Frozen: Subverting the Ice Queen

FrozenYesterday afternoon, my sometimes-collaborator, always-friend Megan (whose reviews you can read at Review To Be Named) and I went to see FrozenBecause I’ve been otherwise occupied, I hadn’t kept up with the buzz about the film and so I didn’t really know what to expect. Overall, I loved it a lot. There are some obvious issues about race, body-type, class, etc. (plus the fact that Elsa’s eyes take up 3/4 of her face), but in terms of the messages about gender and about love I was so so pleased. Below are a few quick reasons:

Power is Beautiful:  Essentially, Frozen is about learning how to use power. I love the film’s prologue, “Frozen Heart” for how it sets up the themes of the film–love, beauty, and power, connecting power to both nature and danger. In the beginning, Elsa’s power is a source of fun for her and Anna and it’s only after an accident that endangers Anna that Elsa’s well-meaning parents hide her power away. Even still, the grandfather troll person tells them there is great beauty and great danger in her magic. Then, in the musical number below, “Let it Go,” when Elsa really uses her power again, it’s just gorgeous. Plus, there’s not a straightforward association of her power with either beauty or danger. On one hand, she can create gorgeous ice castles and adorable living snowmen; on the other, she almost kills her sister–twice. It’s a complicated message about power that doesn’t seek to take power from its female characters. (And, I might add, when she embraces her powers it’s downright sexy without being sexualizing.) While in the beginning, it seems like the story is aiming toward “fixing” Elsa’s power, the narrative is really about her embracing and learning how to use her magical abilities. That’s an empowering message. Additionally, Elsa is actually a ruler. Unlike most princess movies, in which the female royal is more of a whiny figurehead than anything else, Elsa has actual authority, which makes her learning how to use her power all the more important. It’s not that she’s longing for her day to come–she’s actually in charge. And the movie leaves her that way, not marrying her off in the end, but keeping her a single, magical young queen. Further, Anna playfully uses power of her own when she goes on an adventure, performs authority with Kristoff, and takes charge in finding her sister and bringing her back.

Coldness Doesn’t Mean Unfeeling: I’m still thinking this one over. There’s a lot about the association of femininity with warmth and powerful women as cold and unfeeling going on here. Elsa’s refrain for much of the film is “Conceal, don’t feel” and her unhappiness is caused by literally closing everyone out when she really desires freedom and love. But, when she embraces her power after fighting her sister and fleeing her kingdom, she asserts “the cold never bothered me anyway.” Because Elsa’s power is strengthened by her emotions, it’s important that she embraces those emotions as part of learning how to use her power. Ultimately, Elsa gets the best of all things–her kingdom, her sister, and her icy powers. I think this is really subversive because it kind of implodes that archetype of “the Ice Queen” by making it far more complicated. Of course, as a children’s movie, it’s a little literal, but I like the idea that little girls can associate the pejorative term “ice queen” with something pretty awesome rather than just “frigid bitch.” I like that even when Elsa is possibly overreacting, no one just tells her that she’s overreacting. There’s a space for her to have emotions without her getting shut down.

Women Have Complicated Choices And Complicated Feelings: There’s a moment at the climax of “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)” where, in the midst of an otherwise articulate and playfully wordy movie (they use the word fractal in a song), Elsa breaks down into wordless emotion as Anna continues to hurl verbose optimism at her. I think it’s a beautiful and intense way to portray the depth of her emotion that is in line with much of Elsa’s character in the film. Because the portrayal of power is pretty nuanced, that leaves Elsa with complicated choices. She should stay and rule, but it seems safer to be free and alone–yet the best choice is to find a midpoint between those two. 

Sisterhood! I love that Disney has given us a story about sisterhood that actually focuses on sisterly love. There’s not much rivalry or extended fighting over boys. At the heart of the conflict between the sisters is a desire for closeness, but a fear of intimacy. Yes, yes, yes. 

