The problem with false feminism

(or why “Frozen” left me cold)

Dani Colman
Feb 1, 2014 · 46 min read

I have made absolutely no secret of how much I disliked Disney’s Frozen. I hated it. I spent most of the movie alternately facepalming, groaning, and checking my watch, and when people asked me how I liked it, I made this face:

I’m sorry you had to see this.

As far as I could see, the problems were obvious. Just like The Princess and the Frog, I felt like Disney had started with some admirable intentions, but lost their gumption halfway through and covered up with cheap storytelling tricks and a lot of audience pandering. And when I told people how I felt about The Princess and the Frog (and Brave, for that matter — but we’ll get to that), they mostly agreed with me. I don’t make a habit of dogmatically disliking something just because I feel like it: usually if I have a viscerally negative reaction to a film, there’s a healthy contingent of people out there who have the same reaction for much the same reasons.

It was, therefore, a huge surprise to me just how many people loved Frozen. Not just loved, but slavered over it. Critics have been downright competitive in their effusiveness, calling it “the best Disney film since The Lion King”, and “a new Disney classic”. Bloggers and reviewers alike are lauding it as “feminist”, “revolutionary”, “subversive” and a hundred other buzzwords that make it sound as though Frozen has done for female characters what Brokeback Mountain did for gay cowboys. And after reading glowing review after glowing review, taking careful assessment of all the points made, and some very deep navel-gazing about my own thoughts on the subject, I find one question persists:

Were we even watching the same film?

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I certainly love some movies other people loathed; I’ll even be referring to one of them in a few paragraphs. If your reason for liking Frozen is that it’s fun, or the songs are catchy, or the animation is beautiful, or Olaf the Snowman is funny, then more power to you. But if you like Frozen because you think it is some revolutionary step forward in the way animated films portray women, then I think you’re wrong. And unfortunately, when it comes to film’s historically awful track record for portraying, hiring and being remotely fair to women, celebrating the wrong film — particularly in the sheer numbers that people are celebrating Frozen — has some very troublesome implications.

My friends have asked for it and I feel like the internet needs it, so I’m going to go through, point-by-point and in no particular order, the top handful of reasons people have given for thinking Frozen is a feminist triumph, and I’m going to debunk them all.

Here goes.

There was no wedding at the end of the film.

In the interest of absolute fairness, I did some digging. Of the 43 feature-length theatrical animated films Disney has produced — so, not counting Pixar films, anthology films (like Winnie the Pooh or Fantasia), direct-to-video sequels or films produced by other studios and distributed by Disney — how many do you think feature a wedding between anyone? Main characters, loveable sidekicks or one-scene supporting characters? All of them?

Seven. Seven Disney films show a wedding on-screen, or feature two characters getting married within the timeline of the movie. Here’s the table to prove it:

Note that I did not include the weird troll wedding from Frozen, even though technically I probably could have.

Surprising, isn’t it? With the number of animal features to account for, you’d expect a bit of an imbalance, but the wedding-less features outnumber the ones with church bells by a shocking five to one. Snow White? No marriage, no betrothal; she just hops on the prince’s horse and rides off with him. Sleeping Beauty? They dance and her dress changes colour. Beauty and the Beast ends with the exact same dance scene as Sleeping Beauty, and Pocahontas watches her beloved sail back to England.

To even the playing field, let’s remove the completely irrelevant movies, by which I mean the ones that involve non-anthropomorphic animals, protagonists too young for a love interest, and the ones that are so godawful we all prefer to pretend they don’t exist. I’m also broadening my definition of the Disney formula to include betrothals and engagements as well as weddings:

Notes: I’m including The Lion King because the word “betrothed” is used specifically, and I’m including The Black Cauldron because Taran and Eilonwy are just old enough to be potential romantic interests for each other.

There are a couple of things of note here. Firstly, while it’s a much more even distribution, the engagement-free films still outnumber the films with engagements or betrothals, and it certainly isn’t nearly as heavily weighted towards betrothals as you’d expect. Secondly, look where Frozen ends up. It may ultimately be to the wrong guy, but Anna does spend most of the movie engaged, and that’s important for two reasons: first, that if you count Aurora’s betrothal to Phillip in Sleeping Beauty— and I know you do, despite that it happens when they’re both infants and the fact that she falls in love with Phillip while disguised as a peasant is a total coincidence — then to be fair, you have to count Anna’s engagement to Hans. Second…well, we’ll get to that later, but for now let’s say that Anna’s engagement is significant to her, so it should be to us as well.

In the interest of weighting this as far towards the perceived Disney mould as possible, I have one more table for you. In this one, I’ve put the animal features back in, and I’m now counting out every feature with a love story that ends in a happily ever after. A traditional, heterosexual happily ever after, I should qualify, though it’s not like Disney is likely to actually attempt a same-sex love story any time soon. Or ever. Here’s how that one tallies up:

More what you expected?

I would like to point out that I’m being really generous here. In the happily-ever-after column I’ve included multiple supporting character romances and a couple of really questionable selections (Simba’s romantic relationship with Nala is just about the least important part of the climax of The Lion King, in Lilo and Stitch it’s never clear whether Nani and David become more than friends, and in Hunchback, Quasimodo has to watch someone else get the girl). I will concede that when you’re just looking at happily-ever-afters, more films are on-model than not. Having said that, Frozen falls into the happily-ever-after category far more tidily than several of the films I had to shoehorn in there.

What’s the point of all this? To illustrate right off the bat that Frozen’s defenders are finding things to celebrate about the film that just don’t hold up. Looking at it strictly by the numbers, Frozen conforms to the expected Disney model. And I know there’s a twist in the way the love story is presented, but I’ll get to that. Dealing strictly with the “But there’s no wedding!” argument, I have to call bullshit.

One quick note before I continue — even though it’s technically a Pixar film, I’ll be counting Brave from this point on, since Merida has been officially inducted into the Disney Princess lineup.

The film passes the Bechdel test — no other Disney princess movie does that!

You know which other Disney princess movies pass the Bechdel test? Most of them. Of the twelve films technically in the Disney Princess lineup (including Frozen), eleven of them pass. The only one that doesn’t is Aladdin, and that’s because Jasmine is the only speaking woman in the movie. Which, by the way, I’m not saying is a good thing; but whether Aladdin could have benefited from more female characters is another discussion entirely.

