Jan. 31st, 2014 07:37 am
bookgazing: (Default)
[personal profile] bookgazing posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna's sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter. - (source)

"Frozen", much like "Brave", is an animated tale that kicks out at the traditional narratives of female animated characters. And like "Brave", it is probably going to find itself criticised for not going far enough; for poking those narratives repeatedly but not quite punching them full in the face. For one thing, "Frozen" is another Disney animation about a princess, and while I love those stories, girls do lack alternative female characters in their long form animation, and the Disney studio in particular shows little interest in creating any other kind of heroine. The film rejects the dominant ‘love at first sight’ romantic narrative, but still buys into the idea that true love can be achieved after an action-packed day. It includes a dead mother who barely gets to speak before she’s killed off. And its animated cast is entirely white; Disney princess films do appear to be getting more monochromatic since "The Princess and the Frog".

All fair points. At the same time, "Frozen" still stole my heart. It's one of those stories I wish had been around when I was growing up, because it contains so many useful points about connection and emotional repression but manages to avoid squishing its resolution into the same old romantic love mould. I don’t mean to bag on romance – romantic love is important and should feature in stories, and romance as a genre gets a poor deal from many mainstream critics. At the same time, it is the dominant, positive narrative resolution, and that dominance excludes many other stories that people (me, it’s always all about me) need to hear. So bring on "Frozen" and with its central story of sisterly love, conflict, and more love. There are a lot of places where "Frozen" departs from the traditional Disney or fairy tale story as it drastically re-imagines the tale of "The Snow Queen", and in doing so it re-shapes the tales young girls are told about women.

At the core of "Frozen" is the story of sisters Anna and Elsa’s, and their isolation from one another. Following a magical accident when they are small, Elsa (the princess with powers) is kept away from the sister she adores and Anna’s memories of her sister’s magic are stripped. The loss of her sister causes Anna to lack serious emotional connection and love. Presumably her briefly sketched but loving parents are kept busy with royal duties and are mostly focused on dealing with Elsa’s condition. And then they die, which leaves her even more alone. "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?", the song story which takes us through Anna and Elsa’s lonely early years, will have you tearing up in the first ten minutes of the film.

Anna’s life of alone time causes her to fall in love quickly and as it turns out ill-advisedly, over the course of one night. She sets herself up to fall in love; the song "In The First Time in Forever" sees her dreaming of finding true love during the one day that the palace doors will be open. Usually, this kind of insta-love would be laughable, but the song "Love is an Open Door", which attends the sequence where Anna and Hans declare their love for each other, makes it easy to understand why characters like Anna and Hans (who claims his position as thirteenth in line to the throne has left him at the bottom of the brotherly pecking order) would fall so fast and cling to each other. By being so open, they’ve shown each other what companionship can be like. Coming from repressive backgrounds that is a revelation they are desperate to hang on to.

As the film progresses, it both underscores the foolishness of getting engaged when you don’t know anything about the other person and shows why previous emotional damage makes this sudden engagement seem like a perfectly reasonable idea to Anna. And while two characters disapprove of Anna’s choice, the narrative line also allows viewers to respect her. Even if she is making a foolhardy choice, she makes it because her heart has been met by the kind of freely given love and interest she’s always longed for. How could I not fall for a story that both criticises a troubling love story without criticising the young woman involved in that love story.

Of course, Elsa’s emotional storyline is the one I took the biggest dive into. Told that his daughter must learn to control her icy powers, the king sets out to help her do just that. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand the difference between ‘control’ and ‘repress’ and misses the clue given by magical trolls that ‘fear will be her greatest enemy’. If only Elsa had been a Jedi. So, Elsa is hidden from her sister, the doors to the castle are closed, and she’s given gloves and the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ to help her control her freezing ability. As a consequence, Elsa grows up just as you would expect: afraid, repressed, unable to open up, and at her first public outing the model of the restrained, aloof ‘ice queen’.

Stories about emotional repression and isolation – totes my bag.

Speaking of Elsa’s first outing at her coronation ceremony, I found the dress the animators put her in so interesting. I was really hoping that costume would play an active part in defining her character and it did!

