Gender Norms Thaw in Disney’s Frozen

Gender may be explained down two different avenues: one as biological and the other as a social construct. Working down the latter avenue one must be more concerned with behavior rather than body parts and these behavioral standards are a direct result of the culture in which we, as individuals, live in. Often, our first exposure to gender constructs is delivered to us through everyday social interactions but more times than not, through a screen at our most malleable stage in life, childhood. Disney movies are just one example of the various types of on-screen vehicles and Disney princess movies, in particular, really drive the idea home of how a traditional male and female should behave. Some of Disney’s earlier princess movies (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937, Cinderella, 1950, and Sleeping Beauty, 1959) display the female princess to be the typical damsel-in-distress character who needs a strong male prince.[1] Flash forward to more modern times, however, and Disney princess movies have become increasingly more progressive with the release of Mulan and, more recently, Frozen.

The “one-sex” argument claims that we are not defined by the differences in our biology, the gender category that we place ourselves into are a product of behavior and not concerned with surface differences between male and female.[2] With that being said, the characteristics I will assume to be associated with a male figure will be: assertive, smart, and the rescuer and those that I will assume to be associated with a female figure will be: affectionate, tentative, and emotional.[3] The confusion of genders popular culture touches upon is when a female character displays male-associated traits or vice versa.

Contrary to classic Disney princess movies, Frozen’s characters do not fall neatly into well-defined, stereotypical gender roles. Rather, Anna and Kristoff defy said gender roles and prove that gender is a spectrum and gender identification, flexible. The film begins with the introduction of the main characters in conventional gender roles: Elsa’s hyper emotions are frowned upon and concealed within the castle so as to say a woman’s tendency to overreact should be hidden, Anna wants to marry the first man she meets, which is reminiscent of older Disney movie romances. But as the movie progresses, Elsa’s, but more so, Anna’s character transforms into something that resembles gender ambiguity. Kristoff, however, begins the film feminized and remains so until the conclusion.

Anna’s transformation is one that speaks volumes to gender instability. She begins the film entranced by Hans and very much within the boundaries of a typical female figure but is ultimately revealed to be much more than just a pretty face. One of the very first character transformations we see in the film is when Anna asserts herself and decides to search for Elsa on her own despite the pleading of her then-fiancé, Hans. In the older Disney princess films, a female character is never the one who makes the long journey to save the princess, or in this case, the queen. It is always the prince who rescues the princess, never the other way round. Another instance when Anna displays an act of masculinity is when she commands Kristoff to take her up the North Mountain. She is smart in that she bribes him with goods he originally wanted to buy at the trading post and assertive when she refuses no for an answer. Anna continues her growth when she successfully assists Kristoff in fighting off a pack of wolves attacking their sled. In many instances in that particular scene, Anna is seen saving Kristoff, something completely opposite from older Disney movies or traditional male roles in general, where the male character is almost always seen saving the female. Her final moment of gender ambiguity comes when she single-handedly saves Elsa without the help of a male. Anna embodies the definition of gender instability in her ability to maintain her femininity, through her eventual love interest in Kristoff, while also embracing the masculine aspects of gender norms, through her successes in saving Elsa and her home. Anna’s transformation completes when she punches Hans after he betrays her love for him in hopes of acquiring the kingdom for his own. She sheds her initial feminine attitudes and realigns her priorities past romance, destroying stereotypes in one punch. Anna’s metamorphosis into an androgynous character is easily traced over the course of the film; but, Kristoff’s gender growth is not as traceable because he began the film feminized.

Kristoff is introduced as Anna’s guide but quickly becomes her equal and eventual love interest. Through these different stages in Anna’s journey, however, his character is consistently feminized by displaying the trait of affection. Kristoff has a strong bond with his reindeer, Sven; his only friend until Anna. In comparing this observation with older Disney movies, the prince almost always rides an animal but the animal in question is never more than just a noble stead. Kristoff defies this by caring deeply for his reindeer, playing him songs on his ukulele and sharing the occasional carrot with him. Kristoff’s femininity is further shown when he tentatively asks Anna if they may kiss forcing her to take control and kiss him first. Kristoff’s character remains constant throughout the course of the film but his character is not at all a well-defined male; his behaviors are ambiguous just as what Anna’s evolves to be.

