Where Two or More Women Are Gathered: Lessons From the Frozen Writers Room
5 reasons to put focus on gender parity in storytelling.
Being a part of the Frozen creative team was a revolutionary experience for co-songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez. "[It's] been thrilling for me since the beginning in 2012. That's when I learned the power of two women in the writers room…I think that was in the DNA of Frozen," said Anderson-Lopez at a press event for the 2013 film's new Broadway incarnation.
Onscreen and onstage, Frozen follows a pair of royal sisters in a magical Scandinavian land as they navigate relationships with their subjects, their suitors, and most importantly, each other. "For a story about two women it was very important," said co-songwriter Robert Lopez about the benefits of having both Anderson-Lopez and codirector Jennifer Lee working on the project.
"The men in the room couldn't really contradict two women that agreed," he continued. "All of a sudden everyone began to understand and respect that women had an insight into female characters, and sisters, that men couldn't just project themselves into."
The result of that collaboration was a blockbuster movie that resonated with audiences across the spectrum, becoming the highest grossing animated film of all time. And while there's a long way to go before the film industry reaches gender parity, "everyone feels how great it is to have balanced room," says Jennifer Lee.
"You can never know," she continues, "but certain fears that people may have [about hiring women] – they're just fears. And Frozen's message is 'Love is stronger than fear.' So I hope we can play that out in real life."
1. Women Let Women Speak
Kristen: At first Bobby and I were in the Frozen story room with all men. Then they put Jennifer Lee on as a writer and very quickly I realized, "Oh, we're going to have a different kind of collaboration now because I don't need to explain sisterhood or what it is to be a woman in power."
Robert: The men in the Frozen writers room were this bunch of wonderful guys, not harassers or abusers in any sense. And yet this dynamic of, "Well, you know, women don't often speak up in a room, so it's weird when they do" is general baseline culture that exists everywhere.
2. Women Feel Empowered When They're Heard
Kristen: There was the excitement of being allowed to hold the floor and have our creative ideas heard in a room that went from six people to 35 people and still feel like we were at the steering wheel. That was a new experience for me, and, I think, for Jen, especially when she was promoted to director. It was a powerful moment for both of our careers too, because of the process that said, "I have something to say and people will listen."
3. Women Share Common Experiences
Jennifer: Having two of us made it less like we were sending a message that "These are real stories, these are real emotions." And often we could share experiences.
Kristen: It was not until I had more women in the room that I realized, "Oh, I always have been a little bit other. I've been able to speak about my experience, but it hasn't always stuck in the story because there was no one there to say, 'Yes! Yes, that's exactly it!' "
[During the process] I went to my therapist…And I said, "I really have something I want to say about broadening the idea of what love can be. And I think that there's a lot to be said about love versus fear." And she said, "Find the thing that you need to say and that is your true north."
And I called Jennifer Lee on my walk home and said, "Here's what just happened in therapy today." And out of that came this very honest, true discussion about why we do this and what do we have to say and bring to the Disney stories. And out of that discussion, Jen then came into the writers room as the leader and was like, "You guys, our true north is…"
We still have that kind of connection where occasionally we step out of the professional world, and see each other as contemporaries struggling with the same thing of how do you balance parenthood and life and motherhood. And we are speaking the same language.
4. Women Are Better at Creating Realistic Female Characters
Jennifer: We kept looking at some of the clichéd ways you can go with two female leads and really wanting to turn the tropes upside down…That shifted the dialogue a lot to be much more about the three dimensional Elsa, not Elsa as a villain.
It was lovely because I always joke in our relationship that Kristen is Elsa and I'm Anna.
Robert: It was a big eye-opener when Kristen and Jen started to support one another's views. The example that I always think of is [when we were talking about] what to make the issue between the two sisters, all the men in the room said, "Well, look, we have Anna, we have Elsa, we have Hans. What could be more natural than for them to both be in love with him? And that's where the split comes." And Jen and Kristen said, "No! You guys, listen to us. This is not what will connect with women."
5. We Still Need More Change
Kristen: [Disney] took a chance on us, and, as we move forward, it's going to be about taking chances on unconventional people. That's one of the unconscious biases we have to address.
If I'm the only woman in the room, I try to bring that into the consciousness a little bit. I try to say, "You guys, I know right now this experience is unique. So give me give me a little room to explain it to you. But here's what I'm feeling as someone who's been a mother or someone who's been a sister. Sometimes I just have to bring awareness to it."