Frozen’s Feminist Rallying Cry – Japan

The film’s popularity has coincided with public outcry over sexism in Japan, where unlike in America, Disney marketing played up the movie’s empowerment message.

AP Photo/Disney

Frozen, the Disney cartoon-musical that swept the US in late 2013 and early 2014, only arrived in Japan in mid-March. And since then, it’s completely taken over the country. It’s the No. 1 movie in Japanese box offices for the 15th straight week. Among its other accolades in Japan (where it was released under the name Ana and the Snow Queen):

  • The movie’s made $231.8 million in Japan so far, more than any movie in Japan’s history except Spirited Away in 2001 and Titanic in 1997—and it’s within striking distance of the latter.
  • It blew past Avatar in early May to become the most successful 3D film in Japan ever.
  • The soundtrack’s done solid business as well, topping Billboard Japan’s “Top Albums” rankings for Nov. 2013-Jun. 2014 (link in Japanese).
  • Japan’s Frozen box-office receipts have contributed 19% of worldwide earnings, second in the world behind the US’s 32%, even though Japan has less than half the population of the US.

So, what’s behind Japan’s Frozen craze?

Undoubtedly, Japanese audiences are responding to the same qualities that have turned Frozen into a global phenomenon. Not only is the music catchy, but the story is morally nuanced enough that adults seem to enjoy it as well as children. And then there’s the fact that Frozen revolves around the relationship between strong, commanding female characters who defy the “Disney princess” stereotype (even though they technically are monarchs).

That latter point is what makes Frozen‘s unexpected popularity—particularly among Japanese women—so striking.

The story centers on the closeness between two sisters—Elsa, the older sister and queen, and her younger sister Anna. Unlike typical princess movies, Disney or otherwise, romance isn’t a big focus; in fact, the “handsome prince” ends up being a villain. And far from being a spunky but ultimately passive heroine like Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle or Aladdin‘s Princess Jasmine, Elsa is genuinely powerful. Not only is she queen, but she has the magic ability to turn things into ice—a magical power that in other Disney movies signals “evil” (think Maleficent or Ursula).

But Elsa’s superpower is a mere distraction; chip away all that fanciful frost and it turns out the movie’s mainly about her struggle to be an effective ruler while gaining control over her power and still caring for her sister—”having it all,” as some might term it. And it’s clearly no cakewalk. Elsa delivers the show-stopping number “Let It Go” as she (fairly irresponsibly) ditches her queenly duties for a life of self-imposed exile in an ice-castle of her creation.

A “screw ‘em all” tirade against social expectations, “Let It Go” sees Elsa’s embrace the weird power that makes her different from everyone else, rejecting the shame her parents had made her feel about it. It’s not really her finest moment—while she’s traipsing all over glaciers, her kingdom is in a state of deep-freeze. But it’s also necessary: an instant of brazen self-acceptance that will soften into confidence. And people love it; “Let It Go” has become an anthem for the oppressed of all stripes, as this New Yorker article explains.

This is all pretty un-Disney, and the company seems to know it. Disney marketed Frozen in the US and Europe by playing up Olaf the Snowman—and omitting the whole musical thing—likely in a bid to appeal to boys, knowing that girls would see it regardless. Here’s the US trailer:

That’s unsurprising given how much better more masculine, action-themed movies tend to do:

But Disney took a totally different tack in Japan, highlighting the girl-power themes in its promotions, says Tami Ihara, head marketing director at Disney (Japan).

“Unlike in the United States and other nations, we deviated from the strategy of catering to families and specifically targeted Japanese women,” Ihara told the Japan Times (paywall), “who have the power to spur consumption and create a fad.”

It’s an intriguing ploy. After all, Japan’s not exactly the land of female empowerment. On the contrary, in fact. Even though Japanese girls are among the best-educated in the world (paywall), women earn 30% less than their male counterparts. Female labor force participation is 63%, much lower than in other rich countries, and when women leave the workforce, the difficulty of affording childcare and finding a job after a few years off mean they seldom return.

And while strong female leaders may be dominating Japanese silver screens at the moment, they tend to fare less well in its boardrooms. All this is threatening to wreck Japan’s economy. In a bid to boost growth—more working women could increase Japan’s output by 15%—prime minister Shinzo Abe just launched a campaign to close the gender gap, including the goal of upping the percentage of female managers in Japan’s central government from the current 3% to 30% by 2020.

This fact is now highlighted by the other media sensation gripping the country right now—this one involving the sort of nasty, unrepentant sexism that Japanese workplaces are notorious for. Specifically, while a 35-year-old female politician Ayaka Shiomura gave a speech on the floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly on Jun. 19, a slew of male members of prime minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party heckled her (paywall), yelling things like “Why don’t you hurry up and get married?” and “Can’t you bear a child?” to rumbles of laughter from other men, persisting even as Shiomura appeared visibly distressed.

