Yesterday, I came across this article that was traveling around Tumbr: The Problem with False Feminism (or why “Frozen” left me cold). It’s a very long but interesting read, and one I disagree with on a fundamental level.
Ultimately, the article argues that, instead of actually having a feminist message, Frozen misrepresents previous Disney princess movies so that its false feminism appears like progress in comparison.
I’ve written before about the problem with media claiming that Frozen is the first “feminist” Disney princess movie, the first one without a marriage at the end, the first one where the characters aren’t all about romance, etc etc. The Disney Renaissance movies are full of great characters and great stories, and even the movies from the 1950s are not as problematic as critics might believe. But I strongly disagree that Frozen is actually a step back from these films, or that it manipulates misconceptions of Disney’s past to appear more feminist in comparison. In fact, I’d argue that the criticisms of Frozen are the “false feminist” approach, applying a list of generic requirements and assumptions to the film without taking its actual nature into account. Frozen is not a feminist movie because its female characters are confident and capable and accomplished from the beginning. It’s a feminist movie because they’re not, and because they learn to be so by the movie’s end.
As the article is structured around a list of imagined arguments why Frozen is feminist, followed by takedowns explaining why it’s not, I’ll structure this in the same way. I’ll present the article’s arguments of why Frozen isn’t feminist, and then argue why that’s wrong.
Frozen is not the first Disney movie to end without a wedding or pass the Bechdel test
This is very true. And a good thing, too! Not a point against Frozen, but an important detail to remember when talking about it in comparison to other Disney films.
Anna and Elsa don’t have other supporting female characters around them
While Pocahontas has her best friend Nakoma, Aurora has her fairies and Cinderella’s whole movie is filled with female characters, Anna and Elsa basically only have each other. They never speak to any other female characters for the entire movie. Other articles have similarly talked about the original Snow Queen fairy tale, and complained that Disney threw away its great cast of supporting female characters in favor of male ones. And it is disappointing that Anna and Elsa are the only non-troll female characters we see. But, at the risk of repeating tired anti-feminist arguments, the movie doesn’t have room for other significant female characters.
Seriously. The entire movie is structured around Anna and Elsa’s isolation and loneliness. Anna’s lack of close relationships (and her desperate desire for them) is central focus of her character, while Elsa’s fear of close relationships is the central focus of hers. If Anna had a female BFF in the palace, her narrative arc would be completely different as a result. The movie can’t be about finding and claiming love between two women, sisters and friends if, at the beginning, the protagonists already have it. And unless we believe that Frozen could break all the Disney moulds and have a lesbian narrative, most of the characters they meet then have to be male. Hans is the manipulative villain/love interest, so he’s a guy. (Of course, it would be refreshing — but highly unlikely in Disney’s 2013 world — for him to be a woman, and that switch would definitely cause some nasty implications unless Kristoff was also female). Kristoff, meanwhile, is the love interest that adventures with Anna so that they can find love through adversity. Perhaps it would be better if Frozen broke the standard narrative tropes here, but let’s be honest. We expect there to be some kind of non-evil romance going on here. Frozen could have been interesting as the movie where the only love interest is evil and the genuine love between sisters is the one to save the day, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I like having some cute romance in my animated movies. It’s fun! And I don’t think it’s anti-feminist for it to be there.
So the main human cast of the movie, as demonstrated by its posters, is half male, half female. The main main cast of the movie is 100% female. The speaking background cast could have included more women, such as Alan Tudyk’s strange Duke or the “Big Summer Blowout” guy, and I wish that it did. But for characters who are on the adventure or actually support Anna and Elsa, we’re left with Olaf and Sven, one a talking snowman and one a non-talking reindeer (and making the non-talking reindeer female is hardly my idea of representation).
While the world of Frozen in general could have had more relatively insignificant female characters instead of male ones (a Duke, a talking snowman, a salesman, a bishop and a servant… correct me if I’ve missed any), it’s story doesn’t allow for more significant female characters. And that isolation is entirely the point.
Anna is a shallow, unintelligent character
According to the article, Anna is as much of a role model for girls as Karen Smith from Mean Girls. You know, the really dumb one played by Amanda Seyfried? That statement alone makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Anna is beautiful, clumsy in a rom-com kind of way, fast-talking, vain and entirely unintelligent (as she rushes into an engagement). She is unaware of her limitations and of the consequences of her actions, and is above all rude.
To be fair, I’m not an entirely neutral judge of Anna’s character. The little girl in me took an immediate liking to the princess with the braided red hair who talks too fast, because the five-year-old me always liked fellow red-headed princesses best, and even the twenty-five-year old me thinks it’s fun to find heroines who share traits (and hairstyles) with herself. But I don’t think Anna’s hairstyle blinded me to the fact that she’s actually a completely useless bimbo, as the article suggests.
