Every little girl wants to be a princess. No little girl wants to be a feminist graduate student. The Eternal Enemy of Hierarchy can never be eliminated, only subverted. The balance demanded by modernity is between adopting enough symbols of traditional culture to appeal to a mass audience, but enough egalitarianism to be promoted by the media. And the most successful example of this delicate balance is the top grossing animated feature of all time–Disney’s Frozen.
Disney has always been Ground Zero for the Culture of Critique. Even though the company is easily one of the most destructive institutions in the country, it ultimately trades on its past as the symbol of “Main Street USA” Americana and even Western traditional culture. Grown men speak of the “magic” of the company’s theme parks; people spend their entire lives dreaming of wearing rubber costumes in stifling heat for low pay, just to be a part of the company. Despite it all–Disney endures. And for that reason, it’s a battleground.
The heart of this battle is over the “Disney Princesses,” the protagonists of the classic tales that revolve around royalty, heroism, and true love with a handsome prince. Needless to say, even the term inspires rage among feminists, but where there is demand, there will be supply. As a kind of quasi-public brand in its own right, Disney responded to the zeitgeist by trying to “diversify” the mostly European Princesses, notably with the black heroine of The Princess and the Frog. Though it was a mild success, “Princess” Tiana never quite captured the imagination of little girls like Cinderella or Snow White. Another non-white Princess, the soldierly Mulan, can only be called a “princess” with an asterisk.
Frozen tries a different tact–and succeeds with a brilliant head fake. Instead of another affirmative action Princess, Frozen goes full Hyperborean. The story is loosely based on the Danish tale of the “Snow Queen” and takes place in the fictional land of Arendelle, inspired by Joan of Arc. Furthermore, neoreactionaries should celebrate, as Arendelle seems so committed to the monarchial principle that all political power is transferred not just from one royal family member to another as circumstances demand, but even to royals from other nations without even the discussion of a domestic legislature. It’s good to be the Snow Queen.
Now that Frozen has been thoroughly celebrated by the feminist friendly media, it’s odd to recall the sputtering rage it initially inspired. When the blond Queen Elsa was revealed, angry feminists took to Tumblr to create amateurish and repulsive “ethnic” princesses with the hashtag #ThisCouldHaveBeenFrozen. If it had been, I daresay Frozen would have had fewer viewers than recent seasons of The Simpsons.
The flabby feminist failures and their cheese doodle covered keyboard crusading were still duly enabled by the media. Margot Magowan aka “Reel Girl” pitched a hissy fit republished by Jezebel before the movie even came out, protesting the inclusion of a “mountain man” character (Kristoff, who is hardly an overweening male presence) among other grievances. And a Disney animator’s casual remark that animating females was harder than males because of the need to keep them “pretty” unleashed the kind of feminist wailing only seen when the Duggars have another baby.
Therefore, the film’s success in a PC culture is a stunning marketing accomplishment, the media equivalent of BET suddenly endorsing Mitt Romney. Frozen accomplishes this with one weird trick–it pulls a fast one on the audience to transform the “handsome prince” into the villain of the movie.
Let’s look at the plot for those who are unfamiliar. Elsa has the power to control ice and snow. She is close with her sister growing up until she accidentally injures her with her powers. Anna is healed by magic trolls, who warn Elsa of the “great danger” of her magic. Her fearful parents tell her to “conceal, don’t feel” the power and lock up the castle, but they die in a shipwreck, leaving the girls essentially alone. Years later, during her coronation, Queen Elsa loses control of her powers, reveals herself to the people as a sorcerous “monster,” and unknowingly plunges her kingdom into eternal winter. Anna’s mission is to bring Elsa back and free the kingdom from its frozen fate.
Anna also is driven by her desire to be open to the world and find true love. With her memory of Elsa’s powers (and Anna’s near death at her hands) magically removed, Anna never understood why she was always cut off from her kingdom and ordinary human contact. Thus, when the gates are finally opened, she falls for the handsome foreign prince Hans, becoming engaged to him the very night they meet. During the kingdom’s crisis, Hans takes charge in Anna’s absence (because apparently that’s how the constitution works here), distributing cloaks to the people, rebutting foreign leaders who want to steal the country’s resources, and leading dangerous rescue efforts. Eventually, Elsa is captured, but not before accidentally “freezing” Anna’s heart, putting her in danger of death unless she can be saved by an act of “true love.”
Anna turns to her handsome prince and explains a kiss from her true love will save her life–only to be told brutally “if only there was someone who loved you.” Surprise, suckers!
