bible that is cast as the antidote to queer culture. For even the most secular of viewers (like me!), there are unmistakable parallels between Anna’s story and the story of Christ’s passion: an act of self-sacrifice enacts true love, bringing redemption and rebirth for an entire kingdom. “There is no greater love,” said Jesus—that impoverished, unemployed, executed enemy of the state—than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It is only through Anna’s act of radical love—her empathy for someone who might not even deserve it—that the curse of endless winter is reversed.
Of course, the movie does provide a happy ending in which Anna gets both the love of a dreamy man and her sister. But that happy ending doesn’t come about because of belief in a dream, or through a triumph over an outside evil. Rather, the evil in this movie comes from the isolation that relentless personal improvement requires. Whether it’s the unscrupulous prince who fakes romance to gain a crown, the petty trade partner who wants to mine tragedy for profit, or the confused Elsa whose upgrade in wardrobe came at the expense of the village below, Frozen’s dangers all come from following one’s own dream without looking up to see what it might cost others.
The act of true love in Frozen is an act of sisterly solidarity, and in that respect it queers the conservative Christian message that all social good is anchored in heterosexual marriage. It also is an act of self-sacrifice that queers the capitalist message—embraced by the secular and the religious alike—that life’s greatest good comes from getting ahead.
At a moment when Christian rhetoric has become so toxic that it can seem pointless for LGBTQ allies to engage religious doctrine of any kind, Frozen’s campy, moving tale of sisterly love and radical sacrifice evokes a queer message at the center of the very Gospels used to deny and condemn unwieldy love.
As we close out 2013 with a hit princess movie that depicts love as an act of radical giving between sisters, and a Pope who renounces greed and gay-bashing, there’s hope that 2014 might be a very queer year indeed.