How to Be an English Major: Revisiting Frozen, Meaning, and the Death of the Author

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay about the new Disney movie Frozen. A few people read it, and then a few more, and then it exploded and became the most read post on this blog by a factor of ten (a fact found using English Major Math™, so take it as A Number I Made Up, Signifying Lots). Loads of people left comments – for some people it resonated with their own thoughts, or showed them possibilities they hadn’t considered; and others had their own ideas about the film’s significance, or felt it spoke to them in a different way. 98% of the comments were well spoken and polite, and I wanted to take this into-time to thank people for that. The internet might be a seething sea of cruelty bolstered by the false comfort of anonymity, but that doesn’t mean that every little scrap of civil discourse doesn’t help.

As I read I began to notice a certain trend: the search for the ‘Real Interpretation.’ Whether it was proposing another reading of the text or asking after the official intent of the creators, there seems to be a fervent desire to have a sanctioned view of a work of art. It comes from high school, I think, where teachers often find it easier to help students get through the unit by highlighting one interpretation as What it Means. That’s not a bad way to start, but it’s also only a start….which becomes a problem, given that for many people close media inspection starts and ends with those classes.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I could give people a crash course in English Majoring, with Frozen (and a few other things) as our guide. It’ll be just like college, with less Herman Melville and debt.

What the Author Wants, and Why We Ignore Them

Early on in the 20th century, when literary criticism had been going on for quite some time, someone finally spoke up and said ‘um, but what if the author’s opinion didn’t matter?’ There’ve been spinoffs of that idea, backlash, heated argument, and so on. But it’s really, really, really important that it happened, because using authorial intent as the be-all-end-all measuring stick for a work’s meaning isn’t so much limiting as it is crippling. While an author can indeed have intentions for what they wanted to say with their art (most do, to some extent), there will always be factors influencing them that they don’t think to mention: time-period discrimination, for example (here we make the obligatory Song of the South reference, which was meant as progressive by portraying Uncle Remus as a kindly, trustworthy figure but managed to roll its way into banned cinema history with its rosy-cheeked depiction of the Reconstruction era South); or personal issues that are part of the author’s mindset (HP Lovecraft’s fear of seafood and immigrants), or the fact that whatever work it is will someday be looked on by a culture with an entirely different outlook.

When constrained to the author art becomes a time capsule – and isn’t the idea of great literature (or film, or games, or comics) that its messages and ideas are so resonant as to be able to translate across all manner of temporal and societal barriers? It would follow that they also transcend their own creator, and become something that belongs to everyone it speaks to. And at the end of the day a work must stand on its own, because one day the author’s going to be gone while their creation remains.

Not to say that there’s no place for authorial interaction. It can be a great deal of fun to interact with the creator of something you love, especially in this age of textual interactivity, fan communities, and social media. Yes, I want to know what breakfast cereal the boys from Free! prefer, or that there was this or that discarded idea in the Dragon Age writers’ room. It’s wonderful to feel included, and the examples I gave are ones that open the world of a story rather than constricting it.


Come for the hilarious surrealism, stay for the magnificent pain

It’s an especially great feeling when an author’s comment bolsters something that the audience already found within the text. Take Marceline’s relationship with the Ice King in Adventure Time, which creator Pendleton Ward has said was influenced by his relationship with his own Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. The great thing about that statement is that it can encourage those who are disinclined toward deep reading to look at the story in a light they might not’ve considered before.

But what’s even more important to note is that Adventure Time supports the mental illness allegory without Ward having to say anything at all: Simon Petrikov/Ice King shows stages of increasing forgetfulness, disconnection from reality, and mood swings as the crown infects him, eventually losing his old life entirely in exchange for living well past his body’s natural limits; the introduction of Marceline as Simon’s surrogate child and the gateway to information about the Ice King’s past (after the initial reveal in “Holly Jolly Secrets”) encourages the audience to see the crown’s changing effect’s through that parent/child relationship. It’s very nice that Ward openly stated his personal connection to that storyline, but the authorial intent isn’t what makes the reading resonate. The text does it on its own.


And now, one of my picks for Unparalleled Quality Series

What about cases where there’s a conflict of opinion within the creative team? Take Tiger & Bunny, a superhero anime which has the relationship between the titular duo at its heart. There’ve been more than a few comments (in a way that feels more blessedly sincere than is often the case with such implications in anime) spread across many, many official sources that toy with the implication of a romantic connection between the leads (from calling Kotetsu Barnaby’s ‘partner’ in the civilian sense to qualifying each as the most important factor in the other’s life or playing with explicitly romantic terminology), while the series director claimed it was up to fan interpretation as to whether the two shared a close friendship or a romance. Meanwhile, Barnaby’s voice actor (Masakazu Morita) has tended more toward a platonic interpretation, or as he recently put it:

Morita: The Barnaby I see and the Barnaby interpreted by the staff and the director always end up being slightly different – which can be said for each and every character appearing in the show. I’m in charge of Barnaby’s voice, but not of his actions. However, the Barnaby that appears in the show is the product of everyone’s contributions, tied together by the director’s hands. In reality, you can say that the character known as Barnaby is the result of many people’s hard work.