Frozen’s progressiveness thus lies in its development of its protagonists and their subsequent behaviors. Scholars, such as Richard Dyer, argue the complete opposite, claiming that entertainment’s utopia doesn’t reside in the narratives but in its musical numbers.[4] The musical numbers in Frozen, however, are not at all utopian in the sense that they support traditional gender roles. They are a setback in the film’s seemingly forward movement. “Love is an Open Door” is a song that sums up the love stories in most of the older Disney movies. It seems to poke fun at “love at first sight” but nonetheless describes a romance prevalent in the film subjecting Anna and Hans to the same stereotypical gender standards as historic Disney films. “Fixer Upper” is the song Kristoff’s troll family sings to him when he brings Anna home. The backwardness of this number lies in his family’s assumption that Kristoff only brings Anna home to announce their engagement. “Let it Go” is considered the breakout song of the film but actually holds some puzzling connotations. On the surface, the song seems progressive in breaking down traditional gender roles because of the independence Elsa gains by singing the song but it is actually a song about her disease. She invites the audience to realize that she abandons her kingdom on the day of her coronation, leaving them to die in the cold. These songs, although catchy in tune, do very little in terms of supporting gender instability, most of the numbers do the complete opposite and support traditional roles. Even in Disney’s Mulan, which also has a strong female lead, the musical number, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” spells out the stereotypical woman adding to the list of backward-thinking songs Disney chooses to include in its forward-thinking films. What I can say about the musical numbers in Frozen is that the characters that are seemingly trapped in the constructs the musical numbers impose on them are shown to break free based on their following behaviors; Anna realized there is no such thing as love at first sight (and thus concrete gender roles), Kristoff fights his family’s assumptions throughout the entire number, and Elsa learns to control her powers.

Some might also bring attention to the film’s physical representation of the characters, especially the aesthetic of the female characters. Both Elsa and Anna’s waistlines are unrealistically small and their eyes shown to be bigger than their wrists. Animated films “[are] not an innocent art form: nothing accidental or serendipitous occurs in animation.”[5] Animation is a unique type of entertainment in that every part of the film must be fabricated and, as a result, controlled. Elsa and Anna’s unattainable physique is indeed a testament to their femininity but it also allows for further ambiguity in their overall gender. The film, in portraying the two sisters in this way, juxtaposes their physical femininity to their transformation into something more masculine.

The concept of gender is a delicate one as only recently have aspects of culture begun to introduce the idea of gender instability as opposed to the black and white gender roles from cultural artifacts. Gender is not biologically assigned but rather a consequence of an individual’s behaviors. Disney’s Frozen is but one example of the evolution of modern films and shows a stark difference in character portrayal from its older princess movies. Its musical numbers, although regressive, give the audience a taste of what stereotypical gender roles are and allows the characters within the numbers to break free from said stereotypes. The film concludes with two acts of heroism, both performed by the two female characters; Anna single-handedly sacrifices herself to save her sister and Elsa performs an act of true love to save Anna. Elsa’s act of heroism was particularly interesting as she broke down crying, the quintessential distressed female reaction. The film, however, spins this act of hyper emotion into something heroic so as to say the advancement of gender norms in society is one of female transformation and not male.



[1] Descartes, Lara; England, Dawn Elizabeth; Collier-Meek, Melissa A., Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses. 2011 (will refer to as “Descartes, 2011”)

[2] Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press. 1992

[3] Descartes, 2011

[4] Dyer, Richard. Entertainment and Utopia. Routledge. 1992. Page 273.

[5] Bell, Elizabeth. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Indiana University Press. 1995. Page 108.


