If you’ve ever been to a neighborhood-wide July 4th celebration, like I did this summer, and seen a group of rambunctious six year old boys stop rough-housing on top of a pile of sand and sing “Let It Go” in unison as it blares on the loudspeaker, you might be able to get the beginnings of a glimpse into how powerfully Disney’s Frozen subverts gender norms. Another way you might gauge this effect is by reading the frozen-hearted fundamentalists who claim that the movie is just propaganda for the gay-agenda. As hateful as these critiques are, perhaps we should learn to be slow to dismiss them. For starters, we can think of it as a certain progress that the religious right has moved on from attacking “sorcery” like they did in Harry Potter. Sorcery is just a trope; identifying a gay agenda in a film requires analysis. We can work with that!
It would be a shame if liberals denied the movies queer themes. We should not revert to the “oh, it’s just a movie; there’s no political agenda here” rallying cry to respond to hateful critics. When we do that, we may think that we are advocating a politics-free viewing of the film, but that position itself is a political one. We can’t deny that Frozen sends a clear message by rejecting Disney’s conservative, oftentimes medieval, representation of female characters, but it’s more than that. Frozen blurs the lines of gender norms more than any other Disney movie, something we should embrace because it teaches our girls and boys how to love more purely.
Let’s face facts: there is a lot of gay in this movie. The starkest example is also the most hidden, but if you look closely when the store owner, who gives Kristoff a lesson in supply and demand, points to his family in the sauna, we get a quick glimpse of four kids and… a husband. There is no indication that this is a closeted homosexuality despite the family’s appearance behind the closed door of a sauna. And the fact that his business seems to thrive suggests that no one has opened up a pro-family rights general store for the bigoted customers. There is not a movie being a just a movie. This is a kids movie that has actual gay people in it.
And take Olaf, the effeminate, show tunes singing, martini-on-the-beach-sipping snowman. You don’t have to be a squirmy ol’ conservative to realize that Olaf is virtually gay. And we should not offer a moderate-liberal apology that Olaf is just a harmless, asexual, charming snowman, or worse that he serves no purpose in the film. Just because Olaf doesn’t have a zucchini for a penis doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have desire, and how we direct our desire is how we either fit or do not fit into gender norms.
A normalized male in Western society directs his desire toward a female. The things that a male does to express these desires are normalized too. Sports, suits and ties, weightlifting, big trucks are all choices meant to signal to others that men are directing their desire toward women in a way that society sanctions. However, when a male wears dresses, listens to disco, likes pink, or, say, sings songs from a princess movie, the normalized parents often worry that their son may be signaling that he is pointing his desire askew. There is nothing unnatural about boys liking princess movies, or men liking show tunes, but our social conditioning ensures that these behaviors are categorized as unnatural, perverse (literally, “facing the wrong way”) because they imply that a male may be directing sexual desire to another male (“facing the wrong way”).
Olaf’s love of summer strikes us a desire that is totally unnatural to a snowman; his desires are askew; his inner wiring is off. But what Olaf’s storyline eventually shows us is that his desire only seems unnatural because society hasn’t created a space to let him be who he wants to be. When Elsa whips up his own little snowcloud, she provides a place for him to be himself and express his desires. This isn’t just Elsa or Disney trying to avoid Frosty the Snowman’s bleak fate; by providing a place for him, Elsa has extended the continuum of socially acceptable desires, broadened the space for him to direct his desires acceptably.
Elsa’s kingdom – and the film’s unapologetic message – is taken up with this kind of progress, or rather moving on from the past. All of the songs that Anna and Elsa sing are about leaving the past behind (“Say goodbye to the pain of the past.” “I’m never going back; the past is in the past”). Anna’s conflict signals Disney’s self-conscious rejection of past Disney princess movies that idealize instantaneous, romantic, heterosexual love that can only end up in marriage. The fact that this princess movie doesn’t end in a hetero marriage is probably scandalous enough to the medieval sentiments of religious fanatics, but this film wants to dissolve a limited past and extend the narrow bounds of what a Disney-style love story can be.
