Thursday 5 December 2019

Strong, on-song and woke but why do Anna and Elsa have to be so skinny?

Take two: Anna, Elsa, and Olaf are back in Frozen II
Take two: Anna, Elsa, and Olaf are back in Frozen II

Yvonne Hogan

Frozen II is fabulous. Visually, musically and narratively fabulous. Idealogically, it is pretty fabulous too. Or is it? Frozen features determined young women who get their power from within, and effect enormous change through sacrifice and sheer grit. It is a rollicking, adrenaline-driven adventure in which these women identify and remedy the mistakes of the patriarchal old-order and restore balance to nature.

As the mother of a Frozen-obsessed six-year-old, I was not unhappy with the thrust of the film or the psychological and behavioural profiles of Anna and Elsa. One is partnered and likes romance, the other is a lone wolf. I loved that the plot does not centre around a love story, yet nor is this derided.

There was much chatter in the run up to the sequel about whether or not Elsa would 'come out', and to some extent Disney played along, but as the curtain came down on Frozen II, Elsa was still as much a mystery as ever.

Disney is 'woke' to the evolution of gender politics and the tastes of its audience, and is moving to avoid the historical patriarchal tropes of the traditional Disney princess storyline.

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In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2, Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) and Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) venture far from Arendelle in a dangerous but remarkable journey to help Elsa find answers about the past. From the Academy Award®-winning team—directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, producer Peter Del Vecho and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2019. ©2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2, Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) and Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) venture far from Arendelle in a dangerous but remarkable journey to help Elsa find answers about the past. From the Academy Award®-winning team—directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, producer Peter Del Vecho and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2019. ©2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

And yet. You can tick all the 'woke' boxes in the world, but it all counts for naught when you continue to embody your new-order heroines in old-fashioned, unattainable, siren-like packages. Simply put: why do Elsa and Anna have to be so very thin?

It's only a movie, you might say. What's the harm? But when it comes to representations of women in pop culture for kids, Disney pretty much controls the market. The Disney princesses are our children's first exposure to the female ideal. And that ideal is thin. Even if they don't watch the movies, the merchandise is everywhere and there are images of these sparkly, pneumatic ladies on everything from socks to lunchboxes.

From the Academy Award®-winning team—directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and producer Peter Del Vecho—and featuring the voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, and the music of Oscar®-winning songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2019. ..©2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
From the Academy Award®-winning team—directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and producer Peter Del Vecho—and featuring the voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, and the music of Oscar®-winning songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2019. ..©2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The princesses, bar two (Merida from Brave [2012], a Pixar princess who was inducted as a Disney princess in 2013 with a glamorous makeover that, rightly, caused a furore and resulted in Disney backtracking and leaving her as she was, and the titular Moana [2016] who was celebrated for her realistic body) are buxom, have teeny, tiny waists, big heads and enormous, come hither eyes. The kids may love them for their sequined, glamorous dresses and their long, flowing hair, but they are absorbing the message that to be important a woman should be beautiful in this very specific way.

Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist and NUIG lecturer, has concerns about the representations but argues that as parents, we can mitigate the risk: "As a mum of two young girls who binged on Frozen, we are eagerly awaiting its sequel. Whilst there has been much discussion about the behavioural characteristics of both Anna and Elsa, who each display strong personalities in their own right, it is a shame that once again we have stick thin figures with unrealistic features, which are not representative of the norm.

Still from Frozen 2 (Disney)
Still from Frozen 2 (Disney)

"Anything that children are exposed to at a young age can have an influence on their perception of the world, on their emotional and social development, and on what they perceive as a "desirable" way to look, especially young girls. However, it's all about the balance between those influences and the influences from their parents. The most importance influencer during childhood is the child's relationship with their parent. As long as the parent is explaining to their child that the characters they see on screen are not realistic images (nor are they attainable just as Elsa's magic isn't!) then this can lessen the impact on their young impressionable brains and allow us all to enjoy the film for what it is."

Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley goes further: "Movies like Frozen can be quite insidious as they purport to show girls as strong and courageous and yet they also carry the more damaging message that girls need to be beautiful and unnaturally thin.

"These mixed messages can be even more damaging than more straightforward messages as they aren't obvious. Viewers are a lot less likely to be aware that they are receiving these messages."

It is disappointing that Disney has chosen not to continue what they started with Moana and produce healthier and more rounded, realistic depictions of young women. Moana was gorgeous, grounded and strong. She didn't have costume changes, or fling her hair around and yet she held the attention of my little girl every bit as much as did Anna and Elsa.

This hasn't been enough to entice Disney to mess with what must be a billion-dollar formula.

The world seems darker now than in 2016 when Moana was released, the same year Donald Trump was elected. Because despite all recent waves made by feminism, we have regressed in terms of how we portray female-hood to our girls. The question is, why?

Read more: What you need to know about Frozen II

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