Disney’s Frozen and the Subversion of the Princess Genre


A blustery, wintery, snowy weekend seemed the perfect time to venture out to ye olde movie theater to catch Disney’s new installment, Frozen. An adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, Disney’s Frozen is a new princess movie that was not even on my radar until a week ago. To be honest, the teaser marketing this summer, a trailer that excluded any of the main characters and focused on the tertiary magical snowman, Olaf, had me assuming this was a silly, substance-less children’s film.  

Then my other half showed me this video review:

I was floored. I have never heard such an enthusiastic review and especially after some of the negative or skeptical information I had read about this film I knew I had to see for myself.

And wow, there is a lot of good, interesting, subversive stuff here. I do mean wow. This is a film that takes the princess genre and turns it on its head. It questions the concept of Love at First Sight and what love really means. It provides a complicated relationship between sisters that care for one another but are separated by misunderstanding and miscommunication in the same vein as Brave’s mother/daughter relationship. In the world of Disney, siblings are often non-existent or rivals. Frozen refuses to pit these young women against one another and instead sends a message of unconditional love and communication. Frankly, this is revolutionary for a genre that generally focuses on personal fulfillment of desires at the expense of an evil other. I think this is one of the most interesting aspects.

Elsa, the eldest, has powers to manipulate and conjure ice and snow. As a child, she uses this to entertain her younger sister, Anna, until an accident leads to their parents seeking out a way to protect both their daughters without vilifying Elsa. However, Elsa does isolate herself from her sister in an attempt to keep her safe, therefore growing up disconnected from one another.

Now, the magical powers can represent so many things including the generalized different-ness that young people can feel through the process of growing up to a more specific puberty or otherness signifier. By any other means, Elsa is set up to become a villain by the time her powers are uncovered to everyone around her and she then chooses to unleash them for her own desires.

Yet, “Let it Go” is a powerful Disney anthem that transforms what would be the villain’s song into a personal statement of empowerment. Disney villain songs outline the villain’s selfish desires for power and the ways they will gain it through the destruction of others. But Elsa’s struggle is not with her kingdom or sister or personal struggle for fame and fortune. Her struggle is with herself and her ability to accept who she is and what she can do. Her mantra growing up has been to “not feel” so as to squelch the power she has within. But this is being untrue to herself. She is not, excuse the pun, a cold person. She is loving and creative; her emotions are what drive her power.

In the “Let it Go” sequence we see Elsa as an architect and clothing designer. By embracing her creativity she builds an ice palace in the mountains  and designs her own, unique look as she sheds the clothing that shielded her all her life. Of course, one of the criticisms against this film has been the use of conventionally beautiful character models and Elsa’s transformation does come with “sexier” look. But before we tear down all things feminine simply because they are feminine, I think it is important to point out the power she is expressing. Her body movements are more fluid, less restricted, while also being grounded. She stomps her foot firmly on the ground, her walk is with purpose, head high, shoulders back. Elsa chooses clothing that expose skin when her whole life has been spend covered and being told to cover. All this is done for herself.

Where a film like Brave was so important because it offered an image of “tom boy” young girls who do not feel themselves in feminine attire, it is also important that Frozen shows images of girls who do feel themselves, but are not restricted by femininity. Similarly, Anna moves freely throughout this film, if not also being klutzy sometimes, but is comfortable in her femininity, which is different from her sister Elsa’s. And I think this is one of the ways that although the character models are conventionally feminine, they are not as restrictive or regressive as was feared before the film was released. These are two lead female characters that defy a traditional princess embodiment.

As a final, brief aside, I was also very impressed with what is a short but deeply important moment where a male character asks for consent before kissing a female character. I’m pointing this out because it is such a revolutionary act in a genre that is based on ideas of True Love and that romantic, physical contact is made between characters only during moments of Passion. I have heard more than one woman in my generation claim that Disney movies set up a terrible fantasy of what relationships were like – so to now see a film that is teaching young viewers to ask for consent before physical contact – it makes me personally giddy to see it in a mainstream feature. Maybe it’s wildly optimistic and even cheesy of me to think, but this is one of the ways we can teach young girls and boys how to have relationships based on equality and respect.

As even some of the reviews I have added in this post say, Frozen isn’t perfect and there are certainly issues that can be discussed about it. But overall I think this is a positive step in the mainstream Disney princess genre that can be embraced.


2 thoughts on “Disney’s Frozen and the Subversion of the Princess Genre

  1. Nope. I highly disagree. For one, Elsa isn’t empowered after the song-that-shall-not-be-named. If anything she comes off as a whiny teenager. If I need, to say more, please reply. I dare you.

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