Four years ago Disney’s Frozen swept across the nation and created a worldwide phenomenon, everyone was watching it and raving about the new Disney princesses Anna and Elsa. But Frozen was unlike any other previous Disney movie in which presented a misogynist fairy tale. Usually, Disney princesses lack agency and character, and most of the time end up sacrificing parts of themselves for men, (for example, the loss of voice in The Little Mermaid), and even most commonly, needing a handsome man to come and save them, basically a victim. Sleeping beauty needed a man to save her from slumber, as did Snow White and Cinderella needed a man to get away from her evil stepmother. But not Elsa, Disney seems to have heeded some of these gendered critiques and proves Elsa to be the most relatable and complex princess thus far.
Frozen subverts these gendered ideals with it’s two main characters Elsa and Anna, to sisters who despite being physically fit/thin, beautiful, white and rich (the classic Disney profile of a princess) have a huge amount of agency and characteristics that past princesses have not had before. Anna embarks on the quest to find her sister after Elsa’s powers are revealed to the kingdom and she loses complete control, and unknowingly put a winter curse on the kingdom. But luckily, the kingdom is saved through the true love of the sisters (rather than a godly looking suitor) and then we are able to achieve our predictable happily ever after by the end of the movie.
This is the first Disney film in which a princess makes an error that negatively affects everyone around her—Elsa freezes her kingdom, endangers the public and people of Arendelle and eventually fatally attacks her sister, which was accidental but does go to say that she has violent and uncontrollable tendencies with her powers. For a good chunk of the movie, Elsa continually makes huge mistakes with her actions that the audience is constantly aware of. Elsa shows herself as willing to murder to protect her heightened sense of self-preservation when confronted with others about her powers early on in the movie, but judging from the look of mortification on her face every time she loses control with her powers, she is clearly more prone to violence than she realizes. Then again later on, Elsa threatens Anna’s life along with her companions, when she creates her snow monster and appears to have no qualms about killing and/or harming people that have come to retrieve and help her. Even when she realizes the consequences of her actions, she still refuses to go back to Arendelle until Prince Hans forcibly brings her back in chains.
Elsa is an antagonist that must inadvertently provide obstacles the protagonist must overcome before the movie can end, but yet at the same time she’s a hero because she continually chooses to make the difficult choice to lock herself away, to protect the people she loves. Her redeeming quality is her unwavering desire to protect her loved ones even when it comes at the cost of her quality of life. This illustrates the complexity of real life situations and people, giving them dimension and a realistic quality, everyone has bad qualities and makes mistakes, Elsa is relatable to everyone in this way of an internal struggle.
The theoretical frameworks that I will be analyzing Frozen through is a feminist criticism and also through Peter Barry’s book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory and his discussion on Sigmund Freud, and the idea of repression. Freud was a psychoanalyst who believed that humans have many thought processed occurring just below the level of consciousness, and that these subconscious thought have a significant impact on human developments and behavior. Freud defined repression as referring to the ego’s efforts to subconsciously keep anxious thoughts and impulses out of out awareness and keep them buried and hidden. By repressing certain thoughts or impulses, the Ego is attempting to avoid dealing with them.
Elsa is a perfect example of the idea of repression, and in a way because she has repressed her subconscious and her powers, she becomes traumatized and her psyche suffers because of it. Women are usually told to suppress emotions, and to present themselves in a certain way, and the repercussion of this stigma is illustrated in Elsa. Elsa is struggling with her own form of PTSD, haunted by the fact that she nearly killed her sister when she was younger and at Elsa’s coronation, her hands are shaking violently from anxiety. Elsa’s powers are beyond her control once she becomes agitated; her singing becomes more and more incoherent until it is nothing but a shout (“I can’t!”). By creating a Disney princess who happens to have an anxiety disorder is a progressive step towards creating characters that accurately represent our world, showing that princesses are not perfect and suffer from these problems that us normal and average people are struggling with. Elsa is not portrayed as selfish or “crazy,” but as someone who is doing the best she can in her situation. Not to mention she has been in this state of depression for years, ever since her father told her to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.”
This then leads into the feminist criticism when Elsa challenges her “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.”
Elsa releases herself from the pressures of being a perfect daughter, sister, and princess in this song and allows herself the freedom to make mistakes and live how she chooses. At this point in time Elsa can be seen as a symbol of female empowerment, and challenges the typical stereotypical assumptions about being a girl, and defying society’s expectations and restrictions. This is when she lets her hair down and finally changes into a sexy, confident woman. Elsa struggles with accepting her immense powers, which have been stigmatized by her society as negative (sound familiar?). What Elsa feared most about herself was what made her different, but also very powerful, and unique. The characters’ own acceptance of Elsa’s powers reflects a growing self-acceptance of herself and gender formations in the U.S. currently. Elsa has freed herself from the chains and stereotypes of society and is defying them with grace and dignity. She’s an admirable character that people can actually care about and love, it’s no longer a fairy tale, but a real life situation. Elsa is presented as fallible, flawed, accessible, and relatable, which is crucial for thinking about how the figure of a princess can be a feminist role model for not only children but also the young adults of this time period.
The cultural significance of Disney’s Frozen is that it brings attention to stereotypical gendered ideals and the complexity of these issues in the lives of people, the challenges these problems bring and how it’s possible to overcome them and accept yourself. Elsa really rocked our society and was a huge game changer. She managed to get through some of the biggest problems the people of our society are struggling with right now. She’s an icon for people struggling with their sexuality, mental health issues, lack of self-confidence and, of course, acceptance into society. By intentionally making her so relatable to average people she redefines Disney princesses. No longer is a Disney princess this far-fetched ideal that is unattainable, and unrealistic, and an icon of perfection, but now we are looking at a normal person whose flawed and struggles with average problems but who merely has a cool title to go along with it. That’s the whole motive behind Frozen, to accept yourself as you are, and be independent and only rely on yourself to achieve your goals and solve your problems. No matter what issues your going through with your sexuality, mentally, or with yourself personally, everyone has gone through some part of the same thing and can relate, one of the many reasons as to why Frozen was so successful and continues to be a huge phenomenon in our current society.