‘You can’t marry a man you just met!’: Disney’s Housewife Heroines & Frozen’s New Femininities

The model of a woman to emulate, in Disney’s worldview, is one who lives to get her man. She may adopt some of the contemporary feminist attitudes, including being more vocal, being physically strong, and being self-sufficient, but she only finds fulfilment in romantic love.

(Ward, 2002; 119)

The historical relationship between Disney’s female protagonists and feminist thought has always been conflicted, if not contradictory. While early characters (such as Snow White and Cinderella) may have lacked personal agency due to their inherent damsel-in-distress nature, more recent depictions of female protagonists (including The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, Mulan or Pocahontas) are undeniably progressive in comparison. However these newer characters still struggle with many of the same limitations that affected their predecessors; Disney’s heroines have traditionally been romantically minded and strictly emblematic of heterosexual lifestyles. Annalee Ward summarises this problem by concluding that Disney’s animated films repeatedly imply that ‘females can be strong and self-sufficient, but females are only truly happy when they have a man.’ (Ward, 2002; 119)

This narrative dependency upon male authority figures to resolve heroines’ identity struggles can be seen to symbolise not only Disney’s adherence to promoting heteronormativity through their ‘stereotypical and exaggerated portrayals’ of heterosexual behaviour (Putnam, 2013; 147) but also their apparent determination to promote stereotypical feminine social roles. The Disney heroine’s obsession with ‘finding’ romantic love and the studio’s cultural promotion of domesticity as a woman’s ultimate purpose are both pervasive cultural issues that are aggressively deconstructed in Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. Arguing that women have been culturally deceived into idolising the role of housewife beyond all other aspirations, Freidan asserts that society has attempted to convince women that they can ‘find fulfilment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.’ (1992; 38) From this viewpoint, Disney’s female protagonists certainly appear to have been seduced by the eponymous ‘mystique’ for quite some time. If Snow White and the Seven Dwarves can be understood as a ‘paean to all things domestic’ (Byrne & McQuillan, 1999; 59) then Disney’s later female-centric texts have done little to distance themselves from this model.

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However Disney’s most recent animated film, Frozen, (2013) radically overthrows this precedent. Forgoing the use of a central heterosexual romance to empower the female protagonist and resolve the narrative’s difficulties, Frozen instead focusses on the relationship between two estranged sisters. Without the aid of a male hero to fulfil the heroine’s cultural desires Frozen is forced to confront the issues affecting its heroines and engage with them, exploring alternative understandings of feminine identity in the process. If the ‘feminine mystique’ implies that a choice exists ‘between “being a woman” or risking the pains of human growth’ (Freidan, 1992; 275) then Frozen argues that ‘risking the pains of human growth’ is in fact a necessary part of becoming a woman.

In this essay I will discuss the feminine identity challenges explored by Frozen’s sister protagonists and the text’s active rejection of the limiting, heteronormative ambitions typically idolised by Disney’s heroines. Particular attention will be paid to both the narrative autonomy offered to the text’s female characters and the new conceptualisations of female identity they, in turn, introduce to the Disney canon. Frozen’s progressive portrayal of feminine identity will then be explored in relation to previous female-centric Disney texts, comparing their respective textual portrayals of cultural Otherness, physical appearance and gender identity.

Loosely adapted from the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale, ‘The Snow Queen’, (Holden, 2013) Frozen differs from many Disney fairy tale films by portraying an inherently non-romantic story in contrast to its source text. While many early Disney films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, (1937) Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty, (1959) are adapted from folk tales built upon romantic courtship, more recent texts, including The Little Mermaid, (1989) Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan, (1998) have adapted narratives explicitly rooted in personal achievement, only to then introduce romantic elements to the story. In contrast, Frozen neither attempts to directly adapt nor superimpose the ‘knight in shining armor and the damsel in distress’ narrative, (Bettelheim, 1991; 111-116) and in fact removes the resolving romance of the original Andersen tale. Instead, the film draws upon the tradition of the ‘two siblings’ fairy tale (1991; 78-83) in which ‘the protagonists represent the disparate natures of id [… and] superego; and the main message is that these must be integrated for human happiness.’ (1991; 78) Rather than limit the heroine’s role within the narrative to functioning as a ‘sought-for person’ or to facilitate resolving courtship, (Propp, 1968; 79) the ‘two siblings’ model instead allows one or both of the main characters to be female and for her to go on her own journey of personal discovery.

