I have written an inflammatory title here, just as a way of calling myself out.
I’m going to attempt to write criticism from the position of a man. This is tricky business, because I am not entirely sure what it means in terms of a positive definition. Furthermore, it is not my intention to exclude anybody from the readership of this critique. If, on the other hand, you take offense by way of being included in the category ‘men’ or ‘not-men’, I am sorry. The object of my criticism is entangled with the identifier “man” and its negative only.
Anything above or beyond or within or below or around or outside this proposed and supposed man/non-man binary is outside the scope of this current work of criticism. I recognize the problem of centering the question of identity and ideology on the male/masculine axis; but I am not writing the definitive treatise on all identity. I mean to speak to a particular issue as far as my experience has shown me. In the course of this essay, I will attempt to show the way that the idea of “non-men” is showing up in our present gender discourse, as demonstrated in the example of Disney’s Frozen.
Anyway, this is easiest way for me to explain my conceit: I have a feeling that I’m a man, but it comes to me in the negative sense. At least for the purposes of this critique, I know that I fail to measure up most of the time. I am most certain when I’m marked by what I am not.
Preamble aside, I finally watched Disney’s Frozen for the first time the other day. I know that I’m late to the party.
A quick Google Scholar search produced some precedence for this discussion: Maja Rudolph’s 2016 “Post-feminist Paradoxes: The Sensibilities of Gender Representation in Disney’s Frozen“ (published by the University of Australia in Vol. 35 of Outskirts: Feminisms Along the Edge); Auba Llompart’s 2019 piece titled “Snow Queer? Female Characterization in Walt Disney’s Frozen” (Published in Adaptation Vol. 13 Issue 1); and Juniper Patel’s 2015 “The Quirky Princess and the Ice-olated Queen: An Analysis of Disney’s Frozen“ (Product of the University of Arkansas).
Critical Responses to “Frozen“
While I could only read Patel’s paper in full (do to subscription-based paywalls), I encourage those of you who are able to read the essays to do so, and be so kind as to ignore/complain about anything redundant or stolen. The goal I have in writing this is to say something different from these papers anyway–probably a large part of the reason I selected them as context.
F R O Z E N
Juniper Patel provides a detailed summary of the film with an accompanying thematic analysis, which I will take as a general picture of the reception for the film near the time of its release. Patel’s work focuses on elucidating the structures inhering in the film on its own terms. My impression of the theoretical motivation of Patel’s essay seems primarily focused on the way that the relationship between Elsa and Anna changes the web of meaning around the “princess” and the “villain” in classical Disney films contra Frozen as a step in another direction. Her major criticism (after the analysis) is that the film does not provide an official diagnosis of Elsa’s trauma as depression and anxiety; and that reading the moral message of the film as ‘love is the answer’ cheapens the struggle Elsa faces.
“Far from being ‘truly feminist’, it is concluded that despite popular sentiment to the contrary, Disney still has a long way to go towards promoting egalitarian and diverse representations of gender.”Maja Rudolph. “Post-feminist Paradoxes: The Sensibilities of Gender Representation in Disney’s Frozen.” 2016
Patel surmises (p.10) “Frozen is clearly a princess film: it features a princess.” I will claim if not in the content of the film, then in the demographic of the audience and the significant intent claimed by the film; this movie is about women and girls. Rudolph’s work sets the record for a “not good enough” response from feminists, to which I am sympathetic: Anna is still a princess in need of a prince, and Elsa is still blonde and pale. In spite of the positive steps the film appears to take toward imagining a powerful independent woman, the appearance of our main characters are fair-minded and beautiful characters.
Interestingly, having a Disney queen whose quest does not involve finding a husband has led some Frozen fans to speculate that Elsa could be the first lesbian Disney princess…In light of all this, we discuss that Frozen is an example of the recent Disney trend to redefine true love and prioritize female bonding and empowerment. However, if we compare it to its literary precedent, the Disney adaptation seems to be less daring when it comes to portraying non-normative manifestations of love and femininity than Andersen’s original.Auba Llompart. “Snow Queer? Female Characterization in Walt Disney’s Frozen” 2019.
Llompart’s piece highlights another way in which Disney’s Frozen falls short of really transgressing its forms–beyond falling short of a feminist message–by contrasting the film with a prior work of literature, Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen (1845). The Snow Queen deals with similarly gender-hegemony thwarting themes as Frozen, but as Llompart points out, Anderson’s story involves far more transgressive moves.
