[Spoilers to follow: see the movie, whether or not you return and read this essay]
Unless you’ve been living under a glacier, you’ve heard of Disney’s latest animated feature, Frozen, which was adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Maybe you haven’t seen it if you don’t have a younger sibling or a child, but the movie has made its way into casual discourse everywhere. My wonderful, grad-student sister tried to get me to go before it got quite so popular, but I was close-minded (and pressed for time during the break). It was only after Frozen conquered the animated feature world that we sat down with our younger brother and watched it. Afterwards, as I’m prone to do, I thought about it some more. It’s obvious on reflection that the writers deliberately changed the original story to fit a feminist message and they accomplished something innovative: a kid’s movie with feminism for kids.
Here’s the main plot: in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle (based on Scandinavia), Elsa and Anna are orphaned princess sisters. Older sister Elsa was born with (beautifully animated) ice powers that she can’t quite control and therefore she keeps them hidden. On the night of Elsa’s coronation, she accidently reveals her abilities when Anna wants to marry Hans, a dashing prince who she just met. Her kingdom turns against her and she flees, unwittingly freezing the kingdom in unnatural winter.
Anna sets out to find Elsa and leaves Hans in charge of the kingdom. With the help of Kristoff, who sells ice (and is an ice guy), Anna finds Elsa and pushes her again to address her feelings. Elsa, still not fully in control, accidentally hits Anna with an ice curse that will slowly freeze her without “an act of love.”
Kristoff rushes her to Hans and leaves dejectedly, since he developed feelings for Anna along their journey. Plot twist: Hans is evil and leaves Anna to die instead of kissing her. Then he goes to execute Elsa who he has captured, so he can rule the kingdom. Kristoff returns to save Anna, and all four of them end up on the frozen bay. Anna sees Kristoff at a distance, but also Hans, with a sword. He’s standing over Elsa, who, believing she’s killed her sister, is too devastated to resist. Anna chooses to leap in front of the sword instead of trying to kiss Kristoff. She freezes entirely and blocks the blade, defeating Hans. But she is frozen solid, dead by all appearances.
Then there is a tragic shot of Elsa hanging off her sister’s body, frozen in a defensive position as snow gently floats down around them onto the ice. The music has stopped. But then it returns as Anna’s own act of sisterly love has melted her heart and she is revived. Elsa gains control of her powers and thaws the kingdom. Anna punches Hans in the face. Everything works out; Kristoff and Anna share a kiss, but the focus is Anna and Elsa reunited: Elsa using her powers to benefit her people, who applaud and accept her.
Frozen’s reception was anything but chilly. Some combination of Anna’s spunk, Elsa’s cool, and Olaf’s humor made the movie a smash hit, eventually edging out Toy Story 3 as the highest grossing animated film ever, and taking a place on the list of top ten all-time highest grossing movies of any kind. And its accomplishments didn’t stop there: it has enormous marketing and merchandizing power, and a Broadway adaptation is in the works. It won a Golden Globe and an Oscar, and Let It Go got the Oscar for Best New Song. There’s no doubt that Frozen made a splash in popular culture and commercially. But what about socially? It’d be sweet if a cultural phenomenon like this had a good message. And it does.
Some major changes from the source material, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, are deliberate feministizations of the source material. The most basic structure is the same: a loved one goes missing, their absence is due to an icy sorceress, and a charming female character comes to the rescue. In The Snow Queen, the missing person is a kidnapped little boy who is a very close friend of the protagonist, and kidnapper is a mystical ice entity with totally unclear motivations. Frozen’s simplification is a good one: Elsa kidnaps herself because society has demonized her for her amazing powers, which the audience knows can be beautiful and fun. Also, the switch to a disappearance of a sister gives a non-sexual motivation for the other female lead to rescue her. As a break from so many Disney films, the central relationship is non-romantic and woman-to-woman. This is exactly what American kids (and adults) need: movies that normalize non-romantic goals for women. Placing social stigma on non-romantic (read: career) objectives is a powerful way society oppresses women, consciously and unconsciously. Frozen shifts the focus as a story about Elsa’s abilities instead of a romantic pursuit, along with several other feminist twists.
A noticeable departure from Disney (and other) films is the way that the romantic storylines are handled. At the beginning, the audience is shown a parody of romantic engagement: the protagonist and the handsome prince go from strangers to fiancés in one song. Well, actually, they’re still strangers. And Elsa points out this absurdity: “You can’t marry a man you just met.” But for a while, Anna’s interest in Hans seems legitimate: he is the paragon of good qualities, so much so that him betraying Anna so completely is unbelievable (but that’s not relevant). Forgetting the credibility of the betrayal for a moment, his duplicity is a useful message about not trusting people you’ve just met, no matter how Prince-Charming-esque they seem. The more authentic romance with Kristoff builds slowly, isn’t perfect at first, and doesn’t end with them saying they love each other, just a kiss. More importantly, tying up that plotline is a sidenote to the real victory: Elsa’s powers under control because they dealt with her emotional struggle, and the sisters united. These details make the non-sexual elements of the romance more modern and affirmative for gender equality.
For a further point about sexuality that’s slightly subtler, I’ll return to Hans for a moment. The only thing I liked about his and Anna’s attraction was the initial interaction, where we see a woman flustered by her sexual attraction to a man. In so many Disney films and other media, the desire of the man is the perspective the audience sees. This aligns them with the man’s normal point of view: the man is the character with the understandable goal of pursuing women, and women are both the objects of pursuit and, in a way, the enemies for guarding the man’s prize. This normal picture is obviously detrimental to women’s equal role in society, so a casual reversal of that situation is a great thing for Frozen to include.
I’d be remiss not to mention the movie’s runaway hit song, Let it Go, even if it didn’t include another subtle, sexual message. On its face, Let it Go is a feminist anthem: Elsa has escaped the restraints of her society (read: the patriarchy) and is finally free to experiment with her powers and show her real personality without worrying how she’ll be judged. And it’s glorious. But some people see something problematic in a climactic moment in her new ice castle because a vaguely sexual move is included in her freedom anthem. This opinion in particular can be found in a slate article called “I Can’t ‘Let It Go,’” and all sorts of other misfired criticism (and some misfired defense) can be found with a Google search. In this contested moment, Elsa proudly lets down her hair, conjures a slinkier dress, and then sings: “That perfect girl is gone.” It’s rebellious, but really a style thing. That’s the point. This can be seen as a bad message to send during a feminist song, but really, Elsa owning her own style and level of ‘promiscuity’ is absolutely part of her feminist anthem. The song is celebrating Elsa’s freedom from people (including herself) controlling her, she’s finally free to be the way she wants, and is comfortable being independent. Looking great just happens to be part of that. Her change of dress even reflects an escape from the constraints she’d faced up until that part of the movie.
This analysis may seem complex for kids’ movie, but these themes are working unconsciously on kids. Most people probably saw it as a fun, funny, gorgeous, heartwarming adventure with some silly, catchy songs. I’m not saying it wasn’t that. But this is an improvement for Disney. We don’t ask movies made for kids to be full of cutting edge political philosophy; at best, they normalize progressive social trends. And that’s exactly what Frozen does. Kids might not even necessarily realize that it’s feminist, depending on their ages. But they will take away that Elsa is cool and that it’s cool to show what you can do, whether you’re a boy or a girl. I normally wouldn’t enjoy a Disney movie this much, but it got people talking about feminism and made it cool for kids. I’m all about that, even if it’s not about twenty-year-old guy me.