Do you remember the first time you cried watching a movie? Do you remember how old you were? 16? 14? 11?
My daughter was four. The movie was Frozen.
Frozen is not just a movie. It’s a phenomenon. Released in 2013, it is still the go-to movie for little kids everywhere. They love Elsa’s ice blue gown and flowing blond hair. They love Anna’s spunk as she searches across snowy mountains for her sister. They love Olaf, the sweet, if somewhat dim, snowman. And we’ve all heard that song more times than we can count.
Kids around the world have seen this movie over and over. It’s the highest grossing animated film of all time, with well over a billion dollars in worldwide revenue. It’s the all-time best-selling Blu-ray Disc in the United States. Little girls near and far know and love this movie, and when my daughter was four, I decided she was old enough to enjoy the movie (and probably old enough to sit through [most of] it). She was already familiar the characters and the songs, but she didn’t know the story. So we sat down together one day to enjoy the magic of Disney.
But just a few minutes into the movie, I saw her face contort into a look of utter sadness. In one of the early scenes, Elsa, with her cryokinetic powers, accidentally clocks her little sister Anna in the head with a snowball. Anna is rendered unconscious, and my little girl couldn’t take it. Her eyes welled up with tears, and she looked up at me and said “Mummy, I don’t want to watch anymore.”
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I imagined all the ways she would be like me, and all the ways I hoped she would be different. I wanted her to have way more grit than me, to be bold and strong, brave and kind. I wanted her to do what she loves without worrying about the desires and expectations of others. I wanted for her to be smart and sassy and gentle and tender all at the same time.
And while I wished desperately for her to be doggedly persistent in her pursuits and to not be an asshole, I never considered one particular part of my own personality that she could possibly inherit. That this part of me would become a part of her, coursing through her veins and touching her as she interacted with the world.
I don’t mean only feeling sadness or empathy for other people who are in a difficult situation. I mean the kind of sensitivity that makes you cry at things that others may simply frown at. The kind of sensitivity that leaves you sobbing when you read the news. The kind of sensitivity that leaves you breathless when you think about climate change, refugees, and the fact that we still need groups like Black Lives Matter in the world. The kind that leaves you fighting with your family members over the fact that the first people who lived on the soil now called Canada don’t have clean drinking water.
The kind of sensitivity that renders you unable to continue watching Frozen after Anna gets hit in the head with a snowball.
I tried to explain to my sensitive little one that Anna would be okay, and the movie would go on, and everyone would be fine. I promised her that happy things were coming, and did she just want to try to watch a little more? But she wasn’t having any of it. I put it aside, and thought we could try again when she was older.
And that day came a few weeks ago. We were on a long flight that was further delayed by two hours – it seemed like the perfect time to try watching a movie again. She’s five years old. She’s smarter and wiser, and she knew what was coming, so I thought she’d be fine with Frozen this time.
I put her purple cat-ear headphones over her head, plugged them into her iPad, and put Frozen on for her to try again. I wasn’t watching the movie with her, but I kept a close eye on her to see how she would respond.
Amira made it through the snowball incident (a frown, no tears), but I was watching her soon after, during the scene when Anna and Elsa’s parent’s ship is lost at sea. The corners of Amira’s mouth turned down and her chin began to quiver.
“Amira, do you want to pause it?”
I took her iPad from her hands and pulled her purple headphones off. She put her head down in my lap and immediately started to cry. And not just cry a little, but cry like it was her own parents who had gone down on that cartoon boat. I tried to talk to her about it – to tell her that everything works out fine in the end, and that even though it was sad in that one part, the whole movie wasn’t like that. I told her that sad things happen sometimes, but good things happen too. I don’t even know if she heard me. She was so beside herself she couldn’t speak. When she finally calmed down, she wouldn’t talk about it. She decided to colour instead, and didn’t touch her iPad for the rest of the flight.
I got that in this way too, she is like me. I can see how she feels, because it’s like looking in a mirror. Seeing people hurt breaks her, because it feels so raw and real in her own heart. I know why she doesn’t want to talk about it, because how do you describe what it feels like when your heart is breaking for someone else, somewhere else? What is there to say when you see something happening that tears you up, but you can’t do anything about it?
As she gets older, I want her to know that there is more she can do than simply cry in my lap when she sees something that hurts her. I want her to understand that feeling hurt for others is her own heart’s call to action. That when something hurts her, that hurt is her heart’s way of saying “Do something!” She can’t change a movie, but that emotion is real. And she can use it to help others. She may still feel sad, but responding to her heart’s call will always feel right, even if her actions don’t have the immediate effect she wishes they would. I hope she can understand that, and use it in a way that will allow her to serve the world instead of hiding from the hurt in it.
I’m not forcing her into talking about it right now. To me, she is still so small. I know in her own time, she will learn to express her sadness, empathy and grief in her own way, and I will guide her as much as I can for her to use her emotions as a springboard for action. But for now, I’ll keep giving her my lap to cry on, and remind her that she’s not alone.
And no more watching Frozen.