Rod Tweedy explores the pathology of contemporary Disney
Frozen is now the second highest-grossing animated film of all time, and one of the highest-grossing films in any medium ($1.3 billion in worldwide box office sales). 676 million youngsters have viewed and sung along to the YouTube clip of it’s hit song Let It Go, and as Dorian Lynskey notes, “it’s shaped the imagination of a generation”. Beyond the sparkle and CGI patina something about the movie clearly resonates powerfully with children and young people, and I think it’s secret – and what lies at the heart of its appeal – is its potent exploration of themes of childhood anger, ‘ice-olation’, inner devitalisation and self-absorption, which the film both addresses and amplifies.
Frozen and Childhood
For anyone blessed by not having seen it, the story revolves around the conflicted and volatile dynamic between two sisters (who, as this is Disney, also happen to be princesses). The elder one, Elsa, seems to be possessed of a Midas-like power of turning everything that her hands touch or are directed towards to ice – a ‘magic’ that is triggered when she feels threatened or angry, and which resembles in this the similar ‘magic’ power of adrenalised telekinesis in Stephen King’s Carrie. As Lynskey observes, Elsa’s ‘powers’ reflect those of the X-Men or Spiderman, ‘where super-powers are used as a metaphor for adolescence – because they’re empowering but they’re also really tormenting.’ Similar concerns with adolescence and the unfamiliar and potent capabilities that emerge during puberty have been given an extensive airing in today’s cinematic obsession with children painfully learning to manage apparently similar ‘magic’ potencies.
Frozen deftly explores both the causes of these contemporary childhood and family dynamics and their consequences. When an errant icicle nearly proves fatal to her sister Anna, for example, Elsa’s concerned parents decide to remove their already cosseted little princess even further from human society (‘we will limit her contact with people’) with the typical left-brain parental injunction: ‘conceal it, don’t feel it’. This problematic superegoic advice touches on the heart of the emotional dysfunction that the film then animates: a world which isolates children, shuts off affect, switches off the right (empathic, relational) hemisphere, and then blocks all others out.
In the imagery of the movie this inner progress is depicted by an endless series of unopened doors, or doors slammed shut, and of course the pervasive and ever-encroaching world of snowy ‘storms’ and hardening, freezing ‘ice’ – correlating to the absence of feeling, of emotional warmth and human contact, in these environments. As usual with Disney, the parents then ‘die’ (the absence of the protagonist’s real parents – from Bambi and Pinocchio to Peter Pan and The Lion King – is a curious feature of a studio obsessed with presenting an image of being ‘family-friendly’) and the main characters have therefore to slog it out until redeemed by the experience of ‘true love’. So far, so Disney.
Except that in Frozen the portrayal of the social and emotional dysfunction and atomisation that lies behind its central metaphor is so commandeering and galvanising that the film not only profoundly disrupts this core Disney narrative but also challenges a good number of previous myths and mythic stereotypes in the process. The male characters, for example, are essentially relegated to sidekick status and are presented as being rather laughable (in every sense); the usual Disney ‘villain’ only appears late on and more as a diabolos ex machina; there’s a fair amount of ‘feminist’ twists and elements to the story (the key relationship is not that of a boy and a girl, but two girls); and indeed the liberational anthem ‘Let It Go’ has widely been read as a paean to ‘coming out’ (you actually feel rather sorry for Disney studios after a number of American evangelical groups accused the film of promoting homosexuality: an accusation which is curiously self-reflexive, expressing more the limited obsessions of these groups themselves than the realities of the animation).
More interesting, and challenging, is the film’s portrayal of childhood anger and isolation. “Isolation” is a key term in the film – used to electrifying effect in its hit song ‘Let It Go’ (“A kingdom of isolation, And it looks like I’m the queen”) – where Idina Menzel’s extraordinary delivery pauses for a heart-beat on the first syllable of “isolation”, to intensify this deep connection between inner and outer emotional landscape. For Elsa, finally giving voice to this internal rage and the years of being unable either to express it or contain it, while blasting everything around her in the act – is simultaneously toxic and liberational:
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!
