Possibly more than any other signifier, the true mark of a Millennial woman is having grown up with the onslaught of Disney’s coterie of princesses. Today it is commonplace to see these princesses being marketed to young girls, but it wasn’t until 1989, when The Little Mermaid and its heroine Ariel hit theaters that things really took off.
The Princess Invasion was persistent, with five movies released in the span of nine years. Ariel was followed by Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), who was followed by Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992), who was followed by Pocohontas (Pocohontas, 1995), who was followed by Mulan (Mulan, 1998). Disney raked in mounds and mounds of cash via merchandising, Broadway adaptations and Top 40 singles. Who could have guessed that those simple seeds planted in the soprano trill of Snow White (1939) would go on to influence a generation born half a century later? Girls, it turned out, really liked princesses.
If you are a young woman today, you probably remember dissecting which princess, exactly, was “yours.” The one that you were most fond of, the one who possibly looked most like you, or the one you just thought had the most interesting story. Mine was Belle, because I thought she was beautiful, and she was brunette, and she was smart, and bookish, and fiesty. I was certainly brunette and bookish, and I wanted to think of myself as smart and fiesty. Plus, how can you beat falling in love with a beast for good storytelling?
When I recently rewatched Beauty and the Beast, I was once again charmed by Belle’s pluckiness and bookishness, the lush animation, the sweeping songs. But I suddenly felt disgusted by the core romance. As a little girl I truly believed that love should conquer all, but seeing a petulant, abusive beast at the center of it all a couple decades later made me question my original take on the film, and, in fact, the core of all the Disney princess films.
The thrust of these stories is always romance, probably because love stories are the easiest to tell. There is a clear and definable arc. Meet a boy, encounter obstacle, sing some songs, overcome obstacle, sings some more songs. While it’s not a mistake, per se, to have movies about girls centered around romance, Disney princess tales are invariably about that moment when a girl falls in love. By seeing this message repeated over and over and over again, one gets the sense that falling in love is the only thing that matters in a girl’s life.
Disney’s most recent princess outings (The Princess and the Frog, Tangled), while mostly charming and clever overall, still left me wincing in parts, simply because these scripts were so clearly written by full-grown men for an audience of little girls. The movies were entertaining, but there was ultimately a flatness to their heroines, a nagging sense that they were somewhat shapeless. And there it was: the love story, front and center once again. Frozen, unlike every other Disney movie, was written and directed by a woman, Jennifer Lee (who penned Wreck-It Ralph), and I would argue that this difference is key to distinguishing it as a truly modern fairy tale within the House of Mouse.
(An aside: I discount Brave here because, although it may be cited as the original subversion of the “princess” stereotype, it was actually created by Pixar, outside of the alchemical spell that comes from being based on fairy tales and historical yarns per the Disney tradition. Although Merida is currently at a Disney theme park near you, she is purely Pixar at heart, for better or worse.)
A cynical person might look at the poster for Frozen and see a tired retread of this same worn material, particularly since the princesses are very obviously cut from the same Disney mold—wide eyes, impish grins, perfect hair, impossible figures. An even more cynical person might look at the poster and wonder if Disney simply doubled-down on the princess motif to double the merchandise sales. And while that’s likely true to a certain extent (after I saw it, girls who had attended my screening were casting themselves as either Elsa or Anna in the bathroom), the one thing that Disney can point to as its ace in the hole is thatFrozenhappens to be very, very good, and, perhaps even better: it is very, very good for girls.
I kept turning Frozen over in my brain after watching it, and I tried to figure out why it had resonated with me so deeply. The songs stayed with me, for one thing: insanely catchy, witty and somewhat subversive, they hooked me instantly, like only the best musical numbers can. Which makes sense as Robert Lopez, the genius behind the songbooks for The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, had crafted them with his wife, Kristen. The settings were gorgeous as well: a palette of deep purple, cool blue, glowing magenta and cool teal permeate the movie’s stunning, ice-covered kingdom. It manages to be funny, too, without being winking or insipid. (Olaf, a snowman built by Anna and Elsa as young girls and then magically brought to life later on by Elsa, makes for a genuinely wonderful sidekick with all of his warm, childish naivete.) All of these elements, though, wouldn’t have connected with me nearly as much if the movie didn’t have a heart. Which it does: a great, big, hulking one that touched me down to my core.
Everything in the story comes back to the theme of isolation, and the problems we create when we shut ourselves out from the world. Elsa (Idina Menzel) was born with witchy, wintry powers that allow her to create ice and snow out of thin air. Yet she can’t control her abilities fully: like a Disney-fied Hulk, they manifest whenever she is feeling strong emotions, like fear or anxiety. During childhood, she almost accidentally kills her bubbly, adventurous sister Anna (Kristen Bell) during a late-night game of play. As a result, her concerned parents tell Elsa that she must get a hold on her abilities and shut her in her room until she is able to do so. But the memory of the event haunts her, and the fear of it happening again renders her incapable. She hides in her room for years, even when her uncomprehending sister begs her to come out and play.
After their parents are killed in a convenient boating accident, Elsa is to take the throne, which means the castle doors will open for the first time in over a decade. Anna is overjoyed, running around the castle like an excitable puppy, having been shunned by her sister for almost all of her life and desperate for company. But Elsa is petrified. If anyone finds out her secret, she fears she will be made an outcast, despite her regal lineage. Worse, a monster.
There is a refrain Elsa repeats to herself over and over again: “Be a good girl.” The kind of refrain that women have heard since the dawn of time. “Be a good girl and don’t show your true emotions,” or, “Be a good girl and don’t think too hard,” or, “Be a good girl and don’t talk back.” To see this acknowledgement of the harmful language that has repressed women for centuries in a movie—not just a movie, but a movie for little girls—is not only impressive, but also important.
Elsa’s repression of her powers for the sake of being a “good girl” never allows her to fully grasp her abilities and so, when she gets into a fight with her sister in the middle of her coronation ball, her anger reveals her true nature to the entire kingdom. Overwhelmed and afraid, she flees to the top of a mountain and creates a stunning ice castle out of thin air. Elsa is elated to be alone and finally free to do as she pleases, but has unknowingly sparked an eternal winter back in the town.
There is a bit of Virginia Woolf in her, literature’s original ice queen, so isolated, so haunted, so longing to be understood. Elsa’s journey up the mountain, the creation of her magnificent cathedral of ice, her exultant song “Let It Go”—all could be seen as a Disneyfied version of Woolf: “Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.”
If Elsa is the Virginia Woolf of Frozen, then we can call Anna its Dorothy Parker: a party girl who is witty, clumsy, a little dorky, and eager to find love and excitement. Most importantly, Anna is loyal to Elsa, despite her sister’s years of apparent indifference, and is determined to talk it out. As she makes her way up the mountain, she meets her band of brothers, so to speak: the prickly ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad). Despite everything, Anna believes that her sister will come back with her and reverse the spell, and that belief keeps her moving up the mountain.
There are two love stories in the film, and I won’t spoil either of them here. The movie does acknowledge that boys are cute and fun and they can be great partners, but there is a firm message that a romantic partner should neverdefine who you are as a person and that no relationship is a magic bullet to happiness.
In the end, what is so wonderful for someone like me, having grown up with Disney’s princesses, is that Anna and Elsa are so different but yet still so strong and admirable in their respective ways. Anna is the spunky, irrepressible extrovert looking for adventure, while Elsa is the protective, steadfast introvert looking for her own peace of mind. Neither feels formulaic, they feel like real people you might actually know—fully formed, with flaws, strengths, and needs that go beyond trite romance. The sisters are not looking for true love or the throne, they are looking for each other. I feel like all along, I was looking for them.
Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast host. She currently freelances and works on her novel in New York.