This parent-child discussion guide for Disney/Pixar’s Brave is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
Frozen (2013): A parent-child discussion guide
by Rebecca Hains, Ph.D.
Frozen is the story of the relationship between two sisters, the princesses Elsa and Anna. As a small child, Elsa, the eldest, has magical powers over ice and snow that she doesn’t know how to fully control and with which she accidentally injures her sister. The girls’ father, the King of Arendelle, learns from a magical troll king named Grand Pabbie that Elsa must learn to control her powers soon, but that fear will be her enemy.
Upon hearing this news, the King reacts swiftly and decisively. He locks the kingdom’s gates and cuts off Elsa’s contact with most other people, including Anna. Meanwhile, Anna languishes in loneliness with no comprehension of why her sister won’t play with her anymore. . Later, when the sisters are teenagers, the King and Queen of Arendelle die at sea, and Elsa is still so wracked with anxiety about her powers that she cannot spend time with her grieving sister.
Three years later, for Elsa’s coronation as Queen, the kingdom’s gates are temporarily reopened. Anna delights in being surrounded by people for the first time since her early childhood. She is so swept away that she decides to wed Prince Hans, whom she just met. When Elsa replies that she can’t do so, Elsa and Anna fight; Elsa, upset, loses control and accidentally reveals her powers to everyone. She flees into the mountains.
Anna enlists the help of a mountain man, Kristoff, and a magical snowman, Olaf, to find Elsa. Anna informs Elsa that her powers set off an eternal winter, but Elsa doesn’t know how to undo the spell. Elsa accidentally injures Anna again, and when Kristoff brings Anna to Grand Pabbie, he reports that only an act of true love will heal Anna’s frozen heart. Anna hopes that a kiss from Hans will save her but learns that Hans was only feigning love to gain control of Arendelle. He leaves Anna to die and sets out to kill Elsa.
In the end, Anna rallies and rescues Elsa—through an act of true love with which she inadvertently mends her own heart. With the sudden insight that love thaws, Elsa reverses the spell of eternal winter to general rejoicing and happiness.
Here are some suggestions for discussion, roughly categorized by age level. Use these as a rough guide: tailor them to your own child’s level.
- The Pretty Princess Mandate
Frozen offers an opportunity to explore the narrowness of the Pretty Princess Mandate because Elsa and Anna’s appearances are remarkably similar. Their eyes are incredibly large (larger than their wrists) and their noses are incredibly small. Their waists are diminutive, too, which in children’s media and toys is always a cause of concern due to the implications for girls’ body images. (The princesses’ waists are smaller than their heads and only about as wide as their hands are long.)
In contrast, the male lead characters, Hans and Kristoff, are substantially larger—a gross exaggeration of the relatively small average physical differences between real men and women. The underlying message of this dimorphism is that female bodies are most desirable when they take up as little space as possible, while men’s bodies are most valued when they are expansive—a message that can promote self-consciousness and body image issues.
With children ages 4 and 5, parents can address these issues by co-viewing the movie and talking back to the screen, modeling critical viewing. Your child will listen to what you say. Consider making comments such as the following:
- “Anna and Elsa look very similar to one another. Their eyes are very, very big and their noses are very, very small. They are pretty, but there are lots of ways people can be pretty! Sometimes sisters look very different from each other, and that’s okay. Everyone is pretty in their own way.”
- When Anna tells Hans, “I’m awkward! You’re gorgeous,” and Hans takes Anna’s hand, you can briefly pause the movie to point this out: “Look—in this scene, you can see that Anna’s eyes are larger than her wrists. Do you see it, too? That’s so strange! Nobody has eyes larger than their wrists. I don’t like it when the people who make movies make girls’ bodies so unrealistic. It’s not healthy for girls—sometimes it makes girls think their bodies aren’t good enough, even though they are fine the way they are. That really bothers me.”
Make it real: After viewing, you could pull out some albums of family photos, old and new. Explore them with your child, paying special attention to the differences and similarities between siblings in your own extended family. How similar or different do sisters look in comparison to one another? What about brothers?
With children ages 6 to 8, you can make these points while co-viewing, but later—perhaps over dinner or while in the car running errands—you can expand upon these ideas and work towards a dialogue, and introduce new ideas into the mix, too. Try something along these lines:
- “I noticed that Elsa and Anna look really similar to the other Disney Princesses, especially Rapunzel. They all have the same huge eyes and tiny noses, and tiny waists and wrists. Girls and women have many more body types than the Disney Princesses do. When Disney only shows girls who look a certain way as princesses, how do you think that makes girls feel who don’t have that same look?”