‘Let It Go’ is the moment when she comes out of the ‘cold’ closet – an anthem for adolescent self-empowerment, but equally a paean to self-laceration and narcissism: she enters and creates for herself a world of utter un-sociability and dissociation – a world achieved through the deliberate removal of all context, all family, all society, from her life. This is what the song is celebrating. As Elsa declares, confusing freedom for self-entrapped dislocation: ‘yes I’m alone – but I’m alone and free’.
Many commentators have seen this blockbuster song as a simple and unproblematic anthem of (female) empowerment, but it is much more than that – and much more interesting than that. As she sings her heart out on the cold uncaring shoulder of a mountain, in the middle of an imperial and aloof ice castle made to keep others out (and which looks suspiciously like Disney’s own trademark castle, built for similar corporate reasons), we realise that she has in fact all the power and ‘empowerment’ of someone having slammed the door on the world and then finding out that it’s actually you who’s left outside.
‘Alone – where I can be who I am’: Elsa’s view of the virtues of independence are about as realistic as Olaf’s are of summer. The song is a cry for help, from someone desperate to be rescued (as she eventually of course needs to be, and is), and from someone unable to rescue herself: it is a terribly sad indicator that so many eight-year-old girls see in the song a vocalisation of power and release, and that so many commentators and parents similarly endorse this paralysing hymn to self-laceration (the Telegraph, for example, referring to its “this-is-me sass” as “a beautiful shrug of self-acceptance”, and Time Out naively describing it as a “showstopping, self-actualizing ballad”).
A world of ice-olation
The tension within the character of Elsa, and the wishful inability of commentators to discern that the song – and indeed the movie – is not so much a musical of empowerment as a tragedy of self-incarceration that never finds it’s way out, are both suggestive. Frozen draws a bleak world: of frost-bitten emotions, fractal psychologies, corruscating anger, merciless and stormy, suppressed emotions that knive and separate all of its central characters. The movie is tormented by expressions and glimpses of child isolation, the catalysts for Elsa’s tormenting sense of removal: ‘conceal, don’t feel’, ‘yes I’m alone – but I’m alone and free’; ‘we will limit her contact with people’; a pervasive mood of being ‘shut out’: ‘a series of doors in my face’; a sense that families are at best trolls and at worst private tormentors.
‘You were so desperate for love you were willing to marry me just like that’, remarks Prince Hans unkindly, but accurately. Hans himself participates in this unhappy world, recounting his own variant of this liturgy of childhood abuse by his siblings to Anna: ‘Three of them pretended I was invisible – for two years. It’s what brothers do.’ Anna curtly replies: ‘And sisters.’ These are not happy worlds: summed up by Christoff (himself described as ‘socially impaired’ by his troll-like family) in his comment that ‘reindeers are better than people’ – a sentiment that will sadly find a resonance, rather than ridicule, amongst media-saturated young people today.
The ambivalence of this situation, in which families are at once the solution and the cause of the problem, is neatly encapsulated by Anna’s own poignant but desperate childhood. Longing for connection, family, context, society, connection, flesh-and-blood interaction (‘A chance to change my lonely world’ she sighs, as she plaintively caresses her picture of Joan of Arc), she stands between the emotionally refrigerated world of her sister and the vibrant but uncertain allure of the ‘town’ and real relationships with real people.
‘It gets a little lonely, all these empty rooms’ she sings – the ‘empty rooms’ again signifying both the interior and exterior un-lived in and unshared spaces that her ‘princess’ world represents. Perhaps understandably therefore, at the prospect of a ball to celebrate her sister’s coming-of-age ‘coronation’, she excitedly sings: ‘there’ll be actual real live people, it’ll be totally strange!’ The absence or removal of ‘actual real live people’ in these people’s lives is what Frozen is all about, and lies at its oddly-beating, fibrillating heart – one torn between Elsa’s proclamations of self-independence (which more closely resembles a tormented self-imprisonment) and the possibility of emotional redemption through actual and genuine engagement with human beings.
