Is Frozen Really A Feminist Film?

Frozen has been released to near-universal critical acclaim praising it as a long-awaited return to greatness for the Burbank studio of the Disney Company. Some reviews and analyses have touched on the film’s greater themes of feminism in light of the twin female protagonists and a dearth of traditional, patriarchal themes. While that may be true, there are other aspects that potentially undermine the Frozen feminist claim.

Spoiler Warning: Needless to say, this post contains a discussion of the entire film and thus, will spoil the story. If you’re looking for my thoughts on the film overall, you can read my review for Animation Scoop.


The Case For a Feminist Frozen

Female protagonists have been prominent in Disney features since the very beginning and have long been a trademark of Disney storytelling. The most common complaint is that they always embodied stereotypical views of women and while the story was centred on them, it rarely placed them in a position of real control over it. Case in point are so-called princess stories, where a beautiful princess either needs to be rescued or is searching for prince charming.

Tangled was maligned for this when it came out as it featured a spunky heroine who’s goal of escaping from her tower was contrived over the course of the film to a love story with the dashing Flynn Ryder.

Frozen is immediately noteworthy for featuring not one, but two female characters as the focus of the story. It also deserves credit for exploring their relationship with each other rather than with someone else. The story itself delves into many areas of that relationship as we see Elsa secluding herself from her sister Anna, and the struggles that the latter has in dealing with that.

As the film progresses, we see that it is the love between the sisters that drives the story, and ultimately, it is Elsa’s love for her sister that saves her from death. Love in the romantic sense is refreshingly absent, or at least muted for much of the story. The twist is that true love comes in many forms and does not necessarily need to be romantic.

In terms of the characters, Elsa and Anna exemplify strong female characters from the standpoint that they make their own decisions once the story ball gets rolling. Elsa strikes out on her own once her powers are discovered, and the song Let It Go serves to underline her new-found independence from societal influence and pressure.

Anna on the other hand. while apparently very ready for marriage at the beginning of the film, gradually matures over the course of the story as she attempts to reach her sister. While she learns less about herself than Elsa does, she does gain an understanding of others thanks to Hans’ deception.

The Case Against A Feminist Frozen

So the case for clearly relies upon the characters and their relationship, but what about the case against? Unfortunately this side of the argument is no nearly so cut and dried.

Let’s start with the princess aspect. Yes, this is yet again a Disney princess film and while it’s easy to laud the empowering position that puts female characters in, it’s important to also remember that they are placed there to begin with. They are granted power rather than having to earn it like everyone else. Such a message cannot be ignored.

As strong a character as Anna is, she finds a prospective husband within the first 15 minutes of the film. Furthermore, it is heavily implied that she has romantic feelings for Kristoff. Romance may not be the focus of the film but it remains a key component of the story.

Moving into more complex territory, the character design fails to support the fact that both characters are independent. Despite being sisters, they share the same overall look, that, despite statements to the contrary when originally leaked, are lifted wholesale from Tangled. To top it off, we haven’t even discussed the actual design itself. Anna Smith at the Guardian did however, and she had this to say:

The snag is, both Elsa and Anna have the kind of proportions that would make Barbie look chunky: tiny nipped-in waists, no hips, long legs, skinny arms, pert breasts, small feet and eyes three times the size of the male characters’.

What Smith didn’t mention, was that Elsa also undergoes a transformation during the Let It Go sequence that sees her change from a formal princess to a lively individualist. However, in shedding her over-garments, we see her wearing high heels and a dress that has a bit of a habit of revealing her leg. In other words, Elsa’s transformation, while empowering, also takes the sexual temperature of the character up a few notches. Feminist goals include empowerment but using sex as a way to get there is not.

Elsa 'before' Via" Geek Mom
Elsa ‘before’
Via” Geek Mom
Elsa 'after' Via: The Rotoscopers
Elsa ‘after’
Via: The Rotoscopers

Do the cons overpower the pros? In my opinion they do, simply because they occur on a more fundamental level. Creating strong characters and giving them a decent story is relatively easy. Heck making them look normal is easy too. However, it’s on the deeper levels that Frozen fails as a feminist film. It maintains the illusion of princesshood, uses romance as a crutch (even though it isn’t the focus), and treats is heroic female protagonists as blatant pawns on the chessboard of commercial filmmaking. Ultimately, there isn’t much of a positive, feminist message to take away because deciphering the true feminist messages from the ones created by the corporation is too difficult.

