Disney's Frozen represents a landmark for the animation giant due not only to its immense popularity but also its introduction of the studio's first disabled princess. In order to make Elsa's story possible, the animators use a combination of narrative devices including the introduction of a second princess, whose story fulfills the audience's expectation for a traditional "princess journey," their patented aesthetic of cuteness, and the encoding of disability as fantasy. Although Elsa's disability is encoded as a magical ice power, the language the film uses to talk about her condition maps on to the experiences of people with physical, mental, and intellectual disabilities in recognizable ways. Meanwhile, her status as a much-beloved princess figure allows the animators at Disney to position disability as a universal experience and in turn to create empathy for PWDs both on and off screen.
During the airing of the ABC special The Story of Frozen: Making a Disney Animated Classic (2014), John Lasseter, the creative executive officer for Walt Disney studios, spoke openly for the first time about the connection between his most recent project and his son, who was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 10. Lasseter recalled his son Sam's anxiety during the early stages of his condition with tears in his eyes, stating, "I thought of Sam, and I was thinking of Elsa. She was born with this. Why is she the villain?" Lasseter's revelation that Elsa was born with this condition, much like his son was genetically predisposed to diabetes, led him to call for a restructuring of the entire concept for Frozen from the script to the character design and soundtrack, thus beginning Elsa's transformation from villainous queen to sympathetic teen. Although Elsa is not the only character with disability in the Disney canon, she is the first princess 1 to be designed with disability in mind, and one of only two human characters with visible disability to make the cut at all since Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). As one of the newest members of Disney's royal family, Elsa is in a position to influence her audience in lasting ways. Studies have shown that children carry the values they have been taught by Disney characters, and specifically Disney princesses, with them into college and beyond.2 Whether she is singing her trademark song, "Let it Go," in theaters, joking with her sister, Anna, on stage at the Magic Kingdom before she lights up Cinderella's castle, or beckoning to buyers in doll form from department store shelves, Elsa's brand wields a tremendous amount of cultural capital, and it would behoove scholars in both children's literature and disability studies to pay attention to what the Frozen line—and therefore Disney—is selling in regards to disability.
It is not surprising that Disney has been reluctant to revisit disability representation given Hunchback's poor reception by general audiences and the backlash against the film in the disabled community, both of which disability scholar Martin F. Norden has discussed in his work on disability in film. However, it was only a matter of time before Disney revisited the concept considering the steadily increasing awareness of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the education system, the work world, and the marketplace since the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. PWDs currently make up fifteen percent of the American population, making them the largest minority in the United States, and as the baby boomer generation continues to age, this number is likely to double. When we take into account caregivers and family members in addition to PWDs themselves, at least half the population is affected by disability in some way (Davis 4). Lasseter's story about his son's condition and his own change of heart is just one example of how disability is gradually gaining visibility and acceptance in this country. If the recent introduction of a growing number of characters with disability3 into the Disney movie-line-up is any indication, the corporation is not only aware of this movement, but is also working to be a part of it. Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock argue that "Disney actively appeals to both conscientious parents and youthful fantasies as it works hard to transform every child into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas" (xiii). As Disney's reach continues to extend not only across the age gap, but also around the globe, its consumer base is ever-widening. When the mouse "roars," we as viewers and consumers have been trained to listen, and now that the uproar has finally become about the way that PWDs are treated in this country and globally, we can only hope that more balanced, ethical representations of disability are on the horizon.
It is tempting to read Disney's rebranding of disability in Frozen as just another misappropriation of marginalized identity in a long line of transgressions, such as those committed in Pocahontas (1995) and Princess and the Frog (2009), both of which met with understandable hostility from critical race theorists.4 However, in this article, I argue that by creating memorable characters that both normate5 and disabled viewers can relate to, Disney advocates for a new understanding of identity—one that positions disability at its center. First, I discuss the history of disability representation in Disney films in order to contextualize Elsa's emergence as their first disabled princes. Next, I use Stuart Hall's theory of encoding and decoding to demonstrate how Disney encodes disability in Frozen using Elsa's ice powers, concluding with a meditation on the online community's willingness to embrace her as a character who embodies a myriad of disabled experiences. Building on this, I discuss the transformation Elsa underwent during her character design phase in order to achieve the aesthetic of cuteness necessary to create audience identification and empathy with the disabled body as a Disney brand. Finally, I conclude with a reflection on Disney's use of the princess as a familiar and much loved figure to create the impression that the disabled experience is a universal one. Although disability studies scholars have often rejected this rhetoric and have instead found power in identifying as a minority group, scholars including Lennard Davis and Tom Shakespeare have argued that this turn inward is largely counter-productive since it promotes separatism over inclusion and equality (Shakespeare 110). I will argue, therefore, that by emphasizing disability as a shared experience through Elsa, the creators at Disney are able to create empathy for PWDs both on and off screen and as such are able to advocate for acceptance and accommodation as inclusive moves that benefit all viewers, disabled and able-bodied alike.
There has been very little scholarly work done on disability representation in Disney films to date, and what there is focuses on their older films. It is only in the last few years that the writers and animators at Disney have begun to change the way they view—and encourage others to view—disability. Walt Disney Studios remains the front-runner in animated film making to this day, and as such they set the standard for other studios to follow. Lasseter's choice to send Frozen back to the drawing board (literally) once he realized Elsa's condition was an impairment outside of her control shows that Disney is finally ready to represent disability in an ethical way. This is exciting news, not only for the scholars working in both children's literature and disability studies, but also for the marginalized populations that we represent. Rather than continuing to focus on Disney's past crimes, it benefits us to look ahead to their future potential to change the way PWDs are treated for the better.
"A Kingdom of Isolation": Disney at the Movies
In order to contextualize Elsa's appearance as Disney's first disabled princess, I am going to begin with a brief chronology of disability representation in film. As numerous disability theorists have argued, television and film are awash in images of disability, yet viewers rarely notice or acknowledge their presence. Paul Longmore argues that when PWDs are represented in film, they are usually portrayed as either criminals or monsters. Norden builds on this analysis, adding that disabled people are almost always isolated from both other PWDs and the community at large. He goes on to offer several categories of disability representation including the Sweet Innocent, the Civilian Superstar, and the Obsessive Avenger. Moving forward, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder advance the argument that the majority of representations of disability in film and literature are little more than "narrative prosthesis," explaining that "disability has been used throughout history as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight" (49). Ato Quayson seeks to address what he sees as a limitation in Mitchell and Snyder's proposal of narrative prosthesis by proposing a new set of categories including "disability as moral test," "disability as epiphany," and finally "disability as normality" (52). Finally, Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić propose a wider reading of cinema's representation of "problem bodies," as "a challenging multiplication of physical and social problems" (4). Although Disney's representations of disability have occupied numerous of these positions throughout history, as we will see, their most recent work comes closest to Chivers and Markotić's position that disability is both embodied and social, realistic and metaphorical.