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Just as ‘two sibling’ narratives typically ‘begin with an original lack of differentiation between the two’ main characters, (1991; 78) Frozen begins with Elsa and Anna, two young girls living in the royal court of Arendelle. The sisters are initially shown to be best friends, their adventures made thoroughly more magical by Elsa’s ability to create and manipulate ice and snow. However a psychological distinction is soon created between the two when Elsa accidentally injures Anna, causing the children’s parents to force Elsa to repress her powers and erase Anna’s knowledge of them.

This distinction not only separates the sisters, causing Anna to grow up in lonely solitude, but also represents the development of Elsa’s character into the narrative manifestation of the superego. Elsa’s father, the King, provides her with gloves and repeatedly instructs her to ‘Conceal it, don’t feel it. Don’t let it show’, (Buck & Lee, 2013; 08.55-9.10) symbolising the ‘cultural rules’ established by parental authority that are psychologically internalised in the development of the superego. (Schacter et al., 2009; 464) This mantra comes to represent Elsa’s entire relationship with the wider world and so, when the King and Queen suffer an untimely death and an adolescent Elsa must ascend the throne, she is terrified of revealing her cultural Otherness because it must be suppressed.

In contrast, a solitary childhood has transformed Anna into the narrative manifestation of the id: ‘the source of our bodily needs, wants, desire and impulses’. (Schacter et al., 2009; 464) When Elsa’s coronation requires the castle’s gates to be finally opened, Anna (much like the typical Disney heroine) is singularly obsessed with finding her true love: ‘I know it is totally crazy to dream I’d find romance / But for the first time in forever, at least I’ve got a chance.’ (15.20-15.40) Trapped within a limiting environment, Anna subscribes to the cultural fantasy that ‘feminine fulfillment’ can (only) be attained by becoming ‘a wife and mother’. (Freidan, 1992; 275) While she has dreams of a better life (like all Disney’s heroines) Anna lacks the cultural imagination to aspire towards that goal through any means other than the feminine social roles prescribed by heteronormative lifestyles.

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Anna’s dream to fall in love is fulfilled at the coronation when she meets Hans, the youngest prince of a neighbouring kingdom. Although Anna accepts Hans’ immediate proposal to marry, Elsa refuses to bless their engagement, arguing ‘You can’t marry a man you just met!’ (26.20-26.40) The sisters’ respective representations of id and superego is emphasised as Anna’s impractical desire is restricted by Elsa’s enforcement of logical behaviour. Confronting Elsa as she attempts to flee the situation, Anna pulls off Elsa’s glove, revealing Elsa’s powers in the process as the ballroom is filled with towering shards of ice.

Terrified at her loss of control over both her powers and cultural identity, Elsa flees the palace and heads into the mountains as the temperate weather of Arendelle transforms to harsh winter. Anna immediately follows her, determined to repair their relationship and restore summer. On her journey she comes across a down-on-his-luck ice-salesman, Kristoff, who shares similar apprehensions to Elsa regarding Anna’s engagement. Anna and Kristoff’s friendship contrasts many Disney romances by showing the characters gradually develop a bond through mutual experiences and compassion for one another. Unlike Pocahontas (Giroux, 1999; 101) or Ariel, (Davis, 2006; 181) Anna has personal goals that are not conveniently represented by a man within the narrative, nor is Kristoff’s support of her a ‘reward’ for her struggles, as in Mulan. (Ward, 2002; 118)

Meanwhile Elsa finally allows herself to ‘let go’ of her concerns about her inherent Otherness, her isolation in the mountains allowing her to transcend her fears of social persecution. Throwing her remaining glove to the winds, she announces, ‘I don’t care what they’re going to say / Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway’ (32.20-32.40) as she constructs a new castle and garments by embracing her ice powers. This scene not only depicts Elsa’s gradual relinquishing of the social anxieties caused by her dominant superego but also symbolises that ‘self-realization requires leaving the orbit of the home’ (Bettelheim, 1991; 79) as ‘identity achievement’ is a ‘solitary experience’. (Waller, 2009; 55)

