[This is the first in a series of three posts about Frozen. I’ve only just seen it, and as someone with a deep and abiding interest in women and their representation within fairytales, I have a lot of thoughts about it. This post discusses my gut reaction – that it’s an absolute failure of a film – and compares it with recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. The second post will look at alternate perspectives on Frozen, examining other ways that it has been read and received by women, queer people, and abuse survivors. The third post will be an exploration of Frozen as it could have been, if the valuable subtexts of the film had been brought out and explored more satisfyingly.]
So, I’ve finally watched Frozen. And… wow. I hated it. Not just because of the shoddy animation or the gaping plot-holes or the poor world-building. (Or the lyrics, with gems like “who knew we had so many plates?”, “don’t know if I’m elated or gassy”, and “the past is in the past”…) No, what really gets me is the way that despite the way it’s been touted as a progressive and/or feminist film due to the focus on a relationship between sisters, it (in my view) actually way more regressive than any other recent Disney films (and indeed several much older ones).
First off, Dani Colman has written this very detailed examination of why Frozen fails as a progressive film on every count. I really recommend reading it, as it articulates many of the reasons why I found this film deeply unsatisfying, and I’ll be building on some of her points here. (But also, it’s not a perfect article – as I’ll discuss in post #2). Colman writes:
Frozen creates the clever illusion of its own progressiveness by subtly degrading what came before it to make itself look more enlightened by comparison. In doing so, it not only treads upon a rich history of compelling heroines in much better films; it manages to get away with being good enough.
In the rest of the article, she compares Frozen‘s heroines with classic Disney princesses like Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan – demonstrating that most of these characters have far more agency and personality than either Anna or Elsa. I’m going to focus instead on how Frozen compares to more recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. This post contains spoilers for all three!
All three films deal with themes of imprisonment and freedom, the nature of love, and the importance of familial love as well as (or instead of) romantic love. Frozen had the potential to do really interesting things – and the original Andersen story, The Snow Queen, has a host of amazing female characters. Even having abandoned most of the Andersen plot, Frozen could have been brilliant – an look at what enforced separation does to sibling love, of how a difference in power can change relationships, of the ways that women are taught to be silent and still and emotionless, of what it’s like to grow up being abused by well-meaning parents. But at every point where it could have done something interesting or complex, it just… doesn’t. And it’s not enough to say that this is “just a kid’s film, so it doesn’t matter” – I’ve been picking holes in Disney since I was little, so don’t tell me that children don’t notice this stuff! Frozen seems particularly egregious having come after Brave and Tangled, both of which managed to be far more complex and emotionally realistic. (Which is not to say that I think either of these films are perfect – they definitely do have their problems, and those deserve critical engagement as well – but even with the recognition that they are flawed, I still think that Frozen doesn’t measure up even slightly.)
The thrust of my argument is this: Frozen is a failed attempt to re-create what was good about Brave and Tangled.
