The thing about all things for kids: We think a lot more about whether it’s good for them. We don’t tend to think so much about the merits of pop movies for adults. We just let them be. By writing posts such as this, I’m another one of the handwringers. I’d be more inclined to give animated films like this one little thought and webspace if films such as Tangled weren’t so consistently held up as examples of feminist films, simply for featuring a female protagonist. In fact, the animated films which are more frequently held up as examples of feminist ideology are no such thing.
A film with female protagonists is not necessarily feminist. Whatever else is said about Frozen, it’s still a Disney Princess movie.
WILL THIS FILM ANNOY A FEMINIST?
There is at least one line of dialogue that annoys me in almost every animated film I watch, but I genuinely thought this one was not going to do that. I mean, they surely weren’t going to put in any ‘girl stuff is dumb” jokes in it, were they?
No, they didn’t. This film has an active feminist message in the sense that two (very obvious) fairytale tropes were subverted:
1. Love at first sight is bullshit
2. A validating type of love doesn’t have to come from a male love interest such as a prince, but can come equally from a significant female in your life; in this case, your sister.
Here are my issues with the film in bulletpoint form, because I’m sure this has been discussed at length elsewhere:
- A lot of people have pointed out the ridiculousness of anatomy: That the young women’s eyes are bigger than their wrists. To those who argue that these are stylised characters that should not be taken literally — that is true — but the real-human template from which these stylised versions are modelled are obviously slim and white. So a stylised version or not, this is the same old Western Beauty Standard we’re working with here. One thing I hadn’t seen before were freckled shoulders (on Anna, not on Elsa. Freckles are more in keeping with Anna’s less-perfect quirky personality.) I wonder if the character developers thought that freckled shoulders were somehow transgressive, though? I really do wonder that.
- Quick, quick, what are the things that Women Like? Answer: Shoes, handbags and chocolate. There were several references to chocolate — one in a song and the other in decontextualised dialogue between the sisters — which seemed completely random in this film, and I’m guessing they existed to convey the message that girls are allowed to eat chocolate and enjoy food too, you know. This is just more of that Maybelline type of idea (which I wrote about in my review of Gilmore girls) that you can be pretty and skinny and eat a heap of sugar at the same time… if you’re special enough and live inside a Pinterest board. I find it irritating that Women Like sweet things like Chocolate (and men like manly things like chargrilled meat). I mean, I like chocolate but I don’t regard eating it as some sort of feminist statement. It is what it is. And in this film the out-of-context references to chocolate were nothing short of bizarre.
- There is a paucity of stories about female friendships, in film as well as in books. (Ooh, found one!) Frozen could have been a story about two sisters, but it wasn’t. (Stephen Metcalf at Slate’s Culture Gabfest also thought that more could’ve been made of the sister relationship. He has daughters, and the relationship didn’t ring true for him.) There was very little dialogue between the young women. For an animated film which really does explore the relationship between two sisters, see Lilo and Stitch, another of my daughter’s favourites. (That film is also notable for having a female baddie.)
- One exchange stood out to me for being annoying, though. The sisters compliment each other on their looks (because, ya know, that’s the most effective way to brighten a gal’s day), and Anna tells her older sister that she may look beautiful but the older sister looks ‘beautifuller’. Realising that this is not a word, she self-corrects and says, ‘Oh I don’t mean fuller‘. Except she’s not really correcting her grammar, is she. She’s worried that she just called her sister a semi-euphemistic version of ‘fat’ — and along with the wrists-being-bigger-than-the-eyes visual cues, little girls learn once again that being a version of large — taking up your due space in this world — is one of the worst things you could possibly be. There’s a dumb joke just like that in one of those crappy Ice Age movies. About a female mammoth having a big butt, and taking it as a compliment, which is meant to be hilarious, because (white) women in real life don’t tend to take that as a compliment.
- Anna is a klutz, in the Zooey Deschenel kind of way. A goofy, klutzy character with Freudian slips — a character whom adult audiences, at least, will have seen many times before. I must remind myself that this film is for kids. What this main character is not: Poised, self-assured and forward-thinking. This is a particular brand of femininity which little girls are perhaps seeing too much of.. at the expense of the other kind.
- The Mary Sue didn’t like Frozen all that much. I felt the same way about it.
In short, long-time feminists may go meh about Frozen. Though people completely new to feminism may see this film as a triumph in its own way. I like to think that this film signals a change in the Disney Princess culture, but honestly, it’s just as likely that every single animated film that comes out over the next year is right-wing, conservative and poorly done in respect to girls. Folk at the Onion obviously think this too.
DOES IT PASS THE BECHDEL TEST?
Someone on a podcast made the tongue-in-cheek comment that she wondered if this film was going to even pass the Bechdel test if the sisters were going to spend the entire film singing about a snowman.