Disney's own history of disability representation is fraught with problematic imagery and stereotypical representation. Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' Dopey (1937), who can be read as intellectually disabled, Disney has struggled to represent disability in a realistic and ethical light, due in part to their need to make the disabled character a cute object. Schwartz, Lutifiyya, and Hansen argue that Dopey is visibly Othered, partly due to the fact that he is much younger than the other dwarves and also because he is drawn as a "human with dog mannerisms and intellect" (qtd. in 183). Moving forward, Disney takes a different tactic in Dumbo (1941) by encoding disability into an animal character outright, this time a baby elephant. While the film attempts to advance a social critique about the treatment of PWDs through the treatment of both Dumbo and his mother, it ultimately resorts to supercripping when it is revealed that Dumbo can fly by flapping his inordinately large ears, thus earning him the love of both the audience and the other circus animals. Whereas both Snow White and Dumbo at least seek to make disability loveable, Peter Pan's Captain Hook (1952) is little more than a revival of the disabled person as villain, albeit a funny, foppish villain. Beauty and the Beast (1991) once again attempts a social commentary, this time using a familiar fairy tale as its catalyst. Tammy Berberi and Viktor Berberi argue that Disney once again relies on the cute factor, focusing on Beast's human qualities in order to make him more of a victim than a monster.
Up to this point, Disney's forays into disability had been mostly fictitious—a silly dwarf, an elephant with overly large ears, a pirate in a children's fairy land, a prince transformed into a monster by a fairy's spell. It is not until the release The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) that Disney took their first pass at a realistic portrayal of disability, albeit with limited success. In the film, Victor Hugo's title character is oversimplified, remade into an "awkward child with self-esteem problems," who is oftentimes the butt of the depreciating humor of his imaginary gargoyle companions. (Norden "Disability and Otherness"167). As Norden argues, "Yes, it's a movie, but it's so much more than that; for disabled people, movies such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame are harmful and divisive expressions that reinforce negative beliefs that can lead to further discrimination" ("Disability and Otherness" 173). The film was panned by reviewers in both the U.S. and the U.K. for its oversimplification and misrepresentation of both Hugo's novel and the real-life issues PWDs face (Norden "Disability and Otherness" 168). Much more concerning, however, was the rise in violence against people with scoliosis in the U.K. in the months following the film's release (Norden "Disability and Otherness 173-4).
Given the film's poor reception, it is little wonder that Disney has been shy to venture into disability representation in the years that followed. It was not until 2012 that the animation giant released Wreck It Ralph6, one of whose protagonists, Vanellope von Schweetz, is a video game character with a "glitch" that causes her image to freeze-up and pixilate momentarily. Vanellope identifies with disability early on when she tells the other game characters that she has a "condition" known as "pixlexia." Vanellope's disability may be encoded as fantasy; however, she represents Disney's first foray into what Quayson terms "Disability as Normality" since she deals with real issues including social isolation and homelessness due to her physical difference. Unfortunately, despite the film's overwhelming success at the box office7, Vanellope has failed to attain the same visibility in Disney's canon that she enjoys in her own video game world. Wreck It Ralph appealed to an older audience including the male demographic traditionally aimed at by Pixar films8; however, it failed to appeal to traditionalist Disney fans on the same level as the popular princess movies. As such, its marketing tapered off rather quickly, and it failed to become a household brand as is typical with more successful Disney films. Wreck at Ralph will be getting a sequel in 2018, which has the potential to relaunch Vanellope; however, since Frozen has already enjoyed a short film sequel, "Frozen Fever" (2015), has an upcoming Broadway release (2018), and will be launching its own full-length sequel (2019), it's unlikely that Wreck It Ralph will displace it as their number one anytime soon. As such, Elsa's position as Disney's first disabled princess becomes even more important since her film is garnering more attention than any Disney film ever made including golden-age classics like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
"Conceal Don't Feel": Disney's Encoding of Disability Rhetoric in Frozen
Disney's Frozen began as a remake of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen" (1844). In the original story, a girl must embark on a journey to save a friend taken captive by the evil Snow Queen after his head and heart are altered by the fragments of a demon mirror. Her love for her friend allows her to overcome obstacles and save him by melting away the fragments with her tears. Originally, Disney planned on following the original storyline; however, after Lasseter's change of heart, they reimagined the two female characters Anna and Elsa as sisters rather than rivals. In the revised version of the film, Elsa is born with the power to make ice and snow flow from her fingertips; however, when she becomes anxious or afraid, she is unable to control her magic. This leads to Elsa unintentionally plunging the country of Arendale into an eternal winter when she and Anna fight at her coronation ceremony. The villagers attack her, believing her to be a monster, and she flees her kingdom in fear. Anna then embarks on a journey to save both her sister and her home, meeting up with mountain man, Kristoff, his reindeer, Sven, and enchanted snowman, Olaf, along the way. After Elsa inadvertently freezes her sister's heart, Anna must seek true love's kiss to save her life. Initially, she and the audience both believe she needs Kristoff's kiss to save her; however, in the end, it is the sister's love for one another that saves them both.
