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The Triumph of Frozen, the First Disney Princess Movie About Girls Rather Than for Them

How retrograde are many of the core tenets of the Disney princess? Consider this: My daughter owns a book called Snow White’s Secret, in which Disney's royal archetype reveals her devilish hidden life: When the Dwarfs are working at the mine, she sneaks into their cottage and joyfully cleans the place! As a secret surprise! Seriously.

That's why Frozen may be the most important Disney movie ever made — and not because it’s bested $864 million at the global box office, which puts it ahead of all of the Mouse House's other princess efforts. That haul is merely a heartening sign that audiences, and girls especially, have responded to the true trailblazing nature of Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s animated tale. And trailblazing it is, since Frozen stands as the triumphant culmination of a decade-long process by Disney to revamp its princesses for today's audiences, and to offer girls stories as legitimately empowering as the countless ones Hollywood makes for boys.

With this stirring retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” in which one princess sets out on an epic quest to reconcile with her estranged sister, the company has finally made a tiaras-and-ball-gowns saga with a progressive feminist heart.

(And merch. It's also made heaps of merch.)

To appreciate Frozen’s accomplishment, some context may be necessary: You must understand the mesmerizing hold Disney’s classic princess films have over girls’ imaginations. The first time my oldest daughter (now nine years old) watched Cinderella, she stared at the screen with a rapt attention that bordered on unsettling. She repeated this during each subsequent viewing over the next six months. That film's brew of glamour, romance, sidekick humor and sweetly soaring music proved legitimately entrancing, and that spell is still cast by Disney’s other canonical princess offerings: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Even Pocahontas and Mulan, the mold-breaking heroines whose movies have a whiff of homework about them, eventually made their way into the viewing rotation.

That generations of adolescent girls would find these films captivating is no surprise: Aesthetically assured (if not all, like Sleeping Beauty, downright gorgeous) and simultaneously rollicking and romantic, they function as irresistible fantasies of idealized femininity. And, of course, as any thinking person realizes, they also present a worldview that’s stunningly regressive, if not downright sexist. In the traditional princess universe, women are often royal know-nothings without a vocation (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, Ariel, Jasmine). Whether they’re servants (Cinderella) or heirs to the throne (Snow White), they’re exceedingly concerned with domestic chores. (Whistle while you clean, Snow White! But keep it a secret!)

Most of all, though, an archetypal Disney princess is always, always, ALWAYS defined by her search for — or fortuitous discovery of — a Prince Charming who invariably saves her from harm and, in doing so, provides the luxurious castle-in-the-clouds lifestyle she's always wanted.

In other words, Disney princesses have historically been nice, vapid beauties whose stories revolve around their desire or need to land a wealthy man. (Think How to Marry a Millionaire with tiaras.) It’s a winning-the-lotto dream in which the women are, no matter what specific feats they may perform during their sagas, passive participants in their own happily-ever-afters. Agency is reserved for the men, who deliver the awakening kiss, fell the gargantuan witch, or kill the murderous boor in order to then properly sweep the lady off her feet.

Both 1995’s Pocahontas and 1998’s Mulan attempted to revert this trend by giving their female leads more of an independent-warrior-babe streak — and, in the process, somewhat marginalize the love stories. Unfortunately, the efforts were half-measures at best, and crucially, in making them, Disney ditched the very sparkly regality that so appealed to its core audience. Noble but misguided, it so disappointed its target viewers that the princess line went silent for nearly a decade.

When the princesses finally sang out again, in 2007, it was via the pipes of Amy Adams in the live action-animation hybrid Enchanted, a reasonably delightful vehicle for its star’s magnetism that playfully riffed on princess tropes while making passing attempts to reimagine the royal daughter as an active player in her own story. But despite being the one who saves her Prince Charming (Patrick Dempsey) and slays the dragon, Adams’s Giselle was too ditzy and wholly fixated on “true love’s kiss” and marital bliss to register as truly forward-thinking. And things only moderately improved with 2009’s bayou-set The Princess and the Frog. While it boasted a career-oriented African-American princess (both firsts!), plus sterling animation and the best princess score ever, the picture again resorted to romantic clichés that made the film feel musty, old, behind-the-times.

Significant progress only arrived with 2010’s Tangled. Jauntily sarcastic, vibrantly computer-generated, and free of the backwards gender dynamics that had plagued its predecessors, this update on the Rapunzel legend understood that self-actualization must precede successful romantic fulfillment. Funny and fierce, it was fresh air in a genre as stale as Miss Havisham's sitting room.

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16 comments
Amanda McGregor
Amanda McGregor

Too bad Frozen had dated music styling and a flimsy plot. Perhaps we should stop being so concerned with how fictional characters set examples for our children and simply be better role models. Little Mermaid, the most pathetic of the princesses, was wildly popular when I was an impressionable youth, but magically I am not a codependent freak who gives up everything for some man. My friends of the same age are successful and independent, so Disney didn't scar them into a life of male servitude either. What could this all mean?!? Maybe that stupid Disney princesses don't matter, or that people can think for themselves. Hard to believe that though.

Amelia Ebert
Amelia Ebert

Technically Brave is a Pixar film. Frozen was all Disney.

Summer Camerlo
Summer Camerlo

Bravebravebravebravebravebravebravebravebravebravebrave

Stacie Leigh Amaya
Stacie Leigh Amaya

This article didn't even mention Brave, which I thought was truly the first no nonsense girl power disney that really took a stand in telling our girls to follow their hearts, be strong, fight for what you want, and that you don't need a man to do any of It.

Robyn Pindell
Robyn Pindell

I've seen this like 4 times from you guys. Move on

Sally Su
Sally Su

Wow it's 2014 and they just realized this? We have a long way to go...

Jennifer Bradley
Jennifer Bradley

Belle happens to fall in love... Her intent was saving her father... She goes against what society thinks she should be throughout the entire film...

Shaughnessy Conley Speirs
Shaughnessy Conley Speirs

Still, the focus is on her finding Prince Charming. Same with Ariel, who also makes some brave moves. The point is that both stories are about the relationship with the Prince Charming. Not so with Brave or Frozen, both about female to female relationships and asserting independence.

Jennifer Bradley
Jennifer Bradley

Belle from Beauty and the Beast is never mentioned in these stories... And, she should be...

Lisa Straehley
Lisa Straehley

yeah, I still don't think they can be counted as half-measures. Pocahontas is probably the most feminist Disney princess, especially if we want to take intersectionality into consideration (which we should).

Lisa Straehley
Lisa Straehley

unlike Merida? Or Pocahontas? or Rapunzel? or Tiana? or Mulan?

 

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