image: tvandfilmreview.com

Strong Female Characters: Princess Elsa

For those of you that don’t know, Elsa is one of the two main characters of Disney’s latest animated musical, Frozen. Set in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, the story deals with Elsa learning to use her secret ice powers and her sister Anna’s attempts to bring her home. The film was a smash hit, scooping several awards, and many hailed Frozen’s storyline as the beginning of a more progressive era in Disney’s storytelling. Elsa herself was inducted into the line-up of official Disney princesses (on Wednesdays, they wear pink) and has been described as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

As Elsa was born with secret magical ice powers (which also cover dress-making and the creation of mindless snow minions), it would be very easy to put her into the kind of ‘Chosen One’ storyline I discussed in my brief look at Buffy. But unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the plot of Frozen doesn’t really call for Elsa to use her powers for a specific purpose, so she has a lot more control over what she actually does. The crux of her storyline is whether she should accept or repress her magical abilities, rather than using them to force her into a pre-determined storyline.

At the very start of the film, these decisions are made for her – her parents decide to teach her to repress her abilities – but this is because when the film begins, she is a small child. Once she grows into adulthood, she becomes responsible for her own decisions. It must be said that a lot of her decisions are responses to her circumstances – she only decides to explore her ice powers after she accidentally reveals them and is ostracised from her kingdom – but as she was not being manipulated into making them by some external force, I’m awarding her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Elsa only really develops goals and beliefs halfway through the story. Once her ice powers are revealed, she decides she wants to explore her abilities and live a life that allows her to celebrate them. But before that, her beliefs and goals were largely dictated by her parents’ influence – even three years after their deaths, she continued to emotionally isolate herself and repeat the mantra they had taught her as a child. In the three years between her parents’ death and her coronation, we don’t really see anything of Elsa’s character development: to all intents and purposes, she seems exactly the same as she was before they died.

Personally, I think this is a bit unrealistic. Three years is a long time, and given that Elsa is still a teenager when she loses her parents, it is very unlikely that her personality would not have been changed by these events. By the end of the film, she has come up with her own goals and beliefs (although she’s not so strong on the hobby front), but it would’ve been nice to see a bit more of this before her transformation. I’ll give her a half point for trying.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

I touched on this in the last question, but I’ll go into more detail on her personality in question six and focus on her skills here.

Elsa’s abilities are pretty sporadic. We’re told at first that she has powers of ice and snow, but we find out later that this translates into dressmaking and the creation of sentient snow minions.

giphy Frankenstein
So does he have ice powers too? (image: giphy.com)

What’s more, Elsa masters her powers in a matter of minutes during the song Let It Go, and in a matter of seconds at the end of the film, when she finally learns how to switch it off. In the beginning of the film, it’s established that she’s been struggling to control her powers for over a decade, so this comes off as a little rushed. Certain aspects of her powers are consistent – for example, she finds it much more difficult to control them when she’s distressed – but for the most part, Elsa’s powers are there to facilitate the demands of the plot, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A young woman with magical powers who learns to control her abilities and accept herself.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Elsa doesn’t have a love life; most of her decisions are influenced by her fear of her own powers and her love for her family. She’s single for the entire movie, and as she doesn’t spend the whole film moping about it I’m awarding her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Elsa’s character transformation is pretty much central to the plot. She goes from a very repressed young woman to a much more empowered character over the course of the movie, and she does it all in the course of one song (sung here by marines, because why not).

And that is where the crux of the problem lies. In one song – that’s not even four minutes long – she goes from being so emotionally stunted that she can’t even face an argument with her sister, to someone who’s confident enough in her own abilities to leave an entire kingdom behind. After Idina Menzel has finished belting out Let It Go, Elsa is a completely different character. There’s almost no trace of her previous personality. Almost instantly she goes from being consumed by the desire to seem normal to not caring what anyone thinks about the abilities that have led to over a decade of repression and ostracisation – and feeling confident enough to go back to ruling her kingdom, knowing that every single one of her subjects knows exactly what she can do.

