Why the Feminist Controversy Over Frozen Misses the Point

Frozen's Anna and Elsa
© Disney

I’ve seen a lot of criticism from feminists in many corners of the web and social media leading up to the release of Frozen. Their gripes range from a knee-jerk aversion to Disney’s princess culture in general to the liberties taken with the source material–Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen–to outrage when the studio’s animation supervisor was quoted as saying that animating female characters is hard because you have to make them “pretty.”

I resisted the temptation to comment until now since I hadn’t yet seen the film, and though the early footage and previews seemed to discount these charges as wildly reactionary and having little to do with the actual product itself, I wanted to be sure I hadn’t been taken in by my own anticipation and the formidable powers of Disney’s PR machine.

Now that I have seen it, I believe it’s even more important to confront these accusations head on, because not only are they way off base, they distract from the film’s true message and may actually be detrimental to the promotion of feminism in Hollywood. I believe this because Frozen may just be the most feminist animated film Disney has ever produced. Anyone who supports the depiction of strong, independent women in the media, not to mention the positive representation of sororal bonds, ought to be championing it, not organizing a boycott.

It’s true that Disney has a princess dilemma. The consumer product driven phenomenon is extremely popular and lucrative, yet its detractors are becoming increasingly vocal and demanding of better role models. (I’ve personally tried to stem the tide of princess culture in our house, and I’m here to tell you it’s a constant struggle.) Disney’s response to the backlash has been mixed. At the same time the studio is promoting the resurgence of The Little Mermaid, with its archaic message of “change yourself for your man,” we also get a film like Brave, which actively avoids those tropes and features a princess who dreams of independence rather than the love of a prince. And then that progress was undermined with the infamous slimmed-down, glammed-up redesign of Merida. Even Tangled, with its capable, headstrong version of Rapunzel, left the final heroic act to her leading man. Knowing the studio’s history, you could be forgiven for expecting Frozen to follow suit. But it doesn’t. Instead, it cleverly tweaks the formula, all the while acknowledging that it is a formula.

Frozen directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. © Disney

Without going into too many spoilers, let’s just say that Frozen‘s climax does not involve a man coming to the rescue of a starry-eyed princess. The princesses at the center of this story–sisters Elsa and Anna–are defined by their unique upbringing and estranged relationship to one another, not by the men in their lives. They are fully fleshed out characters with a wide spectrum of human qualities including love, fear, loneliness, anger, frustration, bravery, and vulnerability. What drives the film is Anna’s longing to connect with her sister and Elsa’s struggle to protect Anna by keeping her distance. The stakes couldn’t be higher for them. Romantic love is an aside, a subplot; the men are supporting players in this love story between two sisters. I have no problem with them being role models for my daughters.

That said, there’s no getting around the fact that those who were hoping for an animated adaptation of The Snow Queen are going to be disappointed. There is a legitimate conversation to be had over what happened between the page and the screen and whether Disney should even mention the connection to the book in the credits. That’s not what I’m talking about, though.

Let’s dispense with the notion that the finished film is anything other than an original work influenced by, not based on, Andersen’s story. Rather than focusing on what it doesn’t do or doesn’t have, look at what it does do (promote positive female role models and relationships) and does have (fascinating, three-dimensional characters). Frozen doesn’t purport to be a faithful adaptation. In case that wasn’t already obvious, the different title should make it crystal clear. (And yet those same critics have complained about the title change too.) As Elsa sings in her defiant anthem, let it go.

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Elsa has some good advice for critics. © Disney

Finally, we come to the whole “pretty” controversy. Let’s take a look at the actual quote from Disney animation supervisor Lino DiSalvo, as reported by Fan Voice (I’d link to the article, but it is no longer available on the site):

Historically speaking, animating female characters are [sic] really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very… you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to… you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.

A few things about that quote spring to mind. First off, I was at the same press event where this quote was given, although I was in a different group so I didn’t hear DiSalvo say it (the studio divided everyone into groups and rotated us through the various departments). When it was our turn to interview him and two of the lead animators who worked on the film (one of them a woman), DiSalvo spoke about the extensive research that goes into creating each character, how they brought in the actors and acting coaches and discussed at length where the characters were coming from and going to. He made it clear that the inner lives of these characters were just as important as how they looked.

“The ultimate goal at the end of the day was, is always, obviously, honest, truthful, believable performances,” DiSalvo told my group. “And once we kind of got our hands on the script and we realized how well-written and how weighty the characters were and how rich the depth of them [was], we knew that we had to elevate our game.”

Later, he talked about what he called “shape language” and how the animators strove to make each character unique to any other Disney character. There wasn’t any distinction between the degree of difficulty in drawing females or males, he lumped them all together.

“If she was mad or sad or excited or angry–from everything that we learned with the acting coach and the actors coming in and doing our homework–how does that funnel into the actual shape language of the characters?” he said. “And the idea is that when the characters are in a scene together, if you have two characters sharing an angry scene or if there’s a sad emotion involved, that each character still has their own sad shape.”

He also mentioned in our interview that there were as many as 70 animators working on the film at one time. When you have that many artists, each with his or her own style, it can be a difficult task to keep the characters consistent through a wide range of actions and emotions. That’s why they create model sheets like the one below.

Character designs for Frozen's Elsa
Elsa shows a range of emotions. © Disney

If you were predisposed to be offended, you could take these comments to mean that Disney as a company is overly concerned with the attractiveness of its heroines. I don’t think that’s what he was saying at all. I interpret his use of the word pretty to mean “on model,” in other words, keeping the character looking like the original character design. In that context it becomes an entirely innocuous quote. Of course, that’s not the kind of statement that goes viral now, is it?

In response to the heat this quote generated, a spokesman for Disney later told The Wrap:

These comments were recklessly taken out of context. As part of a roundtable discussion, the animator was describing some technical aspects of CG animation and not making a general comment on animating females versus males or other characters.

I have one last thing to say about this, and then we can all move on with our lives. When we get incensed that Disney princesses are too pretty or too white or look too much like the last Disney princess, aren’t we really saying that aesthetics are more worthy of concern than any other aspect of a character? Doesn’t it matter more how they are written and depicted within the context of the story? To focus solely on appearance without considering what’s beneath the polished exterior isn’t just shallow, it’s hypocritical. Anna and Elsa are so much more than pretty faces.

I would urge those who read some of the same feisty reactions I did to keep an open mind about Frozen. I waited until I saw the movie to see if the complaints were legitimate, but you don’t have to take my word for it. See it for yourself when it opens Thanksgiving weekend and draw (see what I did there?) your own conclusions.