Deep Freeze: Themes in Frozen
After Meg’s awesome review of Frozen, I bounded through the next few days and ended up seeing the film for the second time.
The more I talked about it with friends and family, the more I wanted to write something about it as well. Thematically, this was one of the deeper Disney movies I think I’ve ever seen. The characters are complex, well-rounded, and fully three-dimensional, from Elsa to Olaf. There are a lot of topics to be discussed with this film, and I think it deserves a second solid SfSW look-see.
The Power of Women
This wasn’t a particularly subtle theme in Frozen, but it didn’t have to be. Very simply, a large part of the film is about Elsa’s power, how she deals with it, and how it in turn controls her — as well as how the perception of that power changes depending on who’s looking at it.
Elsa has the power to create snow and ice and to manipulate it. Her power is, in a very literal meaning of the word, awesome. The things she is able to do with it are truly spectacular. It’s beautiful and terrifying.
As a child, her power is a source of wonder. She wields it like a child, to create joy for the sister she loves. When she accidentally hurts her sister, her fear is a child’s fear. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone. She retreats, and her parents further that along by closing the palace gates and teaching Elsa to conceal her power. It’s very important to note that she’s not taught to control it. Concealing is not the same thing. She has to pretend to be like everyone else so that she isn’t exposed to people who won’t understand what she can do, but for Elsa, her primary fear remains the same: hurting the people she loves. Elsa as a character is fascinating to me. She is desperate. She has enormous power. But she has been molded to never use it, to never let anyone see, and because of her deep, resonant fear of hurting the people she truly loves — she never questions the method.
Anna is powerful in her own right. She blazes onto the screen in every scene like a force of nature. And she is — Anna is love. It’s what she is, how she lives, what she breathes. From the first scene she embodies every facet of love. Even after years of Elsa shunning her, Anna’s love for her remains undaunted. She is also desperate. Desperate to reform her dearest relationship with a sister somehow lost to her. Desperate to find the life she wants, rather than the one she’s been unwittingly forced into.
Put these two young women together, and you have a rich, textured story. Anna’s ignorance at the beginning may make her seem naïve, but her ability to adapt and her absolute resilience when she is confronted with the reality of her sister’s situation is a testament to the strength of her character. She doesn’t even blink when she finds out about Elsa’s power — she leaps without hesitation to express her own: her abiding well of love for her sister.
A very interesting note is in the first song, Frozen Heart. If you listen to the lyrics, they are another very subtle poke at Elsa’s power. They say that ice is powerful and beautiful and dangerous and to beware the frozen heart — this is a very interesting little thing I only noticed a few days ago. It’s intriguing to me also to note that many of the men are threatened by Elsa’s power (again, not a very subtle theme there), but the one who isn’t (Kristoff) is the one who really flourishes throughout the film. He’s a partner to Anna throughout the film and doesn’t balk when she is the one who needs to be heroic.
I’ve never seen Disney do this before. We’ve seen heaps of father-son and brother relationships in films for years. With Brave, they gave us a mother-daughter story. With Frozen, it’s sisters.
There is something deeply moving about sibling bonds. So rarely are we given a chance to see it in a way that isn’t outright competitive (say, the ugly stepsisters). Frozen gave us an intensely poignant look into how misunderstanding and lack of communication can cut us off from the real authentic relationships humans crave. More than being gendered, Elsa and Anna’s relationship is profoundly human.
And since I can’t talk about this movie without mentioning the songs, “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman” is a stunning picture of Anna and Elsa’s relationship. From the childlike “I’m bored; come play with me” to the final verse’s very adult aching grief. For me, this was a scene reminiscent of that heartbreaking breakdown in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy collapses into Dawn’s arms, sobbing that she doesn’t know what to do. Yes, that is an adult feeling. It’s even worse when you’re expected to know how to keep going when something so debilitating happens, and this moment between Anna and Elsa — Anna’s “What are we gonna do?” and Elsa’s very visual implosion of grief on the other side of the door — is exactly that.
Emotions might be the single most common weapon used to undermine women’s validity and credibility. From the long-held notion of “hysteria” to labeling women as “crazy,” being called “emotional” is a the verbal equivalent of being written off. Overreacting. Freaking out. Overanalyzing. Reading too much into it. Crazy, hysterical, emotional — bad.
In Frozen, Elsa’s power is paired very firmly with her emotions. “Don’t let them in; don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal, don’t feel.” She repeats the mantra, Don’t feel, don’t feel, over and over throughout the film. Elsa has been taught that allowing herself to have emotions will hurt people. The burden of everyone else’s safety is placed entirely on her shoulders. This is a surprisingly subtle level of commentary from Disney: women being held responsible for the well-being of others with no thought for how it might damage the women themselves.
