“Frozen” Partially Thaws My Cold Heart To Disney Princesses

The cast of "Frozen".

The cast of “Frozen”.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend my mom and I took the kids to see Disney’s new animated film “Frozen”. The kids had been excited to see it for weeks and the previews had me intrigued. This would be Disney’s first princess film made in the aftermath of the national backlash to Princess Culture and I was eager to see if they had taken any of these concepts to heart.

Maybe they did, maybe it was coincidence, but “Frozen” seems to be taking some serious steps towards featuring empowered princesses who are strong, smart, and adventurous.

Seriously, I just typed that sentence about a pair of Disney princesses.

Perhaps my cold heart towards princesses is thawing? We all remember my love fest for Merida. “Frozen” isn’t a perfect film, and I do not dig Princess Culture and the messages girls learn from it, but……

I really like Elsa and Anna, the princess sisters from the film. Following in the footsteps of Merida, these sisters are in command of their own stories, stay awake the entire time (major bonus!), and their main goal is not to find a prince. We see the sisters be funny, daring, stand up for themselves, care about each other, make mistakes, not back down from a fight, climb a mountain, build an ice palace, repel off a cliff and punch out a deceitful prince. Woohoo! While I am still epically tired of the princess narrative used as the vehicle to serve stories to girls, if I look at this movie by itself and let it stand on its own merit then I have to be honest and say that we really loved it and I think Elsa and Anna teach kids some great lessons.

“Frozen” is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”. Very loosely based, so don’t spend too much time getting twisted up about the change in characters and story line.

The film begins as Elsa and her little sister Anna play in a castle ballroom until an accident leaves Anna hurt, the family racing to save her (great shot of the Queen charging out the castle gates on her horse as they speed into the forest to save her daughter), and ultimately the course of Elsa’s girlhood changing in order to reign in this great power growing stronger inside of her.

Elsa and Anna are separated and we see the strain that puts on the girls who dearly love each other. When their parents’ ship is lost at sea Elsa must prepare to become Queen when she comes of age. Anna is desperate for companionship and on the day of the coronation meets a handsome prince who promises a great many things. Anna decides a few hours later that is a great idea to become engaged to him — a move that is heavily questioned by Elsa and later by Anna’s new friend Kristoff.

An argument between the sisters during the ball leads to Elsa exiling herself from the kingdom, the kingdom falling into eternal winter, and Anna embarking on a great journey to bring her sister back. The film does a nice job of showing the love and complexities in a relationship between sisters, which is the note the film finishes on.

 

So, let’s start with what I didn’t like:

~ Elsa and Anna look like Barbie dolls, with giant, giant eyes. Great article about that here. As adventurous and independent as these gals are, the message is still that you must be beautiful while you do it.

~ In one scene we see Anna as a child singing about Elsa coming out to play with her and she flies in front of a great portrait of Joan of Arc and you think “Hey girl power!”  Minutes later in the film we see a teen Anna in the same portrait gallery, this time singing about meeting “the one” and falling in love. Doh! It didn’t bother me so much the idea of a teen girl wanting to find love, more so the idea that once a girl ‘comes of age’ she forsakes adventure and pursing her interests to marry and settle down. The song was an avenue to introduce the story line of the deceitful prince, but he could have shown up regardless after Anna sings a song about her life taking twists and turns and not knowing what her next adventure will be. I mean, Joan of Arc probably didn’t sing about boyfriends before riding off into battle….

~ When Elsa leaves the confines of the palace and can finally be herself on her mountain she gets sexed up quite a bit. My five year old even commented on it, saying she was too sexy. It would make sense for Elsa to let her hair down a bit, but there seemed to be an unnecessary focus on her sexuality. Also I could not stop thinking about Vanna White.

~ Again, for the story to unfold it makes sense, but the scene where the trolls meet Anna and immediately launch into a song and dance number about Kristoff being a fixer-upper but they can still fall in love……it sends the message that boy + girl = love. The song could have been about boy + girl = great pair for finishing their quest.

~ There is one scene where weapons are pointed and Elsa and my kids found that very upsetting.

~ And with films like this, there is always the disconnect between the feisty princesses we meet on screen and the tie-in merchandise that sells beauty and a narrow definition of femininity to girls. We had a big discussion about that here.

 

What I liked:

~ “Frozen” had a female director, and I think it shows in many parts of the film. This princess tale is a departure from the Cinderella/Sleep Beauty we grew up with and the guy-dependent Little Mermaid/Princess Jasmine/Belle and continues to take the modernization of that franchise forward, expanding on the independence we saw in princesses from “Tangled” and “Princess and the Frog”.

