“Foot size doesn’t matter.”
The obvious way to approach Frozen is through its writing of gender roles. Though I’d love to say that I’m going to break the mould and go in a completely different direction (and I do think there are other ways the film can be read: for example, as an allegory of power and monarchical responsibility), what I really want to do in this post is clear up my own reaction to it, which has been muddled both by an adoring public and by the scathing discussions of it which came out of a Children’s Literature special option I did at university this time last year.
I think the problem with Frozen‘s feminism is not that it isn’t present, and not that it isn’t taken seriously (it is both of these things), but that it is badly mishandled. I think that the film’s starting-point, an exploration of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark and very definitely gendered fairytale “The Snow Queen”, is well-conceived and promising, reacting to that story as a patriarchal construct designed to demonise female desire.
Andersen’s Snow Queen is sexualised from the very beginning of the fairytale: almost her first act in the story is to kiss Kay, a boy who she steals away from his town, in order to make him a creature of the cold himself. Meanwhile, Gerda, the girl who follows him to rescue him, wins through by her childish innocence (despite the fact that she is clearly in love with Kay); and the tale as a whole places great importance on that childishness: “There sat the two grown-up persons [Kay and Gerda after their adventure]; grown-up, and yet children; children, at least, in heart”. Kay and Gerda are clearly destined for romantic happiness, and yet even as adults sex doesn’t seem to be an option for them. The Snow Queen, by comparison, is a sexual predator in her iciness, unable to restrain herself, and represents a danger to masculine, monogamous society.
Enter Elsa, Frozen‘s heroine. Having desperately tried to restrain herself for years (“conceal, don’t feel”), her outburst of emotion at a state function, accompanied by flurries of snow and jagged ice, earns her the fear and hate of the townsfolk, and she flees. Her flight, though, is a release, as anyone who’s listened to “Let It Go” knows: she’s finally able to express herself, to acknowledge her own desires. Though, this being a Disney film, her release isn’t sexualised, we can still see here the analogue of the Snow Queen’s refusal to conform, her threat to patriarchy (confirmed in Elsa’s case by Hans’ admission of his inability to trick her into marrying him) in her refusal to “be the good girl you always have to be”. The film traces Elsa’s descent into monstrosity, but it never allows us to believe that Elsa is a monster; it reveals the response of the townsfolk to her as one which is either simply ignorant or actively sexist (the Duke of Weselton instructs his men to kill her as part of an explicitly masculine political plot to seize her throne). In other words, Frozen, or at least its first half, dissects Andersen’s fairytale, revealing the insidious ways in which monstrosity is based in patriarchy.
Unfortunately, this promising beginning is under-served by the second half of the film. Elsa is captured by the Duke’s men and brought back to Arendelle. There, it’s revealed that the antidote to the winter Elsa has created – the antidote, that is, to her self-expression – is True Love; specifically, the True Love of her sister Anna. In all fairness, the True Love scene, in which Anna sacrifices herself for Elsa and is rewarded by having the winter lifted from her, is nice: it’s nice that its reference to True Love criticises the characters’ and the audience’s rather patriarchal stand on what True Love can mean, and reminds us that it’s not just romantic love that’s important. But it’s in the wrong place with regards to Elsa’s storyline: it begins to feel like “Snow Queen” territory again, the pure-intentioned innocent saving her sister from the icy effects of female monstrosity through an act of socially sanctioned sacrifice.
The worst scene, though, is the closing one, in which Elsa, having undone her winter, is reincorporated into the town that shunned her, using her power, which we’ve seen her glorying in an hour earlier, to create – an ice rink.
I think it’s the ice rink that gets me: a thing of frivolity and fun and triviality. That wintry power, expressive of so much potentiality and depth of feeling, is only acceptable to the townsfolk as a domesticated thing, a curiosity, a childish innocence. Is this really all that Arendelle’s Snow Queen can do for them? There’s no feeling that Arendelle has changed in its attitude to sorcery; that given another woman of great power it would not rise against her and create for her a narrative of monstrosity. It is simply that female self-expression has been domesticated, tamed, rehabilitated into a pretty shiny superficial thing for the use and amusement of a people which shook pitchforks at it only yesterday. Frozen becomes, through the unfortunate placement of Anna’s storyline, a tale which deconstructs patriarchy but doesn’t see the need to address its underlying structures; a story which, still, treats female emotion, female desire, as a monstrous aberrance, pitiable and pathological, a condition to be harnessed, not a truth to be embraced. This is probably not deliberate, of course: what it feels like is a writer and a studio trying to shoehorn a feminist plot into an essentially patriarchal narrative form (the Disney princess story). But that doesn’t make the film feel any less of a betrayal.
I’ve just remembered that next up for Disney is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I am not hopeful.