Why Make ‘Frozen’ About Sisters? The Original Story Was Already Feminist!

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.

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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.

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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. 

5 thoughts on “Why Make ‘Frozen’ About Sisters? The Original Story Was Already Feminist!

  1. Well, to be fair, even in the original fairy tale, Elsa wasn’t evil, she was also a victim (originally, the actual villain was a really evil troll who got sealed in the mirror, and whose mirror shards started the whole mess.). In fact, ironically, Disney’s rendition was a bit more faithful in that respect.

    But yeah, there was no real reason to make Hans evil (especially when the only reason he became evil was due to a literal last-second rewrite thanks to “Let it Go”).

    And your complaints about Disney’s handling of The Snow Queen reminds me a bit about some of the issues I have with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. In a way, the original fairy tale also was very feminist as well, since in Villeneuve, the Prince’s mom was practically a Voyevoda (female Warlord) who waged war after her husband died, and the Prince being cursed was thanks largely to the fairy trying to rape him, and him standing his ground. Oh, and Belle was half-Fey raised as a human (she had been the offspring of a human king and a fairy), and she was raised as a merchant’s daughter to replace his original daughter who died. And in both Villeneuve and Beaumont’s versions, Belle volunteered to go to the castle in the first place precisely because she realized she was pretty much at fault due to it being her request for a rose that landed her dad in hot water. Oh, and she also needed to learn the lesson of true beauty coming from within. And the main villains… were Belle’s sisters. There was no male suitor involved at all barring Beast obviously. Linda Woolverton and Jeffrey Katzenberg demanded an uber-feminist rewrite thanks largely to negative reception by critics towards Ariel in The Little Mermaid, which included needlessly demonizing the Bimbettes simply for falling for Gaston, not even SHOWING any negative, inherently ugly traits about them beyond that. They weren’t shown to be jealous of Belle at all, and if anything were implied to have supported their marriage despite being in love with Gaston and being hurt by Gaston not choosing them (almost similar to Ariel when Eric seemed to be marrying Vanessa over herself, as a matter of fact), they weren’t even involved in the planning process for Gaston’s blackmail, let alone the mob song later on. Actually, in a way, it was thanks to Beauty and the Beast that this mess with Frozen ended up happening.

    And personally, I thought The Snow Queen was a LOT better than the original version of The Little Mermaid.

  2. You make some very good points about Han’s abrupt change from Prince Charming into the evil bad guy.
    My major objection to the “Frozen” story is the same I had for “Atlantis”. In the latter, the story begins with the expedition captain, Rourke, as the prototypical super competent boy scout type captain who “surprise!” is actually the evil greedy bad guy. No foreshadowing, no hints. The same deal with Hans. If these were live action films, the character who isn’t what he seems would be played by a slightly swarmy actor and let the audience wonder and worry about it as a possibility, increasing the tension. But the character designs in both movies project an archetypal solid character who they then run a jarring “gotcha!” on. In both cases I found it taking me out of the story. Particularly so in “Atlantis” as the comically diverse crew made it plain that powerful white males are something not to be trusted.

    1. Well, to be fair, Rourke at least had his placing a lot of emphasis on “rich” in a few scenes as foreshadowing, or the closest thing to that, which is still more than what Hans got, which is absolutely nothing. But yeah, agreed there as well. Doesn’t help either that such a gotcha moment was completely pointless if they wanted to condemn capitalism since Whitmore was depicted as a good guy (not that I want capitalists to be depicted as bad guys, mind you, but still…). Actually, come to think of it, while not Disney, the first Resident Evil had something similar with Albert Wesker, where he also came across as a boy scout, yet then pulled a gotcha moment on everyone by being the main bad guy. At least the REmake had Wesker’s lines being delivered before the reveal in a way that made you unsure of him.

      1. I haven’t seen Atlantis in a while, but getting rich by bringing back artifacts from a dead ancient civilization and taking the source of “magic” from a native people are two widely different things from a moral POV. So uttering the line before they realize there’s people there is a pretty small hint. Atlantis is another Pocahontas story so apparently Disney thought it would be a good idea to do it a second time in case the “message” didn’t get through the first time.

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