Warning: This post contains spoilers to Disney’s Frozen

What was once so subversive has now become a bit passé. After producing generations of passive princesses in need of saving, Disney tried to re-invent themselves by making the princesses save their beloved. Pocahontas did everything she could to save (and understand) John. Mulan is probably the most iconic example, saving Captain Li Shang and China from the Huns. And who can forget when Giselle, in Enchanted, saved Robert in a dramatic romantic gesture that gave a self-indulgent middle finger to what Disney perceived to be all gender roles. Yes, yes, Disney can solve all problems of the patriarchy if they just switch the traditional gender of the “damsel in distress,” right?

Of course not.

Here is where Frozen comes in. Frozen tells the story of two orphaned sisters, Elsa and Anna, who are princesses in Arrendelle. Elsa has an uncontrollable power—a gift and a curse—to create, manipulate, and freeze the air around her. Unfortunately, Elsa also freezes whomever she touches, which leads to a life of secrecy and isolation. The castle blocks off access to the townspeople for years, only to reopen for Elsa’s coronation.

Anna, who has lived her entire life in the confines of her castle, is ecstatic to finally meet people outside the servants in the castle and her estranged sister. She leaps into song, pining for a prince:

Tonight imagine me gown and all
Fetchingly draped against the wall
The picture of sophisticated grace
Ooh! I suddenly see him standing there
A beautiful stranger, tall and fair

And of course she meets that stranger—Hans—to whom she, later that night, gets engaged. But instead of celebrating the coming engagement, Disney smartly directs the viewer to question Anna’s decision. In fact, Elsa gets so upset that her sister rushed into her engagement that her powers unleash, freezing all of Arrendelle.

Elsa runs into the mountains, fearing for her life after accidentally damning her country to an eternal winter. Anna runs after her, hoping to unfreeze her kingdom. On her way, Anna runs into Kristoff, a commoner who sells ice, and together, along with a reindeer named Sven and a snowman named Olaf, they set off in an adventure to figure out what’s going on with Elsa.

In a way, Elsa becomes a damsel in distress—she’s been taught to hide her powers and emotions her entire life, which has driven her to complete isolation from which she needs to be rescued. But when Anna tries to understand Elsa, Elsa panics and accidentally freezes Anna’s heart. Only an act of true love can cure Anna’s curse before it kills her.

So our commoner friend Kristoff rushes Anna back to Arrendelle to get her true love’s kiss. But Elsa’s insight is right. Hans turns out to be a two-faced power hungry villain, only interested in marriage for status, wealth, and power. Cue the audience’s collective sigh at the painfully trite Disney trope

In the movie’s climax, Kristoff rushes back to Arrendelle to try to rescue Anna as Hans tries to murder Elsa. But before Kristoff can try to plant his true love’s kiss on the dying princess, Anna chooses to sacrifice herself to save her sister from Hans. That selfless act of love ends up saving Anna, Elsa, and the entire kingdom.

Frozen depicts a princess in distress… who has the agency to save herself without the aid of a prince or a lover. At no point in the movie does any man save any woman. Frozen tells a cautionary tale about romance, and while Anna does end the movie by kissing Kristoff, nobody, thankfully, gets married in traditional Disney fashion.

To be sure, there’s more work to be done. The all-white cast and perfectly cutesy princesses were, at times, painfully grating. Anna didn’t have to end up with Kristoff, who was her mostly-platonic friend throughout the movie. And, from a libertarian perspective, it was confusing what the motivations were for estranging the Duke of Weselton, Arrendelle’s best trading partner at the end, who was portrayed as a greedy capitalist (who was not necessarily evil, but certainly a coward).

But for all its shortcomings, Frozen was a pleasant breath of fresh air in the Disney princess genre. A definite “A” in my book: from this feminist’s perspective, Disney has found the right balance to move forward with its future princess movies.

As a final note, take the time to listen to Idina Menzel’s show stopping performance featured in the movie. “Let it Go” is sure to turn heads between now and the Oscars.