So – Elsa is locked in her room for most of her life, and Anna is confined to the castle for three years between her parents’ death and her sister “coming of age” so she can become queen. Let’s compare this to Tangled: Rapunzel has been locked up for her whole life as a young girl, and (like Anna) she’s conventionally feminine and a little bit clumsy – but unlike either Elsa or Anna, she has hobbies and interests. In the song “When Will My Life Begin?” we see her baking, reading, knitting, painting, playing music, doing ballet, playing games, and a whole load of other hobbies – and later we learn she’s also been charting stars! She’s smart, and curious about the world beyond the tower. We see something similar in Brave: while Merida is not locked up per se, she is subject to pressure to remain at home and behave more like a traditional princess. And there’s something else going on here: both Rapunzel and Merida actively fight against the walls within which they’re being kept. We never see any sort of resistance or agency from Anna or Elsa – the closest thing we get to seeing Elsa express any contrarian desires is when she tells her parents not to touch her because she’s afraid she’ll hurt them (and this is after several years of being conditioned to believe that she is dangerous and people should be afraid of her). And Anna – if she loves her sister so much that she’ll ride out into a blizzard to save her without even stopping to put on some warm clothes, I find it hard to believe that she’s spent several years being foiled by a closed door. Sure, we have a montage of Anna knocking forlornly at Elsa’s door as she grows up, but… seriously, she never slipped a note under that door? Never made a rope out of bedsheets and tried to swing in through Elsa’s window? For that matter, did Elsa literally never come out of that room until she came of age? Were there not even any family dinners? Did Anna never have a chance to talk to Elsa about this, or think to ask her parents what on earth had just happened and why the family was suddenly acting as though her sister was a monster? At no point do either Elsa or Anna seem to display curiosity, resourcefulness, or any desire/ability to change things – they both seem to accept their respective fates of being locked in an empty room and locked in a nearly-empty castle with nothing but sadness and resignation. The only way I can make sense of this is if they’re both already seriously hurt and traumatised – which leads me to the next point…
Anna and Elsa’s family situation is highly disturbing, and this is never expressly marked as abusive. Again, let’s break out the Tangled comparison: Mother Gothel keeps Rapunzel in that tower all her life because she wants to exploit the magic properties of Rapunzel’s hair. When we first meet her, Rapunzel has to an extent internalised the idea that she needs to stay in the tower to stay safe, saying “I like it in here, and so do you! Come on, Pascale, it’s not so bad in there”. When we see her interactions with Mother Gothel both in conversation and in the villain song “Mother Knows Best”, it becomes clear why: because Mother Gothel has been systematically undermining Rapunzel’s confidence in herself. It’s a pretty chilling depiction of emotional abuse, and I am SO GLAD it exists in a popular children’s film, because it’s expressly modelling what abuse can look like – and might, perhaps, help kids better recognise abuse if it happens to them. And then let’s think about the mother/daughter relationship in Brave – in which Elinor’s desire to keep Merida indoors and marry her off stems from a sense of duty and political necessity rather than from selfish or cruel reasons. Elinor begins as a domestic antagonist, but the heart of the movie is about how these two very different women with different priorities come to understand each other, and negotiate a compromise between duty and freedom. It’s fantastic and it made me cry.
Now let’s look at what happens in Frozen. Elsa accidentally hurts Anna when they’re playing – and since it’s a magic wound, instead of going to whatever Arendelle’s equivalent of A&E is, they ride off to find the trolls (who seem to actually understand magic). What happens next is creepy on so many levels. The lead troll does some magic memory-altering on Anna, without getting meaningful consent from her parents – he just does it. He tells Elsa that fear will be her enemy, and then the proceeds to scare the bejeezus out of her with a prophetic light show. And then he tells Elsa that she will need learn to control her powers! Here’s the basic reaction I’d expect from sensible and loving parents:
“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! Perhaps you could recommend us a magic-user who could teach her how to do this? Like a wizard tutor, or something? Maybe she could stay with you, since you’re clearly a pretty short ride away from our palace, and you seem to know how this magic stuff works? How about some of you come stay in the palace for a bit and keep an eye on her, show her how to control this stuff? Or we could just bring her down for some supervised lessons once a week? Either way, since this girl is the future queen and all, we definitely want to make sure she grows up healthy and stable and in control of her magic – and I mean, just from a practical point of view, having an awesome sorceress queen would probably do wonders in terms of discouraging people from invading our kingdom. Also, thanks for altering our other daughter’s memories to remove the ice-magic stuck in her head – it wasn’t great that you didn’t check with us first, but if that was the only way to save her life, then I trust your magical/medical opinion! But just so you know, once she’s a bit older we’re going to sit her and Elsa down and explain about all of this: because even if Anna didn’t get a say in this happening to her, she has a right to know her history, and we respect her autonomy as a human being.”
But instead we get:
“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! I guess what we should do is lock her in an empty room for the rest of her life, keep her as isolated from human contact as possible, actively teach her to fear her powers, and get her to internalise the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ every time her ~emotions~ get out of hand! It’s not like she needs love or intellectual stimulation or compassion or guidance or anything. And as for Anna, well, we’ll just send away pretty much all the palace staff and leave her to wander aimlessly around the castle with no friends, and never explain to her what’s happened, so she grows up feeling that her sister suddenly came to hate her for no reason. That’ll work, right? What could possibly go wrong?”
