Monday, January 6, 2014

Fear and Love: The Unexpected Message of Disney's Frozen

One of the side effects of having daughters is that I have seen more Disney “Princess” movies than I would have on my own. My three year old in particular is in to princesses at the moment, even though her physical approach to life says “linebacker” more than “princess.” Also, she had never seen a movie on the big screen. So, we all went to see Frozen.

On a related note, having friends that care about literature, movies, and themes means having interesting discussions about kid movies after seeing them. In particular, I have had an ongoing discussion over whether a certain plot development was “fair” within the expectations of the genre and “realistic” in the broader sense.

However, there is another element to this movie that I have been thinking about in my spare time since seeing Frozen yesterday with the family.

[Spoiler alert: this discussion necessitates plot spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it first. It’s not a waste of time, and it has plenty for the XY contingent if you have them.]

It’s pretty well known that the movie is based loosely on The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen. Very loosely indeed, so if you have read the original or any of its other literary or motion picture adaptations, put those completely out of your mind and consider this a completely new story.

In the Disney version, the older of two sisters, Elsa, has cryokinetic powers. (I adore that word, so I am using it.) Basically, she can make ice and snow. While she and her younger sister Anna are surreptitiously playing in an indoor winter wonderland using Elsa’s powers, Elsa accidentally injures her sister.

The family visits the trolls, who heal Anna, and erase any memory of her sister’s powers. Elsa knows that her powers are dangerous, so she is isolated (or isolates herself) from Anna, and wears gloves at all times lest she accidentally use her power. She struggles to completely hide her powers, and ends up completely isolated.

Later, after the girls are orphaned, Elsa is crowned queen, and there is a huge party. Elsa and Anna quarrel, and Elsa accidentally reveals her powers. She flees to the mountains, causing perpetual winter to the kingdom as she goes. The loyal Anna follows her, and is again wounded, this time more seriously. The trolls inform her that they cannot heal her, but that she can only be healed by an act of true love.

Much has been said about the ways that this film turns fairy tale tropes on their head. The fact that a man doesn’t save the day in the end is a departure from the past. (Although I will note that this is a positive trend in Disney films as of late. I am glad my tough, strong, and ornery daughters have more relatable characters.) I also mentioned the ongoing discussion about whether it was fair to have Hans turn heel without sufficient foreshadowing in the early part of the movie. (I would say yes, some of my friends, no.) These are all interesting, and I have seen plenty of discussion in the media about them as well.

I want to talk about what I consider a key theme of the movie, which seems for some reason to have been largely missed.

Fear versus love.

With the exception of the happy ending, (mandatory for Disney) Frozen largely follows the blueprint of a Shakespearean tragedy. 

In this case, the inciting force is the accidental injury to Anna. At that point, Elsa and her parents have decisions to make, and they make the wrong ones.

After taking Anna (and Elsa) to the trolls so that they can heal Anna, the chief troll explains that Elsa must learn to control her powers. He also says something hugely important, but the point seems to be lost on the parents. (Both girls are just children at this point.)

“Fear will be her enemy.”

As the movie continues, it becomes obvious that Elsa’s powers grow and become uncontrollable when she is afraid. As she attempts to use her steely self control, her fear becomes tied up with the equally damaging anger (as it does for us all.) Every catastrophe in which she is involved is caused by her fear.

Again, back to that key moment - the hamartia. ”Fear will be her enemy.” So what do Elsa and her parents do? They give in to fear. Fear of her powers dominates their decisions. She basically shuts herself in her room. (Do the parents mandate this, or do they just let it happen?) She does her best to never use her powers. She tries to wish them away, to suppress them, to act as if they don’t exist.

Which is exactly why when she finally lets herself go, the result is mass havoc. She has no idea how to control her powers. Either it is complete self-suppression, or out-of-control disaster. She feels better for a while, but causes immense damage to everyone else.

It is as if no one noticed what the chief troll said. The problem isn’t Elsa’s powers. It is the fact that she never learns to control her fear - and thereby control her powers.

Instead of taking the wise action, which would be to encourage Elsa to practice using her powers - and use them for good - the plan appears to have been to pretend her powers didn’t exist and hope they went away.

Here is where the second element comes in. The opposite of fear isn’t bravery, just like the opposite of love isn’t hate.

The opposite of fear is love.

That’s why the cure for the incurable injury done to Anna isn’t bravery. It isn’t heat. It is an act of true love. Although the movie doesn’t explicitly say this, the clear implication is that true love is selfless love. That’s why a kiss from Hans wouldn’t have saved Anna. Even if he hadn’t officially turned heel, his love wasn’t true selfless love, but merely fairly tale infatuation. Whether or not a kiss from Kristoff would have worked is an interesting question, but in the end, salvation came through the kind of love that was truly selfless.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (Gospel of John 15:13)

This isn’t a particularly original sentiment, of course, and neither is the idea that fear and love are opposites.

