Frozen Feminism, Frozen Love

December 23rd, 2013

I’m really excited about the recent attempts by Disney to reimagine princess movies (The Princess Frog, Tangled, and Brave) in a way that uplifts little girls without teaching them they’re dependent upon a man to save them.

Disney’s latest effort to that end, Frozen, builds on and excels beyond its predecessors. But before I get to the plot, let me start with how this is evaluated.

I read some time ago that movies assuming patriarchy is the norm answer “no” to one or more of the following questions:

1. Is there more than one female character?
2. Do they speak to one another?
3. Do they speak to one another about something other than the male characters?

Frozen has two main female characters: sisters (Elsa and Anna) who’ve grown apart because Elsa has magical powers she cannot control. Afraid she will hurt her sister with her power, Elsa chooses to seclude herself from all her relationships. As this is the major plot line, each of the three questions is answered positively. There are two female characters. They speak with one another. And they speak about other things than men. In fact, between the sisters, very little discussion at all involves the male characters.

To the degree that the male characters matter to the plot line, Frozen attempts to teach young girls that true love is more than the feelings one has after a night at the ball. Rather, true love is a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for what is best for another person.

Frozen even intentionally mocks previous Disney stories where the couple gets engaged or married after knowing each other for a few hours or days. Princess Anna becomes engaged to Hans after knowing him for only a few hours, but when she meets Kristoff, he humorously questions her as to whether she can truly know what love is in such a short period of time. She asserts that she can, and the rest of the movie is devoted to teaching that true love goes beyond what you feel in a few minutes, and can only be found in a willingness to give yourself up for the flourishing of someone else.

With the larger plotline driving toward the nature of true love, a few more things add the the beauty that is Frozen’s feminism.

First, the female characters in the story are not dependent upon the male characters to solve their problems. The men are not the saviors in this film. The guys do not have a brute-force-show-down to bring about plot resolution. Rather, princess Anna is the Christ-figure in the story and, while she learns a lot from Kristoff about the nature of love, she is ultimately both the victim and the hero of the story.

Which leads to the next point: The female characters get to perform the act of true love. In a great piece of storytelling brilliance, right about the time you think Disney is going to fall back into their boy-saves-girl-with-kiss motif, princess Anna sacrifices herself and her opportunity for life by saving her sister, Elsa, from the villain. She gives up the man and the kiss in order to save her sister.

The final feministic feature I appreciated about Frozen was that it managed to promote these great messages to young girls without degrading men. And this is where I think Frozen is light years ahead of both Tangled and The Princess Frog. Whereas these two other movies were great steps forward in that they feature independent women who don’t need men, the men in the story are pictured as blundering, adolescent morons. In Frozen, however, Kristoff is a commoner who works hard at a commoner’s job. He is humorously awkward (he talks to a reindeer, for example), but he is wise and gentle, too. In the end, while I appreciated Tangled and The Princess Frog as steps forward for Disney, Frozen sets the new standard for Disney princesses.

***

Frozen excels not only  because it actually promotes the well being of the little girls who watch it, but because it provides the clearest definition of true love to ever come from a Disney film.

As the Dreamworks film Shrek aptly points out, Disney’s older fairy tale love stories promote skin-deep, surface-level conceptions of love and male/female relationships. Though, on the outside, just a crude Mike Myers film, Shrek’s multiple layers—like Ogres and onions—of storytelling proved the postmodern world is looking for a deeper understanding of love.

Following the lead (and success) of the Shrek franchise, Disney has upped their game concerning love, and Frozen is the beautiful result of these efforts. In this film, not only does Disney mock their previous, hurtful depictions of true love (“What, you’re engaged to a guy you just met?”) but it actually provides a definition:

Anna: I was wrong about (my relationship with Hans). It wasn’t true love after all. I don’t even know what true love is.

Olaf: I do. That’s when you put someone else’s needs before your own. You know, like when Kristoff bought you back here and left you forever.

Now, notice some of the beautiful aspects of this short discussion.

First, Disney is acknowledging that for decades they have confused what true love is, and the result has been hurtful for our relationships.