Frozen seeks to capitalize on the successful representation of disability in Wreck It Ralph by once again encoding disability into a fantasy landscape. Disney's decision to encode disability as fantasy is not an altogether unprecedented move—they frequently attempt to encode race in their films, usually using animal characters to do so.9 Sarah Turner uses Stuart Hall's theories of encoding and decoding to argue that the animation company enlists the premise of a magical spell to erase race and send audiences a positive message regarding colorblindness in The Princess and The Frog as the lead characters, Tiana and Naveen, spend the majority of the film as frogs hopping around the Louisiana bayou. Disney may have intended to preach racial equality by removing the characters from the racially charged atmosphere of 1920's New Orleans into the remote swamp region where alligators, frogs, and fireflies all work together towards a common goal. Unfortunately, by reducing their critique of racial inequality to one scene in the film wherein Tiana is told that a "a little woman of her background" wouldn't be capable of withstanding the societal pressures involved in running a restaurant, the company risks conflating sexism with racism and therefore eliding audience members' concerns about the dominant culture's indifference to the challenges minority groups face. Turner explains Halls theory as follows:
While the creators of the message 'encode' a particular ideology into a text…there is a moment, the moment of 'decoding,' that enables an alternate reading (either negotiated or oppositional) in opposition to the dominant reading embedded within the discourse of the text. Dominant readings and readers fully share in the ideological codes of the text; negotiated readings and readers partly share the text's code but have some questions or reservations, while oppositional or counter-hegemonic readings and readers understand the intended or dominant reading but reject it. (Turner 84-5)
In other words, although the majority of viewers are likely to adhere to the message Disney encodes, or embeds, into The Princess and the Frog supporting "colorblindness" as a form of equality, it can just as easily be decoded, or interpreted, by resistant audience members as apathy, or worse, outright prejudice. In the end, Tiana's film "fails to signify her color, clearly intrinsic to 'who' and 'what' she is," choosing instead to focus on her work ethic as the only thing necessary for her to "overcome" racism and thus erasing issues of discrimination and social inequality (Turner 84). This message is overwhelmingly rejected by reviewers as well as black audience members who understand the dangers of a colorblind ideology that refuses to confront institutional racism as a source of social injustice. Whereas Disney's attempts to be "colorblind" in The Princess and the Frog fail, I argue that the encoding of disability in Frozen is successful because the film never elides the social inequality Elsa is subjected to due to her difference. The film uses the device of two princesses in order to fulfill audience's expectations for a hegemonic princess journey through Anna while at the same time offering an oppositional disability counter-narrative using Elsa. In doing so, the studio creates a sense of audience comfort that allows them to advance a critique of the way society treats marginalized populations—something they were unable to fully achieve in either The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Princess and the Frog.
When audiences flock to theaters to see a Disney princess film, they arrive bearing certain expectations for what I refer to as a "princess journey." Most princesses embark on an adventure that closely mirrors Joseph Campbell's famous hero's journey. Although Anna's journey offers viewers a feminist parody of the earlier princess stories in some ways, her story is familiar enough for audiences to recognize. There is a scene in Cinderella, for example, when the princess wakes up with perfect hair and makeup while birds dress her and brush her hair that Frozen parodies by showing Anna waking up in the morning with drool hanging out of her mouth and her hair standing up on one side. In addition, in a twist on Snow White's exhortation that "someday my prince will come," Anna rushes off to marry a man she's just met in order to have her "happily ever after," only to be told first by her sister and later by a second, better potential love interest that she's acting "crazy."10 However, despite the comic twists and turns, Anna does provide viewers with what they have come to expect from a princess story. She is shut away due to her parents' decree that Elsa must never be seen. Next, she sings her "want song"11 about opening the castle doors. Later, she heeds the call to action by following her runaway sister up the mountain into the wilderness threshold space. She meets helpers, Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, then later Olaf, the enchanted snowman. Together, they encounter obstacles as they work to find Elsa and undo the eternal winter she has unknowingly created. Along the way, Anna learns what true love is as she sacrifices herself for her sister. Her love for Elsa is the catalyst of her rebirth, and the story ends with her happily reunited first with her sister and later with Kristoff, her unlikely prince. Anna could easily stand alone as Disney's newest entry into the princess canon. She is courageous, funny, and most importantly, adorable. However, the story of Frozen doesn't end with Anna; rather, she shares the stage with her older sister, Elsa, whose story is unlike any Disney has ever told before.
The animators at Disney use the premise of two sisters in order to simultaneously meet their audiences' expectations with a traditional princess narrative and at the same time introduce a compelling counter-narrative about the way PWDs are treated in modern society. Thus, rather than erase disability, they conceal it in a second storyline that runs parallel to the first. They ground both sisters' stories in an endearing scene that takes place in their early childhood. Anna coaxes Elsa out of bed by asking her if she "wants to build a snowman," and Elsa responds by transforming the palace entry hall into a winter wonderland for her sister's amusement. At this point, Elsa's ability seems like something out of a fairytale; she can make ice and snow flow from her fingertips in order to create a winter wonderland anytime, anywhere. At this point, she could be mistaken for a typical princess; however, her story quickly turns dark. As Anna races around the castle, Elsa fears she may hurt herself and panics, accidentally hitting Anna in the forehead with a blast of ice. Anna collapses unconscious, and their parents rush into the room demanding to know what Elsa has done. While most children's stories would present an ability like Elsa's as a magical power, Frozen rejects this device early on to tell a different kind of story—one which positions disability at its center.
Elsa's disability may be encoded as a fantastic power, but the way her condition is discussed and managed links it unmistakably with impairment. Beginning with the king and queen's response to Anna's "accident," Elsa's power is treated as suspect in a manner that is reminiscent of Ernest Goffman's construction of disability as a stigmatized position. He explains, "The standards [the stigmatized person] has incorporated from the wider society equip him to be intimately alive to what others see as his failing, inevitably causing him…to agree that he does indeed fall short of what he really ought to be" (7). Elsa never has a chance to tell her story, or to try to undo the damage she has caused. Instead, the girls' parents rush to the trolls for help and advice, dragging Elsa in their wake. When the eldest troll sees Elsa, he immediately asks her parents whether Elsa was "born with the powers or cursed?" At no point is it implied that what she can do is a gift. This adds to the stigmatization since her ice power is linked with an "abomination of the body" (Goffman 4). The stigma surrounding Elsa's ability is further emphasized when the head troll erases Anna's memory of her sister's powers, telling her "it's for the best." Since he "takes the magic" but "leaves the fun," there's an implication that Elsa's ability is incidental to these memories rather than at the center of them.
The depiction of Elsa and her ability as dangerous is perpetuated in the scene that follows, which many disabled viewers have identified as the moment when they recognize Elsa as "like them." The head troll speaks directly to Elsa for the first time, telling her, "Your power will only grow. There is beauty in it, but also great danger. You must learn to control it. Fear will be your greatest enemy." As he is saying this, he conjures an image of the adult Elsa with a snowflake over her head. As young Elsa watches, the snow flake above the adult Elsa's silhouette turns from icy blue to blood red and a crowd of people gather around the image, attacking it. Young Elsa is, ironically, visibly frightened by this declaration, and she remains in this state for the majority of the film in part due to her parent's actions. Although other protagonists in Disney films fall under curses, like Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Elsa is the first Disney princess to be accused of causing bad things to happen—this is a role normally reserved for Disney villains. Therefore, this scene, which takes place very early in the film, gives audiences their first cue that this is not simply a fairy tale, but also a story about social injustice.
