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"Conceal, Don't Feel": A Queer Reading of Disney's Frozen

by Kade Wilson

WRIT 1633: Fans and Fan Writing Practices
Professor Juli Parrish

 

INTRODUCTION

Disney’s 2013 animated film Frozen was an enormous success, grossing over one billion dollars and ranking as the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Consequently, Frozen has a huge fan following, with many fans buying into what is called the “queer Elsa headcanon,” a fan-developed interpretation of the film in which Elsa, one of the protagonists, is queer. A comprehensive queer reading of Frozen sheds light on common queer narratives and creates a lens through which to view other texts more queerly. This paper seeks to combine much of the disparate research into one cohesive reading of a specific Disney film and then analyze why queer readings, and queer readings of this film in particular, are so inviting and important.

 

WHAT IS A QUEER READING?

The first important question to explore is what queer readings are and how they are constructed. It is necessary to define what is meant by “queer,” both as a noun and a verb. According to Caitlin Ryan and Jill Hermann-Wilmarth, “queer” refers not only to the community of gender and sexuality minorities commonly known as LGBT, but also to any sexuality, relationship, gender identity, or gender expression that falls outside of what society has constructed as “normal” (145). In their words, “Our use of queer theory is not focused on whether or not people (or characters, as we will see) are gay, but rather assumes that categories around gender, sexuality, bodies, and desire are artificially strict to begin with” (Ryan and Hermann-Wilmarth 147). This is to say that queering a narrative does not entail searching for some type of hard evidence that a character is queer, but rather searches for ways in which the narrative breaks down traditional boundaries and leaves room for reading a character or a situation in a way that doesn’t fall within the dominant hetero-patriarchy.

Once we have defined queer, we can move onto, more broadly, defining a queer reading. As Henry Jenkins notes in Textual Poachers, fan audiences in general construct a variety of readings—including queer readings—of the texts they read and watch, adapting those texts to meet their needs and ideas. For Frederik Dhaenens, Sofie van Bauwel, and Daniel Biltereyst, queer readings are concerned with “repositioning texts outside the borders of heteronormativity” (335). To put it simply, a queer reading involves searching a text for themes, ideas, or messages that seem contradictory to what we are taught is “normal.” As Dhaenens puts it, “the practice of queer reading should not be interpreted as making texts queer but rather as trying to understand how texts might be understood as queer” (341). Ryan and Hermann-Wilmarth discuss several strategies for constructing queer-readings of literature, including page-by-page analysis, holistic analysis, themed analysis, and gendered analysis (144). In this paper, I use a themed analysis to pick out elements of Frozen that defy traditional ideas surrounding gender and sexuality, whether literally or metaphorically, in order to construct a comprehensive queer reading of the ways that Frozen can be queered.

 

MAGIC OR CURSE: ELSA'S POWERS AS QUEERNESS

The film Frozen follows the story of sisters and princesses Anna and Elsa of Arendelle. Elsa has been confined to her room since childhood because she cannot control her magical powers to create snow and ice. Elsa is finally allowed out for her coronation ball, where Anna meets and falls in love with Prince Hans, who is secretly plotting to marry Anna, then kill Elsa and gain the throne. During the ball, Elsa inadvertently reveals her powers and escapes to the mountains. When later confronted by Anna, she accidentally shoots ice into Anna’s heart, to be healed only by an act of true love. Though Anna originally believes a kiss from a man she loves will thaw the ice, it is her attempt to save Elsa that thaws her heart and teaches Elsa to control her powers.

The first description of Elsa’s powers comes from Anna. Anna calls them “the magic,” and the ice and snow are shown to be childishly playful and fun, with nothing inherently bad about them. Elsa’s powers only become negative when she becomes frightened and scared or when others react badly to what she can do. For example, when Elsa and Anna are playing and Anna begins to jump too fast, Elsa becomes frightened, even saying, “Wait, slow down!” Elsa’s fear then causes the mishap where Anna’s head is struck by ice. Queer identities are not inherently bad; they do not inherently harm anyone, and queer love doesn’t have fundamental differences from heterosexual love. However, the way society frames queer identities is what makes them negative in society’s eyes. Elsa’s powers serve as a metaphor for this framing and for queer identity.

