I watched Disney’s Frozen on a plane today – it was on one of those shared teleprompter-like screens that, nowadays, you’ll only find on domestic flights. This lack of individual screen permitted me to watch the gaggle of college girls sing along to the movie in front of me. They knew every word, which should have felt to me no different from the nights my own college roommates would put on the sing-along version of “Mamma Mia” and bop around the dorm room to find some cheer during finals week. But with Frozen, I kept in mind their enthusiasm for this movie as a backdrop to the fact that, while watching, I couldn’t make up my mind about whether or not this movie had a feminist stance.
I’ll give you the rundown of the story, fittingly based on dour fairy-teller Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” so that we can make sense of it together. Sisters Elsa and Anna are princesses, and when they are kids Elsa is cursed with a variation of the Midas touch – what she touches turns to ice. As a child Elsa has trouble controlling her power and accidentally strikes Anna with ice, injuring her. As a result, their parents decide it is best to keep Elsa’s power a secret, encasing her hands in gloves, shutting her away in the castle, and isolating her from her sister. Not surprisingly, this turns her into a closed-off, protective, literally frigid older sister.
As young adults on Elsa’s coronation day, Anna—the compulsive, spontaneous, evidently modern one—meets Prince Hans and gets engaged to him (on the same day, omg what?). Elsa finds out, and in her anger, accidentally freezes the ballroom and the rest of the town, which the townspeople interpret to mean that she’s dangerous. She runs away in exile to her own icy castle, where she sings a song about being free. Anna hunts after her with the help of loner mountain man Kristoff. A series of things happen as various parties try to lure Elsa back to the castle to end the eternal winter, during the last of which Elsa again strikes Anna with ice, freezing her heart. In keeping with fairy tale lore, only “an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart,” so Anna races to kiss Hans to break the spell, only to find that Hans is just using her to get to the throne. When he tries to kill Elsa, Anna jumps in front of the sword, though, which is the actual act of true love that revives her back to her full warmth. Yay, and they all live happily ever after.
So, what’s complicated about that? The thing is, many of the story elements could be subversively feminist, or not. So, let’s make a list:
Wait, I think this is feminist:
- The Prince and Princess theme feels like a comment on exhausted tropes; for example, when Hans turns out to be a bad guy, we’re relieved and turn to root even more for the imperfect, clumsy, good-hearted Kristoff. We’re equally excited to see Anna, who’s not the helpless princess type, take matters into her own hands. She leads the effort to find Elsa, and Kristoff is an often self-interested, begrudged helper. Yay strong female characters!
- Elsa’s self-imposed exile in her icy castle could be seen as a liberating break from patriarchal/feudal oppression
- When Prince Hans reveals himself to be evil, the story is counteracting the countless romantic comedies and Disney movies that place a female character’s worth and self-worth entirely in the male lead’s heroism
- There’s a song about both Anna and Kristoff being “fixer-uppers,” which proclaims that we all have flaws that can align in true love. No more having to be perfect for a man!
- “True love” turns out to be familial and not romantic, with romantic happiness a serendipitous side effect
Or is it?
- Elsa can only feel free in isolation, because being at ease in society and/or having connections with people while also cherishing her gift is impossible, because that gift is damaging to the patriarchal status quo
- For every time Anna saves Kristoff, there’s a time he saves her as well (or at least tries to). But this could also be advocating reciprocity, equal respect and contribution to a relationship, regardless of gender. Ahhh I don’t know!
- When Hans reveals himself to be evil, Anna is made to seem weak and a fool for falling so quickly, and can only redeem herself by kissing another dude. Oh no, bye strong female character!
- Kristoff is the more obvious fixer-upper, according to his family’s song, but the part about Anna that needs fixing is that she compulsively decided to marry another man after one day. So she needs to change for a man anyway?
- The fact that Hollywood still feels the need to write female protagonists into the world of princes and princesses frustrates me to no end! What is it about this ideal, this fascination with princesses?
- There’s still a need to include Anna and Kristoff’s love at the end, as if we wouldn’t be satisfied with just the sisterly love story.
So I’m stuck; each point for feminism has a problematic (maybe postfeminist?) counterpoint. Maybe all this doesn’t matter and we should just be happy that Frozen passes the Bechdel test. But I’d like to think that a higher standard for our movies, especially our kids’ movies, is warranted. I also can’t help wondering if the girls in front of me loved the movie just for its music, or if they perhaps appreciated its complexity. Sound off in the comments if you think this film is progressive, transgressive, regressive, or if you don’t care!