Jeanna Kadlec | Longreads | December 2019 | 10 minutes (3,028 words)
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Frozen came out the year I came out. The film was released in November 2013, one month after I’d sat in a courtroom, a newly out, 25-year-old lesbian finalizing my divorce from my fundamentalist Christian ex-husband. I went to see Frozen its opening weekend and listened to a newly crowned Disney queen with hidden magical powers accidentally out herself after a lifetime of repression (“Couldn’t keep it in, Heaven knows I’ve tried”). Elsa sang “Let It Go” on an icy mountaintop, and my baby gay self sobbed my heart out, sitting alone in a dark theater, at what was obviously a coming-out anthem. I had let go of so many things: my marriage, my faith, a complicated friendship with the woman I was in love with. “Here I stand, in the light of day — let the storm rage on” was a prayer and a promise to myself, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to commit to my own healing no matter what anyone in my life thought.
It’s been six years, which in both gay time and Disney time is a lifetime. Frozen has become its own billion-dollar industry within the Disney empire, in no small part because it did away with focusing on traditional romance in favor of the sibling relationship between Elsa and her younger sister, Anna: the heir and the spare of the obviously Scandinavian-inspired kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa has been marketed as a feminist princess who “doesn’t care about romance and is focusing on herself!” But adult audiences see her for what she obviously is. Repressed powers often function as queer allegory (see: the X-Men and numerous other superheroes; comic book scholar Ramzi Fawaz has argued that mainstream superhero comics of the 1960s and ’70s, themselves outcasts, responded to and expanded on the social justice movements of the era). Critics and viewers alike interpreted Elsa as gay from the start, which doesn’t seem to have been Disney’s intention — and, based on the sequel, one they are not particularly pleased about.
Audiences anticipated that Disney’s intentions around Elsa’s sexuality would be clarified in Frozen II. Exciting as the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign was, the more cynical among us did not expect it to actually happen and were unsurprised that it didn’t. The sequel illuminated and confirmed a number of issues, among them a range of already-existing problems within the Disney canon when it comes to the representation of people of color and Indigenous populations, along with a particular desire to have your cake and eat it, too, when it comes to attempting to right the wrongs of colonialism. But what particularly stood out was how uniquely committed Frozen II was to continuing Disney’s overarching project they have taken on with every princess film since their co-production with Pixar, Brave: the relocation of anxiety around women’s agency from romantic relationships to the stability of the nation-state. How much does women’s independence, agency, or bodily autonomy support or threaten the state? This is the project that every Disney Princess movie of the past 10 years has engaged in.
Probably one of the most successful aspects of recent Disney princess films is that audiences often forget that the princesses are, in fact, princesses: Critics of the genre can get caught up with the term as it applies conceptually to a pastel-pink childhood femininity and anti-feminist subjugation. Merida, Moana, and Elsa and Anna are all, in fact, the daughters of kings and chiefs, born and bred heirs to their collective thrones, and the films focus on watching these women train for a seamless transfer of monarchical power.
Disney films are obsessed with power and who wields it, and Frozen is no exception — which is why so many of us fully lost our minds at the obvious queer undertones of Elsa’s story. But the company’s lackluster response to the outcry around Elsa’s queerness and the release of the sequel indicate that Disney has anxieties around not only queer heroines but women in power. They will represent women leaders, but only when they are bracketed a particular way. Did they understand what they were doing when they created Elsa, whose obvious queerness cannot, at this point, be taken back? Maybe some folks working on the film did (see: shop owner Oaken’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it very gay family), but it seems to have eclipsed the higher-ups, who have taken pains in the years since to erase queerness from other Disney-owned properties — even canonically queer characters like Valkyrie in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok (played by bisexual actor Tessa Thompson, who put Disney-owned Marvel on blast for cutting the one scene that would have confirmed her character’s bisexuality).
So, yes, it matters that Elsa is gay — or interpreted as gay — because that is unwieldy. Her powers, too, make her unwieldy — too much a target, too dangerous, too suspect. Too much, you could say, and, in fact, Grandpapi, the film’s troll elder, says exactly that.
Recent Disney (and Disney/Pixar) movies have moved away from focusing on marriage (learning from the misstep that was the anti-marriage plot in Brave, which ultimately lacked bite); rather, they eschew romance almost entirely and focus on girls stepping into their own power. But for princesses like Elsa — and Moana after — this means literally stepping into power. They are the uncontested heirs to the throne in their respective monarchies. Finally learning from decades of feminist criticism (but unwilling to, say, give Elsa a girlfriend), Disney puts romance on the backburner, only to thrust the heroines into epic stories that conflate their bodily autonomy with the survival of their respective nation-states. Elsa’s father, Moana’s father, and even Merida’s father treat their daughters a lot differently than, say, Aurora’s, Ariel’s, or Pocahontas’s — other heroines born into royal families who would, perhaps, inherit the throne. Perhaps it’s feminism; perhaps it’s kingdom-making, queen-making. When Moana’s father, for example, takes her to the top of the mountain to place their stones, it harkens back to The Lion King, and Mufasa telling Simba All this will be yours. Who gets power, and why?
