Editor’s Note: Yalda T. Uhls, a former executive at MGM and Sony, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at UCLA, where she is also an adjunct professor. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In 2013, the animated movie “Frozen” became an international blockbuster, while the messages of the film – messages of freedom, empowerment and family – resonated with millions of children and adults alike.
When a piece of media captures the public’s imagination, it’s often because it reflects the zeitgeist and anticipates the future. An inspiring story raises awareness of possibilities, of worlds beyond the one we directly experience and of other ways of living. And, in today’s connected world, an American movie can quickly have global impact, shaping the hopes and dreams of millions beyond our borders.
Unfortunately, however, some of the themes that were celebrated in “Frozen” no longer seem to be part of the American dream. Nothing captures the sadness of this moment like one of the powerful images taken at the Tijuana border.
On Sunday, Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon took a photo of Maria Lila Meza Castro, a Honduran mother, and her two young daughters. In it, Castro is wearing a “Frozen” T-shirt, in which Elsa and Anna, two of the film’s lead characters, gaze happily into the distance. Meanwhile, Castro is running for her life, desperately holding her two young girls – while all three appear to be fleeing tear gas.
The sight is one of bitter irony. After a lengthy and unimaginable trip, these three migrants are attempting to seek asylum, as Castro wears an iconic symbol from an American movie that celebrates freedom and empowerment. But this family is part of a larger caravan of migrants – a caravan that the President of the United States has referred to as an “invasion” and made good on his promise to send troops to stop.
The poignancy of this image underlies the clash between fantasy and reality – and lands with a devastating thud. We are a long way from the America that welcomed my parents, immigrants who legally came to this country many decades ago. Sadly, the dreams realized by my family may no longer be possible with the immigration policies of the current administration.
It’s particularly unsettling because America aims to shape hearts and minds around the world. We package our dreams and sell them on global scale. But the images that the world currently sees – particularly at our southern border – are at odds with the stories we tell the world about our country.
As a former movie executive, a researcher who studies how media affect young people and the current founder of UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers, I know images and stories are extremely powerful. Studies show that stories even work on a cellular level. Through emotion and relatable characters, media can deeply resonate and encourage attitude and behavior change at a scale that is rarely realized by mere words.
Nonthreatening stories can contain messages which are smuggled in through a compelling narrative that appeals to emotion. And emotion combined with accurate information can be a powerful motivator to change social norms. At their very best, movies can inspire millions of people to be better humans.
It’s likely that many of the stories created by the talented filmmakers in Hollywood inspired those seeking a better life to leave their homes and walk thousands of miles to come to the United States. I can picture those two young girls in the powerful photograph back in their home country singing the songs in Frozen and pretending to be Elsa and Anna. Perhaps their mother dreamed of a world where her daughters could move about freely, be educated in a school system that recognizes the equality of girls and live a peaceful life.
When “Frozen” was first released, my sister’s daughter said she loved it because “Elsa is happy and free.” Indeed, isn’t that what everyone wants: to be happy and free?
Unfortunately, the mother in the picture with her two young daughters is unlikely to ever realize the dreams celebrated by the two characters beaming out from her T-shirt – at least not in 2018 America.