It did strike me, too, that all of the promotional material features the male characters (posters, trailers) to a disproportionate degree given that this is a film about young women, and that the first characters we see are male ice-cutters, and that the first line of dialogue goes to a little boy who is either not seen ever again or is otherwise so unmemorable that I don’t remember seeing him again.
Although this film does pass the Bechdel test, as mentioned above, ONLY JUST, ACTUALLY, and it passes the test partly because the girls are complimenting each other on their looks.
Ironically, in order to subvert the tropes of princess stories, the story must be largely about the relationships between the young women and the men who come into their lives, which involves much conversation across genders, and therefore little between the sisters. This film has an active feminist ideology which sets out to quash a few ancient ideas about womanhood, but if it set out to make a story about a relationship between two sisters, it fails; one film can’t do everything. This film is one step forward in the Disney Princess Story evolution, but I am still waiting for a story like Frankenweenie or Paranorman which just happens to star a girl rather than shit all over them. I’m waiting for that big-budget animated box office feature film that stars a girl without starring a girl because it has an active feminist ideology. The white-skinned, middle-class boy protagonists of Frankenweenie and Paranorman were on no such bandwagon. Hayao Miyazaki has demonstrated that girls can star in animated movies without the story being ‘about girl stuff’. But the West is not there yet.
AND IS IT ANY GOOD?
My six-year-old daughter really loves Frozen, and is particularly engaged by the slapstick comedy and the Olaf the snowman. I enjoyed the snowman and the wacky dance by the old man from Weasletown as well. The scene of a reindeer giving back the snowman’s carrot nose is especially adorable.
Will my six-year-old understand that this film subverts tropes? I’m not expecting her to know the word ‘subvert’ or even to understand the concept. I mean, Will she get that a when she watches nothing but girl-films about princesses, that being a beautiful princess isn’t the be-all and end-all? That Anna’s relationship with Kristoff isn’t the actual point? (I mean, they did get together romantically at the end. They didn’t have to have that one extra romantic kiss. They could have left it at a friendly peck, thereby demonstrating that young men and women can actually be friends.)
For all its feminist agenda — so damn obvious and didactic to a thinking adult audience — I’m not so sure that this story will work as we hope it will. This film relies on a background of fairytales, in order to understand that these tropes exist in the first place. More and more modern princess stories are not actually of the folkloric kind: a modern six-year-old may well have been brought up with the Babette Cole Princess Smartypants form of princess — the grubby-kneed version.
In all honesty, that, my daughter probably gets, despite my reluctance to read Rapunzel too many times. She may not realise, however, that the first third of the film, in which Anna looks set to fulfill the typical princess dream of finding a handsome prince and settling down, is completely ironic, including the lyrics to the songs. The lyrics to Fixer Upper are a case in point. Disney songs have a habit of being sung outside the movies (*shiver*) in which case we’d better hope the little kids singing along have seen the film and understand the song’s context.
The Mary Sue article (linked above) said: “I’ve been noticing a lot of films lately just meandering along. Not really concerned about a beginning, middle, and end, or at least what should happen in between all of those.” I think I know what is meant by this. Like the random chocolate references (the rule of Chekhov’s Gun applies — if chocolate ain’t gonna ‘go off’, don’t include it), and the extra characters, some of whom didn’t really need to be there (the little boy at the beginning, who followed a rather Moby Dick like fate, in which the character we see first disappears forever), and the romantic kiss at the end, when everything about Anna and Kristoff’s relationship suggested they were going to be just friends for now… The plot was actually a bit of a mess, especially considering how much these big budget films follow a template. An interesting question to ask ourselves: Is this sense of ‘looseness’ to do with the fact that the story doesn’t follow the trajectory we expect? This is a question worth asking of any film which subverts our expectations, but I think my examples are specific enough that there really was a bit of loose, random dialogue and characterisation.
In short, this is a big-budget story which will appeal to little kids, and it has the visual appeal we’ve come to expect of modern animation, but as an example of magnificent storytelling, not so much. As a film to hold up as an example of feminist storytelling, not at all, really. For that, look to the less self-conscious films. The ones no one would ever accuse of being ‘empowering’. If you hear someone use the phrase ‘girl power’ in relation to a film or book, you know it’s probably not.
RELATED BUT NOT NECESSARILY WORTH CLICKING ON
Frozen Turned My Son Gay (oh boy, the headline is enough for me. People think these things.)
Pro Gay? Disney is pro-being yourself from Film School Rejects is a response. Because apparently more than one person somewhere said that Frozen has a gay agenda. All of this just goes to show how much these normative traditional stories need to be challenged.
Why ‘Frozen’ Is Also the Perfect Movie for Overprotective Fathers, at Pajiba creeps me out
Honest Films Trailer of Frozen
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour thought it was okay, but they liked Tangled, too (I didn’t.) Their discussion made me want to watch Wreck-It Ralph.
Frozen has a score of 7.9 at IMDb. I’ve noticed across the web that fans of Frozen really are huge fans.