Analysis

Family Won’t Let You Fall – Frozen and Queer Storytelling

The conspiracy theory bits of my brain wonder if Disney’s purchase of Marvel was part of some David Xanatos-like plan to save a few bucks. Lord knows the Frozen team owes Stan Lee a check. Strange, fantastic elemental powers that get stronger with age/puberty and cause the owner to be ostracized, with the decided aura of metaphor lurking all around? If Elsa isn’t part of Days of Future Past, I will be extremely disappointed.

That’s less the condemnation it probably sounds like and more my pathological need to run my mouth. Truthfully, Frozen is a pretty delightful bound forward for Disney as a storytelling crew – what with its wonderful female leads (ignoring those astonishingly stupid comments from the animation department about how hard it is to design female characters who can look distinct and “still be pretty”), the strong soundtrack (even if two thirds of the musical numbers are crammed within the first twenty minutes of the movie, and the two comedic sidekick numbers could be cut entirely), likable cast, and heartwarming third act. And then there’s Elsa. Dear, wonderful Elsa, who I will claim as Disney’s first LGBT protagonist on the grounds that it will be twenty years before they do so more strongly than subtextually. And while there are other interpretations of The Metaphor (ranging from about as probable to ‘you’re just reaching now’), reading Elsa as queer helps strike an important to tone not just for her character, but in reading the movie as whole. This is what we call “applicability,” friends: the idea that a work can be read cohesively through from a certain perspective regardless of whether the creator explicitly intended it (think that theory about Lord of the Rings working a metaphor for the struggle over nuclear power).

When I went to see Frozen, the girl who went with me (let us call her Film Friend, for she is an awe-inspiring force in the editing room) ended up sort of ambivalent on the film as a whole. For her, the now-famous “Let it Go” was the emotional high point of the film, all beautiful animation and bold visuals and joyous filmmaking. Everything after that came across as more stuff – entertaining stuff, but never achieving that high point again. I was rather warmer about the whole thing ( in that I was filled with stars and giddiness), but it’s an impulse I more than understood on first brush.

Because that’s the narrative we’ve had up to now. On an unconscious level, Elsa’s solo does indeed feel like it should be some kind of finale, the revelatory moment when she realizes her own self worth and discards the pasts associated with the pain, making a new world for herself where she can be happy. That’s the ending of 90% of the queer narratives I read growing up (and believe me, I read a lot of them): the main character realizes that They Are Different, faces internal struggle and the opposition of society, finds the outside support of a likeminded community, and finally asserts their identity and breaks free to live a new life.

In the time and place those stories were written (the late twentieth century, by and large), that was the happiest ending you could hope for – to find others, to escape and be yourself without fear. It was the world where AIDS was the “gay plague” and Matthew Shepherd was only the most famous of horrible deaths, back when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was seen as a move of radical equality and maybe if you were lucky your parents would just be uncomfortable with you and not disown you completely. I am making myself sound far older than I actually am, but it’s easy to look back and trace the lineage of narrative.

letitgo

I love Elsa for all sorts of reasons, but this look resonated all the way down to my core:
‘oh, being me isn’t the end of the world after all. In fact, it’s sort of wonderful!’

For all that it isn’t perfect, the world has changed. Gay marriage is becoming legal by increasing degrees, tolerance is in the majority for the younger generation, and there are more resources than ever for queer youth to navigate That Moment. It’s a pretty good time, really. And it needs a new kind of story.

Frozen isn’t about the individual journey to acceptance – it’s about finding your way back after, and reclaiming the life you thought you had to leave behind. It’s as much Anna’s story as it is Elsa’s, after all, and the plot hinges on the two of them rediscovering their bond as sisters. “Let it Go” is a beautiful moment, but it’s no longer the end: Elsa’s ice palace is beautiful, and a critical retreat where she can come to terms with herself outside the pressures of society. But it is also a lonely place, and an unstable one – once Anna unveils the problems going on back at home, Elsa’s newfound confidence crumbles. She hasn’t solved her problems, she’s only left them behind for a while (an important step, let us be clear – perspective is key for solving things in a way that doesn’t just compound them). The healing process only begins when she shares her burden with her sister, and returns home again.