Hans has been playing her from the beginning–as the 13th son of another kingdom, he’s planning to usurp the throne of Arendelle to finally taste power on his own. With Elsa in chains and his “wife” Anna dying, Hans will control the kingdom. The abrupt volte-face would be called clumsy in a soap opera, but cloaked in politically correct messaging, it is hailed as subversive and brilliant. “Finally, a Disney Prince Who’s a Disingenuous Dickweed” shriek the clickbait commissars at Jezebel, preening that “this is the direction we should be headed, rather than risk over-romanticizing the very flawed past.”
Other glorious triumphs?
- Queen Elsa is alone at the end of the movie, instead of marrying a prince. Elsa can be a cat lady with magic powers–just like every feminist’s dream.
- When Elsa escapes the powers and fully embraces her powers in the soaring “Let It Go,” The Daily Beast’s Melissa Leon squees, “she lets her hair down, shimmies her hips, and puffs out her chest. Here she is powerful, independent of the male gaze.” Well, not entirely.
- Anna eventually does end up with a man–the hapless Kristoff, who far from being a “mountain man” is a hapless beta, meekly asks permission to kiss her, and is even mocked as a “fixer upper” with “unmanly blondness” by the trolls who serve as his family.
At the climax, Anna is dying unless she can get her act of “true love.” We see Kristoff coming to save her and the audience follows his death defying race against time. But Kristoff never gets close enough to save Anna–the dying Anna actually sacrifices herself to save Elsa from the evil Hans. This was interpreted as Anna “choosing” her sister over a man.
Is this explanation what the movie is going for? Yes–it is a deliberate fake-out, as the audience follows Kristoff only for him to be rendered irrelevant and stand around uselessly. But what’s actually happening is not Anna choosing Elsa over Kristoff, but Anna choosing Elsa over herself. She sacrifices her own life to save Elsa, and, through this sacrifice, warms her own frozen heart and ironically saves her own life. This isn’t some new bold feminist creativity–it’s the end of the Keanu Reeves movie Constantine. In pure plot terms, the feminist reading isn’t as present as the traditional Western motif of self-sacrifice.
The triumphant song “Let It Go” is being hailed from everything as an anthem of gay liberation to girl power, but the plot undermines this interpretation as well. Elsa may be unleashing her power–but it’s a complete disaster for everyone involved, including her. She has unknowingly doomed her kingdom and her subjects, she manages to endanger her sister’s life (again), and she’s simply hiding from her problems instead of overcoming them. Of course, she can’t really be blamed for this–she is only just emerging from years of grief and isolation. “Let It Go,” is, after all, in the middle of the movie, before the main plot mover of Anna’s quest to find her “true love” even really begins. But is the “liberated” Elsa who sics a murderous snow golem on her own little sister some great hero to celebrate?
In the end, the way Elsa learns to control her power is through “love.” Suddenly, in a kind of PC version of the deus ex machina, Elsa instantly becomes a beloved ruler who effortlessly fires off snow magic whenever she wants to the delight of her adoring subjects, none of whom seem especially upset she nearly killed them all. Anna gets with Kristoff and gives him a new sled–so we know who is wearing the pants in this relationship. Oh yeah, there’s also a funny sidekick snowman named Olaf who is sentient somehow, because, you know magic or something. (Merchandising, cough, cough.)
Call it Disney meets Alinsky. The author of Rules for Radicals advised his acolytes to associate their ideas with traditional symbols like the American flag, knowing that the average person would always confuse the form for the substance. Frozen has Nordic princesses, extreme royal absolutism (of a form never really seen in Northern Europe), adoring subjects fawning over the “beauty” of their leaders, and nobles with magic powers. It sucks in audiences with the appeal of Tradition, and then undermines it.
But it’s not quite that simple. As feminist Dani Coleman notes in a sophisticated review, the “subversion” of the “Traditional” Disney narrative has been done before – many, many times. “No Disney heroine except Anna—even Ariel—has begun her story with love as her goal since 1959.” And plenty of other Disney Princesses actually showed real courage and the willingness to sacrifice, taking charge of their own destinies.
The feminist “subversion” is overstated, as Anna and Elsa careen wildly from disaster to disaster because of their own “vapid, brainless, impulsive and flighty characters whose agency is stolen from them for the sake of comedy and wafer-thin plot contrivances.” To put it another way, to say Frozen is a big deal for “strong women characters” is like pretending it’s a big deal when a black man is elected mayor of a city, or that two men walked down a street in San Francisco holding hands. It’s been done before. And the women don’t really act to save the day–they create problems of their own making, problems instantly cured at the end through pabulum given some kind of magical power.
