The Frozen Girl: Visual Cues and Evil Femininity

| Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This post has been a long time coming. I originally wrote notes on it weeks and weeks ago, back when I first saw the film Frozen. At one point, it WAS timely, I swear. I wanted to write about the sisterly relationship and feminism and criticism and all that stuff, but many people already got there before me, and have said it much better.

Like, you know, this essay by a Saami author discussing Frozen's missteps with Saami culture, or this post with a reimagined POC cast. Or this post about its progressiveness, which has some iffy points and some great points. There have been posts reading Elsa as queer, many feminist essays, squees about the incredible sisterly love, and a pro-con list from Bitch Magazine. Please ignore me as I gnash my teeth in frustration over here about the whole "omg annoying love triangle ugh" bit.

All of this to say that this is already heavily mined territory. People have come at Frozen from all sorts of angles. So, instead of adding to the pile of stuff everyone's already said, I'm taking a different tack. I'd like to go in a direction inspired by the little girl who was sitting in front of me in the theater.

If you're reading this, I'm assuming you've seen the film. So imagine sitting in the theater during "Let It Go," the much-lauded ballad during which Elsa sheds her restrictive past and truly acknowledges her emotions and desire for freedom at last. She unleashes her full power, sending snow magic over the mountain and building a glittering palace of ice. She literally lets down her hair, changes into a flowing icy dress, and somehow gets some darker eye makeup.

In the brief quiet as the song ended and the door slammed shut, the little girl in the seat in front of me turned to her mother and whispered, "Did she just turn bad?" (Mom responded, "Keep watching and find out.")

Naturally, this set the wheels in my head turning. It wasn't an absurd question -- she was probably about five years old and had likely been raised on a steady diet of Western animation. After all, Elsa was allegedly slated to be the film's villain, but the decision was thankfully reversed. It stands to reason that some of those lingering threads would remain to cast an unclear light for a little girl who's used to a certain kind of story.

Disney stories in particular tend to have a specific structure to them. There's a good guy and a bad guy, and the bad guy is the one who typically isolates themselves and gets all those obvious "bad guy" visual shortcuts loaded onto their character design. You know what I mean -- darker color palettes, heavy eye makeup, likes to hang out in shadows, very thin and emotive eyebrows, all that stuff.

That little girl got me thinking about how we perceive "badness" in women, and how young we start to learn those cues. An older viewer can watch that scene and understand the lyrics, realize the optimistic nature of that scene, and understand that Elsa is celebrating her freedom, not singing a villain's song. This young viewer, however, just saw the isolation, the clothing change, the loose hair, the cocked eyebrow and smile. To her, this indicated that Elsa might have "turned bad."

I don't think that a five-year-old child was making complex connections like "she's breaking free of preconceived norms and taking her life into her own hands, and that makes her a BAD GIRL!" No, I think it's much more general than that. It's the visual cues. Disney villains tend to stick to specific formats. The lines of their faces and bodies are sharper. They're often either rail-thin or very fat (and if fat, shown to be fat due to living in excess). Their clothing or color palettes are markedly different from the hero's, often skewing darker. Their eyes are hooded, their makeup dark. Even the men occasionally don eyeliner.

Speaking of male villains, this is a great post illustrating the ways in which they're often made effeminate, "camp," or "sissy," which are all coded stereotypes for gay men. But I digress.

Filmmakers rely on these cues often. Color theory is heavily utilized in film, comics, and many other visual mediums. It's shorthand for conveying information to the audience quickly -- this is your hero, this is your villain. The problem is that this shorthand is often conveying some pretty negative stereotypes. In the case of women, "evilness" is conveyed through choice of clothing, makeup, and attitude.

The sweet, innocent heroines typically wear very little or no makeup, allowing their natural beauty to charm their suitors. They're young and are clothed in simple outfits or bright, happy colors. They're charming, kind, accommodating, surrounded by friends. This has very sloooooowly been changing with newer additions to Disney's canon, but the history is still there.

Villainous women, on the other hand, are typically older -- once you reach a certain age, it seems innocence and charm no longer apply. Their outfits are elaborate, dark, sharp. They're often shown all alone save for a possible trusty evil sidekick or two. Introverts? Nah, they're clearly alone because no one likes them!

This sort of media message can sow a lot of not-so-great seeds in young minds. Certain kinds of femininity are good, others are bad. Heavy makeup is a bad thing. Good people are surrounded by others, bad people are alone. You can make assumptions about people based on what they look like, not who they are. Certain fashion statements and mannerisms indicate a person should be distrusted. 

This is a hard-line pattern that kids learn young in the media, and it can be very hard to shake. It seems small, but it's quickly and easily compounded. Colors are powerful.

So thank goodness Frozen took the direction that it did. This was the first Disney film that really caught me off guard with regard to villain because they completely flipped the script. The isolated woman with the purple eyeshadow got to be free AND a hero, and the perfect Prince Charming type who seemed so endearing turned out to be a snake in the grass. That little girl needed to see that she can't rely on visual cues to tell her what good and bad really looks like.

