Staying Un-Frozen by Sara Frykenberg


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.

Sara and Herb as Anna and Kristoff

My husband and I on Halloween this past year as Anna and Kristoff (Hazel was predictably, Elsa)

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.



Categories: Children, Fiction, Film, Gender and Power, General, parenting, Popular Culture

Tags: , , , ,

16 replies

  1. great post. Have not seen the films, but as you describe them, there is not only a female hero but also a centering of a female’s love for another femaie–something even more rare!

    and ah Bambi’s mother–I remember being even more upset that Bambi’s father did not step in to take care of him. my mother explained that this doesn’t happen in deer families, but I was sooooo upset!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would be interested to hear your thoughts if you do ever see the films Carol. I do like the move that some Disney movies are making away from just ‘woman finds man, gets saved by man.’ “Brave,” was like that too: a story about mothers and daughters. … I wrestle though with the ‘feminism,’ vs. ‘popular feminism,’ line that these movies are walking.

      That said, as I write here, I was profoundly touched by Frozen 2 in particular. Some of the themes reached right into my heart.

      I’m an agnostic, and my husband an atheist; so we are trying to raise our daughter with awareness of different ideas, but no pressure. I don’t remember how it came up, but I think we were talking about how some people believe in God, and some believe in x, y or z, and my husband asked Hazel: “What do you believe?”
      And she said: “I believe in Elsa.” To which my husband replied, “I love that.” … And I have been really, really thinking about this and what it means for her….

      Anyways–
      Thank you for your reply, and my best to you,
      Sara

      Like

  2. Without my 2 1/2 yr old granddaughter even having seen the movies, the merchandising, as you mention, is all that was needed to initiate her into the fold of Frozen frenzy.
    I haven’t seen the movies either, so a heartfelt thank you for spurring me to move from a mostly frozen tolerance to a deeper understanding and desire to relate. Happy St Valentine’s Day~

    Like

    • The merchandising is pretty… well, ‘wow.’ It exists on a disturbing level I think. And honestly, it makes me think about the way late capitalism eats all kinds of narratives so that it can sell more.
      Though I do believe that some myths, eaten by capitalism or not, still ‘transcend’ their commodification. And I do feel this way with many of the emotional themes of Frozen.

      Like

    • Thank you for your reply!

      Like

  3. I see a bigger picture here – a mythical one in which Frozen is the overstory … most disturbing to me is the double images of the “barbie dolls” that apparently still hold this culture hostage.

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  4. I loved Frozen when it came out. I was going through a painful divorce, and my two little ones were watching it all of the time. “Let It Go” became my anthem. When the snowman looked at Elsa and said that some people are worth melting for, I thought I was going to cry for days. Great post!

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  5. I hear you Sara Wright. There is an inescapable taint of patriarchy in everything Disney. Everything, period!

    However, I do have hope in Carol Christ’s comment “there is not only a female hero but also a centering of a female’s love for another female–something even more rare!”

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  6. Rain and Sarah,
    The film still definitely pushes patriarchy in many ways– particularly in Anna’s romance stories in Frozen 1. … I did appreciate in Frozen 2, though, that they try to complicate this as well. Anna’s love interest, Kristoff, is shown to have complex feelings and insecurities. Anna is also characterized a wanting romance/ love, whereas Elsa is disinterested. These aren’t ‘perfect’ feminist moments by any means– but they are interesting alternatives– and give me something to think about.

    Thank you so much for your comments.

    Like

  7. “I believe in Elsa!” How wonderful! When my daughter was growing up (35 years ago), I think Elsa could have helped both of us. Instead my daughter and her best friend became obsessed with Peter Pan. I loved Peter Pan as a kid, too, but I also saw Mary Martin play the main character in the play (multiple times), so I knew that the active character (Peter) could be a girl as well as a boy. But my daughter only had the Disney version and wanted to play Wendy. She always let her friend take over the part of Peter. One day I suggested that she might want to play Peter as well, but she told me that she preferred Wendy. When I asked her why, she replied, “because she’s a girl.” Fast forward to today…my daughter’s a feminist, an artist, and a mother of 2 1/2-year-old, doing just fine. But it was worrisome then. I had to do a lot of judicious countering of patriarchy when she was little, and feminist education when she was old enough. But as everyone has mentioned in this discussion, we STILL need to do the same today.

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  8. Very moving post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Always enjoy reading your posts, Sara. Love how your mind works!

    Liked by 1 person

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