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“The Problem with False Feminism”- A Response.

So there’s an article circulating around Tumblr right now. It’s this one, about Disney’s new animated film “Frozen.” I will state for the record I have seen this film twice and have already pre-ordered it on iTunes for when it’s released in March. I loved this movie. A lot. And like everything else I love in pop culture, when someone criticizes it, especially when those criticisms are largely unfounded, I have to respond. I can’t help it. I’ve been a competitive debater for six years. It’s in my blood.

The central conflict in this article (or at least, the central conflict I’m specifically responding to) is whether or not Frozen should be touted as feminist, or even as feminist-adjacent. The article’s author seems to think it should NOT be considered feminist, and in fact is rather offended by this characterization. I disagree. Let’s discuss.

Here’s where she starts.

“if you like Frozen because you think it is some revolutionary step forward in the way animated films portray women, then I think you’re wrong. And unfortunately, when it comes to film’s historically awful track record for portraying, hiring and being remotely fair to women, celebrating the wrong film — particularly in the sheer numbers that people are celebrating Frozen — has some very troublesome implications.”

Ms. Colman, you’re absolutely entitled to your opinion in thinking that Frozen is not a revolutionary step forward for women. But just as you’re entitled to that opinion, I’m entitled to the opposite, and forgive my repetition, but I think you’re wrong, mostly because your opinions seem to be based on a severe misunderstanding of both Frozen and the movement of feminism as a whole. To be clear: many of the discussed issues with the film industry as a whole and that don’t specifically revolve around feminism I have no problem with. If I don’t respond to something in the original article, it means I either agree or don’t have an opinion on.

Before we get any further, I want to make something clear: I am not saying Frozen should be touted as blanket-ly feminist, and I am not saying it’s perfect. Like most movies, it is neither. Of course there are issues with the continuing to white-wash children’s movies and the continuing to draw female protagonists as tiny-waisted wafers. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. No, what we’re talking about today is whether or not the author is completely off the mark in her particular criticisms of this movie, specifically in regards to the representation of women in film, a topic for which I have done extensive research on.

So the first thing our author does is talk about the lack of a marriage at the end, and how in looking at the history of other Disney movies it’s not actually that ground-breaking of a change. She even makes several charts to prove that not all that many Disney movies actually end in marriage. But here’s the problem: not all Disney movies are inherently the same genre. They are all produced by the same company and are all animated, but in a lot of cases, that is where the similarities fall apart. See, the author’s trying to use movies like “Brother Bear,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” and “Mulan” (one of my favorite films of all time) to prove that there is already an existing trend towards not having a wedding as an ending.

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 8.29.22 PM

Unfortunately, having a love sub-plot doesn’t make all these movies similar in genre. If we re-wrote this list to exclusively conclude love stories (I might even go as far as to insist that Frozen would fall under the even more specific “princess/love story” category), it would look a little differently. In fact, it would look like this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 8.29.22 PMMuch better. If the primary goal of a film is not some sort of love arc, it is inadmissible for the author’s case. Honestly, I’m being generous here, since Robin Hood, Tarzan, and Aladdin can only barely be argued as love stories at their core. The reason people are impressed with Frozen and its subsequent lack of many long-held romance tropes is because Frozen is set up as a traditional princess story, thus making it a traditional princess love story. We who love and support Frozen aren’t doing so because it as a Disney film is ground-breaking in regards to how it treats women (especially when contrasted with films like Mulan), but because it as a Disney subgenre of “princess love story” actually self-regulates the tropes that have become associated with said subgenre. Frozen is great because, much like Tangled and, to a certain extent, Princess and the Frog, it is self-aware that the genre of Disney princess movies is wrought with predictability and troubling “damsel-in-distress” themes, and instead of trashing the whole genre, it’s actively rebranding it. I would much rather my future daughters watch a princess movie where true love is not a random rich/hot stranger kissing an unconscious woman but rather a girl refusing to believe that her sister is inherently broken and is not worth being saved. It’s not the princess/love-story genre of animated films that’s the problem here- rather, it’s the historical overuse of damaging tropes. With Frozen specifically, Disney is owning up to its past failures and making an effort to change. Again, I’m not saying this movie is perfect, but it’s certainly a large step in the right direction.

Next she talks about how Frozen’s passing of the recently infamous “Bechdel Test” isn’t all that big of a win. Watch this video for a video by me and my roommate regarding how the Bechdel Test is a terrible measure of feminism and gender representation anyways, or comment below to be sent the speech I’ve been performing all year about how the Bechdel Test actually damages the cause of feminism. But moving on.

