My daughter finally got me to watch Frozen recently. I think she’s sorry she did. Though I sense 13 year old girls are watching it with a sense of irony and a kind of knowing detachment in the way my generation used to watch Sex And The City: knowing better than the young kids who lapped it all up at face value. Still, I have been a brooding outcast in my castle ever since. Reduced to throwing icy blasts from my fingertips at the telly and the computer where slebs and men – especially men say that I’m the freak, I’m weird. That film I loathe is actually a feminist masterpiece. Imagine me now in a horn-ed head dress as I raise my bony fingers and curse you – curse YOU all – for bowing down to Disney’s Frozen and its puny idea of “empowerment”.
My evil cohorts agree. “It’s pants,” says broadcaster Muriel Gray. “The song’s awful too,” adds historian Tom Holland, while acknowledging he’s “not the target demographic”.
“It’s very fashionable now to call almost anything feminist because it has a leading female character,” observes comedian and writer Meryl O’Rourke. “But women doing things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s feminist.”
In this story of two sisters – the older Elsa has magic ice powers but her parents just get her to wear gloves. And this is a film in which the gloves never really come off. She is chased out of her kingdom as a witch – wait she is a witch who has the power to create living snow men – but fails to do anything useful with it. Where Maleficient would have raised an army of snow warriors or turned herself into a dragon, Frozen’s Queen Elsa, merely mopes around singing a Bonnie Tyler style power ballad.
It’s striking that Disney’s princesses are now most frequently placed without irony in a late 19th century European aristocracy – surely the most degenerate inbred, useless time to be royal – when they didn’t even go into battle anymore. My favourite Cinderella film, the non-Disney The Slipper and The Rose (1976) at least joked about Euphrania/Britain as a pointless tiny nation with nothing but its heritage industry to keep it going. And talk about fantasy; it even made me believe the handsome Prince, lovely Richard Chamberlain was straight.
In fact the most intriguing aspect of Frozen is how a crowd of ageing princes descend on Finlandia like a cabal of CEOs at the Davos Economic Forum muttering about opening it up to free trade. But that’s never really developed. Instead we have vague platitudes about bad men and the “rightful” ruler of a hereditary monarchy.
There is a sidelined tribe of magical “ethnic” trolls and Olaf, the camp, urban snowman which reveals much about the superficiality of Frozen’s empowerment agenda. Baroness Floella Benjamin told me how often over the years she challenged children’s writers and publishers about the lack of diversity in their stories and got told “but it’s a fantasy world”. I’ve heard the same on Frozen. We have trolls, living snowmen and a princess with ice-throwing powers, but one father told me it would be “unrealistic” to have a less vanilla lineup of main characters in this fabricated aristo retro Europa.
Most of all I think of Mulan (1998) – a personal favourite of mine and Meryl’s. Disney’s version of a famous Chinese legend follows a daughter who disguises herself as a man to fight in the army and save her family’s honour. Though done with charm and humour, there a constant sense of how our heroine is fighting against a cultural norm in which women are regarded as worthless. Mulan voiced by Ming Na Wen (currently playing an equally ass-kicking adult Agent of Shield) enjoys a most satisfying romance with an equal — fellow warrior Shang. As Meryl O’ Rourke points out: “They have an adult relationship. They meet at work!” Adult relationships are what have entirely disappeared from Disney princess films. I watched Lady and the Tramp the other day. It was practically Casablanca compared with Frozen.
What bothered me most about 50 Shades of Grey was that the sex fantasy bought by millions of adult women was about a protaganist of just 21. In fact probably about the same age as Anna and Elsa in Frozen. Meryl O’Rourke notes how often we give our little girls heroines just a few years older than them and nothing else. It’s a sad coincidence that Made In Dagenham the musical is to close, when what we need more than anything are celebrations of genuine sorority and adult romantic relationships, not dungeons of eternal little girlhood.
This column is adapted from one that first appeared in The Big Issue magazine