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Disney never realized the biggest key to Frozen’s success: two female leads

What’s better than one princess? Two!

Anna and Elsa holding hands at the end of Frozen, after Anna’s act of true love saves the day Image: Disney

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

It’s been 10 years since Frozen ignited Disney’s modern revival era and got “Let it Go” permanently stuck in millions of heads. But even after a decade, it seems that Disney has never really figured out what made Frozen and its sequel such a cultural phenomenon. Was it the infectious music? The villainous twist? The magical powers? The subversion of “true love”? Subsequent Disney animated films have tried to replicate these elements, but none of them have really achieved the sheer magnitude of Frozen’s impact on culture, let alone its $1.3 billion box office success (or the sequel’s $1.4 billion).

So what was it?

Frozen’s magic is owed to one incredibly simple choice. One that’s missing from previous Disney movies, and one that the studio still hasn’t quite figured out: Frozen starred two female heroes.

Not just two female characters, but two female leads whose relationship was key to the plot and who both had equal development in the story, even if they weren’t on screen together most of the time. No Disney movie before Frozen had hit that mark, and very few afterwards have even attempted, let alone managed, to get it right. It’s no surprise that the generation of young girls who grew up with the Disney Princess brand naturally sparked to a movie with two female heroes, and I’m firmly convinced that’s what turned Frozen into the cultural behemoth that it is.

As it turns out, young girls really just want to see girls interacting on screen together. Disney, take notes.

Disney has always been clueless about Princesses

Ariel the mermaid smirks at a rather nervous-looking Sebastian the crab in Disney’s animated 1989 feature The Little Mermaid Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

The Disney Princess brand is huge. It’s one of the first things many people associate with Disney, even if they haven’t watched one of the movies since childhood. But for whatever reason, Disney has long missed the mark on the appeal of the princesses and how young girls actually engage with them beyond the movies they star in.

The biggest, most obvious example is that until very recently the Disney Princesses were not allowed to interact with one another (not even make eye contact!) in official merchandise, in order to “ensure the sanctity” of each of their stories. In my professional opinion, this was an incredibly stupid marketing decision.

The target audience of the Disney Princess brand — namely elementary-school aged girls and younger — love to play with each other. No matter how much the official marketing kept the Princesses isolated from one another, games of pretend, be it with dolls, costumes, or pure imagination, did not. Five-year-olds don’t care about brand sanctity; they just want Ariel, Moana, and Belle to be best friends and save the day from Ursula. The Disney Princess brand, whether intended or not, encouraged this idea of female camaraderie, even if all the official media surrounding it didn’t give any material to support that.

Tiana, a Black woman in a tiara, silver gown, and white opera gloves, clasps her hands together and smiles at a frog next to her in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Enter Frozen. While Anna and Elsa are not official Disney Princesses (their franchise became so successful that Disney decided to keep them in a separate brand), they definitely fit the typical Disney Princess benchmarks by being conventionally attractive, young adult female protagonists. So already, they appealed to the Disney Princess audience. The fact that Frozen was entirely about their relationship finally checked off a box that Disney had been missing for literal decades, and young girls ate it up. Girls love watching girls be friends on screen, and so much childhood media tailored to girls — My Little Pony, the Barbie animated movies, Sailor Moon, among others — is focused on this idea.

But there’s a big caveat: while cartoons and TV shows are chock full of girls being friends, these relationships rarely, if ever, translates to the big screen. Frozen was the first Disney theatrical movie that recognized the importance of female friendships. The Disney Princess brand may be all about girl power, but before Frozen, it was never about girls being powerful together.

Wait, surely other Disney movies before Frozen had two female main characters?

Young Elsa and Anna playing together Image: Disney

This is where I adjust my Disney fanatic glasses and say: Well, actuallyno. The Disney canon is remarkably bereft of movies starring two girls with a meaningful relationship to one another, a fact I realized in high school when trying to plan a Disneybound with my best friend. Now, I’m not talking about female characters who are mentor figures like the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, parents like Mulan’s mom and grandma, or female villains like Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters. I’m talking about female characters who are on the same footing, take up roughly the same amount of the story, and, most importantly, have a strong bond with one another.

