Academic journal article Outskirts

(Post)feminist Paradoxes: The Sensibilities of Gender Representation in Disney's Frozen

Academic journal article Outskirts

(Post)feminist Paradoxes: The Sensibilities of Gender Representation in Disney's Frozen

Article excerpt


It doesn't matter whether it comes by cable, telephone lines, computer or satellite. Everyone's going to have to deal with Disney. (Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner, cited in Wasco 2001, 222)

Pictures, photographs, films, etc. are addressed to us as their viewers and work upon us by means of winning our identification with those versions of masculinity and femininity which are represented to us. It is a process of constantly binding us into a particular-but always unstable-regime of sexual difference. (Pollock 1988, 35)

Fulfilling the prophecy of former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner (1984-2005), Disney products have become an influential, if not unavoidable part of most western children's lives. Frozen, the most recent addition to Disney's hugely popular and profitable line of princess feature films, is one of its biggest successes. Ranked as the highest-grossing animated film to date, Frozen has won several prizes and been heralded for its beautiful animation, audio-visual effects and catchy song lyrics (IMDb 2016). The movie and its characters are among the most beloved in Disney princess movies but are also, from the perspective of gender, the least criticised.

When Disney relaunched its princess features with such movies as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992)- and thus returned to its trademark visualisations of European fairy tales in feature-length animations, such as Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959)-the company initially claimed that, in these new features, it sought to break away from age-old stereotypes of passive, submissive female characters and to reflect more modern, contemporary, agentic and realistic role models for young viewers (Culhane 1992, 10; Thomas 1997, 182). However, these 'updated' movies have received significant criticism for their archetypal, conservative, patriarchal, sexist and even racist representations of gender and ethnicity, featuring love-hungry princesses with no real control over their destinies (Bell, Haas and Sells 1995; Cummins 1995; England, Descartes and Collier-Meek 2011; Stover 2013; Towbin et al. 2004; Trites 1991).

Frozen, in contrast, seems to have avoided such harsh criticism. The film tells the story of the young Princess Anna, whose engagement to Prince Hans sets offa series of events that leads her on a quest with the icecarver Kristoffto find her estranged sister, Queen Elsa, who has inadvertently used her supernatural powers to trap the kingdom of Arendelle in an eternal winter (Solomon 2013). The movie has received mostly positive reviews from audiences and popular critics for its display of powerful, agentic female characters and its privileging of sisterhood over a romantic male-female love narrative. Lauded for its breaking away from stereotypical gender portrayals and storyline, Frozen has been labelled the "first feminist fairy-tale" and "the most progressive Disney movie ever" (Luttrell 2014). Arguing for the movie's potential to set new role models for young girls, one critic proclaimed that "Elsa is not like other Disney princesses. ... Instead she is the female equivalent of a superhero like Batman or Spider-Man" (Merrick 2015), while another critic declared that, "Because Frozen differentiates itself from past princess films and slams the door on the concepts of 'perfect princess,' superficial romance, needing a prince, and the morally perfect hero, we are able to rethink female role models within popular culture" (Feder 2014).

In this article, I investigate (and challenge) this promise of change. I analyse the feminist potential of Frozen and its main characters from the perspective of visual and cultural representation, situating my analysis within the body of feminist and postfeminist media studies. Media representations of men and women have long been recognised to be a primary element in the construction of dominant social and cultural conceptions of femininity and masculinity (Berger 1972; Beynon 2002; Hall 1997; Hirdman 2004; Pollock 1988). …

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