Frozen has two women in leading roles. It should pass the Bechdel test without effort; we shouldn’t be surprised. What it lacks, however, that almost every other Disney princess movie has, is a roster of supporting female characters. Aside from Jasmine and Snow White (Snow White passes the Bechdel test by virtue of one conversation with the Queen near the end of the movie), all of Disney’s heroines have strong female influences in their stories. Aurora is raised by three fairies; Belle befriends both Mrs Potts and her wardrobe; Pocahontas’ best friend is another young woman and her strongest guiding influence is Grandmother Willow; even Mulan, who spends most of her movie solely in the company of men, begins the story surrounded by women. In Brave, Merida barely interacts with any male characters at all.

I understand the nature of adaptation: characters change; some are cut and others are added; some are combined and others separated out. But — generally speaking, at least — it isn’t Disney’s habit to remove female characters from the source material in their adaptations. Particularly in the princess movies, young girls (and their mothers) make up such a huge slice of the target demographic — and therefore the box-office and merchandising profit — that diminishing the roles of the female supporting characters or switching them out for men would be an idiotic marketing decision. And, while I’m not suggesting that marketing is more important than strong narrative, in this case it does work in Disney’s storytelling favour, providing a rich roster of maternal characters like Mrs Potts and Grandmother Willow. Remember that Disney heroines typically exist in extremely patriarchal environments, so inundating their narratives with “strong” women would seriously undermine their ongoing theme of subverting the assignations of those societies.

Which leads me neatly back to Frozen, because Frozen’s setting is not explicity patriarchal. I don’t know that having a queen instead of a king is necessarily normal in the world of Frozen, but Elsa’s coronation certainly isn’t treated as any kind of aberration. Women have enough respect and agency in this world that no one particularly comments on Arendelle’s being ruled by a woman. No one speculates about whom she’s going to marry or how many sons she’s going to bear; for once, in fact, it’s the man (Hans) who has to marry into royalty to have any real power.

Alas, poor Yorrick…

I’m not saying that I disapprove of adaptation, or that I think that Disney generally takes too many liberties when adapting stories. Hell, I love what they did with Hamlet. But the original story of The Snow Queen has strong female character after strong female character, from the grandmother who tells Gerda (the original story’s Anna) stories of the Snow Queen, to the Robber Girl who wants to be Gerda’s friend, to the Princess who — get this — can’t find a suitor because she refuses to marry a man who can’t keep up with her intellectually. It’s too many characters for one Disney film, with far too many subplots and intersecting storylines, but it also really begs the question…for what was clearly supposed to be its most feminist animated film ever, adapted into one of its least patriarchal settings, why would Disney replace this entire lineup of interesting female characters with men?

Elsa and Anna might be two female characters in leading roles, but they’re also the only women in the whole film. The original story doesn’t so much pass the Bechdel test as run rings around it; Frozen barely scrapes a pass. And, while there’s definitely a marketing logic behind having some fun male supporting roles the boys can enjoy, there is nothing to praise in replacing every single female supporting role from the story with a male analogue. Why did Anna need a male companion, if both plucky comic relief characters were male? Or vice-versa: female reindeer grow antlers, so Sven could have been a female without even changing the aesthetic.

Narratively speaking, I think Frozen made wrong choice after wrong choice, and I’ve no great love for any of the characters, so I can’t honestly say how I’d have fixed it without changing the story entirely. But I can say that praising the film for passing the Bechdel test is meaningless in the face of 1) the number of its predecessors that also pass just as comfortably, and 2) the fantastic supporting cast of female characters from the original story that Disney cast aside in favour of surrounding Elsa and Anna with men. The only reason to give Anna a male travelling companion — that I can think of — is to uphold the traditional love story that everyone is so convinced the film subverts.

It’s a Disney movie with two strong female characters — arguably two female protagonists!

Quick, what defines Anna? She’s beautiful, in a gives-Barbie-body-dysmorphia kind of way. That’s par for the course with Disney heroines, except for Merida and Mulan. She’s clumsy, which would be endearing except that it seems to be the de facto flaw for heroines who aren’t fully-developed enough to have a real flaw — and yes, this would be the point where I compare Frozen to Twilight. Anna’s clumsiness doesn’t move the plot. It doesn’t affect the outcome of…anything, really. It isn’t something she has to overcome — like Mulan does — thereby displaying strength or determination. It’s just a trait she has so that we will find her more approachable: a cold, hard, marketing decision.

What else does Anna have going for her? She isn’t intelligent, no matter how many words she can spit out per minute. If she were, she wouldn’t rush into an engagement with Hans, nor — for that matter — leave a man she barely knows in charge of her kingdom while she rides out in the snow without a coat. She’s certainly self-absorbed, using the first opportunity to make Elsa’s coronation all about her; and she’s vain, believing absolutely in her ability to talk some sense into Elsa despite having had no relationship with her sister for what looks like roughly ten years. She has no awareness of her surroundings (riding out in the snow without a coat), no awareness of her own limitations (the cringe-inducing mountain climbing episode), and no awareness of the consequences of her actions (provoking Elsa not once, but twice). She’s outspoken, yes, but she’s also rude; she’s condescending towards Kristoff and belligerent towards her sister; and she has no ambition beyond finding her one true love — more on that below.

When it comes to women I’d look up to or consider role models, especially for young girls, Anna ranks somewhere around Mean Girls’ Karen Smith, and certainly well below bookish Belle, feisty Merida, determined Tiana or even kindly Cinderella. I certainly didn’t spend the movie thinking how approachable Anna was, as so many other young women breathlessly profess to; I spent it wanting to grab her by the pigtails, give her a good shake, and tell her to wake up and smell the snowflakes.

Despite her Oscar-bait identity-claiming power anthem, Elsa is no better than her younger sister. She may even be worse. We’ll deal with her crippling self-repression later, because that isn’t actually her fault, but this is a woman who steadfastly refuses to accept any help offered to her. Her sister spends the better part of ten years trying to reach out to her (admittedly misguidedly), and Elsa shuts herself away so steadfastly a psychiatrist might call it pathological. She’s an absolute mess of characterological self-blame and avoidance, and she deals with her issues by speed-skating away from them.