This cultural segregation of Elsa’s character can also be understood to facilitate Frozen’s relatively complex portrayal of identity formation. Female ‘identity achievement’ is shown to be a relatively shallow and simplistic process in many earlier Disney texts (such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid) as the heroine typically finds personal fulfilment in her desired role as housewife and mother. Friedan argues ‘It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself’ (1992; 294) and it is far from a coincidence that it is Elsa (the first Disney heroine to struggle with her cultural identity in a way that cannot be resolved by a male character) who is portrayed as the most psychologically ‘real’ of all the Disney heroines.

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However Elsa’s emancipation proves short-lived as Anna’s arrival at the castle results in her accidental cursing and Elsa’s imprisonment by Hans. Kristoff realises that an ‘act of true love’ can save Anna’s life but when he entrusts her to Hans, it is revealed that his affections for Anna were merely part of a scheme to usurp the throne; ‘But you, you were so desperate for love. You were willing to marry me just like that.’ (1:16.00-1:16.30) Hans’ words not only undercut the ‘true love saves the day’ moral of numerous Disney romance narratives but also highlight the pernicious dangers of patriarchal heteronormativity for both men and women. Just as Anna’s loneliness leads her to venerate the ‘feminine mystique’, Hans’ villainous ambitions can also be understood to derive from Western society’s determination of masculinity through cultural power dynamics. Only as King will Hans fulfil his masculine potential, just as Anna’s feminine ambition is restricted to the domestic space. Within Frozen heteronormative identity is far from the resolving action, it is in fact the root of all villainy.

Hans confronts Elsa as she attempts to escape, informing her that Anna has perished due to her actions. However, Anna has realised that Kristoff is returning and that while Hans does not love her, Kristoff might. As they run towards each other, Anna turns to see Hans prepare to murder a grief-stricken Elsa and, abandoning her chance of survival, blocks Hans’ sword as she turns to ice. Anna’s self-sacrifice represents the character’s psychological progression throughout Frozen, beginning as a character problematically concerned with her own desires that evolves into a selfless individual willing to put those she loves before her own future.

The action also symbolises Frozen’s core principle: women can solve their own problems and be the heroes of their own stories. As Elsa looks up to see her petrified sister, Anna magically returns to life; the ‘act of true love’ is revealed to be the love of sisters rather than heterosexual romance as Anna’s saving of Elsa in turn rescues herself. Inspired by Anna’s ultimate act of compassion, Elsa realises that the true path to self-acceptance is by letting other people into your life as her cultural anxiety finally recedes and she is able to thaw Arendelle. The film concludes with the permanent opening of the castle gates as Elsa and Anna skate together happily, ‘never to be separated again’. (Bettelheim, 1991; 79)

Frozen’s consideration of alternative understandings of feminine identity is clearly evident in both the significant psychological development of its female protagonists and the omission of a concluding romantic narrative to fulfil the heroines’ needs. While heterosexual romance does feature within Anna’s personal narrative (primarily as a threat to overcome) it is entirely absent from Elsa’s story, opposing the conventional ‘hyper-heterosexual’ portrayal of many Disney heroines. (Putnam, 2013; 147) Although Elsa’s characterisation identifies with Freidan’s argument that ‘women will never know sexual fulfilment and the peak experience of human love until they are allowed and encouraged to grow to their full strength as human beings’, (1992; 275) it also can be understood to resonate with the cultural narrative of ‘coming out’ and asserting one’s queer identity, a comparison noted by a number of cultural commentators. (Romano, 2014) (Diaz, 2014) (Anne, 2014)

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Born with magical powers that culturally mark her as different, Elsa is directly isolated from the world by her Otherness. Her parents’ repeated instructions to ‘conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show’ also consciously position Elsa’s ‘true’ self as an inherently shameful secret, encouraging her to resent this dimension of herself when in fact it can only be controlled through personal acceptance. Elsa’s inherent contradiction of both parental rule and cultural hegemony thus position her identity challenges within Frozen as allegorical to queer identity as queerness ‘is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant’. (Halperin, 1995; 62) While previous Disney heroines have also been defined by their cultural Otherness (such as Ariel and her desire to leave her community or Beauty and the Beast’s Belle wishing for a less sedate life) (1991) their respective communities are typically depicted as accepting of these ‘quirks’, albeit with amusement or derision. In contrast, when Anna inadvertently ‘outs’ Elsa by accidentally removing her glove at the coronation, the attendees’ reaction is of noticeable fear and disgust.