Anna’s pertinent question to her sister – which sparks the whole ‘Let It Go’ crisis of identity – is a good one: ‘what are you so afraid of?’ What she is afraid of, of course, – why she ‘shuts out the world’ – is not so much her ‘powers’ (which are unproblematic at the end of the film), but her inability to manage them – an inability driven by years of social isolation and loneliness. Elsa’s lack of any embodied or genuine parental or social attention, and her resultant fear of sharing, dependency, and socializing, represent all the things in fact that ironically symbolize the traditional Disney ‘princess’ ethos of self-determination – that whole line of pitiful self-proclaimed queens of isolation, for whom the princess tiara is the perfect metonym.
Disney is skilled at offering to remedy these real anxieties and problems through its ultimately fake and false Linus blanket of animated fiction, which in fact merely reinforces them. Frozen, for example, seeks to rectify the child’s feelings of isolation and abandonment by selling them Frozen merchandise and encouraging them to download it online, thereby merely reinforcing the disembodied and virtual worlds that the movie portrays and which childhood currently inhabits.
Elsa personifies this paradoxical allure: she is the character that most young girls gravitate towards and respond to – ‘a modern princess’, according to Dr Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, ‘a girl doing it for herself, but also accepting who she is – and even breaking away from her family and society to be her authentic self’. ‘Breaking away from her family and society to be her authentic self’ exactly sums up the ideological message that the film, and these sorts of critics, wish to promulgate (it’s no surprise to learn, for example, that Dr Bickerdike used to be a marketing consultant for Sony). A rather more thoughtful response came from broadcaster Jo Whiley, who poignantly likened the character of Elsa to her own sister, who apparently has “learning disabilities” and an “uncontrollable temper” which often manifests in “very challenging behaviour, and my 5 year-olds found that very difficult to cope with.” This, I think, points to the central appeal of this new brand of twenty-first century princess. As Wiley continued:
I’ve been able to use the analogy of Elsa being unable to control her powers, and just wreaking havoc wherever she is and not being able to suppress that at all – and I’ve been able to say to my daughter: ‘Well, that’s kind of what auntie’s like … so she’s now got this thing in her head that auntie – who can behave terribly sometimes – is actually like Elsa, and it’s been a really brilliant way of explaining that kind of behaviour.
Finding an analogy with Elsa in order to help explain her sister’s “uncontrollable temper”, her “challenging behaviour”, her “wreaking havoc wherever she is” is I think perfectly reasonable, and a helpful heuristic. But which is it then: a role model of self-empowerment, strength and authenticity, or a case-study of someone possessed by rage, unconsciously wreaking havoc in a self-obsessed storm she can neither control nor understand.
Wiley movingly relates the behaviour of Elsa to that of her sister with learning disabilities, but perhaps a more telling analogy would be to someone suffering from aspects of ‘borderline’ personality. Simon Baron-Cohen lists some of the key characteristics: ‘inability to control anger` (often expressed as ‘outbursts of rage and getting into fights’, ‘throwing objects at people’, ‘threatening them with knives’, with anger being especially directed ‘towards their closest relationships’); ‘extreme loneliness’; ‘impulsivity’; ‘suicidal threats of self-mutilation’, and ‘identity confusion’. He illustrates these with the case-study of ‘Carol’, who bears some striking resemblances to the fictional Elsa:
For as long as she can remember, and certainly going back into her early childhood, she has felt her life was ‘cursed’. As she looks back on her stormy childhood, her unstable teens, and her crisis-ridden adulthood, she contemplates her lifetime of depression. Her relationship with her parents as been punctuated by periods of years during which she did not speak to them at all … She will storm out, slamming the door behind her. When her hatred and anger bubble up, there is no chance of her stopping it coming out.
