Frozen (2013) was released just shy of 2 years into me being the parent of a daughter. I was at the height of my determination that the princess-industrial complex was not going to dominate her childhood. Continue reading I’m excited for Frozen 2 – but not a new wave of sexist merchandise
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Mostly) Love Frozen
If you have a young daughter, one thing has been inescapable over the past few years – Frozen. As a dad of a girl, evangelised by Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I had zero interest in showing it to my kid. So far, the Disney Princess bug had failed to latch on and she was happy with the likes of Studio Ghibli, Wizard of Oz, and Star Wars.
All I knew was this. It was a watered down version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen. Anna or Elsa (I had no idea who was who) were Disney Princesses in all but name. Their inane smiles greeting me in every clothes shop, adorning a sea of pink and pastel clothing. It didn’t stop there. Tableware, magazines, party accessories, etc. all featured the pair. And every little girl around us – including her not yet 3-year-old peers – appeared to have seen it.
I began reading of Frozen themed birthday parties. Where the competition for Elsa performers (I was learning who was who) was fierce. Where birthday girls (and/or mothers) insisted only they could be Elsa.
Other liked-minded parents of girls warned me off. “Don’t show them Frozen! They cannot unsee it!” The song ‘Let it Go’ seemed to be a key offender. My daughter’s best friends had to varying degrees become Elsa obsessed, belting out the song – twirling around with their arms theatrically outstretched – regularly. I often heard a familiar argument between girls developing in playgrounds and playgroups – “You can be Anna, I’m Elsa”. “NO, YOU BE ANNA, I’M ELSA!!”
But I eventually bowed to the inventible. I had to show Frozen to my daughter. While we had seen a few Disney Princess movies, these were not as big a part of the collective girl-hood consciousness as Frozen had clearly become. My daughter could not remain that culturally unaware. All her immediate peers had seen it. But I was really worried about what it might lead to. Was this the Disney Princess gateway drug I had feared?
So last year, we borrowed the DVD from one of her Frozen fan friends (who apparently threw a big tantrum when she spotted it was missing – for one day!). And we watched it.
A funny thing happened. I kinda liked it.
**Some spoilers ahead**
It didn’t start off great. Firstly, for a film that seemingly became synonymous with a form of feminism and/or female empowerment, beginning it with a bunch of men lugging ice blocks seemed odd. When we did meet the sisters, Anna was… well, really annoying. A squeaky voiced little girl, who sings the immensely irritating ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”. Ugh.
But things began to get interesting. Elsa had powers. Magic powers. Superpowers. They were begining to get out of control. And her parents were worried, wanting to hide her away. This is a plot line straight from the pages of the X-Men.
As she grows older, her magical/mutant powers remain contained, but she must withdraw from the world and her sister. Eventually she is ‘outed’ with disastrous results, and she flees.
Alone, Elsa is free to explore her powers and who she is. Much like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, she creates her own icy Fortress of Solitude. Only this is a musical, and so begins ‘Let it Go’. And it was terrific.
As a point in the story (finally being able to revel in who she really is), a spectacular scene (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a musical number with superpowers), and a show stopping song (most surprising), ‘Let it Go’ worked brilliantly. No wonder all these 3-year-olds had decided THIS was the moment – and the character – to latch on to.
More surprising things happened: The story was keen to subvert ‘Princess’ stereotypes. The lead princess actually becomes a queen (and therefore a leader); The handsome prince turned out to be a dick; The men do not save the day; And the quest for a ‘true love kiss’ to remove the curse, came not from an arbitrary romantic interest, but the love of a family member.
In the months since first viewing, my daughter has continued to reference Frozen. I don’t know how much is the film, or the chance to finally engage with this content with her friends. But it had clearly made an impression on her.
Eventually, I asked her THE question: “Who do prefer, Anna or Elsa?” Her answer surprised me. “Olaf”. Turns out, this is the character she has connected to most – her reasoning is that he loves summer, just like she does. He (voiced by Josh Gad) is genuinely funny, and has the second best song (“In Summer”). Olaf merchandise – from toys to t-shirts – have been acquired ever since.
So, Frozen was – overall – ok.
Not entirely. Some other issues remain. However these are nothing to do with the film directly – but the merchandise.
The Frozen sisters had come to dominate girlhood. In every store that sells good aimed at girls, they are there. And the artwork used of Anna & Elsa is generally insipid and passive. The dynamism of Elsa’s awakening is rarely portrayed. The colours are always pastel, and frequently pink – a colour hardly seen in the film. My daughter’s beloved Olaf remained firmly planted in the ‘boys’ aisle.
And the ubiquitous ‘Elsa dress’. I don’t think there is a sadder indictment of the way the film has bee sold to little girls, that Elsa’s plea for self discovery and individuality in “Let it go” has resulted in armies of similarly clad girls, all in the same crappy dress (they’ve replaced the striking elegance of Elsa’s movie dress with an aquamarine polyester frilly horror), all wanting parties with an Elsa performer. To reference Life of Brian, it’s as if they are saying in unison “We are all individuals”.
So while I (largely) applaud the movie itself (another achievement for Disney under Chief Creative Officer John Lassetter), my issues with merchandising remain. Still, my daughter has managed to show off her Olaf fandom well.
Is Frozen feminist? I don’t know. I’ve read articles proclaiming it is feminist, post-feminist, anti-feminist, or an example of false feminism.
To me, at least it’s trying to subvert some of the worst aspects of Princess Culture. It’s not been the gateway princess-drug I feared, and I have no issue with my daughter adding it to her collection of favourite movies.