November 30, 2013 by Devin
I just saw Disney’s latest entry in its Disney princess canon, and I have to say that I was thoroughly entertained in just about every way possible. The music was catchy, the humor was spot on without being obnoxious, and the characters were fully developed.
And the film was fantastically feminist.
It is a bit of a curiosity that the line of films that helped enforce the idea that women are princesses that need to be saved has turned into films that are leading the pack in breaking down those gender roles. While Disney princesses include Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, this ensemble also includes Mulan, Pocahantas, and Tiana. Most recently, Tangled‘s Rapunzel was all about a woman growing up and moving beyond the limited confines of domestic life. While the other movies had strong females, with the possible exception of Mulan none of them were as directly feminist as Tangled, which was Disney’s strongest stab at tackling gender issues.
That is until Frozen came out.
Frozen is a movie that directly espouses feminist views and confronts gender issues. While other Disney princesses were only feminist in the sense that they were fully developed female characters, Frozen looks at the societal pressures on women and seeks to explain some major problems with those pressures. And it does so in a more approachable and entertaining way than any other movie I have seen.
(Spoiler warning: I am going into some of the basic plot and setup, but I will also spend some time talking about the ending. I will not spoil too much and will mark whenever I talk start to talk about something that is not from the first third, specifically the ending. You should be fine if you stop at that part, but if you want to go into the movie carte blanche, you have been warned)
The primary conflict in the movie is with Queen Esla, who in the movie has magical ice powers that she cannot control. As a child, she played and had fun with her powers with her sister, Anna (the protagonist), but when she accidentally hurt her sister, her parents forced her to hide her powers from even her sister. Then, as an adult, her powers became revealed, and she was driven off from the town and into the mountains. It is then up to Anna to convince her sister to come back and stop the frozen ice age Esla started when she stormed off.
Now, I have heard some on the internet that people have applied queer theory to Esla, arguing that she actually represents the plight of the homosexual woman. It does make sense considering that she is someone who is different and not accepted by society and is thus cast out, but I do not think that approach is the best one.
Instead, I see this character’s conflicts as an illustration of the Madonna-Whore complex. This complex is the idea that women are given mixed messages on who they are allowed to be. They have to be like the Mother Mary (aka the Madonna) and be completely non-sexual and in control of their bodies and they also have to be like the prostitute Mary and be willing and open to sexual experiences. In other words, a woman is a slut if she sleeps with a bunch of guys and a prude if she does not.
I think in some ways, Esla represents the attempt to be Mother Mary and Anna represents the attempt to be the Mary Magdalene. Esla has to hide her powers by literally covering up, which can easily be a reference to sexual oppression. Sure, in the movie she only has to cover up her hands, but the exact terminology is “cover up,” and furthermore she is also encouraged not to feel either. While she is at the castle, she even wears moderate dress, covering up everything up to her neck.
Anna, on the other hand, is never given such instruction. She is allowed to be a child that is free to be open and experiment with her life. She is much more carefree than her sister, and her desires are to open up the castle and be around all the people. This carefree attitude even leads her to fall in love in a very Disney princess fashion with a prince she meets at a party. She meets him, falls in love, and is engaged before sunrise, a perfect vision of the carefree and open woman. While she never engages in any sexual activity and the movie never implies that she is sexually active, thematically these actions fit in that mold.
And neither of these approaches turn out well.
(Spoilers for the rest of the film, including the ending, abound past here)
When Esla is forced to leave the town, I think Esla has a sexual awakening, though it has little to do with actual sex. She goes off into the mountains and then thinks, “Actually, I really like my ice powers and I like the cold and I do not want to have anything to do with anybody that wants to bottle me up.” She makes an icy home, creates icy clothes, and sings an excellent song about being her own person. In other words, she breaks free of the Madonna expectations and is free to feel the feelings and experiences she tried so hard for so long to cover up. Even her clothing becomes much less modest as a result, and she looks much more like someone who is confident in herself.