Yet there is still something subverted here, unrecognized by most critics because it’s long since vanished from our culture. That something is real family. The “true love” between the sisters Elsa and Anna is worthy enough, but it is only achieved after a vast amount of unnecessary suffering due to their own emotional chaos and impulsive decisions. Elsa (aged 21) and Anna (aged 18) act like girls, not women, let alone strong ones. The feminist high fiving that they don’t need men misses the point that it is precisely the lack of a man that has caused all the chaos in their lives–not a husband or lover, but a father.
Early in the film, we are given a cursory introduction to Elsa and Anna’s father and mother, the King and Queen. All things being considered, they react with steady nerves and compassion when Elsa almost kills her baby sister. While it is true they tell Elsa to control and conceal her power, it is worth noting that they don’t tell her to deny it. They simply recognize there is danger, as well as beauty. They aren’t ashamed of Elsa, they want to protect her, and her father expresses his confidence that his daughter can learn to control her growing power.
God knows it’s not unusual for parents to die in a Disney movie. However, the struggle of the protagonist usually revolves about learning about his or her place in the world, accepting the responsibilities of adulthood, and symbolically replacing the parent as a leader in his or her own right, like Simba avenging his murdered father, taking his place as king, and becoming a father himself.
Here, the parents die so abruptly we never really get a sense of their relationship with their children. Moreover, there’s no transitional mentor for the children to learn from and bridge the gap from little girl to woman (let alone child to sovereign). This seems especially strange when Elsa is isolated from her kingdom for years and then is suddenly made absolute ruler. Who the hell was running the country while she was cooped up?
In one scene, a nervous Elsa prepares for her coronation and looks up nervously at a portrait of her kingly father, who, as some have noted, looks like a young Walt Disney. Just like all Disney products are ultimately in the shadow of w
hat the dead founder created, Elsa is trapped by the requirements of her royal role, even though the source is dead and buried. Not through his own fault, her father failed her by his absence, unable to return home, and manage her transition into adulthood. Perhaps he would have seen the folly of assuming she would automatically control her powers, or returned to the trolls for guidance. Instead, Elsa is left alone, and she instantly transitions from being sheltered and protected to flaunting her power in destructive ways out of a combination of fear, pride, and ignorance.
If we accept the metaphor of sexuality, the role of a daughter’s father is to protect her from the physical or emotional predations of other men (the Hans’s of the world) until the daughter can be “given away” to a man worthy of her. This concept survives in the traditional wedding ceremony. Knowing that your “little girl” is a woman can be painful to protective fathers but it doesn’t sever the bond between father and daughter, it merely changes its form. As Coleman observes (though not in this context), Ariel’s last line in The Little Mermaid is “I love you, Daddy.”
Mothers also have an important role to play. They have to educate their daughter as to what it means to be woman and to understand the power–and danger–of female sexuality. If left on their own, girls can either be terrified of sexuality or impulsively act out, leading to disaster. This is precisely what happens to Elsa, and, to a lesser extent, to Anna. And in a far, far more extreme way, it is what happened to the broken women of the modern West.
Screenwriter and director Jennifer Lee (product of divorce, divorced herself, naturally) may or may not have intended this message, but a Traditionalist viewing of Frozen isn’t about feminism or patriarchy. It’s about the gap left by the absence of family, a gap we see throughout the West. With so many marriages ending in divorce, mothers and fathers refusing to let go of youthful illusions, and, most critically, the patriarchal and matriarchal roles largely abandoned to media, schools, and pop culture, Western youth are left adrift. Instead of extended family or churches plugging the gaps in cases of death or misfortune, the larger culture actually encourages extended adolescence, with the resulting collateral damage all around us. In lieu of real family, we get a “Modern Family” of egalitarian cheerleading and faux loyalty dependent on abstractions and mutual comfort rather than a primal sense of duty to blood and kin.
In Frozen, we get a happy ending because the movie magically whisks away (quite literally) all problems. In our culture, we get an embarrassing wreck of a society. The forms of a real culture may remain – we still call things “marriage,” “families,” or “nations,” but the essence has departed. And what’s left behind are not extraordinary people commanding the forces of nature, but superfluous, deracinated individuals whose only power is to eradicate what remnants remain. But as the success of Frozen shows, even the most degraded has to look up–at least so they know what to tear down.