Frozen: Letting Go of Gender Stereotypes?
In a world where racism, gender inequity, and injustice run rampant, people have looked to the media to see how these issues are dealt with onscreen. Animated films are particularly interesting to examine, as the entire world is built from scratch: the trees, the representation, and even the prejudices characters exhibit.
Disney princess films not only provide role models and a means of escape for children, but they also inform children about various viewpoints they are meant to hold, especially the way people of a certain gender should act (Hine et al., 2018). These ideas can be easily internalized. Although there have been definite strides made over the last few years to improve representation, Disney princess films continue to present a stereotypical gender narrative and ideals focused on appearance. This article will examine Frozen and Frozen II to determine if princesses are still represented with stereotypical female characteristics or if representation has improved to include more androgynous characteristics.
Romantic involvement with male characters is, stereotypically, an important part of female narratives. Both Frozen movies are a departure from this stereotype and unlike the majority of Disney princess films, there is no major romantic narrative. Although Anna and Kristoff’s relationship gets a brighter spotlight in Frozen II, the main storyline follows Elsa’s journey to find the Fifth Elemental Spirit and save Arendelle. Stereotypical assumptions about love are also disputed in these movies: Frozen spends a good portion of the plot mocking Anna for believing she fell in love with the visiting dignitary, Prince Hans, at first sight. Kristoff supplies most of this criticism. For example, as they notice wolves pursuing them, Anna says she wants to help fight them off. Kristoff says no. “Why not?” Anna asks. “Because I don’t trust your judgement. Who marries a man she’s just met?” he replies incredulously. Anna and Hans’ love at first sight romance is juxtaposed with the slower budding romance between Anna and Kristoff. They fall in love while working together to find Elsa and to save Anna’s frozen heart.
Frozen II also features a romantic narrative. Kristoff spends most of the movie unsuccessfully trying to propose to Anna. This heteronormative subplot is both innovative and damaging. It is innovative in that it dismantles the notion that men can’t be sensitive, express their feelings about love, and still be in a successful relationship. Kristoff’s power ballad “Lost in the Woods” expresses his deep feelings for Anna and the love he feels for her. He admits to being afraid that she is pulling away from him and feels that life without her is too awful to contemplate. Since he spends a good portion of the movie pining after Anna, a behaviour almost always attributed to female characters, he flips the gender stereotyping on its head and breaks traditional gender representation barriers. This flipping of gender characteristics shows that an effort is being made to oppose stereotypes in Frozen II.
However, this subplot is also damaging because it subtracts from the journey Anna and Elsa undergo to save their kingdom: the moment Kristoff successfully proposes to Anna is right after Elsa discovers that she is the Fifth Elemental Spirit and finally understands her purpose. His proposal undermines Elsa’s growth and self-discovery and impresses that a happy ending is not complete unless there is some sort of romantic conclusion. At the end of the movie, after Elsa has undergone her transformation to become the Fifth Spirit, Kristoff comments to her, “You look different—did you cut your hair or something?” further trivializing her journey of acceptance and discovery by equating it to an inconsequential change in physical appearance.
For Elsa, her magical powers take the place of a romantic partner. This is best emphasized through the opening scene of Frozen II: Anna and Elsa play with miniature snow figurines of Elsa’s making, and Anna asks her sister to “make a prince—a fancy one!” to save the princess from an evil spell. Anna makes the figurines kiss, saying “Who cares about danger when there’s love?” But Elsa responds with disgust, “Kissing won’t save the forest,” and she makes a fairy queen to “[break] the spell and [save] everyone.” She replaces the prince and romantic heterosexual norms with a powerful queen who is independent, and evidently more powerful than the love between the prince and princess.
It is important to note that Frozen II does not end with a wedding. It ends with Anna being crowned queen of Arendelle while her fiancé supports her from the crowd. Her sister Elsa is finally at peace with herself and has found purpose as the Fifth Spirit in the Enchanted Forest. The romantic narrative is not the final image that viewers get of Frozen II; the successes of the two women are championed instead.
Rescues are an important part of the Disney narrative. The inevitable tug-of-war between good and evil, or even between good and the unfamiliar, means that main characters are constantly thrust into perilous situations.