“No right, no wrong/no rules for meeeeee…” Yeah, way to take responsibility.

Running from her problems once is one thing. Elsa is far from the first Disney character to believe — even correctly — that s/he has done something terrible, and to attempt to outrun the consequences. But Simba, faced with the reality of the harm he has inflicted on the Pride Lands, makes the conscious, independent choice to turn around and set things right, while Quasimodo literally brings the walls of Notre Dame down around him to right his wrongs. Faced with her misdeeds, Elsa sets a golem on her sister and has to be dragged back to Arendelle in chains when she’s knocked unconscious by her own chandelier. This is not a strong woman. This is a frightened, repressed, vulnerable woman who starts running at the beginning of the movie and doesn’t stop until her sister literally turns to ice in front of her.

So what does Elsa have going for her? She’s beautiful, like her sister — unsurprising, since they’re the same woman with different hairdos. And at the very end, I suppose she does warm up a little (pun definitely intended). But her redemption is an unearned arc. She never says — never even intimates — that she wants to right the wrong she’s done. She just wants to run from it. She’s more intelligent than Anna, but only barely; she’s anti-social; and she also has little to no awareness of the consequences of her actions: especially troubling since even a small amount of ice-conjuring probably messes the local eco-system up pretty badly.

There’s an ongoing problem, I think, with “strong female character” being made synonymous with “any fictional woman who isn’t just window dressing”. There’s a whole argument to be made about why the phrase “strong female character” is a problem in and of itself — after all, do you ever hear a writer set out specifically to write a “strong male character”? — but I think that that’s what going on with Frozen. Because both characters are arguably leads, and neither is reduced to talking production design, we are conditioned to see them both as “strong”, whether or not they actually are. Frozen certainly has two female characters. It even arguably has two lead female characters. But it certainly doesn’t have two strong female characters, and two out of three just isn’t enough to justify all the praise.

Both women have clearly defined goals, that aren’t just “I want to find true love!”

It can’t be “be accepted for who I am”, because she isolates herself completely; it isn’t “learn to control my power”, because she never studies her power so much as she runs away from what destabilises her. She never expresses any particular wish to be closer to Anna, nor does she lust after power or eternal winter. She leaves her kingdom far too quickly to want to do right by her subjects, so she can’t want to be a good queen. If my life depended on intentifying Elsa’s motive, I’d probably settle on “live free from fear”, but that’s starting to get pretty abstract for a Disney princess.

There’s a particular pattern that I’ve noticed in Disney animated features. Disney princesses state what they want, usually very early in the film, and they tend to get it. Belle wants to escape her provincial life, and that’s exactly what she does. Rapunzel wants to figure out what the glowing lights mean, and again: that’s exactly what she does, discovering her whole hidden history in the process. Mulan wants to bring honour to her family, and she ends up bringing honour to the whole of China. Even Ariel, who of all the recent Disney princesses is the most criticised for a lack of ambition outside of love, wants to experience life as a human long before she meets Eric. Tiana wants a restaurant, Pocahontas wants to choose her own path, Jasmine wants to escape the confines of patriarchal law; the list goes on. And the men in these stories? They’re the bonus prizes.

I have saved your world: now bring me a woman. It should not be hard to find volunteers.

Think about your typical male-dominated action or adventure movie. The man sets out to save the kingdom, find the Holy Grail, slay the dragon, or whatever it is that drives his story. The hero accomplishes his goal, and it’s usually pretty much a given that he finds love along the way. The social contract in a male-driven movie is that he is offered a woman as a bonus prize; no matter how aloof or damaged or resistant she is, the hero will win her over and claim her love. It’s a shitty social contract, but that’s what we expect it to be.

In Disney princess movies, that social contract is turned precisely on its head. The princess starts her story with a goal or dream. She undergoes trials and tests in pursuit of that dream, usually making new friends along the way. Once she achieves that dream — which she invariably does — she is usually given a prince as a reward (notable exceptions include Pocahontas and Brave), the prince more often than not being one of the friends she has met along the way.

If it sounds simplistic, it’s because it is. No matter how much Disney animated films may appeal to adults, their target demographic is still children — and usually children under the age of twelve. For stories that are essentially morality tales, simplicity is a benefit. So the heroine states her goal within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, usually in the Menken-styled “I want” song, and that means that everyone in the audience knows precisely when to cheer at the end of the movie. Ariel wants to be human, so we cheer when Triton gives her her legs; Mulan wants to bring honour to her family, so we cheer when she returns home with the Emperor’s gifts; Belle wants “adventure in the great, wide somewhere”, and oh boy, does she get what she asked for. Pocahontas chooses her own path, Merida changes her fate, Tiana gets her restaurant, and so on.

Just like every other Disney princess, Anna states what she wants very early on. She wants to find “the one”. And, just like every other Disney princess, she gets exactly what she wants. Her renewed relationship with Elsa; the castle gates being opened for good: these are the bonus prizes. Anna’s real goal is true love. We know this for certain because, just like every Disney heroine before her, she helpfully tells us so in her first scene as an adult. Her “I want” song is all about finding a man and falling in love; she doesn’t even mention her sister. As far as I can tell, she can’t get away from Elsa and everything she represents fast enough.

But…but…Anna’s grown up in isolation: of course her priorities are a bit messed up!

It seems far more likely that Anna is only shut inside the castle long-term after her parents die, and text on the screen tells us explicitly that only three years pass between that and Elsa’s coronation. Three long, lonely, boring years, I’m sure, but three years that seem to send Anna far further off-balance than lifetimes of isolation do to other Disney princesses. Unlike, say, Rapunzel, Jasmine or Aurora, Anna has spent some fifteen years of her life in relative normality, presumably experiencing culture, friendships, and perhaps even her first crush in that time: all the things a normal aristocratic teenager could expect to experience. And even in the three years spent shut in the castle, what about the servants? Given Anna’s natural boisterousness, unless Arendelle is really classist, I find it hard to imagine she didn’t interact with and even make friends among the castle staff, whom we know exist because frankly it’s far more believable than Elsa and Anna doing their own laundry.