The disability rhetoric in Frozen differs from that in most animated features in that it dwells on both Elsa's physical and mental difference, taking the time to show how her condition impacts her lived experience, rather than using her ice powers solely to forward the plot. Moritz Fink points out that in most animated social commentary "disability does not so much represent a deficiency or flaw but rather contributes to the destabilization of social hierarchies" (Fink 255). In animated programs such as The Simpsons, disability becomes what Mitchell and Snyder refer to as a narrative prosthesis, or a symbolic device meant to further the plot as is the case when Ariel loses her voice in The Little Mermaid. In Mitchell and Snyder's initial example, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the soldier's missing leg is only mentioned as a way to single him out as worthy of a story. While Elsa's difference is the catalyst for the story in Frozen in that she inadvertently sets off an eternal winter, the majority of the plot actually focuses on the sisters' misguided attempts to protect one another. Elsa's ice powers are never questioned or explained; their origin remains a mystery, but not one that Disney is interested in solving. Instead, they focus on the way the society (mis)treats Elsa because of those powers, implying that discrimination is the real problem in need of a solution. In this way, they redirect the audiences' attention away from the expected fairytale and onto more realistic issues. Thus, instead of encoding a socially problematic motif like "colorblindness," they are actually encoding a message about inequality and unfairness as universal problems that all audience members can relate to and take action against.
Elsa's condition, which is triggered by fear and anxiety, is representative of not only physical but also mental and cognitive disability, as many viewers have noted. The mishandling of Elsa's condition by her parents resonates especially with those who live with anxiety and depression. As Margaret Price points out, it is a common misbelief that "mental illness…goes hand in hand with violent behavior," a prejudice stemming from the unending supply of misrepresentations available in media and film (2). Women in particular are prone to misdiagnosis and misunderstanding, particularly by neurotypicals who may ask them why they can't just "control themselves." As is the case with most invisible disabilities, Elsa is able to keep her condition hidden most of the time, only making herself known when she chooses. However, her impairment is "always ready to disclose itself, to emerge in some visually recognizable stigmata, however subtle, that will disrupt social order by its presence," as is the case for many people with invisible disabilities (Garland-Thomson Extraordinary Bodies 347). Sensing this danger, when the king and queen return home, they lock Elsa away in her room and forbid her from seeing her sister or anyone else in the kingdom. They present her with thick gloves to cover her hands, and instruct her, "Conceal, don't feel." Both the gloves, which serve as an unwanted prosthetic used to make her hands appear normative, and the instructions on how to suppress her power, represent an attempt at "curing" or "passing" that resonates with both physically and mentally disabled viewers. Since these viewers rarely see depictions of themselves as they really are—most Hollywood films prefer to represent disability as either monstrous or heroic, as discussed above—the representation of disability as the PWD experiences it is both refreshing and empowering.
Whereas viewers who identify as disabled are likely to appreciate the unflinching honesty present in Elsa's representation, normate viewers may experience a sense of growing discomfort. This is doubly true since it is Elsa's own parents, and not a discernible villain, who put Elsa into this isolated position. The audience, many of whom are parents themselves, are forced to take a hard look at the way we, as a society, demand that children who are different be made to either conform or be shut away. Elsa's confinement, first in her own room and later in a castle of her own making, can therefore be recognized as institutionalization. Elsa's experience of being locked in her room unable to open her door resonates with Simi Linton's recollection of "the institutions that have confined us, the attics and basements that sheltered our family's shame" (1). Even after the tragic death of their parents, Elsa continues to isolate herself, unable to break down the psychological barrier that her parents and the trolls have erected. This is in keeping with Norden's theory that PWDs are oftentimes depicted as isolated from both their families and communities and also from other PWDs. Rather than imply this is natural or inevitable, however, Disney uses Elsa's isolation to subtly critique the effect that institutionalization has on those with disability in the real, as well as the fictional, realm.
As the story progresses, and Elsa grows up, it becomes apparent that the society at large, rather than just her parents, is responsible for Elsa's poor treatment. The people's fear of Elsa is most evident at her coronation ceremony when Anna pulls off her glove during an argument. Without her glove, Elsa is unable to control her ability, and she erects a wall of jagged ice to force the people around her to back up and give her space. When they realize who and what Elsa is, the townspeople recoil from her in fear. Their looks recall Garland-Thomson's work on staring, in which she describes the stare as, "a more intense form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning, surveying, gazing, and other forms of casual or uninterested looking." She argues that "staring registers the perception of difference and gives meaning to impairment by marking it as aberrant" ("The Politics of Staring" 56). Through their stares, the villagers transform Elsa into a monster, and she is forced to flee for her life not unlike Frankenstein's monster or Dracula in the familiar horror movies.
At this point in a Disney film, a character like Elsa would ordinarily transform into a villain—denied access to the party, no longer the "fairest of them all," most Disney queens would lash out and seek revenge on those who rejected them. Indeed, PWDs are oftentimes represented as the villains in films for both children and adults, as was the case in Peter Pan. In this film, however, Disney refuses the familiar stereotype of disability as monstrous or villainous, and retains the audience's empathy for Elsa, by following her journey up the mountain rather than remaining with the villagers down below. When Elsa reaches the mountaintop, she does not cry or rage, rather she initially berates herself in a move that is common among those who have been stigmatized by society. Her wildly popular anthem, "Let it Go" begins with the declaration that Elsa has found herself in a "kingdom of isolation / and it looks like I'm the queen" (lines 3-4). This is, again, in keeping with Norden's theory; however, whereas in most earlier films this isolation was both accepted by the victim and inevitably seen as "for their own good," Elsa's song indicates that it is her parents and society, rather than herself, who are to blame for her current situation. Her next lines, "Don't let them in / don't let them see / Be the good girl you always have to be" ventriloquize her parents harmful teaching (lines 8-10). At this point, Elsa wags her finger, admonishing herself as she remembers what she has been taught. By mid-song, however, she rejects this teaching, and with it her home and former identity, singing, "I don't care / what they're going to say / let the storm rage on / the cold never bothered me anyway" (lines 17-20). These lines are not only catchy, they also form an anthem of independence that resonates with both disabled and able-bodied audience members, all of whom can likely remember a time when they have had enough. Disney's classic songs, including The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" and The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata" are a large part of their film's popularity. They not only reinforce the films' imaginative world views, but they also create an empathic bond between audience and character, and "Let It Go," is no exception. In addition to empowering disabled viewers to take a metaphorical "stand" for their own rights, this song draws in normate viewers and helps them to see themselves as like Elsa, tired of being pushed around. Markotić and Chivers argue that "Disabled or not—when 'we' all watch a film, we all participate in disability discourse" (4). The "we" in this case is always suspect since normate viewers cannot ever fully embody the experience of fellow movie goers with disability; however, the move to identify with a character like Elsa rather than continuing to view her as Other is important since it opens up a space for dialog on how she and the real PWDs she represents are treated by society.
