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.


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.

This essay has a companion piece!

86 replies »

  1. Hooooooooooly cow. Wowza! I was getting all ready to respond to the comment threads, and then I noticed that the response has been way, way bigger than I anticipated (and that’s lovely!).I sort of realized I’d very quickly run out of specific things to say, and that would make me seem like a flippant jerk, and that’s very much the last thing I want when everyone has been so kind as to come by and leave their thoughts (is that rambling? it feels like rambling). There’s even enough of interest to me in the oppositional posts that I want to whip up another blog post on Monday. In preview – as one with academic training it interests me very much to see people with their hearts so set on finding one interpretation that is The Right one, or The One the Author Wanted (as an author, let me say how often we lie about knowing what we wanted to say), which is….not the atmosphere theory usually grows in. I want to talk about it! I think it’ll be dreadfully interesting.

    So, I thought I’d try this comment (I hope people are able to see it) to address a few general things. First: to everyone who was moved by the piece or even just liked it, my deepest and most humble of thank yous. As a writer, prodding people to consider new things or to approach a subject thoughtfully is one of my chief goals. I’m so, so glad I could do that even just a little bit.

    And for those who weren’t on the wavelength with it, I want to thank you as well! The dissenting comments have all maintained a very polite, civil tone, which is really all I ask for. God knows the world would be a dull and very mad place if everyone thought like me. My goal in making this blog is to try and encourage discussion in the Jon Stewart model – that we can have animus and not be enemies, and that we can have civil and rational discussion with differing sets of beliefs and then have a cup of internet-coffee afterwards.

    Thank you, one and all, for taking the time to visit my little corner of the internet. To all who read, or liked, or followed, I am beyond ecstatic. And I hope we can move forward together (….but just so you know, essays are Monday things. I still write about Lupin III every Friday, because I am on a one-person crusade).

  2. Wow. This is a terrific post. I completely agree with your views, and I still don’t understand why people (reasonable adults) are hell bent on using euphemisms on the LGBT tone of the film.
    Great post. 😊

  3. Yeah Frozen steals from the Xmen. I was disappointed by Disney erasing all minorities from artic culture. Inuit peoples should have been included. Instead they make non human characters sing gospel music. Once again like the crows in dumbo, making black identified characters non human or animals. Disney continues it’s racist past.

  4. Great post & perspective! I don’t know if you are aware Elsa is Idina Menzel who also played Maureen in the FABULOUSLY written & produced Broadway musical RENT, written by Jonathan Larson! She was on the original Broadway cast as well as the hit movie! She is a powerhouse on the stage & in the movies. If you haven’t seen the movie, RENT, I must encourage you. It is along the lines of this post. ~A~

  5. wow, i never thought about it that way. thanks for sharing 🙂

    “Let it go” is one of my favorites too because i somehow connect with being embarrassed at being a hobby writer to my family (they might see it as a waste of time) and only feeling free when there’s no one to judge me (like the internet) but you pointed out some things that i think might help me with that kind of dilemma. thanks 🙂

  6. I didn’t really see it as an LGBT metaphor, no more did I find Merida to be a lesbian heroine. I found the moral of Frozen was that family is true love. Even the story of Kristof and Anna was sort of tacked on; the true love story was that Anna loved Elsa enough to want to be there for her and Elsa loved Anna enough to tell her than Prince Hans was bad news. I didn’t get the vibe that Elsa was a closeted lesbian @ all, but maybe, because I’m the mom of three daughters, I took the moral at face value. Interesting take!

  7. very well work done…keep going…i liked it…its nice…as am a new blogger in this world and i wrote just 1 blog (story) ( and unable to find my viewer as like you, can u please help me by reading my 1st blog what wrong with my writing…is really something wrong with my writing or am just expecting too early…your helpful comments will really inspire me… and please follow me…

  8. I believe this was an entertaining movie for young children. People don’t have to twist the meaning of things. This movie also has a more real representation of reality in the sense that Elsa doesn’t end up with a Prince Charming like all the other Disney Princesses. The movie Brave has the same message: girls can be strong and independent without being lesbian…

  9. Congrats of the Freshly Pressed!

    I did think Frozen had a lot of layers. I do think that it’s the sign of the times for Disney. It’s hopefully a tiny step away from acknowledging that true love will not be found in the arms of some tall, dark stranger. Those days of idealism is over. With so many children living in one-parent homes, the whole “happily ever after” concept is getting a little to hard to swallow, huh?

    That love can be found in new places. Maybe it’s in your child or your parent or your sister or perhaps in someone the same gender as you.

    It’s an interesting interpretation of things and if the only thing that your article has done is to get a parent or grandparent or friend to take a LGBT child to watch this movie and he/she gets a little bit of strength to face the world, then you’ve done a good thing!

    Also, just because that’s not the way Disney meant for it to be interpreted, it doesn’t mean it’s not valid. Isn’t that the whole premise of the Arts?

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