It’s easy to hate on Disney when you’re in college, learning about patriarchy for the first time and realizing that Belle was probably just suffering from Stockholm syndrome at the hands of Beast.
It’s considerably harder to hate on Disney when you find yourself with an adorable 5-year-old niece who has a passion for princesses and whose bubble it’d pain you to burst. After tagging along with her recently to watch Frozen, the latest Disney insta-classic, this one featuring two empowered princesses quite capable of saving themselves, I had to ask: is it time to change my tune on the Mouse? Has Disney finally overcome its muted-mermaid, distressed-damsel, waiting-for-a-hunky-hero gender problem?
We’ve come a long way from movies where it was ok for dashing princes to save the day by making out with ladies they find unconscious in the forrest. While I’ll admit that I’m not completely up to speed — in my anti-Disney/pre-niece years, I missed the likes of The Princess and the Frog and Brave — but I understand these films have made efforts to address some of the problems Disney has had with representation of race and gender. Last year the niece introduced me to Tangled, and I’ve got to say: not bad. In that film, Rapunzel demonstrates some real skill at appropriating the signs of traditional femininity (frying pan, fabulous hair) and putting them in service of her own liberation. (Need I mention the phallic nature of the tower she escapes?)
Continuing what I hope is the trend, Frozen has a lot going for it. The film stars two princesses, one of whom becomes queen not long into the film — and not by marriage. Queen Elsa’s little sister, Princess Anna, is the only one of the pair who is concerned with finding herself a man. Significantly, the film explicitly calls husband-finding into question as the best route to happiness. In a move that may indeed be quite subversive of Disney’s own genre conventions, the very idea of what ‘true love’ means in princessland is completely overhauled by the end of the movie. Eighty years ago, Snow White sang “Someday My Prince Will Come.” In Frozen we hear that even a fella who appears to be a good catch may be “a bit of a fix-er-upper” — or worse.
The fact that there are two lead women is important. Even films with strong women often leave those characters all alone, unable to connect to or form solidarity with other women, often outright trampling each other as they compete for power or men. With Anna and Elsa, Frozen passes the Bechdel test, a quick metric for evaluating the representation of women in film. The test asks three questions: Are there more than one (named) female characters? Do they ever get to talk to each other? If so, does their conversation get beyond talking about a guy? Most movies you’ve seen do not pass this test; even this year some otherwise impressive films like her and Gravity fail hard. Frozen passes.
Elsa’s big musical number, “Let it Go,” can be heard as a real anthem of empowerment. As she sings, she lets down her hair, puts down her foot, unleashes her powers, builds herself a cool new Fortress of Solitude palace, and makes clear that she no longer gives a crap about what people think. It’s a bold moment to be sure, but it’s tempered by the fact that she’s singing this after being chased out of town.
If a Disney royal can celebrate her power only when she’s all by herself in the middle of nowhere after running away from her crown and her family and preparing to live alone forever on a frozen mountain, the feminist merits of the film may be seriously undermined. And then there’s the small matter of the body. The sultry Jessica Rabbit famously remarked, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Princess Anna might say the same about her frailty; while Disney princess plot lines may be getting more progressive, the waist lines are not. Anna and Elsa have the teeniest waists and the giantest eyeballs. Critics have pointed out the absurd gender dimorphism in the character design (“Help, my eyeball is bigger than my wrist”), where physical features overemphasize differences between male and female characters, making the women look weak and breakable.
So the film has made some real progress in some ways, but seems, well, frozen, in others. Is it still worth debating the issue? Does the fact that some commentators can call the film progressive while others call it a step backwards mean the question is moot?
It’s a mistake to think we can go in and check some box and say Frozen gets some feminist seal of approval. And when we do set out to evaluate a film for its portrayal of gender, we’ve got to avoid silly assumptions about how media images work on audiences. Some well-intentioned critics forget that it’s never a single ‘role model’ character that matters so much as the larger constellation of patterns repeated again and again across nearly every media text a kid will encounter. We don’t get very far if we imagine some daft cause-and-effect model where watching A causes B. Little girls — and little boys — as well as their families and their teachers — relate to these texts in complicated ways, and they relate to zillions of other texts, too.
But just because we can’t say Frozen is simply “good” or “bad” doesn’t mean we should just “let it go.” If there’s a lesson in Frozen, it’s that it is absolutely crucial that we keep questioning and critiquing the way such films represent gender. Frozen is far from perfect, but the fact that it’s so much better than what this media machine was producing 15 years ago is a testament to how powerful and necessary it is to keep asking these questions, to keep doing this analysis and critique. The powerful figures in this film aren’t just the two badass princesses, or even Jennifer Lee who wrote and co-directed the film, but all the choosy moms (and maybe a helpful, hunky beau or two) and ruthless critics who, by demanding better, are melting the glacier that is patriarchal pop culture.