The idea that Disney princesses could ever be politically progressive while simultaneously affirming their rule in absolute monarchies is, itself, wildly fraught. American audiences might be awed at the idea of a woman in power (any woman in power), but it is important to remember that, compared to numerous other nations, we are unique for never having had a woman head of state, democratically elected or otherwise. But Frozen introduces a compelling complication to the traditional journey of a Disney heroine with the fact that Elsa is not just a princess waiting in the wings — she’s queen.
Traditionally speaking, Elsa has all the markings of a Disney villain: she’s an isolationist with magical powers. Think Ursula, think Maleficent, think Jafar; think, incidentally, a good number of the villains who are coded as queer. (Ursula was modeled on drag queen Divine, and Jafar’s British accent, effeminate mannerisms, and, of course, magic read as queer stereotypes.) Think, quite literally, the Evil Queen from Snow White, who does, in fact, also have state power. Where Elsa differs from the villains is that she is not thirsty for power; her assumption of state power is an obligation, and, notably, she is secure in that power — she feels no threat from her sister, as the Evil Queen did of Snow White.
And this is interesting: That an isolationist who is presented as having virtually no human contact would still be assured of the security of their power over the realm. This kind of monarchy is, truly, absolute, in the most medieval sense of the word. The first film knew that it had to reckon with this obvious parallel, which is why part of the project of Frozen is also redefining monstrosity, redefining the (queer) “other” as not monstrous. Women who are too much, whose traditions and powers exceed the explanation of science, are historically witches — monsters, even. Elsa is explicitly called a monster by the Duke of Weaseltown after she accidentally reveals her powers at her Coronation Ball.
This is recognizably queer anxiety; that the body will reveal itself at the most inopportune of times, in the least safe of environments. That she is a pretty monster, in this world, means little; once her powers are recognized, hundreds of people recoil from her in fear, with some giving chase to try to catch her. You have only to look at the history of violence against LGBTQ+ folks — and the current epidemic of murders of trans women of color — to see how pressing and prescient anxiety around the body (e.g., “getting clocked”) is. Isolation is safer; ironically, isolation also breeds fear. After her outing, Elsa flees to the North Mountain, where she sings “Let It Go”; the mountain is her own island, and she is the Circe of it all.
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However, this is the irony: that Elsa is both the most monstrous, unruly (queer) body in all the realm, while simultaneously being the queen of it all. That this is the body of the monarch also means it’s the body of the state that is at risk. It is, remember, Elsa’s coronation in Frozen that is the site of crisis. And yet, even with the film’s (soon to be dispatched) villain attempting a coup, her throne is not destabilized by the entire ordeal and her rule is, seemingly, unquestioned. The stability of the state remains intact, while presenting the idea that the state can indeed be governed by the kind of unruly woman that institutions historically have sought to suppress. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Taken as a whole, Elsa’s pursuit of truth is presented as the kind of rare (queer, feminist) hero’s journey that reclaims “monstrous” bodies beyond the margins.
But the body has a lineage, and the royal body, especially — the body that represents the continuation of the state, of the status quo — must have an explanation. Disney, of course, prefers its explanations to come from biology, rather than from independent sources. A woman alone cannot decide meaning in Disney films, and one of the great illusions of the magic-making corporation is its presentation of stories about the reification of tradition under an umbrella story arc of young princesses “discovering” themselves. (See: Moana learning that her people were voyagers.) If Frozen turned on the question of who are you, Frozen II turns on the question of, where do you belong, suggesting that where do you come from is essential to understanding the former.
It turns out that the royal sisters are descended from a line of colonizing bigots. (Unsurprising, you might say, if we take the history of the real world rather than the fantastical one.) The plot twist is that it’s not Elsa’s magical (queer) body that has put the nation-state at risk, as the film’s opening — and, indeed, the first Frozen — would have us believe; what is currently occurring in Arendelle is a result of her magic-hating grandfather’s attempt to colonize the magic-honoring indigenous people of the Enchanted Forest. Suddenly, the concern with generational legacy and stability of the nation-state is also concerned with colonization, reparations — and, potentially, a half-Indigenous queen? (Given the critiques of the Frozen franchise as overbearingly white, the sudden, plot-hole ridden, very afterthought-ish introduction of an Indigenous heritage to Anna and Elsa is … a lot.)
The villain of Frozen II is not located in one specific body but rather in the ephemeral spectre of the girls’ own ancestral legacy of colonialism, and Disney is ultimately unwilling to fully lean into the implications of that legacy. This guts the progressive message of reparations the film seems to have been aiming at, and there are other implications as well (they had a grandfather who hated magic, then ended up with a magical granddaughter on the throne; the LGBTQ+ parallels really aren’t subtle).