Whilst certainly not conforming to all of the diagnostic criteria (borderlines, for example, despite their profound sense of ‘inner loneliness’ cannot tolerate actually being alone – unlike the self-exiled Elsa), such personality traits at least suggest something more powerful and contemporary at work in this Disney animation, and a far darker, more ambivalent aspect to Elsa (‘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.’).
This more disturbing and destructive aspect is reinforced by a comment made by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who co-wrote the film’s key song: ‘Let It Go changed the course of the story. There is that moment when Elsa is at the top of a mountain and she is fleeing from everything and that is where her powers come out. It captures the feeling of ‘screw my family’.” Screw my family is exactly what Elsa represents, and perfectly captures both her massive appeal to so many pent-up, isolated children today, and also the predicament at the centre of this purportedly ‘family-friendly’ studio.
It is perhaps telling, therefore, that Dr Bickerdike refers to Elsa’s brand of ‘authenticity’ as one involving (or requiring) a separation from “family and society”: ironically, of course, these are exactly the dissociations that drive Elsa to her tormenting and abusive behaviour – treating her sister as “invisible”, shutting everyone out, and making her world and that of everyone around her a zero degrees wasteland. This is the twenty-first century ‘princess’ that Disney is inviting its young audience – 676 million of whom have now watched it on Youtube – to identify with, sing along with, and glorify.
Disney took the unusual step of allowing the song to be available on that forum in order to harvest the attention of young digital natives and draw them into what is in effect another frozen world of virtual reality and deepening bedroom isolation (part of its current campaign to ‘to distribute far more ubiquitously’, as the Disney CEO nonchalantly put it).
The economic and ideological logic of this encroachment into the bedrooms of the young was spelled out by Anna Hill of Disney UK: “Social media’s incredible powerful – we’re getting better at using it, but really it’s about putting the content in the power of the consumers”. The key word here is “consumers”: not children, consumers. Disney’s marketing and merchandising campaign – which would put the Duke of Weasletown’s desire to exploit Elsa’s town for profit to shame – has reaped unexpectedly lucrative results, earning the studios to date over $1 billion from merchandising alone, and – even more importantly – extending its brand reach into the homes and neurologies of young children around the world. “That’s the magic of Disney’s business,” said Dan Salmon, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets Corp.
As is often the case with Disney narratives, they identify the problem – a child’s sense of insecurity, isolation, need for affection, attention, and sharing – but redirect the solution away from genuine cooperative, egalitarian practices that might actually address them, to a re-affirmation of the very things that generated the isolation and sense of distance from others in the first place: the toxic mythos of ‘princess’ culture, the deification and reification of ‘palace walls’, the imprisonment of the child in virtual (frozen) worlds, where parental care is replaced by the cold liquid crystal of a computer screen; the antisocial agenda of the heroic (i.e. egoic) romance quest – the delusion that ‘one day my prince will come’, in the perfect, passive, myopic, lexicon of that quintessential Disney über-princess, Snow White.
Instead of solving these (genuine) underlying problems and fears, such films as Frozen merely end up reinforcing a sense of princess-like preciousness, and hanging even more expectation and anxiety on an emotional partner as ‘The’ unique satisfier of ontological insecurity and personal wishes (as viewers of Americas real-life ‘Princesses’ in ‘My Super Sweet 16’ can amply testify). What we need to do is to break out of these animated frames and enter social reality – knock down the pyramidal Disney palace walls, smash the tiaras, and connect children with their communities again. Or in the words of Elsa, let it go.
Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience; David Bowie: Alienation and Stardom; MY NAME IS LEGION: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance; Beyond the Reality Principle: Marcuse, Freud and the End of Civilisation; and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness. He is an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and the user-led mental health organisation, Mental Fight Club.