Frozen has two women in leading roles. It should pass the Bechdel test without effort; we shouldn’t be surprised. What it lacks, however, that almost every other Disney princess movie has, is a roster of supporting female characters.”

So now it’s not enough to have two female protagonists whose important plotlines/development have absolutely nothing to do with romance? Now the movie needs more supporting female roles in addition? Why isn’t having two female protagonists is just as good as having an arsenal of female supporting characters? Why do we need both in order to prove our films are making progress? When you start expecting a movie to live up to every good and pure thing in the universe and be entirely representative of every gender, sexuality, race, culture, etc, you will never be happy. And who wants to live like that? Life’s too short to self-inflict unhappiness.

Furthermore, I found this really excellent quote from a blogger on GeekMom.com:

“Let’s dispense with the notion that the finished film is anything other than an original work influenced by, not based on, Andersen’s story. Rather than focusing on what it doesn’t do or doesn’t have, look at what it does do (promote positive female role models and relationships) and does have (fascinating, three-dimensional characters). Frozen doesn’t purport to be a faithful adaptation. In case that wasn’t already obvious, the different title should make it crystal clear. (And yet those same critics have complained about the title change too.) As Elsa sings in her defiant anthem, let it go.”

The next part of the author’s argumentation is really where I started to get upset. Basically, she spends the “It’s a Disney movie with two strong female characters — arguably two female protagonists!” section telling us that in fact both Elsa and Anna are terrible, anti-feminist characters who should not be role models whatsoever. Not only do I believe she is wrong, but I also believe she has a fundamental misunderstanding (there’s that phrase again) of how stories are told.

“What else does Anna have going for her? She isn’t intelligent, no matter how many words she can spit out per minute. If she were, she wouldn’t rush into an engagement with Hans, nor — for that matter — leave a man she barely knows in charge of her kingdom while she rides out in the snow without a coat…When it comes to women I’d look up to or consider role models, especially for young girls, Anna ranks somewhere around Mean Girls’ Karen Smith.”

Let me point out at this juncture that Anna, our pig-tailed protagonist, is eighteen years old. She’s a KID. Her prefrontal cortex is woefully far from being fully-formed, and so Anna physiologically does not make decisions with logic- she makes them with emotion. She’s a scared, repressed kid who just wants to connect with someone (see: Hans, who is nice to her and spends a whole day talking to her after years of isolation) and has just found out that her older sister has magical ice powers that have plunged their kingdom into an eternal winter. I just turned 22, but if my sibling freaked out and sent my hometown into an eternal winter, I probably wouldn’t be thinking straight either.

Furthermore, let me stress something about characters in stories: THEY’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE PERFECT, especially at the beginning. If Anna only made good decisions all the time and was totally reasonable and clever and never did anything wrong, that would be a super boring movie. I want you to give me one- just one- example of a movie where the protagonist starts the movie perfect and makes only good decisions for the rest of the film.

You can’t think of one, can you? Because CONFLICT is how stories move. Without conflict, no one cares. Of course Anna is going to make some silly decisions- not only is she, again, A KID, but she’s also a character in a story that can not move without conflict. Please carry over all the same arguments about how stories are told onto everything the author claims about why Elsa is equally terrible.

“Her sister spends the better part of ten years trying to reach out to her (admittedly misguidedly), and Elsa shuts herself away so steadfastly a psychiatrist might call it pathological. She’s an absolute mess of characterological self-blame and avoidance, and she deals with her issues by speed-skating away from them.”

On Elsa, briefly: When she was little, her ice magic inadvertently hurts her little sister so badly that said little sister’s mind must be wiped of all magical memories. Her parents then spend the rest of their lives telling Elsa to “conceal, don’t feel”, and Elsa herself feels that keeping herself from her little sister is the best way to keep her safe. Elsa has spent her whole life believing that her isolation will save Anna’s life.

“Running from her problems once is one thing. Elsa is far from the first Disney character to believe — even correctly — that s/he has done something terrible, and to attempt to outrun the consequences. But Simba, faced with the reality of the harm he has inflicted on the Pride Lands, makes the conscious, independent choice to turn around and set things right, while Quasimodo literally brings the walls of Notre Dame down around him to right his wrongs. Faced with her misdeeds, Elsa sets a golem on her sister and has to be dragged back to Arendelle in chains when she’s knocked unconscious by her own chandelier. This is not a strong woman. This is a frightened, repressed, vulnerable woman who starts running at the beginning of the movie and doesn’t stop until her sister literally turns to ice in front of her.”

