In a recent post on the Jewish parenting blog Kveller, Mayim Bialik, the Big Bang Theory actress and mother of two, admitted to hating Disney’s award-winning film, Frozen. “I know, I’m about to lose more fans than when I declared myself a proud liberal Zionist during Operation Protective Edge,” Bialik said. “Well, I have to speak the truth: My sons and I did not like Frozen.”
Perhaps due to the multitudes of positive reviews, a best-selling soundtrack and two Academy Awards, Bialik was prepared for a story of female empowerment—a Disney film that for the first time usurped the traditional princess fairy tale of being rescued by a knight in shining armor for a more feminist telling celebrating the bonds of sisterhood.
Oh, but you don’t know? This is a princess story, not a superhero story.
Although Frozen boasts two female lead characters, passes the Bechdel Test and ultimately defines “true love” as an act of sisterhood, it is embedded with traditional gender norms that serve to cultivate a stereotypical depiction that defines women as an other and devalues their humanity because of how it differs from men.
The most straightforward message in this purportedly feminist film—a film whose target audience is young girls—is that which is unique, special, and powerful about you is also dangerous, shameful and must be hidden. A subtler message: girls are emotional time-bombs who can’t be trusted to control their bodies or their minds.
Princess #1, Elsa, has a unique and powerful ability: she can freeze things. Princess #2, Anna, is an innocent (i.e. normal) girl. Together in the privacy of their castle, the sisters play in a winter wonderland of Elsa’s creation until a misdirected freeze ray accidentally hits Anna in the head. So, the King and Queen decide to close the castle gates and keep Elsa quarantined from everyone, including Anna.
Not only does this alienate Elsa from the entire world, it also robs Anna of her playmate and sister with no explanation. Then the parents die, and the two girls are truly alone—Anna left to wonder why her sister won’t speak, play, or even talk to her, and Elsa confined to her bedroom by fear of her uncontrollable “gift.”
When the sisters finally emerge from the castle years later for Coronation Day (which falls on Elsa’s 18th birthday), Anna’s desire for connection leads her to immediately become engaged to a visiting prince and Elsa’s inability to control her power leads her to banish herself to the top of a mountain. Perhaps not surprisingly, Elsa has been raised to believe that which makes her unique is what is wrong with her.
Elsa’s girl-ness is what makes her a villain and her internalized acceptance that she is bad is what leads her to hide. She doesn’t even get a fairy godmother or some dancing snowflake to share comical words of wisdom. “Don’t feel, conceal” becomes Elsa’s mantra in order for her to cope with her uniqueness.
The film point blank tells girls that their thoughts—their emotions—are things to be ashamed of. The fact that this catchy little rhyme is actually repeated multiple times throughout the film guarantees that it will imprint on its audience—an audience full of young, impressionable girls.
In an era where one of TV’s most revered female characters successes rely on listening to her gut, Disney’s “feminism” is just wordplay for brainwashing girls into ignoring, distrusting and devaluing their instincts—their voice. Instead, the film offers contradicting advice in the form chart-topping power ballad encouraging them to “Let it Go.”
Earlier this year, Frozen broke the record for best-selling animated film soundtrack, largely due to the success of “Let It Go,” Elsa’s theme song; the New York Times described the tune as “an emotional juggernaut in which her character transforms from an isolated, troubled queen to a powerhouse of self-acceptance.”
Unfortunately, this evolution into a “powerhouse of self-acceptance” occurs through a visual transformation in typical Hollywood fashion: a makeover! Messy, loose hair and a new dress with a sexy slit straight up Elsa’s just turned 18-year-old thigh reinforce our widely accepted cultural understanding that beauty and sexual appeal are the only vehicles for women to gain power and respect. You might be Secretary of State but your politics will come second to your make-up choices. Just ask Hillary.
The contradictory lyrics “Let it go, let it go / Can’t hold it back anymore” suggests that Elsa is prepared to rejoin the world and be herself but “Let it go, let it go / Turn away and slam the door” negates that, with the imagery of shutting the world out.
Keep in mind that throughout this entire song, she is still hiding alone on top of a mountain. Elsa never re-joins the community on her own accord, but rather when she is rescued by Anna. Telling an audience of girls who are still developing their minds and discovering their identities not to feel but to conceal robs them of their right to a self-determined life.
Further proof of the hypocrisy in citing “Let It Go” as an anthem for female empowerment is the other song that ended up on the cutting room floor. During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez discusses “We Know Better,” which she describes as:
Basically was these two princesses bonding over all of the things that the world expects and thinks of them. [The world thinks] that they’re perfect and sweet and sugar and spice and all things nice, and it was the two of them misbehaving and being fully well-rounded children with all the good and bad and imagination and mischief that I really feel that it’s important for our girls to be allowed to be.
What does it tell us about the values of Hollywood and of Disney that this song didn’t make it into the film? Former CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, said it best. “We have no obligation to make art,” Eisner explained. “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. We are here to make money.”
Had “We Know Better” made it into the final version of the film, it would have been revolutionary, a true embodiment of the feminist subtext Frozen has been mistakenly granted. Instead, Frozen sells a story of sisterhood in which the sisters have hardly any relationship or interactions on screen, a definition of empowerment that urges girls to suppress and conceal except when they are alone and, ultimately, a very explicit reminder that power, in the hands of women, is uncontrollable—kind of like good ol’ Mother Nature.
That’s not to say Frozen is without its feminist moments. However problematic the dominant messages in “Let It Go,” its subtle feminism is reflected in what it is not. It’s not Snow White staring into a well singing a duet with her own echo “I’m waiting…for the one I love…to find me…” Or Belle yearning for the great wide open, her song interrupted again and again by the thug trying to force her into marriage. It’s certainly more progressive than Ariel’s sacrifice of her voice and her body in order to become part of Prince Eric’s world.
The film’s acknowledgment of the existing social norms pushed upon women to find independence, self-identity, and a sense of self through a relationship with a man is a step in the right direction. To show Anna making a positive choice to challenge this “feminine” norm with the help of a platonic male ally, Kristoff, and a sense of purpose beyond marriage (rescuing her sister) is in fact one of the most feminist aspects of the film. Frozen’s additional feminist accolades include employing multiple women on the animation team and a woman to direct (in partnership with two men).
Nonetheless, applauding Frozen only for its merits serves to ignore the messages in the story that are directly aligned with reinforcing the status quo through a narrative that scares girls into submission. The real issue with Bialik’s critique, as it is with much of what has been written about Frozen, is how disconnected the conversation is from the fim’s potentially harmful effects on its target audience: Girls, and how susceptible they are to the messaging embedded in the film.
Photo by jeepersmedia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)