Gender Stereotypes and Disney’s Frozen

13 Apr

Teachers are used to using touchstone texts to teach children–books they go back to over and over again to teach reading skills and strategies.  The benefit is that once children know a story very well, they can stop reading (or listening) just for plot, and start to do some deeper thinking work.  The same can be true of films.  Once a child has seen a film once (or 10 times, since kids like repetition) they can start to go beyond their first impressions.

Previously I talked about using Frozen to introduce children to the idea that characters are complicated–how they are on the inside doesn’t necessarily match what they do, say, or look like.  We can also use Frozen to introduce children to the idea of gender stereotypes.

Much has been made of the role of the two main characters, Princess Elsa and Princess Anna.  Some laud Disney for finally breaking out of the traditional helpless-princess-waiting-for-her-prince stereotype, whereas others blast the film for teaching children (girls in particular) that heroines are always beautiful, helpless without a man, and mostly just out to find their prince.

The controversy makes this a great film to both look at how women are stereotyped (or not) and for children to form and defend their own opinions based on evidence.  Both are important skills for students in the new Common Core State Standards.

How can we help children begin to think about the role of women using Frozen? We might start by using a story they know very well with a clear gender disparity–say, Cinderella.  Cinderella suggests some pretty crazy ideas about women, such as:

  • women’s role is domestic–cleaning, cooking, caring for the house
  • the goal of a woman is to marry well (a prince if you can!)
  • it takes an enchanted dress to catch said prince
  • ugly on the outside = ugly on the inside (stepsisters and stepmother) and vice versa

Cinderella is about as anti-feminist a fairy tale as you can get.  Then we look at a film that is one of the most feminist of the cartoons Disney has made–Mulan.  Here we have a heroine who:

  • fights a war in disguise to save her father
  • saves the hero, and leads the fight to take back the palace and save the emperor
  • rejects the traditional role of subservient daughter whose main goal is to make a match

(Some will disagree with me that Mulan is a feminist film, which is fine.  If you don’t like Mulan as an example, you can always go with The Paperbag Princess, where the prince needs rescuing from a dragon and the plucky princess saves the day, turning the traditional princess tale on its head).

After using these two tales as models, we could then look at Frozen.  We could show some clips from the film and have the children discuss if they promoted gender stereotypes or subverted them.

Clips that  promote stereotypes could be:

  • where Elsa sings “Let it Go and changes from a buttoned up, repressed princess to a sexy siren.  Seriously–why does “letting go” involved sashaying hips, whipping free your long blond hair, and a slit up to the thigh on a sexy sparkling dress?

  • Anna and Kristoff’s meeting and first song about true love.  Sure, this is ultimately sort of a parody on Disney princess and love at first sight, but it doesn’t negate the fact that one of Anna’s main goals in life is to meet a man and get married.

Clips that might support the idea that Frozen is a feminist film:

  • when Anna goes in search of her sister alone, leaving the male (Hans) to watch the castle
  • When Anna chooses to save her sister rather than run to her man (Kristoff) ultimately saving herself.
  •  Elsa saves Anna with true love’s kiss-the love of a sister, not a man, being the important distinction.

Students could also discuss elements that run through the whole movie–how this is a film where the two main characters are both female (pro-feminist) or how those female characters are both drawn in exaggerated proportions, where there eyes are bigger than their wrists and the fact that they’re tiny compared to the men (pro-stereotype.)

by Amanda Marcotte in Slate, Anna in Frozen: Her Eyes are Bigger Than Her Wrists,

Whole class discussion, complete with t-charts and partner conversation, could lead to class debates and finally individual essays where students argue and support their opinion about the film.  The important idea isn’t whether or not Frozen is actually a feminist movie or promoting stereotypes, it’s the idea that children can be noticing how the sexes are portrayed in films and then forming (and defending) their opinion.


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