Again, I plead with you to read these articles if you are able. They are full of insight, and worth reading if you’re thinking in this space for whatever reason. My interest in contextualizing response to the film is to demonstrate that, though these texts have differing initial commitments, the resultant criticism is often directed at a similar root: that being Disney’s falling short of something.
I would imagine there are a lot of individuals who, for various reasons, found this movie to be an objectionable turn-off, and therefore spent time and energy on virulent froth and mad barking to protect themselves from having to see or spare thoughts for the film…I know that I spent a lot of time going out of my way to avoid any kind of contact with Frozen. After having seen it I can say that I was first disappointed, and later became jealous.
It is almost intoxicating to celebrate and jeer the failures of a film as it tries to speak to a social or political issue. The most basic mode of this enjoyment is in our perverse knowledge that we are giving more money to the absurdly wealthy Disney in watching and discussing what they’ve written. On this basis, we can disavow everything the movie could be trying to do. If instead we don’t mind giving money to Disney, we can just enjoy what the movie is trying to do. Either way, we are paying-off the duty of trying to understand what the movie is trying to do; and instead seek the heady pass-time of righteously proclaiming how it fails to measure-up.
In the following critique, I would like to try and say what the movie is trying to do, starting with a description of how it achieves what it wants.
1. The surface spectacle of Frozen’s rhetoric is Female-presenting. This covers some serious ideological depths while providing aesthetic barriers/prejudices to the outside of the target demographic.
2. The aesthetics of the film create an ideological space in the audience of the film at the expense of audience members from outside of the demographic. There is a reason that Luke Skywalker is no longer the chosen one. Paul Atreides is, today, an insufferable white messiah. Classic pictures of masculinity from film and literature have been rendered ideologically impotent through overt criticism.
3. The Invulnerability of Elsa’s position and the ultimate impotence of Anna’s position masks masculinity in feminine roles up to the point when “Duty” is disguised as “Love.” The sisters must function, and their regal re-absorption into the ideology of the state is necessary. The climax of my critique is that the film obscures the worst of this appropriation in both Elsa and Anna’s cases. The moment the idyllic fantasy moves in to replace its prior “real” commitments, the movie ends.
4. The function of masculinity becomes displaced and operationalized in the rhetoric of the film, and this is mirrored in the displacement of the male audience. Men (here, typically–especially–cis gendered and hetero-normative men) are revealed as outside subjects by the film Frozen. The male characters in the film are all outsiders. All the outsiders are men. Each adult male character is in some sense displaced and seeking the entrance, finding none, except in the most dire case: Hans. Men (still talking about cis-gendered hetero-normative ideological subjects, here) will typically mock this movie if they don’t completely ignore it.
Ideology: How My Disappointment turned to Jealousy when Duty turned to Love.
I knew that I would have to avoid watching Frozen if I wanted to measure-up as a man. Without having seen the movie, I still had a picture in my head about how Elsa would become a powerful icy sorcerer, having been pushed to the outskirts of Arendelle because of her unwillingness to conform. Her reward would be a cold, hard freedom–interrupted with longing glances back to her sister, back to her old life. I knew how it was going to play-out; or so I thought.
When Anna goes (with Kristoff and Sven) to find Elsa to plead with her to undo the ice-age before the kingdom is ruined, she gets hurt, and Elsa will not go. After they leave, Hans and a gang of other men seize her and bind her in chains to be kept in an Arendelle dungeon. Simultaneously, Anna is slowly dying; and Kristoff must quickly take her back to Hans for True Love’s Kiss.
Neither of these male characters are centered in the narrative; they are mostly vestigial up to this critical point when the plot demands that something happen, rather than the necessary process of repression or progression from within the narrative flow between concise points. Both male characters consistently fail to measure up, but the force of their intrusion on the narrative flow solidifies their position as outsiders.
Hans, for reason of his being a foreign prince, is an outsider. But this would not be problematic except it is duplicated in dramatic reveal that Anna “…should have known that a 13th son would only be after her kingdom…” (Patel 7). The revelation of his impotence (in terms of not saving Anna through True Love’s Kiss, his sword breaking on Anna, and being a non-inheritor of his family name) is the ultimate mark of his being an outsider, a villain, and a man.