True Love Isn’t Necessarily Romantic Love: There’s a lot of great stuff about romantic love in the film too, but there’s also a range of depictions of what love is, all of which emphasize the transformative role of love in helping people be their best selves (not in changing people). The main motivation for Anna is a desire for human connection that seems natural after spending so much of her life pretty isolated from other people. Her rush into a romantic relationship, however, is off-set by how deeply she desires a relationship with her sister. I about peed my pants during the quest for an act of true love to thaw Anna’s heart. In a surprisingly self-reflective moment for Disney, Anna and Kristoff just assume that an act of true love  is a kiss from Anna’s fiance. While that doesn’t work because he doesn’t love her, there are plenty of moments of true love along the way, and Olaf there to point them out–Kristoff returning Anna to another man, Olaf almost melting while helping Anna, and ultimately Anna sacrificing herself for her sister. I love that the act that saves Anna, and the whole kingdom, is not her passively receiving true love, but her actively putting her sister’s life ahead of her own (a choice that becomes more complicated if you hear the cut song “More Than Just a Spare”). I think that it’s a good lesson that finding love is an important part of having a full life, but that that love doesn’t have to mean finding Prince Charming. Love is the key to Elsa learning how to control her power, but it’s a sister’s love. 

There’s so much more that I love about this film–even the bad guy is pretty sophisticated. I’m not going to do an extended write-up, because there’s a lot out there that celebrates the same things I have above. In short, Disney made a princess movie so good that I almost forgot it was yet another Disney princess movie. Fun and empowering, Frozen managed to hit on many of the themes about coming of age and enacting authority that Brave tried to do justice last year, but did so without falling back on tired marriage plots, pitting women against each other, or failing to show women with real power. Plus, it sounds like women, including Kristen Bell, had a lot to do with transforming the story from a straight-forward evil queen tale into a complicated and beautiful celebration of female power, sisterhood, and many kinds of love. Yay!

Further Reading:

Could Have Been Frozen: a look at race and the film

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5 thoughts on “Frozen: Subverting the Ice Queen

  1. Good review Kasey. The type of animated movie that appeals to both kids, as well as adults. However, gets the job done in entertaining everybody, in the right way.

  2. This is an amazing review. I was just on a podcast about the film, and I feel like this is what I wanted to say, but failed at articulating it as well as you did. I absolutely feel in love with the displays of feminine power that Disney actually managed to pull off here, especially as I found Brave rather disappointing, just as it sounds like you did.

  3. I liked the review (and movie) but still have a problem with the “sexy but not sexualizing” comment. When Elsa is claiming her power – actually stamping it into being, and her hair and dress magically transform – WHY! is it necessary for her all of a sudden to be “hippy” and “sexy” (at 3.17) – is this just seen as the opposite of her “conceal, don’t feel” persona? Now that she’s free to be herself, is it one who has a long, unrestrained braid and a slit and vampy walk? If anything, shouldn’t her gown just be flowing – without the stereotypically emphasized small waisted trope? When she transforms, why is it necessary to emphasize her sexuality. Is it sexual power that she’s claiming along with her ice power? It’s a small point, and I enjoyed the film for all the other things mentioned above, but when she started swinging her hips…I thought ugh. Really?! Who walks likes that in real life?

    • I agree. At first and even now I am prepared to accept that column dress when I saw that it was totally out of place compared to all the other Scandinavian aesthetics in the movie and that they actually had a more flowing design for her in the concept art (which I am totally for). I found the slit okay because she was walking on ice and later had to run and fight two thugs but then she keeps it even back in Arendelle when they could have easily given her a wardrobe like Anna’s (which allows far more movement anyway and is better). In fact, there should have been more snow on her outfit than the glory of her skin (even to at least leave some semblance of the legendary Snow Queen because that is who she is). The dress is beautiful but in that time period and country she thinks of making a slit? Anyway, I don’t mean any offense to anyone and I really love Elsa as a character and I really really enjoyed the movie and this didn’t ruin the experience at all for me but when I began to pay attention to the details in the concept it started to bother me. She looks more like a modern-day princess or queen rather than of that time period. I would like to think that the flowing dress maybe gave some animation inconveniences because the current one just does not suit the modest, sophisticated Elsa. Sorry, I think I made this too lengthy.
      As for Anna, I enjoy watching her movements throughout and she really should have stressed on Elsa how dangerous her journey to the Ice Palace was.

  4. Pingback: Girls and Oscar Night 2014 | Ph.D.s and Pigtails

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