Feminism and Disney’s Frozen

I’ve seen Disney’s latest film Frozen with my kids twice now, and I’m rather pleased with the progress they have made in presenting realistic female characters.

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Elsa and Anna

Disney doesn’t exactly have a history of being socially progressive. Most of their films, especially from the earlier days, are filled with racist caricatures.
Aside from Mickey Mouse, Disney’s most well-known films are their Disney princesses. Most of the early ones aren’t exactly independent women.

  • Snow White: She does housekeeping for a household of dwarves before falling into a coma, until some passing prince gives her a kiss.
  • Sleeping Beauty: Aurora sleeps through a large part of the movie, until some adventurous prince comes to rescue her.
  • Cinderella: A house slave, who meets a prince who can’t remember what she looks like, but has one of her shoes.
  • The Little Mermaid: Ariel literally changes who she is, giving up her precious voice in order to be closer to her prince.
  • Beauty and the Beast: Belle domesticates her prince, because we can’t have someone with beastly behaviour.
  • Aladdin: Most of the plot revolves around who Jasmine is allowed to marry.
  • Pocahontas: the colonization of the New World, where a romantic involvement is created between the historic figures of Pocahontas and John Smith.

Some of the more recent films are better, in particular Tangled and Brave. But even there, there are problems. In Brave, the main disagreement and inciting incident revolves around Merida’s choice in marriage. While she remains single, it is a primary source of conflict in the film.

With two young daughters, many of these films are problematic, not the least of which is their cultural influence. A few of these films I’ve never shown my kids, and probably won’t until they’re much older.

Frozen

The latest Disney film, Frozen, really ups the game. While there are other important characters, the movie is really about the relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna.

Spoilers ahead

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Tangled

As the parent of a two year old, I don’t often get the chance to head out to the movies. Occasionally I get the chance when the little one is at Grandma and Grandpa’s, but today we took her out to see Tangled.

Tangled, as you’re likely aware, returns back to the Disney Fairy Tale stories, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). As such, Tangled tells the story of Rapunzel, most famously collected in the Grimm Fairy Tales.

While Disney has certainly left its mouse-prints on the story, I was pleased to see so much of the original fairy tale remaining. The tale as told by the Grimm brothers certainly emphasizes the overprotectiveness of the parental figure, keeping the girl locked away in a tower. When the male lead of Tangled, Flynn climbs the tower a second time to rescue her near the climax of the film, he finds Rapunzel held captive by the witch Gothel. While the magical powers of Rapunzel’s hair are not in the original source material, the healing powers they possess was originally found in Rapunzel’s tears.

While there was some controversy in changing the film’s title from Rapunzel to Tangled, I think it works quite well. As Disney spokespeople have noted, this is an adaptation of the source material, and the film does prominently feature Flynn Rider in addition to Rapunzel. While the original tale does include a male prince, the role has been significantly expanded in this retelling, and changed from that of a prince to a thief. This change works quite well for the movie, especially as it reverses the trend of earlier Disney films, where a prince comes to rescue the helpless female. While Rapunzel appears to be a helpless girl, and this is certainly the reason her “mother” claims that she needs to stay in the tower, she ends up rescuing Flynn more often than the reverse.

I was pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the film’s animation, especially when considering Rapunzel’s long flowing hair. The film does not attempt photorealism, and instead aims for a very happy medium between CGI and traditional hand-drawn cell shading animation. Movement was more fluid and natural. This film has returned to Disney’s roots, both in narrative capacity, and visual style, while continuing to innovate in new areas.

I was a little concerned about bringing my daughter to see the movie. The trailer is really action-oriented, and filled with suspense. Two year olds are impressionable, and she can get upset about Dora the Explorer getting stuck on an iceberg. Of course, it turns out that Disney cut the trailer out of all the high intensity action scenes, which are spread out through the movie, allowing us to ease through them. Tangled is far less dark than Disney’s earlier movies, such as Snow White. You really can see the difference 73 years makes. Disney should be proud of Tangled. It hits all the right points, and maintains the classical traditions of their storytelling.