~ Elsa is powerful, she knows it, and she owns it. She never backs down to the men trying to control her. She cares about the people in her kingdom and struggles with the responsibility of how to be a good leader.

~ Anna is confident, determined, learns from her mistakes, is quick on her feet, and on the journey to find Elsa we see her rescue Kristoff just as many times as he rescues her. She never backs down from a fight, whether it is snarling wolves or a giant snow monster.

~ There are two love stories in this film, the central one being between Elsa and Anna. But Anna and Kristoff end up falling for each other and while I don’t like a girl’s story ending with the finding of a man, we see their relationship grow over time and Kristoff is a good guy (unlike, say, the princes Merida is introduced to).

~ Olaf the snowman is really funny!

~ Kristoff is shown as a full human being with emotions and complex thoughts, which is the most admirable “prince” we’ve ever seen Disney produce. Kristoff isn’t a prince by birth, but by actions. He is the kind of character I would like Benny looking up to. Benny thought he was really cool and Amelia said she would want to be his friend but definitely NOT do any kissing.

~ The animation is incredible and the songs are fantastic. It felt like watching a gorgeous Broadway play. Disney does this kind of film very well and in that sense, “Frozen” is a masterpiece.

~ Family, above all else, is the moral of the story. The sisters save each other, the guys in the story are the side kicks. Even the romance that blossoms between Anna and Kristoff at the end is a subplot.

~ Elsa and Anna are the authors and heroines of their own story and that is all I ask for in tales about girls. As tired as I am of princesses, these are two princesses I can fall in love with. Merida, Elsa, and Anna are on my A+ list. None are perfect, but I think it is imperfect characters that can sometimes make the best media role models.

Frozen is a tale about two sisters, their love for each other, and the adventure that love takes them on.

Frozen is a tale about two sisters, their love for each other, and the adventure that love takes them on.

 

Comments

  1. I realize this isn’t the main point, but I don’t think all the princes in Brave were awful. Macguffin (the one you can’t understand), is pretty decent. He’s speaking in a Doric accent, and some of his lines are about how it’s stupid that they have to fight each other for marriage to someone who clearly isn’t interested, and is clearly there because he was dragged by his father, so I think he kind of gets it.
    I haven’t seen Frozen yet, but I’ve been really disappointed that they changed the story so much, when in the original fairy tale, Anna went to save her best friend/love interest on her own, and all of Anna’s helpers she met along the way were women. But the reviews about sisterhood being a main theme, plus the first animated Disney film directed by a woman, have made me more interested.

  2. I loved Frozen too. My kids and I have been listening to the soundtrack all weekend. When Anna tells the prince to stay at the castle, and she hops on her horse and rides off to find Elsa, I literally got chills. And Kristoff was such a well rounded, kind, character. I’ve been talking about him a lot with my son. So may good moments. I do, however, agree with all of your criticisms (those big eyes were so disturbing) and I’d like to add one I’ve been thinking about a lot. It bothered me that there was absolutely no ethnic diversity in the movie. Yes, yes, I know it was supposed to be in a Nordic country, but there are also not really talking snowman and queens who can build ice castles with their hands, so they could have taken some liberties to increase the diversity as well.

  3. I saw Frozen with my mom last week and absolutely loved everything about it. The music, the visuals, the characters, everything. I would also like to make a point about one or two of your “issues” with the character design of the princesses, specifically, your problem with the “big eyes”, which, by the way, has been a Disney staple for almost a century. There is actually a very good reason for the larger eyes, and it is not to make them more “beautiful” nor is it an “idealization” pf what women should be. What it is, is a stylization used to make them more expressive and emotive. You’ll see this in Japanese animation too. The Japanese prefer large eyes on their characters because they find them to be more expressive and empathic. They consider small eyes to be cold and impersonal (hence why typically the villains are the only ones with small eyes). This is why American comic books don’t sell well in Japan. The large eyes have nothing to do with unrealistic standards of ideal “beauty” It’s all about expressing emotion.