After denying involvement on national TV, Tokyo city assembly politician Akihiro Suzuki finally apologized to Ayaka Shiomura for yelling that she should “hurry up and get married” while she delivered a speech. (Reuters/Kyodo)
The public wants the hecklers to come forward (one finally has, five days after the incident). Both the outrage and the timing of this LDP boorishness are remarkable. The fact that Abe’s men are behaving badly just as the PM rolled out his “Womenomics” plan to encourage women to join the workforce—complete with a corny, mildly offensive website encouraging women to “Shine!“— hints just how far Japan has to go before its male leaders get a clue.
Shinzo Abe’s new women-empowerment blog (screenshot of

Given what happened to Shiomura, it seems fitting that while Abe’s trying to convince women that he and his party leaders want them to “shine!”—whatever that means—Japanese women are busy booking out karaoke parlors to sing “Let It Go” (one of the three different versions released in Japan—or, more likely, all of them).

“In particular, ‘Let It Go’ has struck a chord in Japanese people’s hearts and emerged as a cheer-up song for women,” Akio Doteuchi, a researchers at NLI Research Institute, told the Japan Times.

But while it’s inviting to read Japanese women’s love of Frozen as a sign of the country’s budding feminism, its popularity might have more to do with the music. Disney’s choice of Japanese starlets Takako Matsu and Sayaka Kanda to play Elsa and Anna, respectively, in the Japanese dubbed versions was a masterstroke. Praise seems pretty universal: Japanese women love Takako and Sayaka’s voices. Even among women who didn’t like or bother to see Frozen, the songs sung by both women are huge hits, dominating karaoke playlists.

It may well be that Matsu’s mezzo is the main driver of Frozen‘s $235.8 million in ticket sales, and not newly empowered females. It’s hard to tell. But though Disney’s Japan marketing was clearly clever, it wouldn’t have made sense without having two commanding female lead characters (and casting those roles well). In both those strategies, though, Shinzo Abe and his LDP have a lot to learn—but particularly the latter. In July’s parliamentary election, the LDP is fielding nine female candidates out of 79, roughly 11%. Hardly a party for the Frozen era. After all, if there’s one thing the film’s success has shown it’s that when it comes to starring roles, Japanese women like hearing their own voices.


The Feminist Legacy of The Little Mermaid’s Divisive, ‘Sexy’ Ariel

The stark difference in attitudes toward the Disney film in 1989 versus today serves as a reminder of how the concept of the Strong Female Lead is always changing.


Which of the following wildly popular Hans Christian Andersen adaptations and animated Disney films is acclaimed for featuring a strong and independent female protagonist?

A. The Little Mermaid
B. Frozen

Given the omnipresent discussion surrounding Frozen‘s charmingly subversive tale of sisterhood—and Ariel’s relatively newfound reputation as a bad example for young viewers—the latter seems like the more reasonable answer. But 25 years ago when The Little Mermaid first came out, Roger Ebert praised her as a “fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.”

Writers have since explicated with gusto the idea that The Little Mermaid is “embarrassingly retrograde in terms of its gender politics,” in part because Ariel literally gives up her voice for a chance to be with a man she barely knows. Still, it’s not difficult to see Ebert’s point. Ariel acted like a typical, love-struck teenager, dissatisfied with her vanilla life under the sea, to the chagrin of Sebastian and his aquatic flash mob. Ebert wasn’t alone in admiring her spunk. While some critics maligned Ariel as a poor successor to earlier “classic” heroes like Bambi or Snow White, others hailed her as “modern Disney heroine,” not to mention “the studio’s first red-haired animated leading lady.”

If looking back at the very first reviews of The Little Mermaid reveals anything, it’s how pop culture’s loose, collective definition of “heroine,” changes over time, sometimes dramatically. What makes a good animated female role model? Should she be opinionated? Bookish? Suspicious of authority? Loyal? Irreverent or even hostile toward traditional gender roles? The nebulous and never-stagnant answer is determined in part by cultural critics and media-makers on one side, and by parents and children themselves on the other.

Before The Little Mermaid, Disney had a short roster of titular female leads, many of whom spent a good chunk of the film asleep—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice, and Snow White. So what if Ariel spends most of the film without a voice? At least she’s awake.

As Willa Paskin noted at Vulture, The Little Mermaid is “a kids’ movie … from a time before studios were even aware that parents would have to watch these things too.” It was among the last of a generation of such films, too, though decades away from all-age-pleasing critical successes like The Lego Movie. Perhaps because of the absence of age-appropriate narrative thrills, adult-aged (and male) film critics converged with surprising like-mindedness upon the sentiment that Ariel was above all hot and likable.