This is clearly not a girl who styles her own hair.

Jasmine escapes a lifetime of solitude in the palace eager to explore the reality of Agrabah. Rapunzel spends eighteen years alone in a tower and leaves to fight her way to her own history armed with magic hair and a skillet. Even Belle compensates for her social isolation by reading voraciously about the wide world around her. Anna has to endure three years of — at worst — relative isolation, and she emerges so desperate for love that she gets engaged to literally the first young man she meets. It isn’t so much ridiculous because it’s a stupid thing to do; it’s ridiculous because a girl that obsessed with finding love should already have a crush on a cute stable-boy.

Elsa is a relatable antagonist who claims her identity and tells us it’s okay to be an individual.

Apparently his name is Marshmallow.

If that’s what “okay to be an individual” looks like, sign me up for the herd. Elsa’s attempt to claim her identity results in her almost killing her sister and plunging Arendelle into an eternal winter. Elsa doesn’t claim individuality: she seeks isolation, as total as possible. She has no wish to be accepted, whether for who she is or not — only to be alone. And even though, at the very end, it looks as though the people of Arendelle have accepted her, mutant abilities and all, it certainly isn’t because she asked for it. If I’m honest, I have no idea why it is at all. The film certainly doesn’t offer much of an explanation. At any rate, even if Elsa’s arc is intended to be a ringing endorsement of accepting your individuality, even if it means isolation, it certainly doesn’t convey that successfully. Claiming your right to self-expression is one thing, but Frozen seems to be equating that with resolutely avoiding responsibility for your actions, and to be advocating both equally.

Aside from all that, I suppose the real point here is that Elsa isn’t a villain in the traditional sense. We do expect Disney films to have a clear-cut villain against whom the warriors of good can fight, and Disney has quite a roster of really fantastic villains. Bucking that trend and making Elsa a more relatable character is an interesting choice. But again, biased memory seems to be obscuring the fact that complex villains — and even nonexistent villains — are not new for Disney. Frollo is the go-to example of a multi-dimensional Disney antagonist, motivated as he is by fanatical religious belief; but even the more mustache-twirling of the Disney antagonists often have some pretty good reasons for being that way. Take Scar, for example, neglected as a cub in favour of his perfect older brother; or Shere Khan, fearful of humans because dear God, have you seen Bambi?

More to the point, even the most mustache-twirling, conventionally evil of Disney’s villains often exist in worlds with many, many shades of gray. In The Fox and the Hound, Amos Slade may be the nominal villain, but the real conflict is in the way Tod and Copper’s preassigned roles almost destroy their friendship. In Bambi, the villain is the abstract notion of Man, and in Brother Bear, the nominal hero of the story starts out by murdering the mother of the character who will become his best friend and adoptive brother. It’s pretty messed up, but it is complex and thought-provoking.

Elsa isn’t a villain, but frankly she isn’t that complex, either. In story meetings for Frozen, the writers decided that the theme of the story was love vs. fear, but by deciding on that binary they actually ended up robbing the film of a lot of the complexity a character like Elsa could have brought to it. Even Disney films with the most abhorrently evil of villains frequently explore extremely morally ambiguous territory, dealing with topics like guilt, honour, societal expectations, revenge, responsibility and honesty. In Frozen, the morality is simple: fear=bad; love=good. In a story already that binary, who needs a villain anyway?

Elsa claims her sexuality as well as her individuality! She’s a modern woman!

But good lord, that costume. I defy anyone to tell me Elsa’s new wardrobe isn’t entirely aesthetically motivated. And I’m not just talking about its being pretty, which it undoubtedly is. I’m talking about its being laughably, astonishingly impractical. Her dress is so narrow that she can barely walk in it, and speaking of not being able to walk…

Look at those things. I have five-inch spike heels that look more comfortable than that. When you imagine a wardrobe change that represents empowerment and independence, do you really picture crystalline spikes right at your toe and heel joints? I’ll grant you that the fantasy superhero version of me wears heels, but they’re heels on nice, sturdy leather boots that won’t cut my feet to shreds and don’t require a toe grip of death just to keep them on my damn feet. For a woman who lives in a palace of ice, she doesn’t seem to have put any kind of grip on her soles, and have you ever tried to wear stilettos in the snow? It ends with falling on your ass. I respect the idea behind showing Elsa’s choice in how she dresses herself, but that idea gets seriously muddled when our strong female character chooses to dress herself in a way that makes it near impossible to do anything but stand and look ornamental.

This is Jena Malone’s costume from Zack Snyder’s much-maligned Sucker Punch. Sucker Punch got raked over the coals for portraying its lead female characters as “male fantasy masturbation fodder” (multiple sources), and yes, however you feel about the film, there is no mistaking the body baring, fetishistic nature of Malone’s costume up there. When asked about her character’s costume — which, like Elsa’s, is the product of its wearer’s imagination — Malone’s response, paraphrased, boils down to, “If you’re fantasising about kicking ass, killing dragons and saving the day, aren’t you also imagining yourself looking sexy and beautiful doing it?” It’s a different wording of the same defence of Elsa’s costume, but here’s the difference: in the Sucker Punch costume, Malone can move. It might not be sweats and a t-shirt, but it doesn’t restrict any important joints, and, while those boots have a bit of a heel, they also have grip on the soles and they certainly won’t be slipping off her feet. Fetishised as the costume is, it is also practical enough for some truly superb stuntwork, and the costume designer actually consulted with Malone during training to ensure that the costume never interfered with the character’s stated purpose of kicking some serious ass.

I’m not defending Sucker Punch. It’s a muddled mess of a film — I may have loved it, but certainly not in a way that compels me to defend it. But there’s a ridiculous double standard going on here. In Frozen, Elsa minces around in a slit-to-there sequined number that she can barely walk in, with a cute little pair of stilettos and a cape that must get caught on every single icicle, and the internet screams, “Hooray! Identity! Self-empowerment! Let your sexy freak flag fly!” — yet when Jena Malone defends her admittedly sexualised yet far more practical costume from Sucker Punch, the internet pats her on the head and says, “Aww, it’s sweet that you think you know what you’re talking about”. The world decided it hated Sucker Punch, so the fact that Malone trained for months and could basically bench press an elephant while wearing her Rocket costume took second place to the fact that we could see her underwear. The world decided it loved Frozen, so it chose to ignore the fact that if Elsa so much as took a particularly wide step we’d be able to see her underwear too.