Then the author goes on a rampage, relating Elsa to Simba and concluding that Elsa is further terrible because, upon having the near-destruction of her kingdom brought to her attention, she doesn’t immediately turn around and face her actions. A huge plotline in Frozen is the fact that Elsa cannot control her powers because she does not know how. When Simba returns to the pridelands, he knows he just has to push Scar into some flames and everything will be fixed. Elsa, on the other hand, has no friggin clue how to fix her eternal winter. You have to stop comparing Frozen to things that have no bearing before we can get to an actual, honest discussion. Furthermore, as a friend of mine pointed out upon reading this same article, “This writer criticizes Elsa for making brash decisions and seeking isolation. This was absolutely the point, not a mistake. Elsa was depressed and was trying to hold it in like she was told to her entire life. The character did exactly as she would have done if she was a real person. I’ve gone through depression and Elsa’s actions were like a mirror to how I, and many others, acted by convincing herself that isolation was the only way she’d be happy.”

Back to the article:

“Because both characters are arguably leads, and neither is reduced to talking production design, we are conditioned to see them both as “strong”, whether or not they actually are. Frozen certainly has two female characters. It even arguably has two lead female characters. But it certainly doesn’t have two strong female characters, and two out of three just isn’t enough to justify all the praise.”

Ok. I want all of you to read that passage again. See the problem? The author seems to be equating “strong female character” (and, by extension, “good feminist role model”) with “perfect.” Her argument is contingent upon the idea that because both Anna and Elsa make many mistakes within the movie, they are terrible and should not be looked up to by young girls. I think we’re setting a dangerous precedent if role models have to be infallible, especially because infallibility is impossible to achieve. Besides, are we really going to argue that two women who, after many mistakes, people constantly lying to them, and a crappy childhood, manage to band together and save each other and their kingdom aren’t strong characters? There are obviously issues with the phrase “strong female characters,” but even its defenders never meant that “strong=perfect.” We all agree Anna and Elsa are more than window dressing, but apparently they fall short of strong because during most of the movie they make decisions based upon information that is found eventually to be faulty, upon which they team up and make changes? That’s absolutely ludicrous, and all I’m going to say on the subject.

Before we move on, I want to briefly quote my wonderful friends and boyfriend in their response to this article.

Quinn- “I don’t care if she thinks that the characters are not perfect paragons of feminist values since feminism is a complex movement made up of diverse issues and not so easily defined. The movement only wastes much-needed energy by attempting to reductively define itself along a certain set of lines or attempting to police its adherents. Rather than fighting patriarchy, this behavior, hallmark of internet movements of all sorts, only creates another level of oppression and is self-defeating toward its actual purpose. No one understands a movement less than someone who things they can define it. Feminists have to come to terms with the fact that Dani Colman (the author) is a feminist. Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist figure, and so was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and so was Simone de Beauvoir, and so are you and a large number of my friends. Ultimately, even if feminists don’t agree, they still have similar goals and are not serving them by trying to police each other. Ultimately, ‘Frozen’ is not antithetical to women’s rights. That is enough for me. I doubt Anna or Elsa will make slaves of coming generations of american girls. And given that no human is a perfect paragon of any set of values, neither should any character in a film. I think there are more important movies to complain about, and certainly more important fights to be fought, than this.

Garrett- “What is it she wants? A Disney film of all women who only talk to other women, dominate over the patriarchy, and are flawless?”

Betsy- “The writer makes the false assumption that feminist films HAVE to be a certain way. Ummmm no they don’t. Stop.”

Thank you, dear friends. Let’s continue.

The next part of Frozen that is called into question is that Anna’s main goal from the beginning is to find true love. Yeah. Duh. The whole point of the movie was to point out how that should never be the ultimate goal and there are dangers to only focusing on romantic love, especially when that love is unsubstantiated because of how long said love has existed.

“Just like every other Disney princess, Anna states what she wants very early on. She wants to find “the one”. And, just like every other Disney princess, she gets exactly what she wants. Her renewed relationship with Elsa; the castle gates being opened for good: these are the bonus prizes. Anna’s real goal is true love.”

Surprisingly,  people’s goals can change. Yes, Anna certainly started by looking for true love, but by the end that has clearly changed, because now she realizes that there are more important things (see: turning from Kristoff to save her sister). She may kiss Kristoff at the end, but I would argue that after what they went through, starting a relationship (not a marriage, like she wanted to with Hans) is perfectly within their rights and the logical conclusion to that situation.

I’m going to glaze over the author’s next few sections, starting with the argument that Anna probably wasn’t isolated from the world like Elsa was during childhood, since there is nothing in the film to substantiate that claim. Based on things trading partners and kingdom civilians say, no one has seen the royal family in a very long time, not simply the three years since the king and queen died. Moving on.