I Started a Joke, the Joke Being That my Life is Worth Living

I started a joke which started the whole world crying

But I didn’t see that the joke was on me oh no

I started to cry which started the whole world laughing

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me


I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes

And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said

‘Till I finally died which started the whole world living

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me


I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes

And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said

‘Till I finally died which started the whole world living

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me

Oh no that the joke was on me[1]

Everyday is the same; we wake up, go to work or school, enjoy the occasional movie or dinner date, go to sleep, and then wake up to do the same thing over again. It comes to a point when there does not seem to be a meaning anymore, a point when our happiness becomes a lie. Bruce Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” offers an explanation to why we keep living when life becomes meaningless. We keep living because, “‘Still at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.’ But this “reason to believe” is an illusion, the song seems to say: there is apparently no “reason to believe” in life’s worthwhileness, no “reason to believe” that all will be well in the end. Still, the song’s characters keep on believing—believing, or at least hoping, despite all the evidence to the contrary. One reason for our perseverance in life is thus blind faith, or at least blind hope, according to Springsteen’s song”[2]. We find an outlet through entertainment and devote our free time to it. This entertainment comes to us in the form of an industry, as a product of our culture. It provides us with laughter but this laughter is only temporary and, often times, merely the very façade in which to hide our unhappiness.[3] We laugh because that is the only thing we can do to cope with the fact that we are living lives not worth living. Robin Gibb, as member of the Bee Gees, wrote the single, “I Started a Joke,” and although its meaning is never explicitly given, draws some semblance to this idea that our laughter is an indication that the life we are living is not worth living.

The premise of the song is that an unnamed individual, is misunderstood; he laughs when the world cries and cries when the world laughs. This individual has an idea, possibly an alternative to the present state of the world, something that could better the world but no one seems to be listening. This idea that he harnesses helps the world live again at the end of the song but the world is unaware of this until this individual dies. Throughout the song and, more broadly, his life, this individual develops a sense of self doubt. He quite literally believed that the joke was on him, that what he believed has somehow untrue because of the laughter projected from the world. He harbors a feeling of regret, as he, “[falls] out of bed hurting my head from things that I said.”[4] The whole world laughs at the person in the song because they think that his life is not worth living. However, in fact, the person in the song is living a fulfilling life because he is going against the rest of the world and not submitting to conformity.

The chronic feeling of regret the individual feels every morning is a direct product of the masses and their cynical attitude to something foreign to them. The whole world, in this sense, is conditioned to believe in one, standard set of beliefs so much so that their automatic response to something different is to laugh and reject it. This stand set of beliefs is presented to the world in a common medium, our culture and its corresponding entertainment industry.[5] With the rise of the culture industry, “‘the individual departs from the real social world, where he or she is average and recognition is slight and grudging, enters a ‘glamorous’ and media-glorified career field, and becomes…’somebody,’ ‘a god to millions,’ through the mass recognition of others”’[6]. The industry allows the masses to live vicariously through the characters they wish to emulate and thus escape the world we live in now to go to a fantastical, unreal version of this world. They are able to laugh like they are “glamorous” or in a “media-glorified career field” but none of it is real because it is all delivered to them on a silver platter of lies fabricated by the industry. The industry surrounding our everyday culture is so easily accessible that “Americans pass much of their lives in the ‘other worlds’ of the media…mass media consumption in general occupies 50 percent of all leisure time”[7]. It is the most efficient way to convince, often without consent, the masses to share a common ideology because “the cultural variability of these multiple realities is less than might be expected…[they] operate with values, motives, and roles firmly locked to the assumptions of the contemporary American middle class”[8]. The industry repurposes existent beliefs into different outlets, be it a movie, an album, or a TV show. This is how the industry achieves widespread dominance, by ingraining the ideals that they themselves first imposed onto society, forever a cycle of control.[9] How, in this industry that is so ingrained into the public’s minds, is anyone supposed to have a fighting chance to break the system or provide any sort of push-back or alternative?