They lock their daughter up, teach her to repress her powers rather than control them, never ever explain to Anna what on earth is going on, and generally behave in a way that suggests they have no respect for the basic humanity of their children. So far, so fairytale – bad and/or absent parents are a mainstay of the genre. But the thing is, the horrifying way they treat their daughters is never ever coded as abusive. This is a massive step back from Tangled‘s emotionally realistic portrayal of parent/child abuse, or Brave‘s complex exploration of a difficult but basically loving parent/child relationship.
The problems with Frozen‘s portrayal of family don’t end there: while I know that it’s not exactly unheard-of for Disney movies to require suspension of disbelief, when watching Frozen I found it impossible not to poke the cardboard walls. Why? Because the entire plot hinges on a family structure (and for that matter, a governmental structure) that makes no sense. This isn’t as dire a problem as the two I discuss above – independent-heroine-by-numbers and abject failure to acknowledge that the family is abusive as hell – but I think it bears thinking about in the context of a film that has been lauded for elevating ‘true love’ between siblings to the position normally occupied by romantic love. When the king and queen die, what on earth happens to the kingdom? Who is running it? It can’t be that everything just shuts down, because the Duke of Weselton talks about Arendelle as a trading partner. I’d expect there to be someone – an aunt, an uncle, a distant cousin – who is taking the reins until Elsa comes of age and is allowed to be queen. But if there is, we don’t see them. Ever. And it seems pretty likely that there aren’t any, since when Anna runs off after Elsa, she is somehow able to make Hans the temporary regent of her kingdom – and another noble tells him “if anything happens to the princess, you are all Arendelle has left”. (And later, he is seemingly able to convincingly claim the throne on the basis of his verbal account that he and Anna said their marriage vows just before she died in his arms. What?) Furthermore – in all those three years, who was still keeping Anna locked indoors? I can just about believe that Elsa has at this point been sufficiently traumatised that she stays locked up – although again, if Anna loves her sister so much, before the film starts she’s had three years free of parental supervision during which she could have reached out to her – but what’s stopping Anna from going out to see the world, or at least her immediate surroundings? (Also, on the subject of abusive families – Kristoff brings home a female friend, and his adoptive family’s response is to sing a song about how gross and awful he is, but how she can fix him if she marries him? And then tries to trick them into getting married? I just… wow, no.)
I’m also really bothered by what feels like casual misogyny – I love flawed heroines, I honestly do, but I feel like there’s a running theme of women being coded as over-emotional, even hysterical, and incapable of taking command or acting sensibly. (I’ll go into this in more detail in blog post #2). There’s also the way that “being free” and “being conventionally sexy” are conflated. In “Let It Go”, the song in which Elsa finally claims her powers and expresses her individuality, she also gives herself a magical makeover and winds up looking like a classic femme fatale, with a long slinky sequinned split-to-the-thigh dress, dramatic makeup, and a new sexy wiggle in her walk. I am very much in favour of people dressing however they want, and I don’t for a moment think that expressing femininity makes someone unfeminist – but I do feel like this scene is worryingly invested in the “Madonna/Whore” dichotomy, as well as the idea that performing femininity/sexiness is inherently liberating (rather than liberation being found in having the choice to do so or not). “Elsa’s become empowered – quick, make her sexy!” For a film that is supposedly progressive, I feel it falls back on a lot of reductive and harmful tropes about women.
