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Is “Frozen’s” Elsa’s Character a Contentious Feminist Heroine Compared to Past Disney Princesses?

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Disney has long been criticized for its tendency to produce misogynistic stories. Its cartoons have a history of enforcing patriarchal standards and advocating a standard of beauty and perfection the average human cannot achieve. While some argue a deep analysis of Frozen (2013) reveals the film does nothing to change those behaviors, others argue the title is Disney’s first step in a direction that is cognizant of these gender concerns and aims to undo them.

The FeministWire says, “Frozen subverts these ubiquitous tropes with its main characters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), who—despite physically fitting the profile of classic Disney princesses by being white, rich, and shockingly thin—display agency in ways that past princesses have not.”

No female Frozen character resigns an important part of herself to be with a man the way others have in the past. Elsa is rescued and the kingdom of Arendelle is saved thanks to the courageous acts of Anna, her sister, not her suitor. Anna finds her courage to embark on a dangerous journey by the grace of love for her sister, not because of a fellow’s persuasion. Sure, Kristoff assists her, and Anna does end up in love with him by the end, but unlike most Disney animated pictures, that relationship is secondary to the storyline. It’s also directed at the secondary character - Elsa is the “princess” of the piece, not Anna. There is no prince in sight for Elsa.

FeministWire continues, “Elsa is given opportunities to make mistakes that Disney Princesses have not been given in the past. Elsa often feels threatened, codes the world as black and white, and runs into trouble a number of times because of her ambiguous moral compass. Elsa shows herself as willing to murder to protect her heightened sense of self-preservation, and judging from the look of shock on her face every time she loses control, she is clearly more prone to violence than she thinks. Abandoning one’s throne is the highest level of treason a monarch can commit and Elsa does this at the first provocation—she chooses herself over her kingdom and refuses to explain.”

Elsa is essentially the villain of the film as well as its heroic figure. Hans may be the villain, but his villainy isn’t unearthed until the film is practically over. For the purposes of 90% of Frozen’s narrative, all antagonizing actions are Elsa’s doing. She freezes the kingdom. She freezes Anna’s heart. She sends Marshmallow after Anna, Olaf and Kristoff. She sings the song that lodged itself in America’s flesh like a giant, embedded thorn.

On a grander scale, FeministWire makes the point that Elsa ends the movie lesser than how she started, which is a drastic change for Disney.

“Ariel from a singing mermaid to a mute human, or Cinderella from a hopeful maid to a woman whose true love danced with her all evening yet cannot remember her face, or Sleeping Beauty and Snow White who are actual cadavers, literally lacking life force – Elsa transforms into an adult, ready to have an active role in her own life, in full control of her powers.”

Though Elsa is in a metaphorical prison of her own making, a classic Disney drama-maker, she escapes her troubles without the help of a prince.

Elsa’s freezing powers have been cited as an allegory for mental health. It’s caused Elsa to shut herself away from the world, and she trembles at the idea of revealing herself to people.

Finally, Elsa is often viewed as an image of sexual empowerment. Once again aptly interpreted by FeministWire, “Importantly, Elsa challenges the prevalent “good girl complex,” a term designated to describe the pressure girls are under to be perfect in all areas. In her song, “Let It Go,” Elsa sings “that perfect girl is gone.” She refers to the pressure of having to be the perfect daughter, sister, and princess. In this song, Elsa releases herself from these pressures and allows herself the freedom to make mistakes and live how she chooses. Elsa also challenges the virgin/whore dichotomy. When Elsa changes into a more overtly sexy outfit and looks directly at the camera with a raised eyebrow, it appears that she is a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality and she does not care what anyone thinks. She slams the door in the audience’s face, indicating that she needs privacy to understand herself or that the audience does not have to be present for her sexual awakening. This defies the fetishizing of young women for audience consumption.”