The individual in the song supposedly has the alternative the world needs to break free but is unable to be fully heard because of the disconnect he feels from the rest of the world. He is unable to relate to them, believing that the “joke was on [him]” and constantly clashing with them, whether it be crying or laughing. The whole world laughs at him, not because they think he is inherently funny, but because that is what they were conditioned to believe. The world, through the culture industry, has been brainwashed to believe that their lives are worthy and anything different, such as this individual, is unworthy of living. Laughter, in this case, becomes mockery, not a representation of happiness but rather a representation of quite the opposite, contempt. Laughter, in this song, symbolizes the conformity of the masses as entertainment is mass deception; everyone thinks they are genuinely happy but their ‘happiness’ is merely a cover-up to their worthless lives.

The person in the song, however, is exempt from this mass deception because he cries when everyone laughs and laughs when everyone cries. He goes against the grain and thus, when he dies, the world is able start living because he had lived a worthy life. But it is only the individual in this song who is exempt from the web of the industry because he is a fictional character; a worthy life is not possible so long as the culture industry still exists. The world’s laughter was not only the catalyst to the individual’s own spiral into self regret, but the laughter also produced this very song. This song tells the story of someone who has been beaten down by the byproducts of the culture industry and conformity in general but, by the song’s very existence, participates in the industry that rendered him hopeless.

Since the song’s release in 1968, “I Started a Joke” has seen 23 different renditions, a quantitative figure to represent the impact this one song has had on the culture industry.[10] The problem with the culture industry that has infected our society is that it is screaming with similarity, nothing is innovated anymore, everything is taken from something else. The Wallflowers performed a version of the song in 2001 for the Zoolander soundtrack, and while the lyrics are clearly the same, the background music and the overall feel of the song has dramatically changed. These 23 remakes of the song are no different than any other cultural artifact in that they were not made without being marked by the industry’s stamp at the time of conception. Our culture industry breeds conformity from conformity and uses this conformity to convince us that we are living lives worth living. Laughter should be an outward expression to indicate sheer happiness but it is really only a cover-up for the meaninglessness we feel inside—we are all the same so what is the point of living this life? We are nothing more than puppets in a show, and what do you do at puppet shows? Laugh.

[1] Gibb, Robin “I Started a Joke” (will refer to as ‘Gibb’)

[2] Mathew, Gordon. What Makes Life Worth Living?: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1996). Pages 3-4 (will refer to as ‘Mathew’)

[3] Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (Stanford California, Stanford University Press, 2002). Page 112-113 (will refer to as ‘Adorno’)

[4] Gibb

[5] Adorno, 97

[6] Caughey, John L. Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach (United States of America: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). Page 168 (will refer to as ‘Caughey’)

[7] Caughey, 34

[8] Caughey 34, 35

[9] Adorno, 115

[10] I Started a Joke.

“Inception:” A Successful Althussarian Ideological Story About Ideology

Our set of beliefs: where do they come from? Because they certainly did not materialize from thin air. Louis Althusser argues in his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” that “there is no practice except by and in an ideology”[1]. Ideology, a group’s certain set of beliefs, is thus the virus that has infected all aspects of society, from the church, to the state, to the education system. This is the basis of Althusser’s essay, in which he claims: “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,”[2] and “ideology has a material existence”[3]. His latter claim alludes to the fact that because it is everywhere, our individual practices materialize ideology, through our attitudes towards cultural commodities, and through the commodities themselves. Commodities manifest themselves in a variety of ways; take a film for example. These commodities, in light of his former claim, first present the audience with a real social problem, then give an imaginary solution. This imaginary solution is, in fact, the ideology of the commodity. He believes that ideology is most lethal when it is presented to the masses in an indirect form, be it books, music or movies. But do all films have the agenda of imposing an ideology onto its audience?

The film, Inception, would stand its ground on this claim because it does not enforce a certain ideology, but rather examines said ideology. Instead of portraying ideology in its most “lethal” form, ideology in Inception is at the forefront of the plot, and demands the viewer’s attention through symbology. Althusser argues that ideology is presented to the masses as the imaginary solution of a real social problem. While still following Althusser’s successful story model, Inception also serves as a warning through its storyline of implanting an idea, examination of ideology’s consequences, and presentation of a solution with the character’s totems.

