Disney, Frozen and the (un)Importance of Prettiness

Disney’s Frozen is turning into a bit of a mess, and it isn’t even released for another month.

First, the movie has been criticized for taking a female-character-dominated fairy tale and removing almost all of those female characters, leaving a female heroine and a villain surrounded by male love interests, helpers and talking snowmen. The one male character who has been removed from the story is the friend that the heroine is supposed to rescue from the Snow Queen, the one that drives the whole plot — an interesting subversion of the “damsel in distress” trope and an opportunity for a Disney love interest wrapped into one, but one that Disney chose not to include.

Then the movie has been criticized for white-washing, partly because it doesn’t include any Inuit or otherwise non-white Scandanavian characters, partly because why should fantasy need everyone to be white anyway, and partly because it sparked a debate about why Disney almost always chooses white-people-centered fairytales and why a “one of each” approach to princess racial diversity is pretty problematic.

And in less serious but still annoying criticism, the film has been accused of looking too similar to Tangled, especially the face of its heroine.

Unfortunately, these threads of criticism exploded in a big way last week, when the head of animation on the movie weighed in on the animation of female characters:

“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”

Historically speaking, this is nonsense. Disney themselves have proved that, by creating movie after movie of distinct female faces.

Let’s look at some angry Disney princesses, shall we?

They look fairly distinct to me. Why should female characters’ emotions be more difficult to animate than male ones, if you make the effort to make them distinct? If it’s because there’s only a narrow range of what can be considered “pretty,” then make non-pretty female characters. It’s not a prerequisite. In Tangled, the previous Disney effort, all of the lead characters are attractive… but the male secondary characters are a weird and wonderful bunch, as this one video shows:

Even if you want your leads to be attractive, and even if “attractive” for female characters falls into a very narrow spectrum, this shouldn’t stop female secondary characters, helpers, advisors and sidekicks from having a very distinctive look, just as male ones almost always do.

And if you’re worried about your female characters looking too similar, why not add in some of that dreaded racial diversity? Problem solved.

But the head animator specifically talks about lead characters, and how their expressions can be similar. It’s difficult to draw an angry person prettily in multiple ways. Which makes sense, because anger isn’t usually pretty. Neither is sadness. Or fear. Even happiness can distort your face. So why not just make your pretty female characters like normal characters, and allow their faces to be distorted occasionally? Again, it’s something that Disney has achieved before:

The interview did help to explain why there are so few female characters in Disney’s adaptation of the Snow Queen, and why the ones we’ve got look so familiar, but not, I think, in the way the animator intended. His words say “technical reasons inherent in animation.” Their implication is “because of sexism in the media.” Because all female characters must be pretty, and because prettiness always looks the same.

love Disney movies, I want Frozen to succeed, and none of this has any bearing on whether it’s going to be a good movie with wonderful female characters when it is finally released. I’ll still go and see it, and hopefully I’ll love it. But I think this pre-release criticism is incredibly important. In the end, the quality of the final product doesn’t really matter in these debates. The quality of the movie itself relies on writing, on animation skill, on the musical score and the ins and outs of the plot and how compelling these characters are. These criticisms address something more fundamental, and far less subjective. The diversity of the cast. The number of female faces that appear on-screen. The animators’ attitudes to creating those faces. And in this realm, Frozen has not only been found wanting, but represents a step back from movies created twenty years ago.

18 comments on “Disney, Frozen and the (un)Importance of Prettiness

  • VVendetadlc , Direct link to comment

    I hope you enjoy de film.

    After what I’ve read about it I decided not to see it. I don’t like that they change the plot so it fits his idea of gender relationships. Even if it’s good I’ll probably end pissed off like it happend when I saw Star Wars the new trilogy. Also, if people go to see it, they’ll think people like that kind of change and keep doing it. So the best thing I can do it’s not go to the cinema. Maybe if enough people do that, they’ll figure it out that they need to change. Or maybe not, but other company would catter to us. I’m sorry because I used to love disney, but I don’t like to pay to fell disapointed.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Unfortunately, I think the only thing that a low box office would tell Disney is that people don’t want to see movies with female protagonists at all. It’s really ridiculous that any number of male-led movies can fail without anyone thinking that those are unpopular, yet a single female-led flop means that women can’t lead movies. Not that anyone should go see a movie they don’t want to see, just because it has a female lead. But it’s a bit of a trap, in that if this less diverse movie doesn’t do well, they’ll probably make even less, not more, diverse movies in the future.

