(or the problem with “A Politely-Worded Rebuttal”s problem with “The Problem With ‘The Problem With False Feminism’”)
I wish to explore the messy dialogue on Frozen between two writers, Danielle Colman and Lindsay Ellis. It started with Colman’s “The Problem with False Feminism,” which went viral on tumblr. [Full disclosure: I found out about "The Problem with False Feminism" through Ms. Ellis, whose work I've slowly become a fan of this past year or two.] It’s a piece that attempts to debunk arguments that Frozen is a feminist work, and it takes about 50 minutes to read. Ellis submitted a “Strongly Worded Rebuttal,” another long piece essentially debunking Colman’s arguments. Colman responded with “A Politely-Worded Response,” as her own rebuttal.
Of the three, I truly can only recommend Ellis’ work, as I believe its argumentation is superior. But Frozen doesn’t need another defender. Rather, I briefly describe the discourse between these two writers so I can talk about Colman’s “A Politely-Worded Response.” Because I take serious umbrage with “A Politely-Worded Response.”
I wasn’t planning on doing a full dissection of the piece, but her rhetoric infuriates me. There’s a fire in my belly, and it won’t be quelled until I express my criticism. To quote Frederick Engles, I “[made] up my mind to neglect other work and get my teeth into this sour apple. It was the kind of apple that, once bitten into, had to be completely devoured; and it was not only very sour, but also very large.” Let us begin.
After seven paragraphs of text summarizing her interaction with Ellis from her point of view, Colman attempts to refute claims that she used straw man arguments in her original piece. Colman mentions that the arguments she tears down were used by other writers she links to, mostly bloggers. In essence, she tries to legitimate the “straw man” arguments and, by extension, her own criticisms of them, by proving their existence in other writings. However, this does not exonerate them from being straw man arguments. Colman herself acknowledges they were “pretty weak” arguments. So my question is, why waste our time? Just because Colman refutes some incredibly flawed arguments doesn’t mean that there aren’t more valid arguments asserting Frozen is feminist. Colman’s whole article therefore is a distraction, as she appropriates weaker arguments to make her point. Colman has a history of taking words at face value, as we’ll get to later.
Next Colman asserts that she was in fact incredibly well researched in all things Frozen. She extensively lists the sources and effort she put into her work. But no amount of research will do any good if it’s poorly represented in her writing. Hence Ellis’ Strongly Worded Rebuttal.
Colman then goes on to very specific refutations:
First, and extremely briefly, I would love for someone to actually point out where in my original article I say that I think all “strong” [...] female characters have to “spring forth from the thigh [sic] of Zeus, fully formed Strong Independent Women, guns blazing and kung fu fighting!” I simply didn’t write that.
Well, yes, Colman didn’t write that sentence. It was a humorous parody of the standards many uphold for female representation. Perhaps she doesn’t get the joke? Colman goes on to claim that Ellis’ assertion concerning Strong Independent Women is itself a straw man argument. It is not, as that would mean it would be a weaker, distracting argument that does nothing to further the actual debate. On the contrary, it is integral to the debate over Frozen‘s character development.
Next Colman argues Ellis’ work is poor criticism due to a small error, later amended, about who suggests the true love’s kiss in Frozen. Colman argues that, because Frozen‘s script is free online, no one should improperly represent the film’s events, and therefore Ellis’ small factual error makes her hypocritical. This argument does not account for the limited accessibility of the text in discussion. I, for one, did not know the script was online. And because the film is not on DVD yet, getting a copy to use for detailed notation would be nearly impossible. Colman continues:
and it is important that the fact remains incorrect, because it undermines every time the author questions my facts or outright calls me wrong.
Nope. It does not. Because if you’re wrong, you are wrong. I can’t believe I’m typing this, but two wrongs do not make a right. If Frozen were a corporeal being, it would roll its eyes at Colman for accusing Ellis of misrepresenting an argument when Colman does this far more.
After this, Colman quotes from ellis again are reemphasizes her point on role models:
It feels a little odd to follow up with a one-line criticism of a one-line criticism, but bear with me. [Ellis on] the subject of Elsa’s and Anna’s suitability as role models for young girls:
“Oh, there it is. The role model thing. Are we making a movie or a PSA?”Note: followed by a gif that makes the intended tone pretty clear.
Colman quotes that one sentence that is merely the beginning of a long point Ellis makes about role models in media narratives; quoting it for critique is like basing a whole essay about Tale of Two Cities on “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Ellis has paragraphs of text explaining her point
Colman again argues that Disney Princesses should be judged as role models. Criticizing Disney isn’t new, but her stance assumes that consumers absorb these films uncritically, while ignoring the overarching moralism of Disney’s stories. Disney films, especially their fairy tales, are always structured to reward the good and punish the bad (and support the bourgeoisie, but we can get into that another time). They are not nihilistic. Colman’s analysis is focused on characters torn from the narrative logic they inhabit, never stepping back from twisting minute details to see the bigger themes of familial love.