The film establishes early on that Elsa’s powers are not a curse. When asked by the troll leader, the king immediately replies that Elsa was born with her powers rather than cursed by them. This definition of Elsa’s powers parallels discussions of queer identity, insisting on the innate nature of sexual orientation and gender identity rather than due to some sickness of the mind or spirit. The effects of society on Elsa’s powers become apparent early on, as she is slowly socialized to believe negative things about herself. Though she has only ever hurt one person, and in an accidental, non-malicious way, Elsa has internalized the connection between her powers and harming others. She tells her parents that she doesn’t want to hurt them, and her father responds that “getting upset makes it worse,” showing how Elsa’s perceptions of others and her beliefs about how they will react to her powers influence how she expresses herself.

These ideas Elsa holds about herself affect her well into her teenage and young adult years. In “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise),” Elsa distinctly calls her powers a curse, claiming that she can’t control them, as though some external power is influencing her. The idea that her powers are not an inborn and beautiful thing reflects how queer identities are painted by society today; these identities are demonized and described as the product of some external force, whether that be improper parenting, skewed media images, or sin. Elsa has also absorbed this idea, trying to deny and repress her identity as if it were the function of a curse rather than embracing the magical potential that her natural identity holds.

 

REPRESSION AND PARENTAL INFLUENCE

Anna and Elsa’s parents play a particularly important role in Frozen. Though they die early on in the story, their short presence leaves a lasting impact on Elsa. Many of Elsa’s core feelings about her powers stem from the lessons her parents (specifically her father) taught her, telling her to “conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show.” As dictated to her by her parents, Elsa needing to learn control over her powers turns into a need to repress her powers and attempt not to feel. This idea is easily accessible for a queer audience, as much of the modern discourse surrounding queer sexualities and gender identities is to repress and hide rather than to embrace and love.

An essential part of the narrative of many queer youth is an attempt to “not feel” their sexuality, often as dictated to them by their religion, community, or family. Elsa’s uphill battle to keep her powers hidden is a clear parallel to this all-too-common situation. However, the harder Elsa tries to not feel her powers, the more she cannot control them. During “For the First Time in Forever,” Elsa is shown singing about repressing her powers (“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see”) while standing directly underneath an intimidating portrait of her father. The visual parallel between her father’s coronation and hers is made clear when Elsa imitates his pose and then breaks it as ice begins to cover the objects she is holding. Her father’s advice still has power over her even long after his death, and Elsa is still striving toward his ideals.

In many Disney princess films, the conflict between father and daughter parallels the state of the kingdom, and the plot is effectively resolved through the courtship and eventual marriage of the princess (Do Rozario). Though this trope applies to Frozen, significant parts are changed. Elsa’s relationship with her father and his advice does fall in line with the state of Arendelle. When Elsa’s powers are finally revealed during the ball, she runs away to escape to the North Mountain, where she has the ultimate conflict with her father’s advice. When Elsa runs away, she freezes over Arendelle completely, demonstrating how negative her powers can be when she feels scared or threatened, in this case by both her potential betrayal of her father’s advice and the immediate reactions of the people around her. Once she has escaped that environment, she can think more clearly, and, as her ballad “Let it Go” demonstrates, she can reject her father’s ideals. During the song, she throws away her gloves, cloak, and tiara. The gloves and cloak, used physically to cover Elsa and repress her powers, symbolize the “conceal, don’t feel” mentality championed by Elsa’s father. By literally letting these objects go, Elsa obtains freedom from the physical, mental, and emotional constraints of her father’s ideology. Because parental ideologies are established as “normal,” by releasing these symbols Elsa is queering the established rules set forth by her parents. Elsa sings, “The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all,” further demonstrating her rejection of her father’s normative ideas.