Elsa’s personal ‘coming out’ is represented by her transformation in the mountains, during which she realises that her powers are not ‘purely negative or reactive or destructive [but] also positive and dynamic and creative’. (Halperin, 1995; 66) Although the ‘two siblings’ fairy tale typically portrays the enforced leaving of home as ‘an excruciatingly painful experience’, (Bettelheim, 1991; 79) Elsa instead revels in her newfound freedom. Gael Sweeney notes that The Lion King’s (1994) Timon and Puumba also reflect the liberation afforded by queer exile, the isolating jungle environment allowing the characters to perform drag and raise a child together beyond judgement. (2013; 129-134) Elsa’s song identifies that while she used to live in a ‘kingdom of isolation’, (31.20-31.35) she is now able to ‘turn away and slam the door’ (32.15-32.25) on her closeted past as she realises the cultural possibilities of embracing her identity and fulfilling her own desires.

Elsa also inverts the traditional gender roles of the Disney heroine through her physical transformation. While ‘transformation’ is identified as a key aspect of many fairy tales, (Propp, 1968; 62-63) the manner in which this is achieved is often inherently gender-biased. A substantial number of Disney heroines are shown to undergo a change in physical appearance throughout the course of their narrative that coincides with their personal empowerment, fulfilling Propp’s criteria for the female character to be given a ‘magical dress’ that endows her ‘with a radiant beauty’. (1968; 73) (Interpretations of this include Cinderella and Belle’s dresses and physical transformations that liberate the heroine including Ariel’s legs and the cutting of Rapunzel’s hair in Tangled.) (2010) Elsa too undergoes a distinct change in her appearance, using her magic to construct a new physical identity for herself to coincide with her emotional acceptance of her situation. As she sings ‘let it go / That perfect girl is gone’, (34.10-34.25) Elsa replaces her formal court attire with a floor-length sparkling gown that can be understood to textually symbolism her ‘true’ identity much in the same way to Ariel’s transformation into a human at the end of The Little Mermaid represents ‘the ultimate assertion of herself’. (Davis, 2006; 81)

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However, Elsa’s transformation is unique compared to previous heroines’ in that it is self-enacted. Unlike in The Little Mermaid, it is not a male character (whether Eric’s kiss or King Triton’s magic) (Davis, 2013; 169) that holds the potential to empower the princess. Instead, Elsa actively transforms herself. The only limiting factor preventing Elsa’s self-empowerment is shown to have been her cultural apprehension and so Elsa’s eventual acceptance of her cultural Otherness not only allows her to accept her ‘true’ identity but also enables her to actively construct it for herself. Similarly, Elsa’s change in appearance coincides with the construction of her own castle. The ice palace represents both a uniquely queer space in which Elsa feels able to act freely but also her rejection of gender limitations. Although Propp asserts that the only female method of transformation within the fairy tale is through appearance, he notes that a potential method of male transformation is through the building of ‘a marvellous palace’, (1968; 62) positioning Elsa again as an autonomous heroine who, much like Anna, can fulfil both male and female narrative roles for herself.

Similarly, Elsa’s dress disregards the traditional Disney convention of being ‘created to reinforce [the character’s] heterosexuality’. (Putnam, 2013; 149) While Disney transformations often facilitate the heroine’s acceptance by patriarchal society (such as Cinderella’s new gown allowing her to attend the royal ball) Elsa’s dress is instead explicitly designed to fulfil her personal desires. As Elsa sings, ‘And one thought crystallises like an icy blast: I’m never going back, the past is in the past’ (33.50-34.10) she establishes that she intends to live alone forever and, so, her transformed appearance has no need to represent her heterosexuality because it isn’t intended to be seen. Instead, Elsa’s transcendence of the male gaze (further compounded by numerous claims that the character’s outfit evokes drag aesthetic) (Osenlund, 2013) (Upton, 2013) (Bloom, 2014) calls into doubt the inherent relationship between Disney heroines and heteronormative femininity that has informed Disney’s gender politics since the release of Snow White.

