Editor’s Note: Melissa Silverstein is the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood and the artistic director and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Please note: the commentary below contains spoilers for ‘Frozen 2.’
On an especially cold evening last week, I noticed a group of girls with blue tulle skirts peeking out from beneath their winter coats. I was confused, to say the least. A few seconds later, it became abundantly clear: They were all dressed as Elsa from “Frozen.”
Of course. Disney on Ice was in town, and along with their adult accompaniment, they were tramping towards the arena, the closest they could get to reaching the mythical kingdom of Arendelle. With “Frozen 2” hitting theaters this weekend, they’ll soon have another place to wear their beloved costumes.
It’s no surprise that Elsa is the “it” girl of the Disney world now. She is the perfect symbol of a world that is changing for young girls and boys – and with it, our expectations of what a Disney heroine should be. While I’m still concerned that the top job that seems to be available for girls in these movies is usually “princess,” there’s reason to be grateful for the “Frozen” sisters, Elsa and Anna. They are leading the way to a new world peopled with heroines created by and brought into the world by women. “Frozen 2” picks up where its groundbreaking antecedent left off.
Pretty much universally beloved, 2013’s “Frozen” was, up until this year, the highest grossing animated film worldwide (now the 2019 movie “The Lion King,” technically a “photorealistic” computer-animated remake, holds the title). I’m convinced that the reason it struck such a major chord – and why, as a person whose work centers on gender and film, I’m so excited about the sequel – is because Elsa and Anna reflect the changing world of storytelling for children, especially girls.
The sisters are radically different from such predecessors as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Those were damsels in distress. Their stories revolved around needing to be saved. Elsa, aside from having sung probably the greatest song in the history of movies (“Let it Go”), does not need to be rescued from an oppressive castle or from an evil stepmother by a brave prince. She is her own savior.
Bringing these new princesses to the fore of our culture is Jennifer Lee who, with “Frozen,” became the first woman to co-direct an animated movie from Disney animation, and last year became the Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation in the wake of John Lasseter’s ouster.
Her rise to power is hopefully a symbol of a future in Hollywood where more women and people of color gain leadership positions. In addition to writing and co-directing “Frozen,” she also wrote the book for “Frozen The Musical,” on Broadway, as well as the adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” which was directed by Ava DuVernay.
It is no surprise that when you have women telling the stories (Allison Schroeder, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures,” is also credited with writing “Frozen 2.”) we see different types of women onscreen. In her new role as the leader of Disney Animation, Lee has the opportunity to remake the animation world, and we already see her commitment to inclusion with the list of four directors – which include a woman and people of color – of films being put into development.
Sisterhood and literal girl power fueled “Frozen’s” plot and the same is true of “Frozen 2.” In the second film, Elsa is summoned by a voice she hopes has answers about her past and the origin of her power. She and Anna embark on a journey that helps them discover their roots and finally understand what happened to their parents.
The foundation of everything they had been told about their family is challenged, and it forces Elsa off on her own across the Northern Sea “into the unknown” (which is the title of this film’s Elsa anthem.) While the Elsa in “Frozen 2” has much better control of her powers, there is something fundamentally missing for her, an understanding as to why she is so different – and that keeps her from embracing her difference as a gift. Elsa’s journey through the film reminds us that we are capable of saving ourselves.
Anna supports her sister in every way she can. She is her biggest cheerleader and partner. She is not in her shadow. She is the one who discovers what needs to be done to save Arendelle and again, as she did in the first movie, she saves Elsa’s life.
The “Frozen” franchise is also a timely reminder that we have so much left to do to ensure more women in leadership positions, especially in this country. Having a female queen in Arendelle is vital for girls – as well as boys – to see, given the huge influence movies have on our culture.
Years ago, I had an ongoing conversation with my young nephew about “Star Wars” and the lack of female characters in the original films. (This predated the arrival in the prequels of Rey and Jyn Erso.) He had all the main characters as stickers on his bedroom wall. The lone female character in the large ensemble, Princess Leia, was depicted in her notorious metal bikini. All the male characters were fully dressed. We talked about why it mattered that the men were dressed, and she was not.
At the end of that conversation, my nephew really got it. And now, we already have our tickets in hand and are looking forward to seeing the final chapter of the evolution of Leia from Princess to Commander in “Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.”
“Frozen” won’t need to course correct like this on its female characters. They have been built for the climate we live in and benefit from a world where boys can relate to the female characters in the way girls have always had to relate to male characters (since they have most always been at the center of the stories).
Besides celebrating women’s leadership in Arendelle, what also makes the “Frozen” formula work is the comedy – Olaf may be one of the best sidekicks and sources of comic relief Disney has ever introduced – and the men, particularly in the second film, understand their supporting roles in deference to the sisters.
Women have spent so long being the appendages in the narrative, and this film is the reverse – almost. Even here, the men are still fully formed characters, which we cannot say has always been the case for female characters in previous Disney films.
As “Frozen 2” rolls out this weekend Elsa’s singular journey is one where she finally learns and embraces who she is and how to handle her magical gifts. She is continually racked with insecurity about her ability to lead, something that many women can relate to.
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But the great thing is that she does not have to go it alone. She has her sister, Anna, and together – not pitted against each other – they figure out the best way to lead their queendom which (if the girls I saw on the sidewalk have anything to say about it) may well, again, lead into the box office stratosphere.