The final thing I wanted to talk about is how this fits in with the Disney Princess marketing machine. To quote Colman again:
Throwing the doors open to women with a new generation of intelligent, capable female characters who are not defined by whom they fall in love with is a smart move, and Disney knows it. That’s why Disney has been beating the “More Feminism” drum for years now: not because they believe it, but because the children of millenials are being brought up in homes that champion intelligent, outspoken women, and that’s where the ticket sales are coming from. But Disney has, and has always had, a fine line to tread between breaking new ground, and maintaining the comfort of tradition, or it risks losing the millions in ticket sales and merchandise that comes from the old vanguard.[…]
Whether you loved or hated Frozen, it should be impossible to deny that it is preceded by a rich history of animated films that champion bravery, intelligence, strength and agency in their heroines far more effectively than it does. Yet denying it we are, in droves, and sometime since Frozen’s release the praise heaped upon it reached such a critical mass that it somehow has made us forget that Belle left both home and the Beast’s castle to save her father’s life; that Mulan risked death on the battlefield and execution for treason to protect her family; that Esmeralda chose immolation rather than give herself to a man she despised; that the archetypal Prince Charming hasn’t been seen in a Disney film since The Little Mermaid; and that no Disney heroine except Anna — even Ariel — has begun her story with love as her goal since 1959.
I think this hits the nail on the head: in order for each new Disney princess film to be seen a step forward in terms of awesome heroines, without actually doing something new or revolutionary, it needs to put down the films that came before it. I absolutely don’t think that Disney’s oeuvre is a shining example of feminism, and beyond the lens of gender there are swathes of problems as regards racial stereotyping, investment in the beauty myth, heteronormativity, and so on. This is the two-pronged power of the Disney Princesses merchandising machine: with one hand they flatten out every previous princess into a hyperfeminine, glitter-covered version, appearance-focused iteration of the original character; with the other hand, they sell their newest creation as the most daring, the most independent, the most ground-breaking yet. Seriously, look at this picture – to take the two most obvious examples, Mulan spends most of the film wearing armour and passing as a boy, yet in Disney Princesses merchandise she’s wearing an even fussier version the type of clothes she hates so much that there’s a song about it; Rapunzel ends the film with short brown hair but is depicted all through the Disney branding with her flowing golden locks… There was some backlash a while ago when a prettied-up version of Merida was added to the ensemble, but again, while Merida was definitely an important step forward in many ways, the objection to the Merida redesign again served to elide all the ways that so many of her predecessors – Mulan, Belle, Tiana, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas… – were themselves “girlified” by the Disney Princesses branding.
And so – Frozen has been sold as, and received as, something new. Is it more feminist just because there are two princesses instead of one – even though neither of them seem to have personalities or interests or consistent psychologies? Is it queerer than usual because the central story is a love story between two women – even though they’re sisters, with a sketched-in relationship that seems based on their both liking snowmen and chocolate? Does it skewer the love-at-first sight trope by undercutting the relationship between Anna and Hans – even though it then goes on to have Anna and Kristoff fall for each other in a similarly short space of time? Well… no. I really don’t think it does. (And again, other Disney films do it better – Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog both do far more interesting things with the idea of what constitutes a princess; Tangled has a lot to say in terms of challenging traditional gender roles (particularly in how it undercuts traditional ideas of masculinity); if you want characters falling in love that isn’t “at first sight” then what about Beauty and the Beast?) I think that what is happening here is something rather more cynical: that, having seen the success of Brave and Tangled, the two most recent princess movies with resourceful heroines and fresh (or at least, more nuanced) perspectives on love and family, Frozen is an attempt to recreate that success without doing any of the emotional or intellectual work required to create a groundbreaking film (or even just a compelling film). Frozen is Tangled-by-numbers, a shallow and formulaic attempt to cash in on the current enthusiasm for more ‘independent’ heroines.
But wait – there’s more! In the course of writing this blog, I also asked my Facebook friends: if you like Frozen, tell me why? The ensuing discussion was really interesting and I now feel like I understand more about why this film was so well-received by lots of my feminist and queer friends, people whose opinions I respect. However, as this blog post is already well over 3000 words, I’m going to leave this one here – stay tuned for another post soon, which will discuss Frozen in terms of queerness, survivorhood, and the value in having fallible protagonists! (And because I’m a ridiculous human being who apparently has a lot of feelings about women in fairy tales (who knew?), there is also a third post on the way, in which I explore how Frozen could have been a far better movie by bringing out the more interesting things buried in the subtext.)