In this two-part blog post, Zsuzsanna Chappell examines the issues Disney’s Frozen films raise about the possibilities and problems faced by people who do not conform to our idea of “normal” or “usual”. The story raises hopes for those of us who are “unusual” or living with “difference”, but she argues that in the end we just end up with new forms of discrimination and new demands to fit in with the majority. Part 1 (“Otherness, Masking and Control”) can be found here.
I ended the first of these blog posts by saying that while Frozen does a good job at portraying the harm and trauma of masking otherness, ultimately it sides with the normate. In this post I want to unpack this idea further, using the concepts of passing and covering.
In the first film, Queen Elsa went from physically being hidden away in the royal palace, forced to hide her abilities from all including her sister Anna, to being traumatically outed as “Other”, and eventually settling down to a life which nevertheless continued to force her to be in constant control of herself. I suggested that instead of being able to abandon her masking fully, as she did when she temporarily left Arundel, she had to settle for a different form of masking in order to be accepted by normate society, and this still carried significant costs.
Sociology offers two useful concepts for thinking about what people are trying to achieve when they mask their differences. When someone tries to “pass” they want to appear as normate, hiding their stigmatised identity. When someone is “covering” they are “out”, the world is (however vaguely) aware of their otherness. Yet they try to soften this otherness in order to fit in with the norms of society. This is a strong social expectation and an arduous daily task.
One visible example of covering is how in many jobs and at many schools black people are expected to conform to hair styles based on the characteristics of white hair. This means that afros or durags are often forbidden, or are frowned at and seen as “unprofessional”. As a result, especially women are required to undergo time consuming, costly and potentially carcinogenic hair treatments to be accepted as “professional”, even if they would personally prefer a different style.
Of course Elsa with her golden locks is exempt from this duty, but she faces other problems. In Frozen 1 she is initially required to pass and hide her otherness completely. From the end of the first movie and throughout the second movie, she needs to engage in covering instead. She is allowed to be different, but not “too” different. Like many people with mental illness, her otherness is tolerated or even praised when it is entertaining or productive, for example when she creates an ice skating rink. She is still required to be in control of her powers at all times. This is the price of “never closing the [palace] gates again”.
We can see that this is not easy for her. When she momentarily let’s go (!), she accidentally freezes the railings of the palace balcony, and looks sheepish. In a telling scene that follows, she is unable to act out the word “ice” in the family charades game. Her powers are not to be used outside of proper boundaries. Where these boundaries ought to be set is confusing even for her family.
Neither has she overcome the deep loneliness she experienced in Frozen 1. She is the only one who can hear a magical voice calling. When she is distracted, her family think it is minor worries about family games night that worry her, unaware of her deeper needs and preoccupations. As Kristoff puts it when Anna asks him if Elsa was acting weird: “She was Elsa”. In the eyes of others, Elsa is always odd, they think it impossible to tell whether the problem is serious or not.
There isn’t anything wrong with this life in itself, if this was genuinely what Elsa wanted, but it seems to me that it isn’t. Yet it is the only life available to her in Arundel. Anna, on the other hand, is fulfilled. Singing “Some Things Never Change”, she is happy living a good life surrounded by family and friends. Elsa sings “Into the Unknown”. She tries to convince herself that she is happy where she is (“everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls”) but she is kept awake by a deep need for something different. She tries to block out the calls of her “secret siren”, afraid of the risks she’d be taking if she looked for something better.
In the end she cannot hold back. We might focus on the internal reasons, such as loneliness (“are you someone out there who’s a little bit like me?”) or the burdens of her current life of self-control (“every day’s a little harder, as I feel my power grow), but in the end it’s external calamity that forces her to once again make her move. This resonated strongly with my own experiences. Just like Elsa, I have been yanked out of my supposed comfort zone time and again through events out of my control.
What she eventually finds when she leaves her temporary comfort zone is more ice and loneliness. Without giving too much away, it seems that she may not even be fully human; her otherness puts her outside the community of humankind. The film does not capture how potentially devastating this could be for her, focusing firmly on the perspective of the normate: Anna, Kristoff, and (yes) even the talking snowman. The positive development for Elsa is that she no longer has to go on her journey alone. Her friends and family support her and she is able to accept that support.