It is at this point that Elsa transforms visually, donning a new wardrobe to match her new attitude. There is a sense of relief in this moment as Elsa releases the tension that has been building around her character since the scene with the trolls. For audience members, the relief partially comes from both the realization that she is not so different from them after all. In addition, Elsa's song implies that she will not become an Obsessive Avenger, but rather she will content herself to reside in a beautiful ice palace of her own making, so the normate community has little to fear from her. For Elsa, however, the relief comes from no longer having to perform for that same normate audience. Goffman explains, "the stigmatized individual is likely to feel that he is 'on,' having to be self-conscious and calculating about the impression he is making, to a degree and in areas of conduct which he assumes others are not" (14). In the scene on the mountaintop, Elsa finally enacts a sense of play. Her face lights up as she creates a stairway into the unknown out of snow, and then later, she spins around in wonder as an entire palace made of ice, complete with a sparkling chandelier, rises up around her. At this point, Disney reimagines Elsa's "kingdom of isolation" as empowering—not for the normate community, but for Elsa herself since she no longer has to hide or pretend to be someone she is not. As her song ends, she makes direct eye contact with the audience before slamming the doors and effectively shutting out not only the people of Arendale, but also the viewer thus denying any attempts at disability voyeurism, another common issue in earlier representations.
Up to this point, there is a tension surrounding this film, stemming from Elsa's mistreatment by the community and her understandably angry response. The animators' choice to focus on inequality for the first act of the film is a major deviation from their flippant treatment of racial inequality in Princess and the Frog. If Disney continued to focus solely on Elsa and the injustice to which she was subjected as the film continued, it is very likely that viewers would reject the encoded message about the need for social reform on behalf of PWDs and instead begin to blame Elsa for what happens to her in an effort to shake off their own feelings of guilt. As it is, most viewers accept and to some extent internalize Elsa's rhetoric about disability, as I will demonstrate at the end of this section. Viewers are able to do so because the return to Anna's narrative takes them "off the hook" in two important ways. First, Anna's narrative returns them to the familiar realm of the princess story and therefore puts audiences back on solid ground, as I have demonstrated. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the film shifts the blame from the society at large onto a failed prince figure, Hans, therefore allowing audiences to do the same. On one level, Hans's role as a villain is similar to that of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. He is drawn in the traditional prince style—blue eyed and handsome with a well-muscled physique that aligns him with the normate community. However, unlike Gaston, whom Belle rejects early on in her narrative, Anna believes Hans to be "the one" and agrees to marry him after meeting him only twice. Up until the middle of the film, he appears to be the ideal prince figure, a view that is only complicated by the entrance of the mountain man, Kristoff, who audiences are likely to find equally suitable for Anna. It is only after Anna leaves to find her sister that Hans shows his true colors as he sets off to track Elsa down himself with the intention of doing her harm and therefore steps into the role of villain.
Hans's behavior towards Elsa is once again a startlingly realistic depiction of how PWDs are treated, albeit encoded into a fairytale narrative. First, he directs all of his derogatory comments to Elsa outside of the villagers' earshot; in addition, his words always have a double meaning. For instance, he tells Elsa, "Don't be the monster they fear you are," implying that by refusing to be locked away, Elsa is somehow in the wrong. This is not unlike the rhetoric that employers sometimes use for not hiring PWDs; phrases like "it would create a hardship for you" or "it just wouldn't be fair to the other employees" abound in stories about PWDs struggles to find work despite the supposed protections offered by the ADA. Later, Hans tells Elsa, "You don't belong in this world. You don't belong anywhere, which is why I'm going to put you somewhere, where it's like you don't exist." Although at this point, he is threatening to once again lock her away, this time in the dungeon, his words are more in keeping with the language used to describe euthanasia or "good death," for the disabled. Hans is again able to project his own villainy onto Elsa implying that she is making those around her uncomfortable and therefore she is the one who doesn't belong. PWDs are, unfortunately, all too familiar with these accusations of being monstrous, making others afraid, and not belonging. By making Hans the scapegoat for all of the negative rhetoric surrounding PWDs, the Disney team allow for both Elsa and the townspeople who initially rejected her to experience redemption at the movie's end. Disney's move to make the villain male, and therefore representative of an oppressive patriarchal culture is an interesting one. In the past, the majority of Disney's villains have been middle-aged women, meant to represent the horror of a woman who embodies sexual desire well after her child-bearing years have ended (Putnam). Women and children make up the majority of the audience in Disney's princess films, so laying the blame on powerful, white men potentially frees female viewers from blame and invites them to side with Elsa and therefore take the moral high ground.
Elsa's narrative offers viewers a realistic and ethical critique of the way PWDs are treated in modern society, as I have attempted to demonstrate. Of course, that depiction is meaningless if viewers ultimately fail to decode Elsa's story as a disability-centric one. Fortunately, there is abundant evidence that audience members, from parents of children with physical disabilities, to teens living with mental disability, to adults with autism, recognize and applaud Disney's efforts to bring disability to the big screen. There are dozens of articles and blogs relating Elsa to disability, both on sites that focus on disability like The Mighty and Autism Speaks and also parenting and feminist blogs. The majority of those I found are overwhelmingly positive since the writers not only identify with Elsa's disabled experience but also find empowerment in the words she uses to stand up for herself during the song "Let It Go." Commenters see Elsa as representing a range of conditions from autism to serious physical disability. This is potentially advantageous since the disabled community has struggled in the past to reconcile its myriad differences into a united disability culture with the potential to advocate on its own behalf (Peters, Shakespeare). In a blog titled The Third Glance, a Ph.D. student with autism outlines the way key scenes in Frozen, such as Elsa's disturbing meeting with the trolls and her subsequent imprisonment in her room, immediately map on to issues of diagnosis and passing familiar to viewers with autism. The author explains:
We are forced to conform…to suppress our autistic traits, to hide them from everyone. And when we fail, as we often do, because autism is an integral part of who we are, we are hidden from view instead…We don't have the opportunity to learn and grow with our powers, we are told to suppress them or there will be dire consequences. (para. 7)
The author of The Third Glance demonstrates one of the potential benefits of encoding disability as a power when they align it with the unique abilities of people with autism. Rather than seeing stemming, or intense focused interest in a specific subject as a limitation, Elsa empowers autistic audience members to tell their neurotypical peers to "let it go," and to let them be who they are. In a similar move, Autumn Aurelia writes in The Mighty about "9 Reasons Elsa's Storyline in Frozen is the Perfect Metaphor for Mental Illness," arguing that the "conceal don't feel" rhetoric Elsa's parents use is easily relatable to the struggle people with depression go through to hide their condition. Sakki Selznick discusses taking a teenaged boy with serious disabilities to the film and feeling grateful that he "saw himself in Elsa" in her blog She Writes (para. 8). Emily Urquhart, whose daughter has albinism writes about the way children now identify her daughter and her condition with Elsa in an article for BBC. Although she worries what will happen when Elsa is eventually dethroned, she does point out that Elsa is objectively the most positive filmic representative of the condition to date. Even Target seems to be getting in on the act; David Kiefaber points out in Creativity that Target's 2015 Halloween advertisement, which featured a young girl with arm crutches dressed as Elsa for Halloween, has caused parents to write in and praise the company for its representation of children like their own.
