Today in Fantasy Film Sexism: Disney tries to pat some feminists’ heads

It’s been ages since I linked to Margot McGowan’s ReelGirl blog, and I thought I’d rectify that. She’s been doing the hard yards lately on sexism in animated movies, especially Disney/Pixar.

An icy background with the shadow or silhouette of a woman standing out from the snowy background


If it weren’t for ReelGirl, I would have been hard pressed to realise that the upcoming Disney film Frozen is supposedly an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, seeing as all the interesting female supporting characters included by Andersen in the original story, female characters who had the knowledge or skills the protagonist needed to learn in order take the next step to saving her friend from the Snow Queen even when they didn’t necessarily mean to be helpful,  seem to have not made the cut into the movie and therefore not into the trailers (it’s only male characters now who have the knowledge/skills Elsa needs, and she doesn’t learn from them and then move on, they just accompany her and do things for her), and of course Disney couldn’t possibly have left the original girl-saves-boy storyline in place either, so now we’ve got a girl-vs-sister-to-save-sister storyline to ensure that we’ve still got the all-important damsel-in-distress trope tied in with family conflict (that will presumably end up happily resolved):

In “Frozen,” fearless optimist Anna (voice of ‘Kristen Bell’ ) teams up with rugged mountain man Kristoff (voice of ‘Jonathan Groff’ ) and his loyal reindeer Sven in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa (voice of ‘Idina Maxwell’), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom. Written by Walt Disney Animation Studios

But of course, any criticism of the sexist depiction or character arc trivialisation or outright erasure of female characters in children’s entertainment is “recklessly [taking things] out of context”, don’tcha know?  After all, this story has TWO female protagonists! Gee, thanks for setting us right, Disney.  Who cares if you’ve set it up so that neither of these two female protagonists can find any other women to help them out of their predicaments, only men? TWO women, not just ONE!

Know what I notice about having Elsa be the Queen with magical icy powers over “the kingdom”, and her sister Anna setting out to save “the kingdom”, and how we’re virtually guaranteed a happy family reunion/resolution (there’s a prince from a neighboring country not mentioned in the blurb above)?  Disney gets TWO new princess toys out of this movie, that’s what I’m seeing, and at least one of them will probably have a sparkly wand (although according to Disney’s website for the movie, Elsa’s icy spells are only unleashed accidentally – so she’s not actually in control of her powers). How empowerful.

Still, thanks to ReelGirl I’m reminded how much I loved the original story in my youth, and have a better understanding of  a possible/probable reason why: it was full of many different and interesting women living varied lives that didn’t need a prince to make them meaningful. We had a lovely illustrated version that sadly was one of the books in the box that went missing in one of our family moves.

BTW, if you’re not keeping an eye on ReelGirl’s RSS feed for her book recommendations of girl-centered narratives which move beyond the simplistic recipes of girl-as-sidekick or girl-as-super-chick, then you’re missing out.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, Life, media

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6 replies

  1. Thanks for the tip TT. I shall avoid Frozen if at all possible.

  2. Thanks for blogging about this, I’ve been trying to get to it myself. What this really underlines, for me, is how specious the argument is that most animated features have so few female characters because it’s somehow harder to find ways to put girls/women into stories, particularly action/adventure ones. Because here they had a story already choc full of all kinds of different female characters, and they went to extraordinary lengths to get rid of them, and replace them with male ones.

  3. So this movie has a bit of snow in it, and that’s about all it has in common with the actual Snow Queen story?
    *puts on do not watch list*
    Also isn’t the protagonist in The Snow Queen named Gerda?

  4. How about the complete lack of poc?

    • Well Disney has a poor track record there, for sure. No doubt they would point to the traditional Scandinavian setting as a reason for the lack of POC, but given how much they’ve changed this story, they didn’t have to keep it set in a Scandinavian region either.

  5. From The Feminist Fangirl (linked at Reel Girl):
    “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.”
    In addition, the Robber Girl was very likely Romany. It starts to look as if playing into the general public’s ideas about Scandinavia was Disney’s excuse to keep everyone white.
    For me personally, it doesn’t seem enough to simply decide not to go and see it. It’s not as if we can rush to take our parent-consumer dollars to that other high-end animation fairytale with the wide range of female characters, interacting with one another in all kinds of ways, instead. We need to keep yelling at them as loud as we can to stop doing this.

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