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A Feminist Critique of Disney's "Frozen"
Transcript of A Feminist Critique of Disney's "Frozen"
Like its Disney princess predecessors from "Tangled" and "Brave", the debut Disney film of the fall "Frozen" is another installment in the "new wave" of Disney princess stories. These new movies seem to be Disney's attempt to break out of the archetypal mold that apparently ran dry after the flop of their last "traditional" princess film "The Princess and the Frog".
Elaine Showalter's Theory
Both Anna and Elsa authentically capture the reality of the adolescent American girl. Elsa is on the brink of adulthood at her coronation, she is being thrust into a world she knows nothing about after being sheltered through her childhood. This is not unlike many eighteen year-olds transitioning to university life or straight into the working world. Elsa is also faced with similar esteem issues as the average adolescent; she is unsure of herself and feels isolated because of her differences, she hides herself and tries to conform to society.
Reflection of the Modern Adolescent
Frozen eliminates the traditional role of a dominant male ruler. Women are generally portrayed as equals starting with the independent status of Queen Elsa who is not subjected to a romantic plotline in the story. Though her younger sister may have some boy troubles, Elsa’s journey is one of self-discovery as she searches for a way to accept and control her powers and there for herself.
One of the main feminist themes in this story is sisterhood. The relationship between Anna and Elsa is a genuine reflection on the sacred bond between siblings. The timeline of the sister’s relationship from when Anna gets her memories erased and the coronation shows Anna’s determination to reconnect with her sister even after a decade of their relationship being broken. The ability for them to rekindle their friendship naturally at the ball illustrates a bond between sisters that time, distance, and ice cannot sever.
Disney sure has come a long way from the 1940’s when Snow White was introduced as the first Disney princess. In the midst of World War II women lived as homemakers whose fundamental roles were to get married young and start making babies and the prince, like a soldier returning from war, saved Snow White from the Evil Queen and whisked her away to happily ever after.
Evolution of the Disney Princess
If it isn’t obvious from my analysis I absolutely adored this film and consider it to be one of the best princess stories in a while. I was able to empathize with both Anna and Elsa on many levels and found the nature of the plot and themes to be very relatable.
Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess
Feminist Outlooks at Disney Princess‘s
A Feminist Critique of Disney's "Frozen"
The first of the three, "Tangled", introduced a fresh format and the addition of modern humor to a Disney princess film but continued to follow the traditional princess archetype of using the aid of a true love to escape an oppressive environment. "Brave" sought to ignore the archetype of true love all together and break the "pretty princess" mold with a feisty heroine fighting for her independence.
Of the three "new wave" films "Frozen" is the first to
the previous Disney princess archetype in an attempt to offer an alternative. The pretty dresses and sparkling eyes of classic Disney remains but "Frozen" offers a new definition of true love and what it means to live happily ever after.
In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter argued that literary subcultures all go hrough three major phases of development. For literature by or about women, she labels these stages the Feminine, Feminist, and Female.
"Conceal, don't feel, don't let it show"
"You can't marry a man you just met"- "You can if it's true love"
Elsa's character and development embodies Showalter's theory perfectly. Her quoted mantra above is a summary of the isolation and confinement she has felt as she has grown up hiding her powers. That isolation is intensified when her parents, the only people who knew her secret, die leaving her completely alone.
At her coronation, Elsa's overwhelming paranoia becomes evident to the viewer as she works to conform herself into an ideal queen. This act of "internalizing the standards of dominant tradition" is what embodies the feminine stage in Elsa's development. Her actions to hide her powers show her fear and insecurity with her own ability to control herself.
The fact that the powers are driven by emotion really addresses the former idea of a suppressed and submissive princess and in this stage of the story Elsa wishes to embody that archetype.
"It's funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled me, can't get to me at all."
When Elsa loses control of her powers at the coronation ball, the kingdom acts out just as her parents feared calling her a sorceress. In the panic she flees to a large snowy mountain where she begins the feminist stage of her character development.
Elsa builds herself a beautiful castle out of ice, tosses her crown away, lets her hair down, and adorns a new dress as a physical representation of her new life of isolated freedom that she is choosing to live. Elsa's new more sensual look is a stark contrast to her more conservative one, illustrating her transformation into an independent woman free from all past expectations
Once she is alone Elsa is overcome with this feeling of freedom that came with revealing her powers. No longer bound by the expectations of being the perfect queen for the first time since childhood she releases her power to test their limits.
Elsa's transition to the "female" stage occurs at the climax of the story. After she finds out that in her panic of running away she covered her kingdom in a perpetual winter, Elsa panics again accidentally freezing her younger sister's heart.
At the climax Elsa is told by the antagonist, Hans, that Anna had died from said incident and it was her fault. In her grief she falls to the ground in tears unaware of Hans's plan to assassinate her. Anna who is close to death jumps in between them just as the sword is about to strike Elsa from behind. In that moment Anna turns to ice and the sword shatters. Elsa turns to find that Anna has sacrificed her life to save her and in an act of true sisterly love hugs her frozen sister's form releasing the spell on her heart and unfreezing her.