Elsa's overwhelmingly positive reception by members of the disability community as well as able-bodied children, parents, feminists, and other social rights activists indicates that Disney's counter-hegemonic disability narrative has hit its mark. Their immediate move to create a short film featuring the sisters together on screen as well as both a floor show and a new ride at Walt Disney World's Epcot, and now a guaranteed sequel, indicate that by and large Elsa and the social justice rhetoric she represents are here to stay. Disability scholars, beginning with Garland-Thomson, have argued that "representation informs the identity—and often the fate—of real people with extraordinary bodies" (15). Mary-Catherine Harrison builds on this argument claiming that "empathy for fictional characters can prompt ethical behavior in the extra-fictional world" (257). Elsa's overwhelming popularity as a Disney princess in combination with her realistic, ethical depiction of disability means that her character, and Frozen's subsequent Disney brand, have the potential to change how normate viewers understand disability moving it from the realm of limitation and stigma to a position as fully realized identity deserving of equal treatment. Furthermore, since Elsa has been identified by disabled viewers alternatively as having mental, intellectual, cognitive, and physical difference, her character offers PWDs a representation of disability as a range of embodied positions that can be united to fight against prejudice and social inequality. As disability scholars have argued, there has yet to be a firmly established disability culture due in part to the wide variety of conditions that fall under this broad umbrella and partly due to a reluctance among the population to identify as disabled (Peters, Shakespeare, Davis). Unfortunately, without unity, widespread activism is difficult to achieve. Social Media provides a unique opportunity for PWDs to identify as such and come together in a relatively safe space, free from stigma and issues of accessibility. Ideally, as viewers with disabilities gather online to share their love of a popular film in articles, blogs, and their comments sections, they will also share their stories about discrimination and acceptance, and in doing so will band together to work for social change on a global scale.
From Villainous Queen to Sympathetic Teen: Disney's Use of Cuteness to Create Empathy
Frozen's Elsa has without a doubt created a stir both in theaters and online with her catchy theme song and striking social rhetoric. However, it is her position as a Disney princess that ensures both her current and future visibility. Disney princesses may grow old, but they never fade away. If there was any doubt, one need only take a stroll through a Disney theme park, or a local Walmart store, to see each princess's image, from Snow White to Merida, replicated in dozens of products from dresses and dolls to Blu-ray movies including straight-to-video sequels. Elsa's status as a Disney princess is necessary to her current and continued success; however, since she does not embark on a traditional princess journey, her story alone is not enough to signal her as belonging. In order to make her recognizable as a Disney princess, she has to have the look of a Disney princess, a design choice that is somewhat problematic from a disability activism standpoint since it involves erasing all physical traces of difference.
The Walt Disney Corporation may not have invented the modern concept of "cute"12; however, they have built an empire out of it.13 Tom Bancroft, who worked for Disney Studios as a supervising animator for twelve years, elaborates on the Disney aesthetic as it is taught today. According to Bancroft, the guiding principles to creating a cutely proportioned character are a large head and a small body because "these are the proportions of small children" (67). Next the face must have "expressive eyes with large pupils, a small, pert nose, and a small mouth with thick lips" (68). In order to emphasize the princesses' femininity, Bancroft encourages animators to draw curves because they "create a feeling of grace and elegance that is so naturally evident in the female form" (70). In keeping with this model, the reimagined Elsa has impossibly large blue eyes in a pert, heart-shaped face, framed by long, wavy white-blonde hair. When she sings, viewers can focus on her large, pouty lips, and when she dances her swerving hips and torso are all tilts and curves. Whatever objections parents and scholars raise due to Elsa's reinforcement of a limited model of femininity tend to be drowned out by the rousing success of her film and her brand.
Elsa's character design is important because it reinforces her status as a princess, and therefore as a figure worthy of audience identification. The connection between character appeal and audience empathy that Disney strives for stems from the belief that we tend to empathize more readily with those who are similar to us than those who are different. Martin Hoffman identifies this as "'similarity bias,' or our unwillingness or inability to empathize with people who are not like ourselves" (qtd. in Harrison 258). Francis de Waal supports this, stating, "We find it easier to identify with those like us – with the same cultural background, ethnic features, age, gender, job, and so on" (80). When we encounter someone who is not like us, for example someone with a physical or intellectual disability, we tend to experience what Quayson has termed "aesthetic nervousness." When this occurs, a person's ability to empathize with another human being is "short-circuited" by feelings of fear, pity, awe, or disgust (15). In order to engender empathy, Disney's heroes and heroines are drawn with the proportions discussed above in order to ensure that they are physically attractive, whereas their villains often display some form of physical difference in addition to being aligned with animals such as dragons or snakes rather than with other people.