Anna’s act of true love, in which she sacrifices herself to save her sister’s life, might tempt us to think that there is a conservative-friendly family-values message. The act certainly affirms a family values but not in the way that pleases both liberals and conservatives. Anna’s act expresses a courageous love that embraces difference in the face of those who would vilify it. True it’s her sister, but the love she expresses goes far beyond the love their parents expressed. True love is the kind that accepts what was formerly shamed.
The death of Anna and Elsa’s parents signifies another past that the film leaves behind – a past that forced the parents to psychologically abuse their children. By closing off contact between these two sisters, the parents leave Anna starved for affection and vulnerable to a man like Hans with his vulpine ability to detect weakness. Yet, as much damage as the parents inflict, the fact remains that they inflict this damage out of a misguided love. They separate Anna in order to protect her from Elsa’s difference.
We should note that Elsa’s snow-powers represent a difference, or in a very general sense queerness. In the same way that the X-Men stories use the characters’ extraordinary powers to allegorize difference (and a number of other Disney movies), we should not take her powers as a talent in itself but the object of fear. The characters in the film deal with her iciness like various people deal with homophobia. Hans and Weselton fear her powers and direct murderous rage toward her. Her parents closer her off from her sister, fearing not just that she will hurt Anna, but that she might even infect her. This queer-phobia even acts on Elsa internally. Her parents teacher her to “conceal, don’t feel,” in such a way that Elsa directs fear and shame inwardly toward an element of her person that she knows is part of the core of her identity. This external repression creates a storm both literally and figuratively inside Elsa, so that Elsa’s experiences resemble those who identify as queer feel. Her relationship with her parents is one that resembles our society’s own past in which parents of queer children felt pressure to mix love with shame.
It’s the cathartic release of this repression and final acceptance of her queer self that make the song “Let It Go” so powerful:
Conceal, don’t feel; don’t let them know.
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door.
There is no indication that Elsa is or is not specifically a lesbian, but the door she slams behind her is the closet door behind which she has learned to fear and loathe herself. Anna’s song “Love is an Open Door” uses the door as a metaphor as a way to plead that society stop forcing people into the repression of the closet because she wants to love someone even if they’re different. While their parents see the norm-construction that forces her daughter into the closet as an act of love, the film sees it as a distortion of true love. This shame-laden love is the real perversion.
As cathartic as it is, Elsa still rejects herself by keeping herself ice-olated in her ice castle. The film’s message isn’t complete until Elsa can integrate back into society. Anna is enacting a certain Freudian logic by trying to persuade Elsa to balance the impulses to repress and unleash the storm inside so that she can integrate and function in society. And though she’s learned to sublimate her repressed desire to be herself into beautiful art and architecture, her development isn’t complete until she allows society to accept her, ice-powers and all.
Her initial fear about going back lies in the fact that she expects society to continue to reject her even as she’s learned to accept herself. And when self-interested wolves like Hans and Weselton, who aim profit off of vilifying her difference, are in charge, she is. There is something important here. This film’s denouement relies on the assumption that society will accept difference if the ones in charge will let them. The public doesn’t seem as scandalized by Elsa as those in power do, and in a sense, they are just waiting for those in charge to legalize queerness. But it assumes that the social norm is an acceptance of difference. In a way, this film goes beyond Freud, who considered homosexuality a diversion from normal sexuality. But in another way, the film shows that the change happens at the top, a fact that ultimately makes this movie very liberal, but very un-radical.
Frozen does not present anything new to our political conscious. It is rather a reflection of a progress that has already happened. The broad population consists of a majority of people who either support gay marriage and general queerness or at least remain indifferent enough to not consider it harmful. On the other hand our stagnant politics still privileges and magnifies the minority voices that vilify queerness. It’s in this way that we should not hesitate to highlight the political conscious of these Disney films, if for no other reason than the politics are just not that threatening.
Part II: Reactionary Political Economy in Frozen