Additionally, Elsa’s continual emphasis of the phrase “good girl” (in “Let it Go,” she sings, “That perfect girl is gone”) leaves room for a queering of Elsa’s gender identity. Though Elsa’s rejection of her father’s idea of “the good girl” could be a way of becoming a “bad girl,” this also could be read as a rejection of the idea of being a “girl” altogether. Elsa’s rejection of the ideology that was forced upon her from childhood opens many opportunities to queer her narrative.

As she sings, Elsa builds a beautiful ice palace. In contrast to the dark state of Arendelle, which Elsa froze while still under the influence of her father’s repressive ideology, the palace she builds while freeing herself is beautiful, showing what she can accomplish when free from the limitations others place upon her. Rebecca-Anne DoRozario argues that the tension between father and daughter in princess movies is typically resolved through courtship; however, in Frozen, it is resolved through Elsa accepting herself and Anna’s act of true love to save her at the film’s end. This rejection of heterosexual courtship, along with Elsa’s relationship with her parents, allows for Elsa’s character to be queered.

 

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ELSA AS A MONSTROSITY

The first words spoken by Elsa and Anna’s parents in the film are, “Elsa, what have you done?” From Frozen’s beginning, Elsa is set up as “the bad guy” by those around her. Even from that very first line, other characters in the story frame Elsa as evil. This idea becomes essential for a queer reading of the film. The outsider as a monster is a potent trope in queer readings and dates back to queer interpretations of the Disney film Beauty and the Beast. As Sean Griffin discusses in his book Tinker Belles and Fairy Queens, the Beast was often said to represent an AIDS victim, due to how he is misunderstood and constructed as a monster by those surrounding him. Griffin also describes how society teaches that queer individuals are “bad objects,” a concept crucial to understanding how Elsa’s construction as a monster can be read queerly (68).

In Frozen, Elsa’s character is made to be a monstrosity in several ways. When the troll leader is showing Elsa her future, he states that fear will be her enemy. This line could be taken to mean that Elsa’s fear is her own enemy, which is later demonstrated in the film through her powers becoming unmanageable when she gets upset. However, the image the troll leader actually displays is one of red figures attacking Elsa, not of her own fear damaging her. The fear of others is the most dangerous part of Elsa’s powers and not her own control of them and her emotions. This is a familiar queer narrative. Even though there is nothing inherently harmful or bad about queer sexualities (or sexuality in general), the reactions of others, especially those motivated by fear, can be potentially dangerous to queer individuals, and Elsa illustrates this struggle.

When Elsa’s power is first revealed to the public at the coronation ball, it is framed in a dangerous way. She shoots out spikes of ice around her, which could potentially harm those in the surrounding area. However, Elsa doesn’t actually harm anyone throughout the entire movie. She often threatens others with her powers, but it is always a form of self-protection. For example, when the Duke of Weselton’s men attack her, she shoves one of them against the wall with ice, a scene that, to those just entering the room, makes her appear to be the aggressor. However, Elsa’s behavior is motivated by self-defense against physical and emotional threat. Despite this, the immediate reactions to her powers are fear and anger, with the Duke calling her a monster immediately afterwards. These reactions then serve to foster more fear and anger in Elsa herself, which results in a negative cycle where only the dangerous parts of her powers are shown.

Negative reactions from others are, unfortunately, an intrinsic and painful part of the lives of queer individuals, and these reactions understandably create adverse feelings in the queer community. Expression of these feelings by the queer community only feeds more unfavorable ideas and stereotypes about queer individuals, increasing the antagonistic reaction to them, creating a cycle much like the one in which Elsa is trapped. This cycle is emphasized in a literal way when Elsa fashions a monster out of snow in order to protect herself from the emotional confrontation instigated by Anna. Elsa’s creation of a monster with her powers can serve as a direct analog for the anger and pain many queer individuals feel. And the fact that she used her powers, which can also be used for beauty and good, to make a monster can be read as queer.