There’s an openly gay character! With a family!

So, with that in mind, who on earth is this openly gay character I managed to miss? Twice? I’ve heard the theory that Elsa’s “Let it Go” is subtly intended as a coming-out anthem of sorts, but there’s no confirmation from Disney of that, so I’m inclined to believe it’s one of those convenient Disney moments the LGBT community can adopt with pride whether Disney wants them to or not (something of which I wholeheartedly approve, by the way). And yes, Elsa doesn’t end up with a man of her own — which I’ll cover in a few paragraphs — but if not ending the film with a heterosexual romantic interest is supposed to automatically out Elsa as a lesbian, then frankly Disney’s just doing it wrong.

No, the apparently gay character that, at least according to the internet, is such a revolutionary step forwards for Disney, is…

Big summer bloowout!

This guy.

Yes, he speaks like an effete version of the Chef from the Muppets, and yes, those are some rather lovely pink accents on his sweater, but apparently Disney was being really explicit here, not just dealing in ambiguously offensive stereotypes. No, the logic behind everyone believing that Oaken (he of the Trading Post — and Sauna) is gay comes from a less-than-a-second shot of a family in the sauna…

Helloo, family!

…who may possibly be his husband and four children. Maybe. We don’t know. His page on the Disney Wiki lists his family as “unnamed”, so the blond man in the sauna could be his husband; but he could equally be his brother, cousin, son, nephew, second-cousin-twice-removed or even just a random customer enjoying the sauna with his wife and three children — the figure on the right reads as easily as a petite woman as it does a teenage boy. Disney won’t say.

Showing openly gay characters in mainstream animated movies is not new, but it is very, very recent. The first and only mainstream animated film to explicitly state that a major character is gay is Laika’s Paranorman, released in 2012, with Mitch, the less-than-genius jock with crazy biceps and a boyfriend who loves chick flicks. Paranorman didn’t just break new ground by having an openly gay character: it made the absolutely deliberate decision not to treat Mitch’s homosexuality as a special-interest case. He’s a jock with a boyfriend. Norman is a misfit who can speak to dead people. Judge Hopkins is a zombie with a guilt complex. It’s an entire story full of strange and unusual characters, and Mitch’s homosexuality is one of the least noteworthy traits any of these characters have.

I am an outspoken advocate of the idea that homosexuality needs to start being treated in mainstream movies like it isn’t a big deal. As long as films — animated or otherwise — with LGBT characters keep being categorised as special interest pieces, we won’t really have equality in media, no matter how many LGBT characters find their way onto the screen. That was what I loved about Paranorman: that Mitch’s sexuality ain’t no thing. That’s what people seem to love about the shot of Oaken’s maybe-family: that no one comments on who’s in it.

But there is a crucial difference here: in Paranorman, the people behind the camera do comment on Mitch’s homosexuality. If anyone was left with any doubts at the end of the film, those doubts are erased when screenwriter/co-director Chris Butler tells interviewers that it was a deliberate choice, done to support the themes of misunderstanding and judgement throughout the film.

“[the characters] all look at someone else, think they know who they are without getting into a conversation with them, and judge them. I wanted to make the audience complicit in that. It’s not just Mitch; there are plenty of stereotypes that are presented in this movie.”

It was a brave and decisive move, and it resulted in some of the absolute ugliest reactions I have ever seen. To the minds of so many viewers, an animated film that handled the treatment of a homosexual major character perfectly suddenly became about the gay agenda and nothing else. Laika brushed it off and continued with its wonderfully inclusive teaser trailer for The Boxtrolls, but Laika doesn’t have the market share to lose that Disney does. If Disney were even to confirm that Oaken is gay — thereby also confirming that his having a husband is too normal to justify comment — the support they would gain from the already-supportive gay community would pale in comparison to the support they would lose from what is still their largest market segment: right-wing families with Volvos and two-and-a-half children.

And that’s why Disney will never take that risk. Perhaps Oaken is supposed to be gay. I doubt it — I think seeing a husband in that sauna is just confirmation bias. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s a freeze-frame gag, and no one from Disney is ever going to confirm or deny. If you’re that eager for a gay character in a mainstream animated movie, go watch Paranorman instead; but you cannot persuade me to believe that a freeze-frame gag that may or may not be of a homosexual family is anything worth celebrating, because it isn’t. It is not good enough.

We get to hear the words, “You can’t marry a man you just met!”

It’s a lambasting of the Disney princess tradition, and theoretically a fairly incisive one. You shouldn’t marry a man you just met. It’s unquestionably stupid, and poking fun at the fact that Disney has been not-so-subtly encouraging that approach for decades is a smart move. I mean, come on: how many Disney princesses or leading ladies have fallen in love at first sight with a man they barely know?

Four. That’s how many. Rather than boring you with more tables, I’ll just name them: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora and Ariel. Disney ladies actually tend towards quite extended courtships, and the men are more likely to fall in love at first sight than the women are. Each of the four love-at-first-sight princesses have love interests who fall just as quickly as they do — Ariel’s Prince Eric falls in love with a girl he just heard — and you can add Aladdin, Quasimodo, Hercules and Tarzan to the list of men who let their eyes do the thinking for them (more if you count the animal characters).

So Anna is warned off committing to a guy she just met, in an attempt to criticise something that isn’t actually as longstanding a Disney tradition as everyone thinks it is, and what does she go off and do? Fall in love with a guy she just met.

Look at the film’s timeline. The castle gates open mid-morning, and Hans is pretty much the first person Anna meets. After their dance, which I’m guessing is somewhere around noon, they spend the rest of the day together, not announcing their engagement until at least eleven at night (the clock halfway through their duet reads 10:15). They get a full day together, which, given that they spend most of it talking, is actually quite a lot of getting-to-know-you time. Not, I grant you, nearly enough to justify getting engaged, but a normal, sane person can certainly develop real feelings for another normal, sane person in eleven hours of talking.

