Or, Why Do Little Girls have to Choose Between Being Good and Being Powerful?
I was never much for Disney princesses growing up. None of them ever spoke to me. I was more into characters like Simba from Lion King. I suppose, for whatever reason, I was more concerned with the personality and journey of the character than their gender. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine, Ariel…none of them did anything for me. I don’t even remember thinking they were particularly pretty. I liked Megara from Hercules a little, but I was more about Pegasus, Hercules, and Hades in that movie. The complex characters with clear goals and inner journeys were always the ones who appealed to me. (And animals. Being an animal makes a big difference to me.)
I can only think of one work that I loved as a child where the female characters were my favorites – Avatar: The Last Airbender. Katara and Azula were my goddesses, and I loved Mai, Ty Lee, Toph, and Suki. (I didn’t care for Yue, though I appreciate her a lot now. She was too soft and weepy in my eyes.) They’re still some of my favorite characters ever. So I did have female characters to look up to growing up, but they weren’t Disney. And the story wasn’t about them. They were real, complex people, but they were there to support the story, not the reason the story was happening. But most importantly, they were on a random little show (popular, but still not terribly culturally influential) on Nickelodeon, not in one of the iconic movies about and for girls by the company that helps define American, and much of Western, culture. Not one of the movies that functions as a vessel to teach girls about how to be a girl and provides them with the people they’re going to look up to and aspire to be like throughout their childhoods and probably into adulthood.
I wasn’t concerned with that as a child. All I knew was that I didn’t care about the same characters most other girls did and I wanted to be a waterbender like Katara, or an insidiously powerful acrobat like Ty Lee, or a commanding princess who could get anything she wanted like Azula.
I was 17 when Frozen the movie first came out. I wasn’t a little girl, but I was definitely a girl. I had no idea what I was doing with myself and I felt very isolated and I didn’t know who or what I wanted to be. Going into the theater, I didn’t know what it was about – just that it involved a snowman, a reindeer, and a winter. I didn’t know it was a princess movie or even that it involved humans. (Whether something involves humans is of little importance to me.)
Watching the first part of the movie, I was charmed by Elsa and Anna like everyone else. I thought Elsa’s powers were pretty. I was a little surprised at Elsa having that much power, a small girl, in a movie like this, but I didn’t think very hard about it or try to pinpoint why.
One of the moments that sticks in my mind from my first viewing is the first moment we see adult Anna, towards the end of Do You Wanna Build a Snowman. She walks into the frame, grown up, smiling, as a soft, pretty, subtly inspiring piano melody plays. I’m not sure what it was about that particular moment that struck me, but I found myself thinking she was so, so beautiful, so hopeful, so excited about life. I felt so warm towards her in a way that I don’t remember ever feeling about any other character. I tend to focus on Elsa more, because she’s more my kind of character, but in truth Anna was deeply important to me too, and still is. I felt sort of maternal towards her, and something about it made me almost want to cry.
I kept feeling that way through For the First Time in Forever. She was so hopeful and youthful, so eager to live her life. I was a little shocked when Anna sang “don’t know if I’m elated or gassy” – Disney acknowledging that women have bodily functions?! Where did that come from? I was really happy about that. She was so real in that way. Drooling, dreaming about boys while also stuffing her face with chocolate, imagining she was one of the women in the paintings. Dancing and running and jumping, moving freely and gracefully but also clumsily. In tune with her body, unafraid to do whatever she pleased with it, but also not perfect with it. Kristen Bell sounded so sweet and beautiful and happy to be alive. I think she’s underrated as a singer.
And then we cut to adult Elsa. I was surprised by how husky her voice was, and it immediately made me feel like there was a deep power to Elsa. Her quiet, intense singing combined with Anna’s bell-like (ha, get it?) joy touched something deep inside me, though I didn’t know what.
Then Let It Go happened. When Elsa started quietly brooding about her failure to do what her parents told her and how alone she was now, I figured that was all the song was going to be. When she sang “Well now they know” and let her glove fly away, I thought we were about to enter a remorseful chorus about what a failure she was and how she’d ruined her life and it was all her fault. And I wasn’t dreading that. It was just where I assumed we were headed. That would be the typical path.