Lastly, shouldn’t a truly feminist movie evoke such goals off-screen as well as on? Frozen is very much a by-the-numbers film across the board, and the merchandising is no different. While characters do inhabit a story, outside, they are subject to the whims of the marketing department. Right now, that means Elsa and Anna are getting the full-on Disney Princess treatment and all that entails both good and bad. Just another thing to consider.

14 thoughts on “Is Frozen Really A Feminist Film?”

  1. I think there are some interesting cons and pros you might not have considered.

    On the cons side, you have the fourth movie in a row that gives us another white princess, and this time not one but two simultaneous white girls who’ll push the few princesses of color even more into the background. Poc also appear as faces in the crowd scenes but don’t have any lines or move the plot.

    And then there’s the fact the animators in the film had or felt they had to keep the girls pretty at all times regardless of their emotional state, which is some serious bullshit right there.

    On the pros, many fans are reading a queer struggle in elsa’s story, you can see the details for that here:

    1. I did consider the racial makeup of the film, but decided to leave it out. While Frozen is obviously very homogeneous when it comes to the racial origins of its characters, I couldn’t see how that fact coincided with the feminist topic of the post. Naturally, it would be nice if the film included a variety of female characters, but since it really only has two, and sisters at that, I felt it wasn’t enough to warrant inclusion in the post.

      The infamous quote was another thing I thought about discussing, but decided to leave that out too because it’s already been discussed plenty already. But yes, the opinion that female characters must look ‘pretty’ at all times is absolutely something that should have been addressed better by all involved and puts something of a black mark on how the female characters are portrayed.

      I read a different post on the same topic (although that one was quite good too), but couldn’t (personally) come to the same conclusion. Elsa may embody the notion, but does so in a far too general and ambiguous manner to form a firm conclusion.

      1. Well, it’s like the saying goes: my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Regardless of how well done the white female stars are, that does nothing for the representation of girls of color. We can’t have a feminism that only stands up for the girls that are already the most privileged among them.

        Indeed the thing with elsa is just a reading, a headcanon, we definitely are still waiting for our queer princess, feministdisney.tumblr assumes another forty years until that one happens though. :/

        1. I have to agree with Ana here, intersectionality is an important part of feminism that a great many of us simply cannot leave out at whim. It seems strange to discuss gender roles and body image in Frozen but stop at race. Seems weird as well since including race would have supported your argument!

          For my part, I consider Frozen as a feminist animated feature a step in the right direction, but Disney still has a way to go, and race and sexuality HAVE to be included in the discussion. It is simply not a case of “this but not that.” You should check out the Feminist Disney Tumblr!

          1. I think there’s more feminism behind the film than in it per se, isn’t it the first disney movie to be directed by a woman?

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  3. I would just like to point out that:
    1) Elsa is a Queen not a princess, something that I haven’t seen mentioned here. In fact unless I am forgetting someone she is the first unequivocally good Queen in a Disney movie who does more than die. A female character with power (both political and magical) who isn’t a villain. I would chalk that up as a point in the pro feminism column.

    2) Anna finding a prospective husband is a setup for the ultimate subversion of the “love at first sight” trope. Also just because a story includes an element of romance doesn’t, in my eyes, make it less feminist. Especially if many of Disney’s backwards romantic tropes aren’t included.

    3) While using a more “sexed up” costume to show that Elsa is freeing herself from her long-term oppression could be considered troubling, I don’t think it is inherently wrong. Elsa isn’t changing her outfit to impress anybody, the song is all about how she is going to isolate herself from society (a sentiment that the movie ultimately shows is a little misguided). Elsa’s costume change isn’t meant for anybody but herself.

    4) Yeah Disney needs more Princesses of Color, then again there are actually 4 of them already. Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan & Tiana. True 4/12 (13 only if you count Elsa who, as mentioned above, is in fact a queen) in’t a very impressive number. But I would say that 1/3 isn’t truly abysmal, especially seeing as since the Disney Renaissance (starting with Little Mermaid 1989) the number is 4/9. I also remember hearing somewhere that the next Disney Princess movie is going to be based on a Pacific Islander folktale, so we will probably see PoC in that.