Although a number of key female Disney characters have been discussed as evoking drag, lesbian or transgender identity, (Byrne & McQuillan, 1999; 143) (Griffin, 2000; 73) (Sells, 1995; 183) these characters have all functioned as villains within their respective narratives. Putnam argues that these characters are often characterised as villainous not only through their evil actions but also their ‘deviant behaviours via their gender performance’. (2013; 149) (Elsa’s villainous role in earlier versions of Frozen’s narrative certainly aligns with this reading.) [Co-director Jennifer Lee notes that realising Elsa could be more than merely a villain was ‘the biggest breakthrough’ of the production process, radically changing their perspective of the film. (Gilchrist quoting Lee, 2013)] Both Elsa’s experience of queer emancipation and literal personification of winter (an obvious metaphor for anti-maternity or barrenness) can be understood to position her gender identity as ‘deviant’ in relation to the majority of Disney’s previous ‘nubile’ heroines, who embody the very notion of heteronormativity itself.

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In contrast to Elsa’s personification of winter, Disney heroines such as Snow White and Cinderella are shown to harmoniously commune with nature, even being aided in their domestic roles by woodland creatures. (Brode, 2005; 130, 180) Equally, more recent female protagonists have been shown to literally connect with nature as part of their personal identities. Ariel’s underwater life as a mermaid allows her to live in harmony with the natural world while Pocahontas’ ethnic identity connects her to nature itself as she explains to the colonising John Smith that ‘the rainstorm and the river are my brothers, the heron and the otter are my friends’. (Gabriel & Goldberg, 1995; 41.20-41.40) Elsa’s feminine connection to the elements is far less instinctual by comparison; her control of the weather must be practiced as she experiences ‘the pains of human growth’ (Freidan, 1992; 275) that threaten to overpower her. Similarly, Elsa’s contradiction of conventional maternal identity is consciously inverted by her creation of both Olaf (a lovable snowman originally built by Anna and Elsa as children) and her palace guard, Marshmallow, highlighting that maternity can equally transcend heteronormativity and flourish in other capacities.

Frozen identifies many of the critical elements of the Disney heroine archetype (cultural Otherness, transformation, connection with nature, maternity) and inverts them all in intriguing, queer-positive ways. Rather than simply create a text that renders the ‘one-note’ prince character irrelevant, (Cheu, 2013; 3) Frozen actively deconstructs Disney’s narrative dependency on the ‘feminine mystique’ by portraying two heroines who both experience substantial psychological change and support each other in the formation of their identities. While previous Disney heroines have made progressive steps towards narrative autonomy and psychological depth, Frozen’s rejection of the damsel-in-distress framework and conscious inversion of the fairy tale romance allow Elsa and Anna to truly evolve as characters and women. The transcendence of heteronormative limitations placed upon heroines such as Cinderella, Ariel and Pocahontas (from their physical appearances to their aspirations and actions) allows Elsa and Anna to both become different kinds of women and for Frozen to be able to celebrate both. Able to stand on their own two feet, learn from their mistakes and resolve their own actions, Frozen’s heroines are no longer concerned about achieving their ‘fairy tale’ endings; those old stories never bothered them anyway.

Bibliography

Please find below a list of the Disney animated films referenced within this essay, followed by all secondary reading cited. The primary texts are listed alphabetically by title for ease of browsing. The listed secondary reading also includes a small number of texts consulted during the research process that lie outwith the scope and word count of this essay. These are now included for posterity and potential further reading.

For Disney experts reading this essay who may have noticed the lack of discussion of either Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (2002) or Pixar’s Brave, (2012) I would like to take this brief opportunity to explain the reasoning behind this decision. Although both are adventurous portrayals of young female characters, Lilo & Stitch is an inherently science-fiction text focussed on alternative families while Brave was directly produced by Pixar rather than Disney and so brings with it an entirely different cultural history to the many Disney heroines considered by this analysis. Further scholarship into Frozen’s relationship with both these texts would be a strong continuing point from this essay.

