The Portrayal of Sisters in Pop Culture or Why I Wasn’t as Impressed with Frozen as Everyone Else

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.

Anna & Elsa

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.

Pictured: My relationship with my sister.

Pictured: My relationship with my sister.

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.

young anna and elsa

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.

Lilo & Nani

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.

lilo and Nani


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9 thoughts on “The Portrayal of Sisters in Pop Culture or Why I Wasn’t as Impressed with Frozen as Everyone Else

  1. Excellent posts. I have two..count’em..two, younger sisters, but my all-time favorite memory is watching Lilo and Stitch with them. I remain unimpressed with Frozen, even though my niece and her own little sister are totally in love with it.

  2. I’m pretty sure Lilo & Stitch isn’t considered in the same category as Frozen because it’s not a Disney princess film. 😛 It’s a different type of Disney animated film. I think it’s not fair that it’s often forgotten just for that reason, but… I think that *might* explain it.

    I’m a girl with a brother who’s two years younger than me (okay, so the two of us are adults now) and the portrayals of sibling relationships that I most relate to are Jeremy&Elena on TVD and Amber&Drew on Parenthood.

    I like that Elena and Jeremy are NOT each other’s best friends, but they love each other dearly, and while rare, they do have silly moments similar to that picture you showed in this article of Sam & Dean. Elena/Jeremy is a dynamic I vidded a few times, most namely here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWEV7-_pxMU and also somewhat notably here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XL-aiM5Lho and part of what I like most about that sibling dynamic is that it actually is a big sister and an only slightly younger brother, where Elena’s personality is somewhat like mine and Jeremy is actually somewhat like my brother. Jeremy even wants to protect Elena at times, sometimes taking that traditional “protective older brother” role, despite being younger, and I love that. No other show has ever given me this kind of sibling relationship, with this little of an age difference, an actually younger brother and older sister, and personalities that feel so familiar.

    Parenthood’s I love because they ARE each other’s best friends, sort of, but they also certainly fight at times. Drew does things to hurt Amber fairly often – tattling to their mom that she’s doing drugs, not being willing to be the witness to Amber’s court-house marriage if it means she’s getting married behind her mom’s back, etc. Drew and Amber have quite separate lives at times… but in the end they are super close, and I love them on the show because Drew is my favorite character and I kind of relate to him, and Amber reminds me of my brother. Amber is the older sister and my brother is younger, but still, the way Drew asks Amber for advice sometimes, the way Drew treats and regards Amber… it just reminds me of me toward my brother in some ways.

    I do think many shows do brother/sister stuff better than sister/sister. Even Parenthood, a show with… with 12 main sibling relationships, 3 of which are between an infant and a main character – only 2 of the relationships are ones between sisters (one of these two being one of the infant/main character ones – 16 or 17-year-old Haddie gains a baby sister in season 3). Julia/Sarah are appreciated by various members of the fandom, the only adult sister relationship on the show, but the show seems to focus way more on brother/sister bonds and the only one set of brothers shown (Crosby/Adam) ends up getting WAY more scenes and being given way more depth of history than Sarah/Julia.

    I think it’s not just brothers that get more depth on TV and film, but brother/sister stuff often does too. Sisters are tougher, probably for the reason you mention – female characters are already under-represented.

    I actually like two brand new TV shows in 2014 that do a pretty good job with sister relationships and giving them depth, though. Faking It has Amy and her step-sister Lauren, and while fanfiction likes to ship them together, the canon is slowly but surely developing a nice platonic bond between them. And Chasing Life has the really great bond of Brenna/April – there is a bit of an age difference (probably something like 6 years), but for once the age difference isn’t ALSO complicated by April raising her younger sister (the way I think Nani & Lilo’s is? I don’t know, I’ve never seen that film… or even the only sisterly relationship on Shameless falls into that same problem – older sister raising younger one so she’s more like mom in a lot of ways than sister). Brenna & April are just simply sisters, and I think they are shown in a relatively realistic way – they don’t hate each other nor are they each other’s best friends. They love each other like sisters. They annoy each other, fight a bit, but when April reveals to Brenna she has cancer, they get closer like sisters often would in such a scenario.

  3. In terms of age difference and personality, my sister and i can definitely relate to elsa and Anna. But i agree, and am glad that somebdoy sees it the same way– their relationship as sisters isn’t quite ‘there’ yet. It was weird for me to see Anna insist that Elsa would never hurt her, etc. when for all intents and purposes she honestly doesnt know who her sister is anymore, theyve been apart for years. One thing they REALLY should have added in there were the girls bonding, even more than the ‘chocolate’ scene, during the coronation party. Real sisters who havent seen each other in years would totally abuse this chance to get togeter and catch up, ignoring just about everyone else in the room– but that would mean the rest of the movie would never happen.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. Lilo and Nani in comparison to Anna and Elsa do seem more realistic in how siblings usually act.

  5. This is a good post. Although my sister and I related to Anna and Elsa’s situation, the dynamic itself fell flat, especially in comparison to Lilo and Nani. I read that, at one point, Anna was going to try to fix things with Elsa by getting her to put the gloves back on, and their scene in the ice palace was going to be much more antagonistic. It’s sad that they ended up simplifying the relationship so much in the final product.

  6. I’ve always had the feeling that while Frozen is supposedly about Elsa and Anna, it’s not really about that – it’s more about Anna having adventures in a snowy landscape with Kristoff, a talking snowman, and a reindeer. Hence the ending feels unearned, because it’s sort of like an admission that the majority of the film’s running time and budget, was time and budget wasted that could have been spent developing the sisters’ relationship.

  7. One example I’ve always liked was Francine’s and Gwen’s in American Dad(!). You could call me biased since I personally think it’s one of the best animated sitcoms out there, and Gwen isn’t exactly the greatest portrayal of women, but they have a more interesting sisterly relationship, especially for a non-biological one.

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