The song Let it Go is a powerful renunciation of this sentiment. Elsa for the first time is out in the open and free. There’s a lot of symbolism in this song — she sheds her updo and lets her hair down. She changes her clothes from reserved to shining. She can test her power, see what she is truly capable of. She doesn’t have to hide anymore, and for the first time in the film you really see her revel in herself, her power, and the joy she gets from her magic. She allows herself to feel a sort of ecstasy that is tantalizing. Her self-realization in this moment is stunning. She never would have gotten to the end of her character arc if she hadn’t had this moment. Through the rest of the movie, she has to learn to experience the full spectrum of emotion — that’s the real message here. Her emotions are what fuels her power, and they are the key to knowing how to use her magic.
Love is Complicated
Prince meets Princess. Annnnnnd…..scene.
That’s pretty much the extent of the romance in many Disney films. While in later films they’ve moved on a bit from that (Mulan springs to mind), if you look at the older ones, you see that there is very little deviation from the “you’re the first love I have, you are THE ONE” formula. One thing I respected a lot about Frozen was that it allowed Anna to well, court two men. And realize that not every handsome hunk is made the same — in this case, Hans is a smooth-talker and a cad. (Though his story has an interesting amount of complexity to it as well. His motivations are well-fleshed out.) Kristoff is kind of a mess who talks to rocks (okay, they’re trolls) and apparently pees in the woods as a personal preference. But Anna gets to learn a very important lesson: you don’t have to marry the first person who asks you, and finding someone who is right for you is more important than just having someone.
The trolls’ song Fixer-Upper is kind of glorious. My favorite bit is the bridge: “I’m not saying you can change him, cos people don’t really change. All I’m saying is love’s a force that’s powerful and strange. People make bad decisions when they’re mad or scared or stressed, but throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best.” In one swoop, Anna is absolved from the questionable decision of accepting a proposal from someone she’s literally just met. She’s not made an example of stupidity; she’s treated with grace and had an allowance made for the fact that she’s been alone her whole life, desperate for human connection. That doesn’t make her pitiful; it makes her human.
See above, re: love at first sight. Disney not only wrote a story that was almost a 180 from their usual party line, but they even threw in some lines smashing former tropes to pieces. The handsome prince is not the savior; he’s the villain. The man in the (literal, I think) black hat isn’t really the bad guy so much as a really bad dancer and whiner.
And an act of true love? A woman sacrificing her life for her sister. Anna is the hero of Frozen. She is the hero archetype.
Loss and Grief
We actually see four very interesting ways of dealing with loss and grief in this film. Elsa, who locks herself away and tries to keep it all in. She can’t, of course. And when she hurts someone, it’s always an accident. Anna, who reaches out, trying to get someone to be there for her. Kristoff also isolates himself in a way, but he is also surrounded by people who love him and allows them to be there for him. Finally, Hans. He is the twelfth son, never to inherit anything. He feels he’s lost something he deserves and reacts to that grief by hurting others on purpose.
So that’s that. We live in a world where a movie like this is like a unicorn. I don’t think there’s ever been anything else like it, and I hope its arrival is a positive symbol of things to come. We live in a world where my friend’s nephew wouldn’t admit he liked Frozen until someone reminded him there were boys in it — and where when I mentioned that was discouraging, someone replied, “Well, that’s boys.”
Yes, that’s precisely my point. Even six-year-olds think loving a wonderful film where the women are heroes is embarrassing. And adults say “boys will be boys” instead of challenging those boys to look at the characters as people worthy of their admiration.
We live in a world where Disney felt they had to market Frozen as a movie about a talking (male) snowman and a non-talking (male) reindeer because they were afraid boys wouldn’t go see it if they knew it was about two princesses. Ironic, that a film about fear standing in the way of realizing your own power would fall victim to marketing fear.
We’ve lived in that world too long.
It’s time to move on.
I’ll close with the final line from “For the First Time in Forever…”
“I know it all ends tomorrow, so it has to be today…cos for the first time in forever, nothing’s in my way.”
Emmie Mears is a fantasy author who lives in the DC area with her husband and a gaggle of critters named after Buffy characters. She enjoys hunting video game monsters, watching Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on repeat, and hatching plots to fill her passport with stamps. Her debut novel THE MASKED SONGBIRD about a Scottish superhero will be released in autumn 2014 from Harlequin E.
Here’s the fabulous video for Let it Go: