How Frozen Became the Catalyst for Disney’s Shift from Male-centric Tales


By Dr. Stephen Langston

The landscape of animated musical films has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. Male storylines, once the hallmark of the genre, have taken a back seat, thanks to the revolutionary success of a film that centres around the relationship between two sisters: Disney’s Frozen. Released in 2013, it marks an important turning point in the history of animated musicals.

Frozen not only provided a song every five-year-old can sing, it was also the catalyst for the shift away from Disney tales that centred around the experience of a young male protagonist.

It set the stage for the rise of empowering culturally rich narratives in the decade that followed. Subsequent hits included the strongly female-centric Moana (2016), Encanto (2021), and Turning Red (2022), marking a new era in animated storytelling celebrating different kinds of voices and perspectives.

Frozen: sisterly bonds and resilience

Breaking away from the conventional princess-rescued-by-prince formula, the film instead thrusts two sisters, Elsa and Anna, into the limelight.

Elsa, grappling with her magical ice powers, becomes a symbol of empowerment, challenging the age-old notion that a princess’s narrative must revolve around romance. This departure from tradition allows for a nuanced exploration of themes including self-discovery, sisterhood and more complex nuanced female characters.

Instead of focusing on romantic entanglements, the film prioritises the bond between the two sisters. Elsa’s struggle with her inner demons and Anna’s unwavering support forges a narrative centred on familial love and resilience. This thematic shift lays the foundation for future films, exploring the richness of relationships beyond romantic love.

The success of Frozen extends beyond the box office, leaving a permanent mark on popular culture. The film’s anthem, Let it Go, became a global phenomenon, symbolising empowerment and self-acceptance with an outstanding performance by self-proclaimed feminist Idina Menzel.

Elsa’s journey resonated with international audiences, fostering a social evolution that demanded more diverse and inclusive narratives. Filmmakers took note, acknowledging the enthusiasm for stories that resisted gender norms while celebrating the strength of female characters.

Moana: strength and cultural authenticity

Following in the snowshoes of Frozen, Disney’s Moana (2016) continues to push the boundaries of animated storytelling. The film’s eponymous protagonist embarks on a daring oceanic adventure, challenging the notion that only male characters can be the heroes of epic quests.

Moana’s journey is not defined by a romantic interest but by courage, leadership, and connection to her Polynesian heritage. The film celebrates cultural diversity, introducing audiences to a world beyond traditional Disney settings. Moana goes a step further, embracing cultural authenticity in its storyline. The film draws inspiration from Polynesian mythology featuring an inclusive cast that reflects the diversity of the Pacific Islands.

By weaving cultural elements seamlessly into the narrative, Moana not only entertains but educates audiences about traditions and values, adopting a greater appreciation for diverse perspectives. The soundtrack, featuring songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, seamlessly blends a Pacific ambience with a classic Disney sensibility. This fusion enriches the narrative even further than the enchanting but Disney-safe melodies of Frozen.

Encanto: familial love and struggles

The success of Frozen and Moana set the stage for Disney’s Encanto (2021), another milestone. It continues the trend of empowering female characters, placing the spotlight on Mirabel, a young Colombian girl with no magical powers in a family full of gifted individuals.

The film breaks from a convention of singular heroines, embracing a narrative that stresses the collective strength of family. Encanto not only showcases the diversity of Latin American cultures through its story, music and lyrics, it celebrates different strengths and struggles within a community.

By portraying a range of characters with distinct personalities and challenges, the film offers a more inclusive representation of life experiences. This departure from one-dimensional characterisations marks a retreat from the male-dominated stories of the past, reflecting a commitment to multidimensional storytelling.

Turning Red: embracing diversity and reality

This 2022 Disney animation follows Mei Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, who transforms into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited (which is practically always). Mei’s story is a coming-of-age tale about dealing with puberty, family expectations and finding one’s own voice. It is innovative in several ways.

First, it is the first Disney Pixar film directed solely by a woman, Domee Shi. Second, it is one of the few animated films that centres on an Asian-American protagonist. And third, it frankly and honestly explores the challenges of puberty, particularly for girls.

Turning Red challenges traditional gender roles through its portrayal of Mei’s relationship with her protective, overbearing and controlling mother, Ming. Mei’s transformation into a red panda symbolises her growing independence and a desire to break free from her mother’s expectations.

Mei’s best friends Miriam, Priya and Abby are strong independent girls who support each other through thick and thin. They also help Mei to embrace her red panda side. This refreshing animation challenges traditional gender roles and celebrates female bonds and friendship.

Seismic shift

The evolution of Disney’s animated musicals represents a seismic shift in the industry. These films have broken away from men’s stories, creating space for refreshing and culturally rich tales that resonate with audiences of all ages. The legacy of these trailblazing productions is testament to the power of inclusive storytelling, proving that there is immense value in narratives that look beyond traditional norms and celebrate the diversity of the human experience.

Exciting developments are on the horizon for Disney enthusiasts, with Frozen 3 currently in production, and the live-action adaptation of Moana under way.

Now ten years old, Frozen has helped give rise to a new era in animated musicals, one that embraces the richness of storytelling beyond the confines of gender stereotypes. We can all look forward to more enchanting destinations as Disney continues to weave a magical narrative around the themes of difference, empowerment and cultural authenticity.

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 30 November 2023. It can be accessed here:

About the Author

Dr Stephen Langston is a leading composer and producer of Scottish Musicals and pioneered musical theatre education in Scotland. He studied composition with John McLeod CBE at the London College of Music and was awarded an FLCM in 1992. Stephen’s compositions have been performed all over the UK and he has produced over 100 theatrical performances accross Scotland. Stephen is sought after as a musical director in the pit and on the stage and has conducted numerous professional and amateur groups including orchestral, choral, brass band and popular music combinations. As an academic he is Programme Leader for Performance at the University of the West of Scotland and has recently been awarded a PhD in ‘The Golden Ratio as an Influencing Factor within the Compositional Structure of Sung through Musicals’. This research has now been viewed by an estimated 1.6 million readers world-wide, and the recently released research seminar based on the original conversation articles can now be seen at

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.