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.
Since their release in 2013 and 2019, Disney’s two Frozen films have been lauded for the progressive attitude they take on many social issues. What makes these movies interesting from the perspectives of ethics and social philosophy is that relationships, both social and personal, lie at the heart of the story they tell.
The two movies form a thematic whole, charting the story of the sisters Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell). My focus here is on how Queen Elsa’s special powers of freezing things with her touch and shooting ice from her hands are seen by others, and the way in which she needs to adapt to fit into the society of Arundel.
I will use the terms “Other” when I talk about Elsa, whose powers mark her out as different and “normate” to refer to the rest of the fairytale population, who are much as we would expect to find them. (Yes, even Olaf, the talking snowman.) Being the Queen of Arundel makes Elsa’s job at managing her otherness both harder and easier. It is harder, because we want our leaders to be reliable. It is easier, because being the queen of a fairytale kingdom must come with many privileges and would allow her to display some eccentricity.
Since her difference from her subjects is not immediately apparent, she can most easily stand in for those if us with hidden disabilities, queer or neurodivergent. She is after all, still visibly able-bodied, white, slim, attractive, wealthy and powerful. There are limits to the extent a Disney princess can be othered. A large reason why I am drawn to her story is that so many of her experiences mirror mine as someone who has lived with lifelong severe and enduring mental illness.
When her parents discover her magic powers in childhood, she is locked away inside the royal castle which is only reopened on her eighteenth birthday. She is commanded by her parents to hide her true nature and has to wear gloves to avoid touching things she might freeze. These gloves are analogous to the idea of masking: learning to hide one’s otherness through appearing normate, or as close to normate as possible. The aim of masking is to pass as normal.
Frozen 1 does an excellent job at depicting the violence of masking. Imprisonment in the face of hidden difference is both literal and symbolic both in the films and in real life. From people being shut away in institutions, both historically and in the present, to not being allowed to be seen out of shame, to being unable to leave the house for a variety of reasons, to hiding in a prison of apparent normality while engaging with the world. Elsa and those closest to her are forced to live a reduced life as they fear that her mask might slip at any moment. She even hides her abilities from her sister Anna, who would under other circumstances be her most obvious ally. Most obviously, this is a life of intense loneliness and effort at control. Staying still, wearing gloves comprises both physical and emotional labour. Elsa has to hold herself back in a very embodied way from self-expression and living an authentic life. This also requires emotional numbing. The advice she receives is:
“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know”
(Frozen 1: Let It Go)
Elsa’s powers are eventually revealed by accident. In a highly emotional moment, she is unable to control herself anymore. This is the kind of disclosure / unmasking we are most afraid of. In the case on mental disorders even those who are aware of our illness might be shocked by the form it takes when confronted by it in reality. This scene is crafted to resonate with people in a range of situations: being accidentally outed by a friend or family member or losing control of our ability to mask in a highly charged situation. The reaction she receives is also what we fear most. Elsa is called a witch and a monster. It is her utter terror that eventually makes the situation unsalvageable. It is not just the initial slip-up, but the social reaction to it that leads her to accidentally freeze her entire kingdom.
Elsa runs away into the mountains, and Idina Menzel sings her Oscar-winning song, Let It Go. This song captures for me the relief of no longer masking. She lets go of the mental and physical effort, the fear, and is able to start acknowledging her own needs. The need to mask was primarily society’s, not hers. As she puts it: “the cold never really bothered me anyway”. This enables her to start carving out a space for herself, even in the face of opposition (“here I stand and here I stay, let the storm rage on”). She can start getting to understand her powers (“it’s time to see what I can do”) and unleash her creativity by building a magnificent ice palace.
Despite these strong depictions of masking and its costs, I think that Disney’s films ultimately side with the normate. Firstly, the burdens of difference on Elsa are minimised, whereas the costs for everyone else appear huge. Secondly, while the film raises important points about repair, the burden is once again mostly laid on Elsa.
Her otherness is so overwhelming, she can freeze an entire country. While having this amount of power is not something we will experience, we can see how how unmasking could end our life as we know it. Her freedom from masking comes at a heavy cost. Any social connections have been abruptly dropped. She now lives in a “kingdom of isolation”.
This can be a very unhelpful way of looking at unmasking. Instead of looking at it as an opportunity to be accepted and live authentically, and emphasising the benefits for Elsa, the main focus is on its costs. Not to mention that it is the reaction of the normate which ultimately leads to a total loss of control over her powers, and the environment becoming as inhospitable for everyone as it has been to Elsa since childhood.
Elsa’s actions undoubtedly cause damage, most obviously to Anna who remains supportive throughout. This damage demands repair, which she is ultimately able to provide. But where is the repair for Elsa, who has been locked away as a child, bore the physical and emotional burdens of masking, has been chased by an angry mob and imprisoned? Running away from an inhospitable environment is mainly the wrong solution for her because it repudiates the possibilities inherent in the relationship with her sister, Anna.
With the help of her friends and family, Elsa is able to return and lead what at first sight appears to be a better life. While we do need those closest to us to show us understanding and sympathy in order to flourish, and we need allies to advocate for us, the problem is that in the world of Frozen Elsa could never placate the citizens of Arundel on her own, without others speaking up for her. Neither is she accepted until she regains a level of control that is quite close to the initial masking she has engaged with. She is more free than she was, but the physical and emotional labour has hardly lessened, and she is only accepted on the terms of others. This is going to be the theme of the second of these blog posts, which is really the second half of this essay.
Rosemary Garland Thompson (1997) Extraordinary Bodies
Read Chapter 1 here
All quotes are from Let It Go
Songwriters: Kristen Jane Anderson-Lopez / Robert Joseph Lopez
Let It Go lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Wonderland Music Company Inc.