Inception follows the story of Dom Cobb, a dream thief, and his team on their mission to implant an idea into the mind of Robert Fischer, the heir to Fischer Morrow Energy Conglomerate. A central symbol in the film is each character’s totem—Cobb’s totem was his wife, Mal’s, spinning top (a device to help them determine whether they are in reality or dreaming). The totem symbol arises in multiple occasions and provides a potential solution for the presented social crises (we are unaware of the origins of ideology and thus suffer its destructive consequences) that will be discussed later in this essay. The film begins and concludes with similar scenes, with Cobb washed up on the shore and brought in front of an aging Japanese man named Saito. The first scene cuts to a present day job in which Cobb is trying to extract the Saito’s company plans in a dream two dream levels down. Upon failure, Saito offers Cobb, who has been on the run for some time, a chance to go home to America. The job Cobb must complete is inception (implanting an idea), a task which is seemingly impossible but nonetheless accomplished successfully over the course of the film. But the film is not just about the inception of this one idea, or in broader terms, ideology; the film also follows Cobb on his struggle to distinguish between his dream world, limbo, and reality.

Limbo is the web of ideology every individual is at risk of falling into. It is when “what thus seems to take place outside ideology, in reality takes place in ideology…That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology”[4]. Those in limbo, as a result, lose sight of reality and begin to believe that limbo is their reality because they believe that they are “by definition outside ideology.” Cobb’s difficulty determining what is limbo and what is reality is painstakingly realized whenever he envisions his deceased wife Mal or his children, images of the system of memories he has built in limbo (his ideology). The film concludes with Cobb’s reunion with his children, but the film cuts to credits before the spinning top falls, which begs the question of whether Cobb, or the viewers for that matter, are dreaming or in reality. We, as the viewers, therefore call into question not only our fixation with reality but how we cling desperately onto the notion of ideology because that is all we know.

Althusser’s essay reinforces the point that stories only work if they possess two features: a relatable social problem and an imaginary solution. Inception brings forth an unclear problem in that we are run by ideology without realizing it. The film presents this as the social problem they are trying to resolve because ideology is the most lethal when it is presented in the least obvious of methods. What better way to combat ideology than by exposing its secrets? Consequently, ideology “has no history, or, what comes to the same thing, is eternal”[5]. It is rather merely an existence. Ideology does not have a beginning or an end, but the origin of an ideology had to have come from someone or something before it reached the mind. And once in the mind, it remains “eternal[ly].”

The goal of the film is to implant an idea into the mind of another individual; this goal is the very method of how ideology spreads itself to penetrate every aspect of daily life. According to the film, to implant an idea, it “need[s] [to be] the simplest version of the idea—the one that will grow naturally in the subject’s mind”[6] and this idea, “the smallest seed [that] can grow to define or destroy [our] world,”[7] translates to ideology in the viewer’s real world. But, ideology is not explicitly handed out and forced onto consumers; it is, rather, subtly suggested to the consumer by cultural commodities. To accomplish such a feat, ideology has to appear to be self-given so that the origin cannot be traced any further than the individual who bears it. The receiver of ideology, or the subject “is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects”[8]. These “concrete individuals” are brought to believe they are in control of their ideology, that they are the Subject of the sentence. What these “Subjects” fail to realize is that their “self-given” idea was given to them, turning them into subjects of a higher force—a higher force like Cobb in Inception. We are made to think that we are Subjects but, in reality, we are merely subjects.

This is most clearly illustrated in the film when Cobb’s team is two levels into Fischer’s subconscious. Fischer is made to believe that Browning, his godfather, is working against him and that the only way to stop him is to help Cobb’s team break into Browning’s subconscious. What he does not know is that the Browning he is breaking into is a projection of his own subconscious; Fischer assists in the break-in of his own subconscious. Fischer is manipulated to believe that he is the Subject of the sentence but he is really the subject under Cobb. That is exactly where ideology becomes the problem, when it appears to be self-given but in fact is a product of someone else’s manipulative agenda. This very decision that Fischer makes to break into himself allows the team to successfully implant the idea into his mind, to successfully transmit the ideology in the subtlest of ways, in a situation where Fischer whole-heartedly believes he was in control. This is the social crises Inception aims to solve.

