On Christmas, in lieu of buying everyone presents to set aside and forget about by next week, my husband and I took the whole family to see a movie. We chose Disney’s “Frozen,” as we thought it would appeal to everyone from children to grandparents. Of course, on the level of pure entertainment, it delivered as expected. We all had a great time. What I didn’t expect (especially given the negative reviews I’d seen from “Snow Queen” purists) was how powerfully it would resonate.
If you have not seen this movie, please stop reading now. There will be spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. If you don’t care or have seen it, read on.
The movie is not your typical Princess Film.* It’s about sisters Anna and Elsa and their complex relationship. From the beginning, we know that Elsa possesses a powerful magical gift–she can create snow and turn things to ice. Anna is delightfully accepting of this part of her sister, to the point of asking her sister to entertain them both with her skills. What sets off the story is Elsa’s inadvertent injury to her sister with her powers. Their parents, fearing for everyone’s safety, seek help erasing Anna’s knowledge of Elsa’s gift and then attempt to control and suppress Elsa herself.
Through a series of events, Elsa’s secret is discovered. Interestingly, it isn’t the people of her town who are angry and upset–it’s the visitors who were present for her coronation. Elsa flees, taking refuge in a high mountain and creating her own beautiful castle made of ice. It’s true that she has left destruction in her wake, but none of that was intentional. In fact, until Anna finds her and tells her what happened, she has no idea that she left her town in perpetual winter.
I admit, I was afraid that several things would happen. First, I thought she might become the Evil Villain. Second, I fully expected it to be Elsa’s own subjects who demanded her death for her “sorcery.” Third, even if she ended up redeemed in the end, I worried that she would return to being the “good girl” she was presumed to be prior to her magical explosion. None of that happened.
Anna knows she’s not evil and sets out after her. The only person who tries to stop her is Hans, Anna’s love interest (who turns out to be a complete jerk; yay me for figuring that out by the time they finished their duet). There does seem to be a mild ripple of apprehension, but the people trust Anna’s judgment. She’s correct–though Elsa refuses her sister’s help (and accidentally hurts her a second time), she is never evil. Her fight scene involves self-preservation rather than intent to harm.
At no point is anyone interested in destroying Elsa other than Hans (evil jerkface). The people of the kingdom are remarkably accepting. When all is said and done, they still welcome her as their queen. Similarly, they never expect her to hide her gift or be anyone other than herself. She uses her powers to bless her people and make things beautiful. She doesn’t return to presenting the controlled persona from the beginning of the movie.
The side plot involves Anna’s second injury at her sister’s hands. Elsa hits her in the heart with ice, and the only thing that will spare her from turning completely to ice is an act of selfless love. I particularly appreciated the subversion of the True Love’s Kiss trope. Everyone assumes that this is how Anna will be spared. When Hans turns out to be an Evil Meanie, Anna assumes it’s Kristoff (who helped her reach the mountain top) who must kiss her. Instead, it’s her own act of courage to save her sister from Hans which frees her. Through that, Elsa learns that she has the power to wield her magic responsibly with love.
I could not love this movie more.
By the time the girls had grown into young women and lost their parents to a storm at sea, I was taken by the blatant metaphor for feminine sexuality found in Elsa’s magical powers. (For another great take on this, please read this, which suggests that it is not only sexuality but queer sexuality. As that is not my story to tell–and as I feel the movie can resonate equally with straight people–I’m not going to focus on that aspect.) For me, where it hit me hardest was in regard to how deeply ingrained it is in the collective consciousness of the church to teach parents to do this to our children.
I found it interesting that the parents did not arrive at this conclusion themselves. They had help, in the form of trolls (could there be a better metaphor for interfering church people?). Well-meaning parents persistently listen to religious authority figures who assure them that good parenting means directing their children to grow up “godly” (read: obedient, pure, and believing all the same things the parents do). This often involves subverting their children’s sense of self. The intent of the religious figures is usually not to do harm but to protect the families in their care. Unfortunately, the way this often plays out is unhealthy and damaging.
When Elsa sings about hiding herself, about not feeling in order to suppress her gift, her sorrow and shame are evident. How many of us have felt exactly like that–as though when we feel, there is something deeply, deeply broken inside us? How many of us have been taught that our sexuality (and other feelings, too) are a destructive force in and of themselves? We–especially girls and young women–learn that we must control ourselves or we will harm everyone we love.
Interestingly, I think that the same sense of shame and suppression is forced upon young men in church culture. It is different, but I saw similarities in how Elsa learned that if she used her powers, she would cause harm. As much as women are taught that we will cause sin in our brothers, young men learn that expression of their sexuality means being uncontrollable beasts. Through the shaming tactics used on our young people, the church unintentionally causes the collateral damage from bottled sexual expression.**
It struck me, as a person who spent the better part of five years deconstructing my faith before coming out whole on the other side, how much of ourselves we repress in order to fit into the expectations of church culture. We’re taught to “die to ourselves,” “empty ourselves,” and be “self-controlled” in order that God would fill us and use us. We take Paul’s poetic words as new Commandments to be read literally and obeyed. Yet nowhere in the Bible do I ever see people actually doing this in the way we’re taught at church. Church cultural norms are touted as “biblical” values, and we must conform to them or be disciplined (either literally or figuratively) within the church community.
For me, the most beautiful and powerful part of the movie is at the end, when Elsa is accepted and loved for all that she is. Her powers, combined with love (and not merely romantic love–love for humanity, for her kingdom, for her sister), are even more amazing. She doesn’t have to control herself; the love in her heart prevents her from harming others.
If only we learned the same lesson. Instead of perpetuating the myth that what is inside us is inherently harmful and a force to be controlled, what if we taught people how to love better? We could stop fixating on the details of people’s lives and sexualities and instead focus on respect, care, compassion, and kindness. We could stop telling people to “empty themselves” to be filled with our particular version of “biblical values.” We could fully embrace and love every person as being who they were meant to be.
If you haven’t seen this movie, I hope you get the chance. If you’ve seen it already, I hope you see in it some things you may not have considered before. As for me, I hope that Disney continues on this path. I have no doubt that we will be seeing more in the way of complex characters and themes.
*We can still have conversations about the cringe-worthy aspects of Disney films, such as eyes that are actually bigger than waistlines or the continued use of rich, white young women as main characters. I’m not willing to engage over the “let’s not call it a girl movie by not naming it after the main girl character.” That’s a foolish argument, given that movies aimed at boys or general audiences rarely use the main characters’ names as titles. As for the rest, well, let’s go one step at a time.
**I know there are people who do not believe that there are unhealthy expressions of sexuality. I am not one of them. But I don’t limit healthy expression to one man + one woman + marriage license = only healthy context, and I don’t limit healthy expression to vanilla in the bedroom. It’s far more complex than simple math and rules. I do believe that there are unhealthy expressions of sexuality, and they can be brought on by suppressing what is naturally a part of ourselves–particularly when we are shamed into stuffing everything down.