It is February 14th, Valentines Day. So, today I want to explore my daughter’s love affair with Frozen; a story that I did not like, but that I learned to love by watching it through her eyes. A story which through her eyes, has taught me a lot about how to stay and be un-frozen.
I did not understand the phenomenon that was Disney’s Frozen in 2013. I did not like film’s premier song Let it Go, which you could hear e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. The film wasn’t even about Elsa; the queen with magical powers who sings this song while reveling in the new-found freedom of her isolation. It’s about Elsa’s sister, Anna, and her quest to find Elsa. So really, I thought, the song was misleading. I also didn’t like the ‘loveable Olaf;’ and while switching up the “true love’s kiss” narrative was a positive change for Disney (Anna saves herself and Elsa with her love, instead of that of a man), I just didn’t get the widespread appeal.
I have since seen the film, heard the story, acted out the story, and sang its songs more times than I can count. Mostly, because now, I have a little girl. Hazel is four years old; and she is obsessed with Elsa and Anna and all things Frozen. Admittedly, her obsession is fueled by Disney’s prolific marketing campaign around these characters. But it is also something more than this; and I found something more too. Frozen is surprisingly deep. It is an extended metaphor for the frozenness of separation, the strength of power when used for alienation, and the need to temper power with love. Anna’s quest to find Elsa now seems a perfect subject for the film to me: it centralizes reclaiming relationship over our cultural obsession with super-power.
When Frozen 2 came out this past fall, I was more than a little excited, though not nearly as excited as Hazel. And the film did not disappoint. In fact, I have found myself dwelling on its messages lately in light of the illness, fear, environmental devastation, and growing fascism recorded every day in the news.
Frozen 2 takes place in the Autumn, and all of the characters are getting a little bit older, anticipating and fearing the change that must inevitably come. Elsa still seems doubtful of her role, hearing an audible voice calling her towards something more. And Anna is obsessed with keeping her sister near, an insecurity which speaks to the lasting effects of her isolation and abandonment, depicted in the previous film. Addressing another kind of “frozenness,” that of sameness or staticity, the family (Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf) sets off on a quest to free a magical forest locked away from the rest of the world by angry elemental spirits. Violence and betrayal lead to the literal separation of this place, and alienation from nature.
There are lots of interesting themes in this movie; but I will explore two here that have been on my mind, teaching me about my daughter and myself.
“Show yourself. Step into your Power. Grow yourself into something new.”
Elsa sings these lines as she realizes who has been calling her and embraces all of who she is.
I was raised in a home where I was frequently set up to fail. Cleaning was considered a very important job. It related strongly to safety. I remember once after my siblings and I cleaned the living room, my father took a knife and started pulling up dust and other small objects that had been caught between the wide-set wooden floorboards and piling them onto the ground. It was something we had missed. There was always something we had missed—it did not matter whether we were given the tools to finish the work assigned or adequate instructions. And so, I learned to doubt my ability, my power.
Oppression in society is also like this. It tells us: doubt that you can, because you can’t. If we believe that we can’t, then we won’t try to change anything—we can stay frozen, alienated, separated and so, so powerless too. Trump’s recent “acquittal,” said the same thing: it doesn’t matter what you do, because we have the power and you don’t, and we’re going to make sure it stays that way. These messages are disheartening, and overwhelming, compounded as they are by abuse heaping upon abuse each and every day.
But Elsa’s (or Idina Menzel and Evan Rachel Wood’s) song echoes in my head. Hazel sings along: “step into your power,” and it lightens my heart.
Watching Hazel “play Elsa,” I was concerned at first because she rushed around the house “freezing” everything and everyone. She would make an angry face, put her arms out and “freeze” me, or daddy, or her stuffies, or whatever. I thought, perhaps, the emotional themes of these films were too deep for her. And indeed, her father and I did talk to her about how Anna’s “love magic” was important for Elsa to learn to use her power. But I also realized something else: Hazel is expressing anger. She can express anger, something I was not taught to do. And access to this anger, encouraged by a cartoon, will help her access all of her power. She can know herself and grow something new.
The flip side of Elsa claiming her power, though, was change; and with change came grief. This brings me to the second ‘message’ I want to address: Anna grieves deeply in the film through song.
I have seen sadness expressed before in cartoons. My earliest (cartoon) memory of grief was hearing the shots and silence afterwards when Bambi’s mother was killed. I remember being confused and then sad. I remember before my grandfather died that he waited for my twin and me to see him. We came in Easter hats to the hospital for hugs and kisses, and then he was gone. My mother was furious that my grandmother took us to the funeral, so we were sent home. When my grandmother passed, I was just finishing college. I could not afford to attend the funeral, so my mother brought me a rose from her graveside. Then my grandmother was gone.
I frequently feel that my culture has forgotten how to grieve. I certainly don’t know how, though councilors have helped me through the process years after certain events and people have come and gone. But within this film, this children’s “princess” movie, we see a paradigm for grief and moving on.
Anna (Kristin Bell) sings, “I’ve seen dark before, but not like this/ This is cold, this is empty, this is numb… This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down/ but a tiny voice whispers in my mind/ You are lost, hope is gone/ But you must go on/ And do the next right thing.”
Hazel has asked me many, many times what Anna means when she says, “grief has a gravity, it pulls [you] down.” I talk to my daughter about strong sad feelings and how they feel like a weight. Maybe one day this will help her to understand why, Mommy, who struggles with depression, sometimes gets sad. Maybe this will help her to understand and feel her own feelings. Or maybe, it will simply create an early memory of grief where it is spoken instead of silent. I don’t know. But for my part, I am reminded to “do the next right thing.”
“Gustavo Gutiérrez insists that pessimism comes from reality because reality is tragic, while optimism comes from action because only action can change reality” (Miguel De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, 2014). This is a powerful message that I am holding onto today.
I cannot and do not uncritically find inspiration in the two Frozen films. They are Disney productions, and Disney is a company whose abuses are tremendous and numerous. Living in close relationship to abuse, though, as I have argued before, we should pay attention to opportunities for refraction.
Haze’s love, of stories, of her family, of me, her mommy, helps me to refract and is always teaching me something new. Happy Valentines Day.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.