  4. Person with Opinion says:

    Your post sounds so biased and geared towards feminism. Must I remind you, it was co-directed, so the decisions that were made within the film, were done by both male and female. And even so, the directors did not have much say of the entire story. In the Disney pipeline, the script and story is written and improved upon by a GROUP of people, who sit down and come up with ideas for each scene. And it isn’t because it was directed by a female, that it held good “family values.” The scene where Anna gives her life to save Elsa was pitched by a MALE. I am not trying to sound sexist, but the way you come across your points sound extremely biased based on gender. You could double check the facts I just listed, I can guarantee it is 100% accurate.
    I do understand modern american culture and the idea of sexualizing everything, especially for females, but I don’t think it is a valid excuse to scrutinize and blame movies such as these. IF anything, the ones that are selling sex is the teenage pop culture in the music industry, celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, or Kim Kardashian. And what is wrong with young love? I don’t think that the movie promotes children hooking up with other young guys. I believe the message is to show that love is sacred by “true love” (a theme that is in a lot of disney movies). In fact, the movie disapproves of the idea of “love at first sight”, proven by the betrayal of Hans the prince, at the end of the movie.

    And for aesthetic purposes, the characters in the movie looked the way they look because they are ideal representations of beautiful people. Also because this animation has to sell. Who would enjoy looking at a small eyed male or female (for that matter), in fact, one could say it would be ugly that way. Plus Disney has a style they have to keep that runs from film to film that started way before you were born (1940s), so to say that their reasons behind the eyes of the character were purely because of selling sex is absurd.

    Look, you are entitled to your opinion, but in the end, the values of your children are taught by you, the parent. And you child should have no problem not looking “sexy” if you have taught them correctly.

    PS. The Disney Movies have only been getting better recently because John Lasseter, The Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, was recently promoted to Disney. Wonder why all of a sudden Disney films have that extra charm to them? The same reason why every pixar film had them.

    PEACE OUT.

  5. The Other Melissa says:

    While I can understand your interpretation of the Let It Go scene and what you saw as a “sexy” Elsa, I disagree that it was a negative point of the movie. In that scene, I see an adult woman who is confident, strong, (alone, by the way) and perhaps feeling sexy as she has this revelation about who she is and what she’s been through. Which to me is exactly the type of “sexy” I’d prefer my daughter see. I don’t want my daughter to think feeling sexy is WRONG. I’m guessing you viewed her dress and swaying of hips to walk as the “sexy” part of that scene? Shrug. Seemed pretty healthy to me. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone. It’s how she felt in that moment.

    • The Other Melissa –
      I didn’t see it as negative, as I agree with the points you make above. I saw it as completely unnecessary in a children’s movie. Also, let’s not fail to point out the version of “sexy” we saw there was extremely male-centric and stereotypical. It may or may not have been Elsa’s version of sexy, but it certainly was Hollywood’s.

      • When I think stereotypical sexy I think huge chest, giant hips, tiny waist, and generally perfect hour glass figure. But the only sexy body language Elsa had was moving her hips. She actually was relatively normally proportioned (yes I know the eyes weren’t), she didn’t have a huge bust line, she was thin but I mean Disney wants these movies to sell and if they had an unattractive person as a main character not as many people would go to see it and toys WOULDN’T sell. Now her dress may have been “sexed up” but I mean if you had been very conservation for your entire life and you could finally do what you wanted wouldn’t you just have fun and do what you wanted with your clothes? I know I would.

  6. Nicole Brechtel says:

    “Doh! It didn’t bother me so much the idea of a teen girl wanting to find love, more so the idea that once a girl ‘comes of age’ she forsakes adventure and pursing her interests to marry and settle down.”

    I loved the movie, and I think what is missed is that the girl grew up feeling like she’s been shut out. She isn’t wanting to find a prince, she’s wanting to be loved She’s missing the love from her sister that was ripped from her as a child. She’s missing the love from her parents that she lost when they died. And that was what the previous song (the one about wanting to build a snowman) was also about, her missing her sister, and then her parents. The song about finding the one, could be seen as her feeling shut out, and powerless all this time, and taking it into her own hands to get what she’s always wanted.

