Some of you who read this blog may remember me mentioning that I have an older sister. She drives me up a wall half the time, but I love her dearly, and I’m sure she feels the same about me. Here is my problem, though: I have only seen one sisterly relationship portrayed in pop culture that I can actually relate to. It’s weird, to say the least, but I think there is a reason for that. Women and stories about women are given significantly less screen time than male characters and stories about men. On the rare occasion women have starring, or even just supporting, roles, they are the lone female character. Said female has no sisters, no other female relations of note, and certainly no female friends. Either female characters’ backgrounds and never delved into, or these female characters will only have male influences in their lives. So already at least half the time women are tokenized and/or shown only associating with men. It should really come as no surprise, then, that when female relationships are present, they tend to lack the complexity that male relationships are given.
I see this a lot when sisterly relationships are portrayed. There seems to be only two possibilities for sisters: either they hate each other and can barely tolerate being in the same room together, or they love each other so super much that they are each others’ BFFs 5ver!
So when Frozen came out and everyone praised its portrayal of sisterly love I expected… well, something different than what I got, I guess.
Let me explain my relationship with my sister a little more. If I had to pick pop culture siblings my sister and I acted like the most, I would have to pick Sam and Dean from Supernatural, except without the codependency issues. They both still love each other, but they drive each other crazy at the same time. Sam and Dean have a very complex brotherly relationship, but relationships between sisters often severely lack that complexity.
When I went to see Frozen I was excited to finally see a relationship between sisters that was complex and interesting, but to my extreme displeasure, that’s not quite what I got. Elsa and Anna from the very beginning of the movie are shown to be super close. Anna makes Elsa wake up in the wee hours of the morning to use her powers to build a snowman and do other fun and fantastic things. Elsa and Anna’s relationship only deteriorates because Elsa’s powers accidentally hurt Anna, causing Elsa’s parents to lock Elsa away and forcing her to stay away from Anna. Despite the strain on their relationship, when the two girls are forced to interact again because of Elsa’s coronation, they almost immediately fall back into being friends, though their time apart and Elsa’s fear of her powers does put a strain on their relationship. At the end of the movie, of course it’s the sister’s love for each other that saves them and not any sort of male romantic figure.
Now I don’t want you to think that I’m saying the relationship between Anna and Elsa isn’t complex or interesting, because it is. And I have heard some people online state that their relationship with their sister is pretty similar to Anna and Elsa’s, so it’s not like they’re completely unrelatable, but I still dislike that Elsa and Anna come off as being written more like best friends than siblings. For example, in my experience best friends tend to have each others’ backs no matter what. Friends, especially when they are younger, feel they are closer than family and so are more likely to defend and stick up for their friend, even if they think they’re wrong. Siblings, however, may stick up for and look out for each other, all the while complaining about how ridiculous the other sibling is being. When Anna sets off to find Elsa, she claims that things are all her fault and constantly insists that her sister won’t hurt her when it’s possible they haven’t talked in however many years. To me, though, it would have made more sense for Anna to be on a rampage, going off to save her sister, all the while complaining about how stupid Elsa was being about Hans and how silly it was for Elsa to keep this secret from her. I think a lot of this ties into the idea that women are, or must always be, morally good. So in this case, they’re perhaps seen as being “above” the bickering (and complexity) that male siblings would get.
What’s missing between these two sisters that makes their relationship unsatisfying to me? They don’t seem to ever fight (they fight once over a guy and that’s it) and they don’t torment each other. And I think that is the biggest difference. Brothers in pop culture get to tease each other, make fun of each other, fight each other, and torment each other, all while still being shown to genuinely care for each other. Every sibling knows that it is your prerogative to torment your sibling. My sister used to beat me up and forced me to do things I didn’t want to do, and I likewise did much the same to her, but we always had each others’ backs. It’s very much an “only I can mess with my sister” situation. And while I won’t forget my sister pinning me to the ground and walking on me because I went in her room, I also won’t forget the time her boyfriend told me to shut up and she flipped out on him and kicked him out of her car.
Perhaps if Frozen gets a sequel, more of these sisterly dynamics will be explored, because to be fair, Anna and Elsa spend most of the movie apart or not speaking to each other. So it’s hard to really accurately judge their relationship. But one thing I do find depressing (and racist) is that Frozen is getting hailed as one of the first Disney movies to portray a good relationship between sisters. After all, before this we only had wicked stepsisters and Ariel’s sisters who barely featured, right? Wrong! Lilo & Stitch probably has my favorite portrayal of sisters, but I feel Nani and Lilo’s relationship often gets ignored. Maybe that’s because fewer people saw this movie due to the fact that it was about two women of color, but, whatever the reason, the movie has one of the best portrayals of a sisterly relationship out there.
Nani and Lilo, despite the dramatic age difference, remind me a lot more of how sisters act. Nani and Lilo clearly love each other and look out for each other, but they also drive each other crazy, fight, and they torment each other the way that siblings do. Everything that is missing from Anna and Elsa’s relationship can easily be found in Nani and Lilo’s. When we first see Nani and Lilo together they are fighting and threatening each other, saying things that are equal parts horrible and ridiculous.
Eventually Nani comes to Lilo to apologize and the two talk about why Lilo was acting out, which was due to her bad day at school plus her continued issues with dealing with their parents’ death. However, this isn’t a story where the girls have one fight and then suddenly act like best friends. Probably one of my favorite moments in this movie is when Lilo tries to kick Nani out so she can wish upon a falling star. Nani, of course, being her older sister, decides to mess with Lilo and pretends gravity is increasing on her, causing her to flop on top of Lilo and annoying her little sister, who immediately yells at her for being so weird.
Lilo and Nani still very clearly love each other, but they also bicker and squabble like regular siblings. They don’t hate each other, but they aren’t each others’ best friends for life, either. When writing sisters in the future, I hope Disney looks more to Lilo and Nani’s relationship for inspiration and less to Elsa and Anna’s, because even though their story is interesting it just doesn’t come off as a sisterly relationship to me.