The words “feminist film” usually call to mind the radical, liberal and, quite often, independent works of Sally Potter, Julie Dash, Jane Campion or Pedro Almodovar. Or they can invoke the “bra burning” stereotypes that beget the portmanteau “feminazi” accusations (thanks, Rush Limbaugh). In more recent years, the works of feminist filmmakers and feminist ideology, in general, has permeated mainstream cinema.
To be fair, however, Disney-Pixar’s Brave made similar headlines in 2012 for its heroine-tale and depiction of maternal bonding superseding the conventional love-story narrative. While I think Brave is a more noteworthy and deserving film of a dialogue, Frozen’s success means there is a growing market for kids’ films with feminist elements, and while Frozen is still a romance, it deviates from convention, which I’ll elaborate more on shortly.
Firstly, what defines a feminist film?
The Bechdel test is often the go-to paradigm to determine such a label. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, a film must have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. According to bechdeltest.com, Frozen passes. The film’s two main characters – sisters Anna and Elsa – only occasionally converse throughout the film, but when they do it’s rarely about men, with one exception: when Anna asks Elsa for her blessing to a hasty engagement – a conventional cliche that is comically pointed out by another character later on in the film.
However, this simple and pragmatic way of filtering out gender bias is not a reliable system. Films that pass the Bechdel test can still have gender bias and films that fail can still have feminist elements in it. As Holly L. Derr writes in her article “What Really Makes a Film Feminist?” for The Atlantic, “‘Feminism’ is not simply the absence of ‘sexism.’ The most reliable way to determine whether a film is feminist is to see it – and even then, the question is not a simple one.”
While some skeptics argue Frozen still contains patriarchal story-telling elements, its feminist elements should not be dismissed. That Frozen has managed to find box-office success subsequently after Brave means there is a growing market in children’s films for strong, independent female characters whose objectives are not defined by seeking male companionship.
Frozen, so far, has grossed more than $338 million at the domestic box-office and continues to see ticket sales rise after a two-month (and counting) theater-run, according to boxofficemojo.com.
The juggernaut studio that is Disney has always capitalized on the “princess film,” and while depictions of female leads seem applaudable, one only need a careful look back to see the negative stereotypes that permeated these roles, i.e., the domesticility of Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, and the subordinate nature of the “damsel in distress” archetypes where the female character’s objective is reliant on a male character such as Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Cinderella and The Princess and The Frog.
Disney’s 1998 film Mulan, however, broke precedent by allowing its titular character to have a main goal independent of a man’s and, most importantly, that did not include being with a man. But, as always, there are drawbacks – Mulan adopts a male persona, allowing male ideology to dominate the film. Where Freud would argue that there is no place for a woman in a man’s world for lack of penis, the French psychoanalyst and feminist theorist Jacques Lacan would argue this lack can be replaced to compensate for and, thus, gain power. However, by replacing, one is acknowledging an incompetency – which Mulan does by using a guise – and affirming her lack is a hindrance to her own self in society.
It has always been a struggle for equal gender opportunity in the film industry and, especially, in a medium that, more often than not, reflects the ideals of society. In their essay, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” film theorists Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni claim that film is an expression of the prevailing ideology present in society. In a patriarchal society, this enforces gender stereotypes. While Frozen is not exempt of said stereotypes, it should be recognized for taking a few steps in the right direction. Its opening scene illustrates this point – a frozen layer of ice water atop a lake is cracked by a team of tundra-version Paul Bunyans who shatter both the ice and set up that contemporary princess film stereotypes will also be shattered.
The narrative drive of the film focuses on Anna rescuing Elsa – enforcing a familial and, more importantly, female bond that succeeds the prince rescuing the princess scenario. Similarly, in Brave, the protagonist – Merida – is tasked with saving her mother from permanently becoming an anthropomorphic bear, which, furthermore, enforces maternal bonding.
Where Merida accomplished her task sans the aide of a male, Anna had male companionship – Kristoff and Olaf (and I guess that reindeer) – despite embarking on her journey to save her sister solo, at first. However, Anna is the one who takes initiative by asking Kristoff to escort her, rather than waiting to be rescued.
Perhaps the most prolific element of feminist theory is independence or, rather, choice. Not the absence of men, but the choice to be with one romantically. Merida’s lack of male companionship was shocking because she aggressively fought for her choice to her bethrothal: “I’ll be shooting for my own hand,” she states before upstaging her suitors. While Anna and Kristoff eventually become romantically involved, it deviates from her main objective in the film that navigates the trajectory of the narrative – finding her sister and ending a winter spell she unwittingly cast on the kingdom.
Female friendship and sisterly-bonding is enforced through Anna’s altruistic act to save her sister rather than herself, which she also does by refusing a romantic embrace with Kristoff. That Anna and Kristoff eventually share that overdue embrace at the end should not be seen as a patriarchal stereotype, but the cherry on top. Typically, the female’s role in film, according to Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is to “connot(e) to-be-looked-at-ness.” In other words, her purpose is that of sexual gratification and reward for male heroism. In Frozen, the tables are turned: Kristoff is Anna’s reward for saving the day.
What does this say about those making the films?
While films like Frozen speak volumes about the portrayal of strong female characters in film, it speaks less of its female directors. Last year, was a rewardingly unprecedented year for strong female characters. Some of the top grossing films of 2013 saw big box-office numbers for films with a strong female presence: Gravity, The Heat and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (the top-earning film of 2013), which combined with Frozen cumulatively grossed nearly $1.2 billion domestically, according to boxofficemojo.com. However, only two of the top 100 grossing films of 2013 were directed by a female. Frozen was co-directed by Jennifer Lee (along with Chris Buck) and the Carrie remake was directed by Kimberly Peirce, according to an article by Rebecca Pahle at themarysue.com. The reasons for such discrepancy is still unclear. Female director Lexi Alexander, makes some excellent points here in her contributing article for Indieire, but sad as it may be, it will remain to be a scathing debate of sexism and gender equality for years to come.
Films might reflect the current ideals of society, as Comolli and Narboni argue, but there’s always room for change. Society, for all its faults, has always been evolving. Films should not exclusively reproduce things as they are in real life, but as they can be. In a patriarchal era full of twerking, ex-Disney stars and programs such as Toddlers and Tiaras, successes like Frozen are still only a minor victory in the progressive movement towards female equality in the film industry – both behind and in front of the camera. Nonetheless, they are monumental and instrumental in navigating the portrayal of females in the right direction.