On a recent trip to London with three friends, we found ourselves in a flat, late at night with no Wi-Fi but an unnatural number of Disney films. One was Frozen (2013), and I had no interest in watching it. I do not like musicals, irritating talking animals and predictable romantic endings. My ‘friends,’ knowing my dislike of most Disney related things, said I could not criticise Frozen without ever having seen it. I relented, my only joy coming from the knowledge that I could annoy them all by spending the next two days ranting on about how terrible it was. To my great disappointment, as a feminist, I was pleasantly surprised by Frozen.
The film centres closely on the two sisters (Elsa and Anna) and their love for each other, with Disney poking fun at its own films, by having characters respond negatively to the news that Anna becomes engaged during one song. It is refreshing to have a female protagonist who is funny, a little awkward, and well, more like an everyday modern female. Frozen is one of few blockbuster films to pass the Bechdel Test, which requires at least two women to talk to each other in a film about something other than a man.
The film was not perfect, despite the strong feminist representation. Instead of an irritating talking animal there was a snowman, which I gather was for the children watching. There was also the song, ‘Let It Go’ which received positive reviews that only made me think that everyone must be tone deaf. Despite these unavoidable Disney traits (it is not a Disney film without animals that can speak and songs that make you cynical) I felt Frozen played it too safe. It was as if the filmmakers knew all the controversy surrounding potential sexism in Disney films and wanted to tick every feminist box possible at the expense of the storyline. The plot is set out in such a way that Anna does not have to overcome any obstacles; physical ones yes, like a large rocky, snowy mountain – but otherwise not so much. Anna’s fiancée, whom she leaves in charge of the people in her village while she searches for her sister, conveniently turns out to be the baddie. There are scarcely any signs of his evil intentions throughout the film, which doesn’t build the suspense found in so many other Disney films. Both sisters lack a deeper emotional side; despite losing their parents and not speaking to each other for many years, they act as if nothing has happened. Instead of concentrating on Olaf the snowman with his terrible jokes and cringe-worthy slapstick, Disney could have made the other characters more complex.
Watching Frozen did make me think about previous Disney princess films I had seen and how they represented women. Were they sexist? Were young children lacking good female role models?
To quote Clara Hill, student at Goldsmith University, “The Little Mermaid is the most feminist film I’ve seen… I feel that’s saying something” and it most certainly is. The three Disney princess films that came before it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), are more difficult to judge due to the era in which they were made. At that time the idea of women as housewives staying at home to look after their children was still considered the norm. Therefore in modern terms, The Little Mermaid (1989) is where one can begin to see whether Disney films are sexist and whether they have changed. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel desires to be human before she meets Eric and her obsession with human objects means that once she meets him, she becomes smitten with him, too. Ariel can be considered selfish rather than a bad role model for women when she chooses Eric over her family. Her obsession with living on land encompasses Eric but he is not the sole reason for it. Ariel is a complex character whose need for something more results in dire consequences, of which she does not become a victim. Instead she tries to change them.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992), which came after The Little Mermaid are questionable. There are moments where the female characters appear independent; Belle is notably intelligent and less one dimensional than previous female protagonists. In Aladdin, however, this is undone in one scene; Jasmine is enslaved by the evil Jafar and in order to be rescued by Aladdin (damsel in distress alert) she must seduce him. Jasmine is a sex object here who cannot use her intelligence to save herself and instead uses her looks. Great message to be sending to young girls and boys alike. Thanks Disney!
Other Disney films which have strong feminist protagonists (I have not worked up the will to sit through Tangled and Brave yet) are Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998).
Pocahontas is strong and independent. Despite falling in love with John Smith, her sense of duty to her people prevents her from leaving with him. This breaks the traditional Disney mould, as does Mulan. Although classed as a Disney princess, she is not. She is an ordinary woman who sets off to help her father but ends up saving the empire and becoming a heroine of China. Mulan’s story reads more like a Herculean adventure rather than a typical Disney princess formulaic film.
To conclude, Disney princess films are beginning to portray more rounded female characters and Frozen is a prime example. Despite not being a noteworthy film- my Disney dislike is still strong- Frozen has triggered the thawing process.
Image Credit: disneystore.com