by: Kieran O’Neil
When I finally sat down to watch Disney’s Frozen with my friends, I was probably a little too excited. I was already in love with Olaf from seeing multiple trailers (here’s looking at you, “little baby unicorn” clip) and had already (admittedly) listened to “Let It Go”enough times to have the song completely memorized. And after hearing nonstop chatter on social media and through the college gossip grapevine about the movie’s “strong feminist overtones” – particularly its radical endorsement of female independence and obliteration of the traditional Disney female archetype – I was stoked. I thought this would be the one to finally flesh out the themes of female power and self-reliance that previous movies had begun to toy with in the construction of their own woman protagonists (Merida from Pixar’s Brave, Rapunzel from Tangled). And high time, too; why we don’t already enjoy animated movies propagating such sentiments to young audiences is simply beyond me.
But as the movie progressed, delighting the eye with its fantastical cryogenic graphics and hodgepodge of adorable characters, I nonetheless began to feel increasingly perturbed. There were two lead female characters, yes – but where was this sense of liberated agency, this blatant female autonomy that had supposedly thrust Frozen into the national feminist limelight, garnered so much social media attention, and even caused uproar amidst the conservative far right in American politics for “promoting a gay agenda”? My uncertainty began with two of Anna’s songs at the outset of the movie, “For the First Time in Forever” and “Love is an Open Door” – in which she explicitly, repeatedly, and almost desperately expresses her wish to find romantic love – and intensified in scenes depicting her pathetic foray into the wilderness, Elsa’s apparent inability to control and implement her power in a constructive way, and the jazzy troll number. As a girl raised on the sword-wielding, Hun-slaying tenets of Mulan, I was not so impressed.
Besides Frozen’s obvious conformation to the traditional anatomically-defying Barbiesque figure – Elsa and Anna are both doe-eyed, impossibly skinny, and parade around in body-clinging floor-length gowns the entire movie – there are serious problems in calling them strong female protagonists. For one, neither is particular strong.
Anna is clumsy, self-absorbed, has the common sense of a snail, and shows absolutely no agency beyond finding “the one”, at least to begin. The two aforementioned songs occur at the beginning of the show and as such are supposed to establish the character’s agency, and they do: Anna makes it very clear that 1) she wants to find romantic love and 2) perceives this as the singular means of attaining a happy life. While her mission does become one of reuniting with her sister and resurrecting the prosperity of the kingdom, strong elements of romantic love saturate this journey through her interaction with Kristoff (originally a female character, might I add – see the “Inspiration” section of Disney’s character Wiki, right below Kristoff’s feet) and her long-term goal of marrying Hans. She is also completely helpless without the presence of a male companion: she literally spends the entire movie being carried around by Kristoff and sees her marriage to Hans as her inevitable future – she simply cannot function as an independent force because she does not perceive herself as such. She is also a truly disappointing model of feminine strength and independence: she displays zero common sense or awareness of her surroundings, wandering into the winter wilderness without a coat or any preparation for her own survival; she is impulsive and lacks forethought, leaving her kingdom in control of a man she literally just met; she lays too much on emotion, believing her sister will simply listen to her even though their relationship is essentially nonexistent; and she’s downright clumsy, displaying a sad lack of awareness for her own limitations. I distinctly remember scoffing during the pathetic rock-climbing scene – as a rock climber myself, I thought it a sad image of the “strong and capable female”.
While her clumsiness is supposed to endear her to the audience, I can only guess trying to appeal to the idea of the “less-than-perfect” girl, I found it a shoddy attempt to realize her. As a character with so few other admirable or strong traits, this only dilutes and weakens what little autonomy she has left. And if her honesty and candor is supposed to be one of these traits, that too flies out the window – rather than freshly relatable and “approachable”, she came across as flighty and tactless.
And then there’s Elsa. From a feminist standpoint, she’s rather problematic. I will admit that she demonstrates a sort of independence when she fully accepts and optimizes her power – albeit it’s a power that also alienates, destabilizes, and represses her. I find it interesting that the only fully-empowered (I mean, literally emPOWERed) female figure in the entire movie is also dangerous, self-destructive, and inhibited by this same power. Are we really so frightened by the concept of the empowered feminine that we are unable to even entertain the possibility of a rational and constructive woman who also exhibits great power and authority? Why must they negate each other? Elsa’s power is also dictated by her emotional state; therefore, her inability to control and implement this power in a constructive way indicates a greater break in her emotional reality – in effect, she succumbs utterly to her “feminine hysteria.” She also displays little agency throughout the film, constantly running away from her fears and problems rather than confronting them. Like Anna, she too is impulsive and has little recognition of the consequences of her actions (most notably evidenced by the fact that she sends a homicidal snowman after her own sister). And she obviously does not care about familial obligation or her responsibilities as QUEEN of a nation because she flees at the first hint of trouble, leaving the castle in the hands of her people and her ditzy sister. And unfortunately, in spite of all this, Elsa has become a feminist figurehead – a title mostly due to the fact that she does not end up with a male interest at the end of the movie. While this is refreshing for a Disney princess, “not ending up with a man” is a sad standard for the strong, autonomous female figure, and a serious step down from Mulan’s “killing the Hun-leader and bringing honor to her family and all of China”. Indeed, perhaps it would have been even more of a feminist film if Elsa HAD ended up with a man – a man with much less power and authority than herself. But this would have established that it is alright for a woman to exert dominant power, and that’s just too radical and complex a concept for Disney to handle. Instead, they gave her all the power in the world and then isolated her as her own entity, incapable of fitting into any sort of romantic love dynamic. Woo Disney feminism.