Make it real: If your child owns Frozen dolls for both male and female characters, you may be able to use them to show your child how extreme Disney’s gender dimorphism can be. When I first unpackaged the Disney Store fashion doll versions of Elsa, Anna, and Kristoff, I was shocked at the Kristoff doll’s heft and decided to weigh each doll on my kitchen scale. The results:
- Elsa: 4 3/8 oz
- Anna: 4 5/8 oz
- Kristoff: 11 oz
In other words, Elsa and Anna are so wispy and slight in build, and Kristoff is so bulky and thick, that the two sisters together weigh less than Kristoff.
If your family owns these toys or similar ones, you might say: “I noticed when we were playing that your Kristoff doll feels much heavier than the Anna and Elsa dolls. It really surprised me. What if we do an experiment with the kitchen scale to see exactly what the difference is between these toys?”
If your results are similar to mine, you could say: “Wow, it is so strange that the two princess dolls combined don’t weigh as much as the Kristoff doll! That isn’t right—it doesn’t take two mommies to equal the size of one daddy. Men and women don’t have bodies that are that different from one another. It’s silly to think that women should be that much tinier than men. Remember, everybody’s body is fine the way it is—and except at the doctor’s office, the number on the scale doesn’t matter.”
- The Gender Stereotypes
As modern Disney Princesses, Elsa and Anna defy several stereotypes regarding feminine behavior. They are active, not passive. Although Elsa is often anxious, she is authoritative and speaks plainly to Anna during moments of conflict. Elsa also has real power and decision-making authority once she becomes Queen, as indicated by the Duke of Weselton’s eagerness to discuss matters of trade with her.
On the other hand, in the first part of the film, men are portrayed as the ones who wield power and have voices worthy of attention. For example, the King of Arendelle and Grand Pabbie together decide on the course of Elsa and Anna’s futures. Meanwhile, the Queen of Arendelle hardly speaks: The King has twelve lines of dialogue, Pabbie has seven, and the Queen speaks only two brief lines: “Anna!” and “She’s ice cold.”
Subsequently, the course of action the King elects is decisive, but it is clearly ineffective. It is not in their best interest to be isolated from others and from one another; in fact, as the film plays out, this decision proves to have been psychologically damaging.
With children ages 4 and 5, if you wish to address these gendered representations of authority and power while co-viewing, be as specific as possible. Here are some examples:
- “In the opening scene, the ice harvesters sing that ice’s magic is stronger than a hundred men. That makes it sound like only men are strong. But I know women are strong, too!”
- “The King and the troll, Grand Pabbie, are doing all the talking in this scene. I wish the girls’ mommy, the Queen, talked more in this part of the movie. I bet she would have had some good ideas about how to help Elsa with her ice powers! Shutting the girls away didn’t help them at all.”
- “It’s so brave of Anna to go find her sister. I like the way she takes charge and lets other people know that she will handle things with Elsa. Did you know that as the youngest of the two sisters, she is second in line to the throne? That means she has real power and authority in the kingdom, and if anything happened to Elsa, she would become Queen, herself. It’s great to see her take charge and be such a good leader.”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can raise these points while co-viewing, but you could also connect some dots in a later conversation. For example:
- “In the beginning of Frozen, I noticed that the men like the King and Grand Pabbie have all the power. But what’s interesting is that later in the movie, Elsa becomes Queen, and now she doesn’t just have snow and ice power—she has real political power to make decisions for other people, too. For example when the Duke of Weselton mentions that Weselton is Arendelle’s trading partner, do you know what that means? It means that Weselton and Arendelle do business together. They sell each other the things that they make, and the Queen has an important role to play in that process. That is just one of the ways in which being Queen of a country is a big job—now once she is Queen, Elsa has real work to do to as the leader of Arendelle.”
Make it real: In the middle part of the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” Anna speaks to a painting of an armored Joan of Arc riding into battle (“Hang in there, Joan!”). Joan of Arc is an interesting, complex, and brave historic role model for girls. You could point the painting in Frozen out to your child and then tell her more about Joan—referencing either online sources or an illustrated book such as Diane Stanley’s Joan of Arc. Also noteworthy for parents seeking to broaden their daughters’ princess toy collections: The Papo toy line sells a small Joan of Arc action figure (wearing a suit of armor, as in the Arendelle portrait gallery) and horse.
