The Triumph of Frozen, the First Disney Princess Movie About Girls Rather Than for Them

The first Disney princess film to completely root itself in anything like the true feminine experience

How retrograde are many of the core tenets of the Disney princess? Consider this: My daughter owns a book called Snow White’s Secret, in which Disney's royal archetype reveals her devilish hidden life: When the Dwarfs are working at the mine, she sneaks into their cottage and joyfully cleans the place! As a secret surprise! Seriously.

Frozen is an authentically glamorous princess film that’s not only just for girls, but also essentially about girls.

That's why Frozen may be the most important Disney movie ever made—and not because it’s bested $864 million at the global box office, which puts it ahead of all of the Mouse House's other princess efforts. That haul is merely a heartening sign that audiences, girls especially, have responded to the true trailblazing nature of Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s animated tale. And trailblazing it is, since Frozen stands as the triumphant culmination of a decade-long process by Disney to revamp their princesses for today's audiences, to offer girls stories as legitimately empowering as the countless ones Hollywood makes for boys.

With this stirring retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” in which one princess sets out on an epic quest to reconcile with her estranged sister, they’ve finally made a tiaras-and-ball-gowns saga with a progressive feminist heart.

(And merch. They've also made heaps of merch.)

To appreciate Frozen’s accomplishment, some context may be necessary: You must understand the mesmerizing hold Disney’s classic princess films have over girls’ imaginations. The first time my eldest daughter (now 9 years old) watched Cinderella, she stared at the screen with a rapt attention that bordered on unsettling. She repeated this during each subsequent viewing over the next six months. That film's brew of glamour, romance, sidekick humor and sweetly soaring music proved legitimately entrancing, and that spell is still cast by Disney’s other canonical princess offerings: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Even Pocahontas and Mulan, the mold-breaking heroines whose movies have a whiff of homework about them, eventually made their way into the viewing rotation.

That generations of adolescent girls would find these films captivating is no surprise—aesthetically assured (if not all, like Sleeping Beauty, downright gorgeous) and simultaneously rollicking and romantic, they function as irresistible fantasies of idealized femininity. And, of course, as any thinking person realizes, they also present a worldview that’s stunningly regressive, if not downright sexist. In the traditional princess universe, women are often royal know-nothings without a vocation (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, Ariel, Jasmine). Whether they’re servants (Cinderella) or heirs to the throne (Snow White), they’re exceedingly concerned with domestic chores. (Whistle while you clean, Snow White! But keep it a secret!)

Most of all, though, an archetypal Disney princess is always, always, ALWAYS defined by her search for—or fortuitous discovery of—a Prince Charming who invariably saves her from harm and, in doing so, provides the luxurious castle-in-the-clouds lifestyle she's always wanted.

In other words, Disney princesses have historically been nice, vapid beauties whose stories revolve around their desire or need to land a wealthy man. (Think How to Marry a Millionaire with tiaras.) It’s a winning-the-lotto dream in which the women are, no matter what specific feats they may perform during their sagas, passive participants in their own happily-ever-afters. Agency is reserved for the men, who deliver the awakening kiss, fell the gargantuan witch or kill the murderous boor in order to then properly sweep the lady off her feet.

Both 1995’s Pocahontas and 1998’s Mulan attempted to revert this trend by giving their female leads more of an independent-warrior-babe streak—and, in the process, somewhat marginalize the love stories. Unfortunately, the efforts were half-measures at best, and crucially, in making them, Disney ditched the very sparkly regality that so appealed to their core audience. Noble but misguided, they so disappointed their target viewers that the princess line went silent for nearly a decade.

When the princesses finally sang out again in 2007, it was via the pipes of Amy Adams in the live action-animation hybrid Enchanted, a reasonably delightful vehicle for its star’s magnetism that playfully riffed on princess tropes while making passing attempts to reimagine the royal daughter as an active player in her own story. But despite being the one who saves her Prince Charming (Patrick Dempsey) and slays the dragon, Adams’ Giselle was too ditzy and wholly fixated on “true love’s kiss” and marital bliss to register as truly forward-thinking. And things only moderately improved with 2009’s bayou-set The Princess and the Frog. While it boasted a career-oriented African-American princess (both firsts!), plus sterling animation and the best princess score ever, the picture again resorted to romantic clichés that made the film feel musty, old, behind-the-times.

Significant progress only arrived with 2010’s Tangled. Jauntily sarcastic, vibrantly computer-generated and free of the backwards gender dynamics that had plagued its predecessors, this update on the Rapunzel legend understood that self-actualization must precede successful romantic fulfillment. Funny and fierce, it was fresh air in a genre as stale as Miss Havisham's sitting room.

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Wendy De La Puente
Wendy De La Puente

I did not care for "Brave" when I see a Disney movie, I am looking for a beautiful princess, not a homely girl with a bow and arrow. She had a mouth on her and talked back to her mother. What a poor example for young girls. 1) It's ok to look homely 2) It's ok to talk back and disobey. And the list goes on and on


I recently read an article that disagreed with Frozen being heralded as groundbreaking for women, and while I love Frozen (I've seen it multiple times) I agree with the statements made in /that/ article. Her argument was that from the very beginning Anna sings of wanting to find true love (a man) not to reconcile her relationship with her sister, or just find friends but to find /the one/. This is very different from Ariel who just wanted to experience human life, her prince was simply a bonus prize. The same could be said for Belle, Jasmin, Cinderella, Tiana, Pocahontas, Rapunzel they had goals which didn't necessarily require a man's love. Belle wanted to escape that village, Jasmine to experience Agrabah, Cinderella to go to the ball, Tiana just wanted to open her restaurant, Pocahontas wanted to forge her own path, and Rapunzel just wanted to see the lanterns; falling in love and meeting a guy were all just bonus prizes. 
I love Frozen, the animation, story and music are all fantastic, but once you put it on a pedestal as groundbreaking then there's a problem. That is hype it is undeserving of. Admire the music, animation, voice talents, the dramatic story, but it is not in any way breaking any ground.

Demetra Cornwell
Demetra Cornwell

This article could have summed up everything in about three paragraphs instead of rambling on and on. We got the point. Plus, why no mention of Brave??

Alex Alonzo
Alex Alonzo

Ugh. I couldn't get through Brave. She was too whiney and bratty.

Michelle Hiranuma Harbaugh
Michelle Hiranuma Harbaugh

I would have to agree. In Brave they focused on the mother daughter relationship which, in itself was a revelation. Previously, the main focus was the father daughter relationship. But, it was nice to point out love at first sight isn't all it's cracked up to be in Frozen. It was the first time the initial Prince Charming from love at first sight became a douche. That was a huge spin to the other Disney love stories. Tangled was the other way around.. You kind of thought Eugene was a egotistical jerk but then he turned out to be great. One thing is for sure, every Disney princess can sing beautifully.

Gabriel Torres
Gabriel Torres

My baby loves it and now I love it. LET IT GOOOO LET IT GOOOOO . Darlene Miranda


A woman like you is more damaging to the women's movement than a whole room full of misogynist men. Please go back to watching your old-school "mother is dead, handsome man will save me" Disney movies and leave the rest of us disobedient, homely ladies alone. :-P


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