First of all, saying that she’s not intelligent because the villain used her loneliness and desperation against her is one of the most anti-feminist statements I’ve seen in a feminist article. Anna is not stupid because she was manipulated by somebody who specifically set out to trick her, someone who lied to her about himself and his feelings from the very beginning. Making a mistake or misjudging someone doesn’t mean that someone is stupid. It means they made a mistake, and one that many real women actually make.
Yes, Anna is flawed. She’s overconfident and somewhat oblivious, and these flaws are played for comedy moments. But she’s also set up as a foil to her sister. She’s extroverted and outgoing, she has no problems expressing her feelings or believing in her emotions, she’s incredibly loyal and beyond stubborn to boot. Her entire narrative is driven by her determination to save her kingdom and to save her sister. She makes mistakes, but she acts. She has far more personality than a pretty face.
Elsa is “an absolute mess of self-blame and avoidance”
In fact, the article calls Elsa “pathological,” because she shuts herself away and refuses help from anyone. And perhaps pathological is a good word to describe Elsa’s mental state after years of self-repression. But it isn’t a good word to criticize her character with. Otherwise, we’re saying that the existence of a Disney princess with mental health issues is a bad thing, and, even worse, that people who have similar mental health issues are also weak and terrible role models.
Elsa shuts herself away because she’s been told to do so her whole life. “Don’t feel, conceal” has been her life motto. She believes that if she doesn’t hide everything away, she’ll hurt others. She is, as the article claims, “a frightened, repressed vulnerable woman who starts running at the beginning of the movie and doesn’t stop,” but this fact is precisely why she is a feminist character. She, like many real women, has spent her life trying to keep her emotions locked away. She’s been forced to deny who she really is, and it’s left her with serious issues. Let It Go is an anthem of claiming ownership over herself, of deciding that she doesn’t need to repress her magic and her feelings any more, and anyone who disagrees can go to hell. Of course, this has unforeseen negative consequences for the kingdom, but at the time, Elsa doesn’t know that. She thinks she’s finally found a solution that allows her to be herself. And when she does found out what’s happened, she’s terrified, because instead of freedom, she thinks she’s learned that she’s as terrible as everyone feared. Is that response a bad thing? Or realistic? The rest of the movie is about gaining that freedom without complete isolation, that this isolation is another form of repression, and that she can only be free by being completely open, not just with magic, but with love as well.
Elsa doesn’t have a clearly defined goal
Elsa does have a clearly defined goal. In the beginning, it’s to keep control over her powers and ensure that no one ever finds out about them. There’s a flaw in the storytelling of the movie here, because we don’t really know why, beyond the accident with her sister, but it’s not an anti-feminist flaw, just a narrative one. Later, her goal is to finally be free of that repression and the need to constantly deny who she is — a goal that she achieves herself in part, and needs Anna’s help to achieve in full.
Anna’s goal is true love, and everything else is window dressing
According to the article, Anna’s “I Want” song is all about finding a man and falling in love, in The First Time in Forever. But this is wrong on two counts. First, her “I Want” song is actually the song before, Do You Want To Build A Snowman? It’s not as explicit as some past “I Want” songs, but it lays her desires and problems out very clearly. She doesn’t want undefined adventure. She just wants a relationship with her sister. She wants that connection back. She wants to be rid of the loneliness that grows and grows in the prologue, until she’s crying outside her sister’s door, begging her sister to “let her in” because they only have each other now. In the three years since that song, Anna seems to give up slightly on this, and so when she sings The First Time in Forever, she isn’t singing about seeing her sister. But she also isn’t singing exclusively about finding true love. She sings about her joy of finally seeing people. Of having a chance to have a life outside her isolation. And because she’s spent her whole life cooped up, and is extroverted and excitable and romantic, she also thinks, “I have this one silly shot to maybe find love, it’s unlikely, but MAYBE IT’LL HAPPEN!” Hans takes advantage of that, but the rest of the movie isn’t then about finding true romantic love, with everything else as a bonus. It’s about her building a community of relationships around her, most importantly the relationship with her sister (her greatest desire, as established in the prologue), but also a healthy potential romance with Kristoff, a strange sort of friendship with a talking snowman, and the ability to finally open the gates and interact with the rest of the kingdom by the end. “Love” might be Anna’s greatest goal, but it isn’t “true romantic love.” It’s any kind of love, and sisterly love first and foremost.
Other princesses survived isolation longer and dealt with it better
Anna, it seems, spent three years in near total isolation, after a childhood with no real friends. Compared to Rapunzel, she’s had things pretty cushy. And so, as past isolated princesses like Rapunzel are relatively socially normal, Anna must be as well, or else she is not a feminist character.
This is total nonsense. I love Tangled, but Rapunzel being able to interact normally with strangers after eighteen years locked in a tower is not exactly realistic. I’d much rather see a princess who experiences consequences of her problematic upbringing that have them always be completely immune to psychological issues. Because what’s more feminist? The emotionally perfect female character, or the one shaped by her past who has to struggle with issues as a result?
