As promised, Carolyn Rickards reports on the Symfrozium conference we held last Tuesday…
Disney’s hit animated musical film Frozen (2013) is massive. Just ask your average seven year old. And their exasperated parents. The film has witnessed phenomenal global success and is not only the highest-grossing animation ever but also one of the best-selling films of all time. Box office popularity accompanied substantial critical acclaim and multiple award recognition. The so-called ‘revisionist’ Disney Princess story of sisterly love appears to have captured the heart and imagination of millions worldwide.
The ‘Symfrozium’ event held at the University of East Anglia on 12th May 2015 provided one of the first opportunities to reflect on the success of Frozen. The event brought together academics and attendees from across the UK to discuss the cultural significance of Frozen and also consider the potential lasting legacy of the film. A central theme for the day was to explore how an animated children’s fantasy film can be read and interpreted in multiple ways beyond the target child audience.
And now for something completely different?
The first keynote speaker of the day, Amy Davis (University of Hull), set the tone by discussing whether Frozen represents a true break away from Disney tradition. She noted that the film is certainly complex in this respect. Princess Elsa appears on the surface to be a confident female figure however her magical powers are consistently restrained by the male characters in the film. Elsa is warned that she has the potential for ‘monstrous’ destruction and has to be disciplined and controlled. The paper explored how her submission is enforced by ‘stronger’ patriarchal figures such as the Troll King, Prince Hans and even her own father, who decides to lock her away as a young child. Davis offered a final thought concerning the anthemic and rousing ‘Let it Go’ as the ultimate conceit because Elsa continues to agonise about her powers throughout the remaining film.
X-men Superpowers, Romantic Comedies and the Fairy Tale Tradition
Revisionism versus tradition continued through to Eve Benhamou’s (University of Bristol) highly enjoyable paper which explored how the character of Elsa could be read as a female superhero. The ‘monstrous’ feminine figure is typically framed as beautiful and dangerous. Benhamou argued that Elsa shares close similarities to characters such as Catwoman and Black Widow because she is ‘hyper-sexualised’ – a ‘superheroine’ who is constrained by duplicate subversive and conventional feminine ideals. The repression of such ‘monstrous’ female tendencies was explored further in a paper by Samantha Langsdale (SOAS) who considered how Elsa represents the ‘wilful child’ protagonist from fairy tale tradition. Elsa is forced to conceal her magical powers and her ‘wilfulness’ finally becomes an actual source of destruction (perpetual winter in the kingdom of Arendelle). The film could therefore be read as an example of ‘poisonous pedagogy’ with negative conclusions for the ‘wilful’ female heroine. So, if the women are complex and disruptive figures – what about the men in Frozen? Philippa Parnell (University of East Anglia) assessed the characters of Prince Hans and Kristoff the Iceman as typical masculine archetypes found in the modern rom-com. She discussed how the male leads influenced the narrative and performed pivotal roles in relation to the female characters. This is particularly true for Kristoff who represents the ultimate rom-com ‘beta hero’ and Parnell made some humorous observational comparisons with Seth Rogan’s male slacker in the American romantic comedy Knocked Up (2007).
Audience Interpretation and Response
Conflicted interpretations of Frozen provided the central theme of the following panel. Both presentations clearly underpin the importance of audience research studies when examining the reception and cultural interpretation of children’s animated film. Su Holmes (University of East Anglia) presented a moving introduction to audience readings of Frozen by the MPA (‘My Pro Ana’) online community. Her paper focused on the reaction by two different groups towards Elsa. The discourses offered an emotive sense of personal recognition and identification by MPA users. Yet, this response was also highly complex. Some viewers considered the film, and in particular the song ‘Let it Go’, to represent a triumphant escape from the mental and physical constraints of eating disorders. For others, the portrayal of Elsa reflected certain ‘pro-ana’ subjectivities around the idealised ‘pretty’ and ‘perfect’ woman. Holmes also highlighted the distinct absence of food in the film, especially for Elsa who merely inhales a faint whiff of chocolate. The reaction from certain online MPA communities would suggest that Frozen presents conflicting representations of the ‘ideal’ female body image.
This complexity around the character of Elsa was explored further in Lauren Maier’s (University of Hull) paper which examined online response to the film by the LBGT (or LBGTQIA) communities. A recurring discourse focused on queer readings of Elsa as a Disney Princess who does not appear to be interested in either men or marriage. Indeed, this conflict of opinion with her impressionable younger sister, Anna, results in Elsa fleeing Arendelle in search of personal solitude and isolation. Maier examined the online response by LBGT audiences and found positive identification with the struggle and eventual acceptance experienced by Elsa in the film. Such discourses around the ‘asexual’ figures of Elsa and Merida from the film Brave (2012) present surprising readings and position the more typical heteronormative Disney Princess character in an altogether different light.
Musical Inspiration and Nordic Noir Influence
The final panel session explored the potential for multiple generic readings of Frozen. Susan Smith (University of Sunderland) included a striking audio-visual essay that analysed the opening sequence from the film. She discussed the inclusion of traditional Norwegian choir music as a departure from more conventional Disney opening credits and considered the potential reasons for this decision – possibly to engage a deeper emotional response. The Broadway musical references also abound. The long-running musical Wicked provided the most prominent comparison and the lead female character, Elphaba, shares particularly close similarities with Elsa’s conflicted heroine. The idea of Disney moving into new animated territory was considered in the following paper by Paul Wells (Loughborough University). His talk covered the adaptation origins of the film from the classic fairy tale The Snow Queen. Other inspirations cited included: Hannah Montana, Glee, Avenue Q and Wicked (again!). Wells’ paper offered fascinating insight into the process of screenwriting and the impact on artistic design in the modern animated film. The idea of ‘radial radicalism’ was addressed to consider Frozen and future Disney ventures as important cultural products and not just popular forms of family entertainment. The final panel speaker, Lindsay Steenberg (Oxford Brookes University) developed this theme in her reading of Frozen as an example of Nordic Noir. Steenberg compared the ‘magical’, snowbound northern landscapes, multitude of family secrets (behind literal ‘closed doors’) and inclusion of a complex female protagonist, to Scandinavian television dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge. She also noted that this trend towards adult noir placement in children’s media has witnessed a substantial increase in related pastiche and parody. The Snow White versus Elsa Rap Battle is one notable example!
Snow where do we go from here?
Diane Negra (University College Dublin) provided the final keynote of the day which explored themes of postfeminist perfectionism. She argued that the film ultimately preferences female failure over success and this discourse is symptomatic of more general neoliberal capitalism in the post millennium. The impossible demands of the idealised female were brought into sharp context in a You Tube video of Idina Menzel (who voices Elsa in the film) performing a live rendition of ‘Let it Go’. The video clip went viral on social media sites because of her – slightly – off-key vocals. This popularised ‘celebrity female fail’ questions the position faced by women in the postfeminist world. Negra’s conclusion that Frozen provides a complex ‘roadmap’ for postfeminism encapsulates the papers covered throughout the day on this particular issue. The vast cross-generational interest in Frozen perhaps lies somewhere in the multi-layered appeal of the film and also the highly emotive reaction audiences have towards representations of complex character identities. The conference papers offered some real insight into the success and impact of Frozen as constituting both a traditional and ‘revisionist’ film. We will have to wait and see how Disney responds going forward.
By Carolyn Rickards
Carolyn Rickards successfully defended her PhD in the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies in January 2015. Her thesis explored the presence of fantasy in contemporary British cinema.