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.
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.
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.