Queen Elsa from Disney’s Frozen is a Worthy Role Model for the Next Generation of Women
My tenth grade English teacher once mentioned that if she ever had a daughter she would not allow her to watch Disney movies. As a young lady who grew up on the Disney classics and never missed a new Disney movie in theaters, this was shocking to me. What kind of childhood would her daughter have if it was devoid of Disney princesses?
I asked why she would make that choice for her daughter, and she replied that the Disney princess movies did not portray women in a way that she would want her daughter to emulate. She felt that the next generation of women needed role models who exercised critical thinking and common sense, who were strong and conscientious leaders, and who were independent and could think for themselves. In her opinion, the last thing that the next generation of women needed was an endless parade of female role models who pranced around in fancy dresses while singing nonsense songs with little animals and waiting for a strange man to come along and solve all her problems.
As a self-professed lover of all things Disney, this gave me pause. It was 2005 and up to that point there had been almost no admirable female characters in Disney movies; Mulan released in 1998 might be the solitary notable exception. Even as we moved into an era where we talked often about empowering little girls and young women with the messages we send through pop culture and social media, Disney’s offerings were filled with more of the same damsel-in-distress female characters, or the female characters in their box office hits played nothing more than a supporting role.
Then in 2012 Disney released Brave; in my opinion, this movie was the first real game changer for leading female characters after a long string of disappointing leading ladies. Merida was a princess who rode astride her big horse, climbed massive rocky mountain faces with no climbing gear, and refused to buy into the social norms of her time. She was not a perfect female role model in the sense that she was selfish, impulsive, and always in a fight with the only other strong female character, but her appearance in a Disney movie was a step in the right direction.
After Brave there were a few more films with soft, feminine characters, or protagonists that little girls and little boys could enjoy with equal enthusiasm, and then the mother of all strong and fierce female Disney characters finally took the stage. Queen Elsa made it clear she was cut from a different cloth when she informed her little sister on no uncertain terms that you cannot marry a man you have only known for as long as it took you to participate in a painful, cheesy song and dance number together.
Queen Elsa’s character understood the importance of making the right choices for the good of the people even if it meant excluding or isolating herself from them. She was exacting, but not ruthless, in dealing with the individuals who tried to cross her during her struggle with her powers. She knew that finding a man was not the only answer to personal wellbeing and happiness for herself or for her sister. Most important, she was willing to acknowledge when a situation was out of her control and that to change the outcome she had to change the way she was thinking and behaving in the moment. These are wise, multi-faceted, admirable character traits that any mother would be proud to impart upon their daughter through the enjoyment of a Disney movie like Frozen.
Since this film was released in 2013, Disney has followed up Queen Elsa’s performance with more powerful female characters such as Joy from Inside Out, Officer Judy Hopps from Zootopia, and Moana from Disney’s smash hit Moana released in 2016. These female leads are ladies who are true to themselves, who overcome tall odds in the face of considerable opposition, and who impart wisdom about what it means to be a strong woman in a modern age through their actions in each story.
Perhaps I am reading too far into it with the juxtaposition of Disney’s bygone obsession with princess movies versus their current platform which seems to include the kind of leading ladies you would want your young daughter to admire. But then when you see little girls running around on Halloween dressed up as their favorite Disney character, or decorating their rooms from floor to ceiling with similar representations, perhaps the strength of these new female Disney characters is a bigger deal after all.
As I sat down on the couch to watch Frozen with my four-year-old daughter this weekend, my tenth grade English teacher’s words swam up from the depths of my memory. Suddenly, I felt uneasy about letting her watch the film. Was I perpetuating age old stereotypes about women by enjoying a Disney film with my little girl? Would she fail to grow up wanting to be a strong woman because we watched princess films where the handsome prince saves the day? But then we came to the scene where Elsa tells Anna point blank that you cannot marry a man you just met, and I realized that for all my worrying this generation of young ladies is going to turn out just fine due in small part to strong, sensible, wise female characters in the movies they watch as little girls.
I am no longer in contact with the English teacher who changed how I felt about Disney princess movies, but as I navigate raising a little girl in this crazy world, I often think about what she said, and I wonder if she ever got to have a daughter of her own and how she is faring with the same task. Regardless of where she is or what her life looks like now, I feel safe in saying that I think she would be quite proud of the way our culture is trying to change the messages we send to young girls, even in our Disney movies.