Think of every single movie you’re about to throw my way and claim as an exception. No wait, I’ll do it for you:

  • What about Tiana’s friend Lottie in Princess and the Frog! Listen, I love her, but Lottie is a side character and also not featured in a lot of the marketing.
  • Doesn’t Pocahontas have that friend? Nakoma is also a side character; I bet you didn’t remember her name!
  • OK, what about Lilo and Stitch? This is the literal closest example, however, while I do adore the sisterly relationship between Nani and Lilo, Nani is positioned as an older, parent-like character, and thus read that way by children.
  • Didn’t you write a whole piece about the fairies in Sleeping Beauty? Yes, I did! But the general public, including the modern Disney corporation, still does not realize that the fairies are really the protagonists of Sleeping Beauty. Also, for purposes of this argument, young girls are more likely to project onto Aurora, the princess featured in the Disney Princess lineup, than on the fairies.
  • I got it — the cows from Home on the Range! Did you actually remember that or did you look up a list of Disney theatrical releases?
fauna holding aurora’s hands as merryweather and flora look confused in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Image: Disney

You know what pre-Frozen Disney property does focus on friendships between female characters? The Disney Fairies franchise, aka the direct-to-home-video movies about Tinkerbell and her friends, which surged in popularity right before Frozen came out. If anything, the fairy movies put the expectation of strong female friendships in the heads of young girls, which Frozen was then able to capitalize on (probably unintentionally, considering Disney took a long-ass time to start rectifying this).

Frozen is very specifically about two sisters and their evolving connection with one another. They go from best friends in childhood to estranged in their young adulthood, and the very crux of the movie relies on them patching up their relationship — not just as family, but as friends. They’re sisters and they’re also best friends. The opening scene, where young Anna and Elsa play together, is relatable to young girls, even if they don’t have sisters. Because that’s how they play with one another, and it took Disney 53 movies to depict that. Elsa and Anna’s relationship grows cold, but by the end of the movie they’ve reconnected and their bond has saved the day. It’s a testament to how important girlhood friendships are, even beyond childhood, and how powerful they can be.

You mean Disney still hasn’t realized?

frozen 2 trailer teaser Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

I will admit: Disney’s getting closer. But 10 years after the first Frozen movie, it’s still unclear if the head honchos really get that they should make movies featuring more than one main female lead.

2021’s Raya and the Last Dragon basically had three female protagonists (one spends a lot of the movie as a dragon; the other is an adversary until the final act), but the weird mid-COVID release meant that Raya never really got a chance to resonate with audiences. Encanto, which did connect with audiences, featured a family with plenty of sisters and Mirabel’s relationships with them were one of the film’s key elements. It’s still a little too soon to tell if either of those has captured the sheer longevity of Frozen’s cultural stronghold, though Encanto, with its relatable family narrative, and not two, but three sisters (and a female cousin!) might come close.

The biggest indicator that Disney might have started to realize the error of its ways is the new Disney Princess merchandise, where the princesses are actually interacting with one another and hanging out. The big scene in Ralph Breaks the Internet where all the Disney Princesses hang out together in cute casual outfits was a big tipping point. The internet broke (pun intended), excited to see this side of the beloved characters. Now there are LEGO specials where they hang out, and most importantly, official merchandise where they’re actually hugging, smiling, and looking at one another.

Ralph Breaks the Internet - Disney princesses take a selfie Image: Walt Disney Pictures

Does this mean we’re going to see a wave of Disney movies focused on female friendships? I’m not sure. Disney seems to be in its Family and Generational Trauma ™ era, which makes me think that the creators and executives at Disney zeroed in on the sister part of Frozen’s central relationship and not on the female-friendship part. Don’t get me wrong; I love movies like Encanto that dive into familial bonds. But Encanto is more about the family as a whole, than about the special relationship between two sisters. In general, too, there are still so few movies where two female characters who aren’t related have a meaningful connection. I want to see more!

It boggles the mind to wonder why Disney — and every other big studio out there — has not realized that young girls just want to see movies where girls save the day by being best friends. Frozen managed to scratch this long gestating itch, and yet there is a whole cinematic landscape out there that barely touches on this type of story, even in movies tailored towards young girls. Ten years after Frozen, it’s time that the real reason it was revolutionary actually takes off.

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