In his review, Ebert said audiences have “sympathy for Ariel’s scheming,” because she’s “smart and thinks for herself.” The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington instead remarked on Ariel’s good looks:

“Mermaid’s” saucy heroine, Ariel, isn’t much like Andersen’s sad, noble sea-maid. She’s a sexy little honey-bunch with a double-scallop-shell bra and a mane of red hair tossed in tumble-out-of-bed Southern California salon style. She has no gills, but, when she smiles, she shows an acre of Farrah Fawcett teeth.

In 1997, the Boston Phoenix‘s Jeffrey Gantz noted that “Ariel is sexy as well as sympathetic,” and for the film’s 10th anniversary in 1999, Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel noted that “Ariel (Jodi Benson) is sympathetic and, in her little bikini top, rather sexy.” Similar (arguably tongue-in-cheek) descriptions of the relentlessly sexualized Disney princesses remained a mainstay in film criticism for years. While animated film’s female protagonists today still tend toward the disproportionately buxom or svelte or impossibly beautiful, critics dwell on those physical characteristics far less.

More than a dim-witted, love-drunk nymphet or fierce paragon of girlish ambition, Ariel was a necessary stepping stone to the better-developed, animated female protagonists of the future. Ariel defies her father’s authority, but Mulan defies her father’s authority in order to save all of China from the Huns. Ariel seeks life beyond the borders of her conventional world, but so does Merida, who doesn’t get distracted by a pretty, potential lover’s face.

Of course, such progress doesn’t happen linearly. Between Ariel and Mulan and Anna and Elsa were Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Belle—each strong-willed and independent in her own right, but more sassy and saucy than liberated. Still, it didn’t take 25 years for critics to express their skepticism of Frozen‘s leading pair. It’s like the Murphy’s Law of Internet-era cultural criticism: Anything that can be deconstructed will be deconstructed. But what matters is that moviemakers are trying to create better female protagonists (and with good reason), and there will always be an audience ready to cherish and meme-ify the flawed yet lovable animated leading women.


As you may already know, it is a sin for a Muslim male to see any woman other than his wife naked and if he does, he must commit suicide.
So on September 11th, at 10:00 A.M. Eastern Time, all American women are asked to walk out of their house completely naked to help weed out any neighborhood terrorists.

Circling your block for one hour is recommended for this anti-terrorist effort. All patriotic men are to position themselves in lawn chairs in front of their houses to demonstrate their support for the women and to prove that they are not Muslim terrorist sympathizers.

Continue reading

Beyoncé Is Our Indigo Girl: The Halcyon ’90s and Feminism’s Resurgence in Pop Music

The R&B diva’s ‘feminist’ proclamation at the VMAs recalls feminism’s all-important ’90s—a decade filled with strong, outspoken female musicians.

In a heart-stopping moment during her 16-minute performance at Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé made a bold political statement: Projecting a quote from Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie onto a gigantic, glowing screen while standing triumphantly in front of the word “feminist.” Bold, but it also felt right after a night of watching female performers dominate the telecast, often with anthems about power and liberation. Feminism is definitely having a moment in pop music. Continue reading

Beyoncé’s ‘Flawless’ feminist act at the VMAs leads the way for other women

Queen Bey doesn’t just tell interviewers about her feminism: she references it in her work and promotes it to her fans

Beyoncé performs at the VMAs in 2014

Beyoncé, in the midst of an epic 15 minute medley at Sunday night’s MTV Video Music awards, performed her song “Flawless” in front of a giant screen blazoned with the word “FEMINIST”. And, as in her music video, the superstar sampled author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech on feminism and expectations for girls.

The zeitgeist is irrefutably feminist: its name literally in bright lights.

As feminism’s star has ascended, so has the number of celebrities willing to lend their name to the movement. Feminism is no longer “the f-word”, it’s the realm of cool kids: Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Kerry Washington and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all call themselves feminists. And just this week, after years of equivocating, Taylor Swift came out as a feminist.

Continue reading

Beyoncé proves she’s flawless — and a feminist

The VMAs Were the Best Beyoncé Concert Ever

The pre-VMA Beyoncé rumors were plentiful. The loudest rumor in the bunch being that Beyoncé would perform a medley of her entire self-titled 2013 album as a precursor to her Video Vanguard Award acceptance; those rumors were deliciously close to truth.

Queen Bey didn’t even try to pretend like the night wasn’t all about her, as she said herself while opening the set, “MTV, welcome to my world.” 

Bey took to the stage in a bejeweled jewel-toned leotard and began what was essentially a mashed-up track of the entire Beyonce album, starting with “Mine” and finishing it out with “XO.” In the middle she found time for: 

Continue reading