“Frozen” Feminism

This is going to be a long one, folks. But there is a time for everything.

Misogyny has been the topic du jour online the past week or so – ever since Elliot Rodger’s attempt to take out his vengeance on the women he believed owed him sex left 6 people dead and a dozen injured.

Much, much has been said about the shooting and the patriarchal attitudes which created the mindset which led to Rodger’s violent attack. Others have addressed how the pervasive narratives in movies, TV, and video games that teach young men from a very early age that if they just try hard enough—stand outside a girl’s bedroom playing Peter Gabriel on a boom box—women will inevitably be theirs. The #Yesallwomen campaign on Twitter has revealed hundreds of thousands of women telling stories of how they have been on the receiving end of threats or even violence on rejecting male attention. If you really want to feel the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, just check out the forums of men defending the shooter and his ilk. Actually, the whole Men’s Rights / Pickup Artist communities online are just a black hole of ick (warning: once you learn of the “manosphere,” you cannot unlearn of the “manosphere”)

I don’t know that I have anything more to note regarding Elliot Rodger and his motivations, other than to add my voice to the outcry from women (and many men) that our society NEEDS to have a serious conversation on this topic, rather than hiding behind the “he was mentally ill” smokescreen. Amidst all this outrage about pervasive narrative structures that leave men feeling entitled to female attention/sexuality, however, there is one piece of subtly problematic popular culture I want to talk about—Disney’s alleged feminist masterwork, Frozen.

I finally got around to seeing the film last week while I was on vacation (horrah for baby keeping me sixth months behind current trends in popular culture). I have to say, despite having a soft spot in my heart for Disney musicals, I really wasn’t a fan. Maybe it’s just that I was already sick of hearing “Let It Go” everywhere I went, so the films emotional core left me a tad underwhelmed—my friends Debs and Errol do it better, by the way. Mostly, though, the film seemed just a little two impressed with its own feminism. Two WHOLE women in one movie!? What is this sorcery!? Our heroine doesn’t fall in love with a man she just met … Instead, she falls in love with a man she’s known … for like a whole couple of days? I guess that’s better?

Others have addressed in (excessive?) detail why Frozen falls quite short of its own self-congratulation on the subject of women. I’ll sum up just two points that are particularly relevant here, both in reference to the source material—Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Snow Queen.”

First off, much as they did a few years back with the Rapunzel story “Tangled,” Disney changed the title of the original fairy tale to the gender-neutral “Frozen.” Because we can’t expect little boys to want to watch a story named after a GIRL called the “Snow Queen” now, can we?

The second, more insidious, point has to do with all the praise heaped on the film for featuring TWO female characters. Lets leave aside the point that both characters look almost identical because, as one of the lead animators complained, it is apparently wildly difficult to draw women who have, like, compelling personalities and emotions and yet can still be pretty (facepalm!). I will simply note that the original story has many, many women—some evil, some good; some helpful, some malicious. Not to mention the protagonist who, in fact, rescues the only male in the story. Yet, somehow, Disney still gave us a world entirely peopled by men—with the exception of our two leads, so not entirely moving outside the Smurfette principle—one of whom is the brawny love interest Kristoff who comes to the aid of hapless darling Anna in her quest to find her sister. I’ll also just point out that, as one of my undergraduate film profs liked to point out, the first close-up in a film clues the audience in to the main character (not a universal truth, to be sure, but a helpful shorthand in the language of film). Who has the first close-up in Frozen? Anna? Elsa? Nope! … Kristoff! I’m just sayin’ …

My point here is not that Frozen is an inherently misogynist film. But I do think it is worth noting how pervasively certain assumptions are seemingly ingrained in our collective cultural understanding. The treatment of the “Snow Queen” story by the creators of Frozen is just one small example of how we teach boys from a very young age that they do not need to be interested in stories about girls/women. We program them to forget on some subconscious level that women, are indeed human in their own right (as Dorothy Sayers titled her brilliant essay—“Are Women Human?”).

It might be several large leaps from that point to a mentally disturbed young man who decides to take out vengeance on the women who denied him his sexual entitlement—but it is not a different psychological universe altogether. Denying full humanity to a segment of the human race–even in almost imperceptible ways–can never be without its consequences. This is true not just when it comes to societal treatment of women, but of people of colour, the LGBT community … anyone who might be considered “marginalized.” We are all created in the image of God. All fully human and all deserving of full respect and our full humanity.

The challenge for those of us who fall into “privileged” categories–for me that is being, among other things, white, straight, and able-bodied–is whether we are truly ready to give up our place in the dominant narrative? Rather than giving praise to something like Frozen‘s token feminism (and ignoring, for example, its utter lack of racial diversity), how can we craft a new societal narrative that includes places for all people where all stories are heard and received with the same weight? That is easier said than done and will require us all to let go of our desire to hear first and foremost our own stories and listen more to the stories of others.

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4 thoughts on ““Frozen” Feminism

  1. Van says:

    For the record, I think that “Tangled” is a much better movie than “Frozen,” and Rapunzel more interesting as a person and a woman than either (or both) of the Frozenettes. I do give “Frozen” props for one feminist accomplishment, however: Elsa is perhaps the first female Disney protagonist to exist completely outside of a relationship arc. (“Snow White” doesn’t have much of an arc, but there is a final romance.) Elsa has a problem, but it is a personal, political and family problem. The problem is eventually resolved in a treacly Disneyesque manner, but without a romantic partner, or even the hint of one for the future.

    Also, the movies teaches us that rock trolls make terrible MFTs.

    • I agree that it’s nice to see a Disney female defined outside of a romantic relationship. But I still have problems with Elsa’s power. I don’t feel like she ever really gains agency or control over it, nor does she take responsibility for it — sorry I froze the kingdom, but I’m just not really going to deal with the consequences of my actions! Frustrating.

      • Yeah, my biggest problem with the movie is that Elsa doesn’t actually get an arc. It seems like she’s going to learn to stop shutting people out and get control of her fear, but she just kind of randomly shouts, “Of course! LOVE!” and all is well. “Let it Go” or no, she’s basically a passive Disney princess who’s saved by her sister instead of a prince. That said, I think i liked Anna better than you did–she’s a goober, but she has tons of agency and Kristoff ends up basically irrelevant to a climax where she single-handedly saves the day.

      • Yeah, Elsa’s lack of agency over her own powers really bothers me. But I’m also not sure how I feel about Anna’s agency, either. She has a lot of gumption, which is great. But she’s not actually able to accomplish much. She stubbornly goes after her sister, but I read her determination not as a personal strength and courage, but as just obliviousness to Elsa’s feelings and how to most effectively approach her. Also, she wouldn’t have actually gotten there without Kristof to help her out. And, at the end, she as well just kind of should “LOVE” and saves the day.

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