Although male and female characters both perform about the same number of rescues in Frozen, their reactions to the rescues are very different. When Kristoff is thrown from the sled and attacked by wolves, Anna yells “Christopher!” after him in concern. With the wolves snapping at his heels, he hotly retorts, “It’s Kristoff!” After Anna manages to pull him into the sled, his first remark to her is “You almost set me on fire,” rather than “Thank you for saving my life.” In comparison, after Kristoff saves Anna from the wolves and his sled is destroyed, she apologizes: “I’ll replace your sled and everything. And I understand if you don’t want to help me anymore.” Her meek attitude is the opposite of his condescending and ungrateful tone, even if his comments were meant to be humorous. These exchanges give the impression that it is acceptable for a male character to scoff at help and criticize rescue tactics, but that a female character should thank her rescuer and ask for nothing more.
In Frozen II, Kristoff is more supportive of Anna’s rescue behaviour. Although he is still anxious about her being in danger, this is because he is in love with her, not because he believes that women should not do any rescuing. One instance where conflict could have arisen is when Anna leaves Kristoff behind at the camp without a word. But Kristoff doesn’t use this against her. He reassures her saying, “It’s okay. My love is not fragile.”
Female characters in the two Frozen movies complete climactic rescues personally, although this is traditionally done by male characters in Disney movies (Hine et al., 2018). They are also no longer passive recipients of help.
In Frozen, Anna is the one to save her sister from Hans’ sword and thaw her own heart in the same act. She performs the act of true love herself, a platonic sisterly love rather than Disney’s usual romantic narrative. Giving the climactic final rescue to a female character, while her traditional love interest was mere meters away, was an empowering and decisive choice.
In Frozen II, Elsa is the character who primarily does the rescuing: most danger occurs when the Elemental Spirits are introduced and Elsa’s powerful magic is the only thing that stands a chance against the mystical spirits. But the critical rescue in Frozen II goes to Anna. Although she is overcome by immense grief (both her sister and Olaf are considered dead) Anna wakes the Earth Spirits and manipulates them into throwing boulders at the dam built by Arendelle in the Enchanted Forest. By breaking the dam, Anna frees Elsa from the icy magic of Ahtohallen and lifts the mist that had isolated the Enchanted Forest. As she is running from the Earth Spirits, it is Kristoff who saves her from being trampled. However, as Kristen Bell noted on The Tonight Show, the first thing Kristoff says to Anna after he rescues her is “I’m here. What do you need?” not “Stand back—I’ve got this.” This is a considerable departure from traditional Disney male hero behaviour, and refreshing to see.
Stereotyping Female Characters
Female characters in Frozen and Frozen II exhibit more androgynous characteristics, but that does not mean that they are free from stereotypical representations. Frozen begins with men cutting through the ice with brute force. They sing in low baritone harmonies and both their song and actions imply that the strength of men is required in the winter, and that men have dominion over the harsh season (Streiff & Dundes, 2017). The fact that Elsa has more power than any of them over the element they consider themselves experts of, is perceived negatively. Her power is framed as a thing to be feared and distrusted instead of a remarkable and empowering characteristic.
Another female stereotype is the fact that Elsa does not learn how to wield her powers as a child. She is instructed to conceal, not feel, and is given gloves to contain her power. She is coached to prevent using her power rather than being taught how to wield it with more precision (Streiff & Dundes, 2017). A male character in a similar position would almost certainly have learned how to wield his power and gain control over it instead of learning how to avoid it. An example of this is Aquaman. In one version of his origin story, Aquaman is trained by Vulko, the Chief Advisor to the King of Atlantis, so he can unlock the full potential of his powers. Elsa on the other hand is locked in the palace with a reduced staff and permanently locked gates. Her mantra is: “be the good girl you always have to be.” Misbehaving, or even being herself, is not considered appropriate. It is better for her to conceal her true identity than to assume a position of power.
When Elsa finally comes to terms with her power in the song “Let it Go,” she erases the ideals impressed upon her by her father and becomes only accountable to herself. However, this independence is not championed by her kingdom and she is only perceived favourably again once she resumes her position as queen and becomes accountable to her people. It is also interesting to consider that in order to successfully wield her power, Elsa has to use love, a feminine stereotypical characteristic. She can only rule when her powers are sufficiently under control, or in other words, when she is “emotionally stable” and exhibiting stereotypical characteristics consistent with her sex.
In Frozen II, Anna and Elsa are awarded more independence than in the first movie. They don’t rely on male characters to show them the way or help them out of tricky situations. Instead, Anna and Elsa lean on each other for help.