Primary Texts

Trousdale & Wise, Gary & Kirk (dir.) (1991) Beauty and the Beast. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, produced by Don Hahn and directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Geronimi, Clyde et al. (dir.) (1950) Cinderella. Produced by Walt Disney and directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Buck & Lee, Chris & Jennifer (dir.) (2013) Frozen. Screenplay by Jennifer Lee, produced by Peter Del Vecho and directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Songs and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Bancroft & Cook, Tony & Barry (dir.) (1988) Mulan. Screenplay by Rita Hsiao et al., produced by Pam Coats and directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Gabriel & Goldberg, Mike & Eric (dir.) (1995) Pocahontas. Written by Carl Binder, Susannah Grant and Philip LaZebnik, produced by James Pentecost and directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Songs by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Geronimi, Clyde et al. (dir.) (1959) Sleeping Beauty. Produced by Walt Disney and directed by Clyde Geronimi, Les Clark, Eric Larson and Wolfgang Reitherman. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Hand, David et al. (dir.) (1937) Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Written by Ted Sears et al., produced by Walt Disney and directed by David Hand et al. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Greno & Howard, Nathan & Byron (dir.) (2010) Tangled. Screenplay by Dan Fogelman, produced by Roy Conli, John Lasseter and Glen Keane and directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Allers & Minkoff, Roger & Rob (dir.) (1994) The Lion King. Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, produced by Don Hahn and directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Clements & Musker, Ron & John (dir.) (1989) The Little Mermaid. Written by John Musker et al., produced by John Musker and Howard Ashman and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. (Burbank: Walt Disney Feature Animation.)

Secondary Texts

Anne, Valerie (2014) ‘What gay girls can get out of Frozen’, published on After Ellen, 17.02.2014. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1hLm47j. (Accessed on 29.03.14.)

Beauvoir, Simone de (1953) The Second Sex. Translated by H.M. Parsley, published in the original French in 1949. (London: Penguin.)

Bettelheim, Bruno (1991) The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (London: Penguin.)

Bloom, Ester (2014) ‘Elsa’s Coming Out Party’, published on The Hairpin, 25.02.14. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1kbdukV. (Accessed on 30.03.14.)

Brode, Douglas (2005) Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. (Austin: University of Texas Press.)

Byrne & McQuillan, Eleanor & Martin (1999) Deconstructing Disney. (London: Pluto Press.)

Castle, Terry (1993) The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. (New York: Columbia University Press.)

Cheu, Johnson (2013) ‘Introduction: Re-casting and Diversifying Disney in the Age of Globalization’ in Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability, edited by Johnson Cheu, 2013, Pages 1-8. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company.)

Davis, Amy M. (2006) Good Girls & Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation. (Eastleigh: John Libbey Publishing.)

Davis, Amy M. (2013) Handsome Heroes & Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation. (Eastleigh: John Libbey Publishing.)

Diaz, Eric (2014) ‘Eight Ways Frozen is Disney’s Gayest Animated Film Yet’, published on Topless Robot, 30.01.14. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/M2kyVs. (Accessed on 29.03.14.)

Freidan, Betty (1992) The Feminine Mystique. Originally published in 1963. (London: Penguin.)

Gilchrist, Todd (2014) ‘Directors Buck & Lee Discuss the Success of Frozen’, published on Spin Off, 19.03.14. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1ho2tgY. (Accessed on 30.03.14.)

Giroux, Henry A. (1999) The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.)

Griffin, Sean (2000) Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. (New York: New York University Press.)
Halperin, David M. (1995) Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. (Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

Holden, Stephen (2013) ‘From the Heat of Royal Passion, Poof! It’s Permafrost’, published in The New York Times, 27.11.13. Electronic version cited: nyti.ms/1gMGtxu. (Accessed on 29.03.14.)

Limbach, Gwendolyn (2013) ‘“You the Man, Well, Sorta”: Gender Binaries and Liminality in Mulan’ in Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability, edited by Johnson Cheu, 2013, Pages 115-128. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company.)

Osenlund, R. Kurt (2013) ‘Frozen | Film Review’, published on Slant Magazine, 13.11.13. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/LmgmPS. (Accessed on 30.03.14.)

