Series: Disability in Children’s Animation
Spoiler Warnings: Frozen
Trigger/Content Warnings: Discussion of depression symptoms and parental neglect
Frozen. You may have heard of it. You’ve probably even heard one of its songs.
Like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen is a Walt Disney Animation production. It was released in November of 2013. IMDB estimates its budget at 150 million dollars, with a US gross of 400 million and a total gross of over 1 billion dollars. We are talking about a movie that was successful and popular. Not just popular, but part of the Disney Princess line. These are movies that, with a few exceptions, become part of the cultural consciousness. These are movies that kids grow up with.
Because of this, diversity in these movies is especially important.
Now, I am not going to talk about race today–I will do that another time, complete with plenty of links to POC bloggers. I’m also not going to talk about the animation today–again, another time. This series is about disability, and so that’s what I’m going to talk about. And in terms of disability representation, Frozen is an amazing thing.
LIke with Finding Nemo, disability isn’t just included in Frozen, it’s a big part of the movie. Specifically, Frozen deals with mental illness.
Throughout the movie, we see Elsa struggle with her ice powers in a way that mirrors people’s struggles with mental illness. Often, we see disability used as a metaphor for something else; here, Elsa’s ice powers are a metaphor for mental illness. She also exhibits actual symptoms of mental illness. I say “mental illness” rather than being more specific because, while I myself look at Elsa and see depression and anxiety, I know that other people see other mental illnesses in her experiences. I have also seen people with autism connect with Elsa, although I would not consider autism in general a mental illness. For the majority of this post, however, I will be talking specifically about depression and anxiety.
Let’s take it one element at a time.
Image Description: Elsa and her parents go to see the rock trolls with Anna, who is dying.
Elsa’s parents have no idea what to do about her powers. The troll tells them that Elsa needs to learn control, and, based on a rather loose interpretation of this advice, her parents do a number of things which only end up making the situation worse. They make her stay in her room and teach her to hide her powers. Her father tells her to “conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show”. There are a lot of problems with that, but here’s a big one:
Isolating someone is not how you help them stop feeling something, and it’s not how you help them deal with their feelings. Isolating someone just makes them feel more isolated, and people with mental illnesses like depression tend to already feel isolated. It also means that they are exposed to very little beyond what comes from inside them.
Image Description: Young Elsa sits alone in her room, which is freezing around her.
“Don’t feel it” is also something that people with depression and anxiety get told a lot (never mind that one of the things people with depression experience is apathy). It’s something that we hear a lot from our parents. I was very lucky: my mother has experience with depression, and so she understands a lot of what I’ve gone through. My mother, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky as I was. And even with my mother having that kind of experience, I have still had family tell me that I should just “get over” my illness.
Parents, in general, want their kids to be happy and healthy. When they don’t know how to help their children, they get desperate, scared, and frustrated.
As a kid, you want to be able to rely on your parents. The idea that parents are supposed to help their children goes both ways. When a kid sees that their parents are helpless, sometimes they pull back. That happened to me when I was in middle school. None of the adults around me could help me, so I withdrew into myself. I figured I could only rely on myself.
Elsa’s parents don’t have a huge part in the movie, but they have a huge impact on Elsa, which shows itself throughout the film–something which is very clear in the song “Let it Go”.
“Let It Go”
Image Description: A bird’s eye view of Elsa. Snow is whirling through the air around her.
“Let It Go” is probably the most popular song in Frozen. It won 5 awards, including an Academy Award, and was nominated for two others, including a Golden Globe. And let’s be honest, a huge part of this song’s success comes from the fact that Idina Menzel was the one singing it. She has made her career on this type of song.
But it’s also successful because it’s extremely relatable. Let’s take a look at the lyrics.
“The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation
And it looks like I’m the queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know”
So, right away, the song talks about isolation. It’s not glorifying isolation, exactly–it’s more that Elsa, who has been isolated for most of her life, is reveling in it. It’s a coping mechanism–not necessarily a good one, but a coping mechanism none the less. I spent a lot of time reveling in my pain and loneliness. For one thing, for me, feeling things was exciting. It was something that hadn’t happened for a long time. Feeling things meant I was alive. As for my loneliness, well, there were two ways I could see of responding to that. Either I could feel miserable, alone, and worthless because of it, or I could revel in it. One of them fed into my suicidal urges. The other one didn’t. It was something that I had to work through–something I’m still working through, in fact–because reveling in my loneliness was far from a permanent solution. In some ways, it became just another kind of apathy. But it helped me survive. It seems to me like that’s what Elsa is doing, too. She becomes “queen” of her loneliness. She turns it into something which empowers her.
“Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway
It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
People with mental illnesses spend a lot of time being told to fit in. You learn to hide your feelings and pretend that you’re okay, even when you’re not. The thing is, most people who ask you how you are don’t want to know. If they do want to know, you run the risk of hearing any of a thousand things you’ve heard before, which all sucked enough the first time you heard them.
I learned to hide my pain so well doctors refused to accept that I was sick.
When you hide who you are day in and day out, letting your feelings show becomes the ultimate power fantasy. It’s not healthy to spend all your time masking your emotions or trying to make yourself look normal. It’s not healthy, and it’s not fair.
There’s also the stigma surrounding mental illness. A lot of people hide their illnesses because of this, much like how Elsa hides her powers.
Later in the movie, Elsa returns to Arendelle. Once that happens, though, she keeps her powers, and she keeps a lot of the freedom that she finds when she leaves the kingdom.
“Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand and here I’ll stay
Let the storm rage on…”
“You’ll never see me cry” is an interesting line. There’s a stage you reach when you’re depressed where you have cried so much and been miserable so long that things like anger and apathy become a relief. There’s this place where anger and apathy mix, too. You go through all the motions of expressing your pain, and maybe you do feel it, but there’s nothing for it to contrast with.
Elsa’s anger and pain are represented by the storm. What she wants to let go, throughout the song, is her facade. But the line is “you’ll never see me cry”, not that she won’t cry. It seems like a contradiction.
And maybe it is.
“Let It Go” is, for the most part, a power fantasy. It’s not meant to show the ideal handling of mental illness–it comes far too early in the movie for that. This is where the conflict in the movie is being established, not where it’s resolved. Power fantasies are fine, but they’re not real. You can’t be powerful all the time. You can’t be angry or apathetic all the time without it being extremely unhealthy. Elsa is embracing her depression, trying to turn it into something which makes her powerful. But embracing depression isn’t the same as dealing with it.
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back
The past is in the past
Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on!
The cold never bothered me anyway”
Image Description: Elsa reflected in the ice during the line “the perfect girl is gone”. She has transformed her dress and let down her hair.
I think “the perfect girl is gone” sums up this song really well. Elsa isn’t hiding things anymore. And that makes her feel free, and powerful. But this stage is not the end of treatment. Really, there isn’t an end of treatment. That’s why it’s a treatment, and not a cure. It’s an ongoing process. I will always have depression, but over time I learn how to treat it and cope with it. How to live with it.
Before you can learn any of that, though, you have to accept that this thing is a part of you. And sometimes that means embracing it for a while.
Image Description: Anna, Elsa, and Olaf enjoying themselves on an ice rink that Elsa has created.
What we see at the end is a much better example of the end goal when dealing with depression. She keeps her ice powers, so she’s not “cured”. The movie does turn them into a good thing a little bit, which is questionable, but I don’t think it’s impossible to find good things in your disability. As painful as my depression and anxiety are, they are part of what allows me to write things like this. They are a part of who I am. I try to find ways to use my experiences to do good, and a lot of what we see with Elsa’s powers at the end is her helping: saving Olaf and making beautiful things for children.
And yeah, everything finishes up a little quickly, and the ending is a little too happy to be realistic. But it’s a kids’ movie. Kids’ movies shouldn’t be all about realism. There has to be room for some hope.
The world sucks a lot of the time. It sucks even more when you’re disabled. The pain of depression and mental illness never goes away. Part of the job of a movie like this is to give you hope that it will get better.
On disability representation, I give this movie 5 out of 5. I wish that this movie had been around when I was very young, that it had been part of my cultural consciousness when I was going through middle school and high school. I’m glad it’s there for kids now. And I’m glad it’s there for me, too. Kids aren’t the only ones who need hope.
Images from Disney wiki.