My skepticism culminated during the jazzy troll scene, which not only seemed out of place in the plot sequence (from what I could tell, it merely presented the opportunity for another catchy tune), but completely reverted the point of the entire goddam show. One of the main messages of the movie seems to be that familial love is perhaps more powerful and more enduring and ultimately more “true” than romantic love. So whyyy in the world is there a 3:06 minute-long NON-SATIRICAL song dedicated to romantic love that completely contradicts that last statement? The trolls literally shove Anna and Kristoff together, dance a little jig, and try to pronounce them man and wife – even though they’ve only known each other for mere hours and neither of them gives willing consent. How is this any different from what we saw in the love duet between Anna and Hans? And honestly, from a feminist standpoint, that one was almost better; at least Anna had agency and indicated an active willingness to marry him. In the troll scene, Anna’s very body is manipulated into the act of marriage to the point where she loses all control over herself and her actions – a truly frightening and disturbing concept – while we the audience laugh and sing along.
This violent assertion of romantic love is also amplified by the negative connotations resounding in the trolls’ incessant refrain and the title of the song: “he’s a bit of a fixer-upper.” This advocates that romantic relationships should be founded on the idea of “fixing” the other person – quite possibly one of the worst and most destructive endorsements for romantic love you can possibly promote. Anyone who’s ever been in a romantic relationship has likely discovered that trying to “fix” the other person is so often injurious, self-destructive, and downright futile, bringing harm and guilt to both parties involved. And moreover (pro tip), it’s NOT AT ALL the other person’s job to do the fixing in the first place – the transformation must stem almost entirely from the subject, if even at all (who said anyone needs “fixing” anyways??). Which then begs the question: WHY are the trolls advocating a destructive romantic relationship that essentially enslaves Anna to Kristoff by assigning her culpability for his character (“you can fix this fixer-upper with a little bit of love”) when the whole fucking movie is supposed to be about familial love and not needing a man to live your life? In this way, the creepy trolls have an even creepier message: not only that it’s alright to marry a man you just met, but that you should. Hellooo 1950s America.
While I applaud Frozen for its attempt to break the traditional Disney princess archetype, and I do wholeheartedly support the positive messages it promotes (be yourself, don’t try to live up to others’ expectations, familial love is “truer” than romantic love), I have a difficult time joining the Elsa and Anna fanatics on the feminist bandwagon. Neither of them are strong or capable female characters, and as such simply do not deserve our wild fanfare and praise for being the feminist figureheads the media has made them out to be.
As the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but feel a nagging disappointment in what had been presented to me as a manifesto of feminine bravery, intelligence, strength, and agency, but what I found to be an illusory, lazy, and frankly subversive attempt to redefine the Disney heroine. While I tried to ignore my doubts, excusing them as a symptom of “Disneyfied” themes intended for young audiences (I thought: perhaps a serious gender commentary simply cannot occur in children’s movies), I later realized this is exactly why we should re-examine Frozen’s feminist claim. In presenting the “Disney Princess” as a social template upon which the child mind may construct preliminary concepts of gender and identity, the animated movie industry is a highly influential tool for disseminating positive and empowering ideals – and as such, it has the responsibility to do so. And this does not mean merely dressing the one-dimensional and ineffectual Disney Princess archetype in new clothing, multiplying her by two, and calling it a day. By doing this Disney is in essence saying “hey, here are two heroines who are vapid, impulsive, and ditzy, but it’s alright go ahead and use them as feminist role models because there are two of them and look no weddings!” In this way, Frozen makes itself appear more progressive and feminist than it really is; by simply converting the concept of “true love” from romantic love into sisterly love (a theme I do support, but found to be contradicted and shoddily-portrayed), it merely attempts to sidestep true reconfiguration of the Disney heroine. If Frozen is the best we can do in terms of promoting feminine autonomy and individuality, we are likewise frozen in the stratified gender ideals of the ‘50s. And considering the extent of the deception – a major blockbuster hit, recipient of two Oscars, and the most popular Disney song to come out since Elton John’s “The Circle of Life” – we have a long way to go before we truly begin to revolutionize the Disney heroine. Maybe after the next few Ice Ages we’ll finally get it.