Letting It Go: De-thawing Disney’s Antiquated Definition of “True Love” in FROZEN

16 March 2014

The Snow Queen is a character Disney tried to use for at least 70 years.  The origins of this character date back to 1844 when Hans Christian Anderson published “The Snow Queen,” a fairy tale with an icy child-stealing villainess.  Every attempt Disney made to adapt Anderson’s character fell apart, and the project was repeatedly shelved.  However, within the last five years, the project was re-envisioned once more, and the Snow Queen transformed into a victim of her own cold powers; a well-intentioned anti-hero who audiences can feel compassion for.  Importantly, the Snow Queen, now called Elsa, was also given a family, specifically a sister, Anna, the film’s princess protagonist.  This re-envisioning of “The Snow Queen” into what audiences today know as Frozen is not simply a spin on a classic fairytale.  In fact, figuratively speaking, the transformation of the Snow Queen into Elsa likens nicely to the transformation Disney has made from its definition of “true love” for its earlier princesses into its definition of “true love” for its current princess, Anna. 

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To summarize (with spoilers), late one night in the far-off land of Arendelle, two young princesses innocently play throughout their castle.  The elder sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel, or as John Travolta credits her, Adele Dazeem), has a magic power; she can freeze objects and make snow.  The younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), who has no magic powers, loves her sister’s gift, happily prancing from one mound of snow to the next in their castle’s great room.  But, the faster Anna jumps, the harder it is for Elsa to create mounds of snow for Anna to land on.  Accidentally, Elsa strikes Anna with her magic, freezing her younger sister.  The king and queen rush Anna to nearby trolls, who save Anna’s life by removing her memories of Elsa’s power.  The trolls warn Elsa that her power can be dangerous if she does not learn how to control it.  Because of this warning, the castle’s gates are close, shutting all of Arendelle out from the royal family.  Moreover, Elsa secludes herself in her bedroom, away from Anna, practicing control.  Tragically, the king and queen are killed shortly after, leaving the two sisters alone in the world, and apart from each other because of Elsa’s unrestrained magical power.

Finally, years later, Elsa comes of age to take the throne.  On her sister’s coronation day, Anna meets a seeming gentleman named Hans (Santino Fontana) and the two fall in love at first sight.  But, upon learning of her sister’s plan to impulsively marry Hans, Elsa loses control of her power once more.  She accidently freezes all of Arendelle before she flees, alone, into the mountains.  Leaving her new finance, Hans, to run Arendelle, Anna runs after her sister.  Along the way, she meets Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a local ice man, and hires him to take her to Elsa’s new ice castle at the top of the mountain.  Unfortunately, Elsa is not interested in returning to Arendelle, and, overwhelmed with the fear of her own power, Elsa once again accidentally strikes Anna with her magic.  This time, Anna is not immediately frozen, but is hurt.  Kristoff takes Anna back to the trolls, who tell the two that only an act of true love can undo the magic’s power; without this act, Anna will freeze permanently.  Kristoff rushes Anna back to Hans.  Meanwhile, Hans and others from Arendelle are narrowing in on Elsa in her ice castle.  Elsa is taken hostage and returned to Arendelle, just as a weakened Anna returns to her fiancé.  Anna pleads for her true love’s kiss, however, Hans reveals himself as a come-upper, someone who is only using Anna for her position in line to Arendelle’s throne.  Hans leaves Anna to die and orders Elsa executed for Anna’s death.  Before she learns of her own fate, Elsa escapes her imprisonment, but, panicked, she trips off another severe snowstorm. When she is confronted by Hans in the blizzard, he lies and tells Elsa that Anna died.  Immediately, Elsa’s sorrow stops the blizzard.  Just then, a nearly frozen Anna emerges, looking for her actual love, Kristoff, who has also just realized he, too, loves her.  Anna sees Kristoff, knowing she needs to embrace him soon or she will turn to ice, but she also sees Hans raise his sword over a grieving Elsa.  Instead of running toward Kristoff and the traditional “act of turn love,” Anna runs to save her sister.  Although Anna does save Elsa from Hans’s blade, she turns to ice, as the magic’s curse finally consumes her.  Astonished, Elsa tearfully clings to her sister.  With that, Anna unfreezes; her act of true love, saving her sister, was enough to break the curse.