Elsa’s construction as a monster is further realized in the film when Prince Hans (who has been against Elsa from the film’s onset), in response to seeing Elsa pinning a man up against the wall, calls out to her, “Don’t be the monster they fear you are!” His statement results in Elsa’s distraction, which is enough time for the pinned man to shoot the chandelier on the ceiling. The chandelier then falls and traps Elsa, ultimately allowing Prince Hans to imprison her. Hans’ comment not only allows the viewer to see how others in the film have constructed Elsa as a monster, it also causes Elsa to pause for a moment to ask: “Have I become a monster?” The idea of being called a negative thing so many times that one starts to become it is also a very queer narrative. Through different means of socialization—such as religion, school, the media, and family—many queer individuals are taught that non-heterosexual sexualities are somehow wrong, immoral, or sinful. Elsa’s sudden and forced reflection on whether her powers are monstrous is a painful reflection of a social reality many individuals face, and it further constructs her as a monstrosity. The fact that she has been told to conceal her powers as if they were a negative thing (despite her parents’ clear statement that she was not cursed but rather born with the magic) has made her internalize ideas about the inherent negativity of her so-called “curse,” as Elsa sings in “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”: “I can’t control the curse.” Because of the constant construction of Elsa as a monster by other characters in the film and her own internalized negativity, when she is confronted by Hans’ statement, she actually has to consider whether she is a monster, resulting in a moment painful for even non-queer viewers to experience.

However, Elsa, as one of the film’s two main protagonists, cannot remain constructed as a monster through the film’s end, and the dismantling of this construction is accomplished in an inherently queer way. After Elsa creates a giant snowstorm to free herself from captivity (another act of self-defense), the winds only stop after Hans falsely reports that Anna is dead because Elsa struck her in the heart with ice. Elsa is still constructed as a monster by Hans here, but the information is obviously false to the viewer, who now understands that Elsa cannot be the antagonist of the story. Hans’ lie constructs him (in the viewer’s eyes) as the monster and removes this burden from Elsa. Once he lies to Elsa about Anna’s death, the snowstorm stops entirely, and Elsa doesn’t even try to fight back when Hans draws his sword in preparation to kill her. Quite simply, Elsa has given up and doesn’t even have the will to repress her power anymore.

Elsa has become the victim of another’s construction of her, a plot point that is queer in its nature, as many queer people, especially queer youth, are either killed or take their own lives due to the false and highly damaging perceptions of others. Elsa has accepted her fate and is willing to die because she has internalized the idea of herself as a monster, making her a tragic hero that is willing to punish herself with death for a crime she didn’t actually commit. Elsa’s acceptance entirely reverses her construction as a monster for both the audience and for Anna, who steps in at the last moment to save her sister, thus sacrificing herself. This “act of true love” serves as the turning point that allows Elsa to see clearly and bring back summer in Arendelle, and it shows how Hans and the Duke of Weselton, not Elsa, are the real monsters of the story.

 

DUALITY AND FANTASY WORLDS IN FROZEN

Frozen’s opening scene has the viewer looking out into the world from underwater. From this moment on, the idea of “inside” and “outside” worlds is repeatedly demonstrated in the film. As Ryan and Hermann-Wilmarth discuss, queer identity as shown through queer readings of popular texts is often about “creating a queered hybrid world,” where aspects of traditional society and queer society can coexist (154). A good example of this is Laura Sells’ discussion of The Little Mermaid. Sells says, “In this dualistic and hierarchical construction, the human world can be aligned with the white male system and the water world situated outside [the patriarchy]” (177). Rather than existing underwater and on land as in The Little Mermaid, these two worlds exist in the case of Frozen as the so-called “magic” and “reality” worlds that are constructed around Elsa and her powers, with reality representing the hetero-patriarchy and magic becoming representative of anyone outside the “norm.”

