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.