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With the exception of Merida, all of Disney’s past princesses have one thing in common: their survival depends on finding “true love” in the end, and, therefore, because of the way Disney has always defined acceptable “true loves” (men), their princesses’ survival consistently depends on a man.  In Brave, Merida was the first Disney princess to challenge this; Merida does not need “true love” to save herself in the end, and she does not end up with a “true love” in Brave.  The entire movie, in fact, surrounds resistance to the expectation placed on young women to find their stereotypical “true love,” Brave avoids the “true love” trap by not introducing a plausible prince for Princess Merida.  Meaning, although Merida is a unique Disney princess because her happiness in the end does not depend on a man, there is no acceptable man for Merida to depend on.  Thus, Brave does not actually confront the “true love” expectation Disney spent years establishing; Brave avoids it.

This is not the case in Frozen; Frozen does confront Disney’s overly simplistic and now antiquated definition of “true love.”  First, one of the norms Disney established with its first princesses is a connection between “true love” and love at first sight.  Often times, in Disney films, the two are interconnected.  For example, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) meets Prince Phillip once (and perhaps “once upon a dream”) before he is able to awaken her from Malificent’s evil spell with “true love’s kiss.”  Frozen challenges this idea of love at first sight.  In Frozen, Anna thinks she finds love at first sight simply because she wants to find love at first sight.  Anna is so in love with the idea of love that she foolishly and desperately falls for (or thinks she falls for) Hans immediately. Instead of getting to know Hans, she accepts his marriage proposal and, shortly after, leaves Arendelle under his control while she chases after Elsa. Later in the film, of course, Anna learns Hans is a deceitful, self-serving liar, and realizes her impulsive and ignorant decision to trust him with her heart and land was a mistake.  Frozen purposefully challenges the idea of love at first sight, highlighting the likely dangers of putting one’s heart ahead of one’s head.

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Moreover, Frozen confronts how “true love” is typically defined.  Up until this point, and including Brave, “true love” is a term Disney used in reference to heterosexual romantic relationships, often, but not exclusively, between a princess and a prince.  And, unlike Brave, Frozen does introduce a possible “true love” for Anna who meets these standards: Kristoff.  In the end, when Anna is dying, she has the opportunity to embrace Kristoff for the oh-so-traditional Disney princess ending.  If Anna ran to Kristoff, “true love’s” kiss would have undoubtedly broken the magic’s curse. Yet, Anna did not run to Kristoff; Anna runs to her sister, Elsa, the very person responsible for her condition.  With Elsa in trouble, Anna puts her own life aside to save her sister.  The spell breaks because this act of sacrifice, although unlike how Disney has always defined “true love,” is an act of true love.  Had Anna relied on Kristoff’s kiss, as princesses in the past did, Anna’s survival would have depended on a man.  Instead, Anna’s survival depends on Anna; she saves herself by saving her sister.  And, through Anna, Disney redefines its own definition of “true love” in princess tales.

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One may hesitate to applaud Frozen too much through, as the idea of women needing to be sacrificial, which is promoted in Frozen’s conclusion, is problematic.  However, a necessary step is taken in this film.  For the countless girls and young women who watch Disney’s films and absorb their messages, Frozen finally offers women the option of not depending on a man for survival; women can save themselves and each other.

One last comment (although admittedly off-topic), regarding the backlash aimed at Disney for possible homosexual readings of Frozen (mainly by religious individuals and organizations).  True, it is not a stretch to read Frozen, on a slant, as a lesbian love story between Elsa and Anna.  These two are said to be sisters, yet they look nothing alike, act noting alike (to say nothing of magical powers that further separate the two).  Their love and loyalty to one another endures throughout the entire film, even though social pressures and fear of “differentness” consistently force the two apart.  In the end, when only love can break a magical curse, Anna’s love for Elsa breaks the spell.

A homosexual read on Frozen was not Disney’s intention, nor is it the only way to read the film; however, it is a valid read.  The same way scholars slant Kate Chopin’s writing for homosexual reads, Frozen does not need to be tilted all that much to see Elsa and Anna as lesbians. Like all art, films are, and always have been, a reflection of the society that creates them.  In America today, acceptance of homosexuality has greatly increased in comparison to the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when early Disney princesses appeared.  This acceptance still has ways to go, but increased tolerance naturally infiltrates cinema the same way all social shifts infiltrate art.  And, for Disney, a company that typically releases highly prescriptive films, detailing how people, specifically women, should look, love, and behave, it is refreshing that, just maybe, Frozen is more descriptive, meaning the film, in reflecting an increased social tolerance of homosexuality, describes how people actually exist in society today instead.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 16/03/2014.

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