My first impressions of Disney’s Frozen were positive, although not glowing. While it didn’t leave me with the same dreamy wonder of Beauty and the Beast, or even the madcap zip of Tangled, I enjoyed its premise and the ingenuitive way that it placed more importance on the relationship between two sisters than on romantic subplots. While it wasn’t my favorite Disney movie, something about Frozen crept its way into my heart and stayed there. Now almost two months after its premiere, the film is still on my mind, and I think I’m beginning to understand the reasons why.
Due to its two princesses as main characters, Frozen attracted a lot of media attention and handwringing over whether it was a feminist movie, whether it was feminist enough, whether it was really a bad influence in disguise and whether it alienated male viewers. It’s not the first time in recent history that a Disney movie has been conscious of its dual responsibilities of entertainment and education – the uneasy trumpet of Princess Tiana’s symbolic ascent in The Princess and the Frog as the first African American Disney princess was as jubilant as it was embarrassingly late, and little archer Merida in Brave was in a constant media mess of whether her movie was any good despite the fact that she was clearly a unique, spunky role model. Frozen, likewise, has had some fair criticisms regarding its own love story, its complete lack of minority characters, and the (perceived) passive nature of one of its heroines. Nevertheless, it is one of the few Disney movies where women have had positive relationships with one another: relationships that didn’t involve fighting for the same man, or working against one another in the roles of antagonist and protagonist. Famously, cursed sister Elsa was originally intended to be the villain of the movie, a role that I’ll delve more into later. Instead, the conscious decision was made to have the sisters be troubled, but no-less-loving. Elsa and Anna join the ranks of Pocohontas and Nakoma, the Fairy Godmothers, Helen and Violet Parr, Charlotte LaBouff and Tiana, and Nani and Lilo Nani Pelekai in belonging to the handful of women in Disney animated movies that have a positive relationship that’s an actual on-screen plot point. That positive relationship is not an easy one: True to her icy abilities, Elsa is restrained, distant, and even caustic. Anna is quickly the sympathetic sister, unknowingly having been forced to remain a shut-in to avoid bringing down attention upon their family that might spark Elsa’s powers.
Elsa’s big moment comes shortly after her carefully-concealed powers are made public and she is forced to flee into the mountains, her rollicking emotions inadvertently causing a winter storm to blanket her entire kingdom. While the movie seats the determined and loyal Anna in the role of protagonist, Elsa is given a chance to sing the film’s best song: “Let It Go”, currently enjoying universal popularity on an iTunes platform near you. While big musical numbers are a Disney tradition, “Let It Go” takes Elsa’s journey and characterization in a brand new direction. Elsa sings about how it’s pointless to keep up her Ice Queen façade, how she’s going to break the rules and learn about her powers, and makes the decision to never return home. “Let It Go” is less a plot-twist and more a delving into Elsa’s psych. While it doesn’t move the plot forward (the movie would have functioned perfectly well skipping Elsa’s number given that it later showcases Elsa’s rage and anxiety in later scenes), “Let It Go” establishes Elsa as a woman on the edge desperate to understand her place in the world and her powers: she could literally be a heroine or a villain at this point.
What qualities in Elsa are villainous? While we can assume that her sharper edges have been whittled down to signal her ultimate redemption, it’s easy to see her as losing control of her powers, of loving and abusing the authority that her magic gives her. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me!” she sings, carving a castle out of the surrounding ice. For movies that pride themselves on good versus evil, Elsa’s moral ambiguity continues to twist our feelings about her. One can see the blueprint of a Disney villain in her exhausted relief in coming clean, in reveling in her powers. “Let It Go” has more in common with Scar’s ambitious purr in “Be Prepared” than it does with any of the typical “I Wish” Disney songs. Elsa is done wishing. Now she is doing.
Although “Let It Go” is the powerhouse song in Frozen, Elsa’s isolation keeps it distinct from literally any other so-called “princess song” in Disney canon. Ariel sings about dry land while dreaming of a prince she just met, only to lose her voice to a sea witch bent on using trickery to topple the empire of a man. For all her cries of “I am not a prize to be won!”, Jasmine is nonetheless wooed by a circus of suitors, only finding contentment in the arms of Aladdin. Belle’s adventures start with a mysterious, beastly prince. Merida’s battles with her mother are cauterized by Merida’s refusal to get married. And on and on – while these stories are entertaining, there’s something perfectly fresh about Elsa losing her temper and finding herself: her fall was inevitable. It could have been literally any stress that would set her off; it wasn’t tied to dreams of romance or of society’s pressure on her to find it.
There is another way that “Let It Go” is revolutionary as a Disney tune. There has been study after study completed about how little girls are treated differently than little boys growing up, how little girls are taught a “soft no”, how they are discouraged from roughhousing, how they are supposed to dress up, play with their dolls, and be docile, decorative, and quiet. While modern parents struggle to encourage empowerment in a world where even Legos are gendered toys, there is nevertheless a certain expectation of how little girls are “supposed” to act compared to little boys. It’s getting to the point where woman are being encouraged to unlearn their linguistic habits to speak up in the work-place, to quit using “we” and start using “I”. Consequently, Elsa’s defiance can be read a different way:
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see!
Be the good girl you always have to be.
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know….
That refrain speaks to any little girl who’s ever been told to “act like a young lady”, to hide her opinions and be a sweet girl. Elsa has hidden her threatening, potentially-dangerous power all her life because her parents worried that it would eventually get her ostracized and killed. Her rejection of this concealment is thorough: she even destroys the clothes that she had been wearing and adorns herself in a dress made of ice, gilding herself in her own powers. This act and her defiance can be read as nearly any sort of metaphor for current controversy: smashing the patriarchy, embracing a genderqueer identity, throwing off society’s judgment at having a social “disorder” – whatever you like, and whatever that struggling little girl in the fifth aisle of the movie theater wants it to be. But it’s a powerful act on its own as well: “that perfect girl is gone!” Elsa throws out the modern trappings of a Disney princess by refusing to conform to perfection. She doesn’t have to be sweet, kindhearted, and sanitized in order to be a compelling character and a role model.
I mentioned before that Frozen is not without its faults: it’s a shame that it takes a blonde, beautiful, white character model to fit into that defiant role. It’s a shame that they felt they needed Anna to have a romance, as cute and appealing as I found her interactions with Kristoff to be. But while Frozen is problematic, it does one thing beautifully: it shows little girls that letting go and being yourself, however socially unacceptable it is to be yourself, is what’s important and ultimately heroic. It’s a message that’s just as important for little boys as well, of course, but given the tendency to shush, dress up, and make our girls into ornaments, it’s one I feel is very important.
When I went to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida this December, I saw dozens of little girls dressed up as princesses. Frozen merchandise was everywhere, and while shops sold out of Anna dresses, there were just as many tiny Elsas running around the Magic Kingdom. There was something heartening about it for me. Whether those little girls realize what they’re singing when they advocate “let it go!” I don’t know, but I do know that it’s nice having a new kind of song in their vast Disney repertoire. They’ve got a wonderful journey to reenact inspired by finding the strength within themselves in a brand new generation of more-inclusive movies. “The past is in the past” – and thank goodness for that.