by Afshan Jafar
Disney’s 2013 film Frozen is now the highest grossing animated film ever and the fifth highest grossing film regardless of genre. In May 2014, the Disney store announced that it would hold drawings for people wanting to purchase Frozen costumes. In addition to its mass popularity, Frozen has also garnered critical acclaim for its gender representation and is often hailed as the most progressive and feminist Disney movie yet.
If you’re like me, maybe you want to catch up on some movie watching with your kids over the summer. With Frozen out on DVD, and not having many movies with strong female characters to share with your children, you might be tempted (for an animated movie with a strong feminist message, check out Monsters Vs. Aliens). Here’s what you need to know.
Most of the arguments about Frozen’s progressive gender representation revolve around a few key themes and occurrences in the movie. These are: 1) Disney rejects the “happily ever after” heterosexual romance trope in this movie, 2) Elsa is a powerful idol of women’s empowerment with a message of independence, 3) Anna is another strong woman role model who is independent, adventurous, and brave. Is Frozen really as progressive as these arguments claim?
According to the first argument Disney is mocking its earlier versions of princess stories by portraying the idea of falling in love at first sight as foolish especially since Hans turns out to be a scheming prince. But is the heterosexual romance trope missing? Certainly not. Most of the movie revolves around Anna and Kristoff’s relationship, and we do see it culminate in a kiss. Further, it seems that Anna and Kristoff haven’t known each other for more than two days! Thus, Anna and Kristoff’s relationship certainly falls within Disney’s previous versions of romance.
The next argument is framed around Elsa, who is seen as a powerful and independent woman who learns to love her power instead of concealing it. Yet, her storyline undermines that message. For instance, we see that once Elsa goes into exile, she unleashes her power, which is symbolized by the fantastic ice palace she builds for herself. However, we see shortly after, that her power and independence start to turn her evil. This is evident when she nearly murders two men—by almost impaling one, and trying to push another off the mountain, and when she sends a snow monster after Anna. It is only when she returns to her village and uses her powers for people’s entertainment (by building an ice rink), that she is in fact accepted by people. This is a version of femininity that is soft, safe and selfless; it is about pleasing and nurturing people, and not about building monuments that celebrate one’s power.
The final set of arguments for the progressiveness of Frozen center on Anna. Anna is adventurous and brave. However, Anna is never supposed to be taken seriously by us. She seems adventurous because she doesn’t seem to know any better, not because she is a capable young woman. The comic relief most often comes from her being child-like, and not physically capable. For instance:
- When Anna asks Kristoff to take her up the mountain, he says, “we leave at dawn, and you forgot the carrots for Sven”. Anna responds by throwing the bag of carrots at him followed by an “Oops. Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry… I didn’t” and then with an exaggerated attempt at authority, she says in a deeper voice, “We leave now. Right now”. After this she rushes out of the barn and heaves a sigh of relief. We are clearly not supposed to take her authority seriously or assume that she is actually in charge. She is putting on an act. An act that does not last very long as the viewer is quickly let in on the secret seconds after she stands up to Kristoff.
- Later again when Anna attempts to climb the mountain on her own, what follows is a mockery of Anna’s abilities. She thinks she can climb the mountain on her own, but clearly does not have the skills to do so and the viewers are supposed to laugh along with Kristoff at Anna’s comical attempt.
Another way that Disney minimizes Anna’s bravery and ingenuity, is by making her appear helpless, and reasserting Kristoff’s control, immediately after Anna has accomplished something great. For example:
- Anna saves Kristoff from the wolves when he falls out of the sleigh. However, as soon as Kristoff is back on the sleigh, and they are about to go off the edge of the mountain, she tells Sven, the reindeer, “ get ready to jump Sven…” Kristoff responds: “You don’t tell him what to do. I do.” He then picks Anna up and throws her onto the reindeer, who jumps across the ravine at Kristoff’s bidding, and everybody is saved. After this scene, things go downhill (no pun intended) fast. Anna needs Kristoff to lead her to the top of the mountain because it is not a journey that she can undertake alone. As we see Anna wandering helplessly in circles in the background, Kristoff says: “she’ll die on her own”, and decides to help her.
- When Anna and Kristoff are being chased by the snow monster, and are hanging by a rope from the edge of the mountain, Anna saves them both by cutting off the rope, and falling several feet below on a bed of snow. This could have been a great opportunity for Disney to show that women can, in fact, save the day. However, Kristoff is unconscious at this point – had he been conscious, we can assume that he would have saved the day. Once they fall down and Kristoff gains consciousness again, Anna reverts to a helpless woman once more as she needs to be dug out of the snow by Kristoff.
As is clear from the discussion above, every time Disney takes a step towards showing Anna as an independent, strong woman, it immediately takes a step back (or two) in the next sequence of events by depicting her as an incapable woman who needs Kristoff to rescue her. By now it should be clear that Kristoff embodies a rugged masculinity very much in line with dominant ideals—white, powerful, independent, and physically strong. In many ways Kristoff is reminiscent of the beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – physically overpowering, crude, rough (metaphorically and physically), with a softer, gentler, kinder side. But as Susan Bordo points out (here) the two sides, gentleman and beast, are supposed to co-exist and it is that combination of beast and gentleman that makes for a “real” man in Disney’s eyes.
Alas, Frozen can only be described as a lukewarm attempt by Disney at showing empowered women. Disney’s version of womanhood as embodied in Elsa and Anna, is one that does not challenge dominant ideals of femininity. The two lead characters retain traits that are considered essential for “doing” femininity correctly—they are not aggressive; they must learn to put others first and be selfless; and they must do it all while looking beautiful.
Afshan Jafar is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College.