In documenting the issues with portraying women in cinema, a key question crops up: What are we teaching today’s youth about women through entertainment? The worst offender of poor depictions of women has been Disney. The rise of the Disney Princess has transformed into a multimillion dollar industry, working under the auspices that little girls shouldn’t worry about anything other than being taken care of by a man. Thankfully, the mold is crumbling through their latest animated venture, Frozen. The story of an ice princess and her sister is a heartfelt tale of sisterhood, and (dare I say) burgeoning sexuality, wherein the handsome prince is the last person you want. In exploring Disney’s latest animated venture, it propels young girls into a new mode of thinking about feminism and what strength really means.
A quick spoiler warning considering the relative newness of the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, GO…and then come back and read this!
Since the 1930s, Walt Disney’s animated films have pointedly identified the flaws in moviemaking with depicting women. Their early princesses were fey, chaste girls waiting around for a quickly found true love to save her (helped by original fairy-tale source material Disney heavily revised, but failed to truly transform into anything of substance). During the ‘80s-90’s, false depictions of feminism cropped up, wherein a princess could be feisty, but had to face challenges involving subjugation in order to receive the love of a man who would, again, save her; the princess model cooled around the mid-90s with Disney struggling as a corporation and eventually fighting to figure out how to compete with CGI and PIXAR. When it was discovered that princesses were a lucrative commodity, young girls with tiaras came roaring back into the Disney model. 2009’s Princess and the Frog was a necessary step into diversity with the studios first (and as of now, only) African-American “princess” who illustrated hard work as a necessary mode to happiness, but it still focused on outdated methods of “true love’s kiss” and a reliance on a man to complete the chain of happiness. Tangled in 2010 gave Disney a huge hit, but it also fell back upon convention with a classic fairytale, a big-eyed, blonde haired princess and a false sense of female independence reliant on male heroism. It didn’t help matters that, fearing young boys wouldn’t go see the film, Rapunzel’s name was struck from the title. The generic titling continues with Frozen, which was originally dubbed “The Snow Queen” based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name.
The central difference within Frozen is in the movie’s credits: screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee. Lee has the distinction of being the only female director of a Disney full-length animated feature, as well as the second woman to fully write an animated screenplay for the studio since Linda Woolverton penned Beauty and the Beast. Really let that sink in; it’s taken all the way to 2013 for a woman to direct a full-length Disney animated feature, and the studio hasn’t given a woman screenwriting credit since 1991. It’s better than the beloved PIXAR, who have continued to perpetuate a boy’s club with their directing, especially in light of the horrific treatment of Brave director Brenda Chapman. To clarify, talent should always come first, but differing perspectives MUST be present at all stages of film production to get a fully balanced narrative. If women are shut out of the directing and screenwriting process, an unbalanced film heavily steeped in male created themes happens. One cannot create something new if the same elements continue to churn out what’s worked.
Lee’s script is fresh and witty while breaking down, and acknowledging, how far we’ve come as a society. Take for instance the relationship between Princess Ana (Kristen Bell) and Prince Hans (Santino Fontana). The two meet cute and quickly propose marraige, as one does in a Disney movie. However, Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), Ana’s sister, immediately asks how the two can be in love after only knowing each other for a day; a question reiterated by ice-seller, Kristof (Jonathan Groff). Ana isn’t stupid, despite her perceived love for Hans; she just believes in the idea that loving Hans will bring her freedom away from the isolation of her kingdom. When Hans is revealed as the film’s villain, who’s simply using Ana for her title and to gain access to the throne through murdering Elsa, the audience questions the power dynamics at work through the other royal marriages of Disney movies. In past features, the prince has always been the one with the keys to the kingdom. The exceptions include Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Princess Jasmine of Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Rapunzel of Tangled, and several of those tales involve the male being elevated from poverty through marrying the royal lady and thus becoming the one with all the power. Hans is no better than Aladdin or John Smith who may love their significant princesses, but will benefit far more through being male royalty.
