Last Wednesday, I wrote about Disney’s Frozen and how problematic it is to hold it up as a “feminist” Disney princess movie in contrast to all that has come before, and I stand by that post 100%.
But Frozen is Disney’s 53rd animated movie since 1937, and it’s natural that, over those almost 80 years, these movies would change in sentiment and (hopefully) become more in line with modern ideals. So while the older movies from the 30s, 50s and even 80s and early 90s have played many fairy tale tropes straight, it’s definitely time to explore those (often sexist) tropes in a more critical manner. Most recent Disney movies have abandoned the “love at first sight” trope altogether by building the romantic relationship throughout the movie, and even having it develop from something more antagonistic or perfunctory (as in Tangled). But Frozen is unique, as far as I know, in that it directly tackles the “some day my prince will come,” love at first sight trope, not simply changing it but exploring its implications and subverting them.
Because, while it’s easy to dismiss the “one glance and it’s true love forever” narrative of stories like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, these tropes have realistic elements that create the potential for much darker tales. It’s not entirely surprising that an abused girl who sees the prince as a ticket to a better life would fall for him immediately, or that a girl who’s never met a single soul outside of her three fairy guardians would be beyond excited to finally meet someone new. So while Anna’s “love at first sight” storyline with Hans is a commentary on past romantic Disney plotlines, it’s not a mockery of them, or in any way implying that Anna is an idiot. Rather, it’s a more complicated, nuanced and believable version of these past romances — and one where, for once, the princess gets burned.
Although Anna is told, by multiple people, that she can’t be in “true love” with someone she’s known for a couple of hours, Anna is not weak for falling for Hans’ trick. As the movie emphasizes, over and over again, Anna is an incredibly lonely figure who never interacts with the outside world. She’s been shunned by her sister, lost her parents, and has had no other friends beyond the paintings on the walls since she was about five years old. She’s desperate to think that she might have found someone who loves and understands her, and so responds positively and uncritically when she meets a prince who seems to fit the bill.
And it’s not just a case of “he’s handsome and nice to me.” Hans goes out of his way to manipulate her. He presents himself as similarly lost and alone and goes out of his way to act as if they are soulmates, as though every one of their thoughts is in sync. Frozen’s anti “love at first sight” narrative is, in reality, incredibly dark and abusive. Hans is using Anna from the beginning, and, in the moment when she thinks she needs love from another to save her life, he twists the knife, suggesting that no one in the world loves her. That not only was she tricked, but that she’s somehow unworthy or incapable of gaining the love of others. It’s clearly a lie, from the viewers’ perspective, but the combination of Anna’s past abandonment and Hans’ clever manipulations means that Anna believes it. Frozen is a Disney movie that explores an emotionally abusive relationship. It’s dark as hell, and, far from presenting Anna as weak or foolish, it shows the ease with which even a wonderful, good and loving person can become trapped in someone else’s abusive mind games.
Yet Anna’s openness and willingness to love is what saves the day. She has barely spoken to her sister in years, but she stills loves her enough to go racing into the wilderness to try and save her. And the act of true love that saves her and the kingdom in general isn’t an act of someone choosing to love her, someone blessing her with a kiss, but her acting out her love for her sister by stepping in front of Hans’ sword and saving her life. It’s an act of personal strength and bravery and agency, an act that completely disproves Hans manipulative lies in an active way. The answer to the problem isn’t that she does have people who love her (although that is true), but that she has the strength within her to save herself, regardless of what anybody else feels or believes.
As has been discussed many times before, the “true love” she uses to save the day isn’t the love between her and a handsome prince, but between her and another female character, her sister. But Anna also ends the movie with another, genuine love interest — not a marriage and a happily ever after, but a kiss and the promise of a sweet, developing relationship in the future. Although the movie could easily have ended without this romantic element, I do think it’s important to note that, although the main relationship in the film is between Elsa and Anna, Anna is not weaker or somehow anti-feminist for having a second, genuine romance in her story. She bonds with Kristoff over days filled with struggle and emotion and adventure, they develop feelings for one another, and so they continue to be adorable and develop their relationship in the epilogue. Kristoff in no way undermines Anna’s independence or the message that Anna herself contained the love needed to save the day. He is just another facet of her story and of the joyful, people-filled life she had once dreamed of and finally has.
In away, the presence of both Kristoff and Hans seems to present both old and new Disney romances. Kristoff is the initially somewhat antagonistic figure who is dragged along on her adventure and falls for her along the way, while Hans is the handsome, love-at-first sight prince who woos her with a song. Only one of them has the potential for a healthy relationship. And, in the end, Anna doesn’t need either of their loves to save the day.