      But I’m clinging to the fact that Tangled had a lot of pre-release problems, with its title and advertising, but it turned out to be one of my absolute favorite movies when I eventually saw it. I’m hoping that Frozen can pull a similar trick.

  • Em , Direct link to comment

    I had high hopes for this. Unfortunately, Disney dropped the ball (again) by trying to have its cake and eat it, too. The version of the fairytale I knew had the heroine rescue her brother from the beautiful villainess. And I remember illustrations done fifty years ago in which both female characters were depicted as angry, determined, suffering, scared, etc. So my question is this: animation and illustration has evolved so much in fifty years that we can’t portray two female characters on screen without them looking exactly alike? What nonsense is this?

    • Grizzly , Direct link to comment

      Well, gee, maybe it’s cause they’re SISTERS. THEY’RE SUPPOSE TO LOOK ALIKE.

      • That Flippity Flurp , Direct link to comment

        Family members? Sisters looking similar in appearance?

        What biological sorcery is this

        • Em , Direct link to comment

          I’ll refer you to the quote at the heart of this post: “animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty.” At no point is the fact that they are sisters used to justify the choice to make them look so similar.
          I understand the argument, but in RL sisters aren’t all identical in their looks and facial expressions. I think the problem is more the studio’s understanding of ‘pretty’ than it is of family resemblance – which oddly enough didn’t stop them giving them two female characters different brows, lip shape, hair color…

      • Em , Direct link to comment

        Except siblings in RL don’t all look alike? And they have distinct facial expressions despite sharing certain genes? I understand your point, but the sibling thing was a choice made by the studio. They weren’t locked into it by virtue of the plot. So they wrote themselves into this wall and then they justified the similarities shared by the characters not by saying they were siblings, as you pointed out, but by arguing that two female characters can’t be both pretty and distinct in animation. That’s my beef.

  • That Flippity Flurp , Direct link to comment

    All of the characters you have listed are from 2d movies. The skills required to design and animate 2d characters are completely different form the ones you need for CGI and 3d characters.

    Also why is it that the people who complain the most about Disney Princesses being pretty never ever complain about how every Disney Prince is conventionally handsome and studly, and nearly all of the human male protagonists are as well? It gets incredibly obnoxious hearing feminists moan and moan about how the Disney Princesses are objectified and easily fetishsed and problematic figures that promote narrow and unrealistic beauty standards and then gush about how handsome and dreamy Prince Eric or Flynn Rider are, the later of whom was created when all the artists and animators of Tangled got together for “the hot man meeting” (they actually call it that) to make sure their male lead was as appealing to women as possible.

    And the one size fits all notion: why is that every country in Europe is considered one homogenous amorphic blob of whiteness, whilst every culture outside of it is considered distinct? Yes there has been at least one French princess and French princess, but we haven’t seen an Albanian princess, a Macedonian princess, a Russian princess, a Ukranian princess, a Bosnian princess or an Icelandic princess. Whilst we’ve had a Scottish princess, she is the first British princess in the lineup: we haven’t had an English or Irish princess or an official Welsh princess yet. There has yet to be a princess from anywhere in the Mediterranean, so no Greek, Italian, Cretan, Spanish or Portugese princess.

    • Amadeus , Direct link to comment

      Well, the problem is that a wide majority of the side characters also is male. There is not necessarily a problem to have a pretty main character, but when you erase all female characters except two (who has to be pretty) and invent male side characters, then you have a problem. In this movie, why couldn’t the reindeer been a she? Do you think she would have looked to much like the main character?

      So yes, the princes are (normally) handsome, but all the other male characters aren’t. And usually there are so many more male characters. That is a problem.

    • Em , Direct link to comment

      So wait, we were able to create a CGI Gollum but we can’t animate two female characters with distinct features?

      Re: hot man meetings. If that’s really what they’re called then I will gladly facepalm right along with you, because wow, wait to be patronizing. I think you’re missing the point as far as feminists ‘moaning’ about Disney. The problem goes both ways – hunky male leads and big eyed, narrow waisted princesses with long, flowing hair. If we can agree the problem is that animation is too one note and that standards of beauty should be broadened, then what’s wrong with a feminist critique of the choices made by the studio in their portrayal of the only two female characters? Surely it’s not a zero sum game (ie, the prince has to be handsome but the princess can be whatever).

