I’ve been very critical of the movie Frozen in the past. I’ve called it badly written, and largely dismissed it as being just another feel-happy Disney movie. The time has come, my friends, to tell you that I was completely wrong.
I feel bad for my lack of generosity. The truth is that reading Frozen as a queer story, and more specifically as a transition story, gives it depth and nuance and pure narrative power beyond many more serious live action drama movies produced for adults. It makes it a better story.
I would even go so far as to say that it makes Frozen something truly special.
We know, of course, that Disney is a giant mega-corporation who just can’t stand to include anything more than faint nods to non-straight non-cisgender elements, but there are hints all over Frozen that it was meant to be something more, that it was always intended to be read a particular way, and it was simply a matter of getting the narrative past the radar of the executives. But even if it wasn’t… it’s fun, just really, delightfully fun, to wrap ourselves up in this story and claim it for ourselves.
So let’s talk about Frozen.
Frozen as Queer/Trans Representation
First of all, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar work done by queer and trans folk, and other academics, in examining Frozen through this lens. I would not have come to love the movie like I do now if not for them. Consider reading all these sources for further insights.
- Angel Daniel Matos, PhD, Conceal, Don’t Feel: A Queer Reading of Frozen
- Steven Salvatore, Beware the Frozen Heart: Is Disney’s ‘Frozen’ An Allegory for Coming Out?
- Caitlin Song, Frozen’s Elsa as Trans Woman’s Representation
- Leïla Matte-Kaci, Thawing the Snow Queer: Queer Readings of Frozen’s Elsa (Thesis, 2014)
I am not transgender myself, and this article should not be taken as anything like the final word on this subject. I am not an authority on the trans experience. Take it for what it is: an exercise in possibilities, because every way of reading a narrative holds some truth, and this is the one I want to be true the most.
The Story of Frozen
The movie opens with Elsa and Anna playing freely, as children do, with her phenomenal ice powers. We learn that Elsa is different, unusual, but she’s very much a happy, normal, loving little girl, powers and all. And then, there is the accident, and Anna is hurt by her power. Her parents come in and their first reaction is “this is getting out of hand!”
Young children have much more leeway in transgressing gender norms, because it’s assumed they don’t really understand. But there comes a point (and there is always a point, as they get older) that the parents, even well-meaning ones, say that that’s enough, rein them in, and start enforcing those norms. Elsa is in her pre-puberty stage, learning that a fundamental part of her is deviant, dangerous, and needs to be hidden for her own good.
Now, one aspect of Frozen that always comes up for me is how other characters play into the metaphor, and while her parents are obvious (well-meaning but ultimately flawed family), her sister is something else. Anna, in this context, is not just Elsa’s sister: she is also a metaphor for Elsa’s ability to love and accept herself. This is immediately important because it is Elsa’s power that hurts her, and we can read this as the first unintentional blow that diminishes her self-love and pulls her into self-loathing. She cannot reconcile the natural joy in her power shared between her and her sister with the threatening warning of the trolls.
This continues as Elsa is sealed away from Anna, again at her parents’ command. It’s not only that she is forced to hide herself, which plays clearly to the concept of the closet; she eventually does this willingly, because she believes that it is necessary to prevent her powers from hurting Anna again. This is also self-preservation; sealing away her true self, withdrawing from her self-love, in an effort to maintain the status quo. We see Elsa wanting to go out and play with Anna, and repeatedly being forced back because her powers cannot be repressed.
The death of their parents is the kindest way of removing them from the story without making them villains. But with their deaths, Elsa is truly alone, with her phenomenal powers barely within her control. She is little more than a teenager, cut adrift with no support. She is now the trans woman in puberty, going through turmoil that is about to bubble over; she fears how people will see her true self.
Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let it show.
Then comes the coronation. I love Anna’s exuberance in this scene. As the expression of Elsa’s love and acceptance of herself, Anna is joyful, excited for the change, ready to go out and become something new. For Elsa herself, it is terrifying, because she has never had to be so convincing in her false facade, and still she slips up.
Anna clashes with her. The part of her that loves and accepts her, as represented by her sister, begs her to come out, to stop hiding. In a way, she also represents innocence. But the fear – of what she truly is, and what she can become – is too much for Elsa, when reinforced by years of self-loathing and isolation from love. She makes a mistake. The mask falls, at the worse possible time, and she is outed.
That the townspeople quickly begin to refer to Elsa in othering and dehumanizing ways – Sorceress! Monster! – should be a massive red flag as to where this narrative is headed. Elsa runs away because her instinct is to isolate herself, because deep down she believes she is exactly that, and she has no place in normal society. The parallel to stories told by many trans folk of being treated in exactly this manner and forced to the fringes in order to survive is striking.
