If you have a daughter between the age of 3 and 10 and you live on the planet earth then there’s a pretty good chance that she’s obsessed with the character of Queen Elsa from the Disney’s blockbuster movie, Frozen. If your daughter isn’t belting out “Let it Go” then she’s surely running around the house, blasting invisible enemies with her ice power.
My four-year-old daughter lives and breathes Queen Elsa. She demands that we read the Frozen storybook every night, she dresses up like Queen Elsa at least twice a day and she talks about Elsa just about every minute. She regularly commands me to be either Olaf the Snowman or Sven the reindeer, depending upon her mood. When she wants to play with her older brother it’s usually as Queen Elsa, not as herself.
Disney movies usually do well, but there’s something special going on here. The entire Frozen brand has set a number of impressive box office records and it is now the highest grossing animated film of all time.
The music is great, but Elsa is the real magnet. If you ask my daughter and her friends to name their favorite Frozen character they will all scream out “Queen Elsa!” If you ask about her sister Princess Anna you’ll probably get a lot of blank stares and rolling eyes. Four-year-olds are like that.
But why is Elsa so much more popular than most of the other Disney Princesses? She doesn’t do anything overly good or overly evil, she doesn’t actually say much in the film and she has limited screen time compared to her sister Anna. Yes, she has the Disney princess pedigree and yes, she’s drawn just as suspiciously flawlessly as all the other Disney princesses. Yet as any dad will tell you, toy stores can’t keep Elsa merchandise in stock while Anna dolls collect dust on the shelves.
Elsa’s character is different. She’s afraid and fearful and misunderstood. She clearly not just another generic “strong woman” character like Rapunzel from Tangled, Merida from Brave or even Belle from Beauty and the Beast. In fact, it is Anna who takes on the traditional strong woman role in Frozen and it is Anna who is largely ignored by Frozen‘s target audience.
What is Elsa’s secret?
It’s obvious when you first realize it: Elsa is a superhero…for girls!
Elsa Has Superpowers
This is the most obvious thing that sets Elsa apart from everyone else in the movie. She has the ability to create ice and snow on a whim and her magical super powers grow stronger over time. She can defend herself, attack people who want to hurt her, build something from nothing and even create creatures to do her bidding. More importantly, she’s the only character in the entire movie who can do anything extraordinary. She’s special and she’s singled out. This is a common theme in almost every mainstream superhero movie you see today, but it isn’t nearly as common in entertainment geared towards children.
Elsa Has a Secret Identity
Just like Clark Kent or Peter Parker, Elsa has to hide an important part of who she is from those around her, lest they be harmed. This gives Elsa a dual identity. One moment she’s the good Queen of Arendelle who smiles acts like everyone else and the next moment she’s Elsa the Snow Queen who is turning fountains to ice and running across a fjord that freezes as she touches it.
Elsa Has A Costume and A Cape
As the prim and proper button down princess Elsa’s clothing is dark and somber, but one of her first intentional uses of her superpowers is to change out of her traditional royal dress and ceremonial cape and switch into a glittering evening gown complete with a much more free-flowing cape. As a queen she acts meek, speaks softly and moves cautiously. But as she’s belting out the hit song “Let it Go” while turning into a superhero her costume and demeanor exude confidence.
Elsa Has A Tragic Back Story
When you really think about the similarities of Elsa and the classic superhero comics of the Silver Age you almost wonder why Frozen doesn’t give Stan Lee and Jack Kirby partial writing credits. Elsa’s back story is a mirror image of the great origin stories you’ll find in any X-Men comic: born with special powers, misunderstood from an early age, a tragedy creates a life-changing rift in relationships and abilities that grow stronger (and more difficult to control) with each passing year. Elsa’s powers even harken back to that the oft-forgotten original member of the X-Men, Iceman.
Elsa is so appealing because she’s hitting the sweet spot of a huge niche market that has, until this moment, been completely ignored: superhero princesses for little girls.Being a superhero makes Elsa just as unique and enticing to little girls as the traditional male superheroes are to little boys. It’s generally considered healthy for children to relate to superheroes, no matter what their gender is. Imagining themselves as superheros gives children the ability to feel powerful and in control for a brief period of time, it allows them to explore morality and it lets them cut loose and live in a world of imagination that sports and other organized games don’t usually encourage.
Disney has created other traditional superheroes (The Incredibles through Pixar) and most of the modern movies contain strong women characters, albeit ones who often turn out to be princesses. But none of these previous female characters have captured the attention of such a large audience of little girls because they though they were strong heroes, they were not ‘super.’
All this became apparent to me as I watched my own daughter pretend to be Elsa. Yes, she sang “Let it Go” and yes she acted like a queen, but mostly she ran around pretending to shoot icy blasts out of her hand exactly the way my son used to run around pretending to be Iron Man shooting repulsor beams out of his hands. She made snow storms and she created ice castles. In her imagination she was more powerful than anyone else.
The vast majority of mainstream superhero characters are male at the moment, but I suspect you’ll see that trend rapidly changing over the next few years. Hollywood hates taking chances but now that Frozen has proven that there’s a market for female superheroes (at least ones who are Disney princesses) there will be many more movies and shows which take a strong (or flawed) female lead and turn her into a true superhero with powers, responsibilities, and problems befitting a true hero.
As a parent with both a son and a daughter I’m okay with this. It’s good for both my kids to feel powerful and to understand that people can be inspiring no matter what their gender…
Now if we could only get a strong female super hero that isn’t already a royal princess…