Elsa wears a dark colour palette, reminiscent of traditional evil queen colours, and her outfit comes with a swoopy, evil queen cloak:

Elsa wears a green bodice and full skirt, with black full length sleeves and a high-colared, long purple cloak held at the neck with a pin. In this shot she has lost one glove but her other hand shows a blue glove that reaches well above the wrist

The queen from Snow White wears black and purple, with a long, high collared cloak pinned at the neck. Her neck and hair are covered in a black piece of clothing almost like a body stocking.

Sleeping Beauty's Malificent sports a huge black and purple cloak with arms that look almost like wings

Her outfit’s colour scheme and cloak could function as an outward manifestation of her belief that her magical nature is destructive (inside she sees herself as the evil, hurtful character). Or it could be that the film is faking its viewers out by associating Elsa by using a version of evil colouring. There’s a great post about kids identifying Asami from "Legend of Korra" as evil because of her dark makeup and tight fitting clothes. It’s possible that the film makers are aware of the way dress affects the perception of female characters and have kitted Elsa out in this costume to disguise the twist to Elsa's story. The film is built around a revisionist version of a fairy tale. And some of the trailers for the film seem to set Elsa up as a dangerous character who has to be stopped. So, it seems likely that the filmmakers wanted to create some uncertainty about what choices Elsa will make to add some extra drama and intrigue for viewers. Elsa's costuming plays its part in creating this uncertainty about her final character.

Elsa’s fashion choices also function as a symbol for her emotional repression. Her cloak is buttoned tightly at the neck, most of her skin is covered and her hair is rigorously coiffed, all of which combines to project the image of a self-contained woman. In contrast, Anna’s coronation outfit shows off her shoulders and arms, and her hair is arranged but also features a hair bow, which lightens the feel of the hairstyle. Her appearance is designed to reflect her freer nature, just as her sudden and fumbling entrance to the coronation ball does. Then there are the gloves. Although the audience knows Elsa’s gloves are worn for practical reasons (to keep her magic from appearing) they also function as yet another costuming symbol of her internal reserve, as they were given to her by her father when he set out that ‘conceal, don’t feel’ idea. Every time she and the viewer look at the gloves, they’re reminded that she needs to push her feelings down. Overall, Elsa's outfit serves as a visual symbol of containment and that word's links to repression. The notion of dress as a reflection of a closed down or free existence makes use of typical Western associations here.

Dress continues to play an important symbolic role as the film goes on. When Elsa finally lets her magic out, in a terrifying, surprise display, she runs to the North mountain to hide. Here she is finally able to release herself; set herself free from being ‘the good girl’ she always has to be. She starts to joyfully test her powers by creating the most rocking ice palace ever. While singing "Let it Go", a song all about release, she performs a dramatic costume change: undoing her cape and throwing it off into the air, letting her hair down, and changing the shape and colour of her dress. Now, she is dressed in an appropriate ice blue to match her icy powers.

Elsa in her light blue gown, with her blonde hair let down

Light blue is a colour more commonly associated with Disney heroines or good fairies than villainesses. In these scenes we see Elsa signal her acceptance of her powers by taking on the colours of winter, and the film's signal that no matter what comes Elsa may come out of this story on the side of good.

Belle from Beauty and the Beast in the blue dress she wears at the begining of the film

an image of the blue fairy from Pinnochio

Elsa also makes a fairly womanly hip sashay in her new sheath dress as she pulls out the line ‘That perfect girl is gone’. I have mixed feelings about that moment to be honest (lack of perfection in women associated with having sensuality, mhm). However, it’s only a small moment and the correlation of ‘good’ and ‘innocent’ never recurs in the film, so I'm going to take the song's advice and let it go..

Now, I loved the "Let It Go" scene, and I find dramatic makeovers adorable… if not especially truthful. Whatever they might preach, and however much confidence they build, do we really think Trinny and Susannah or Gok Wan are the answer to all of women’s problems? There are always other issues to deal with once the dress is on.

