Saturday, October 11, 2014

Meta: Why is Frozen so Popular?

Though it was released nearly a year ago, the Frozen juggernaut is still going strong.

According to this report, people are waiting for hours (literally, hours) to see Anna and Elsa at the Disneyland Parks, whilst is filled with pages of furious one-star reviews on practically all its Frozen merchandise – not because the products are faulty, but because private sellers are offering sold-out stock at exorbitant prices. Feel like paying $80 for an Elsa dress

It's a Disney on Ice show (of course), a soon to be Broadway musical, and part of a spin-off crossover on Once Upon a Time, which treats the film as strictly canon as opposed to putting their usual spin on traditional fairy tales.

Both my parents are teachers, and from them I've learned that several kindergartens have extended a casual ban on Frozen, not just because teachers are being driven up the wall by endless renditions of Let It Go, but because there's genuine concern that over-saturation of the film is having an adverse effect on the children's creative output.

Oh, and apparently "Elsa" is now ranked as the 88th most popular baby name in the US. All the Arials that were born and raised in the Eighties are probably looking on with a mixture of sympathy and relief.

That Frozen hit a cultural nerve there can be no doubt. But what exactly was that nerve? Well, I've got some theories.

1. The songs.

Okay, that song. You know the one I'm talking about.

In this trailer for the film, explicit mention is made of the music as a selling point, though personally I think that the soundtrack is just... good. Good but not great, mainly because every song feels as though it belongs to a completely different movie.

But people everywhere are obsessed with Let It Go, which (just to give it the necessary validation) won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. And sure, it's a catchy tune, but there's more going on here than just a power ballad belted out at the top of Idina Menzel's lungs.

Every Disney Princess has what is called an I Want Song, one in which they sing passionately about what it is they most desire. Arial wanted to be part of that world, Belle wanted adventure in the great wide somewhere, Snow White was waiting for her prince to come. But Let It Go is different.

There's nothing longing or desperate about this song; this is a song about desire that's already been fulfilled. After Elsa flees Arendelle she realizes that she no longer needs to keep her power in check; as such the song moves from sadness and despair to defiance and joy. Directly following the lyrics: "a kingdom of isolation" and "conceal don't feel" comes "no rules for me" and "I'll rise like the break of dawn." And while all this is going on, we have visuals of Elsa testing the extent of her powers for the first time, experimenting with a few blasts of snow and finishing with the construction of a massive ice palace.

No hate for Arial and Belle, but just check out their body language and tell me which one you'd most like to be:

"I wish..."

"I want..."

"I am..."

It's a song that celebrates a girl's empowerment and self-affirmation while simultaneously delivering a giant "fuck you" to the society that's stifled her since childhood. Is it any wonder girls are addicted to it?

Okay, so I'm not saying that six year olds have psychologically cross-examined this song to the same extent I have, but sometimes the mind understands what the brain can't quite grasp. There's a reason why Let It Go is so astoundingly popular, and I'd suggest that it's not just about how it sounds, but what it says - and consequently, what girls are saying when they sing it.

The song is called "Let it go", but "Here I stand" is perhaps its most powerful line.

2. Projection.

I've heard it said that little boys don't fantasise about being Batman – they fantasise about being Robin and helping Batman. It makes sense when you think about it. Batman is a grim and foreboding figure, whereas the Boy Wonder is much more approachable and relatable.

I propose that a similar thing is happening with girls watching Frozen. Everyone projects themselves onto or into stories; often it is the direct intention of storytellers for them to do so. There are thousands of fictional characters that exist for us to vicariously experience emotions and experiences through.

In Frozen it's clear that Anna is our protagonist, the one with whom little girls are meant to relate. She's the cheerful, clumsy, awkward, sweet-natured every-girl. Elsa on the other hand, is more remote. The screen-writers are on record as saying the effect her powers have on her is an analogy to depression, forcing her into anxiety and despair – something you'd hope the average child has not experienced.

Yet for all of that, it's obvious that Elsa is the more popular character of the two. She's what the film is about, and it's all the Elsa merchandise (the dresses, the tiaras, the shoes) that is in highest demand. Her character design is more distinctive than Anna's, and she's got those nifty ice powers to boot.

Trust me, there's plenty more where this came from...