Moving on, Colman notes that Disney antagonists never get love interests, and somehow we are supposed to judge them as lesser for it. Clearly, if Frozen has a typical storytelling convention, it’s not feminist!
Colman mentions her distaste for the summarization of her words multiple times through her response, including here:
“Does [Elsa] have to choose between love and power, or can she find a way to be feminine, in love, and powerful too?” [Colman, "The Problem with False Femenism"]
Whether or not you like the idea — and clearly I do, or I wouldn’t have written about it — the point is that I very, very deliberately used words that frame it around her choice, and the Strongly Worded Rebuttal equally as deliberately turns my words on their head to frame it around his. It’s an effective way to trivialise my argument, but it’s very poor criticism.
While Ellis does focus on how children’s animated features are not new to the “powerful woman + man” trope, rather than Elsa’s “choice,” this does not change the fact that the trope is played out in other media, and so did not need to be included in Frozen. Why, I ask, is this speculation necessary, since it bears so little weight in the conversation? Picking on the movie for not giving Elsa a love interest is criticizing a nonexistent film, not the one that exists.
Furthermore, Colman genuinely sounds like a scorned shipper with this kind of sentiment. Yes, I’d go that far. Having fan art of Elsa and Jack Frost from Rise of the Guardians in her original write-up does little to dissuade me.
Next comes Colman’s points on Elsa’s sexuality. Here, Colman adds another [sic] to indicate something’s grammatically/spelled wrong, when nothing is. From Colman:
“…it was like you strut and you say nobody is looking, this is what I’m going to — I’m not going to be afraid of my sexuality. I’m not going to be afraid of who I am. I’m not going to be afraid of anything about myself.”
The quotation above is from Jennifer Lee, the writer and director of Frozen, from an in-depth interview about the process behind the story. I bring it up not to open up the debate about how sexualised or practical Elsa’s costume may or may not be, but to point out how frustrating it is to have my argument dismissed outright on the grounds of being trivial, when it is something thewriter/director addresses directly. The hypocrisy, again, is what I find so astonishing: that the author of the rebuttal is quite happy to state that I misrepresent or trivialise issues, while doing exactly the same herself.
This is where one of Colman’s biggest flaws in here writing and analysis comes forth: ALWAYS taking quotes at face values, regardless of the context they were produced in. For instance, she uses quotes from Zach Snyder to justify her interpretation of Sucker Punch as a satire of male geek mastubatory fantasies, when the actual text does not support such an assertion. (Ah yes, her new Sucker Punch review. I have the full intention of getting to that very soon). In the interview Colman cites, the word ‘sex’ and related terms are used 13 times in the interview, which is thousands of words long, meaning that sexuality was a minor topic in the podcast from which the interview derives.
Incidentally, here are more quotes from that particular interview.
John: Well, what’s fascinating is it’s a sexual outfit, but [Elsa's] not actually a sexual character.
Jennifer: No, she’s not.
John: She doesn’t even talk to a boy other than Hans for a brief second. So, it’s not that she’s trying to seduce a man. There’s no man around for her to seduce. [sic]
Jennifer: But I do think it was a moment that we weren’t hiding from the sexual aspect of it, but it wasn’t the statement, but people have seen it that way so I think we have to own that. Like saying, yeah, it was there. [...]
Jennifer: And, you know, I didn’t want to shy away from — the thing is the original material is actually a lot about sex. And it’s about the sexual awakening.
John: Because all Hans Christian Andersen stuff is about sex.
Jennifer: I know. It’s true. It’s true. And we weren’t going there. I mean, that’s not the story we were telling[...] (Emphasis Added.)
If we take the method that Colman uses, in that the author has the definitive word on how to interpret their work, then clearly Colman’s own analysis fails by her own standards. By taking quotes at face value without any kind of accompanying analysis, she justifies reading sexuality into the film, primarily as a vehicle to dismiss Elsa’s clothing (and incidentally, work in a nod to Sucker Punch‘s by claiming the film’s outfits are functionally superior). The theoretical framework of the death of the author has never been so sorely needed.
Before I tackle Colman’s ending, I must note that what’s missing from her response is any kind of refutation of many of the points Ellis makes in her own write-up. Colman does not defend her method of determining whether a film is feminist though charts (point 1) or the creadibility-destroying presentation of the “Sucker Punch outfit tangent” as a viable critique (point 5.) But Ellis already did well enough critiquing these points, so perhaps Colman realizes it was a lost cause. She attempts to defend her article by asserting the viability of the “straw man” arguments. But merely saying that other people used the argument can only do so much, and in this case it does very little.