However, Frozen II also leaves Elsa’s simultaneous search for the source of her magic riddled with the baggage of the decidedly not queer, and in fact distinctly heteronormative, “biology is destiny” undertones. Elsa’s powers are represented as a reward for her (Indigenous) mother saving her (royal, Arendellian) father long ago, during her bigoted grandfather’s attempt at colonization. “You were a gift,” Anna interprets for the audience, for the fact that their mother saved her enemy’s life. Elsa being born with her powers (not cursed) in the first film felt like a callback to a “born this way” queer ideology; is fate a gift?
Breaking generational curses continues to emerge as a Disney theme in both Frozen and Moana, where women’s bodies are represented as being vital to the nation-state in part due to their ability to reconnect with nature, with the recovery of the lost (feminine) maternal lineage. With the climate crisis looming, I’m all about returning to nature. I am, however, uncomfortable with the cis-centrism of how the maternal is represented in these films, of the stark gender constructs and especially, in Frozen II, how Elsa, whose magic proves essential to the survival and recovery of both the Indigenous people of the Enchanted Forest and the people of Arendelle, abdicates as queen.
Having experienced a magical transformation into a spirit-like being and having been invited to stay among the Northuldra, Elsa chooses to abdicate her throne and stay up north — the Jon Snow comparisons simply cannot be overstated. Queer Twitter, of course, noticed that all it took was one woman her age, Honeymaren, saying “Your place is here” for Elsa to be like Peace out, y’all, nice being queen but I’m gonna stay up here and ride horses with my girlfriend now! Anna takes the throne of Arendelle as queen and — now engaged — returns south with Kristoff to rule. Anna and Elsa meet up every Friday for charades. Domestic bliss.
Part of me says: yes. Leave, go off with your new girlfriend Honeymaren, ride horses on the river. Leave, and never come back, except to see your sister: This is, actually, the life I’ve lived for years. What is there for you, once you know who you truly are? What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6). As a lesbian, I, of course, want to see Elsa define herself for herself; I want to see the kind of heroine whose example conjures up the words of Audre Lorde: If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
But this is Disney, which means that the ending is ultimately about the preservation of the (rightful rulers of the) nation-state, and for that to happen, we need a stable, obedient body — at the very least, one that doesn’t hear voices, shoot ice out of its hands, and have no interest in procreation. A cisgender, heterosexual body. Enter: Anna, the younger sister whom Elsa has no problem giving her throne to. Anna is royal, perfectly in the line of succession, and very much about to marry a man.
Frozen II does, see, end with a happy (heterosexual) ever after.
Does it matter if, in the end, Disney tells us that Elsa has a girlfriend, or if we all just know that she and Honeymaren are off riding horses into the sunset? This is the tip of the sword on which the question rests: At what point does representation become assimilation? When it comes to the kind of behemoth nation-state corporation like Disney, it is extremely telling that they have lagged behind on the representation of every marginalized group, that they still struggle to get even the most basic things right (like, for example, not retroactively giving white characters a Native lineage!). There’s a reason, of course, for all of this, and it’s often because, even as diverse as marginalized groups are, Disney stories are, generally, about the preservation of tradition, of the status quo. Disney stories, generally, protect the “good” people who are in power; the “villains” are the disruptive ones, those who are chaotic or power hungry, who seek to upend the way of things. Where is there space for folks on the margins? There is no revolution here, and expecting it from Disney is a fool’s game.
There is one moment on the subject of Elsa’s canonical perception of her own history that is telling. Elsa sees a vivid, life-size memory of herself singing “Let It Go,” arms outstretched; Frozen II has a number of callbacks to the first film, and this is one of them. But in response to witnessing her first moments of total freedom, she flinches in embarrassment.
She flinches, and the audience I watched with laughed.
It felt like I’d been hit in the chest.
A moment beloved by queer audiences, and fundamentally interpreted as queer, got played for laughs. No, this wasn’t important to her. No, this didn’t count. No, you didn’t see what you thought you saw.
This is the Disney of it all. Disney princesses ultimately operate in service of the empire, their adventures limited in scope to some kind of moral restoration of tradition. Elsa is, on the other hand, wildly powerful, her sense of purpose exceeding the bounds of the story — the most magically powerful Disney heroine ever created, with her powers seeming to even outstrip some of the most famous villains. And I love her for this; I love everything she means to LGBTQ+ audiences. I have a deep investment in queer joy, in seeing myself and my community on-screen, in seeing many versions of ourselves, in fact; in indie media, indie film, and even the occasional reboot of an early 2000s TV show, and even in Disney films, even in spaces where they so obviously don’t want us but where we emerge anyway — because this is real life and when you commit to telling a real story, there will be queer people in it. Elsa might be too much for Disney: too powerful, too traumatized, too independent, too gay. That’s all right. She can sit with the queers anytime.
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Jeanna Kadlec is a culture writer living in NYC. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, O the Oprah Magazine, LitHub, NYLON, Allure, and more.
Editor: Carolyn Wells