When Elsa was originally designed, animators intended her to be the villain of her film and as such her aesthetic design reflected Disney's own brand of Otherness. Whereas Disney's princesses are built on curves to reflect their femininity, their villainesses are normally built using squares and triangles in order to make them appear more masculine. Amanda Putnam argues that Disney's leading ladies of villainy including Lady Tremaine and her daughters from Cinderella and Ursula from The Little Mermaid are drawn in a masculine style in order to visually represent their gender transgressions (demanding power and respect is just not ladylike, at least not in the early Disney movies). Putnam argues that while Disney's princesses wear form-fitting gowns that expose their cleavage in order to express their (heterosexual) desire, villainesses are "subtly masculine—their faces, body shape, and behavior lend 'mannish' traits to their characters" (151). For example, Lady Tremaine's face is "sharp-edged, with large eyes and a pointy chin, a clear divergence from Cinderella's softened cheeks, nose, and lips" (153). Furthermore, Putnam notes that Tremain's face actually changes colors "from gray and tan to dark green depending on her mood and actions," a move which further dehumanizes her (154). Elsa's original character design fits the mold that Putnam lays out quite clearly. She was meant to have cropped black hair, blue skin, and a "coat of living weasels" (Acuna para. 7). Like her predecessors, her face and body would have been sharply angled, and these characteristics in addition to her unnatural skin tone were meant to code her as evil and inhuman. Disney's choice to encode villainous attitudes using physical characteristics is obviously problematic from a disability studies standpoint since characteristics such as an unnatural skin tone or extreme thinness are often the result of long-term illness. There is a danger here that children will decode the message that illness is evil whereas a healthy body implies inherent goodness. Creating villains like Gaston or Hans, who are built on the same model as earlier Disney princes, helps to dispel this myth, but until Disney protagonists—including princesses—are able to embody realistic physical disability, the danger is ever-present.
Unlike either the Disney princesses or the villains that Putnam analyzes, Elsa's appearance actually changes mid-way through her film. When she comes out for her coronation, she is covered from head to foot in heavy clothing. She wears long gloves to hide her hands, and her hair is done up in a tight bun. When she reaches the mountain peak, however, she transforms from looking like an eighty-year-old spinster to being both young and sexy—characteristics we've come to expect from a Disney princess. During her song, "Let It Go," she literally lets her hair down and dons a sheer dress made of frost with a slit up one side and a pair of high heels reminiscent of Cinderella's glass slippers. If we look at Elsa's transformation from a disability studies perspective, in which women with physical disabilities are frequently rendered invisible, Elsa's newfound desirability is refreshing. It is doubly so since there is no "prince" in the picture for whom she is dressing up. Instead, Elsa's desirability is being emphasized for the audience with whom the creators hope to create an empathic bond. It is not surprising, then, that the entire sequence is visibly stunning since audience members need to view not just her body, but what she can do with her body, as beautiful. After all, our ability to empathize with characters like Elsa is tied up in our ability to see the character as "like us," or in this case, a more spectacular version of us to which we can aspire.
Child's Play: Marketing Elsa's Disability as a Universal Identity
Thus far, we have seen how the powers that be at Disney use a pattern of rhetorical devices including their familiar princess genre, the encoding of disability as fantastical power, and the aesthetic of cuteness in order to persuade viewers to empathize with the company's first disabled princess. However, empathizing, while important, is not enough. In order for PWDs to enjoy the same rights as normate citizens, the majority of the population must embrace disability as a part of their own identities. When Lasseter realized that Elsa's condition was not unlike his son's, he stopped trying to villainize her difference, and instead encouraged his staff to embrace it. Similarly, if audience members can be convinced to relate to Elsa and her experience as like their own, they are more likely to advocate for persons with disability in their schools and workplaces. Here, again, the aesthetic of cuteness comes into play—quite literally. Lori Merish argues that cuteness creates a fundamental maternal desire because consumers identify the cute as not only part of their families, but also as a part of themselves; in order for this connection to occur, the person must see the cute object as like the self, but also recognize that the self is like the cute object (187). This transference of identity is most clearly seen when children play with toys, specifically dolls.
As they eat, sleep, live, and play in a Frozen world, children internalize the rhetoric of Disney's most recent princesses. Karen E. Wohlwend describes an ethnographic study of how 21 girls in a kindergarten classroom interact with their Disney Princess dolls in play and later in classroom writing exercises. Wohlwend notes, "Children reenact film scripts and expectations for each princess character, quoting memorized dialog or singing songs from the films as they talk in-character while playing with dolls or while using princess accessories" (58). As Disney's Frozen line outsells the combined princess brand, we can assume that more children are playing with Anna—and especially Elsa—dolls than any other princess figure (Fritz). When children play with these dolls, they internalize Elsa's storyline, and (albeit momentarily) become Elsa. This means that able-bodied, as well as disabled, children are imagining themselves into the disabled space and recognizing disability as a part of a shared identity. Through its cuteness and desirability, Elsa's doll line is able to make disability itself desirable. Furthermore, children are able to rehearse the social rhetoric that Disney subtly plants in the film as they re-enact the story over and over. When they play, children re-enact what Wohlberg terms the dolls' "anticipated identities: identifies that have been projected for consumers and that are sedimented by manufacturers' design practices and distribution processes" (59). However, they also push against those identities and create new scenarios in which their princess dolls are (at least somewhat) more empowered. In this way, children can reimagine spaces for Elsa where she no longer needs rescuing or to apologize for who she is, but rather she can be accepted and loved from the outset. This proactive play has the potential to prime children for social activism on behalf of Elsa and the real PWDs that she represents.
When children imagine themselves into Elsa's role as a disabled princess, they are taking on the disabled identity for themselves. In doing so, they are taking the first step towards acceptance of disability as a universal experience, a position that every one of us will occupy at one point or another if we live long enough. This attitude is in keeping with what Lennard Davis terms "dismodernism." Davis argues that whereas most social justice theories including feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, and queer theory seek to advocate for specific groups by focusing on their differences, "the dismodern era ushers in the concept that difference is what all of us have in common" (Davis 26). Whereas Shakespeare argues that "the goal of disability politics should be to make impairment and disability irrelevant wherever possible" (110), for Davis, it is disability's inclusivity that makes it the ideal identity since it emphasizes our similarities and works towards a cosmopolitan world view. Ideally, when people come together under the realization that disability is the one identity all of us will experience at one time or another, they will become more invested in the welfare of their fellow man and will work to ensure that everyone has access to education, the workforce, healthcare, and other fundamental institutions.
Not Always "the Fairest": The Limitations of Disney's Disability Rhetoric
Throughout this paper, I have focused on the benefits of Disney's branding of disabled identity; however, I would be remiss if I did not point out the very real dangers that this marketing move creates. Characters like Elsa, whose disabilities are encoded as fantasy, work to make the normate viewer comfortable so that a serious conversation about the way PWDs are treated in our society can begin. However, Elsa has little in common with the real people with actual impairments that she represents beyond the abusive treatment she receives. Disney's representation of disability in Frozen, which aligns with the social model in viewing disability as the result of discrimination alone, is limited. As Shakespeare argues, "disabled people are experiencing both the intrinsic limitation of impairment," something that able-bodied people know comparatively little about, as well as the "externally imposed social discrimination" that likewise maps on to experiences with sexism, racism, and homophobia (31). As such, there is always a risk that when normate viewers are exposed to the reality, they will balk at acceptance and return to their former belief that PWDs are misfortunate or monstrous rather than like themselves. In addition to eliding the physical and intellectual difficulties that can arise from impairment, and therefore creating unrealistic expectations for PWDs to live up to, the cute aesthetic risks turning the feeling subject with disability into an unfeeling object for public consumption. As Merish argues, "Cuteness entails the fundamental ambivalence of the child in a liberal-capitalist order: at once as consenting 'subject' and property 'object." (187). Similarly, by marketing Elsa through doll, clothing, and other merchandise lines, Disney encourages consumers to think of her—and by extension real PWDs—as consumable objects incapable of feeling anything but gratitude towards the patron who generously receives them.