  • disqus_MbAenTD9gB

    “At no point in the movie does any man save any woman.”

    Eh, Kristoff and the snow anchor?

    “And, from a libertarian perspective, it was confusing what the motivations were for estranging the Duke of Weselton, Arrendelle’s best trading partner at the end”

    Agreed. ‘Your unelected leader tried to kill my unelected leader when it turned out she was a witch, so let’s ruin your lives, merchants, and make you poorer, peasants.’

    I actively disliked that Frozen ended with zero implied weddings, especially because a Pareto-optimal solution was *right there*. Elsa and Kristoff, the introverted ice sorceress and ice merchant, make a natural pair, as do Hans and Anna, both clear extroverts. Elsa can abdicate to Anna to live in her ice palace up in the mountains, not having to deal with people she doesn’t want to deal with, and Anna gets the interaction with people she craves. (You can even have Hans’s kiss fail to revive Anna, point out ‘maybe Anna is the one who needs to do an act of true love,’ and then have Anna save Elsa from the Duke, if you don’t want the ‘man saves a woman’ scene.) One of the neat things I liked about Hans was that he was a man comfortable with staying back and doing what he was good at- administrating- rather than insisting that he go along on a trek through the frozen mountains which he might be totally unprepared for.

    My opinion mellowed, though, when I heard from someone that this was the first movie they had seen that was primarily about a sister relationship and got it right, because on reflection lots of it is optimized in that direction (in my ‘Pareto optimal’ case, the rekindling of friendship between the sisters doesn’t happen; I even have them living apart because of their differences!).

    • Erin

      I think the “Hans is now evil” twist came out of left field and seemed sloppy to me (if he never cared about Anna, why did he look smitten in the boat when no one else was looking? Also, anthropomorphic buddy animals are rarely given to villains, unless the animals are also evil).

      That being said, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to knock Anna’s impulsive same-evening engagement and then end the movie with a same-couple-of-days marriage. I like that Disney finally made fun of their favorite trope that a person can select a life partner in one meeting and suggested that doing so isn’t romantic–it’s a reaction to feeling starved for love. Also, I don’t know that Elsa was so much an introvert as she was emotionally scarred. She seemed to love company at the end.

      I also really liked that this movie showed the negative impact bad parenting can have on kids while also portraying that bad parenting as unintentional (which I think most bad parenting is). I watched the move with my husband and MIL, and afterwards she said she didn’t think the parents were that bad because they did what they thought was best. But that’s usually the case. Disney spent decades painting characters as good or evil in a vacuum and rarely focused on how one’s formative years shape them as an adult. They tried to touch on parental relationships with Brave, but IMO, they failed big time by acting as though Merida was just as responsible as her mother for the argument int he beginning.

      • Alianya

        I liked that Hans is not an overtly ‘evil’ villain, I thought that it was a thoughtful choice to not go the ‘some people are born evil’ route and instead paint the portrait of an opportunist who makes selfish choices (12th in line prince with very little options for advancement sees chance to rule kingdom in need and when that chance starts slipping away he makes selfish choices to try and maintain the power he got). I wished they’d done a better job communicating that, but I agree that Hans and Anna were a much better match and I wanted Elsa to end up with Kristoff or at least not Ana, how about we really try to destroy some tropes and Kristoff turns out to just be a really good friend?!?! Why can’t girls have friends?

        Also, I really would have appreciated a little more character development with 20 years of isolation taken into account, both Ana and Elsa seem generally unaffected by forced isolation (which has been proven to be especially cruel and have serious psychological repercussions in prisoners).

        • A

          Yes, the isolation was forced, but Elsa was visited by her parents, though she probably would have isolated herself anyway because of hurting Anna. As for Anna, she was isolated from the rest of her kingdom, but there was still staff there. And she could have been raised on stories and gossip from them. Plus, we have no clue if there were any visiting royals who might’ve brought their children along so she could play with them for a bit.