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I did see a discussion of how the range of what looks good in 3D animation is very narrow, although I can’t remember the link now. I do think it’s sad if “progress” in animation means that everything looks more samey. Surely growth in the industry should mean the ability to do more, not less.

      I’m actually a Disney fan and have written quite a bit about the positive (and yes, feminist) elements of the princess movies. And I don’t think there’s much wrong with having attractive leads to your animated movie, male or female. The point was that female side characters were erased because they also have to be “pretty,” while male side characters aren’t.

      I think all cultures here are being treated as amorphic blobs, to be honest. You have a “black” princess, not a bunch of ones from different African countries, and one Chinese princess to represent “Asian,” but no Japanese or Korean princess. South America is left out entirely. And almost all of the white princesses are just “white,” living in a generic fantasy land. Belle is French, but Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Cinderella… you could say they’re French or German, simply based on the origins of fairy tales, but that’s never stated. There has actually been a Disney movie with a major Greek character though, in Hercules. I don’t know if she counts as a princess, but her country of origin is far clearer than most of those on the official princess roster.

      • Daria , Direct link to comment

        I’m just asking questions : why Pixar manages to create female characters with distinct faces, and Disney doesn’t? I mean, when we look at Colette from Ratatouille and then at Merida from Brave, they really don’t look the same, right?

  • Mary , Direct link to comment

    My favourite version of the story will always be “The Snow Queen’s Shadow” by Jim C Hines, which is about 3 princesses battling the Snow Queen to save her and the whole world. Oh, and two of the princesses end up falling in love with each other (and one of them is a WOC).

    It’s even more awesome than it sounds.

  • Jake , Direct link to comment

    I don’t think it’s so much focused on, “they need to be pretty” (well, maybe a little)..but computer animation is hard! Especially with uncanny valley. Even with years and years of development, uncanny valley is still a threat in animated movies. One minute, the main character of Frozen looks normal and the next she looks like a dead-eyed, lifeless doll. Right now I’m not going to disapprove of Disney’s choices because they seem a bit constrained. However, every live action film that over emphasizes prettiness I shall shake my head at.

  • Willow Curry , Direct link to comment

    I agree with many of the points that you make in this article, but I notice that you are perpetuating what seems to be a widespread assumption/myth in the criticism of Frozen that I’ve seen. This supposed “whitewashing” of the movie, where non-white POC Scandinavians are left out entirely, is categorically false according to the research I have done. The Inuit that you mention do not reside in Scandinavia, but in the arctic regions of Greenland and North America. Other bloggers have mentioned the indigenous Scandinavian Sami people, better known as the Lapps or the “reindeer people,” as the group that Disney appropriated from, but this group is just as white as any other Scandinavians if you are going by skin color, though many of them have the slanted eyes present in East Asian populations, although to a much lessened degree. Actually, by looking at them, they are a fascinating illustration of the genetic boundaries between modern White Europeans and modern East Asians. However, to say that they are not white is only true if you believe that only non white people can be indigenous. That’s a ridiculous assumption. I suspect that someone perpetuated this myth by hearing mention of the Sami and the fact that they are indigenous and have endured discrimination for their heritage, and assumed that they had to be non-white, because all “exotic,” “cultural” people are non-white, of course. And that is a racist idea in itself. Anyway, please do some more research about the indigenous people of Scandinavia so that you don’t spread false information.

  • Hog Rideah , Direct link to comment

    I agree with jake. With uncanny valley, 3d animation would be harder if it became more realistic, so the solution is to stylize (as u can see in despicable & other films). Its possible, but needs more effort.

    Next, 3d animation is more technical than 2d, so comparing frozen faces with classic 2d princess’ expressions is a bit wrong. In fact, 2d illustrations of frozen characters on storyboard are somewhat diff. from final output.

    And love between sisters is the real message than romantic relationships in this particular movie, so to keep it stronger, they hav to make their natural facial features look similar (so their characters as sisters are more authentic and genuine) while still have differences like hair and makeup(elsa has more makeup) and how they act.

  • Aurora , Direct link to comment

    I had to walk out because of the ‘uncanny valley’ effect of the arms…I can’t remember now quite what the scene was, but it was within the first 30 to 40 mins and clearly the arms of which every character it was had been replicated exactly from human motion studies and it just creeped me out.

What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: