There has been a lot of debate circulating Tumblr lately about Disney’s upcoming film Frozen. A lot of this debate was sparked by the fact that the character design of the film’s heroine, Anna, is strikingly similar (read: identical) to that of Rapunzel in Tangled. Implications of lazy animation aside, the whole thing once again makes it startlingly clear that Disney, and most all media for that matter, makes stories about the same thin, wide eyed white women over and over again while missing out on any opportunities for diversity.
These are of course, valid accusations and a really important conversation. If these revelations are motivation for choosing to not see or support Frozen, they are perfectly legitimate. They are certainly a contributing factor for me. But I made the decision to not support Frozen before any character design was revealed. In short, the direction that Disney is taking this film is distasteful not just to their own record of creativity — (Say what you will, but I have great respect for the filmaking legacy of the studio. With all the critiques and caveats that media awareness brings, I’m still a fan. )— but to the source material that they are drawing from.
Frozen is, by Disney’s account, an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Snow Queen. When I first heard rumors and saw concept art for a Disney adaptation of the story, I was overjoyed. The film was originally in development as a traditional animated feature, which was appealing to this old school Disney and animation fan. But aside from that, The Snow Queen is one of my all time favorite fairy tales. It’s epic, melancholy, emotionally complex, and fantastically feminist.
Hans Christian Anderson’s oeuvre is not exactly female friendly. If you think the silencing and lack of agency implied in Disney’s The Little Mermaid is problematic, you haven’t read the original. Anderson so often writes of sadistic punishments for heroines’ slight, heavily gendered sins like vanity and sanctifies heroines for gendered virtues like silence and passivity, that many of his works demonstrate deep seated misogyny.
The Snow Queen is not one of those works, and it makes me wonder what sort of feminist tonic Anderson ingested before writing it. It tells the story of a young girl named Gerda who must embark on a journey to rescue her best friend, a boy named Kai, from both the clutches of the Snow Queen and the soul killing influence of a cursed shard of mirror that has become lodged in his heart.
That Gerda is the active and resourceful rescuer of her passive, male best friend is already a refreshing twist on mainstream western fairy tales, but the female power on display in the story is apparent in other ways. The Snow Queen is what I would call a Bechdel Test win. Female characters outnumber male characters to a startling degree. In fact, Kai is the only significant male character to speak of. Every other role in Gerda’s hero’s journey is fulfilled by a woman, girl or even an expressly female animal guide.
There is the Snow Queen herself, a formidable villain who’s power is treated with respect. There is Kai’s grandmother, who provides an essential catalyst to Gerda’s journey. There is the old witch woman with the enchanted garden who functions as a threshold guardian for Gerda while being characterized in a respectful manner that serves as a good subversion of the old witch trope. There is a female crow who knows how to sneak into palaces, a helpful princess who heads a side plot in which she will only marry a prince as intelligent as her (!!!), a robber and her daughter, head of a band of robbers who kidnap Gerda. The daughter is a spunky, knife wielding girl who befriends Gerda and aids her on her way. And finally, there are two women, the latter of whom helps Gerda understand the inherent power she has always had within her, a power that will ultimately save her friend, and the world.
Please excuse my while I go squee into a pillow over that roster of amazingly diverse female characters and the female agency on display in this story.
Well, now that I’m done with that, can we just take a minute to reflect on how many incredible female characters Disney had at their disposal. Expanded on with the studio’s signature storytelling skill, these ladies could have made up one of the most diverse, predominately female casts to ever grace children’s media. Not to mention the story’s Scandinavian setting offers a great opportunity for some racial diversity and indigenous representation, from Inuit to Sami and beyond.
So you can imagine that I was profoundly disappointed when I heard that Disney’s adaptation, now called Frozen (a Tangled-reminiscent decision that stinks of avoiding the need to market a film with a female centered title), had cut out every single one of these female characters save for Gerda, now called Anna, and the Snow Queen, who is now Anna’s sister. The women have been replaced with a cast of men, and Anna is now accompanied on her journey by a “Mountain Man” named Kristoff (edit: a helpful anon informed me that his name is not Hans, as I originally stated. Hans is in fact another male character and may be a factor in a possible love triangle for Anna). Kristoff is obviously intended to serve as romantic interest for the now aged up Anna, who as Gerda in the original, felt a love for her friend Kai that was strictly platonic. (Kai, by the way, has been dropped altogether.)
Now I know that Disney often drastically changes the plot of fairy tales that it adapts and I’ve never been one to complain about it. But most of these fairy tales have been simple stories with archetypal characters and a bare bones plot. Most of the changes made by Disney improve the original in terms of depth of narrative and character.
The Snow Queen is not that story. Disney’s changes not only appear to play down the emotional and narrative depth of the story, they violate many of its central themes.
That Disney feels it’s necessary to take a female driven, female dominated story and cut it down to one princess protagonist with a dashing male helper/love interest, is honestly disgusting and one of the most blatant examples of Hollywood’s lack of faith in women in recent memory.
It’s one of those clear examples in which everything that is wrong with our media’s approach to women and female agency is even more apparent, if only because we have a clear source to compare it to, and we can see what the studio chose to change.
A female protagonist who primarily goes it alone? Can’t have that. She needs a hot dude to be by her side so the audience doesn’t get bored by all the lady time, and also she needs someone to get with at the end. And on that note, let’s make her older and also a princess.
A bunch of women who, if expanded, could be diverse and original characters, friends, villains and comic relief? No way that would work. Let’s just replace them with some dudes and a talking snowman. We can’t have more than two women in a story. After all, every other fairy tale we’ve produced has only let women be a princess or a villain. Why break the pattern now? Why let girls know that they have inherent power no matter where they come from? Why let them know they have other options. And while we’re at it, we’ve got to make sure everyone is white.
So yeah, that’s why I’m boycotting Frozen.