The new year has always been a time for re-evaluating our commitments and seeking out new opportunities—out with the old and in with the new. It is a time honored by many as the space for letting go. Which is exactly the crossroads we find ourselves at with “Let It Go,” the emotionally charged lead single from 2013’s Frozen.
Only Taylor Swift could outsell the Frozen soundtrack, which almost became the best-selling album of the year thanks to the tremendous success of Idina Menzel‘s signature song. It charted as a Billboard top 10 single, spawned countless YouTube videos of both covers and parodies, and spawned numerous live performances by Menzel. But the time has come to, well, let it go. In doing so, let us also relinquish the disproportionate feminist reputation it has earned.
2014 marked the fourth year in a row that women made up half of movie-going audiences, yet only 13 of the top 100 grossing films included female protagonists. The presence of true leading ladies, of stories about women and girls, is so limited that we are willing to accept almost anything and anyone Hollywood sells us. In doing so we allow ourselves to be distracted by a moment while forgoing the bigger movement for equality. The longer we hold on to “Let It Go” and Elsa, the lower our desire to seek out an abundance of characters, narratives, and feminisms to relate to.
In a year when feminism was spoken in more than one voice, “Let It Go” was the most oversaturated, and certainly the most marketable, of those we listened to. Lost in our excitement over what appeared to be Disney’s first feminist princess was a thoughtful critique of what exactly it was we heard. The Telegraph offered five compelling reasons to explain why the song is so addictive, of which the most notable was the “earworm” factor. These are songs that get stuck in your head for having two elements, starting with “an easily accessible and repetitive chorus,” just like the song’s refrain:
Let it go, let it go/
Can’t hold it back anymore/
Let it go, let it go/
Turn away and slam the door!
A personal connection is also key to a good earworm: “If your brain forms an emotional connection with the song, from lyrics or narrative meaning, then it’s even more likely to stick.”
2014 was a year that asked a lot of us. It asked us to face the invisibility of domestic violence in one of our most beloved pastimes. It asked us to be aware of a young girl whose rape went viral after classmates witnessed, recorded, and posted it to YouTube. It asked us to consider that a beloved male figure could be the one lying as opposed to nearly 30 women. It practically forced us to pay attention to injustice in the lives of girls and women. It’s saddening to think that we’d willing accept the mantra of “Let It Go” as if none of these things matter; as if the things that make us unique and interesting don’t matter; as if girls and what happens to them doesn’t matter.
Research has consistently found correlations between girls’ self-esteem—which drops considerably between the ages of 12-17—and the amount of media they consume, because girls are more likely to internalize media messages. In other words, rather than organically developing a unique identity and authentic self, girls consistently look to the media to tell them who and how to be. Rather than being inspired to actively seek change or justice or self-empowerment, girls are being imprinted with the belief that, when it comes to their thoughts, emotions and desires, it’s best to “Let It Go.”
Slate movie critic Dana Stevens’ observation of how Frozen and its music “had immediately seized my girl’s imagination” is a powerful insight. The choice to use the word “seize” suggests that “Let It Go” is holding women and girls hostage within their own complicated desires. We want to be girly and get the fairy tale, but on our own terms and through our own means. The influence of “Let It Go” illustrates the complicity within many of us who have sought out feminist choices amidst the traditions that still define our lives. Through Elsa, we were given permission to be different, to be angry, to be powerful and still be a princess.
In the era of Hermione, Katniss, Bella, and now Elsa, characters who have presented alternative visions of girlhood on screen played by leading ladies have stood up for gender equity and women’s rights off the screen, we are starting to actually see that we can have our feminism and femininity. However, there are tremendous strides still to be made. Roxane Gay describes the issue with what she labels “fame-inism,” pointing to one 2014’s most talked about public displays of celebrity feminism:
At the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé stood in front of the word FEMINIST and it felt like a moment. Here was a young, powerful, black woman openly claiming her feminism. Who wouldn’t want to be a feminist, too, with Beyoncé as a face of feminism? Unfortunately, Beyoncé will represent the only face of feminism for too many people who will incorrectly assume feminism begins and ends with her. She is one woman—an amazing woman, to be sure—but she is a gateway to feminism, not the movement itself.
Elsa offers a similar gateway and she marks a symbolic and necessary moment in the intersection of pop culture and feminism. There is no denying that she is a vital contribution to creating more diverse and liberated portrayals of women in Hollywood. But Frozen is not a panacea, and “Let It Go” is certainly not indicative of the ongoing and ever-evolving process of gender acceptance or a sign that we’ve reached it.
We want so badly for a feminism we can celebrate. One that is fun and carefree. We don’t want to move on because if we let go of “Let It Go,” then what are we left with? For the moment, this is all that we’ve got and we are scared there might never be another. Elsa may be among the first in the Disney canon to disrupt our perception of “princess,” but she will not be the last. She has taken the first steps on a long awaited path, and when we finally move on, there will be room for many more to tread. In order for it to be more than a moment there must be forward movement, a feat that can only be accomplished when we finally listen to the song’s message.