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.
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.