The royalty angle is important with Frozen because there’s no reliance on beauty. Elsa and Ana care about the citizens of Arendelle, and it’s implied the job of running a kingdom is just that. When Elsa flees due to her uncontrollable abilities, Ana is given the power to delegate how the kingdom is run. She puts Hans in charge, and despite him being the villain he does carry out her orders. Too often with Disney, being a princess is the end result and thus the mark of happiness for the female character. Tiana isn’t royalty in The Princess and the Frog, but she’s been inducted into the all-white princess brigade through marrying Prince Naveen and thus her dream of a restaurant is irrelevant through Disney marketing. (Disney’s removal of personality traits in marketing also hobbled PIXAR’s Brave, wherein Merida was placed in the oppressive gown she hated in the movie.) By story’s end, both Ana and Elsa decide to rule over their kingdom together, and Elsa does it on her own; no husband for this queen!
The lack of a king for Elsa extends out to all the relationships in this movie. The movie reiterates love is organic and can’t be found in just a day, regardless of Disney’s past reliance on love at first sight. Even then, there’s no marriage at the end for either of the women. Ana and Kristof do fall in love, but it’s never a moment of revelation; loveable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) flippantly reveals to Ana that Kristof loves her, and while Kristof’s coming to her rescue she ends up rescuing herself. The two share a kiss at the end but there’s no rush, or need, to wed the two. There’s contentment in them finding each other. It’s a sharp divergence from the ending of Tangled, which followed the organic romance angle, but had to remind audiences the movie couldn’t end without the two being married. And one cannot ignore Elsa being allowed to rule on her own. Too often in Disney films, single female rulers are villainous – the Evil Queen of Snow White, Susan Sarandon in Enchanted, Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty. Elsa isn’t evil in the slightest and she’s able to competently rule her kingdom after realizing the need for her family.
Sisterhood is what Frozen is about, and as seen with all studios relationships between female characters are generally negative. Female villains vs. female heroines are a tale as old as time (pun sort of intended) with Disney. Frozen reiterates the importance of family and the special bond between sisters. Ana and Elsa care for each other so deeply, but can’t find a way to express it. Elsa retreats into her room, hell-bent on controlling her powers so she’ll never hurt Ana, whereas Ana is willing to sacrifice herself to save Elsa’s life. It’s makes for a rather ingenious twist to have the act of true love, the one act which will save Ana’s life, be the element which bonds the sisters to each other; an act of true love isn’t gender specific nor is it based on romantic love at all.
Frozen also vaguely alludes to burgeoning female sexuality. All Disney movies feature a light discussion of female sexuality, particularly considering the females of their movies are on liminal thresholds between adolescence and adulthood; Ariel was only sixteen when she got legs and gave up her family for a man, remember? Frozen is more overt with this symbolism, particularly through Elsa’s character. Once Elsa has matures into a woman, she is prim and proper; her hair is in a bun and she’s covered from head to toe, not just because of her powers but also due to her repressed fear of being “out of control.” This fear isn’t just because of her uncontrollable abilities, but also her uncontrollable femininity which must be kept in check for fear of losing her kingdom. Keep in mind, there’s still hostility in our own government that a woman cannot be president due to our “unstable” emotions and hormones, generally resulting in jokes about women’s periods. When Elsa flees the kingdom and builds her ice castle, culminating in her triumphant song “Let It Go,” she sheds her inhibitions and finally allows herself to lose control. “Let It Go” is a song about release and Elsa accepting who she is. Take note, she lets her hair out of the bun, letting it hang free, and transforms into a form fitting dress complete with leg slit. Elsa embraces everything about being female, especially her sexuality. Her uncontrollable ice powers hearken back to archaic beliefs of female frigidity, and Elsa isn’t frigid, but the men who set out to prevent her from taking the throne can’t understand her powers, either repressed or let loose and become frigid to change.
The movie isn’t perfect; the animation for Ana and Elsa is far too similar to Rapunzel of Tangled (big doe eyes and a bobble head), unmistakeable in light of dumb comments from the film’s head animator, Lino DiSalvo that women’s faces are too complex to animate due to their “range of emotions.” Chauvinism isn’t dead at Disney, and the fact that most animators are male continues the trend of female characters continuing to be animated in a simplistic manner. However, the movie makes huge strides in embracing the changing face of females. Jennifer Lee’s script understands women aren’t buying the outdated Disney models they’ve seen for decades. Quotes from Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell continue to push the fact that Frozen is something new and an inspiring tale for young girls. Hopefully, Disney keeps Lee around and allows her to be a voice for females in animation. As it stands now, Frozen is a bold and heartfelt story about women for the whole family to enjoy. If I had little girls, this is the movie I’d require them to see, and I implore you to see it, too!