Colman begins wrapping up her response by dismissing Ellis’ work, but then tries to give a peace offering, essentially saying that she and Ellis are both feminists and should get along. Because of Colman’s emphatic distaste for unfair summaries, I’ll play it safe and present what I find to be most relevant below. Colman ends with a call for proper discourse between two feminists:
What I find most disappointing in all this is that, on a purely ideological level, I suspect the author of the Strongly Worded Rebuttal and I are actually in complete agreement. [...] We may disagree on the details, but at the end of the day we both want the situation for women in media to improve.[...]
[Ideal dialogue means to] listen and engage in dialogue with dignity and respect. That doesn’t mean that everything written has to be in the tone of formal debate — far from it. But it does mean — or at least I think it does — that if two authors with strong ideological views on the same subject each have something to say, they have an obligation to listen to each other; to respect each other’s views; and to engage in dialogue. For one person to respond to another by saying “these are my final words on the subject; I will not engage you further”, especially when those words came from a gut reaction of anger and outrage, shows no respect for the original author; and worse: it shows no respect for that author’s ideologies. [...]
My disappointment is that two women — one of whom has considerable cachet among her many followers — could not engage in reasoned debate on a subject about which both feel strongly. I asked for a dialogue. I have had dialogue with others who disagreed with me. I doubt I have changed any minds, but the debate has been thought-provoking and, for the most part, civil. But the Strongly Worded Rebuttal is not thought-provoking, it is not civil, and it most certainly is not dialogue. And because of that, I think it damages the ideology it seeks to defend.
Friends, this “peace offering” is what made me write this lengthy article in the first place. It was indeed the final straw in Colman’s piece (which already contains way too much straw). Because, ironically, it’s Colman who writes with little dignity and respect for her fellow writer.
Colman wrote a piece, Ellis responsed with a counter piece, then Colman wrote another piece in response. Colman laments the lack of dialogue between both parties, but this is what public discourse looks like. For instance, the back and forth about Love Actually, started by Christopher Orr’s article on The Atlantic’s website, is exactly like the discourse between Colman and Ellis: article length arguments and rebuttals published on the web for all to see.
Incidentally, in the latter linked article by Orr, he asserts that GIFs are “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I disagree. GIFs are a tool that can be used for good or for ill, either genuinely capturing a mood or tone or being used as a substitute for actual criticism. Ellis’s writing is the former. I myself have used the format and found it effective when critiquing longer pieces.
Now, Colman emphasizes her dislike of Ellis’ writing style and the use of GIFs. This is unnecessary, because a writer’s stylistic preferences should be self-evident in their work. Moreover, she seems to imply that Ellis’ writing is the inferior form of expression. She repeatedly emphasizes that it is not her preference, almost like the presence of her dismissive opinion will act as another counter argument.
In the Strongly Worded Rebuttal, Ellis makes clear that she is agitated by the article. She includes a whole paragraph emphasizing that Colman is probably a good person and excludes her as the writer of the text to the point of exonerating her role in producing the article. Colman characterizes Ellis’ write-up as vitriol, when Ellis even warns her fans and readers of her rebuttal to not harass her in any way.
80 results for “article” within Ellis’ write-up
This is why Colman’s calls for feminist unity ring false, in that Colman contrives a flimsy civil/non-civil dichotomy between her and Ellis. A call for unity can also be an effort to erase, to remove differing opinions in a rallying cry for the cause, as Dianna E. Anderson notes, :
“Calls for unity tend to follow lines of power. [...] These calls also tend to flatten all criticism into one furious strain, as though all people offering criticism are simply ‘haters.’ They contain within them a sense of martyrdom, of persecution, of marginalization within a marginalized movement, despite being the one who either started the discussion…” (Emphasis Original)
And I believe that is what is happening here.
The call for unity is also a passive aggressive move that seeks to elevate the writer, implicitly claiming to be the rational person in the debate and seeking to refocus attention on to more important matters. The offer appears to be based on mutuality, when it’s anything but. By building up herself as a voice of reason, Colman implies that Ellis’ arguments are irrational. And that caricature falls into line with Colman’s description, which emphasizes rage over other emotions Elllis appeared to go through, such as sheer bafflement and frustration. Colman’s comments are exactly what Tom Scocca identifies as “smarm.”
What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.
Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?
Colman’s “A Politely-Worded Response” makes a plea to play nice. But why should we, when her entire response is an completely backhanded affair, a supposed cry for decency subtly barbed? And to wrap up all the irony and gall? Her response wasn’t categorized under in “film” or “review.”
It was listed under “Internet Etiquette.”
And to use Colman’s phrase, it is very, very poor criticism, indeed.