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Disney’s Blockbuster ‘Frozen’ Scores Points for Feminism—With Jewish Spirit

Male reviewers who’ve been lukewarm about the Golden Globe-winning children’s movie have failed to understand its true spirit

Marjorie Ingall
January 15, 2014

Frozen won the Golden Globe for Best Animated Picture this week and was nominated for an Oscar a few days later. And it just keeps raking in the box office. Last week, it took in nearly $20 million, more than any movie ever in its sixth week of release except Avatar and Titanic. It’s currently the No. 4 animated movie of all time (after The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and Up) and the No. 2 animated Disney movie of all time. And remember, it’s still in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter predicts it will overtake The Lion King.

But most of the reviews have been meh. Critics agree that the animation is gorgeous but find the narrative confusing and/or complain that the characters aren’t interesting. The New Yorker said of the plot: “Everything is set for vengeance and spite, but nothing happens.” Time Out New York: “Goes tediously through the motions.” The Toronto Globe & Mail: “While there’s lots of talk about true love and melting hearts, the emotions never quite ignite.” Variety: “Longer on striking visuals than on truly engaging or memorable characters.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “As a story, Frozen is mush.”

All these critics are boys. This movie is an extraordinary, subversive story about sisterhood, and it is funny and surprising and weird, and they do not get it because they are writing with their penises.

Quick plot summary: The movie is very, very loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Ice Queen.” Elsa and Anna are princesses of Arendelle. Big sis Elsa has the magical power to create snow and ice, which is super-fun for the sisters until there’s an accident and little Anna gets hurt. The king and queen order Elsa not to use her magic anymore. So for Elsa, power quickly becomes tied to anxiety and worries about being different. (She sings, “Don’t let them in/ Don’t let them see/ Be the good girl you always have to be/ Conceal, don’t feel/ Put on a show/ Make one wrong move and everyone will know.”) After the king and queen die in a shipwreck (another innovation for Disney: having both parents die instead of just the mother!), Elsa tries to maintain chilly, controlled distance from her sister and the kingdom. But after terrifying the populace with another accidental display of power (a literal wall of ice she puts up between herself and everyone else) she banishes herself to the frozen mountains and (unbeknownst to her) freezes the entire kingdom in the bargain. Anna leaves her new beau to rescue her sister and save Arendelle, roping in a passing shaggy-haired ice harvester and a goofy snowman to help.

Here’s why I loved this movie, and why I think it resonates with so many moviegoers:

1. Josie has a T-shirt that reads “self-rescuing princess.” Not only is Anna a self-rescuing princess, she’s even better: an other-rescuing princess.

2. In the recent animated movies Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, both of which my family enjoyed, the female lead is brave and strong, but she needs a guy to become her best self. Tiana is too uptight and needs Naveen to have fun; Rapunzel is too tentative and needs Flynn to dream bigger than just going to see some lanterns. But in Frozen, Anna’s awesome from the start, and Elsa is saved by sisterly love, not a dude.

3. Elsa learning to embrace her power literally made me cry. It seemed a clear metaphor for not being afraid of your own strength, not shying away from the intensity of your own feelings, not being afraid of what makes you different, not trying so hard to fit in that you negate everything that makes you special. What a wonderful message for little girls and gay men—the two surefire audiences for Disney musicals.

4. Siblings rock. My friend Katie’s daughter Tess, age 6, totally got the message. Katie reports that Tess had two observations after seeing the movie for the second time: 1) “The whole problem started because Elsa tried to hide who she really was. Her parents made her hide it and she hided it too instead of being proud of what she could do. You shouldn’t be afraid to be everything that’s inside you.” (Sob!) And 2) “If I ever got in trouble like that, Jamie would help me like that, and I would help him like that, because we have true love just like those sisters did.”

5. The songs, by Robert Lopez (composer of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are great. And if you listen repeatedly (as um, I did) the songs only get more smart and nuanced. Anna’s big song about yearning for romance (“For the First Time in Forever”) is really about yearning for companionship because her sister has shut her out. The big troll number, “Fixer Upper” is as much about familial love as it is about romance. Anna’s duet with Prince Hans is almost a parody of Disney love songs and the over-the-top depiction of giddy love at first sight. (With plenty of plot clues.) And Idina Menzel’s belting of “Let It Go,” the anthem of dumping fears about what other people think, is shiver-inducing.

6. I hate Disney sidekicks. They’re all Jar-Jar Binks to me. And the previews made me prepared to hate the stupid little snowman. Wrong. As voiced by Josh Gad, he was bizarre (in a good way) and hysterical.