So, I was cheered to see the film acknowledge the limits of the freeing makeover. As stupendous as Elsa’s new look and ice castle may be, it’s not really as good as a place in her real castle with her sister. "Frozen" confronts the idea that although Elsa feels free now that she’s dropped her perfect, restrained act, she’s essentially had to accept the vision of herself as a monster, as a woman who deserves to live alone on top of a mountain, in order to feel that freedom. And part of the reason why she’s accepted that vision of herself is that she’s internalised her father’s problematic teachings about the need for her to repress her feelings. She can build a beautiful ice castle, but no one else can be permitted to live there. She can be happy and powerful, but only if she’s alone. Damn her father.

The perils of isolation (isolation, not alone time – Elsa is shown to want to be with her sister whenever she lets herself feel) runs through the film. In "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" Anna admits she is growing strange all alone, talking to the pictures on the wall. And eventually we see that her isolation has set her up for romantic manipulation. Over in her prison bedroom Meanwhile, Elsa’s isolation leaves her open to fear. With no sister around to adore and approve of her magic, she is left with parents who communicate their own fear to her by blocking everyone from her life. Fear leads to terrible, uncontrollable ice magic. And when the viewer meets Kristoff, his own isolation (no friends or human family) has made him a little strange too. His preoccupation with voicing the thoughts of his reindeer would seem even weirder were this a live action film. Kristoff’s friendless state doesn’t get much time (this is a film primarily about ladies and their issues), but it makes a nice third pointer to one of the film’s main themes.

This may all sound rather sad, but luckily this is a Disney film. When one of the main themes of a Disney movie is unhappy social isolation it gets to solve its characters' problems by *d’aww* slowly bringing people together!

Anna and Elsa stand next to each other on coronation day

The sister's conversation at the coronation ball was totally my favourite part of the film. Here, we see Anna awkwardly negotiate what feels like a first meeting with her grownup sister (the last time they met on screen was the day their parents boarded the fateful ship). It’s clear from Anna's bumbling conversation in this scene that she’s torn between wanting to grab hold of any possible connection with Elsa and worried that any attempt to do so may scare her sister off. Their parents haven't only damaged Elsa's ability to connect. Interestingly though, Anna has retained more of an ability to put her feelings out there - probably because she didn’t have to deal with her father’s lessons about repressing feelings. And later in the film it looks like she’s been surrounded by a caring team of servants even if they get little play in this film. She allows her hope that they can be re-united to grow back quickly, and I just loved seeing that clash between inborn hope and taught concern struggle within her. And I loved seeing Elsa fall back into the teasing friendship they had when they were children, letting her guard down for just a minute as she waves Anna off with her unsuitable dance partner.

It’s just fucking perfect is what it is.

As the film goes on, the sister’s relationship remains the central focus and is brought out in large and small gestures. Anna rides off to try and find her sister. One of the first things Elsa builds when she’s free of her responsibilities is the snowman she and Anna made when they were small. And, I might be making too big a leap here, but I thought the sister’s costuming was sometimes mirrored. Anna’s coronation outfit may be different in structure to Elsa’s but it's also darkly coloured. Her cloak doesn’t exactly match Elsa’s but it is purple (this could just show that they’re both linked to the royal line but I like to think it's a sister link too). And the outfit she wears to ride off to the mountain incorporates blue, which is the colour Elsa wears when she transforms her look with magic. Costuming connection or coincidence?

So, we've got sisters working through complex emotional issues - all this sounds great, right? Very different from many other Disney films, where the main relationship is a romantic one. WAIT, I haven’t even told you the best part yet. You’re going to pass out. Anna saves herself. Anna brings a new version of ‘an act of true love’ to the Disney canon by showing that ‘true love’ doesn’t have to be romantic. At the end of the film, Anna has been magically hurt and is told that an act of true love may be able to save her. Yet, she steps between Hans' blade and her sister rather than heading towards Kristoff who she believes can stop her from turning to ice with a kiss. Disney says sisterly love is love and just as real as romantic love. That's kind of revolutionary from what I've seen of the Disney back catalogue.