Feel free to ignore the awkward robot dance. I tried.

Now, how much time does Anna actually spend with Kristoff? The timeline of the film gets more muddled from here, so I’m guessing a little, but I do know that Kristoff and Anna leave Oaken’s Trading Post (and Sauna) sometime in the early morning (Oaken’s clock says 10:30, but that’s hard to reconcile: it’s definitely been more than fifteen minutes since Anna and Hans had their little duet, but unless Elsa’s eternal winter has changed the rotation of the earth, it should still be light out by 10:30 am in July — but I digress), and that Kristoff drops ailing Anna back in Arendelle fairly early the next morning. At best, the two have just over twenty-four hours together, most of which is spent either navigating hostile terrain or sniping at each other; yet the audience is expected to believe that they have fallen in “true love” with each other in that time. It doesn’t matter that the act of true love ends up being between Anna and Elsa (and yes, I’ll be hitting that beat later too): the twist only works because we believe that what Anna and Kristoff have is real.

Belle spent days in the Beast’s castle. Pocahontas and John Smith spent at least a week learning about each other, and before being revealed as a woman, Mulan spent weeks getting to know Shang as an equal. Even Ariel, smitten as she was at first sight, spent three full days courting Prince Eric — yet the film we are celebrating as the most progressive princess story Disney ever told wants us to root for two people who spend twenty-four hours together, and neither of whom has slept or eaten since the previous morning. Neither of them is in any state to make rational decisions; neither has a history of rational decisions; yet we believe their “true love” enough that Anna’s choosing to act for her sister instead of Kristoff actually registers as a surprise.

Frozen isn’t just entirely on-mould: it’s conforming to a mould that hasn’t existed in Disney films since the late eighties — if not earlier. Anna and Kristoff get their kiss in the end and we cheer, because whatever Anna’s goal might have been, her happily-ever-after with her man is still the prize we expect.

But Elsa doesn’t end up with a guy — and she’s just as important as Anna!

Quick show of hands — who actually thought Elsa was the protagonist of the story? She isn’t. She’s the antagonist. An antagonist who gets a redemption and who isn’t necessarily a villain, but an antagonist nonetheless. Frozen is unquestionably Anna’s story, and almost every scene Elsa has is there to prevent the real protagonist — Anna — from getting what she wants. Sure, we get a few moments alone with Elsa to flesh her out, but I’m going to court controversy here by saying that “Let it Go”, while undoubtedly a fun song, is just Elsa’s equivalent to Frollo’s “Hellfire”: time spent giving the antagonist enough complexity to keep him/her interesting. It doesn’t make Elsa the hero of the story: it just makes us want to see her thrown off a cliff a little less.

Disney antagonists don’t get love stories. They court the protagonist/protagonist’s love interest and are thwarted, or they spend too much time opposing the protagonist to fit a romance into their arc. We’ve had plenty of female antagonists before: Maleficent, Cruella De Vil, Ursula, pick-an-evil-stepmother — you get the idea. I’m not saying that Elsa isn’t far more nuanced and compelling than any of these ladies. I’m just saying that not giving her a love interest is much more conventional than actually giving her one would have been.

I don’t typically go in for crossovers, but is this an OTP or what? Art by Kazeki.

It’s almost a shame, to imagine what could have been had Disney really bucked the trend and given Elsa a love interest instead of Anna. Male fear of feminine power and the changing demarcation of traditional masculinity — is something that drives an awful lot of the discussions of feminism today, and there’s a really interesting idea in the story of a woman who is so much more powerful than the man she loves — and who loves her — that she stands to really hurt him. Does she suppress her power for her lover? Does her lover want her to? Does she have to choose between love and power, or can she find a way to be feminine, in love, and powerful too? It’s an interesting, complex, and definitely feminist story, but it’s not the one Disney chose to tell.

The “true love” that saves the day is the love between sisters, not some silly “true love’s kiss”!

Two. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Disney has been cleverly subverting the True Love’s Kiss trope for over fifty years. Ariel misses her True Love’s Kiss and has to earn her right to be a human instead; Belle doesn’t kiss the Beast until after he transforms (thankfully, or think of the hairballs), and Pocahontas’ True Love’s Kiss kiss literally gets people killed. In The Princess and the Frog, the trope is subverted far more cleverly than in Frozen, when the kiss that will transform Naveen back is revealed to be a matter of semantics, not love. Naveen could have saved himself by kissing any old princess, whether he loved her or not: it is not until he and Tiana have married for the right reasons that their kiss has any meaning, literally or figuratively.

That being said, the choice to make Anna’s and Elsa’s love for each other what will save the day, rather than Anna’s and Hans’, is an admirable one. Really, it is. It just isn’t nearly as surprising or revolutionary as everyone seems to think it is. The climaxes of Disney movies hinge on family, friendship, truth and honour just as often as they do on love. Disney has never, ever been shy about telling its audience that there are many more types of love than just romantic. Consider Lilo and Stitch, The Fox and the Hound, The Lion King, Robin Hood, Brother Bear, Tarzan, The Black Cauldron…quick, someone stop me before I list three-quarters of all the films Disney has ever made.

Father and daughter is the real story here.

Because of the youth of its target demographic, Disney actually beats the drum of friendship far more often than that of True Love. Even in The Little Mermaid — and yes, I’m going to keep coming back to it because everyone’s convinced it is so much more benighted than it is — it is Triton’s love for Ariel that eventually gives her what she wants, not Eric’s. When she acts like a petulant teenager with a crush (which she is), Ariel can’t really escape the ocean to the human life she so craves; but when she fights for her father’s trust and respect, literally saving his life in the process, she achieves her goal. Just as I said a few paragraphs ago, her marriage to Eric is the bonus prize, and it isn’t remotely accidental that her last line in the entire film is “I love you, Daddy.”

Plenty of Disney films, even the princess ones, tell us that family and friendship are just as important as — if not more than — romantic love. Frozen is the only one I can think of with so little respect for its audience that it has to beat us over the head with it.

Anna takes charge and makes her own decisions!

Well, yeah, of course there is. Now show me that character.