    5) Is being a princess inherently bad? I don’t think so, there are plenty of great stories about kings, queens, princes, princesses & nobility of all stripes. Just because these stories are about people who are advantaged doesn’t make them inherently bad.

    1. 4) 4 of them already makes it look like it’s a good number, but it really isn’t. Especially because people make an innocent mistake when talking about diversity in disney. You see, equal representation is not “50% white, 50% non-white”, white is as much a specific race as black or native american. See this chart: By starting the discussion with “white vs non-white”, we’re actually thinking equality is when “white” gets the space of five races.

      It’s not 4/12 then, but 1 native american against 12 white, 1 black against 12 white, 1 chinese against 12 white, 1 middle eastern against 12 white. Then we need to add how these movies were somewhat problematic in terms of race, Aladdin made the good guys look more weastern and the bad guys more stereotypical, Pocahontas continued to perpetuate the lies Smith made about her and went with the “no side was worse than the other, both just needed to sort it out”, Mulan’s movie was filled with things from the rest of Asia, as if disney wanted to generally represent all of it in one movie and be done with it, and finally Tiana doesn’t get to be human for more than 10% of her movie.

      5) Being a princess is a-okay. But, as an audience, we care about characters either because of what they do, or because of what they are. And disproportionately girls are made important to the audience for what they are, their importance comes from something outside of their character: a royal title, a curse… Something that is not a consequence of a choice or informs us about their personality, they’re kind of important because the story says so.

      1. 4) A good point and one that when I think about it I agree with (aside from you’re math being wrong it would be a 1 to 8 ratio). I don’t agree with some of the other things you’re saying.

        I like Tiana’s character a lot, pretty much the whole movie through,

        Aladdin himself has a very middle eastern facial structure, I know a few guys who would look something like Aladdin if drawn as cartoons. Original movie Jasmine is similarly fairly middle eastern in features (though admittedly less so). The use of stereotypes is common in Disney’s background characters it’s just that they are less offensive to our sensibilities when they are white people (all of Beauty and the Beasts Renaissance villagers for instance).

        This isn’t so say that it these shortcomings are excusable, far from it. I’m really just nitpicking. I agree with you’re premise, Disney needs to do better in their representation of PoC.

        5) A character can be liked both for what they do and who they are. Harry Potter just fell into being the chosen one, however it is what he does that interests us as readers. Luke Skywalker was born the son of Anikin and powerfull with the force, but it was his choice not to give into his rage that made him a hero.

        Similarly Anna might be a princess but it was her bravery, compassion and personal strength that drove the plot and ultimately saved Elsa, not the fact that she was born a princess.

        Elsa’s “Curse” (one of the main themes of the movie being that her powers aren’t a curse) does define her character and her choices, but that is what the story is about. Changing the way that she interacts with that facet of her identity, helping her grow beyond the fear of a core part of her being she cannot change.

        P.S. which things from Mulan were Pan-Asian, I haven’t watched that movie before and haven’t heard that claim before.

        1. 4)Tiana is very much a great character, but she was the third poc lead protagonist to be turned into an animal for much of her movie (Brother Bear, The emperor’s new groove being the other two).

          To see more easily the problem with stereotyping in alladin, you should watch the making of, they actually talk about looking at pictures of exotic women for jasmine without any self awareness.

          5)Although I agree with the gist of what you’re saying here, we grow sympathetic to Harry and Luke before we know of their fated greatness.

          P.S: I think it’s pretty evident if you watch the movie, which you should because it’s a great movie anyway. 🙂 Have fun!

          1. Good point on number 4, I hadn’t thought of that. I will also definitely re-watch Mulan now.

            5) Except we don’t really, neither character does anything particularly grand or memorable before we discover their back-story (at least Luke is outed as a potential Jedi, we don’t know about Vader yet of course). What I’m really saying is that most every story has a plot convenience to get the protagonist to the story’s starting line. Disney just happens to have built a brand using the princess trope. I still see nothing wrong with this.

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