It’s the bonds of family that save her, bonds that she had cut off out of fear instilled by the older generation (her well meaning but uncomprehending parents). But Anna doesn’t see Elsa as a threat, or a terrifying Other. She asserts, over and over, that Elsa is her sister. The sense of love and acceptance, even through the harrowing events of the plot, is palpable. Elsa doesn’t need to make a new world – she already has a home, and it will accept her however she is (and the key to solving the winter of Elsa’s fear is that powerful emotion of Love). In the end, she’s not only welcomed back but able to bring what she’s discovered about herself to the community, to better it with her difference and help her subjects to embrace what Anna knew all along. It’s beautiful. And given how often those older narratives were bound to the pressure of finding a lover as a means of validation, it’s even more spectacular to see Elsa accept who she is without needing to find her “other half.” Let’s face it, coming out is hard enough without feeling pressure to show off a date.

warmhugs

Sorry, that’s just a flood of happy tears in my eye

Instead of asking ‘how do I accept myself’ and calling it a day, it’s time to move forward, to ask the questions that come after that very scary and monumental thought. How do I reevaluate my life, scared that it will be the same while I am different? How can I help my loved ones, knowing that they care and want to help me? And what new places does this make for me in the world, without fear that others will be shut out? Frozen helps to asks these questions, moving into nuanced ground that we’ve been toeing the edges of for years.

Now, I’m not painting a rosy utopia here – there are still struggles, and horrors still very much continue for the LGBT community around the world. But Disney films are at their best worlds of ideals, places that inspire hopes and dreams of what could be. Even if we’re not there yet, I still want to believe in it.

This essay has a companion piece!

86 replies »

  1. I can see your perspective on the movie and I think it has some merit. I interpreted it as more an allegory about women’s power and not letting the fact that you’re a woman suppress your true nature. But I can definitely see where you’re coming from with this and I think it’s a pretty good interpretation as well.
    Though if you asked Disney, they’ll probably just say it’s a story about two sisters becoming friends again.

  2. I loved this perspective! I loved frozen and have really enjoyed hearing other’s responses. If you have time check out my post from today all about self love… Keep being awesome

  3. I absolutely loved this movie already, looking at it from another angle is just another reason for me to love it. Thanks for changing my point of view a little bit 🙂 I never would’ve thought of Frozen like this.

  4. Queer theory is fascinating. The idea of homosexuals has only existed about 250 years so it’s a relatively new idea. Anybody want to read Foucault’s History of Sexuality is in for “a whole new world”- ha

    • Ah, Foucalt. interesting guy, dense as all hell to read. It is amazing to see such a young field grow and change (though of course there’ve been various forms of queer community and identity going back ages and ages, the modern conception is a fairly new thing). I’m glad to be part of it.

    • The idea of homosexuals have been depicted in many sculptures as early as 6th Century. One such example is the Khajuraho collection of monuments (can be easily googled). I also found a website that gives more details ( http://devdutt.com/blog/did-homosexuality-exist-in-ancient-india.html)

      The ‘civilised’ society ostracized certain communities because they were ‘different’. Greed and lust for power translated into marginalising some communities and favouring others… LGBT fell into this category.

      So this, in my opinion, is a forcibly removed/veiled context and not a new one.

      • Not to be crude, but in Western society it wasn’t until the discovery of the clitoris that women became their own sex. Women were considered “lesser men” because they “had cooler blood.” God created man in his image, both male and fe-male. Historically, gays merely acted in non-reproductive sex. Like I said, “History Of Sexuality” by Foucault lays this out very well

  5. Interesting take. The “conceal don’t feel” theme of the movie definitely resonated with me, and I’m thinking many people could see that as representing parts of their individual struggles and journeys.

    I really liked the movie, but felt as if part of Elsa’s story was left untold..it may be that story is just what you say it is.

  6. I have to say that what resonated with me would be the ‘conceal, don’t feel’ themes as well. I personally thought that was what most people would connect with as it’s a common theme that can be applied to quite a lot of different peoples struggles.

    I think disney has changed quite a lot since I was a child ( I’m 22) but I think its a change for the better.

