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Progressive Princesses: is Disney thawing the gender binary?

Disney’s Frozen doesn’t set the world on fire, writes Isabelle Comber.

It’s hard to deny the cultural inclinations of a children’s film, and after a few years of jaded cultural studies worship, even harder not to feel affected by them. I wasn’t aware that my mother felt the same way; yet ten minutes in to Disney’s latest animated offering Frozen, she exclaimed: “There are a lot of rangas in this film! Rangas seem to be becoming rather popular, aren’t they?”

But the ratio of redheads has been the least of Disney’s trouble regarding minorities and political correctness. Lest we forget the crass crows of Dumbo, or the ‘yellow peril’ inclinations of the Siamese cats of Lady and the Tramp. It’s fair to say that those who dislike marginalisation have had a bone to pick with Disney for a fair while. Some of the most troublesome of these representations have been the Disney princesses, a group which usually fit the “ornamental husk” category in my mind, fit the “beautiful dream girl” category in the minds of many young girls and fit the “like a glove” category in the gender binary.

A relatively recent method of judging the gender rhetoric of such films is the employment of the Bechdel test. Influenced by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it measures a film’s gender bias by asking three questions: does the film have at least two women in it, do they converse and do they talk about something other than a man? When applied to Frozen, the results come back pretty positive. The story revolves around two ambiguous-Euro-kingdom princesses, Anna and Elsa. Elsa has the power to control and create ice and snow, rendering her able to be both victim and villain and generally ostracising her from society. Highly reminiscent of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Elsa has the illness/secret/problem (pick your metaphor people), which renders her feared and disgraced by all apart from her sister. The female relationship is paramount and creates a refreshing interaction not often explored by Disney.

But is sisterly love and dependence enough to save Frozen from the damaging gendered rhetoric that has plagued children’s cinema for so long? The fact remains that both Anna and Elsa are extremely slender and conventionally beautiful women. In real life they might look like Kate Moss minus ten kilos of flesh and plus ten kilos of synthetic wig and eyeball but on screen they’re princess perfect. Considering the film also pushes heteronormativity and has an all-white character collection, Disney is moving one seriously slow step at a time. For example, intersectionality is a serious issue that Disney is still falling short on with every film. Representations of a non-white race put the company to shame, with any involvement of other races appearing as a gross generalisation, if they exist at all. With the rise of Eastern animation and globalised audiences, it’s shocking that Disney can’t acknowledge other races in their films without demeaning them.

For a creative enterprise that is progressing so quickly in the realms of animating and art direction – the film is aesthetically gorgeous – Disney sure is taking its sweet time with cultural progression. If these films shape young minds or at least provide a guide for societal norms, isn’t it time for a lesbian Disney princess, an overweight heroine or a look into international monarchical customs?

Disappointingly, one has to wonder if intersectional gender progression in children’s cinema is for now, frozen in time.

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