        • Erin

          Elsa seemed to be more realistically impacted by the social isolation. She had a genuinely hard time coping with the notion of having people around her.

          Though Anna did have some social awkwardness to work through, I think they’d be a lot more…odd…IRL. I don’t mind too much, though, because it’s Disney, so the suspension of disbelief has to take over more than it would otherwise.

          I’m just glad they actually showed well-meaning parents screwing up because I think most of the time, parental screw ups are the result of well-meant actions. The “wicked stepmother’ trope (which has a kind of interesting origin) isn’t really relevant to most of today’s kids, and I think it’s important to focus on results rather than intentions (though they can certainly be taken into account) when judging parenting.

  • Katia

    Okay so about the all-white cast note… The setting and time period were not prone to hosting other races. In fact, most of Scandinavia today maintains a significant white majority—more specifically, blonde and blue-eyed inhabitants. It’s evident to a point where my visit to Finland as a brown-eyed brunette set me apart as “uncommon.”

    • You do realize this is a movie with trolls, a talking snowman, and an anthropomorphic reindeer, yes?

      • alicia

        Did you complain when everyone in Mulan was chinese too?

      • alicia

        Furthermore, trolls, snowmen, and reindeer are all still a part of Scandinavian culture, their magical abilities do not somehow make their presence in a children’s film about Scandinavia unusual.

    • kmburkezoo

      The main complaint I see on Tumblr is that they *could* have included a Sami character, one who was culturally and visibly indigenous. That would have been really cool for Kristoff’s character, though it might have sent people wailing about his connection to the trolls. Given Disney’s history, though, I suspect any native character would been given Olaf’s role as comedic sidekick, and even all-white, this movie was better off without another Jar-Jar Binks.

    • K.V.

      I was just going to say the same thing.

  • David S.

    The Duke of Weselton sent men to murder the Queen of Arrendelle; that’s tends to make relations between two nations a mite bit tense.

  • Danielle Colman

    I can’t agree. Frozen has serious issues with agency and consent; both women are more personality disorder than actual character, and the film as a whole is far less progressive or pro-feminist than most of Disney’s 90s oeuvre. It’s a mess of plot contrivances and cheap storytelling tricks, and the number of people hailing it as some kind of feminist triumph really concerns me: https://medium.com/disney-and-animation/7c0bbc7252ef

  • Austin

    “The love between sisters is True Love.”

    That’s the movie for me right there. At least, it’s the intent. But Frozen seemed gunshy of focusing on that story. Instead it went out of its way to say, “See Cinderella? We’re not that. Mulan? Not that either.” To do this it used Hans as the first red herring then set up a second red herring in Kristoff.

    Nothing wrong with red herrings as a rule, but for them to be effective you have to spend screen time developing them: Hans and Anna got their 5 minutes together singing about sandwiches, and that presumptive development lay in the background for most of the movie; Anna and Kristoff got 40 minutes running around Norway being sung at by trolls. All that screentime is time not spend developing the adult relationship between Anna and Elsa. Which was supposed to be the point.

    Instead, most of the Anna-Elsa relationship is established in their youth and then *doesn’t change*. Anna’s self-sacrifice at the end is the same thing she’s been doing for years, singing about snowmen at Elsa’s door; she doesn’t develop at all. Elsa’s only change comes at the end when she mourns Anna (“Let it Go” may as well be titled, “Hide behind a different door”).

    This is not to say ostracism, sacrifice, persecution, etc. aren’t moving themes: they are incredibly affecting. But, and I’ll reference perhaps the best example of it, Pixar told a better love story in 7 minutes in “Up” with no dialogue. And ultimately, that’s what Frozen feels like to me: a very moving 7-minute story about sisterly love interrupted by (often hilarious) distractions concerning romantic love.

    The theme of sisterly love being “True Love” is utterly worthy; so too was Brave’s mother-daughter love. But if Frozen is to be judged as a movie it fails to achieve its ambition because it spends its time saying what it isn’t rather than what it is.