When she turned around, smiled, made a small swirl of ice and snow and sang the simple words “Let it go,” it literally felt like a light bulb turned on in my head. Elsa had gone in the opposite direction from what I was expecting, and I instantly understood. Of course. She wasn’t stuck in her depression and loneliness anymore – she wasn’t trapped in her room. She had no one to pretend for, no one to protect. And she’s immensely powerful. *She* doesn’t need any protection alone up there. So the feelings of loss were there; that’s what comes with letting yourself feel for the first time since you were a small child, having lost your parents and now lost everything and everyone you’d ever known. But now, she could let go of that (pun partially intended). I still feel chills watching her send her power out into the world, fearlessly running up that staircase, knowing without a doubt that she can continue it as far as she wants to go, stomping on the ground and creating a huge snowflake with a thunderous smash. Rising up in the center of this huge structure, a tiny figure in control of it all. And then she threw her crown away, rejecting the rules and expectations that had been forced upon her. She let her hair out of its tightly restrained style and sensuously ran her hand over it, ice-burned off the restrictive clothes she’d been required to wear as Queen, and instead gave herself a light, clingy yet comfortable-looking dress that showed off her body, and a cape to make sure everyone knew how much power she had. She was still a Queen, but she was now the queen of herself, no more and no less.
This was the opposite of the song I was expecting. She didn’t crumple in despair. She didn’t sentence herself to living in a cave. She certainly didn’t think, “I have nothing to live for now, maybe I should just kill myself.” She built herself a palace that a hundred men couldn’t build, as the song Frozen Heart echoes in the movie. She raised herself up to the top of the tallest mountain. She belted out, her voice fragile yet transcendent in its power (hail Queen Idina). She reveled in her power and her body, its movements, its feeling, its appearance. She no longer moved like a girl. She now moved more like a woman. She wasn’t controlled and graceful with every step, but she was powerful with every step. She showed aggression with her stomping and forcefully flinging ice into the air, throwing her crown away. She showed how easy it was for her as she built a huge palace in minutes. She showed the strength and the delicacy of her powers with the thick turrets and the intricate chandelier. She didn’t worry about making her movements feminine, but when she was in the dress that she made for herself, the one that came straight from within her and thus represented her better than any other piece of clothing could, she let her hips move like a woman’s. She didn’t sexualize herself, but she didn’t desexualize herself. She just was. She was a full, complex human being, and she was pure joy and power.
Just these two songs probably would have done it for me. I was hooked on the sisters, especially Elsa – she’s more my kind of character (I like the dark and sexy ones). But I wasn’t at all expecting the ultimate thesis of the movie, which is that true love can be a platonic relationship between two women. Romance and sex and men don’t have to be involved. The love two women hold for each other can be just as strong. Anna and Elsa sacrifice themselves for each other over and over again. Their stories revolve around each other, and in the end, it’s the love between them that saves not only their lives, but their whole queendom. And not only did the act of true love not need to involve a man, but it was in opposition to two men – Anna defended her sister from Hans while also rejecting the love she shared with Kristoff in favor of her love for Elsa.
Seeing something like this in anything would have been great, but this was Disney. One of the greatest upholders of social norms. The major corporation that has, for almost a century, reflected and shaped our cultural attitudes. If Disney of all companies was making a movie about two powerful, complex women whose relationship is the focus of the story, who actively reject men in favor of each other, what did this mean for our culture? It meant that we had come very, very far since The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, just a couple decades before. Anna and Elsa didn’t have to give up their voices to achieve what they wanted. They didn’t fall in love with and forgive men who abused them. The story had nothing to do with how physically attractive either of them were. A brief speculation from one of the attendants of the ball about the beauty of the princesses is all there is, and it’s immediately contradicted by the narrative showing us Anna asleep in a very non-feminine position, hair wild and tangled, drooling. But at the same time, the narrative doesn’t tell us that Anna and Elsa are ugly. When the men start objectifying the women for their attractiveness, the narrative quickly shuts them up by pointing out that they’re people just like everyone else. They’re not always perfect and beautiful, but that also doesn’t mean they’re not attractive.