But this victory has consequences. She is still away from society, from her beloved sister, and has left the world a colder place in her wake. It is clear that this is ultimately a better place for Esla to be, but it still has not fixed the problem. She really does not have a place in society still and has actually become a much colder person in temperature and temperament. And she still cannot control her powers, not even having the ability to make the ice go away.
I think this is similar to what I have seen with many PK’s, or preacher/pastor kids. Many times, when their society is putting a lot of pressure on them to act or be a certain way, kids will rebel against it completely and try to be the opposite of what people want of them. I think Frozen is illustrating how this situation happens with women and their own sexuality, that when put under the pressures of society, many women seek to go completely against that as Esla did in her frozen fortress. Society told her to cover up, so she left and opened up.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum Anna’s similarities to Mary Magdalene do not help her very much either. She did fall in love, get engaged, and almost have the fairytale romance, but her willingness to fall in love led her to be with a guy who is easily the most evil person in the movie. She ended up relying on him to save her when she fell based off the barest of reasons.
This is the other side of the equation. While trying to be the Madonna put too much pressure on Esla, the willingness to be Magdalene kept Anna from understanding life and the consequences of her actions. She too quickly became attached to the wrong person, which, just like Esla’s covering up, was the societally acceptable thing to do.
I do not have much more to say about this part because I do not think the movie spends as much time on this idea, but I do think the betrayal scene is telling of the movie’s point. Here we see Anna on death’s door looking for true love to save her, and she turns to a man to save her. And he drops her.
It is funny how all the characters, like the audience, assume that an act of true love means romantic love. It is almost as if the creators of this movie were sitting around, drinking coffee, and going, “Man, isn’t it weird how in movies, acts of true love always come from romance? Isn’t it weird how women always have to have a man kiss her? Is that really the only place true love comes from?”
Then the movie does something excellent. It takes a normally masculine heterosexual method of salvation and allows a woman to do it. Anna, who was also cast out (though only by one person), was ultimately the one who made the act of true love independent of masculine influence when she sacrificed herself to save her sister. I think this is the growth of her character and how she was able to move beyond the Magdalene problem. She moved beyond looking to romantic love for her salvation.
Finally, I love the way the movie resolves the conflict in the end. Esla is told that an act of true love warms the icy heart, and from there she is able to control her powers. That may seem like a bit of a cop out, but when in placed in context with the conflicts within the movie, it makes complete sense. As long as Esla is told that she is an outcast, that she should hide her powers, she will not be able to control them. As long as society tells her that she is not supposed to be who she was born to be, then she will not be able to control herself. But if she knows that she is loved and accepted, that her powers are part of what make her beautiful and that there are people who want her to express herself, then she will actually be able to control herself and have a place in society.
This movie is ultimately about acceptance. It is a critical dissection of the Madonna-Whore complex and the effects it have on women. We see two examples of female ideals presented here and the effects both of those can have, but the final solution to these problems is basically to treat women like normal people who have needs, wants, and feelings that they cannot always control. In other words, this movie looks at societal pressures and says, “These are unfair and unrealistic.”
Which is pretty amazing coming from a Disney princess movie.
- How great was it that the romance did not end on a true love note. Anna and Kristoff are just two people who really like each other and possibly have a bright future, but the movie does not feel the need to elevate their love to destiny levels of importance.
- I find it interesting that the snowman that was in about 20% of the movie took up 90% of the marketing. That is kind of annoying, but at least people will be pleasantly surprised.
- I am pretty excited that little girls will be singing about being their own person independent of society’s expectations because of this movie.
So what did you think? Am I completely off base, or do you have some similar ideas? Either way, let me know in the comments below!
1. I wonder if it’s possible to link Mulan to first wave feminism (which was mainly about women’s legal rights) and then Tangled and Frozen to second and third wave feminism (which were more cultural). That sounds like a job for someone more familiar with the different waves of feminism, though.
2. For further discussion on this topic, check out this article. It’s long but so definitely worth reading. Seriously, if there is anyone out there that can make this article go viral, they would have my upmost appreciation if they did that.
3. If this were a more mature film, it would not be too much of a stretch to have Anna sleep with the prince.