My mom raised me with three things: Feminism; “You don’t have to like your sister, but you can’t hit her”; and a dislike of Disney. Writing them down now, I realize that all three are more applicable to Frozen, than I thought when I decided I should state my bias. I respect Disney’s progress in representation, so every five years or so, I watch a Disney animated feature. I’d heard good things about Frozen from women on the internet, so last holiday season I became Holiday Season Carol and went to see Frozen with some friends, just like people do. But instead of really focusing on feminism and Disney, now all I really want to talk about is sisters and Jane Austen.
‘Ware ye spoilers!
In Frozen, Princess Elsa of Arendelle is born with power over ice and snow. After her little sister Anna is hurt while they play, their misguided parents isolate Elsa and teach her to hide her powers, even from Anna. Elsa becomes convinced that if she ever loses control, something terrible will happen. Anna feels rejected. There is much singing about all of this. Elsa does lose control at her coronation ball and flees to the mountains where she creates an amazing castle, gown and snow monster for herself while reveling in her powers and singing her relief. Unfortunately, she unintentionally freezes Arrendelle. Anna, with the help of Kristof, a Saami ice-cutter, goes on a quest to find Elsa. Anna and Kristof are accompanied by their comic relief sidekicks, Olaf the snowman, who looks quite a bit like a toilet, and Sven the reindeer. I’m not much for comic relief, but at least one toddler in the audience found Olaf hilarious and this is her film.
There’s been discussion about Frozen as an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 story, “The Snow Queen.” But what I noticed while watching is that Frozen‘s screenwriter Jennifer Lee seemed to be working right out of the Jane Austen playbook. And Austen is a pretty good place to go to start writing more complex female characters.
I came to Austen relatively late, only after absorbing my anglophilic sister’s interest in her. I have happy memories of watching the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries in her flat in Reading, England (and then re-enacting bits of Regency comedy of manners silliness with her and my brother-in-law, who enjoyed playing the shallow Regency English gentleman who was always going out to shoot peasants). I discovered that, aside from fine, precise prose and satirical observation, sisters are often central in Austen’s books, particularly in her first two novels, Sense & Sensibility (1811) and Pride & Prejudice (1813).
Sense & Sensibility has more immediate parallels with Elsa and Anna’s relationship, but even in Pride & Prejudice, our feisty hero Eliza Bennett’s best friend is her mild and gentle older sister, Jane. In Sense & Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood represses her feelings in accord with social expectations, while her younger sister Marianne endangers her life and reputation because of her passionate sensibility. Similarly in Frozen, after injuring the more playful Anna, Elsa believes she must repress all her own feelings and do what is expected of her or someone will get hurt. But she can’t suppress herself forever. While most of us don’t have cool ice powers, I think many women can recognize being raised to repress your own feelings so you don’t hurt others. It’s an experience I think that men share in different variations. For example, Questlove recently wrote about being an African-American man and “a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.”
Of course, Elsa is a princess, but her problems, like the daughters of gentry without security in Austen’s work, are still problems.
As in Austen, the sisters balance each other. Anna is playful and adventurous. Elsa is careful and isolated. There is some ambivalence in the extremes of sense—Elsa hiding in her room, wearing gloves—and sensibility—Elsa expressing her powers and herself. There is what Cornell West calls, “a balance of will and imagination,” in Austen. Brother goes on to say,“It’s the fusion of her own sense of suspicion of conventional morality on the one hand but also knowing that you can’t have an isolated quest for individual will independent of a social context. That could lead to either disaster or even a cynicism of soul.”
In Frozen, it leads to the disaster of two lonely sisters, a frozen city and a frozen heart. Anna restores the balance between sisters, between self and society, between total self-repression and absolute self-expression, through an act of love, saving her sister, her city and herself. And saving Elsa means that Elsa can be with others, be Arrendelle’s queen and still be herself.
Less profoundly, there is, as in Austen, a handsome, seemingly perfect prince charming who is also, inevitably, a cad. Austen is master of the romantic bait-and-switch. In Pride & Prejudice, a bait-and-switch love interest first woos Eliza Bennett and then nearly ruins Eliza’s younger sister’s reputation. In Sense & Sensibility, a dashing Romantic gentleman rescues Marianne after she has twisted her ankle on a walk, but he is also a ruiner of reputations. In Frozen, Lee uses this same bait-and-switch. At the ball, Anna falls in love with Hans of the Southern Isles and agrees to marry him. When she goes into the wilderness to bring Elsa back, she leaves Hans in charge of Arrendelle and meets Kristof, Sven and Olaf. I think Austen would approve of Kristof’s incredulous question, “Wait, you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” And, yes, Hans turns out to be a conniving heel. Lee is so sly with both Disney and Austen conventions that she even successfully leads the audience to wonder who might be Elsa’s love interest, when it turns out that Elsa learns to love herself.
Love interests are always complicated and imperfect in Austen’s work. The couples frequently do not realize they are in love at first. In Pride & Prejudice, Eliza and Darcy dislike each other. In Sense & Sensibility, Marianne disdains Col. Brandon for his “flannel waistcoat.” And in Frozen, there is something very flannel waistcoat about Kristof. He and Anna take a while to like each other. And there is, very sensibly, no wedding at the end, just the promise of potential between Anna and Kristof. The doofy guy who warns Anna about falling in love with someone you just met, turns out to be someone to date and, maybe, in the future, marry. But not right now, because, everyone’s recovering from having a frozen heart and a frozen city.
It would be satisfying for me to end this piece with a nice parallel where my prejudice is thawed by Frozen and I realize what I’ve been missing in Disney while I’ve been distracted by the wiles of cads and flashy non-Disney suitors ; that my sensibilities, my suspicion of conventional morality and preference for the more off-kilter and peculiar have blinded me to the flannel-waistcoated appeal of solid, dependable Disney who will always be there to tell me a story of predictable quality when I am recovering from an illness I contracted by wandering disconsolately in the rain. Frozen is a well-made and interesting movie. I hope they do more films like it. But I can’t write that happy ending. Of course, it is a truth universally acknowledged that little of convention can be expected from someone whose favorite Disney animated feature is Lilo and Stitch.
Carol Borden wanders upon the desolate heath, battered by rain, reading Shelley aloud before the blasted trees and a crumbling Gothic abbey.
(“Wanderer in the Storm” (1835) by Carl Julius von Leypold )
This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Jan. 30, 2014.