“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”
The above enlightening quote comes from Lino DiSalvo, the head animator of the upcoming Disney film “Frozen.” Now, I am really, really excited to watch “Frozen” because, in addition to its musical underpinnings, it’s a film that features a relationship between two female characters, specifically sisters. As an older sister with a feisty younger sister, I’m going to watch this film with the hope that it captures the unique bond between sisters within the rich illustrations and combination of whimsy and deep emotion of a Disney film.
But I can’t help but notice that a lot of the promo materials for the film, including one of its most widespread theatrical release posters, eschews showcasing that central bond in the film in exchange for a cast poster that features a kid-friendly talking snowman
and I also can’t help but notice that in the film’s first full trailer, the punch line of the trailer setup (good god what am I writing) is that GASP, the hero of the film could be a WOMAN?!
I’m exaggerating for effect, but come on. It’s not like Disney as a studio, despite perpetuating the ~*Princess*~ myth and the “evil witchy woman” trope, hasn’t managed to produce some amazing female characters. In direct response to DiSalvo’s above quote, let’s not forget that for every sleeping beauty, there’s been a Mulan (I’m hard pressed to believe that the animators on that film were really worried about showcasing her prettiness during Mushu’s wake up breakfast scene), and that perhaps animation in the service of well-rounded characterization rather than “attractiveness” (which is SO subjective in general but perhaps especially so in animation) will always win out. Take “Up” for example: no conventionally “attractive” protagonists there, but that doesn’t make the story any less meaningful. Hell, look at friggin “Wall-E” — if you can back a film which banks on robot/non-human emotions, SURELY you can animate a woman with an emotional range greater than “distressed” to “grateful for her prince.”
Beyond all the mechanics of animating women (like, we live in a world where we can animate stuff like this), it’s also interesting to note what kinds of women occupy the Disney film world and, beyond that, the sci-fi/fantasy adventure world. It’s arguable that the women who occupy these “other” world spaces are “tougher” or “more badass” than those in other story worlds, but that’s really not true (see: “Mad Men,” the ladies of “Breaking Bad,” female protags in gen., hell, MOST FEMALE CHARACTERS in critically acclaimed but male-driven shows).
What is more evident is that it’s women who are perceived as physically/mentally “tougher” or “more badass” who get more fandom lovin’, and this is especially evident in works that have broader female casts (in those stories that are lucky enough to have female characters beyond a token woman). See “Game of Thrones” for that particular tendency in full relief: more traditionally/overtly feminine characters like Sansa and Cersei get so much hate for their laundry list of “weaknesses” (which are totally normal given their respective situations, and which also take form in plenty of male characters) while more aggressive and non-sex-focused characters like Arya and Brienne are praised for their ~*badassery*~, which isn’t to say that they aren’t really cool characters, but their adoration shouldn’t come at the expense of other just as well-characterized female characters.
And then there’s Daenerys, whose fandom adoration I personally find puzzling because like… she’s literally doing stuff with little to no foresight re: consequences and is constantly getting applauded for her actions. Like sure, dragons!!!!!!!!! but she as a character isn’t her dragons, and I find it absurd that the HBO marketing team is SO invested in her character shorthand because her character and eventual storyline are just /does the fist on head gesture/
I digress. What I’m interested in seeing is how Disney treats its two princesses in this regard. Anna seems really feisty and interesting, the way that Rapunzel was (and looked……) in “Tangled,” but it’s Elsa, with her snow and ice powers, whose character I most want to see in action. She’s troubled but not overtly evil, which is big coming from a studio that’s brought us such iconic and completely villainous ladies like Ursula and Maleficent and Cruella de Vil.
But most of all, I want these ladies to just… be themselves, whatever their characters end up being. I don’t want to see them become shorthand for what feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian’s dubbed the “Ms. Male Character” trope, or to see them arbitrarily powered up (the whole “OMG I love strong women who fight and curse and stuff!!!” thing, which isn’t to shit on physically strong or aggressive women but instead to shift the focus away from “strong” as a narrow physical definition and instead as an inherent character attribute) or paired off for no rhyme or reason.
Is that really so much to ask? We still live in a world where Smurfette exists and a big film franchise like “The Hobbit” has to add original female characters and then suffer fan backlash for that “diversity” choice and the Green Lantern can get a solo film before Wonder Woman, but hey, baby steps, right? Here’s to hoping “Frozen” delivers on its promise, and doesn’t leave those of us craving genuine character interaction out in the cold.