  7. Thanks for your insights/views. I want to respond to your main problems with Frozen, most of which I don’t share.
    1) The animation: I concede on this point. I have no problem with the big eyes myself and I thought that the animators did a fantastic job of expressing their characters’ feelings through facial expressions and body language. But it is interesting that Anna and Elsa were the only women portrayed in this way in the film and I understand why their highly stylized presentation could be disturbing. To me, this was a very minor point, however.
    2) I disagree strongly on your interpretation of the song. I agree strongly with the person above who makes the point that the song is really about loneliness. If you just listen to the words and take away the upbeat tune, “For the First Time in Forever” is a very sad song. It’s not coincidental that it is reprised when Anna is trying to convince Elsa to come home. The song is about how Anna has lived her whole life in isolation and really wants love. It explains why Anna is so susceptible to Hans’ overtures. (Indeed, “Love is an Open Door” also speaks directly to Anna’s loneliness, her desire for love, and the reason for it – the denial of her sister’s love.) These songs actually underline the point that the chief love story of the movie is that between the two sisters. Almost everything that Anna does is shaped by her pain over losing her sister’s love and never understanding why (at least for the first part of the film). All of Elsa’s actions are primarily driven by her desire not to hurt her sister (and other people).
    3) I don’t have any problem with the more glamorous Elsa. As others have argued, she does this for herself, not for any man, and it is the first time in her life that she becomes herself. I agree that the character’s transformation has a distinct sexual component, but that’s fine. I’m sure that most small children would completely miss this (most, not all) and for those who get it, I don’t think this is harmful. I don’t think that we should be sending the message that there is something “wrong” with sex, per se. Questions about sexual responsibility are a different matter.
    4) I think that you may have missed the point of the troll’s song. It’s about how love comes in all shape and sizes from many different people whom we love and who love us in turn. I’ve heard some people say that the troll song basically reveals the lesson of the film and there is definitely merit to that argument. I’d say look at the words of the song (all the words). It’s about much more than convincing Anna to marry Kristoff.
    5) I didn’t find the violence that bad. I think it needed to be a bit frightening to make people feel that Elsa was in danger and to explain some of the fears that she had been living with her entire life. One point that people sometimes miss is that Elsa’s powers really were dangerous and that many people did react to her with a not-entirely-unjustified fear. Of course, in the end, we learn that Elsa’s powers can be controlled by love, rather than giving into fear.
    6) I agree.

  8. Try though I might, I can’t seem to train my eyes to see ‘sexy’. I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that I have major problems with reading between the lines, and maybe the fact that I’m not sexually attracted to others. I need things to be as concrete as possible, otherwise it goes right over my head leaving me feeling terribly confused when others start talking about it. Could you be more specific about what, exactly, made Elsa’s new look she created for herself during “let it go” sexed up?

  9. Sigh. Another tradition-shaming feminist who has never seen a single Disney film besides Frozen and Brave!

    “Following in the footsteps of Merida, these sisters are in command of their own stories, stay awake the entire time (major bonus!), and their main goal is not to find a prince.”

    Guess what- none of them do! Why is the feminist movement so threatened by a woman who wants love or letting the man lead? That sounds very bitter and even insecure. And why are they so obsessed with “control”? even when that’s neither a healthy, realistic message to send to children, nor is it realistic for their stories (the point of Sleeping Beauty is the beautiful art and the message of love conquering all, which means OBSTACLES will be there, obviously. and in case you somehow missed it, the princess is supposed to be asleep for awhile. Hence the title).

    Shame on anyone who would shame a woman for not conforming to the narrow, feminist ideals. That’s doing exactly what feminists claim they don’t want.

    I do agree on Elsa’s unnecessary sexiness though- that’s also horribly out of character for our naturally modest, shy, sophisticated Elsa! Not to mention the time period!

    • Melissa Atkins Wardy says:

      Sigh. Another assumption-making blog reader who doesn’t actually know me a single day besides this one post she has read.

      Guess what – Jo, I’ve actually seen every Disney film and several of the princess movies are centered around finding Prince Charming and to argue otherwise is ridiculous. Cinderella wasn’t looking for a grad school, Belle didn’t stand her ground and turn her back to the emotionally controlling and abusive beast and walk away from her desire to love him back to perfection, Snow White wasn’t singing about ‘someday my safari gear will come’ and the Little Mermaid didn’t give away her voice to gain legs in order to go into the jungle to collect rare specimens for a primatology study. No, instead she went after the hot guy she saw once on a boat but has never had a conversation with.

      Now, what was it you were lecturing us on about healthy, realistic messages to give to children? I’ll make sure the children I stay home to raise and the man I’m married to (and whose name I took, collective feminist gasp!) are snuggled on the couch in the room I vacuumed and dusted, wearing the clothes I washed, full from the dinner I cooked, with the food I shopped for, while we give you our full freaking attention.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I do like to be constructive about celebrating when I feel like Disney, or any other company under fire from feminist groups, is talking more to people – okay, women – like me. I’ve already written about how much I enjoyed Frozen from the point of view of a film (and music) fan. But this post is really about all the things in it that I thought were really promising from the perspective of being a woman who cares about how women are represented. For another, also largely positive, perspective (though we see a few points differently), see Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies. […]

  2. […] the story to enjoy, parts that held meaning for us. It takes a special kind of story to become the type of media that a family can connect to and bond over. Girls loved it. Boys loved it. Families around the […]

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