As a fan watching at home, how do you interpret that disparate opinion? Well, it depends doesn’t it? A viewer in favor of the romance will cite the articles and the director’s opinion, and a detractor of the romance will cite the actor. But they’re both ‘experts’ on the subject, or it would feel like they should be. Many works these days are the result of a team effort, which will result in many nuanced layers of opinions. If you spend your whole day trying to decide which one is The Meaningful Author, you’re just going to end up with a headache.


I…well, Lara Pulver gives a great performance. Let’s leave it at that.

And what about cases where the creative team has the outright potential to decrease a viewer’s enjoyment of the work? Reading works like Ender’s Game, a great work of literature with a toxic being of a creator, all but require the ability to de-synch work from author and intent. Or take someone like Stephen Moffat, co-creator of Sherlock and current head writer of Doctor Who. He’s said some truly disgusting things about women, and yet there’s a female fanbase the world over that continues to enjoy both series. In cases like this the author’s viewpoint does tell us something about the work, but it’s not a fun way (by which I mean it is an actively frustrating way) to be forced to view the stories and characters. Suppose you want to read the women of Moffat’s Doctor Who in a feminist light (totally, totally possible, with great characters like Amy and River Song) – do you have to take into account his view of them as ‘needy husband hunters?’ Such are the cases where not only is authorial intent not only unnecessary, but much less of a heartache if avoided altogether.


An Analytical Tour of Frozen

 Now that we’ve gotten the matter of What the Author Meant out of the way, what about the one true explanation theory? That one’s a bit more tricky, because the internet’s instated a modern definition of deconstruction that doesn’t quite square with the original one. Deconstruction was a concept originally introduced by Jacques Derrida, stating that a (literary) work has no stable or “pure” meaning. Rather, the use of deconstruction exposes layers of meaning within a work, taken from many perspectives or interpretive lenses. Sometimes these work against each other, sometimes they work together, but they all bud from a reading of the same source. Let’s take Frozen. I might’ve interpreted the story as a queer one, but here’re some other routes I could’ve gone down:

Feminist Theory: I’m actually tempted to just turn this over to Lindsay Ellis’ blog post on the subject, which is quite excellent as far as talking about the film’s strengths in depicting flawed, well rounded female characters whose narrative needs are based on platonic female bonds, but I’ll throw in my two cents for the sake of the exercise. A feminist reading might look at the narrative’s empowerment of bonds between women rather than heteronormative romantic bonds, interpret the struggle and fear over Elsa’s powers as a fear of female power (since she would be a Queen with no king, and no stated interest in one) that is constantly assailed by the threatened male power structures (lo, the many attempts on Elsa’s life).

Powers as Illness: Elsa’s gift is one that she’s had from birth, which often grows out of her control and keeps her from interacting with others out of fear that her body might betray her. We could connect this to illnesses like epilepsy, diabetes, or autoimmune disorder, where the body seems to be an alien, frightening or betraying force. There’s also hints of OCD in Elsa’s gloves and fear of interacting in crowded situations (this one even gets a tossed off joke from Anna – “I just thought she had a thing about dirt”).

Marxist Theory: The near immediate breakdown of law and order upon the revelation of Elsa’s powers betrays a deep mistrust between ruling class and citizenship, with the ruling class serving as a chokehold on the land (shutting off trade and interaction because of one individual’s situation, which affects the whole society). The barriers drawn between upper and lower class lead to fear, suspicion, and strife, and allow for figures like Hans to instill ill will and attempted murder freely. By contrast, the film’s happy ending shows a free intermingling between commoner and royalty in the castle courtyard (also symbolized by Anna’s relationship with Kristoff, which finds equality between two people rather than attempting to meet along expected lines of class equivocation a la Hans), with Queen Elsa using her powers in service to the greater good rather than her own gain.

There are elements of those theories and others (I’m far too tired to go into the hilarious rabbit hole that is Freudian Theory) within Frozen, and there are elements of each that I like – they tell me something about the story, or about how it differs from Disney films past (compare that Marxist interpretation to something like Aladdin, where the hero’s reward is to be raised out of the masses into the elite class). They’re tools that give stories a place in the world they were created in.


Back to That Queer Narrative

Having said all that, I can hear a few raised eyebrows in the audience: if you’re going to say that all theories have merit, what’s the point in bringing up your queer interpretation at all? What makes it special?

If there can be said to be a ranking of theory, it’s in strength of applicability – the illness theory has the strongest connections early in the film, for example, and squares less obviously with Elsa’s arc as it goes on. The more examples that support a theory throughout the work, and the more it can be applied to the entirety of the story, the more credence it can usually be given. When I settled on a queer reading of Frozen there’s no doubt it was partly because that vision of the story spoke to me personally. But it was also a strong, consistent theme that applied throughout the course of the narrative, even after the big solo that most can identify as evocative of a “coming out”-type proclamation. I stand by it still.