With the social crises established, the second part of every story, according to Althusser, is an imaginary solution or a “falsified representation”[9] to the problem previously presented. In order to achieve this “falsified representation of the world which they have imagined, [they] enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations”[10]. Since the “falsified representation” or the “imaginary solution” is the story’s ideology, imagination becomes the vehicle of subordination because “if you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination”[11]. Brute force seems to be the obvious solution when Fischer’s trained subconscious nearly sabotages the entire job when men start gunning down the team in the first level of dreams. Fischer’s militarized projections become increasingly deadly as the dream levels persist, symbolizing the ongoing pushback of the individual resisting ideology. When the idea is successfully planted into Fischer’s mind, it demonstrates that pure force is not the solution to the ideological problem.

The “imaginary solution” Inception provides for the viewer is given when Cobb attempts to bring Mal and Saito out of limbo and back to reality. Cobb first tries to plant the idea that Mal’s world is not real, that she has to kill herself to wake back up in reality. But the idea that her world was not real grows to consume her and ultimately destroy her, showing the destruction of ideology at the individual level. The method which Cobb used to bring Saito back from limbo is the solution the film presents to the viewer, to bring him or herself back up from the entanglement of society’s imposed ideology. Cobb, instead of planting the idea as he did with Mal, chooses to reason with Saito and force him to come to the realization on his own that his world is not real, successfully bringing him back to reality from limbo without the consequences of Mal’s submission to ideology. In this very moment Saito is able “to recognize that [he is the] subject…[but] this recognition only gives [him] the ‘consciousness’ of [his] incessant practice of ideological recognition…but in no sense does it give [him] the knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition”[12]. The spinning top Saito sees on the table, however, is the “knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition;” it is the film’s quintessential totem that consistently serves as a reminder of the difference between reality and the entanglement of ideology. Cobb is the only team member without a totem of his own so it was no wonder that he struggles the greatest in keeping a grasp on reality. And thus, the solution is brought to light: the solution to stopping the infectious ideology is to be self-aware of not only whether we are trapped in ideology, but also the mechanism by which that ideology came to be.

Inception does more than just impose an ideology onto the masses and instead tells the story of the destruction of ideology and offers the imaginary resolution of self awareness. According to Althusser, every successful story emphasizes a social problem and forces ideology in the form of a solution. Inception, being a movie about the horrors of ideology, does not insist one onto the masses but instead reveals a solution in which to combat the presented problem. But while the presented problem is clearly the fight against ideology, there is another problem present. Cobb is the inceptor, but he is, in real life, the large corporations who create cultural artifacts that churn infectious ideology into society. But Cobb is just as entangled in ideology as the other characters. He is able to successfully resurface from limbo but throughout the film, it is apparent that his ties to limbo are still very much present. Scattered in the film are flashbacks of Mal or his children, people he could not be with at the time of the scene, people “living” in his limbo. Cobb’s struggle between limbo and reality is so great that a fluttering curtain and the sound of broken glass from the evening of Mal’s death is enough to send him spiraling back to the web of ideology waiting for him down in limbo. When his struggle seems to have resolved by his letting Mal go and his reunion with his children at the conclusion of the film, the audience is left wondering whether the film ended in limbo or in reality when the final scene cuts before the spinning top has a chance to fall. This uncertainty of the fate of Cobb, the large corporation, the vanguard of the production of ideology, presents itself as the ongoing problem the film sees in society, a problem with no solution but the little sliver of hope that is self-awareness.

[1] Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation) (La Pensée: Monthly Review Press, 1971). Page 46 (Will refer to as “Althusser”)

[2] Althusser, 37

[3] Althusser, 41

[4] Althusser, 51

[5] Althusser, 37

[6] Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., 2010, Script. Page 42 (Will refer to as “Nolan”)

[7] Nolan, 131

[8] Althusser 47

[9] Althusser, 39

[10] Ibid

[11] Nolan, 42

[12] Althusser, 49