But by having two female protagonists, Frozen can give little girls something no Disney film has ever offered them before: a choice. Relatability and wish-fulfilment. They can relate to the bubbly, down-to-earth Anna, but they can aspire to the poise and elegance of Elsa.

In other words, they are Anna now, but they're going to grow up and be Elsa.

3. Storytelling Expectations and Subversions

Fandom is a hotbed of creativity, enjoyment and fun. It can also be a cesspit of misogyny, racism and hypocrisy. What really gets my goat is the disparity between fandom's insistence that they want stories with more diversity and female characters, only to react with a complete lack of interest when they actually get these things. Just off the top of my head, Fast Girls and Labyrinth (2012) are two – admittedly average – films that are nonetheless packed full of diverse women with interesting dynamics. Look them up on Tumblr, and you'll find that their tags are filled almost exclusively with Bradley James and Sebastian Stan pictures.

And so for Frozen to be a success was heartening; a vindication that sometimes the viewing public actually means what it says. They wanted more emphasis on female dynamics, and on being offered a story that did exactly that, they put their money where their mouths were.

And there's little doubt that at least part of the reason (if not most of the reason) why Frozen is such a success is because it focuses on two female protagonists and their relationship. At the heart of this movie is sisterhood. Nothing else – not the romantic subplot, not the goofy sidekick, and not the low-key villain – is allowed to overshadow that, and the two biggest talking points of the film are undoubtedly a) Anna and Hans's engagement getting shot down by Elsa as being far too hasty, and b) that the act of true love which saves the day is not Kristoff kissing Anna, but Anna sacrificing herself for Elsa.

And though this is not the first time a film has poked fun of Love at First Sight or played around with True Love's Kiss (off the top of my head it was Enchanted that mocked the former and Once Upon a Time that subverted the latter), it is the first time either of those things have been utilized in the Disney Animated Canon, which usually plays both tropes completely straight. Heck, they practically popularized both as legitimate storytelling tools!


These elements may not have made Frozen an instant hit, but I do think they're what have contributed to its longevity. This franchise isn't going anywhere in a hurry, and I like to think that (despite my relatively lukewarm attitude to it) the reasons for its popularity are based in a sincere appreciation for its focus on women and its message of empowerment and sisterhood.

Any thoughts?


  1. Its strange, I keep reading how Frozen Merchandise is forever been sold out and people are lining up for it etc, but I'm not really seeing it, either in the shops and the playground. I"m not sure, perhaps my kids aren't the right demographic and perhaps its the preschoolers that are more into it. I had a fairly lukewarm reaction to it as well, and my lot have probably watched the movie twice? maybe 3 times tops.
    I certainly agree, I wouldn't want anyone wanting to be Anna, that poor girl is so traumatised that you'd be running for every therapist and psychologist you could get your hands on if they started exhibiting her behaviours.

    On the the other hand I want to quote the hell out of your sentence on fandoms!
    I'm so seeing it at the moment, especially around the release of Testament of Youth - its a feminist movie, not at all about the guys, and I'm pleased that all of actors when interviewed, stressed that. (not that fandom is paying any attention)

  2. I keep reading how Frozen Merchandise is forever been sold out and people are lining up for it etc, but I'm not really seeing it, either in the shops and the playground.

    Maybe it's more of an American thing? (I have this vague idea that you're an Aussie, but correct me if I'm wrong). Here in New Zealand it's not that big a deal in regards to the marketing, but there is definitely an obsession with it among kindergarteners - I have one friend with a little girl who wears Frozen shoes that are too big for her and were meant to be her Christmas present, but she refuses to wear anything else! And like I said, several kindergartens have decided to try and phase out everyone's focus on Frozen songs/characters/projects.

    I'm so seeing it at the moment, especially around the release of Testament of Youth - its a feminist movie, not at all about the guys, and I'm pleased that all of actors when interviewed, stressed that. (not that fandom is paying any attention)

    I can only imagine! I've tried to steer clear of it, though I did notice one Tumblr post complaining that Colin Morgan had only a tiny role in the trailer and that they wanted him to be the lead. In a woman's memoirs.

    It's very disheartening when you're holding out for women-lead projects only to get an influx of young women complaining that their favourite male actor doesn't get enough screen-time. (And seriously, don't get me started on what fandom did to Fast Girls. I've never seen a more self-defeating reaction to a girl-power film IN MY LIFE).