What’s with the determination not to see this film in all its subversive, feminist glory? Variety’s critic, in his meh-to-positive review, characterized the film as “an always enjoyable tale of mysterious magic, imperiled princesses, and square-jawed men of action.” Exqueeze me? Imperiled princesses? The one adjective you come up with for two women who are the main characters and do-ers in this story is “imperiled”? And I’m sorry, who are the square-jawed men of action here? I see one love-song-singing, unthreatening curvy-jawed prince, and one cute and affable beta-male reindeer-sleigh-driver who becomes a man of action after he’s pressed into service by one of the princesses to save the other princess, who has cast the entire kingdom into snowy hell and uses magic to build herself an icy stronghold in the mountains and is deemed villainous by everyone except her sister. Imperiled? Really?

Even the critics who got that the movie had a feminist spirit mostly dismissed it. The New York Times shrugged, “Frozen, for all its innovations, is not fundamentally revolutionary. Its animated characters are the same familiar, blank-faced, big-eyed storybook figures. But they are a little more psychologically complex than their Disney forerunners. Its princesses may gaze at a glass ceiling, but most are not ready to shatter it.” Wait, what? It’s true, animated movies fall down spectacularly when it comes to body-image diversity. This is no exception. (My daughter Josie observed that the princesses’ eyes are wider than their arms, and I know of someone who dismissed the film as “Battle of the Snow Barbies.”) But how are they not shattering a glass ceiling? It’s a cartoon in which both of the leads are female, the love story is secondary to the tale of the sisters’ relationship, and oh yeah, audiences are flocking to see it in record numbers despite the tepid reviews. (I did laugh at the conservative New York Post’s response: “[Disney] too often panics at feminist pressure and orders up formulaically ‘strong, capable, smart’ girls.” Heaven forfend! Love those quote marks. Who’s really panicking here, monkeyboy?)

And yes, I do think this movie has a Jewish-inflected spirit. Not only in that Josh Gad is the Jewy-Jewiest nebbishy-voiced singer who has ever played a Mormon on Broadway. And not only because Elsa builds a creature very much like a snow-golem. But because the portrayal of a perfectionist girl who worries that she needs to be perfect is very resonant to American Jews. As is the concern about passing, about not calling attention to difference and otherness. When we think about American Jewish women who have succeeded in our culture—the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs, Barbra Streisands, Bette Midlers, Idina Menzels, Bella Abzugs, Dianne Feinsteins, and Debbie Wasserman Schultzes—most have been unapologetic about seeking power and authority, unconcerned about looking demure and modest like old-school Disney princesses.

Furthermore, the humor in the movie is awfully Jewish. The snowman’s big number, about how much he’s looking forward to summer, is pitch-black in its cluelessness. (He soft-shoes cheerily: “Bees’ll buzz, kids’ll be blowin’ dandelion fuzz/ And I’ll be doin’ whatever snow does in summer!/ A drink in my hand, my snow up against the burnin’ sand/ Probably getting gorgeously tanned in summer!/ I’ll finally see a summer breeze blow away a winter storm/ And find out what happens to solid water when it gets warm.”) The way he’s perpetually attacked and bounces back with a smile (“Oh, look at that, I’ve been impaled!” he observes after being pierced with an icicle) feels Jewish, too.

But most of the reason this movie works is that it’s funny and tuneful and turns Disney expectations on their heads (no spoilers here!) … and takes female power seriously. We wanted to love Pixar’s Brave, which had a female lead and gorgeous Celtic-influenced animation, but it actually did have the weak plot critics accused Frozen of having. Of course Merida, the best archer in the kingdom, shouldn’t have to wear constricting fancy-lady clothes and put down her bow. Duh. The plot of Frozen is altogether stranger, more surprising, and more emotionally nuanced.

And the heroines are more complex. Merida was an action hero, but she was essentially the straight man. She didn’t get the laughs; it was as if the filmmakers didn’t trust her to carry her own movie. (Or worried that boys wouldn’t show up if there weren’t dudes delivering the dude humor.) Kristen Bell’s Anna is funny as well as in charge. (And she makes her own burp/fart jokes.) (I realize that not everyone will think this is a victory for womankind.)

Recently Vocativ (the digital newsroom startup run by Israeli entrepreneur Mati Kochavi) did a study of the 50 top-grossing films of 2013 sorted according to whether they passed the Bechdel test. The test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel (who attributes it to her friend Liz Wallace), asks whether a movie a) contains two female characters who b) have at least one conversation with each other about c) something other than a man. You’d be shocked at how few movies pass. (The original Star Wars movies and all the Lord of the Rings movies, The Social Network, Monsters University, Anchorman 2, and Pacific Rim all fail.) Vocativ’s study found that in 2013, the movies that passed made a total of $4.22 billion at the box office; the ones that failed made $2.66 billion. (Vocativ didn’t count Gravity in either side of the tally, since it has only two main characters, one of them Sandra Bullock, who has a lot more screen time than George Clooney.) My friend Linda’s 10-year-old daughter Amelia observed that not only does Frozen pass the test handily, it even passes a sort of reverse Bechdel test: Almost all the guys’ conversations in the movie are about a woman. Heck yeah, that’s radical.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.