Frozen and other Disney princesses

Score! The in-flight movie was Frozen.

It’s not merely a critically acclaimed and reasonably successful Disney movie, it’s a bonafide Disney phenomenon — their most financially successful animated movie so far and also incredibly popular and iconic with its target demographic of teen and pre-teen girls. What is it about this movie that resonates? Why does it work?

Before I saw it for the first time, what I knew of the general storyline, and the casting of Idina Menzel as Elsa, led me to think they set out to make something with an appeal similar to Wicked (the stage musical), but for kids. I became certain of this when I heard “Let it Go” — a song that is about as perfect a “like ‘Defying Gravity,’ but not quite” as you’re likely to find, including the fact that it occupies the same point in the story. Which is not to say that I think either the movie or the song felt stale or derivative — I enjoyed them. But my impression that this movie has Wicked buried deep in its DNA probably influences my view of some of its themes and situations.

Wicked is, at its core, a story about the the relationship between two contrasting “sisters”: the dark and the light. Frozen is about two actual biological sisters: the warm and the cold. As in Wicked, it is the outsider sister (cold, dark) who has most or all of the magical power. Also like Wicked, although romance features in the plot, other characters are mostly catalysts and complicating factors. The core story is about the sisters’ arc: closeness, followed by division (in which the power of the outsider sister takes a threatening turn), and completed by reconciliation.

Also like Wicked, Frozen has some very gay-friendly themes. In fact, Elsa — the cold sister — not only has a magical “coming out” arc that maps so closely to real life that it’s barely a metaphor, but also the character — the actual character — might be gay. In Wicked, one of the points of division is that Glinda and Elphaba compete for the affections of the same man. In Frozen, a point of division is that the warm sister (Anna) is so starved for love that she’s ready to marry a man she just met, and her sister thinks she’s insane (for the record, Elsa is right about that). But there’s a genuinely decent man waiting for her later on in the story. Anna has two love interests. Elsa has no love interests. Yes, that ties neatly into the cold/warm theme, so it doesn’t necessitate gayness on Elsa’s part. But it doesn’t argue against it, either, especially given her story arc.

Notice the misdirection in this pre-release poster.
Two princesses — two dudes!
And what is Elsa doing in the background?

And what is that arc? As a child, she has a powerful difference which frightens her parents. To hide it, her parents keep her locked away. The slogan they instill: “conceal, don’t feel.” At Elsa’s coronation, an emotional confrontation with her sister sends the power spiraling out of control. Now, everybody knows. She runs away, and grandly declares — with a Broadway show-stopper — that she’s going to embrace her power completely, although it will mean living in isolation. She creates a fabulous sparkling world of glamor for herself to inhabit. But her sister shows up to tell her that it’s not that simple. Her isolation is freezing out her entire kingdom. Eventually, Elsa discovers that the secret to controlling her power is to embrace love, the warmth in her heart — “conceal, don’t feel” was exactly the wrong thing to do. Now controlled, her power becomes a source of delight for everyone in her kingdom. They have learned to accept her, and she has learned to accept them. Yay! The end.

In fact, it’s not just a coming out metaphor — it’s also a strong argument for reconciling with family and friends afterward.

I thought I would see what thoughts other people had about Frozen specifically from a feminist standpoint. The first article I turned up was this: [The problem with false feminism ] which takes Frozen to task for being a frustratingly fake falsely feminist flick. For example, it claims that Anna’s clumsiness is the “de facto flaw for heroines who aren’t fully-developed enough to have a real flaw  [..] Anna’s clumsiness doesn’t move the plot. “ Except for, you know, the accident with her sister’s power that kicks off the entire thing. Was the essayist still waiting in line for popcorn during that scene?

And this — “she’s vain, believing absolutely in her ability to talk some sense into Elsa despite having had no relationship with her sister for what looks like roughly ten years.” Vain? Wow, that is some harsh spin to put on an act that I saw as born out of loyalty and affection. Whenever anybody asks her directly why she thinks she can make a difference with Elsa, her response is “she’s my sister.” That doesn’t sound like vanity to me. That sounds like love, and since that is clearly what the scriptwriters intended (love being overtly established as the solution at the climax) I think I’m sticking with my interpretation.

It takes all the aspects of Frozen cited as unusually feminist for a Disney cartoon, such as “she doesn’t marry the prince at the end!” and points out other Disney cartoons that have done that same thing. It did not succeeded in convincing me that Frozen was awful, or unfeminist. Instead, it convinced me that the entire Disney princess ouevre is more feminist than we often give it credit for.

This makes sense to me, just as the barely-concealed gay-friendliness makes sense to me. Disney, for all its reputation as a the world’s leading G-rated family-friendly marketing behemoth, is not at all on the side of the cultural conservatives on the religious right. Those guys are way too divisive. Disney wants to be universal. Yes, they want to be universal so they can sell stuff to literally everybody on the planet. They’re not driven by deep moral conviction. They’re driven by capitalism. But they embrace capitalism’s great virtue: it doesn’t much care how you live your life, as long as you’re spending money to do it. Disney is not interested in telling you what you ought to want — it’s interested in figuring out what you do want, and then selling you lots and lots of it.

So, when it comes to a Disney Princess [™] movie, Disney has a few goals. It wants to make box office, which involves appealing to the target demographic without alienating or boring their parents or their brothers. It also wants them to be successful over time — Disney is in the business of creating iconic characters and situations, so that they can put them on t-shirts and lunchboxes which you will buy forever. Perhaps ironically, this actually gives them a motivation to strive for artistic excellence. But most of all, Disney wants the target demographic to love the movie all to pieces, to fixate on it and obsess over it, to drag their families to it multiple times, buy the soundtrack, decorate their rooms with images of its characters and dress up like them for Halloween, Mardi Gras, birthday parties.

When you add that up, what you get is a movie that has to have humor, adventure, and a strong story, in addition to being a power fantasy for the target demographic.

The Disney princesses are not self-consciously feminist by any means (although both Pixar’s Brave and Frozen seems headed in that direction), in part because Disney is not progressive — they’re not ever going to be out in front leading the way on social change, because that would risk alienating people. But they also need to be right on top of things when the culture does change. They can’t afford to be too far behind the curve, and have a princess who feels too old-fashioned for the target demographic to relate to. So, they serve a feminist cause by accident, by striving to give little girls what they want, and recognizing that what they want is a power fantasy.

Yes, it’s a power fantasy that involves fabulous gowns. But they also want to be able to blast you with their awesome winter powers whenever they feel like it. The prince? They can take him or leave him.