Reconstruction Through Deconstruction: Frozen and the New Disney Princess

It was only a few months ago that Frozen, the latest Disney Princess movie, was the subject of some controversy when one of the lead animators said some seemingly sexist things about designing female characters. This led to a fair amount of distress for feminists and other not-sexist fans of Disney animated films… which is ironic because Frozen is, in the opinion of this straight white male, quite possibly the most feminist Disney Princess movie ever. And if you’d like me to illustrate why, please follow me past the jump (fair warning, there be SPOILERS).

Since the Disney Renaissance of the late ‘80s/’90s, there has been a gradual movement towards having the Disney “Princesses” being more well-rounded, active characters. Disney Heroines (I’m gonna stop using the title Princess as a pejorative because a bunch of these characters never become royalty at all) such as Mulan, Jasmine, Rapunzel, Tianna et al have been much more headstrong and integral to the driving of the plot, as opposed to the old-school likes of Snow White and Aurora who were completely at the mercy of the villains’ machinations and the heroism of the Princes. However, most of the more modern Heroines still need to be saved by the male heroes in the end, no matter how independent and active they were before the finale (a consequence of the fact that many of the movies from the Disney Renaissance were more about the male characters in the first place). But in Frozen, with both Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), this pattern of almost-but-not-quite Heroines has been finally broken, and in the process several longstanding Disney Princess tropes have been deconstructed in terrific ways.

The first trope that is excitingly broken down is the age-old Prince Charming archetype and the love-at-first-sight romances that seem to follow such characters around. In Frozen, this beat is both anticipated (in the song “For the First Time in Forever”) and then played out (“Love is an Open Door”) by Anna, who falls head-over-heels for Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and quickly becomes engaged to him. After this though, the film separates them, and Anna spends most of her time with rough-and-tumble mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and it’s here that Frozen begins some of its deconstructive magic. After the frantic romanticism of Anna and Hans, Anna’s relationship with Kristoff grows much more naturally and quietly throughout the film, culminating in the song “Fixer Upper”, which serves as something of a counter for the sort of “Hey look at what we have in common!” infatuation that Anna’s interest in Hans seems to consist of. And then, in the final dismissal of the Prince Charming concept, Hans is revealed in the end to be a villain who leaves Anna to die, rather than attempt to save her with a “act of true love”.And it’s in the idea of “an act of true love” that Frozen presents its other terrific deconstruction of Disney tropes. Everyone who’s ever seen Disney “Princess” movies knows the oft-repeated beat of the true love’s kiss, or a sacrifice for a true love, or blah blah true love blah. From Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, to Hercules and Princess and the Frog, the concept of saving someone by “loving” them has been used regularly. And in Frozen, this trope is played to and then undercut brilliantly. In the film, Anna is stricken with a frozen heart by Elsa, and Kristoff then rushes Anna back to Hans in the hopes that Hans can save Anna’s heart with an “act of true love”. The expectation by everyone (characters and audience both) is that Hans will kiss Anna and save her, but these expectations are dashed by the reveal that Hans is a villain, who callously leaves Anna to die so he can take her place in the royal family. At this point, the audience (and Anna) then assumes that Kristoff can provide this “act of true love” that Anna needs, but this is also misleading. In the end, the act of true love comes not from either love interest, but from Anna herself, when she steps in front of a sword meant for Elsa. This reverses Anna’s frozen heart, and shows Elsa that love is the key to reversing her icy magic.

This to me is a truly terrific moment, both in the context of the film and the Disney Heroine lineage. It’s great that this moment of true love is not between a prince and (prospective) princess, but between two sisters. And what’s even better is the fact that, rather than the protagonist being the recipient of such an act (a kiss to wake them, etc), Anna is the one performing the act of true love, by giving herself up to save her sister. It’s a single moment that becomes incredibly empowering, both by being a moment of active heroism for the heroine and for moving the focus from gaining the love of a man to retaining the love of a sister. Suffice it to say, I loved it.While plenty of time (and two songs) is spent of the subject of Anna and her beaus, in the end this is a story about the love between sisters, and how one saves the other with her love. Neither Kristoff nor Hans has to save either of the sisters in the end (indeed, Hans is a threat to both of them), and in the finale Anna dances with Elsa, not Kristoff. And the most powerful songs in the film are about Elsa’s struggle with her power, and duets contrasting Elsa’s fear with Anna’s hope for the best. The focus is on the girls, both of whom are, in different ways, culminations of the last twenty years’ worth of Disney Heroines. Elsa embodies the sort of struggle with identity and royal responsibility seen in characters like Mulan and Jasmine (expressed perfectly in the awesome “Let It Go”), while Anna has the sort of adventurous excitement of Rapunzel or Ariel. Both are great characters, who may want to be beautiful or get the guy but more than anything just want to have fun together as sisters, and to be themselves.

The more I think about Frozen, the more I think (and hope) that Anna and Elsa become the new standard on which all future Disney Heroines are based. After crafting such developed, balanced and real woman such as these two, any move back towards the likes of Sleeping Beauty would be a huge disappointment. But regardless of what happens next, we can at least be thankful (see what I did there?) for Frozen, which has already taken its place as one of my favorite Disney musicals, and one of my favorite movies of 2013.

3 Comments on “Reconstruction Through Deconstruction: Frozen and the New Disney Princess”

  1. shiran says:

    Happy you liked the movie, despite the distractions!

    Great analysis. I loved that the focus was on the love between two sisters than a run-of-the-mill romantic story. It’s not the first Disney movie to place importance on family (Mulan, hello) but it is the only one I can think of where the love interest is practically irrelevant. That leads to my one small complaint of the movie though, which is that a lot of time was spent developing Anna’s relationship with Kristoff when it was ultimately a subplot. It’s not that that part of the story dragged, but I’d have rather spend more time with Elsa as she learns to actually enjoy her powers for the first time. She’s the first heroine I can think of with absolutely no love interest whatsoever*, and seeing her accept and learn to love herself without romantic support is far and away the most refreshing part of the movie. I’d have gladly watched an hour of that alone.

    *correct me if I’m wrong; you know Disney better than me.

    • brendanfh says:

      Well, if you want to count Alice from Alice in Wonderland, then I’d guess she doesn’t have a love interest, but that’s the only character I can think of.

      I would argue that Anna’s relationship with Kristoff takes up the requisite amount of screentime, if only because the situation dictates that they be together for most of the movie. Also the more I think about it I’ve realized that all of the focus Anna does have on finding a guy (besides setting up the deconstruction of the Disney Princess trope) seems to stem from being pushed away by Elsa. When you listen to “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?”, “For the First Time in Forever” and “Love is an Open Door” in quick succession, it’s clear that Anna is just lonely and wants to find someone to pay attention to her and care for her the way that Elsa used to; and the lyrics in “Fixer Upper” also reflect the notion of embracing someone despite all their faults (which applies to Elsa as much as Kristoff). So I’d argue that even Anna’s interactions with Hans and Kristoff are just an extension of the conflict with Elsa.

      But I would absolutely agree that I’d want to see more of Elsa, especially when she has the best song in the whole movie.

      • shiran says:

        That’s a good point about Anna being desperate for companionship after Elsa starts to reject her. “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman” really nails that point, and it influences all of her decisions for the rest of the movie. Look at how easily she was able to let go of Hans to run after her sister – she barely even remembered he was there!

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