Kristoff, for reason of being a woodsman, is an outsider. But this would not be problematic except it is duplicated in the fact of Sven (Kristoff’s Reindeer ‘companion’). He is, time and again, the reason that Kristoff is able to move the plot along. Sven acts as a representation of Kristoff’s manhood (both as the potency of his act and as the beast of burden in his labor). The fact that Kristoff is rewarded with a new sled and an explicitly perfunctory job-title (as a result of Sven’s heroic action of carrying Anna back in time) is the ultimate mark of his being an outsider, a worker, and a man.
Elsa, for reason of her having supernatural power, is an outsider. But this would be problematic, except she’s also the Queen. She refuses to harm any of the soldiers, and this is just after she accidentally hurts Anna. She is apprehended, but escapes with little trouble. There is almost nothing that can be done to stop her. The question is, why is Anna the one who gets hurt? In the scene where the real threat seems to show itself–Hans and his gang of other men–we are shown so many near-lethal displays of Elsa’s power, yet nobody is harmed. When Anna is driven away by Elsa’s power, it would kill her, and it happens by accident. This is where the ideology slips in.
Anna’s intervention bears all the weight of wrongdoing represented in the film. She atones for her parents repressive force by showing her sister love; she shields her sister from the swing of Hans’ sword–shattering it; and she absorbs the blow from Elsa’s instability and abdication for the people of Arendelle in seeking to find her and bring her back. She, as a figure in the narrative, was deployed to slacken all the threads of narrative tension that the movie had been winding tight. Our sympathy with Elsa is predicated on the traumatic repression her father represents through the need to conform to the regal lineage of the kingdom as queen.
Elsa made me jealous. I found myself outside the audience before I watched it. I saw how wrong my pre-reading of the movie was–I had seen her being the villain AND main character by her own choice. Rather, she is co-opted into the status quo to produce the image of a nominally marginalized character, who none-the-less triumphs as a symbol of this possibility. As far as my heroic examples went in my own childhood, I did not know any character who was male, weird, and won-out in the end of the movie. My expectation was that I would force myself to choose duty over all else.
Dream, Come True
My claim is that Disney has positioned itself to be criticized on terms of how it has fallen short. I believe that Frozen in particular demonstrates how The Disney Movie has been intended to appear as making good on the mistakes of the past–to atone for its past wrongdoing. I am here to say rather, Disney has gone too far.
The motivation of the ideology deployed by Frozen is, I argue, to position the audience in such a way that they see simultaneously the progressive-but-not-quite-progressive-enough message and the tried and effective character archetypes/story models of the past; the very past for which these movies apologize. It seeks to encourage critics to tell the Imagineers what they most want to hear (namely, how to make their next movie) rather than focusing on creating art that critics [and amateurs] can respond to critically.
The most telling pattern was the excess in the direction of the harm in the film. Elsa was oppressed by her parents, but especially her father. Her powers increased, and she became isolated. Mother and Father die. Elsa represses her trauma, and ultimately abdicates her royal position and is driven out at her coronation. Elsa accidentally hurts Anna. Elsa is captured and doesn’t hurt her captors. Elsa escapes, but Hans usurps the throne and sentences Elsa to death by his own hand. Anna takes the blow, but the ice-curse (accidentally inflicted on her by Elsa) protects her from Hans’ blade. Hans does not measure up. This original traumatic harm is diffused and the resultant narrative pathology caused by the trauma is, at this point, effectively neutralized.
In the end, Anna punches Hans and he’s taken away. Kristoff asks if he can kiss Anna, and she says yes. It’s such an amazing relief when Elsa returns to her throne. These are great scenes, but the neutralization of the trauma by accidental sororal violence seems to dodge the question of justice for those who were wronged in the first place: The punch is vicarious, and not actual, justice; Anna’s assent is obligatory at the end of the movie; Elsa’s rule is rather a symbol of acquiescence.
“…[L]et us think of a culture that has no fixed and sacred primordial site but is doomed to exhaust all possibilities and to nourish itself wretchedly on all other cultures–there we have the present age…”-Friedrich Nietzsche, 1872. “The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music”. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Sec. 23. Kaufmann tr. ed. p. 135
I do not mean to discount what the movie achieves in its own terms. I do mean to say: no matter what the film seems to have achieved or risked, we will never quite feel like it is the last movie we’re ever going need to see. No such movie can or will ever be made. Disney does vastly more than most to capitalize on this situation, but it is not at fault for the limitation inherent to both art and our desire for it. The situation now depends on our ability to recognize this limitation for what it is, and to expect less-than-perfect resolution from movies.