More than that, I think being open to a queer Frozen is important. I mentioned in my essay (rather, the reason I wrote that essay is) that the themes found in that story are opening the world up to a queer narrative that hasn’t often been seen – one that’s not just about escaping from a world that discriminates, or finding that special lover who’ll be the only one to understand you, but about reconciling with a family that loves you and giving your gifts back to a world and society that is beginning to come to terms with the beauty and potential of difference. That is mightily powerful in the America of today (America specifically because that’s the culture that spawned the film), and while it’s not something I would expect kids to pick up on, it is a subtext that I hope will translate into actual text in future stories (future children’s stories, where ‘but they’re too young to hear about sex’ won’t be an excuse in keeping queer characters from being mentioned in the same cute ways as heterosexual relationships, or as characters unto themselves who’re trying to figure out the world in their own way).

And I want to say, last and most importantly of all, that it isn’t about taking Frozen away from anyone. “Making it queer” doesn’t mean that all viewers can’t understand the pain of being ostracized, or of wanting to reconcile with family that’s grown apart from you. Those are universal human experiences, and they don’t go away when a story is applied to anything more specific than the most common social denominator. What it does do is make that public group aware of the plight of others – in seeing their own struggles in the plight of others they begin to have empathy, to understand an experience that might not be their own. The Other becomes something understandable, another human being with feelings and loves and hurts that don’t need to be feared, or ignored, or put away into a subgenre that’s just for them. The idea that queer stories can’t speak to straight viewers is ridiculous, as much as the reverse of that idea is. Stories are meant to bring us together, not to divide. To help us understand stories that we might never live, but that can still move our hearts. A queer Frozen isn’t the answer to all life’s ills. But it is something we can share.

4 replies »

    • Thank you. That’s wonderfully kind of you to say (and invigorating, given that my ability to overanalyze cultural minutiae is about all I have to give). Glad you found the place, and I hope I’m able to please.

  1. Good post, even though I didn’t read your Frozen interpretation nor did I watch Frozen lol Sorry, I just don’t like Disney movies, really! (Except Up, maybe)
    I wanted to comment on the Author stuff, and the subject of authority. While it’s true that the 20th century established the foundations of actual literary theory, with the Russian formalism and later Barthes & company, the subject of the author and its relationship with the text/media it produced was a subject that was touched before. I know you did it for the sake of simplicity, but the discussions about this subject can be traced, at least, to the 19th century (Which kind of shows this with the texts and authors of the naturalism movement), I’m sure you’re aware of this, though. I mentioned this to provide me an example about the relationship of the authors with their productions, which I going to use later :P.
    I agree with your perception that people who don’t study Literature majors, or who don’t practice in analysis of this kind, tend to want a authority to disperse their doubts (It tells a lot that a page like TvTropes has a sub-page called ‘Word of God’ and others like that, where affirmations of the authors and creators live and disperse its unique and incontestable judgement of their own work, even though, as you said, they could be influenced by a lot of things of their own, or, quite frequently, of their context, without knowing). I find that it can be quite interesting knowing why this is a tendency on people, why do they want an absolute truth, ‘the real meaning’, just like the structuralist movement, but that is a topic far beyond the scope of this comment (Which is quite extensive, I know, and I do apologize for this unnecessary monologue).

    As for my main point, I just wanted to contest a bit the idea of the death of the author in just one point, and this point isn’t reviving the notion of author or authorship XD. I do believe the interpretations can be done from a lot of theories and conceptual frameworks, and that by itself is quite productive and it is great for the one doing that, and the one who ends up reading it, and, by extension, ‘writing’ another theory with that knowledge, but I do believe there are instances and cases where not all the theories or frameworks can be used, nor plurality of interpretations exist, but they, this texts, still retain ‘power’ and value. Let’s take the case of Heine’s work. Heine’s opinion and judgment of their own work doesn’t matter, even if it’s insightful and quite useful. Let’s look at his corpus; with only his work in mind, it’s impossible to escape touching the same subjects he wanted to touch, the same interpretation that he elicited when he made his work. Yeah, we could do a Marxist analysis, but that’s just what he wanted and what he had in mind, but if we tried to use other frameworks, we would only end up forcing them, utterly destroying the texts in question. This way, we can argue all the time, but his texts have a ‘truth’ that doesn’t need to be discovered, but perceived and they require another approach, that brings them up to date in situations where it can fit naturally (which, in the case of his work, are often). I side a bit with Sontag, though, and I believe it shows XD

    • Ah, well, we all have our pet theorists – no harm, no foul. You make a fair point in pointing out works that’re explicitly made to nudge the reader toward a specific line of thought (your Animal Farms et al) – definitely there are works that simply lose a chunk of themselves if you don’t acknowledge that element. But then that opens up a whole new layer of meta-commentary on how fiction functions as essay versus narrative and to which it owes the higher due, or if it acts contrarily to its own intention or has been co-opted with time, on and on and on.
      THEORISM: the mobius strip of academia. Bless its heart.

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