- The Romance Narrative
All of Walt Disney Studios’ previous princess-themed films were romance stories, first and foremost, in which young women are in search of a romantic “Happily Ever After”—sometimes after falling in love at first sight. In contrast, Frozen is the first Walt Disney Studios film to argue against love at first sight.
With children ages 4 to 5, offer concrete points of agreement and criticism so that they know where you stand. For example:
- When characters such as Elsa and Kristoff warn Anna against marrying someone she just met, you can state your agreement and support by saying, “That’s right! You shouldn’t marry someone you just met. It’s important to really get to know another person first.”
- When Anna sings about how she dreams she’ll find romance, you might comment, “It’s too bad she’s focused on finding romance right away! She is so lonely, it would be healthier if she focused on finding new friends.”
- At the end of the film, when Kristoff asks Anna if it’s okay for him to kiss her, you could say: “Wow, it’s really good that Kristoff asks Anna if it’s okay to kiss. He is showing his respect for her. They are still getting to know one another, and that was a healthy question for him to ask.”
With children ages 6 to 8, or perhaps younger depending on the child, feel free to make these same observations while co-viewing, but plan a conversation about healthy relationships of various types later on, when you’re not in front of the screen. Some talking points:
- “At the beginning of Frozen, little Anna begs Elsa to do the magic, because she thinks her big sister is amazing. I think a lot of girls think their sisters (or brothers) are amazing, even though they don’t have magic powers! It’s nice to see a movie that focuses on sisters learning to get along. Too many movies make it seem like a girl’s main goal should be finding a boyfriend, or a prince, but other relationships are also really important—just like Merida’s relationship with her mother in Brave.”
- “I think it’s really interesting that in Frozen, Elsa’s mantra—‘Conceal, don’t feel’—actually makes matters worse. When her father taught her that, he meant well, but it was really bad advice. It’s actually important for us all to be in touch with our feelings and pay attention to how we react to the problems we face in life. If you are ever in a situation or a relationship with someone who is making you upset, or uncomfortable, or sad, please don’t ignore it or try to hold it in. We can talk about it together. I want you to know that you can always tell me about your feelings.”
- The Race Representation
The setting of Frozen is a fictitious Scandinavian kingdom in the pre-industrial era, during a time period roughly contemporary to that of Tangled. The human characters depicted in Frozen all appear to be white, though the film does offer some ethnic diversity that might be lost on U.S. audience members—specifically, Kristoff and the other ice harvesters are supposed to be members of the Saami people, the northernmost indigenous people in Europe. Their Saami culture is indicated in the film by markers such as their manner of dress and their use of reindeer for transportation.
You could teach your children about the Saami people by borrowing or purchasing a used copy of the out-of-print children’s book Saami of Lapland by Piers Vitebsky, or exploring the pictures and text about the Saami together on the Visit Norway web site at http://www.visitnorway.com/us/what-to-do/attractions-culture/the-sami/. The Saami are also mentioned in The Kids Book of the Far North by Ann Love and Jane Drake.
You can also mention that the Saami people are from a range of racial backgrounds, and that many people have objected to the fact that all of the characters in Frozen are white. For example, you can look together at images online that have reimagined Elsa as a person of color at http://www.dailydot.com/fandom/tumblr-disney-frozen-princess/ .
- Teaching Children About Media Creation
As our children’s pop culture coaches, we can help them become media literate by always reminding them that media are created by other people—people who are making choices about who and what to depict on screen.
In the case of Frozen, there are a lot of wonderful web sites and videos to browse about the making of the film, ranging from the way the ice and snow was rendered on screen to the decisions about costume design, textiles, and scenery. You can emphasize for your child that many people contributed to this project.
You can also carry over the conversation about race representation into your conversation about media creation. For example you might note that the woman who voices Bulda, the troll who sings the lead vocals on “Fixer-Upper,” is Maia Wilson, a successful African-American actress and singer. Her credits include several Broadway shows, and if you do a YouTube or Google Video search for her, you can witness her singing. It’s unfortunate that Disney characters played by people of color are so often not human characters, and therefore do not help diversify on-screen representations of people of color. However, we can point out Wilson’s involvement in the film to our children, for in a soundtrack full of gifted professional singers like Idina Menzel and Josh Gad, her soaring vocals are an impressive contribution to the movie.