This is where she enters the third stage, Elsa realizes that only true love can thaw a frozen heart and with this knowledge uses that love to thaw the entire kingdom from its eternal winter.
Through this experience Elsa discovered that the way to control her power was not to isolate herself but to surround herself with people who loved her despite her predicament.
Anna is the protagonist of the film who moves through the story discovering her own strength as well as the flaws in the archetypal princess character. She starts out by embracing that mold; the colorful teenaged girl who was sheltered her whole life and looking for a lover to break her free. She sings of meeting “the one” at her sister’s coronation ball before literally running into a dashing prince. It is love at first sight and when he asks her to marry her that night she says yes.
It sounds absurd but it is not unlike some of her classic princess predecessors who ran off with a man they had hardly met like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. This intentional jab at the absurd nature of love at first sight is the first of many that address the unrealistic aspects of the classic Disney princesses.
When Elsa runs away Anna feels responsible for exposing her powers since she was the one who removed Elsa’s glove and set instigated an argument.
"Tonight was my fault. I pushed her. So I’m the one that needs to go after her."
This is when she transitions to the “Feminist stage of her journey. Anna decides to find Elsa and bring her back not only to quench her guilt but also because Elsa needs to unfreeze the kingdom.
Still in her ball gown and completely unprepared she sets off for the mountain. Anna relies on her fierce determination and will power, along with a few new friends to get her to the top of that mountain. The journey puts her out of her comfort zone and gives her some real-world perspective that she never had before.
Even though she gained some perspective, Anna never truly exits the “feminine” stage until she is rejected by Hans. When Anna realizes that she needs an act of true love to thaw her frozen heart Kristoff takes her back to the kingdom with the idea that Hans, who claims to be her true love, could use a kiss to break the spell.
Through the story Anna got a taste of the real world like she always naïvely dreamed about as she grew up isolated in the castle, and found out that life isn’t a fairytale and sometimes there is no prince charming to save the day.
The final step into her “Female” stage is her self-sacrifice to save her sister. She was faced with the decision to run to Kristoff and save herself or to jump between her sister and a sword, this act defines her as someone no longer interested in her own happy fairytale ending but in the life of the person she loves most in this world, her big sister.
Olaf then finds Anna and tells her that Kristoff, after making their crazy journey together truly loved her, and show it by being able to put her happiness with Hans before his own. So as a last ditch effort to save her life they set off to find Kristoff who has conveniently come back to find Anna.
When Anna and Hans are alone he confesses that he never really loved her and was just marrying her for the throne after he killed Queen Elsa. With that he abandons her to die. This is when Anna realizes that her sister was right, that a person can’t truly love someone he/she doesn’t really know.
In the 70+years since then many aspects of life have changed and therefore so have the female roles in society. Women are no longer an accessory on a man’s arm or solely expected to get married and have babies. Princesses like Anna and Elsa reflect that change.
Elsa is a young woman who independently assumes a position of power and feels the consequential pressure. She has no love interest in this film highlighting her role as a powerful independent woman. Anna conquers heartbreak and works to save the kingdom and her sister with her own strength and will reflecting the female strength that is celebrated in the twenty-first century.
Anna is her foil, an optimistic 16 year old whose naïve outlook on life leads to her first heartbreak and illustrates how easily an adolescent can be manipulated by the expectations of the adult world. She also shows how much strength and courage youth can have when the ones they love are threatened when she sacrifices herself for her beloved sister.
Anna, while being a typical teenage girl most of the time, still breaks to submissive formula for women with her determined attitude and temper. She breaks a wolf’s face on a mandolin, picks a fight with a snow monster, bungee jumps off a cliff, and slugs the antagonist in the face.
Basically, she doesn’t fall into any classic domestic roles associated with females in literature. One could argue that she still acts as a damsel in distress as her heart is freezing over looking for true love to set her free but in contrast, she continues to fight to save herself and at her last breath to save her sister.
Anna’s constant desire for her elder sister’s attention and approval shows that even when separated by years of isolation she still looks up to Elsa. At the ball when Elsa gives Anna a compliment she is rendered speechless struggling to return the comment.
Elsa, even though she has spent years distancing herself from Anna still feels protective of her when she requests to be married to a man she just met. The guilt of hurting Anna with her powers when they were children still haunts her but Elsa still has the natural protective instinct associated with an older sibling.
On the other hand, as an eighteen year old girl about to be launched into a new world of responsibility I can identify with Elsa. She is young and unsure of herself but still must take up the mantle thrusted upon her. I was able to see her powers as a metaphor for the secret insecurities many adolescents like myself bear. In order to hide those insecurities she shut herself away from the world illustrating a realistic representation of how a normal teenager would respond.
I have an older sister with the same age difference as the sisters in the story, so through the eyes of a younger sister I could really relate to Anna’s determination to save Elsa even though they have their differences. Also I look up to my older sister in a similar way and have a very close relationship to her not unlike the two princesses in their early childhood. It wrenched at my heart to watch them get split apart and see Anna slowly lose her determination to reconnect with her sister.
Between the beautiful animation, compelling score, and endearing plot, Frozen captured my heart and left me feeling empowered and ironically, warm.