I will grant you that Anna takes the initiative a couple of times. She decides to ride off after her totally-not-dangerous-except-really-she-is sister. She insists that Kristoff escort her up the mountain right then and there, instead of (more sensibly) after they have both eaten and rested. She…no, wait, that’s it.

Anna actually spends a lot of the movie being told what she can and cannot do. Hard as she fights for it, her engagement to Hans isn’t her idea: it’s his. And it’s a decision that has nothing to do with her well-being, desires or happiness, and everything to do with his ulterior motives. Hans manipulates Anna into marrying him; Elsa tells Anna she can’t get married. When Anna stands her ground against Elsa in her ice palace, Elsa forces her out, first with magic and then with the unnecessarily aggressive golem. Anna is not permitted to deduce what act of true love might save her failing heart: a troll tells her it must be true love’s kiss, after which one man literally carries her back to Arendelle so that another man can kiss her better. Throughout the film, Anna has very little agency.

It actually goes a step further. Anna doesn’t just have decisions made for her as she goes: her agency is actively taken from her within the first few minutes of the film. Without her consent — without even her parents’ real consent — Anna has her memories of Elsa’s power taken away as a small child. We understand that Anna is unconscious and unable to consent, and that the procedure will save her life, but what happens next? If, when she is old enough to understand the implications, her parents or even Elsa were to sit her down and say, “Look, there’s something you should know about your sister, for your own safety and hers,” would the ice in her head grow back? Or would she just then be equipped with information that could help her sister retain control, or prevent her from making some really stupid decisions later on?

Before she rides off to reason with Elsa, Anna makes two statements. The first is that Elsa is not dangerous; the second is that Elsa would never hurt her. The sentiment is nice — and clearly groundwork for Anna’s act of unconditional sibling love later on — but both those statements are fundamentally, dangerously untrue. However good Elsa’s intentions, the fact is that she is dangerous, and she can hurt Anna. A lot of Anna’s poor choices are motivated by sheer stupidity, but in this case that lack of information prevents her from making good decisions. Her agency is compromised, and it puts her in very real danger. Knowing Elsa’s ability is uncontrollable under strong emotion, would Anna have provoked her at the coronation, or confronted her in the ice palace? Knowing the effect of being struck by Elsa’s power, would Anna have gone to see her alone, or continued pushing her despite her obvious distress?

I know we’re talking about Anna’s decison-making here, but it’s worth noting that the Troll King is fairly egalitarian in whose agency he chooses to ruin, doing a pretty comprehensive number on Elsa’s ability to control her life as well. Think about it: to a vulnerable young girl already terrified by the reality of having harmed her sister, the Troll King basically says, “Fear will be your greatest enemy…BOO!”

What a dick.

Sure, that’s a girl who’ll grow into a well-balanced adult.

More seriously, though, regardless of how badly Elsa and Anna’s parents interpret the Troll King’s warning, the damage is already done. The Troll King steals Elsa’s agency too, by needlessly scaring the living shit out of both her and her parents. They are frightened, they are vulnerable and they are desperate, and so the Troll King decides to tell them about Elsa’s growing powers in the most frightening and ominous way he possibly could, indelibly equating Elsa’s ability with the very fear she needs to avoid. More than that, we find out later that the Troll King is very aware of the potency of love to temper Elsa’s power: he’s the one who tells Anna later on that true love can thaw the ice in her heart. The only reason he does not tell Elsa about the power of love right away is because it would result in a much shorter movie. As it is, his reticence not only robs Elsa of her freedom to study, understand, and ultimately control her powers: it leads to a story predicated on a plot contrivance so thin it’s invisible from sideways on.

It gets worse.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but those trolls have a serious and recurring problem with the ideas of choice, agency and consent — all things we rightfully expect that our heroes should have. Having already got both Anna’s and Elsa’s lives off to fantastic starts when they were both children, the trolls continue to step all over Anna’s choices when Kristoff brings her to them for advice. What should be a straightforward info-dump turns into an awkward and frankly obnoxious song-and-dance number in which the trolls try to convince Anna, Kristoff, and us that Anna and Kristoff belong together, despite the fact that Anna is already engaged.

I know the point of Anna’s whirlwind engagement to Hans is to poke fun at the notion of love at first sight, but think about it contextually for a moment: the trolls know literally nothing about Hans and how recently Anna met him. For all they know, Anna’s fiance is someone she has been courting for years, and with whom she is deeply, genuinely in love. In fact, as Kristoff’s friend and clearly someone he respects enough to introduce to his family, the trolls have every reason to give Anna the benefit of the doubt and assume her engagement is something to which she has given careful, considered thought. So what is their immediate reaction to being told that she is engaged to another man?

We can fix that.

Do me a favour, and imagine you’re a recently engaged woman. Now imagine your best friend invites you over to his house, and his mother assumes that you and he are a couple. Embarrassed, but understanding the mistake, you tell her that you are engaged to someone else. “Don’t be silly,” she says, “that doesn’t matter. You’re going to marry my son.” How offended would you be?

I know it’s supposed to be a fun little comedy beat, but the trolls’ response to the news of Anna’s engagement shows no respect for her choices, or her agency as an individual. She doesn’t know what’s best for herself (and yes, I know technically that’s true, but work with me here): a bunch of people she met five minutes ago know better. She isn’t asked whether she’d prefer to be with Kristoff: it’s assumed. When she tries to interject, she is cut off. And what’s worse is that we agree with the trolls. That moment reads as comedic because the audience isn’t expected to respect Anna’s agency either. We’ve already assumed she’ll end up with Kristoff. We’ve made the choice for her too.

It is a deeply, deeply troublesome scene, so neatly hidden in a jazzy little song-and-dance number that I actually missed it the first time around. And, just like Hans, the trolls don’t suggest the match with Kristoff for Anna’s benefit. The song is about how she can fix him. Her only qualification for the job is being a woman. Anna’s interest in Kristoff is assumed — and again, imagine being told by someone you barely know that you really are attracted to a man: you just don’t know it yet. It’s deeply offensive; and yet, once again, we’re expected to agree with the trolls, because that’s just how these stories work.

Anna, do you take Kristoff to be your trollfully wedded what now?

