A Plea for Anna

WARNING: This blog contains spoilers!

"Disney Store Singing Elsa and Anna" © scartlett1954 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/scarlett1854/11829584154)

“Disney Store Singing Elsa and Anna” © scartlett1954 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/scarlett1854/11829584154)

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.”

Photo by Peter Su

Photo by Peter Su

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.

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6 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Mary Jo (Eustis) Seibel says:

    I loved you piece! In fact, I am forwarding it to our Kerry — mother of Meryn (6) and Lyvia (5), both of whom have seen the movie multiple times!! These granddaughters of mine can, indeed, sing the songs. Lyvia’s birthday gift from Aunt Casey was an Elsa dress that she made (gorgeous!). It was the only thing Lyvia really asked for. So….. guess this in an opportunity for teaching!

    It’s wonderful watching from afar a bit of your journey. I wish you the best of everything and delight in reading your work.

    Mary Jo

  2. Kerri says:

    Thank you, Mary Jo!

  3. Todd Smith says:

    Anh and I had all the same thoughts. Maybe they will watch it again at 15 (or 25) and see that Anna is the hero. The movie will blow their minds all over again but in a different way!

    Though it’s tough to beat super powers. Last I checked Hollywood makes nothing but superhero films these days.

  4. Kerri says:

    Thanks, Todd–and Anh! You are right–It is definitely tough to beat super powers. Sigh.

  5. Lawren Cottles says:

    Thank you! I didn’t know Elsa was the hero – I thought Anna was clearly the hero of the story – so that’s how much I know! So I decided to investigate. I asked my 11 year old, Catherine who she thought was the hero of Frozen – She said that, even though we see more of Anna, Elsa is the hero. I asked her why and she said, ‘In the beginning of the movie, Elsa has powers but she is afraid of them and can’t control them….by the end of the story she understands her power, can control it and comes back and saves the town.’ She did say Anna was not a side kick like the guys in the story, but not the hero. I said without Anna, Elsa would still be in the forest in her ice castle with the abominable snowman. True, she agreed. Conclusion: the hero is the strength of their bond and love. How about that for a tie breaker!

  6. Denisse Morales says:

    Hi! I really liked your article BUT I do disagree in a few points, mostly about Elsa. For ME Elsa is the most relatable character of the story, she is not perfect, she struggles, she is afraid, confused, she feels like an outcast and even helpless, but still tries her BEST to protect the ones she loves in the ONLY way her parents taught her to her whole life, even though that hurts her deeply, even though she feels terribly alone, still she doesn’t care and she sacrifices her happiness and the sister she loves sooo much, in order to protect everyone from herself. I don’t think she was a coward, she was only trying to protect everyone, think about it, she was told almost all her life that she was dangerous a menace to others, and of course when her powers were discovered and lost control, all her fears became reality, she almost hurt her sister again and everyone looked at her like a monster, I mean they were literally chasing her while she was fighting to control her powers and struggling not to make any more damage, so of course she ran away, I think she thought it was for the best and she didn’t knew she had covered her kingdom in snow, until her sister told her. So I wouldn’t be so hard on her. On the other hand Anna is just completely adorable BUT ALSO she’s almost too good to be true. Don’t get me wrong I found her bravery, determination and positiveness through it all quite AMAZING, but in reality deep down I think we all are more like Elsa, afraid, struggling, confused and in need of a helping hand form time to time; and MAYBE that’s why even though Anna IS THE HEROE of the story, we still relate more to the flawed Elsa than to her heroic and lovable sister Anna. And well the superpowers are a PLUS.

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