Later, I found a clip of Let It Go on youtube, and I watched it countless times. When I was alone in the house, and I started singing Let It Go to myself, I would burst into tears, because I felt what Elsa felt. That loss, that rejection from the world, but also the relief of accepting that you will never be what the world wants you to be. But also, the willingness to move forward with that knowledge, to live your life as you and to see where it takes you, since living your life as what society wants you to be has failed. I wasn’t ready to fully internalize that message and start living by it, or even trying to live by it, but it put that seed in my head. It gave me Elsa’s voice, Idina’s voice, echoing in the back of my mind, singing about her power. Celebrating it.
And this was our culture as a whole supporting that. Of course people on Fox and the like complained about the movie being anti-man and showing that men are either stupid or evil. (Really, who got the idea that Kristoff is stupid? He’s the one who guides Anna through the woods and he’s often the One Sane Man. But even besides that, yes boys, feels pretty rotten to have your whole sex reduced to a false dichotomy, doesn’t it?) But to me, that was a good thing. It showed that Disney of all things was pushing boundaries. If no one was offended by it, it wouldn’t be revolutionary. And amidst that, Frozen was the most successful animated movie of all time. I pretty much couldn’t leave the house without seeing a little girl, or even the occasional boy, with some Frozen merchandise. Those little girls were internalizing the messages that Elsa and Anna sent: You are strong. You are complicated. You are allowed to be imperfect. Your love doesn’t have to be romantic to be true. The things that others fear about you are often the best parts of you. The boys were learning these things about women, too, and sometimes identifying with them the way that I identified with male characters as a child. They were all receiving those messages, and so was I. I was much older than them, already through a lot of my development, but I still idolized powerful female characters just as much.
And that’s the thing about me, personally. I’ve never liked female characters for their beauty or their kindness or their dutifulness. I have always liked the ones who are powerful. And that’s where it stops. All I want in a female character is power. That’s why Azula was up there with Katara for me, and ultimately a little more inspiring to me than Katara was. I didn’t care that Azula was evil. At least she was in charge of herself. At least she had the power to command people and get what she wanted, and she never, ever apologized for it. Katara and Toph and Suki, the good female characters, were similar, but they routinely lost some of that power due to the accidental misogyny that was still prevalent in that show. They were strong while being kind, but their kindness could also be a weakness. That was never the case for Azula. Azula never compromised her own goals for the sake of anyone else. She never had to apologize for her anger and aggression or for shutting people out, like Katara and Toph did. She was never reduced to somebody’s girlfriend, like Suki and Katara were. She was in charge of her own story, she knew what she wanted, she had the power to overcome almost anyone, she knew she was powerful and reveled in it, she commanded respect from others, and she never let a man control her.
But she was evil. Her unyielding, unapologetic determination and power came at the cost of her morals. She never apologized or hated herself for losing her temper because she was a bad person, not because she accepted herself as a flawed human who’s allowed to defend herself or call other people out when they’re being jerks to her.
And in a choice between being good and being in charge of yourself, when I let go of my intellectual morals, I will always choose to be in charge of myself. If someone wants to take away my power, then they don’t deserve my kindness. That was the choice I, and every other girl, was presented with as a child. Be kind or be powerful.
The movie didn’t make Elsa choose – it let her be both. The musical adaptation made her choose.
Everything that the movie had done, every message it had sent to us girls and women, was negated. Let It Go is now disproven – now, after singing “let the storm rage on” in the first act, Elsa then sings “[what if when I’m gone] the storm rages on?” She realizes that empowerment is actually evil. Letting yourself be free and wild only feels like a good idea in the moment. Then the men come to take back control of you, marching up to your castle with their murderous weapons, to put you back in your cage, and you remember that you’ve been a bad girl and need to pay. And of course, she sings this while contemplating suicide – because she did a bad thing, so she should probably die, right?
The Duke now makes a long, pointed speech to Elsa about her being the most beautiful queen he has ever seen, describing how ugly other female royals he’s met have been. Now, the show makes sure that we know our heroines have the most important trait for a female character – beauty.