By committing an act of true love which thaws her ice enchanted heart, Anna’s actions also challenge the idea that the person who needs saving must be the object of true love, rather than the person displaying true love. Disney says we do not all have to be Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. We don't have to be the women who wait anymore.

And, ok, this is really important, Anna doesn’t die. She doesn’t nobly sacrifice herself for her sister, displaying "tragic but true love". Instead, her actions save her, she breaks the curse, and the sisters go on to live happy lives in each other’s company. Now, Disney says no ladies are dying today! While the eventual ending of the film may slouch slightly back towards more traditional fairy tale endings (Kristoff and Anna become a couple, after just one day – although damn I think viewers who enjoy explicitly consensual romantic relationships are going to love the last beats of their story) but COME ON a heroine who saves herself by taking on the active role in a true love bargain and doesn’t die is still kind of an amazing development. Added together, all the elements of this true love storyline make "Frozen" a film with a feminist feel.

Yep, everything is awesome. Ok, alright, there was one plot point I didn’t enjoy (besides the snowman, I’m just not the right audience for the snowman and his quest to know what summer feels like): the revelation that Hans is a *mwahaha* villain all along is pretty tired. And it gave an easy out in what could have been a much more interesting story about love, emotional need and making mistakes. I felt pretty much the same way I did after "When the Stars Go Blue" resolved its love triangle:

There are a lot of tragic love stories where fate and other people get in the way of romance. There are a lot of books where it turns out that a first romantic partner wasn’t so perfect and the hero or heroine flies into the arms of someone less awful. There aren’t very many stories where love goes wrong due to general human issues and the protagonist moves on to a new relationship, but is still able to say they loved that first person even if they would never go back to them.

Just for once, could we have a grown up conversation about girls in love? Could creators stop using “he was evil all along” as a way to resolve a dramatic love triangle? There’s no need to justify the fact that girls fall in and out of love, and got and do it all again with someone new. Often the first guy is just a regular guy who no longer floats that girl’s boat. It would be nice if we could see that reflected in media because it happens. A LOT.

Overall though "Frozen" feels like a quiet but firm step in the right direction in terms of narrative diversity for female characters. More, different stories! Now, if we could just get a more consistent push for other kinds of diversity in new films things would really be starting to look up.

Supplementary Material

Thoughts on Frozen

Other Reviews

Reading the End

Date: 2014-01-31 10:29 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
yay! As you probably know by now stories where girls and women get to be the subjects and not just the objects of love and other intense emotions are kind of a huge thing for me. Perfect sounds about right <3


Date: 2014-01-31 06:40 pm (UTC)
owlmoose: (Default)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
I almost skipped this movie because of the whitewashing issues, but I'm really glad I didn't, because I agree with everything you love about it.

The things you say about Elsa living in fear and isolation reminds me of the conversation I had with my husband about Elsa's story being a metaphor for living with depression -- isolating yourself from others because you're afraid they would reject you if you knew them, and from fear of hurting other people. I think it works really well on that level, too.

Date: 2014-02-02 04:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
You know what I really really liked about the end of this film? I liked it that the film made me think that even if Kristoff had gotten to Anna, and kissed her, it wouldn't have been the necessary act of true love. They don't know each other, you know? It had to be for Elsa, because Anna really does love her sister.

Also, "that perfect girl is gone" -- that part, that line, I really liked. To me it played more like renouncing this idea that girls get socialized into, that they have to be good and sweet and nice all the time, and repress what they are. Elsa's been doing that to the max, so I liked it that she renounced it so explicitly.

ANYWAY yes I really loved this film. I watched it again with my sister and brother-in-law, and we all loved it.

Date: 2014-03-08 01:36 pm (UTC)
mechanon: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mechanon
I really thought they were going to make the happy ending Kristof/Elsa but then chickened out half way through. Kristof is fascinated with Elsa during the first troll scene, obsessed with her castle and then suddenly in love with Anna during 'He's a bit of a fixer-upper'.

I kind of liked that there wasn't a romantic happy ending for Elsa but think I would have preferred the film overall is Hans hadn't been evil-all-along and left in the same position Kristof was where his kiss wouldn't have worked because the didn't know each other well enough.


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