WARNING: This blog contains spoilers!
I was a little late to the Frozen party. As the long, cold winter started looking like a freezing, dreary spring, the idea of taking my three and a half year old to her first big screen movie started to seem like a great idea, an exciting activity that didn’t involve paint, glue, or playing outside and getting sopping wet. Plus, it seemed like she was the only female preschooler who hadn’t seen it, and none of the others had been traumatized, so I figured Why not? So on the perfect movie Saturday—gray, cold, and drizzly—we set out.
As a result, just like every other preschool parent who was dumb enough to make the music available in her car, I can now sing every single song in my sleep. All this quality time with the story has afforded me many opportunities to reflect on it—and since I’m a writer, and a mom, and I was a young woman once myself, I tend to think about the two lead characters from those three vantage points simultaneously. In fact, I haven’t really managed to disentangle those points of view, because as a writer I also worry about what media like movies and books are telling our young women.
And what surprises—and frustrates—me most about Frozen and the reactions of young women to Frozen (my daughter included) is that Elsa is the Big Hero. I find this surprising because she is on the screen less than her sister Anna, and although she does get to sing the big number that’s on the radio, overall she sings fewer songs. She also doesn’t save anyone. Quite the reverse: her cowardice throws her kingdom into a deadly deep freeze, and ultimately throws a dagger of ice into her sister’s heart. And, while we’re tallying, she doesn’t get the hunky guy at the end, either.
Anna, on the other hand, is on screen for the whole movie. She sings more songs, and she not only saves her sister and her kingdom, she saves herself with her act of true sisterly love. She survives the death of her parents and heartbreak at the hands of her sister and a scheming prince, and learns to enjoy the true joys of love with people who respect and love her back (one of whom is a hunky guy).
She is plucky, sweet, and unstoppable. She is not afraid of her all too human powers to love and to adventure, and even though her powers are not a glittery magic like Elsa’s, they turn out to be stronger.
But apparently those characteristics are not as seductive, even to the three year old mind, as Elsa’s. Elsa is moody and damaged, afraid of her magical power, and the film glamorizes her with the most fabulous dress in the history of Disney princesses (not to mention the hair and shoes!). Sure, she can make one heck of an ice castle, but what else does she do? Proactively, I mean.
Listen, the movie eschews many of the traditional fairy tale clichés, and I applaud it for that. And I don’t think it’s the media’s job to make every heroine into a woman with self esteem who embraces her own power, but I am concerned about the way everyone just seems to be swallowing Elsa’s hero status like it’s Kool-Aid.
Because if Elsa is the hero of the movie, what’s that really teaching girls—and the men who also consume this media, directly and indirectly—about heroism? About strength? About self-esteem? About, frankly, basic likability?
It’s so important for parents and teachers to talk about this stuff with their kids and students—to be on the lookout for underlying messages, and to think about smart ways to engage them. It’s also important for writers and other artists to interface with their audiences to get them thinking and talking about what is in their art (and to be open to the inevitable critiques!).
The other day after a long car ride with “Let It Go,” when my daughter said she wants to be like Elsa when she grows up, I almost died. Then, I asked her why.
She didn’t have an answer.
“Because you want to wear that dress? And make snowmen come to life?” I prodded.
“Yeah,” she agreed, though it didn’t really sound like she meant it—she just had some vague notion of Elsa’s superiority.
“I hope you’ll grow up to be like Anna,” I replied. “Because it’s Anna who saves her sister and her kingdom with her love and bravery.”
She didn’t reply. But I hope it got her thinking. And I’m sure it’s not the last conversation we will have about it.