They made Elsa a one-dimensional mess of self-loathing and poor judgement. She’s wrong to sing Let It Go, because actually, you shouldn’t let the storm rage on. They directed Caissie to speak in a breathy voice, not to stand too straight, not to face people head on too often. Whereas movie Elsa spoke with an assured power, no matter where she was in her journey, and stood straight and tall and looked people in the eye, stage Elsa is a timid mouse. She doesn’t seem to believe in her power as queen, while movie Elsa always remembered that she was queen. They took away her sense of humor. She’s no longer mischievous. She doesn’t giggle and send Anna off to dance with the Duke with a twinkle in her eye. Instead, she stands there, flustered by a man speaking to her, and it’s Anna who cleverly saves Elsa from the Duke’s annoying comments. Which is ironic, because, in the stage show, Anna then becomes the stupid one who needs endless rescuing as soon as Kristoff shows up to put her on a leash and drag her to her beloved sister, who she keeps forgetting about in favor of dancing naked for no apparent reason.
Years later, watching the movie, I still feel those feelings I had the first time. The adoration for the sisters and their relationship and the way the men are portrayed. In this world, it’s important to let girls know that they can’t trust every man they meet, that their loyalties need to lie with each other, first and foremost, and that they can and should trust themselves and their own power.
We won’t be hearing any men complaining about the stage show. They’ll probably see it as an improvement.
The saddest part of all this is that so many women like this new version better. Specifically, that they think Elsa is more relatable now. Because most adult women can relate to feeling suicidal guilt over letting themselves have something of their own.
But little girls can’t relate to that. They haven’t had time to fully internalize the messages of our culture. The movie showed them, while they were still young and developing their sense of self and understanding of the world, that they could be real, complex people and they could have bodily functions and they could use their bodies however they wanted. The stage show stops that in its tracks.
It’s like the creators of the movie were trying to send a completely different message than the one most people got. It’s like they noticed that everyone was seeing it as a female empowerment story, when what they meant to show us was a story about “family.” I’m increasingly noticing how often “family” is used to mean that women aren’t important, it’s the husbands/fathers who are important. And now the word “family” is what is beat into our heads in the Frozen adaptation. Not the word “sister.” “Family.”
I suppose I got complacent over the Obama years. I was 12 when his administration took over. Now, at 21, the real world has come crashing back in. I used to think Obama’s election was an infallible sign of progress. Now I think it was more along the lines of a lucky coincidence. Things clearly haven’t actually changed. We have a known rapist for a president.
Then again, maybe women will win out in the end. After all, we really voted for Hillary.
In honor of Elsa and Anna pre-bastardization by the stage show, here are some real-life women who are both good and powerful.
Malala Yousafzai (human rights activist and youngest Nobel Prize Laureate), Oprah Winfrey (built her own media empire), Martha Stewart (built her own corporate empire) and Benazir Bhutto (former prime minister of Pakistan/first female leader of a democratic Muslim majority nation)
Stephenie Meyer (misunderstood author of bestselling novels about being a woman), Carol Adams (author of highly influential books on the intersections between non-human rights and women’s rights such as The Sexual Politics of Meat), Taylor Swift (singer-songwriter, outspoken about her sexual assault, donated all proceeds from one of her music videos to help African animals) & Lena Dunham (creator, producer, star, writer and director of Girls, first woman to win the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing – Comedy Series, best-selling author, confident bearer of a body that isn’t a size 2), Venus & Serena Williams (Venus is a hugely successful tennis player despite having a chronic illness and successfully fought for equal pay for female tennis players, both are largely vegan, Serena, besides being arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, does extensive charity work and has her own fashion lines).
Starhawk (author of many books on Goddess traditions and nature religion, longtime activist and teacher), Ellen Degeneres (vegan, animal rights activist, one of the first female celebrities to come out as a lesbian), Hillary Clinton (honorary President of the United States), Meghan Murphy (founder of the blog Feminist Current, endlessly insightful radical feminist, lover of dogs)
Jane Goodall (gave us our understanding of chimps and primates, animal rights and environmentalism activist), Koko (gorilla who has been an experiment her whole life, believer in environmentalism and human stupidity, learned to speak English and communicates with people through a modified version of American Sign Language, mother of many kittens, representative of all of the female animals who have given their lives in the name of science and human safety), Francesca “Fannie” (one of the oldest of the Metawitches chickens, survivor of a serious dog attack, food and excitement enthusiast, layer of small eggs despite being the largest chicken, lover of pecking human body parts in an endless quest to find more food, in honor of all of the exploited female animals used as livestock who are never named and appreciated by those who use them and their children)