Despite its limitations, Disney's Frozen has the potential to open up a dialog about the way we perceive disability. Over the past 75 years, the studio's influence has spread worldwide. Few animated characters are better known or loved than the Disney princess. By placing Elsa in the role of princess, and later queen, Disney is drawing on the cultural capital they have built up through a long line of princess movies. Children play with the princesses' dolls, dress in their clothes, sing their songs, and in effect become Disney princesses themselves. The identity of the Disney princess is a universal one, and by making the princess disabled, Disney is able to universalize that identity as well. I do believe we should be cautious about supporting an over-expansion of the definition of disability. This is due in part to the fact that disability remains a relative new-comer to identity politics, and the people represented have been colonized by the able-bodied community in the past. In addition, disability, unlike sex, gender, race, or sexual orientation, has real physical and intellectual consequences that make it unlike other socially constructed identities14. Despite these limitations, I believe we can read Disney's move to represent disability as universal as an extension of disability activists' own motto, "We'll all be disabled if we live long enough," which is frequently uttered in order to create awareness and political action on behalf of PWDs by emphasizing disability as a shared experience. As Davis has pointed out, PWDs have rapidly been losing ground in the work world due to the overturning of the ADA in 95% of recent Supreme Court cases. If people do not start rethinking their own positions in relation to disability, and therefore responding with empathy instead of sympathy, or worse prejudicial judgement, this situation is only going to worsen. Giroux and Pollock argue that Disney infiltrates every aspect of children's—and many adults'—lives, from what we watch, what we wear, and what we buy, to how our children are educated and even the social behaviors they learn to enact, so if their choice to advocate for disability by making it "adorable," and yes, desirable has the potential to change lives for the better, then I say by all means we should "let it go."
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In this essay, I am defining Elsa and Anna as Disney princesses because audiences readily recognize them as such. They come from royalty, are designed with the princess aesthetic in mind, and meet all of the criteria necessary for an official coronation ceremony. I am aware that Frozen has its own product line separate from the Disney Princess brand to which all other princesses now subscribe and that they have not yet had their official "coronation ceremony" and product roll out at Walt Disney World. However, this is due to financial reasons—the Frozen line earns more money as a separate entity—rather than creative ones. It does not impact their identity as princesses within their own film—or in audiences' minds—and as such they wield all the rhetorical power of their princess predecessors.
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Reference articles in Works Cited by Alexander M. Bruce, Dorothy L. Hurley, Patricia A. Matthew and Jonathan Greenberg, Chyng Feng Sun and Erica Sharrer, and Karen E. Wohlwend for more information on the impact of Disney movies on students from Kindergarten through college age.
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In addition to Vanellope and Elsa, Disney also recently released a Marvel animated feature, Big Hero 6, that follows the story of Baymax, a nurse-bot who works to help his "patient," Hiro Hamada, cope with depression resulting from his brother's sudden death in a fire. Although Disney rarely ever releases sequels (the last one was The Rescuers Down Under in 1990), Wreck It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6 will all be seeing sequels by 2020, reinforcing the popularity of all three of Disney's new disability representations.
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Johnson Cheu's edited collection, Diversity in Disney Films: Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability offers several compelling essays on Disney's complicated relationship with race representation including those by Sara E. Turner and Prajna Parasher.
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I use the term "normate" throughout the essay to refer to the able-bodied community. The word was coined by Rosemary Garland-Thomson in her foundational work Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature and is meant to draw attention to the social construction of the term "normal" as well as the underlying prejudices the word implies.
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Although Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016) are both realistic representations of disability as a shared experience, these films are a product of Disney's subsidiary, Pixar, which has always done more to push the envelope than the Disney corporation's main branch. My intention in this paper is to focus on Walt Disney studios themselves, so I intentionally omitted these films.
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Madeline Boardman reported in the Huffington Post that the film grossed $49.1 million on its opening weekend, making it "the highest weekend opening for any Disney Animated Studios film.
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Ralph's age and storyline (He's going through a mid-life crisis after spending the last 30 years as the villain of his game) both speak to an older audience similar to that of Pixar's The Incredibles. In addition, there are numerous references to video games from the 80s and 90s meant to appeal to an older, primarily male audience.
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Most of Disney's attempts to encode race have, unfortunately, failed due to the latent (or blatent) racism these characters represent. The lead crow in Dumbo, named Jim (a distasteful reference to the Jim Crow laws of the South), embodies stereotypes of black men as lazy, out of work, and also associated with mysticism when they give Dumbo a "magic" feather. Song of the South employs similar stereotypes through the characters of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear.
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Elsa's use of this term in particular is ironic, considering how crazy has been used as a derogatory term for the mentally disabled, as Margaret Price has noted. Price has, at the same time, made a compelling argument as to why the community needs to take back the term; however that does not appear to be what is happening in this scene.
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All of Disney's princesses have a "want song" that articulates their heart's most secret desire. Although most early princesses sing about finding a prince to marry later princesses express a desire to explore or to be who they really are.
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Lori Merish argues in her essay "Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple," that the cute aesthetic as modern audiences recognize it actually began with the "kid shows" of the mid-1800's where audiences would flock to gawk at Little People performing in an aggrandized style as generals, counts, and princesses. In particular, the wedding of Tom Thumb to Lavinia Warren was marketed as both adorable and innocent (190-5).
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It was Fred Moore, one of the supervising animators on Disney's first feature-length production, Snow White, who first introduced the cute aesthetic to the Disney team. According to his colleagues, Moore himself had "proportions [that] were cute, like his drawings, and it kind of tickled you to watch him moving around" (Thomas and Johnston 120).
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As Tom Shakespeare argues, "Disabled people often experience major disadvantages as a result of their genetic endowment, whereas members of other historically oppressed communities experience either minimal or non-existent biological disadvantages" (31).
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