Redundant spoiler alert: ALL THE SPOILERS.
Prior to the release of Disney’s Frozen, I highlighted the fact that it was getting some pretty bad pre-release press from fellow feminist pop culture bloggers. The Feminist Fangirl wrote a post about how the original female-centric epic-quest fairytale appeared to have been gutted in favour of yet more bland princess fare. Then, the lead animator put his foot in it by making some poorly thought-out comments about how it’s really difficult to animate female characters, because they have to show emotion but they also have to be pretty, so sometimes they just end up all looking the same. Nightmare, am I right?
When Frozen was released, I deliberately resisted reading any reviews until I’d seen it for myself, although the general background buzz on the feminist blogosphere indicated that it was a lot better than expected. And having eventually seen it, I have to agree. Frozen is a feminist movie.
At this point, I want to reiterate that when I talk about feminist art, I am not using “feminist” as a synonym for “good”. There are some terrible movies that could be considered feminist and plenty of masterpieces with no female characters at all.
When I call something a feminist movie, it is shorthand for a movie that fulfills at least some of the following requirements:
- It passes the Bechdel Test1
- Female characters who are complex and flawed in interesting ways, not stereotypes
- Female characters that are not just plot devices used to drive the male hero’s story or provide him with a fitting prize after he wins the day
- The plot or the moral of the story espouses a feminist idea, e.g. the most important relationship in a woman’s life is not necessarily heterosexual or romantic
- My personal litmus test: if had a daughter, would I be happy with what she’s learning about her gender from this movie?
By no means an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.
Feminist movies are not automatically good movies, but more feminist movies in general is a good thing for culture. Women are still so very under-represented both onscreen and behind the camera. I am not going to get into the details of why representation in media is important, but suffice to say that the stories we tell ourselves about the world have a profound effect on the way we view and interact with the world, especially when we are children.
Frozen passes the Bechdel Test within ten seconds of the opening credits.
If you had to describe Frozen in one sentence, it would be accurate to say that it is a story about the relationship between two sisters, Anna and Elsa.
The relationship between Anna and Elsa is complicated and nuanced. It is not based on rivalry or polar opposite personalities or other common sister tropes. It is rooted in love and compassion, but complicated by conflicting interests and lack of communication… so you know, a lot like life!2 It reminded me of the mother-daughter relationship at the core of Brave, which – while highly dysfunctional – was not based on the mother being an evil witch or a passive nurturer. It was refreshing to see another offering from Disney that firmly discards lazy stereotypes about how women relate to each other.
There is a romance plot in Frozen, but it is decidedly secondary to the main story and it concludes with a good lesson, particularly for little girls who are saturated in princess culture. Anna has a fiancé for most of the movie but starts to develop feelings for another dude. Anna is confused but before she actually has to make a decision, it turns out that Fiancé never loved her and was just using her for her status and power. The message is clear. There is no such thing as One True Love. Get to know someone before you commit to them. Get to know the world, get to know yourself before you jump into a serious relationship. Definitely don’t agree to marry the first eligible dude who pays attention to you (see: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella) because there is a chance he might turn out to be a giant shit nugget.
Anna is a well-written female character. She has agency (and I eagerly await the day when it is redundant to say this about a female protagonist). She is defined by her exuberance, determination and faith in her fellow humans. She is also a bit weird and awkward, but these traits are not so overblown as to dominate her entire personality. In short, she is complex and she is likeable. But what I really liked about Anna was that she was all these things without eschewing the usual trappings of femininity. Anna can be inserted directly in the Disney Princess family with no major alterations to her costume, unlike Mulan or Merida. She likes dresses. She gets excited about balls and dancing. She gets giddy over boys. She does not have freakish strength or fighting abilities belied by her tiny frame. Ana – and to a certain extent, Rapunzel in Tangled – shows how a character can embody a gamut of traditionally feminine tropes while staying in charge of her own story. Anna shows that “feminine” does not automatically equate to “weak”, “shallow” or “passive”. Her romance arc also shows that falling in love does automatically render a woman incapable of making her own decisions or prioritising other relationships.
Perhaps best of all, because Anna is not the only female character, she does not have to shoulder the task of representing ALL WOMEN EVER in less than two hours. Elsa is different from her sister – she is colder (lol obviously) and more reserved. From the outset, we are given full insight into her struggles, her internal conflicts, her fear of her magic and her terror of hurting the people she loves. We witness her withdrawal, her anger and loss of control, her liberation and her descent back into fear. Eventually, we see her make peace with herself and powers, thanks to her sister (and the power of love, because, you know, Disney). I loved the amount of insight we have into Elsa’s emotional journey; we know exactly who she is and how she got that way, and that level of interiority makes her a sympathetic and compelling character.
So overall, Frozen was a feminist success and a box-office success, and thus an excellent argument against conventional “wisdom” that says no one wants to see movies with female leads and that shit will never make money. Great job all around, everyone! But, what puzzles me is why the feminist blogosphere did not pick up on this in the pre-release period? Why were feminist expectations for Frozen so low, when the finished product, though obviously not perfect, was definitely on the right track when it comes to female representation and characterisation in children’s films?
The answer comes down to marketing. Ostensibly, the risk management strategy for making a feature film with two female protagonists was to pack the rest of it full of male characters and feature them heavily in the marketing material. This is corroborated by the early trailers, which do not make it even remotely apparent that the main plot is about two sisters. Indeed, we barely see or learn anything of Elsa from these trailers, except that she is Anna’s sister and quite possibly evil. She’s also not particularly prominent in many of the promotional images, in which the marketers chose to focus on two non-human male characters, Olaf the Snowman and Sven the Reindeer.
One could argue that Disney simply did not want to reveal too much of the plot and chose to market Elsa as a mysterious villain to this end. Nonetheless, it is telling that the specific plot point they concealed was that two female characters get the bulk of the screen time and their relationship forms the core of the story. Disney seems to feel that its audiences are ready for female characters and relationships, as long as they don’t know about them until they are safely installed in their cinema seats.
It makes me sad to think that the target market for this movie needed to be tricked into going to see it. It makes me sad that Disney had such little faith in their two female protagonists that they decided to build their marketing campaign around the zany comic relief instead.
But if that’s what it takes to get more well-rounded female characters into children’s movies, then I’m buying it. For now. Ultimately, I hope Disney will pay close attention to the running success of Brave, Tangled and Frozen, plus recent trends indicating that gender-balanced films do better in the box office and that they will come to same conclusions as me. The world is ready for movies about women. The next step is to stop apologising over it.
1. Bearing in mind that movies that pass the Bechdel Test are not necessarily feminist. Also, occasionally movies that do not pass the Bechdel Test have excellent portrayals of women (Gravity, which I have not seen, is purportedly a great example of this). The Bechdel Test is the lowest bar for female representation in film, but it is also one that an embarrassing amount of mainstream films do not clear. It remains my first port of call when I ask if a movie is feminist, because it answers the basics: Are there women in the movie and do they have an existence outside of their relationships with male characters?
2. For people who only like movies intended for adults but would also like to see some interesting onscreen sister dynamics, I would recommend In A World, fantastic film by Lake Bell, everyone go see it.
3. All this said, those ugly-ass heeled boots were a terrible design choice. Walking in deep snow, through a blizzard and across a frozen lake in heels? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Give the woman proper snow boots!