Is Elsa too sexy?

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The feminist blog community seems to have mostly embraced Frozen, rightly so in my opinion: not to spoil, but ultimately it is a movie about sisterly love that subverts the typical Disney princess formula, and the villain could serve as a poster child for the destructiveness of hegemonic masculinity. The movie is far from perfect, but it is a massive step forward by a major cultural institution that is normally much more regressive, and that should be celebrated.

There is one shot that seems to have engendered some discussion, at the end of the film’s best musical number (despite the song being pretty awful, the sequence itself is brilliant):

At the end of a celebration of her newfound freedom to express herself emotionally and magically, Elsa transforms her gown and sashays sexily across the room, ending the song with what can only be described as a come-hither smirk. The question that naturally arises, then, is whether this is an instance of Male Gaze that undermines the freedom and self-determination in the rest of the song?

And I actually don’t think it is. It is an instance of the Male Gaze, yes, but look at Elsa in this moment: this is not her coming down from the peak of confidence and self-determination, but reaching that peak. She starts the song taking ownership of her emotions, continues by taking ownership of her powers, and this is her taking ownership of her body and sexuality. She is not a victim or object, here, but rather a powerful woman look out of the camera, directly at the audience, and saying “This is me, sexy, alone, in control, and not needing you.” Or, as she puts it, “The cold never bothered me anyway.”

It is, in other words, yet another subversion of the Disney formula, which has frequently subjected its princesses to the Male Gaze. Compare, for instance, the moment in Aladdin where Jasmine pretends to have been magically compelled to fall in love with Jafar. Jasmine is secretly in control of the situation, yes, but she presents as submissive, controllable, and controlled, with the camera assisting her in this presentation–and she still ultimately needs to be rescued by a man.

By contrast, Elsa is in no danger here. Breaking free of the “good girl”/”bad girl” dichotomy, she embraces her power and sexuality both, and becomes a challenging, almost mocking figure as she smirks at the audience. Rather than aiding Elsa in a presentation of emphasized femininity, the camera tries to trap her in one and she laughs it off; she is feminine, yes, but powerful, and her performance is for no one but herself. The song ends here because Elsa tells it to–the Male Gaze is ordered to get lost so that she can continue to explore her newfound power in peace.

Yes, this subversion would work better if Elsa were not so generically, conventionally attractive. And yes, there is a great deal of room to debate whether it is actually intended subversively or (more importantly) read as such by the audience. But I at least will continue to stand by the argument that it is a powerful and appropriate end to an empowering sequence.

Update 2/1/2014: This is now the second-most viewed post I’ve written, and I’m getting tired of deleting crude, crass, and trolling comments. As of now, comments are closed on this post.

10 thoughts on “Is Elsa too sexy?

  1. Wait, you think the song is awful? I love it!

    (admittedly, I'm not sure how much of that is the song itself and how much is due to Idina Menzel's incredible voice, but…)

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  2. I seem to be the only person who doesn't like the song. It just sounds like standard-issue generic 2010s pop, the kind of stuff you get in High School Musical or Equestria Girls, not a big-budget all-the-stops entry in the Disney animated canon.

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  3. I know exactly what you mean. It just sounds so… simple, so safe. I felt exactly the same way the first time I watched it. Something clicked in my head, though, and now I do like it. Couldn't say why.

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  4. Honestly I saw her as sexy but I saw her more as confident. I saw how every movement she made was confident and sure and saw her as a role model just for that.

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  5. I'm curious — did Elsa's outfit and slight reference towards sexuality in her movement actually make you think of her as less of a person? Despite the fact that she is such a fully, blatantly realised character coming of age and coming into her own in that moment? Because if you did, I think that probably has more to do with the fact that we dehumanise women for showing any kind of sexuality than because of something the film specifically did.

    You could argue, I suppose, that this hint of sexuality is inappropriate in context, but I really do not think it is. Themes about freedom and coming of age can support a teeny reference to sex like that, even in a kids' movie that would not more directly reference the concept.

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  6. Um, what? Did you read my post? My whole argument is *against* people complaining that that brief bit of sexuality on Elsa's part objectified or dehumanized her, on grounds fairly similar to what you said in your comment. So… who are you arguing against?

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  7. Not you, I guess. This post is the first place I've seen the argument really laid out from a feminist perspective at all (as opposed to random commenters complaining that she looks “trampy”, which, bleh) so I guess it startled me a bit that it could be seen as an issue in the first place. Sorry about that.

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