Before Frozen was released in 2013, an adaptation of “The Snow Queen” had been in the works at Disney for over seventy years. Walt Disney himself loved Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and hoped to adapt it for film. But neither he, nor others at Disney throughout the years, could figure out how to do it because, in the original story, the Snow Queen herself is a bit of a troubling character. Her motivations are unknown and she sort of randomly disappears at the end without getting her just desserts. It was only in turning her into the protagonist’s sister that Disney felt they’d finally found their way forward.
Creating a commercially successful Disney princess film that focused on sisters (instead of lovers) was seen as a feminist coup. “None of the key plots points revolve around the protagonist getting wifed up,” crowed Chelsea Mize of Bustle. Jane Merrick of The Independent thought the film might usher in “the future sixth wave of feminism.” And the filmmakers clearly knew what they were doing, with lines like “you can’t marry a man you just met” and the traditional Prince Charming character (Hans) turning out to be a murderous psychopath. It was more than a story. It was a manifesto.
But the original fairy tale (written in seven parts in 1844) was already feminist. It’s the story of a girl who goes on an epic and harrowing journey to save the boy she loves. A girl saving a boy through an act of physical strength: a long and arduous journey, on which she must use her wits, her courage, and her physical fortitude to survive. Why make the whole thing about negating romance when it was already a completely “feminist” reversal of “gender norms”? Instead of a princess being victimized by a wicked witch and needing a gallant rescuer to save the day, this story has a boy being kidnapped by a wicked queen and needing to be saved by a girl.
Hans — Anna’s sociopathic suitor — was obviously modeled on Kay, from “The Snow Queen,” who gets a piece of enchanted mirror stuck in his eye, and another in his heart, such that “everything great and good appear[ed] small and ugly, while all that was wicked and bad became more visible.” He no longer has the capacity to love his best friend Gerda and he leaves her behind to play in the town square without her. But, making Hans’s lack of feeling simply a character trait (rather than the product of an evil spell) means that he isn’t worthy of being saved. And this, in turn, makes a statement about fairy tale princes — they’re never as great as they seem.
But surely getting pieces of enchanted mirror stuck in your body and then allowing yourself to be whisked away by a person made of ice, and needing to be saved by your friend who’s a girl would also send the message that Prince Charming needs a little help sometimes too. But that, I think, wouldn’t have been enough. Because it isn’t just that it’s not always the man that rides in to save the day (or the girl who needs to be rescued), it’s that Prince Charming is actually evil and you’re better off without him.
Frozen takes a basically good guy (Kay) and turns him evil (Hans), and a basically evil girl (the Snow Queen) and turns her good (Elsa). All that kidnapping people and planting frozen kisses on them until they are “blue with cold, indeed almost black” but don’t feel it because their hearts are frozen (as the Snow Queen does in the fairy tale) was just a big misunderstanding — she couldn’t help it. But being a handsome prince, that’s unforgivable.
Gerda travels far and wide in search of Kay, encountering wicked witches, robbers, and verbose flowers, and conquers them all single-handedly. She befriends talking animals, strange women in huts, and even a prince and princess, and finally thaws Kay’s heart with the warmth of her falling tears. Anna is also brave and selfless but her act of self-sacrifice to save her sister is less the culmination of all the hard work she has done on her journey, and more a spontaneous act of protection meant to show us — in the film’s big “gotcha” moment — that “true love” doesn’t always have to be romantic.
Disney’s desire to appease the feminists and create a story that totally upended the trope of the fairy tale prince caused them to miss the already “feminist” storyline of the original fairy tale. And while I don’t particularly need a Disney princess movie about a princess saving a prince (instead of the other way around) through an act of physical bravery, I would much prefer that to the notion that Prince Charming, as a concept, is evil.
Prince Charming is far from evil. In fact, when choosing your own romantic partner, I hope you won’t settle for anything less.