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Frozen’s Elsa wins in retail, but Anna is the real leader

November 6, 2014, 8:47 PM UTC
Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company

Earlier this year I sat in a movie theatre with my sister and her daughter to my left and my own 4-year-old (the oldest of my two girls) to my right. It would be my first—but definitely not my last—exposure to the Walt Disney (DIS) phenomenon Frozen.

Months later, I’ve now watched Frozen at least ten times, with both of my daughters. They routinely run around the house belting out the lyrics to the movie’s hit song, Let it Go, and constantly act out scenes from the movie in their own role playing games (I usually get the part of Hans or Kristoff, or if I’m lucky—Olaf the snowman). Interestingly, Frozen has also led to many thought-provoking and even philosophical conversations in my household. Most of those conversations have centered on why Elsa is “mean” to Anna, even though they are sisters and love each other. (Why do good people do bad things? Try explaining that one to preschoolers.)

Maybe because I’m the youngest child (I was raised with two older sisters), I walked away from my first experience with the movie feeling pretty convinced that Anna was the heroine. Sure, Elsa has the cool dress and the magic powers, but she’s also cold—both figuratively and literally—and introverted and hangs out with an ice monster. Anna, meanwhile, spends the entire movie running around trying to save the day. She is altruistic and impulsive and a total romantic. Like Elsa, she’s also strong—in one of the last scenes she punches the daylights out of Hans, her love interest-turned-antagonist. She’s also klutzy and likes fart jokes, as one of my colleagues pointed out.

It turns out I’m in the minority.

The movie, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen, is the top-grossing animated movie of all time, and the fifth highest-grossing film in history. One year later, the revenues are still pouring in for Disney: Earlier this week, the Burbank, Calif.-based media giant announced it has sold 3 million Frozen princess costumes this year. And in a fascinating and unexpected twist, Elsa paraphernalia is outselling Anna by all counts; Wal-Mart (WMT) says it stocks more Elsa dolls than Anna ones. Other retailers have also reported similar buying trends.

Let’s face it, Disney princesses have come a long way from the days of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. For starters, their voices are much less annoying. They’re also stronger, more diverse (though Disney could definitely use some more work on that front) and more complex. Both Anna and Elsa are pretty badass—albeit in different ways. And Frozen, generally speaking, is one princess movie I feel comfortable letting my girls watch.

But the fact that Elsa is the clear winner among the two sisters has puzzled me. A quick and unscientific poll of my Facebook (FB) network revealed a list of reasons for why girls favor Elsa over Anna—some surprising, some expected. She’s got magic powers (Anna doesn’t) and is a rebel and isn’t scared of the ice monster, some of my friends wrote. Others chimed in with the fact that she has a gorgeous dress, a beautiful voice, and recovers from her mistakes. Some were more cynical in their responses: “Elsa looks more like Barbie? Fair skin, blonde hair [has been] marketed as more ‘beautiful’ for decades.” (To be sure, Anna doesn’t exactly scream diversity either.)

There are many reasons for why Elsa outsells Anna—some psychologists have even suggested that the preference has to do with some innate human favoring for firstborns. But, at least in my book, Anna remains the hero of the story.

It’s not just because she saves her sister. It’s because, despite being a little on the silly side, she gets things done. She doesn’t wait for someone to tell her what to do. She grabs a horse and goes to search for her sister. She climbs the stairs to the ice castle and goes in alone to convince her sister to bring back summer. She doesn’t let Kristoff take care of Hans—she wants to be the one to take a swing and throw him overboard. When things get rough, she changes course, changes plans and makes it work. It’s precisely because she doesn’t have magic powers—and yet manages to save the day—that I love Anna. (Yes, her ability to make fart jokes also helps.)

We talk a lot about how to empower women, especially in the workplace. Should we lean in more? Stop telling our daughters they’re “bossy”? Should companies pay for freezing our eggs? Should we get longer maternity leave? Or just leave the whole thing up to karma? Everyone subscribes to a different philosophy. But my path—and I believe many other women’s trajectory—hasn’t always been planned or particularly well articulated. As Pattie Sellers, Fortune senior editor-at-large and mastermind of our Most Power Women Summit, likes to say: View your career as more of a jungle gym than a ladder. What does that mean? Keep moving. It doesn’t matter if it’s up or down or to the side. Unexpected things happen. Just keep moving and go for what you want, even if it doesn’t follow the traditional career path.

No, I’ve never had to fight off an ice monster. But I have been laid off. And I landed on my feet, and I ended up doing something better. And, like Anna, I eventually laughed about it—and at myself.

To me, Anna is humor and strength and adaptability, all wrapped into one Disney character. Even better, she loves her sister so much that she doesn’t even think about the consequences of saving her. She just does it. Sometimes that impulsiveness works, too—when we think too much, we don’t act. And so, despite the retail numbers and Elsa’s more obvious appeal, my vote remains with Anna. Of course, they both represent a new and welcome turn for Disney: Princesses no longer need a prince to save them.

Last night, after I gave both my girls a bath, the little one—three-years-old going on thirty—took her lavender towel and put it around her shoulders like a cape.

“Let it go! Let it go!” she sang, running down the hallway, leaving wet footprints along the way.

“Are you Elsa?” I asked.

“No, I’m Anna,” she said matter-of-factly.

“But Elsa’s the one who sings that song,” I pointed out. She looked at me, puzzled that her logic wasn’t obvious.

“Well, I like Anna,” she responded. So do I.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.