Propp, Vladímir (1968) Morphology of the Folk Tale. Translated by Laurence Scott and Louis A. Wagner. (Austin: University of Texas Press.)

Pulver, Andrew (2014) ‘Frozen lambasted as pro-gay propaganda by Christian pastor’, published on The Guardian, 12.03.14. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/Omrkqu. (Accessed on 30.03.14.)

Putnam, Amanda (2013) ‘Mean Ladies: Transgendered Villains in Disney Films’ in Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability, edited by Johnson Cheu, 2013, Pages 147-162. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company.)

Rich, Adrienne (1982) ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ in Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader (2nd Edition), 2007, edited by Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton, Pages 209-238. (London and & New York: Routledge.)

Romano, Aja (2014) ‘LGBTQ readings of Frozen prompts fiery debate on Tumblr’, published on Daily Dot, 17.01.14. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1ldFOEU. (Accessed on 29.03.14.)

Schacter, Daniel L. et al., (2009) Psychology, Second Edition. Edited by Daniel L. Schacter, Daniel T. Gilbert and Daniel M. Wegner. (New York: Worth Publishers.)

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1985) Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. (New York: Columbia University Press.)

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (2008) Epistemology of the Closet. (London: California University Press.)

Sells, Laura (1995) ‘“Where Do the Mermaids Stand?”: Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid, in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture, 1995, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells, Pages 175-192. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)

Sweeney, Gael (2013) ‘ “What Do You Want Me to Do? Dress in Drag and Do the Hula?”: Timon and Pumbaa’s Alternative Lifestyle Dilemma in The Lion King’ in Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability, edited by Johnson Cheu, 2013, Pages 129-146. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company.)

Upton, David William (2013) ‘Camp and the Disney legacy twisting in Frozen’, published on SoSoGay, 06.12.13. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1jL9gVi. (Accessed on 30.03.14.)

Waller, Alison (2009) Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism. (London & New York: Routledge.)

Ward, Annalee R. (2002) Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film. (Austin: Texas University Press.)

White, Susan (1993) ‘Split Skins: Female Agency and Bodily Mutilation in The Little Mermaid’ in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, edited by Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher Collins, 1993, Pages 182-195. (London & New York: Routledge.)

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4 thoughts on “‘You can’t marry a man you just met!’: Disney’s Housewife Heroines & Frozen’s New Femininities

  1. Hi, I stumbled across this more or less by accident and thought it was worth it to tell you that I have tried to explain some of these ideas and the gut-wrenching way they hit me to other people with very little success. You put forth a lot of what I felt about this movie, Elsa really. It’s easy to see this as a “kid’s movie” obviously and there sure grew a crowd of people singing her theme who definitely don’t really hear 90% of what it really means. I think a lot of young kids are destined to go back to this movie in 15 or 20 years and wonder how the hell they didn’t *really* get any of this movie at all. Even amongst the several people I know who are the type to look past that, nobody really “gets it”. For whatever reason that fits DIRECTLY into the way that nobody gets *me*. I have never, ever identified with a character like I do with Elsa.

    I have seen a few people write about her as a Gay Icon ™ but that’s horribly reductionist and I think misses a lot of the point and she is a lot more universal than that and this blog puts that into words. There have been gay icons but no character like Elsa. I am straight, male, and in my 30s. So the few friends I have who would get any of this sure don’t get how this applies to me at all and there’s no way I would risk that attempt at explanation even if I could put it in words. It sounds stupid I know and maybe even seems patronizing coming from someone with my on-paper definition but that very fact is part of the problem. I make part of my living as a painter (old fashioned still lifes and portraits etc.) and you’d think that set would be more receptive to this but there’s no way I could ever bring up something as ridiculous and weird as a deep, shaking connection with a fictional Disney heroine. To say nothing of how I want to smash free of my life and identity and rebuild myself. A few brief moments I have felt like I could push harder and paint or love my way above it but it never lasts or arrives. I don’t even know what I would be.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words regarding my essay, it really means a lot that it might have helped someone figure out the film or even their personal situation. A lot of academia rejects accessible texts like Frozen, texts that have such a broad impact on audiences, because they think that makes them inconsequential. Obviously your comments show just how untrue that is.