From the words of Saint John:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” ( I John 4:18)

Disney has taken a beating from certain conservative and conservative Christian circles in the last few decades, with accusations of a feminist agenda and far worse being hurled. I, for one, welcome a change from the usual “waiting for my prince to come” trope, but I know a number of my friends have really taken exception to movies like Brave and Tangled. And particularly The Princess and the Frog.

For the record, I have yet to see Brave, but I do love the whole idea of a girl competing for the right to her own hand - to her own self determination in marriage. (I love female badasses as a general rule. Which might explain why I married one. She ran a 10K while 5 months pregnant. Case closed.) I did enjoy Tangled, both for its themes and for the use of a frying pan. (The discussion of Tangled’s themes as applied to trends within the homeschooling movement would be an interesting post. As would unpacking the hostility to The Princess and the Frog, which I think is mostly undeserved.)

That’s why there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that this movie is what it is. The themes could almost serve as an object lesson for, ahem, the teachings of Christ and Saint John. From Disney, no less.

I can’t resist also taking a bit of a look at how I believe that it is a great temptation to us parents to take the same approach as Elsa’s parents did to her powers.

An acquaintance of mine, from my days in the extremely patriarchal home church illustrates this point. (See my note at the end of my discussion of The Scarlet Letter for a brief discussion of this experience.)

This person was, I have been told, a talented musician. However, I never heard her play. She had at some point determined that her talent was a source of pride, so she smothered her gift, and never played again. Leaving aside for the moment the application of the Parable of the Talents, let me submit that this a good parallel with the movie.

A gift. A power, if you will. Rather than develop and channel the power, fear led to the stifling of the power.

This is a huge temptation for us parents. We see in our children, as they grow up, danger. One can see it in some cases where a macho father fails to appreciate the artistic talents of a less athletic son. (Thankfully, this was NOT the case in my own childhood. My parents always encouraged my gifts.) I feel that this particular manifestation is losing power, which is good. One also sees this fear expressed with daughters as well. I have noticed a number of parents, particularly in those circles that believe that women should be only wives and mothers, that are seriously threatened by the intelligence and strength of their daughters. I would add in here the additional fear that perhaps most parents have of their children’s developing sexuality. Like Elsa’s powers, these can be dangerous and cause damage - and are the source of great fear. But I believe that, likewise, the opposite of fear is love. Rather than trying to suppress our children’s powers of whatever sort, I believe we need to focus on teaching them to control their fears and learn to express their gifts in love. It is so easy to react out of fear.

Rather than hide, suppress, deny, and attempt to kill, we can encourage them to practice their powers. To use what they have been given in love.

So there you have it. My opinion on the meaning of Frozen.

The Opposite of Fear is Love.


  1. I haven't yet seen the movie, but my 21-year-old daughter has told me that I would love it. I have grown out of the patriarchal mold for the past decade, so thankful that I have, for my family's sake. "The opposite of fear is love" has been a motto of mine for quite some time. I guess I should go see the movie now.

  2. This is a great review... thank you for taking the time to write it all out.

    We haven't seen "Frozen" yet, but have heard nothing but "good" — like these things said here — about it. For a while I kept asking friends what the "hidden message" was. So many Disney movies have a message that you don't really get from the surface viewing but kids "hear" loud and clear. Like, as you pointed out, the man/prince must save the day. Or, as in "The Little Mermaid", "go against your parents' wishes and you'll end up being glad you did." They're obviously never the INTENT of the movie — I hope — but they're there nonetheless.

    We are a family big in the classical Christian education paradigm and, therefore, are also big on understanding that a story — any story — can be good if you're able to think about it. Children need to learn to entertain ideas without accepting them... just as we need to remember to do the same.

    It's like Star Wars vs. Star Trek. We let our daughters — 4 and 2 1/2 — watch Star Wars already because they can easily understand that "Darth Vader is bad and Luke Skywalker is good." That's about all there is to the story until you're old enough to force more onto it. But Star Trek (which I personally enjoy more than Star Wars) is quite different. It is something children need to be able to consider on many other levels to safely watch. Like C.S. Lewis says, "If you want your children to be smart, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be even smarter, read them more fairy tales." Kids should learn to say, "Aragorn is a great man." And, at the same time, "Harry Potter is a fantastic story about love and loyalty... but it's too bad Harry didn't do better throughout."

    So it's good to hear that this film really has some messages that we (thinking parents) can feel good about exposing our children to. There are so few good role models or good examples.

  3. I enjoyed this review of Frozen. I'm glad I wasn't aware of the supposed link to Anderson's Snow Queen as I viewed the movie without bias. I appreciate the reference to Shakespeare's classic tragedy formula.

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  5. Good analysis. Frozen is my 2nd favorite Disney princess movie (behind Aladdin).

  6. Saw this movie tonight (because of your review) and wept like a baby at the beauty of the movie. Thank you - not only for your perceptive review, but for your absolutely wonderful blog.