This division of worlds manifests in a concrete way when Elsa is locked in her room and, in a larger sense, when both sisters are locked in the palace. Anna has the entire palace to roam, but she longs for both the outside world (representative of reality) and entrance to Elsa’s room (the mini-world that has been created around Elsa to maintain her powers). Elsa is trapped in a small world inundated with her magic, and despite how she may long to enter the reality of “normal” society, she must remain where her parents and society have placed her, supposedly for the good of both Elsa and those around her. Even once the gates to the palace are opened and Elsa must come out of her room, she has a clear conflict between her desires and what she believes is necessary. In response to Anna’s probing about why the gates can’t be open all the time, Elsa merely responds, “[They] just can’t,” never providing a clearer explanation. Here, the viewer can distinctly see how Elsa is seeking to combine her real and magical worlds. She enjoys being in the “reality” world of the castle with open gates; however, she believes the only place she can exist is in her room, the “magical” world of ice that has been built around her, teaching her to feel shame about her powers.

When Elsa escapes to the North Mountain later in the film, she literally creates her own world, a palace made of ice. This castle, in contrast to the one in Arendelle, is made from and by her ice powers, creating another “magic” world that she uses to escape the pressures of the hetero-patriarchy. However, Elsa cannot exist in an isolated state and is confronted again with reality when Anna comes looking for her. In “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise),” Elsa pleads with Anna, trying to convince her to return to Arendelle. Elsa sings, “You mean well, but leave me be/Yes, I’m alone but I’m alone and free/Just stay away and you’ll be safe from me.” The song demonstrates both Elsa’s desire for a world of her own and her recognition of the problems of living an isolated life. Though she wants to have a meaningful relationship with Anna, she still maintains that her loneliness is justified because she is free to use her powers as she wishes, without harming anyone else or being harmed by society. The solution to this problem would be the combination of Elsa’s reality and magic worlds, resulting in a place where she can have love and acceptance but also feel free to express her identity without judgment or anger from those around her.

The film goes on, however, to reveal that Elsa isn’t yet ready to gain her power within Anna’s system (the very system that oppressed her), and the sudden confrontation between the real and magical worlds is distressing, resulting in her shooting Anna in the heart with ice. The conflict between reality and magic is also demonstrated when Elsa’s confrontation with Anna during the ball escalates, culminating in Anna pulling off Elsa’s glove. Anna here functions as a clear representative of the “real” world where people function properly in society through conventions like heterosexual marriage, making this literal “outing” of Elsa’s hand, the vehicle of her powers, even more dramatic. The removal of Elsa’s glove creates the tension that causes her to shoot ice spikes in a circle around her, further revealing her powers to everyone. Being “outed” creates the turning point where Elsa can no longer pass as non-magical (or straight) and so is no longer safe inside the hetero-patriarchy. Her various outbursts show the tension between reality and the magic world Elsa constructs (or has constructed around her), demonstrating a queer narrative where rejection from mainstream society necessitates the building of one’s own external fantasy world.

By the end of the film, Elsa’s magic and real worlds have finally become one. She resides in the Arendelle palace, where the gates have opened, rejecting the isolation that characterized earlier moments in the movie. Additionally, Elsa’s powers are widely known and, as far as the audience sees, widely accepted. Anna’s role as the vehicle of “reality” has also diminished, with the notion of marriage (earlier shown to create the tension that facilitated Elsa’s outburst) abandoned. Additionally, Anna is talked into skating on the ice that Elsa created. Even Olaf, a snowman brought to life by Elsa, has a place in Arendelle. Though summer, and thus normality, has been restored, Elsa creates a snow cloud to follow Olaf around, ensuring he doesn’t melt. These examples of the magic and real worlds blending together demonstrate the perfect conclusion of a queer narrative: the comforts of mainstream society intertwined with the magical aspects that have served as the vehicle for Elsa’s queerness throughout the film.

