Contemporary movies illustrate the back and forth progress of our images of women in the culture. In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Doris Silverman continues her comparison of the movies Frozen and the Little Mermaid. She writes: Almost two and a half decades later, the film “Frozen” arrives. This is the story of two sisters and their love for each other. The older daughter, Elsa, is cursed with unusual power. She can turn everything to ice. During the course of growing up she secluded herself in her room, fearful of her great power because when she was young she accidently hurt her younger sister. A troll healed the younger sister Anna and made her forget her sister’s powers. When the parents, the king and queen, die, Elsa is to become the next queen. She and her sister fight because her younger sister Anna has made an unfortunate, hasty decision to marry, a deceptive, evil but handsome Duke. Elsa knows this and refuses to grant her sister permission to marry. They fight and Elsa unleashes her power turning everything into cold, icy winter. She is after all the Snow Queen, of an old Hans Christian Anderson tale. Everyone in her kingdom is unhappy to live in a frozen and congealed winter prison. Elsa realizes she cannot royally manage the kingdom and she departs and builds herself a remote ice castle removed from civilization.
Alone, climbing to her icy aerie, she sings a powerful song, about not having to live the life of a perfect, well-behaved girl who conceals her consuming emotions. She sings the hit song from the movie, Let It Go, with a sense of abundant, robust freedom…I would have loved for readers to see my 5- year-old grandson stand where you can see him and have him sing this song unabashedly, as he did for me, imitating all her movements and throwing icy fractals into the air—a marvelous sight indeed. Clearly the appeal is to boys and girls alike!
Although I will present many of the features that demonstrate an enhanced thematic characterization of female roles in a current Disney picture there is also a stereotypic reliance on old sexist notions about beauty and appearance .for women. As Elsa sings her song of independence, she increasingly takes on characteristics of a Barbie doll. She flings her hair about so that it is long and loosened, not the more prim appearance when we first see her. As queen she wears a modest dress that completely covers her body. In her song of freedom she wears a sexy off the shoulder dress, with a couturier design of the skirt part of the dress that is split up the middle. The outfit highlights her idealized small waist and curvaceous figure. This new look is that of the typically enticing sexy woman that she is supposed to have given up in her quest for isolation. Here is the more familiar and traditional objectification of females based on their bodily appearance that the Disney movie highlights.
In the progressive features of Frozen, there is a new female anthem of freedom, no longer the silent women, rather one of power, liberty and selfhood. Elsa is willing to tolerate and even endorse isolation, rather than fufill an insistent need to offer up her independence, and confidence to achieve security under the protection of a husband. Elsa’s willingness to remove herself from the world is, of course, the opposite of the Little Mermaid who makes a great self-sacrifice to be part of the human world the goal of which is a significant love relationship.
There are a number of dynamic issues that converge on understanding Elsa’s isolation… Elsa is an artist, capable of producing sculptures of icy beauty. They are large, magnificent structures, dizzying swirls of curlicues, gorgeous geometric patterns, icicles that float and lift to the sky. She has filled her world and it is a gratifyingly aesthetic one to behold. Like many artists, she needed to remove herself from civilization, to maintain a hermitic existence to produce beauty (Think of Virginia Wolff who needed “A Room of her Own” to depart and be alone to be generative ( Gillian Silverman, personal communication 2015.) Elsa’s isolating herself can be thought of as a retribution for her aggression, as well as, a transformational sublimation for her creative life.
The second important feature of this postmodern fairy tale is the love of two sisters and the enduring trial of Anna to reach and restore their love for one another. This is the unusual point of this tale. The movie also has an unusual ending. Typically, the female protagonist needs the kiss of the strong, handsome prince who loves her and has endured trials which free her from her imprisonment and allows her to marry. True love in Frozen does not come from a man but from a sister who really loves her older sister and wants to restore their loving relationship. The turn is toward another woman rather than a man, a really unusual finality, suggesting all kinds of new partnering which can offer love and caring friendship. I see this as an important revolutionary turn.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.