We still have miles to go, but Frozen was perhaps a small step in the right direction. It wasn't perfect -- there was still a marked lack of notable female characters vs male characters (yes, the snowman and reindeer count as male characters). A subverted love story, but ultimately a heterosexual happily-ever-after anyway. The constant refrain of "omg so crazy" used for laughs when Kristoff tries to introduce the trolls. Speaking of the trolls... kind of weird.

Even so, there was a lot to love. A beautiful sister-sister relationship, fantastic music, surprisingly un-Disney-like plot twists, and some really cute lines. I hope that little girl left the theater with a lot more questions for her mother.


{ bluestgirlblog } at: February 5, 2014 at 7:24 AM said...

...and Elsa is sexy! Along with the stronger eyeshadow, and letting-her-hair-down, her ice queen dress is much more form fitting around the hips, has a slit up the side, and when she walks out the door of her new fabulous palace, she STRUTS and her hips sway. It's not risque, really, but I am used to seeing "openly, knowingly, sexy" as coded evil in women. Ursula and Mother Gothel strut and shimmy and vamp and are evil. Good girls are attractive and appealing romantically, but not openly sexy.

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: February 5, 2014 at 8:37 AM said...

Another excellent point! :)

{ Kristan Hoffman } at: February 5, 2014 at 9:03 AM said...

Very interesting and thoughtful post (as usual). :)

Also interesting: I read the "sexy" bit differently than bluestgirlblog did. I found it off-putting that, in order for her to finally reach her full awesomeness, Elsa had to become male-gaze-sexy. She was very attractive already. What did her clothes or the way she walked have to do with anything? Why couldn't she have "let loose" in pants (which are arguably far more comfortable than a form-fitting dress) just for example? I guess I'm not sure I like the subtle message that might send to girls about what "freedom" looks like.

The writer/director Jennifer Lee had interesting commentary about that -- and about the push from the men working on the movie to have Elsa look that way -- in a podcast she did with screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin:

To be clear: It's a small nitpick in an overall good movie.

{ Kristan Hoffman } at: February 5, 2014 at 9:05 AM said...

Oh, and I should add: I like bluestgirlblog's point about Ursula and Gothel, and how Elsa's sexuality turns "sexy = evil" on its head relative to past Disney examples. I hadn't thought about it in that context before, and it might make me feel a bit better about that scene.

{ Andrew Leon } at: February 5, 2014 at 11:22 AM said...

She was supposed to be the villain, because the ice queen is the villain in the story it comes from. You probably already know that, though, but, just in case, since you didn't say it.

It all boiled down to this for me:
There was no male hero that saved the day.
Every time you thought Disney was reverting to standard, they didn't.

{ Yahong Chi } at: February 5, 2014 at 11:54 AM said...

I had never consciously thought about the way Disney (and other art mediums in general) frame their villains, but I had heard of colour theory before, and from some concept art I saw on Tumblr, Elsa apparently was intended to have dark/black hair, which would go with the original intent to make her the villain. And yes, the purple eyeshadow -- it was so dramatic! It definitely stood out to some part of my unconscious and, as you said, it made Elsa's ultimate character arc that much better.

Re: bluestgirlblog's point about Elsa being sexy, I was also a little put off by the full-body camera pan from Elsa's feet up her body to her head, since that's a pretty common male-gaze-y trick pulled off in movies. However, she does end up, evidently, as one of the good guys. As well, I can sort of consider it as her metamorphosis, transforming into an outfit which she feels beautiful in.

{ bluestgirlblog } at: February 5, 2014 at 12:31 PM said...

I think that part of the reason it worked for me, was that she wasn't being sexy *for* anyone. I know it's still pandering to the audience, because everything she does is for us as viewers, but it felt to me like the sexy was one more thing she was keeping inside. Don't attract attention, don't show off, don't express yourself--now that she isn't afraid and there's no one to see, she can strut all she damn well pleases.

When my friend and I were first SQUEEing about Frozen together, that was a really big point for her, and every time she talks about that song, she does that movement- the arms thrown wide, head high, walking forward like Elsa does. And it feels really good to see that.

It was also really important to me that there were two sisters, because it made it seem to me, like the movie wasn't presenting any one way to be (or any one ending) as The Right One. Anna has romance on the mind. That's what she dreams about, so she gets one. Elsa has no noticeable interest in romance, and she doesn't get paired off. Both of them get their happy ending. And so with the sexy/not sexy thing, I saw Elsa's transformation into sexy as "one way to be," with Anna there to show "another, equally valid, way to be."

{ Cheryse Durrant } at: February 6, 2014 at 3:01 PM said...

My sister loved this film so much that she sent me tickets to go see it while it was still screening at the Cinema and, for a Disney film, it comes out tops. I think there will be a lot of children thinking about this one post-popcorn.

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