  7. I think it was a good kids movie, and not much more. I had problems with the ending and I wonder what Hans Christian Anderson, the author of the original story, had in mind when he wrote it – but I readily admit to being too lazy to open my Complete Works of his and read it to find out. I’m glad it is doing well, because it is hard to find really good movies for kids (my daughter is 3) to go see, much less to shell out what will amount to over $50 for the privilege of the movie theater experience.

    As far as any additional themes, I think you can use “applicability,” but to me it was just a broken family attempting to come together again – and after the deaths of the parents, that really couldn’t be achieved, but the sisters certainly could reunite and save what was left of their family. However that rift happens, viewed through a LGBT lens or otherwise, remember that the amount of time to rectify things is limited, regardless of who or what caused the problem. Anna sure had to make more than her fair share of effort to get it reconciled with her sister.

    That was my take away. Time is limited to correct things, regardless of who was wrong. And one person may have to make a lot more effort than they should, and that isn’t fair.

    But it might be worth it.

  8. Your interpretation made me see a whole new light to the movie. I wouldn’t have noticed the undertone you’re describing otherwise! Thanks.

  9. I think you’ve unintentionally read something in, but I agree that there is nothing wrong with that. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    The isolated hero who then returns home victorious is a very old trope that Joseph Campbell wrote about, and the reason that trope exists is because most people go through that feeling to some extent or another on the way to self-discovery, the transition between adolescent and adult. This includes discovering one’s sexuality and determining its purpose.

    The “thing that makes you different” but is actually a secret talent is indeed straight out of Marvel’s mutants. While I’ve always thought of that as an allegory for racism, that may be reading my own thoughts in as well: I understand Stan Lee’s intention was to take your typical D.C. superhero like Batman or Superman, updating it to seem more tangible in a modern setting, exploring everything angle of it from the repressed mutants to the well-to-do Fantastic Four, who make no attempts to keep their talents or identities secret.

  10. Great Post and perspective. I think Frozen has so many messages it offers. I think it tells everyone that if you bottle it up inside and hide a storm will come. Also, our aversion to emotion can really backfire. Thanks! -A Mermaid Named ED.

  11. I personally think Frozen is the best Disney Princess movie yet. Though I didn’t see your interpretation when I first saw it, looking back it seems plausible though if somebody from Disney ever admits to writing a LGBT character on purpose I may faint. I really enjoyed reading this.

  12. Hopefully this comment doesn’t come across as negative, but unless Disney someday says the movie was a metaphor for being gay and being yourself as a gay person, then we should be careful to limit the movie as being for one specific type of person. My guess, as is usually the case, Disney’s intent was to build a story that everyone can relate to in some way. I can relate to it having grown up overweight, shy, a farm boy among city kids, not wealthy, etc. The fact that the story relates to you in that way, doesn’t specifically mean that its intent was only for you.

    Great stories are those everyone can relate to, .which is why you can relate to Frozen. Doubtful that it was written solely or mostly for the purpose of being a gay tolerance/celebration message. I’ll retract my statement should Disney actually say that was their intent. If they do, then I will be a bit disappointed in them, not because of the then stated purpose, but then because of all of the other boys and girls (this is a kids movie remember) that they disregarded or didn’t include in their intent of a lesson.

    I feel your interpretation is your own, and many others will share it, but it’s not likely the outright intent of the story.

  13. I personally don’t like this perspective on it. Not because I don’t like gay people, but I just don’t like the fact people make something different than what it is. This movie did really well without people thinking Elsa was gay. I think we should stop thinking about it this way and just enjoy Frozen. But you are a good blogger nonetheless. (And yes I’m straight)

    • I understand identifying a character’s journey with the LGBT Moment and self-realization and the argument totally makes sense, but I think Elsa’s journey can be read as parallel without Elsa herself being read as LGBT. I didn’t read any sexuality in Elsa at all, because based on how I experienced the film that’s not what her journey was about.

  14. I really like your perspective here! For me, I had a hard time with the movie because it felt like “Anna’s War on the Introverts.” I think I was more like your friend who thought the “Let it Go” song was where it should have ended. Elsa seemed happier in her ice castle than ever before so why can’t she just hang out there? (And why couldn’t the guy just chill in the forest with his reindeer?) I liked your idea of coming back and feeling accepted though and how that’s an important part of finding oneself too. Thanks!!

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