But Elsa is still in conflict with the responsibilities she holds and conceals her true self and feelings from everyone, like she did in Frozen. Although she has come into her own as a monarch, her powers are treated with suspicion outside of her kingdom. Upon her arrival to the Enchanted Forest, both the Northuldran and Arendelle guards are frightened when she uses her magic to disarm them. Instead of using her skills and authority as a monarch, Elsa allows Olaf to intervene, and he diffuses the tension with comic relief.
Male characters also don’t completely trust Elsa when it comes to her powers. This is seen especially in the scene where Anna and Elsa speak to Grand Pabbie in Frozen II. He says: “I hope you’re prepared for what you’ve done, Elsa. Angry magical spirits are not for the faint of heart.” This chastising, condescending tone implies that Elsa can’t understand her own actions and that she isn’t strong enough to face the magical spirits. Later, Grand Pabbie tells Anna that he always feared Elsa was too powerful, but now, since the magical spirits are awake, he can only hope that Elsa’s powers will be enough to save the kingdom. He expresses both fear of Elsa and doubt about her capabilities in the same sentence. A male hero would likely not create the same reaction.
Female stereotypes are also reinforced through clothing. Brittney Lee, an animator for Frozen II, notes that “every bead, every sequin… reinforce[s] who [the character] is” making clothing an important aspect to consider (Bryant, 2019).
In Frozen, Elsa’s dress starts out as very restricting: initially, she is pictured with a high, tight collar buttoned at the neck, and a heavy maroon cape, demonstrating that she is “repressed, stoic and distant. Her tight, dark clothes… mirror her personality” (Macaluso, 2016, 76, as quoted by Ruddlof, 2016). Her clothing, especially the gloves, show that she is afraid of losing control and revealing her true personality. Her hair is also tightly bound in a bun, a very formal style. As she learns to accept herself and her power later in the movie, she sheds her restrictive costume for a floor-length gown with a sheer cape, just as she sheds her previous ideals of being a “good girl” and embraces a more mature, sexualized, appearance. She dramatically lets down her hair, and transforms her dark, heavy dress into a skin-tight, sequin encrusted gown with a thigh-high slit. As she struts across the ice castle she built, her hips sway sensuously and her makeup is more obvious. Although it is clear that she is making these visual changes for herself and not for any male characters (Ruddlof, 2016) her makeover maintains the conventional belief that power is situated in physical appearance rather than from within—especially for female characters. However, through this transformation, the film gives Elsa assertive, brave, and independent characteristics typically attributed to male characters.
In Frozen II, less emphasis is placed on appearance. Anna and Elsa are represented more androgynously, both in the clothing they wear (pants!) and through their dialogue and actions. But appearance still does play a role, especially in Elsa’s dramatic makeover at the end of Frozen II.
At the end of the movie, she lets down her hair and is dressed in a white off-the-shoulder dress with the symbols of the four Elemental Spirits embroidered on the bodice. This final dress she wears has an even greater significance regarding gender stereotypes. The dress is white, representing her status as the Snow Queen, but since white is a colour traditionally associated with marriage, it also symbolizes that her power replaces a romantic partner in her life. She is “married” to her power. While this is meant to be a positive thing, after all, she truly understands who she is and is at one with herself, it cements the assumption that a fictional woman with great power usually cannot engage in romantic relationships.
On the surface, Frozen and Frozen II empower their female characters and present them in a new way than previously seen in Disney movies. Anna and Elsa are the main characters of the story and play a pivotal role in progressing the plot. The movie champions their sisterly bond over any romantic involvement. Anna and Elsa have progressed positively throughout the first and second movie to display traditional male characteristics along with feminine ones. They are athletic, assertive, curious, and brave, while also displaying emotion and affection. They lead rescues and are leaders of their kingdom.
However, gendered ways of acting and dressing still play a major role in their identity. Fear and doubt about Elsa’s magical abilities are prevalent, emphasis on outward appearance is championed over personal growth, and heteronormative romance often undermines Elsa’s most meaningful moments.
Frozen and Frozen II challenge gender stereotypes, but there is more emphasis placed on maintaining rather than disrupting gender narratives.
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A big thank you to Lina Lombo, Jasrita Singh, and Austin Mardon for editing/helping with this article.
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