The first Frozen movie, released in 2013, had a major feminist twist: The fairytale ended, as most do, with a true love’s kiss. But the kiss in question was platonic, the kisser not a love interest but a powerful and adoring sister. The movie was immediately and enthusiastically embraced for critiquing the staid princess narrative. Disney has been adapting fairytales for decades, and while Frozen is nominally based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen, the surprise ending distinguished it from the studio’s many problematic princess tales. Six years later, we might expect Frozen 2 to advance an even more progressive story.
And it does — kind of. Elsa gets to go on another adventure, with sister Anna in tow. The movie does pass the Bechdel Test and feature two strong heroines: They emerge from their journey stronger and smarter than before, though the conclusion of one character’s arc arguably undoes some of the work of the feminist ending of the first movie.
But the biggest change? This time Elsa, gets to wear pants.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s about time that Elsa get to trade her dress for something more practical. (Well, she doesn’t ditch skirts entirely — just adds pants to the repertoire.) How is the Ice Queen supposed to fight the elements and run up her self-created icebergs with a frock dragging behind her?
She’s not the only character to get a feminist makeover this year. In Toy Story‘s fourth installment, released in June, the character Bo Peep went from a demure love interest with a hoop skirt to a marauding badass with bloomers and an arm that popped off, a la Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. And posters for next year’s Wonder Woman sequel reveal Diana in what are either pants or leggings with very high boots — both of which constitute an improvement over the mini-skirt she has worn into battle for decades.
The trend towards female heroines wearing sensible attire is certainly a promising shift in the cinematic landscape. But it’s also, at the end of the day, just a wardrobe change. And the modest alterations in seams and hemlines is emblematic of many recent mainstream movies’ minimal efforts to pay lip service to feminism. Too often, we are seeing creators opt to virtue-signal rather than build real, complex female narratives.
Let’s go back to April and consider the box-office juggernaut Avengers: Endgame. Marvel has long been criticized for failing to promote its female superheroes or write particularly interesting arcs for them. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts called Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow — the first major female fighter in the Marvel movies — a walking sexual harassment lawsuit in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Some of the Avengers actors even joked about the character being a “slut” on a press tour in 2015. Things got a little better in the ensuing years: Black Widow got hit on less, more women joined the Avengers.
All of this came to a head during a scene in Avengers: Endgame in which all the female superheroes teamed up to help Captain Marvel. It was an unnecessary move — Captain Marvel proved she was strong enough to take on Thanos on her own — and it led many audience members to wonder where all the men had gone for this 10-minute stretch of the movie. That team-up may have brought a brief high to little girls in the audience, but it doesn’t solve for the fact that, save for Captain Marvel (and plans for a Black Widow movie next year), none of the women in that scene has gotten her own movie in more than a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let alone her own scene in their respective team-up movies.
Rather than trying to correct course after a checkered history with female characters, Marvel’s filmmakers throw them together for one scene meant to satiate viewers longing for more. It’s a problem that pervades all the Disney properties, from Frozen to Marvel and beyond. And that’s in part because the studio’s insistence on revisiting the same tales over and over again — and moviegoers’ desire to watch them — means that they have to force a sometimes underwhelming brand of feminism onto old plots in order to make them acceptable in 2019.
Some more examples: In this year’s remake of Aladdin, Jasmine (Naomi Scott) aspires to be Sultan and sings a song about how she refuses to be silenced by the men around her. Unfortunately, for the plot to adequately call back to that of the original animated film, she must become a damsel so that Aladdin can become a hero. Shortly after the last note in her “Speechless” song, she is rendered such by Jafar, as he freezes her until Aladdin can save the day. Similarly, the writers of The Lion King remake try to improve the character of Nala by giving Beyoncé (who voiced the character) a cringe-worthy “get in formation” line delivered to the other lionesses, referencing her 2016 song (which, not incidentally, had more to do with pride in her black identity than with girl power). Still, it’s Simba who ultimately must defeat the evil Scar.
Even when the women are permitted to be heroes, their ability to do so is often played as a surprise. At the end of Solo: A Star Wars Story, a supposed villain takes off her helmet to reveal that she is — gasp — a woman, and a hero. The moment is played as an epic twist when, in reality, there was a 50% chance that the person behind the mask might have two X chromosomes.
It’s not entirely a Disney problem — though it’s difficult not to pick on Disney when they own just about every major movie franchise: They have six of the 10 top-grossing movies at the box office this year. Outside the Disney-verse, Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest installment in that long-running franchise, attempts a similar trick. Throughout the movie, Sarah Connor — the mother of John Connor, the man who would stop the apocalypse — insists that if someone was sent back in time to protect a girl named Dani, that must mean that Dani will give birth to the man who stops the apocalypse. Of course, as soon as she has uttered this, any person who has seen the movies knows that the ultimate “twist” will be that it is, in fact, Dani who will save the world, not some son she bears. Again, this revelation plays on the expectation that the audience could not imagine a woman as a hero. That’s a strange stance for a franchise that introduced a totally badass heroine in Sarah Connor — who puts most modern action stars to shame — way back in the 1990s.
Given that we used to get more complex heroines decades ago, it’s shocking that in 2019, a major movie franchise would offer up lame lines like this one uttered by Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in this year’s superhero bomb Dark Phoenix: “By the way, the women are always saving the men around here,” she says flippantly. “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.” (The X-Men, of course, don’t actually change their name because that IP is way too valuable.) No doubt, the filmmakers expected such a jibe to receive feminist cheers instead of eye rolls. It’s the sort of dialogue that assumes superhero films are, at their core, a male genre and that movies merely have to give the occasional nod to women in order to lure them to a movie. Obviously, that gambit failed. (Disney will have a chance to fix the X-Men franchise, too, now that it’s acquired 21st Century Fox.)
It’s not that these are all bad movies. (Well, some of them unequivocally are.) But because they are largely sequels, prequels and spinoffs to stories created in a less progressive time, they are burdened with old characters and arcs, written for a different era. While Frozen‘s Elsa is technically a Disney creation from just six years ago, her origin is still rooted in a fairytale published in 1845. The constraints of that story — someone has to rule her snowy kingdom and wear the big skirts and have the royal wedding, even if it isn’t her — hold Frozen 2 back from evolving into the thoroughly modern tale the writers clearly want it to be.
Those strictures feel ever tighter in a year when original stories about complex women, from Hustlers to Booksmart to Midsommar — pervade independent cinema and popular movies aimed at adults. When it comes to movies designed for the next generation of girls, maybe it’s time to let those old tales die and write something new.