By Kayley Erlandson
My siblings and I grew up with a steady diet of animated Disney movies. We absolutely loved them. Even today, my now 20-something siblings and I are always up for watching one of our old VHS tapes or streaming the old Disney films on Netflix (Thanks Netflix!)
It’s safe to say that those movies shaped me as a person. My obsession with The Lion King as a five-year-old reached near-fanatical levels, the high point of which involved me refusing to answer to anything other than “Simba.” And I’ve already written a blog entry about the influence of one my first female media role models, Mulan.
Although I still love watching Disney movies, my adult eyes are much more critical of the content than I was as a child. Some things that never bothered me as a kid REALLY bother me as an adult. For instance, when I was a kid, The Little Mermaid was just a fun tale about true love, singing crabs, and an evil seawitch. Now that I’ve become much more aware of the way women are portrayed in media, I see some major flaws with The Little Mermaid’s formula. The main character, Ariel starts the movie out with aspirations of exploring new places and having adventures. But she literally gives up her voice, personhood (mermaid-hood?), and family in order to attain Prince Eric. Kind of a terrible underlying message for girls.
In recent years, there have been some baby steps in children’s animation, in terms of portrayals of women. Brave, one of my favorite animated films, focuses on a mother/daughter dynamic and features a fiery lass named Merida who attempts to find the balance between rejecting the “princess” role forced upon her by her mother and taking responsibility for her kingdom.
It’s an important question; one that the film manages to address without being overly sappy. Both Merida and her mother, Elinor, are great additions to the world of inspirational children’s characters.
But normally, Disney has always been pretty consistent with the way its female characters are portrayed. If the women are main characters, they are passive, thin, wide-eyed, and above all, beautiful. And most of them are princesses.
Early Disney princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty) were all Caucasian. While movies in the 90s featured non-white women in main roles, these women still adhered to the Western standard of beauty, rather than their own cultures.
So where does Frozen lie on this spectrum of female stereotypes? Well, it’s not a perfect film, but it comes pretty close and has some of the best female characters I’ve seen lately.
Frozen tells the tale of two princesses in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom called Arendelle. The eldest sibling, Elsa, was born with the power to create snow and ice from her fingertips. Her powers grow uncontrollable when she experiences a strong emotion, such as fear or anger. When Elsa accidentally injures her younger Anna with her powers, she keeps her little sister at arm’s length. Their parents shut the doors to the castle and tell Elsa she must keep her powers hidden at all costs.
When their sovereign parents die, Elsa is set to take over the throne. She is crowned queen, but accidentally reveals her powers in front of the townsfolk, who immediately reject her. She runs away into the mountains to live a life of seclusion. With Elsa’s emotions running awry, Arendelle is cursed to suffer an eternal winter. Anna sets out to bring her sister back and bring summer back.
Frozen parallels similar story choices like The Little Mermaid’s. Both movies were adapted from fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen, are children’s animated musicals, have whimsical side characters, are allegedly the beginning of a Disney “Renaissance” (period where quality movies are produced by the company), and have comparable female characters). However, these adaptations are vastly different and can show some of the recent positive steps children’s animation is taking in terms of portraying femininity in a positive way. The concepts of true love and villainy in Frozen are turned on their heads, and by doing so, reveal Frozen to be a more positive model for children in terms of gender portrayal.
Like Ariel, Anna also becomes enamored with a prince after one meeting and accepts his proposal during their love ballad. However, her sister Elsa raises an eyebrow when Anna asks for her blessing on the engagement and calmly explains that her sister cannot marry someone she just met. Kristoff, a mountain man who helps Anna later in the movie, explicitly points out the absurdity of marrying someone she met that same day.
By movie’s end, both Anna and the audience agree that it is a wise idea to get to know someone before agreeing to marry them. Although Ariel and Anna both want to get married during the beginning of their movies, Anna puts blood first and takes responsibility for her part in Elsa’s retreat into the mountains. When Elsa runs away, Anna immediately calls for her horse and goes on a quest bring her sister back safely, leaving her love interest behind.
The concept of “true love’s kiss” is turned on its head by movie’s end. When Anna is accidentally struck in the heart with Elsa’s ice powers, only an act of true love can save her from turning into ice. At first, she believes Prince Hans can break the spell with true love’s kiss, but it is revealed that Prince Hans does not love her and purposely preyed on Anna’s need for affection in order to steal her kingdom. Then, Anna runs after Kristoff, who she believes truly cares for her.
Anna forsakes her moment to experience true love’s kiss with Kristoff and chance of stopping the curse so that she can save Elsa’s life. However, this action to save her sister was the act of true love that broke the spell and did not revolve around either of the two men who Anna had only met in the last couple of days. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is trying to win Eric’s love in three days or she will revert back to her undesirable state as a mermaid (and also, unbeknownst to her, become Ursula’s captive).
In Frozen’s world, true love is not instant or selfish, but the opposite: carefully cultivated and selfless. Contrary to being saved by others, Anna saves herself. Anna even stops Kristoff from confronting Hans when he is revealed to be evil, as she wants to handle him herself. Anna tells the villain off, subdues him, and has him incarcerated without any assistance from her new beau. Throughout the climax of the movie Frozen redefines what true love actually entails.
Elsa from Frozen and Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid have several similarities. Both were born with magical powers and were exiled from their kingdom because of their powers. Both serve as the main source of conflict in the movie and neither has a love interest. Besides having these same foundational characteristics, Frozen’s take on villainy is refreshing. Whereas Ursula is portrayed as a manipulative villain who uses her powers to try to take King Triton’s throne, Elsa’s tale is far more layered. Elsa is never truly painted as evil, but rather a young woman whose powers overflow after a lifetime of being told to “conceal, don’t feel” the powers that make her special.
Unlike most antagonists in children’s films, Elsa does not desire power; she already has the power that Disney villains often seek when she is crowned queen in the beginning of the movie. Instead, Elsa desires control over her own abilities and her emotions, a desire instilled in her by her parents. Before their deaths, the king and queen close the windows and doors to the castle and ask Elsa wear gloves at all times to further control her powers. It is a commentary on the society’s tendency to try to control women’s levels of power and punishing women who do not conform to standards of femininity. During the musical number “The First Time in Forever,” Elsa worries about keeping control of her powers during her upcoming coronation.
She coaches herself: “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be…put on a show. Make one wrong move and everyone will know.” Then she comforts herself with the afterthought, “But it’s only for today.” Instead of merely performing the female gender, Elsa must perform a different type of “normativity” based on what other people expect from her behavior.
Elsa separates herself from this fear by literally escaping into the mountains. Whereas in Arendelle, she dressed more conservatively in order to hinder her powers from accidentally surfacing, Elsa tosses her gloves into the wind and throws her crown away as a symbol of rejecting the pressures her society puts on her while exclaiming: “Let it go, can’t hold it back anymore…The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.”
However, at this point in the movie, Elsa has yet to find the balance between accepting her powers and simultaneously accepting connection and responsibility to other people in her life as evidenced by some of her statements: “Turn away and slam the door…I don’t care what they’re going to say…no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free.” By the end of the movie, Elsa finally accepts both her throne at Arendelle and her powers over ice and snow. She also chooses to revive her relationship with her sister.
Frozen may be my new favorite Disney movie. The story is funny and touching, and all the characters, both female and male, are great. It’s definitely a step forward for animated female characters.