Sells writes that in The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s ascent into the human world is “sanitized” by Disney, changing her desire for knowledge and power with desire for love (180). In this way, Ariel is stripped of her autonomy, and the film sends the message that she has succeeded within the white patriarchy by mutilating her body and losing her voice. However, Frozen eschews this sanitization. Elsa’s desire to be accepted for who she is isn’t diluted by a love interest. She wants acceptance from her friends, subjects, and family, particularly Anna. Elsa’s achievement of this goal on her own terms sends a dramatically different message than The Little Mermaid. Rather than succeeding within the realm of heteronormativity, Elsa queers the system and makes her individuality an inherent part of Arendelle. She isn’t content with living outside society, but she also isn’t content with giving up a part of herself to live in it, as Ariel does. To resolve this, she combines the two worlds, creating an ideal fantasy for many queer individuals—a world where they can live a “normal” life but also have their queerness be visible and accepted.

 

CONCLUSION

Frozen is important to read queerly because of its high visibility and popularity, in addition to its unique plot devices and subversion of many norms of its genre. Queer readings such as this one, particularly of popular Disney films and children’s films, serve an important cultural role. They generate important conversations, as they illuminate identities and ideas that are often obscured by mainstream media. Everyone deserves to see their identity represented in their media, and children’s media in particular are lacking in positive portrayal of queer characters. Though queer readings of texts such as this one are a strong beginning, they cannot be the end. Representations of openly queer characters in children’s media need to exist as role models and guides for children struggling with their identities in a world that is often uninviting and intimidating. But for now, Frozen fans of all ages can look to Elsa and see something beyond a side character or a one-dimensional stereotype. Elsa is a queen: powerful, beautiful, and queer.

 

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A note from the author

The first time I saw Frozen, I was unprepared for the effect it would have on me. I went into the theatre disillusioned by all the hype surrounding the movie and the music in it, expecting to be disappointed when it couldn’t live up to the enthused reviews of all my friends. I wasn’t. As a queer woman, I was hit hard by all of the themes in Frozen and their potential to be read as parallel to the struggle of queer individuals (especially queer youth) in society today. I couldn’t stop singing the soundtrack for weeks, blasting Elsa’s power ballad, “Let it Go,” at every conceivable opportunity. For a brief time, Frozen became an essential part of my self-image; I was Elsa, concealing powers to protect myself from the fear of others, and the world around me was Arendelle, beautiful but confining.

When I had the opportunity to choose a topic for the final research paper in my WRIT 1633 class focused on fans and fan culture, Frozen immediately sprang to mind. As I began my research, the paper evolved from a discussion of Frozen’s fans to a discussion of the movie itself. This paper explores the many themes in Frozen that can be connected to the queer community and sheds light on some of the common queer narratives. In my analysis, I consider the appeal of Frozen as a queer film and the importance of media to queer audiences, especially queer youth. Delving into different strategies for constructing queer readings of Disney stories and other fairy tales has been extraordinarily rewarding, both academically and personally. I hope this paper opens up a dialogue for queer readings to be viewed as an important and necessary part of our culture, and paves the way for queer readings of other children’s texts to become acceptable in academia.  

About the author

Wilson BioKade is a sophomore at the University of Denver majoring in German and English with a concentration in literary studies. She spends her time as a member of DU’s Queer Student Alliance, Diversity Committee, and Mock Trial team. She also laughs hysterically over cat videos or funny Buzzfeed posts with her roommate of two years. Kade grew up in Aurora, Colorado, with her parents, brother, and feline best friend.

 

 

Works cited

Dhaenens, Frederik, Sofie Van Bauwel, and Daniel Biltereyst. “Slashing the Fiction of Queer Theory: Slash Fiction, Queer Reading, and Transgressing the Boundaries of Screen Studies, Representations, and Audiences.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 32.4 (2008): 335–347. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

DoRozario, Rebecca-Anne C. “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, the Function of the Disney Princess.” Women’s Studies in Communication 27.1 (2004): 34–59. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Frozen. Dir. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013.

Griffin, Sean. Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. New York and London: New York UP, 2000. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Ryan, Caitlin L., and Jill Hermann-Wilmarth. “Already on the Shelf: Queer Readings of Award-Winning Children’s Literature.” Journal of Literacy Research 45.2 (2013): 142–172. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Sells, Laura. “‘Where Do the Mermaids Stand?’: Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid.” In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Eds. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 175–92.