Then there is some discussion about how “impractical” Elsa’s new ice outfit is.

“Fetishised as the costume [from the movie Sucker Punch] is, it is also practical enough for some truly superb stuntwork, and the costume designer actually consulted with Malone during training to ensure that the costume never interfered with the character’s stated purpose of kicking some serious ass…The world decided it loved Frozen, so it chose to ignore the fact that if Elsa so much as took a particularly wide step we’d be able to see her underwear too.”

Elsa doesn’t need to do high-kicks or king fu or take particularly wide steps to “kick some serious ass.” She has to raise her hands and emit sparkly ice magic. Furthermore, are we really wasting precious feminist rage on clothing again? We’ve moved past the second wave, my friend. It’s time to move on. Let the girl feel pretty.

I’m also completely glazing over the discussion of whether or not the guy at the trading post is gay because it has no bearing on the discussion of “false feminism.”

“At best, the two [Anna and Kristoff] have just over twenty-four hours together, most of which is spent either navigating hostile terrain or sniping at each other; yet the audience is expected to believe that they have fallen in “true love” with each other in that time. It doesn’t matter that the act of true love ends up being between Anna and Elsa (and yes, I’ll be hitting that beat later too): the twist only works because we believe that what Anna and Kristoff have is real.”

Back on track, now the author is railing against how even though we dismiss Hans because of how long Anna has known him, we don’t dismiss Kristoff despite them having known each other for the same amount of time.

First of all, I would argue that if Kristoff had made it to Anna, a kiss wouldn’t have worked. They clearly have strong feelings for one another, as evidenced by their kiss towards the end, but given the tone of the movie I doubt what they have is “true love,” yet. Plus, if Olaf’s “some people are worth melting for” moment didn’t count as an act of true love, we have no reason to expect that a quick kiss from Kristoff would.

Second of all, I agree that the twist only worked if the audience believed Kristoff and Anna really loved each other, because I think that was the point. Even with the new love-triangle strategy, we as audience members are conditioned to believe that, in a Disney princess movie, the guy who’s nice and brave, despite not having known our protagonist for very long, will save the day. But Frozen rubs our noses into that assumption by saying “PSYCH!” and going a completely different direction. What Disney did in that moment where Anna sacrificed herself for her sister was challenge the idea that an act of true love needs to be a kiss between romantic partners. And the author agrees with me, to a point.

“That being said, the choice to make Anna’s and Elsa’s love for each other what will save the day, rather than Anna’s and Hans’, is an admirable one. Really, it is. It just isn’t nearly as surprising or revolutionary as everyone seems to think it is. The climaxes of Disney movies hinge on family, friendship, truth and honour just as often as they do on love.”

Once again, she is trying to use movies that aren’t strictly Disney princess love stories to prove that we don’t only have “true love’s kiss” climaxes. Furthermore, despite Disney “subverting” the true love’s kiss trope since Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, Disney still uses romantic love as the end all, be all for saving people. Frozen dangles all those years in front of our faces and then smacks us with sisterly affection. Then the author claims “a troll tells her it must be true love’s kiss” Nope nope nope. All the troll says is that it must be an “ACT of true love.” Everyone just assumes it’s a kiss because that’s the classic trope.

From here, the author starts railing on the trolls, which really hurts my heart because I loved the trolls scene, although once again the author is entitled to her opinion.

“What should be a straightforward info-dump turns into an awkward and frankly obnoxious song-and-dance number in which the trolls try to convince Anna, Kristoff, and us that Anna and Kristoff belong together, despite the fact that Anna is already engaged.”

She then starts complaining about how the trolls don’t respect Anna’s agency to choose who she loves, completely ignoring one simple truth about family: family wants those they love to be happy. When Kristoff brings a pretty girl home to his family, especially after years of being a loner, they are logically excited, and start doing whatever they can to convince this pretty girl that their Kristoff is a wonderful, amazing person that any pretty girl would be lucky to love. The point of the troll’s song is not to undermine Anna’s ability to choose her own life, the point is to make their real priority, Kristoff, seem irresistible to her. They are so convinced that their family member is perfect, or at least has the potential to be perfect, that they go a little… overboard. And whose family HASN’T done that from time to time? Once again, many of the author’s arguments are unfounded and overreactions- ironically, the exact things she claims to hate about Frozen’s leading ladies.

Her final thoughts:

“But Disney has, and has always had, a fine line to tread between breaking new ground, and maintaining the comfort of tradition, or it risks losing the millions in ticket sales and merchandise that comes from the old vanguard. Frozen walks that line like a tightrope, but not by actually breaking new ground. Instead, Frozen creates the clever illusion of its own progressiveness by subtly degrading what came before it to make itself look more enlightened by comparison. In doing so, it not only treads upon a rich history of compelling heroines in much better films; it manages to get away with being good enough.”

I think I’ve done a pretty good job refuting this, but to the author’s credit, we still have a long way to go. HOWEVER. Arguing that movies taking positive feminist steps aren’t good enough is just as damaging as movies with only a single female character claiming that it’s “good enough.” No one is trying to say Frozen is the epitome of feminism. But we’re wasting time as feminists arguing with other feminists about what constitutes feminism when we should be making more movies like Frozen, but going further. Stop trying to claim that your particular brand of feminism is the proper brand and that any other brand is actually the patriarchy in sheep’s clothing. That’s not constructive, and frankly, it’s getting a little old.

Dear feminists: stop fighting with each other and start arguing about things to actually advance, rather than stall, the end goal of feminism: to equalize the treatment and representation of the genders.

16 thoughts on ““The Problem with False Feminism”- A Response.

    1. Having read through this link you provided, do you then agree that the author of the Frozen post had well-founded opinions? I hope in my response I never intimated that I thought the critical analysis of things we don’t like is bad. Rather, I wanted to point out some logical fallacies brought up in the original post, specifically in regards to feminism.

      1. Having read the Frozen article and some of the responses to it, yes I think the author had well-founded opinions. Your analysis read more as an attack on the author which is why I directed you to the article.

        1. Fair enough. I’m sorry you read my response as an attack- it wasn’t meant to be, at least not on a personal level. However, I do think the things I brought up have merit in this discussion, and I do hope that you consider them.

  1. Thank you for your quick response. After re-reading it you do have some valid points, but you may want to reconsider your tone. The combative vibe overshadows the good parts of your argument.

    1. Totally called for, she wrote it in the same “vibe” as that Dani mess, who by the way has know clue on what’s feminism about. This article is great, xo.

    2. Criticizing a woman for the “combative vibe” of her argument is about as tactful as telling a black man you bet he likes chicken. It is also completely unnecessary, unless you are her editor.

  2. This is brilliant- I read it differently than Phillip, as a critical look at the points of the original paper- never at the level of attacking the original writer.

  3. As much as I personally disagree with the consensus that Frozen is a model Disney movie, and I still find myself intellectually inclined to side with Colman…I completely respect your approach and optimism, and I’m one of Disney’s longtime fans and followers. Me personally, I feel that outside the sister relationship setup, there really wasn’t a whole lot of new stuff being done here that people are praising this movie for.

    And I’m sorry, but I still find the prospect ludicrous when I think about it that: Elsa supposedly has little to no control of her power, yet can generate bridges, castles, and LIFE at will. When was she practicing to take on this kind of construction?? Maybe if they added some kind of ice mentor who taught her everything she knows but can’t help her master withdrawl, then that restriction would be believable, but the climax pulls a deux ex machina the size of a Cadillac with Elsa claiming to be using “love” to thaw the winter.

    If it really was the love that Anna was showing in her sacrifice, was Elsa using the same love to share it with nature? WIth Arendelle? What kind of control was this love granting her that it hadn’t before? And please don’t say love is just mysterious….I feel I could equally say that courage can generate hummus during a snack shortage during your grad party.

    Again, respectfully disagree, but respect nonetheless. You certainly put it better than Lindsay Ellis did, in my opinion.

    1. Well, take note that Elsa never unfroze any of the things she made. I think that this IMDb user’s take on the “plot holes” in Frozen is helpful as is this deviantART’s Elsa analysis. I think that they give some pretty insightful views on Elsa’s powers.

      IMDb: http://m.imdb.com/title/tt2294629/board/threads/228201739/

      deviantART: http://kittengoo.deviantart.com/journal/The-Disney-Vault-Elsa-analysis-426271341

      NOTE: I am not trying to change your opinion at all.

  4. My issue with Frozen is the plot mechanics, which is where Dani and I share some concerns. She should have just stayed on that subject, because her thesis of the “false feminism” wasn’t very persuasive for me. How is the central theme of sisterly love not anything but a move in the right direction? The only real argument I can get from Dani is that she thinks that robbing Anna’s agency isn’t in line with what she considers a strong female role. That troll scene (and perhaps the trolls in general) were a silly and illogical plot device, but I can’t see how chasing down her sister and jumping in front of a sword weren’t the actions of someone strong willed and completely in control of their situation DESPITE having memories ripped out of her. Heck, Anna was arguably much stronger in her convictions than Elsa. She was the one doing all the reaching out. If you want to see a funny take on all this, go see the new HISHE Frozen spoof in youtube.

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