So, as per typical, I FINALLY saw Frozen months after its initial release. I immediately spent two days catching up on every blog post on the internet that I’d bypassed in fear of spoilers. So I’m a little late to the conversation (again, as per typical). This post will contain spoilers, so if you are living in an even deeper cave than I and haven’t seen it yet, I will understand if you want to skip this for now and hopefully come back later.
Let’s get this part out of the way: It’s not perfect. While some are (hastily and I think incorrectly) hailing it as the most progressive Disney film in history, there are legitimate complaints about characterization, character agency, and plot holes, plot holes, PLOT HOLES. I am highly accomplished in suspending disbelief in order to get lost in a story (stories are my heroin), and even I noticed some of the plot holes.
And I loved it anyway.
I especially felt for Elsa, the repressed but sympathetic antagonist sister, and I can see why her song became THAT SONG. “Let It Go” is going to be the “Part Of That World” for the next generation. Here are both songs if you want to listen again:
And how could “Let It Go” not be the song for the next generation? While Ariel’s song spoke of secret, burning passion, Elsa’s song explodes out of the inner cave, embracing all that latent power and building her her very own ice castle in the sky. No more secret caves for Princesses. Elsa’s song finishes what Ariel’s starts. Almost.
I totally get why this song has hit something deep in the little-girl zeitgeist. Elsa’s repressed powers can be a stand-in for anger, sexuality, artistic or intellectual prowess, leadership capabilities, you name it. Girls especially are taught in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that all of these powers are dangerous, that their natural expressions are not safe for self or others.
And the tighter the cultural bindings, the more likely you will eventually see a dramatic overcorrection. Perhaps even an explosion/self destruction on the magnitude of Elsa’s accidental eternal winter. Other girls bring the eternal winter inside, suffering quietly from crippling depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, etc. (Please note that I am NOT claiming that all, or even most, mental illness is caused by this kind of repression, but I’m certain it’s a contributing factor in many cases). Elsa experiences both of these extremes, first locked away inside herself (almost literally), and then violently erupting when the pressure builds too much. She suffers from an inability to integrate her whole self.
Elsa is so sympathetic a character that a lot of people are confusing her for a second protagonist. She’s not – her character’s entire purpose in the story is to give her sister Anna obstacles to overcome. Also remember, as other critics have done, that Elsa’s solution to her repression/explosion problem is to run away and cut all ties to her responsibilities. She’s the QUEEN. Her plight may be sympathetic, but we can’t point and say “Do as Elsa does” without caveats. While it’s unusual for the antagonist’s character development song to be the runaway hit (the same didn’t happen for Jafar, Ursula, Gaston, or Scar), it still doesn’t make her a protagonist. Frankly, I wish she HAD been a fully-developed co-protagonist, because then her song really would have been the true heir to Ariel’s. Instead it’s a half-way point. This is where my wish-list for Frozen begins:
I wish the story had made room to show more of Elsa’s healing process. Instead, she has a late-stage major epiphany, and we’re left with the usual happily ever after. I mean, it’s a Disney flick, there’s always a too-easy happily ever after, but it would have been nice if, maybe, they had taken one of her post-ice-castle scenes and we could have seen her wrestling more with her power instead of just running from it. I would have loved to see some of the learning process.
Speaking of that, I wish she had shown more agency in her own healing. Essentially, Elsa ends up playing both the almighty sorceress queen and the damsel in distress. She can name and claim her power only by abandoning everything else. She seems utterly helpless to seek real solutions on her own. It’s nice that she’s rescued by her sister and not a handsome prince, but she is rescued. It’s Anna who pursues her, Anna who saves her, and Anna who delivers the info needed to cure the eternal winter.
And let’s talk about Anna for a minute. She’s been accused of being a bit Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with some truth. I don’t think she’s as bad as all that, but I find it harder to like her for personal reasons. Mostly, I am always deeply annoyed by characters (and, okay, sometimes people) who survive to adolescence still dreaming about finding “The One.” This has a lot to do with the gaping chip on my shoulder left by my parents’ divorce. My fantasy of happily ever after was brutally crushed before the age of ten, and anything over 13 years just seems an unseemly age to still believe. Like still believing in a literal Santa Claus. Except more annoying. But that’s just me. One of my many MPDG personality tics. 😀
But again, I don’t think she’s as bad as all that. It’s a little frustrating that her character is under-developed and very naive (which is supposed to make her – charming? Fetching?), but it’s wrong to say, as some have, that her primary objective in the film is to find a man. Her opening “I want” song is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the throughline carries. Again, it’s Anna who pursues, rescues and ultimately delivers the key to healing to her sister. And it’s LOVE. Love heals – how great is that message? Elsa is the badass, but Anna wins the day through love and sacrifice. Her focus and determination to make things right with her sister are what make her ultimately admirable and interesting. MPDG as Christ surrogate. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Although, considering that “immaturity” was Anna’s defining fault, it would have also been nice if she’d matured a little farther by the end of the film. My last wish for Frozen is that, at the end, it was Elsa who had ended up with a love interest, and Anna who had decided to spend some time boy-free discovering her powers, ordinary as those might be. An Ice Queen who is portrayed as both powerful and romance-able, with all the complications that entails, and a MPDG who finds contentment being single, would have been a truer narrative breakthrough in my book. Instead, it’s the “perfectly ordinary” girl who still ends up with the guy prize, and the powerful girl who (still) ends up alone.
Again, this is just my wish list. It hasn’t been my intention to engage in princess-bashing (a popular sport recently), so I hope it hasn’t come across that way. I loved Frozen (we haven’t even talked about Olaf!!). It was tremendously clever and entertaining, and I think it took a couple important steps forward for the Disney Princess narrative arc. Taking the Evil Sorceress Queen trope (Ursula, She of the Poisoned Apple) and making her an abused, vulnerable, sympathetic character with the best song was the biggest triumph in my book. I just like thinking about all the ways we can keep moving forward. Your thoughts are welcome!