I know this doesn’t seem overt—and it’s not—but I think there’s a subtle, humble act of confession here on Disney’s part. The notion of love they have presented through Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and others is a love based on first sight. It tells little girls (and boys) that love is the feeling you have when you first meet someone to whom you’re attracted. The result of this definition of love is a culture no longer able to define love (we are all Anna, “I don’t even know what true love is.”) and our misunderstandings of love have produced generations of broken families. Thank you Disney, even if this is unintentional, for the humility it takes to confess this.

Second, true love is putting someone else’s needs before your own.

Somehow I think we’ve heard this somewhere before. Love involves and benefits me, but my love is to be given away to others, otherwise it is not love. And giving love away is not merely an act of feelings, but is literally putting the needs of other people before your own needs. The previous definition of love provided in Disney princess movies is that love is a feeling I have when I’m in the presence of someone to whom I‘m attracted and who will give themselves up for me. Their previous definition of love was the feeling I have for someone after a light of flirtatious dancing. But in Frozen, Disney intentionally backtracks from these previous love-disasters, and goes out of their way to demonstrate that a night dancing and flirting is not enough time to truly love someone. And even if we think we’re giving ourselves up for them—even if we think we’re in love with them in that short period of time—we’re actually in love with the idea of them. We can’t truly know them in that time, so we cannot truly love anything other than the fabrication of them in our minds.

Kristoff falls in love with Anna, not in a moment, not at a dance, but in the day-to-day adventures of doing life together. And when worse comes to worse, he is willing to sacrifice his love for her in order to give her what she thinks she needs—Hans. Which brings me to my next point…

Third, freedom is inherent to love.

Kristoff’s willingness to let Anna go without imposing his love on her, his willingness to silently suffer as she goes back into the arms of Hans, concretely expresses that Disney understands that true love necessarily gives the other person the freedom to reject you. If love is coerced, manipulated, or forced, it is not love. If Kristoff were to impose his love on Anna, if he were to manipulate her, or fight Hans for her affection, that would not be true love. True love allows the other person freedom to choose, which means, freedom to reject.

It is this “freedom” aspect of love that is rarely touched on in previous Disney films, (Beauty and the Beast does a satisfactory job with this, but it could have been better) but it is possibly the most underappreciated aspect of love in our culture. In fact, Disney takes this idea even further in this film: Not only does Kristoff provide space for Anna to freely go back to Hans, once he knows Anna’s life is in danger and he returns back into town, he finds her nearly freezing to death. At this point in the movie, only an act of true love can save her. The movie leads you to think this act of true love will be a kiss from Kristoff. But what happens next is the brilliant, unexpected twist of the film: Anna freely gives her life up for her sister by stepping in front of the sword of Hans. The act of freely chosen, true love was not a kiss in this film, but an act of laying down your life in order to meet the needs of the one you love.

Finally, true love casts out fear.

Again, I believe I’ve heard that somewhere before, but at the beginning of the film, Elsa is warned that if she lets fear control her, it will destroy everything around her—it will be more destructive than the power she has. Almost immediately, due to the fearful influence of her parents, Elsa is enslaved to fear. It obliterates her relationship with both Anna and her parents.

Anna’s willingness not to be controlled by fear—to think of her sister’s needs above her own, even after she learns the truth—is the redemptive factor in this movie. She loves her sister despite her sister’s flaws. And ultimately, she doesn’t even fear death as deeply as she loves her sister.

A heart frozen with fear only has one hope: love. Disney is teaching us that our concepts of love need to grow, and they’re leading the way. And, in all honesty, they’re preparing hearts for the gospel in the process. How is this story anything less than a sovereignly given act of Prevenient Grace? Our culture has long been in need of someone to redefine love. Disney has helped the church do just that. Now, let’s hope we can build something even more beautiful on God’s Prevenient Grace expressed through this film.

Your Turn: Have you seen the film? What did you think about it? Were there other places you observed these messages? What other messages did you see in the film?


This post originally appeared as two posts on Tom's blog, The Fuerst Shall Be Last.

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