Elsa is not the only person with visible differences in the two films. So how do these others fare? Oaken, one of the minor characters from Frozen 1 as the owner of Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Sauna, apparently lives in a same-sex partnership and parents numerous young children. Quietly acknowledging the existence of same-sex marriages and families with two dads should not have been overly controversial in 2013, the year when even the US Supreme Court gave federal recognition to same-sex marriage. Yet Disney still portrayed the Oaken family in a way which might be an example of covering up queer identities: they are acceptable as long as they conform to a hetero-normative equivalent, with their difference quietly shoved in the background. Of course, children’s movies are not the place to explore the complicated issues around sexuality and its expressions, but Frozen deals explicitly with difference and is set up as a great place to explore the consequences of otherness such as neurodiversity.
Olaf is a talking, living snowman and yet I keep grouping him with the normate. Why? Throughout the two films he persistently refuses to recognise that he is very different from his human friends and the (non-talking) reindeer. When we first meet him, he is longing for summer. He seems happily oblivious, and this obliviousness allows him to fit in. He has no need to mask. He cannot pass as human, but his is a very odd and complicated form of nevertheless passing as normate. He is an endearing character that reminds me of times of my life when I was also living as if everything was normal. He also sings my favourite song about gaslighting about social problems, “When I am Older”.
Frozen: When i am older
“When I’m more mature
I’ll feel totally secure
Being watched by something
With a creepy, creepy face”
Fictional metaphors for otherness frequently turn to the image of superpowers like Elsa’s which need to be brought under the control of the individual. Othered people can also be portrayed as having stereotypical positive powers which deny the reality for most. People with bipolar disorder are creative geniuses, autistic people are savants, gay people have an amazing sense of style. This ignores the consistent discrimination, lower average educational attainments and greater likelihood of poverty that some of these groups of people face.
At the end of the film, Elsa abdicates, Anna becomes queen and Elsa goes to live in a magical forest with magical indigenous people who will help her learn more about her magical powers. She only comes back to Arundel for family games nights. This seems a case of convenient wishful thinking: the “other” has gone away to a place that must be surely good for them and still visits occasionally so that we don’t have to worry too much. But is this the kind of happy ending we would want for people with differences like neurodivergence in our society? Absence covered up by a comforting fiction?
Neither negative nor positive portrayals of “othered superpowers” pay attention to the needs of these othered people, the fact that most of them are disadvantaged rather than empowered by their otherness, or the burdens that masking puts on them. Instead of unconditional acceptance, our “powers” need to be channeled into a positive and acceptable direction. Thus it might be acceptable for Elsa to provide light entertainment in the form of ice sculptures, but not to turn her frosty powers into anything more serious than that. People who cannot or do not want to conform to this strong demand for normativity are pushed to the fringes of society.
Ultimately, the Frozen movies teach us that while otherness and difference exist in our society, those others have to fit in with the normate in order to be accepted. If they cannot, they are expected to fade away into the background, as Elsa does. I don’t think we should believe that this kind of message is respectful or liberatory or that it allows othered people to live a good life. Disney is a major corporation and their message will ultimately be dictated by what is expected by society. In order to sell films and merchandise, they cannot alienate their audience, especially not the adults. Thus, it falls to us as social philosophers and theorists to point out where we still fall short, as I tried to do in these posts. You may not agree with me, but I hope I have given you something to think about and respond to.
The classic book on passing
Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity, 1963
On covering, focusing on queer people:
Yoshino, Covering: The Hidden Assault on American Civil Rights, 2006
A free to read (open access) philosophy paper on why it is not wrong to pass or cover and how living “authentically” can be just as hard:
Silvermint, Passing As Privileged, Ergo, 2018
A classic book on the social role of fairytales, with a chapter on Disney:
Zipes: Fairytales and the Art of Subversion, 1983
More on the social role of fairytales
Werner, Once Upon a Time, 2014
All quotes from:
Into the Unknown lyrics © Wonderland Music Co. Inc., Wonderland Music Company Inc., Wonderland Music Company Inc
Songwriters: Robert Lopez / Kristen Jane Anderson
When I Am Older lyrics © Wonderland Music Co. Inc., Wonderland Music Company Inc., Wonderland Music Company Inc
Songwriters: Robert Lopez / Kristen Anderson-lopez