Note that Anna defends her sister, and never treats her as the Other. Anna loves Elsa and accepts her even in the face of her true self. This, I think, is the core strength of Anna being a metaphor for Elsa’s ability to love and accept herself; the trials that Anna suffers simply to reconnect with her would probably cause some doubt in most people, but Anna never wavers.
In the mountains, all alone, Elsa catches her breath and finds a safe place. The cold never bothered her anyway, and so the snow is her natural environment. It is where she can finally breathe. In one song, Let It Go, she mourns what she has lost, and then begins her transformation in a very literal sense.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free!
And with that, she rejects the gender norms imposed upon her, and throws away the trappings of the queen of Arendelle. That perfect girl is gone, she sings, as she reinvents herself and her power is expressed in full force.
But this is only the start of her transition journey. The fragments of her old life still loom over her, in the spectre of the kingdom being plunged into eternal winter. Elsa has not learned to love and accept herself in this new form yet.
So what about Anna?
Anna and Kristoff go through a series of trials to reach Elsa; Anna playing the part of Elsa’s self-love, and Kristoff playing the part of society at large that is sympathetic to trans folk, namely trans allies. Notice how he is a commoner, lacking a lot of power relative to the other characters (and especially to Hans; more on him later). But he tries to help and he sticks with Anna as best he can, once he understands her a little better. He’s a bit of a fixer-upper, but you know he’s doing what he can.
And so Anna reaches out to Elsa, still loving her and accepting her, but bringing the knowledge of the ruins of her former life. There is an instant clash between Elsa’s self-loathing, for what she is and what she did; she is not ready to love herself, and she runs away yet again. I can’t! she screams, as she lashes out and drives Anna away. Her powers turn dark and twisted as she falls into depression. She is caught between the life she left behind, and the life she needs to live, struggling with mental illness caused by her situation.
I find it interesting that Anna’s part in Elsa’s redemption is almost derailed by Hans. He is the patriarchy writ large, the one who could not contend with Elsa’s immense power in her true form, and so must attack her on another front by destroying her ability to love herself. And he does it to maintain a patriarchal standard of one king ruling a kingdom. He is underhanded, presenting himself as kind and reasonable and only trying to do what’s best, but ultimately he wants to remove Elsa, to make her not exist. He is insidious. He almost succeeds.
Now the Duke of Weaselton, on the other hand, is almost a figure of ridicule, but his reaction to Elsa at first, and then later to her power, is almost a carbon copy of the so-called ‘trans panic’ defence. At first he is flirty as he propositions her to dance. When her true self is revealed, he instantly flips to disgust and revulsion, and sends thugs to kill her!
Elsa, of course, is vilified for trying to defend herself. She manifests her power to save her own life (for trans folks, being who they really are is a matter of life and death, of course), and in return she is treated like a monster, like a thing, and imprisoned when it should have been the goons attacking her who were thrown in jail.
Ah, but the ending.
Elsa sets herself free from the prison of the patriarchy, gathers her courage, and walks out into the storm. In her darkest hour, when she is broken with grief and the patriarchy threatens to end her, love and acceptance saves her. In that instant Anna is also transformed, but she swiftly returns to normal and shows that such love does not really change. As the sisters finally reconnect, the kingdom itself is healed by Elsa’s love, and her transition is complete.
By the end of Frozen, Elsa has conquered her fears in the usual saccharine Disney fashion and come into her own as her true self, revealed for all to see. This is the highest hope of transition, to be seen and accepted and treated like a human being in spite of the change, and Elsa has achieved it. It should also be noted that the reward for this to Kristoff (who represents trans allies) is a new sled – a token appropriate to his social standing and that certainly doesn’t elevate him above Elsa or Anna. There is no princehood waiting for him for his help, though there is the hint of growing closeness between him and Anna. Romance hasn’t quite arrived yet, but it’s possible, in this new world.
Reading Frozen as a story of transition imbues it with layers of meaning. It becomes a story about love and hope and acceptance and finally being seen as we want to be seen without judgment. It would have been quite easy to derail so much of this by shoving Elsa into a Disney-standard but unnecessary cisgender heterosexual romance plot. Like others have said, however, it was all subverted pretty hard, and so Elsa became a queer icon and inadvertently opened the door to Disney finally creating a gay princess. Intended or not, the reading gives it so much more richness as a piece of art in its own right.
Finally, I would like to note that we should not have to look for this kind of hidden meaning. Queer coding is all well and good, but we have a right to explicit narratives where queer and trans folk take centre stage. To this end, I’m going to list a few speculative fiction books written by queer and trans authors, as recommended by the writing community of Twitter.