I don’t think that this is a realistic transformation. I understand that Frozen is working with a very limited running time, but rushing Elsa’s emotional journey really undercuts some of its impact. It would have been very easy for the writers to have dropped a few hints that Elsa was questioning the emotional repression that her parents instilled in her at the beginning of the movie, and this would have made her journey feel a lot more realistic (and also leant more weight to the moment when her powers are revealed and she runs away). In real life, learning to open up and accept yourself takes a lot longer than four minutes.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Elsa hates conflict, and will go to extreme lengths to avoid it. She’s emotionally closed-off, and withdraws into herself when she’s having a hard time dealing with things. These are all realistic and consistent weaknesses that cause problems for her within the story, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Elsa and her powers are pretty much the driving force of the movie. The plot revolves around Elsa trying to master her powers and save her kingdom, and while she does get captured, this is mainly a device to bring her back to Arendelle rather than a set-up for a rescue mission, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Elsa relates to gender stereotypes in some very interesting ways. In some respects she is traditionally feminine, particularly at the beginning of the movie, when she goes out of her way to be dignified, calm and demure. She rejects this behaviour through the course of the film, but still doesn’t completely discard it: elements of it are still present in the final few scenes. However, the most interesting ways that she relates to gender stereotypes is in regard to her emotional isolation. Emotional isolation is a very interesting trope when applied to women: it’s an attribute that has been traditionally applied to male characters, but has also been used in recent years as a way for writers to prove that their female characters are ‘strong’.

3ZZ4
This gif is perfect (image: harkavagrant.com)

The narrative treats Elsa’s emotional isolation as negative, successfully shooting down both of these stereotypes. Furthermore, giving her a story defined by familial love rather than romantic love cuts down the traditional gender stereotypes surrounding women (and in particular, Disney princesses), that often value romantic relationships at the expense of everything else in women’s lives. Point to Elsa.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Elsa only has one relationship with another female character – her sister, Anna. While her lack of relationships with other women could reasonably be attributed to her emotional isolation, the fact that the movie doesn’t have another named female character with significant screen time kind of undercuts this. Her mother only has a few lines, and as she is never given a name or a scene dedicated to interacting with her daughters, I can’t really count that as a relationship. The same thing can be said of Elsa’s servants.

That said, her relationship with her sister is very well done. A lot of time is devoted to exploring the love, frustration and understanding the sisters feel for each other, and so I’m going to award it a half point.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Elsa is a young woman who learns to accept herself and come to terms with her own emotional issues. While her development is rushed and her abilities can change as the plot demands, she does have some very realistic weaknesses and her actions and decisions have a real impact on the plot. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be taking a short break, because of Christmas and junk – I’ll be back in the New Year. On my hit list are Bella Swan, Princess Leia, Sansa Stark and Hazel Lancaster, but I can’t decide who to target next! Leave a comment and let me know who you’d like me to look at next – even if they’re not on the list!

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7 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Princess Elsa”

  1. I think that Frozen is a huge step back for the Disney studios. And even though the main reason for it is Anna, not Elsa, I honestly don’t see any of what you see (why exactly did you give her full points for changing when you say yourself that the change is very sudden?). What I see is a very inconsistent character who is more or less a plot device – she changed into whatever the plot currently needs her to be with no development whatsoever. The main crux is the Let it go song. Everything she claims in this song she doesn’t do. She just closes herself in even more, and I really don’t see any difference if she does it in a castle or in an ice castle. She isolates herself. The praised sister relationship is barely there and doesn’t feel realistic to me at all. And that she doesn’t have a romance is in this case a point against the movie. Because naturally the “princess” gets a relationship in the end while a romance for a ruling “queen” is apparently impossible.

    I honestly don’t get it. I don’t get why a pandering movie like Frozen gets so much undeserved praised when Disney has shown that they can do so much better with characters like Mulan and Rapunzel.

    1. Once again, I’m going to disagree with you there. I gave Elsa the point for developing over the course of the story because we see her personality change, and it sticks. True, she does close herself off again when Ana comes to fetch her, but I think that’s pretty realistic behaviour for someone in her position and by the end of the film she’s opened up again and feels confident with her own abilities. The same goes for her relationship with her sister – it isn’t spelled out, but it still progresses and develops with real warmth.

      Frozen isn’t my favourite Disney film – I thought they had a lot of problems with the plot, particularly the way they handled Prince Hans suddenly turning evil – but I still enjoyed it. Do I think it’s a masterpiece? Not really, but it’s a relatively harmless movie which tried something a little outside the typical Disney formula, so I can respect that.

      1. It’s not like I dislike the movie. But I think it is just okay. And okay is a little bit disappointing for a Fairy Tale movie from Disney. I also think that it doesn’t really try to step outside the formula, it just pretends to do it by giving lip-service to the critics.

  2. People only say that Frozen is feminist because the romantic love is sidelined in comparison to sibling love. Feminism nowadays means that girls don’t need or want a man. I thought feminism was about equal rights for women not about this anti-man stance. Is that why Twilight’s Bella is so ridiculed?
    Back to Elsa, she’s definitely not the most feminist Disney princess. Mulan was way more progressive and she had a love interest. Could you analyze her too?

    1. Personally, I like to ridicule Twilight’s Bella because I think she’s one of the most poorly-written characters in modern literature – I can’t speak for everyone else 😛

      And Mulan is an excellent suggestion, thank you!

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