Frankly, I was surprised by Disney’s latest animated film Frozen. Even though it featured the voice of my beloved heroine Veronica Mars (or as she’s known in real life: Kristen Bell), I was pretty sure Frozen was going to feed us Disney’s standard company line about princesses and marriage and girls needing to be rescued all the time. I was wrong. Though the film still showcases impossibly thin, rich, white girls who are princesses, this isn’t a story about romantic love or some dude rescuing a damsel in distress. Not only does Frozen effortlessly pass the Bechdel Test within five minutes, it’s a story that’s centered around sisterhood and the power that exists inside young women.
The most important relationship in Frozen, the one that drives all the action, all the pathos, is that of Anna and her sister Elsa. The two of them love each other very deeply, but they struggle to connect. Snow Queen Elsa strives to protect her little sister from harm first by hiding her own amazing abilities to create/manipulate snow and ice and then by refusing to allow Anna to marry a man she’s only just met. Elsa has donned the mantle of big sister with a great deal of seriousness, including all the responsibility that comes with it. When Elsa’s powers are outed at court, Anna’s unflagging love and determination prompts her to go after her fleeing sister who holes up in a pristine snow castle. We learn that Elsa was right to protect her sister from a hasty marriage, which is a huge change from Disney’s traditional espousing of the myth of love-at-first-sight, but we also learn that Anna’s love and acceptance is the only thing that can save her reclusive sister.
In Frozen, female agency and power are paramount. Elsa has cosmically awesome winter powers (she should seriously consider a trip to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). Anna, our heroine, is normal, which is a refreshing change of pace from most fantasy stories where the lead is imbued with a striking talent or birthright. Though Anna has no unique skills or magical powers, it is her compassion that makes her extraordinary. Anna’s personality makes her special because she never gives up, never questions her own capability, and never thinks she can’t do something. With her courage and conviction, Anna is the driving force behind all the film’s action. The male characters are mostly along for the ride, lending support or acting as obstacles to the true goal of the film: the reconnection of two estranged sisters.
Let’s talk a little bit about Elsa’s winter superpowers. From adolescence, Elsa and her parents fear her growing powers. Elsa seeks to control, minimize, and hide her powers. With the “swirling storm inside”, Elsa loses her grip on her carefully guarded secret and outs herself at her coronation party. After fleeing the scene, she sings, “Conceal. Don’t feel. Don’t let them know,” before declaring she’s going to, “Let it go.” (Full song below.)
Elsa’s abilities that are connected to her emotions and mature with age are obviously a metaphor for her powerful sexuality, and I’d even go so far as to argue that Elsa and her family struggle with her queer sexuality, her parents even fearing that she would infect her younger sister. Yes, I think there is general discomfort around female sexuality in all its forms. However, Anna is blossoming sexually, and there is not the same stigma or fear surrounding it because her conventional hetero sexuality gravitates towards marriage to a prince. There is no male love interest for Elsa (despite Anna having two suitors). Elsa’s queer sexuality is so foreign that her subjects are horrified, and she must isolate herself, becoming a literal ice queen. While Elsa feels free to be honest with herself and to feel her feelings within her isolated castle, she does not believe acceptance is possible nor that she can be a part of normal society.
When Elsa accidentally strikes Anna with a shard of her ice powers, Anna’s heart becomes frozen, and only “an act of true love” can thaw it and save her from death. Everyone in the film assumes true love’s kiss will cure her, but, frankly, I had my fingers crossed (literally) that Elsa would have to kiss her sister to save her (platonically, of course). We were all wrong. It turned out that Anna had to perform the act of true love, keeping her firmly in the self-actualized role of heroine, making her own choices, taking action, and creating her own destiny. That’s an even better plot twist than I could have imagined! Anna’s act of self-sacrifice shows Elsa that acceptance is possible, that Anna knew about her dark secret and loved her anyway. They’re not saved by a man or romantic love. This is an act of true love between sisters, and that act saves them both. One word: beautiful.
Disney was clearly doing their feminist homework when they came up with Frozen. They created a story about young women that didn’t revolve around men, where family and sisterhood trump everything else, where two sisters save each other. They even have Kristoff ask Anna for consent before he kisses her, and the movie doesn’t end with a wedding. Disney still has to work on its depiction of impossible female bodies that are usually white. They need to start telling stories about regular girls and not just richie-rich princesses. They need to be more open and honest about their queer characters instead of hiding them under metaphor, but all in all, Frozen is a huge leap forward for Disney. I’m glad I went to see it. I’m glad I took my six-year-old niece to see it with me, and though their white skin and privileged lifestyle doesn’t match hers, I think Frozen imparted an important lesson about sisterhood, love, and acceptance that is invaluable to young girls everywhere.
Amanda Rodriguez is an environmental activist living in Asheville, North Carolina. She holds a BA from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and an MFA in fiction writing from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She writes all about food and drinking games on her blog Booze and Baking. Fun fact: while living in Kyoto, Japan, her house was attacked by monkeys.