Perhaps Anna’s isolation is another potential plot flaw. Perhaps she would have had friendships with servants and other people in the castle. But if she did, the entire story would necessarily be different. So I think we should let this one slide.
Elsa’s outfit is impractical
When Elsa redesigns her dress into one made from ice, she creates something that “makes it near impossible to do anything but stand and look ornamental.”
Clearly, Elsa’s capable of more than standing and looking ornamental. She created a whole castle of ice. She can use her powers. If I remember the ending correctly, she can ice skate. Anna also walks through a frozen tundra in a literally frozen dress and doesn’t get frost bite. The fashion isn’t realistically practical, but the visual works. Elsa’s dress is not intended to be sexy. It’s not revealing. It is, however, glamorous. And I find this argument so confusing that I’m not entirely sure how to refute it beyond that.
Anna falls in love with a guy she just met TWICE
Aka, she falls for Hans in a day (and we’re told this is a bad thing), and then falls for Kristoff the very next day. Her romance with Hans is represented as foolish, but her romance with Kristoff is true love.
Sure, declarations of love after one day together are a bit eye-roll-worthy. But they are hardly committed at the end of the movie. They have one cute kiss. Yay for them!
In other movies where characters either fall in love at first sight or spend at most a couple of days together (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleepy Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tangled… did I miss any?), the movie ends with a declaration of their eternal commitment. Either they get married, they become engaged, or, in the case of Tangled, they don’t end the movie married but we’re told that it happens eventually. Frozen has no such declaration. For all we know, Anna and Kristoff broke up the following week. They had an adventure together. She bought him a replacement sled. They share an adorable kiss. And yes, the climax of the movie plays on the idea that Kristoff must rush to Anna’s side, because his true love’s kiss is needed to save the day. But firstly, it doesn’t save the day. Who even knows if it would have? We’ve already established that Anna is a wild romantic and Kristoff doesn’t have anyone in his life except a reindeer and some trolls, so maybe they both got swept away by the dire need of the moment. And secondly, the idea of insta-true-love is not a misrepresentation of past Disney movies. It doesn’t mean that past Disney movies are bad, but even Tangled relies on 48 hours of adventure for its heartbreaking “death of her true love” based climax. We’re accustomed to two characters meeting somewhere near the beginning, having a few days’ worth of story, and being in love by the end. Sometimes, in the oldest movies, they save the day using true love’s kiss. More often, they don’t. But fairy tale culture has implanted “true love’s kiss” firmly in the audience’s minds, and we’re conditioned to believe in that true love over the development of an hour and a half. So although Frozen raises that idea and then subverts it, it’s not misrepresenting past Disney movies by doing so, and it’s not undermining its own “don’t marry someone you’ve known for about six hours” message with Hans. It plays with tropes, but it does not commit.
And, let’s remember, having a romance plotline is not anti-feminist either way.
Anna doesn’t make her own decisions
This is the biggest sticking point in this article for me. It claims that Anna’s only (rather foolish) decision is to go tearing off after her sister. Otherwise, she’s manipulated into her engagement with Hans, she’s forced out of the ice palace by Elsa, she’s carried to the palace for true love’s kiss, and generally has no agency, because her memories were stolen from her in the beginning of the movie. This final statement, at least, is very much true. But, along with the love between sisters, that is the entire point of the movie. It’s a story of a girl winning BACK her agency.
In the beginning, Anna’s lost her sister, and she doesn’t know why. Once she does learn why, she tears after her, determined to fix their relationship and to save the kingdom in the process. It doesn’t exactly go as planned. But the movie’s key moment is when Anna leaps in front of Hans’ sword, saving her sister’s life. After losing her memories of Elsa’s powers as a young child and spending her whole life since then thinking her sister has rejected her for no reason, she’s finally fully informed, and she acts with that knowledge. Her “act of true love” is something that she does herself, rather than something that is done to her. She’s spent the entire movie looking for love, for some kind of connection, especially with her sister, and now she can act on it. Elsa’s spent the whole movie thinking that she is unloveable. This single act of Anna’s is a turning point for them both. It allows them both to get what they want.
Now what’s anti-feminist about that?
The trolls are creepy and could have prevented the whole thing from the beginning
Now this one is true. But take it up with the storyboard.
Overall, “feminism” doesn’t mean that female characters need to always be strong and capable and in control of themselves. Considering the nature of our society, that’s entirely unrealistic, for both fictional characters and for real women. The feminist nature of Frozen lies in the fact that Anna and Elsa are not so perfect and in control. They have neuroses and make mistakes. They struggle internally as well as externally. And at the end of the movie, they overcome those struggles. That’s a far more inspiring story, to me, than one where those struggles don’t exist at all.