      I think your consideration of Elsa as a gay icon is quite interesting because she definitely has a universality to her story that transcends sexual identity, ethnicity, gender, disability etc. However I think the point of anyone being a ‘gay icon’ (Madonna, Cher, Gaga, Kylie, Dolly Parton etc.) is that they explicitly AREN’T just for the gay community. All of these artists have massive fan bases across all the cultural identifiers I just mentioned — a similar universality as Elsa’s — and I think on some level it’s that very universality that makes them gay icons. On some level, I believe the gay community idolises these women because they are perceived to represent and symbolise the tastes, interests, struggles and realities of being gay to a much wider audience that goes beyond just LGBT people. In that sense, Elsa is in fact a gay icon precisely because she ISN’T just a gay character, she’s a symbol of transformation and self-acceptance that strongly relates to queer experiences but also to others, such as your own. There are tonnes of amazing queer artists (Patrick Wolf, Janelle Monae, Amanda Palmer) that I love but their dominance in queer circles rather than the universal mainstream differentiates them from people like Gaga, Beyonce or, in this case, Elsa.

      As for your desire to rebuild yourself, I think that’s a very common feeling and it’s definitely one I’ve had to deal with throughout my life. I guess my only advice would be to consider how Elsa deals with her situation in the film. She’s a young woman who’s been told her entire life that her abilities are shameful, destructive and wrong but she comes to a point in her life when she feels no longer able to deny who she is, even if it turns out to be something awful. The moral of her story is definitely personal acceptance, instead of living a lie that might feel safer. Elsa didn’t know what she would become either but she knew it was the right thing to do.

  2. Hi again, it’s been a while I know but I was sort of letting this sit until I was in the right mindset. First I wanted to mention that Amada Palmer rules.

    A lot of my problem (and I think the problem in general) is that it’s not just fear as it directly relates to yourself but of the effect it would have on other people. Sometimes I fantasize about just going so far away from my life that I’d never run into anyone who’s ever heard of me so I could just go crazy full throttle and not have that whiplash back onto my family or onto me through the eyes of people I know. It’s not what would happen to me although I feel like I would probably just…dissolve. It’s how people would look at me.

    I already have a pretty distinct face I put on for different people, sometimes to the point that I have discrete groups of people I know who I prevent mixing together at all costs. I can’t play two parts at once. Sometimes I will have some small thing pop up that seems to surprise somebody (uncharacteristic taste in music, for instance) because I normally sort of partition that off from that group of people or whatever. As a small example imagine how (presumably) you reign in foul language in front of your parents or at least grandparents. Then don’t around work friends, or somebody. Say your parents are dropped into the middle of that conversation magically and how “off” that would feel.

    My whole life is like that. Nobody and nowhere is actually comfortable and I am not myself around anybody, ever. I am inspired by gay people who are open about it or come out (and the area I live is about a 5 on a scale where 10 is “totally accepting” and 1 is “beat to death”. My point is that it’s not a kind place for anyone to be openly “weird” generally and definitely not tolerant of gays. This may seem random but I think of them as not just inspiring but heroic. It’s the bravest thing in the world. It’s funny because there used to be a small gay club here called Encompass and somehow evidently no one realized it was basically a gay nightclub. I was there with some friends and stuck out like a sore thumb (or that’s how I felt) but as it turned out it was easily the most comfortable, hair-down social situation I’d been in in years.

    I think there is a big component *somewhere* *somehow* of people who have been through these “transformations” of spirit or image or role and shaken that off or taken themselves where they want, and “Elsas” who have already gone through these things can maybe understand it.

    -written the day Robin Williams killed himself, what hope do the rest of us mere mortals have? 😦

    • I think what you’re feeling is totally legitimate and I can definitely relate to the idea of wanting to start fresh, I think we all want a clean slate sometimes.

      What I would recommend though is that you reach out to try and find someone you can talk to these feelings about, somewhere obviously less public than the internet. I don’t know whether that’s a close friend, the Good Samaritans, perhaps your doctor or employer can put you in touch with a councillor or therapy group but I think actually engaging with these issues would be a big weight off your shoulders. Once you are able to accept that there are things you’re unhappy with in your life, you make the conscious decision to change them for the better. Best of luck.

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