All of this leads up to Anna only escaping being married to Kristoff without her consent by almost dying from a heart condition. You forgot about that detail, didn’t you? I cannot think of a single other Disney movie in which a character gets all the way to “I now pronounce you…” without giving some kind of consent…actually, that’s not quite true. In The Little Mermaid, Prince Eric is brainwashed into marrying Ursula, and is halfway through the ceremony before Ariel and her animal friends rescue him. His blank stare, Ursula’s evil smile, the music, the atmosphere: every detail in that scene is an indicator of how utterly wrong the situation is. A non-consensual marriage is the closest Disney animation will ever get to showing us a rape. Eric’s almost-wedding to Ursula is the most extreme example I can think of, but plenty of Disney movies involve women trapped by the prospect of an arranged marriage, and without exception those women fight that disregard for their consent. We are expected to feel and support their horror; their revulsion; their feeling of violation.

In Frozen? We are expected to laugh.

Some final thoughts:

In a recent DGA (Director’s Guild of America) “Women’s Steering Committee” meeting, the DGA resolved to “work diligently” to solve the problem of the gender imbalance in film. Everyone patted themselves on the back, declared the job mostly done and went home, except for the people who pointed out that the EEOC resolved to do exactly the same thing in 1978 — fourteen years after motion picture studios were found almost uniformly in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The state of the industry for women is absolutely abysmal, and has been for decades. It’s a problem that should have been swiftly and incisively dealt with as soon as it was pointed out, but the response from the motion picture studios was to form a committee, publicly celebrate the formation of said committee, and in private make absolutely sure that the committee was almost incapable of making substantial change.

Does it sound like a conspiracy? At the time, it was. The male-led studios didn’t want women behind the cameras, so they did their best to keep them out. But now? It’s just complacency. In the years following the 1978 EEOC report, the percentage of women behind the cameras did start to rise, peaking with 16% of network television episodes directed by women in 1993. And then? It plateaued. Someone, somewhere, decided that a rise from 0.5% to 16% over a period of ten years was not only pretty good — which it was — but good enough, and the efforts stopped. Now the landscape for women in film is as bleak as ever, but because no one wants to disturb the status quo, and because twenty years ago it was decided that we had reached good enough, virtually nothing is being done. The same is true in finance; the same is true in engineering. The same arguments I make for women can be made for racial discrimination or LGBT acceptance. Every minority group that has ever had to struggle for equal treatment is fighing against good enough, because to ever acknowledge that we have reached good enough is to give the people with influence our permission to stop trying and go home.

I bring this up because I see the same thing going on in Disney’s Frozen. We all know that women are underrepresented in film. Disney/Marvel alone has made a killing at the box office with eight — soon to be nine and counting — massively fun, massively successful superhero films, and not one has been led by a woman. A male-driven superhero film can be mediocre and recover with the next installment in the franchise, but the debate over which superheroine should kick off the women-driven slate of films has been going on for years, because the zeitgeist of the industry means that she will only get one shot.

We like to think that animated movies are almost as egregious as superhero films. I’ve tried over and over again here to show that that isn’t historically the case, but for whatever reason the perception persists. Throwing the doors open to women with a new generation of intelligent, capable female characters who are not defined by whom they fall in love with is a smart move, and Disney knows it. That’s why Disney has been beating the “More Feminism” drum for years now: not because they believe it, but because the children of millenials are being brought up in homes that champion intelligent, outspoken women, and that’s where the ticket sales are coming from. But Disney has, and has always had, a fine line to tread between breaking new ground, and maintaining the comfort of tradition, or it risks losing the millions in ticket sales and merchandise that comes from the old vanguard. Frozen walks that line like a tightrope, but not by actually breaking new ground. Instead, Frozen creates the clever illusion of its own progressiveness by subtly degrading what came before it to make itself look more enlightened by comparison. In doing so, it not only treads upon a rich history of compelling heroines in much better films; it manages to get away with being good enough.

At the end of the day, that’s why I feel it’s so important to call Frozen on its bullshit. Whether you loved or hated Frozen, it should be impossible to deny that it is preceded by a rich history of animated films that champion bravery, intelligence, strength and agency in their heroines far more effectively than it does. Yet denying it we are, in droves, and sometime since Frozen’s release the praise heaped upon it reached such a critical mass that it somehow has made us forget that Belle left both home and the Beast’s castle to save her father’s life; that Mulan risked death on the battlefield and execution for treason to protect her family; that Esmeralda chose immolation rather than give herself to a man she despised; that the archetypal Prince Charming hasn’t been seen in a Disney film since The Little Mermaid; and that no Disney heroine except Anna — even Ariel — has begun her story with love as her goal since 1959: all in favour of vapid, brainless, impulsive and flighty characters whose agency is stolen from them for the sake of comedy and wafer-thin plot contrivances. This is Disney’s good enough.

And just like the DGA’s slight rise in women directors twenty years ago, good enough is where Disney will stay. Record-breaking box office numbers and glowing reviews give Disney our permission to stamp the Frozen formula with FEMINIST, wash their hands, and go home. And you cannot fault them for it. Since its earliest days as a studio, Disney has been a for-profit business. Their track record puts them firmly in the camp of what will make them money: it’s the only reason they don’t produce hand-drawn features any more. At the same time that Disney’s hand-drawn animation department was failing commercially, Pixar was practically printing its own money with computer animated features. Over the course of just two years, we decided with our box office dollars that the traditionally-animated Princess and the Frog was not good enough, but that the CGI Tangled was, and the great tradition of hand-drawn Disney features died, probably for good.

I don’t want Frozen to be good enough. I’ve spent more than enough words explaining why I think it spits in the face of what we should be thinking of as feminism, and how, like a schoolyard bully, it ennobles itself by mocking its predecessors. I don’t want to think that, when I perhaps have daughters some day, this is what I will be able to take them to see; still less do I want to think that the older, more progressive features will have been deemed irrelevant in favour of the new, Frozen-style model. I applaud the attempt to broaden the range of multi-faceted female characters in animation; I appreciate the intent of having two women in prominent roles instead of the usual one, but I want to see better. And the more effusive praise we heap on a movie that shouldn’t even be good enough, the less likely it is that better will ever happen.

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