Challenging Conventions, Subverting Stereotypes: Elucidating the Character of Elsa in Frozen

Frozen, directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, 2013


Frozen is an American 3D computer-animated film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios and released in 2013. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Snow Queen, Frozen seems to mark a departure from the typical fairytale storyline by focusing on the development of a loving relationship between two sisters, as opposed to the conventional “damsel in distress” plot. The story revolves around, not one, but two strong female protagonists, Princess Elsa and Princess Anna of Arandelle, whose emotional and physical odyssey make them realize the potential of true love.

The film opens with the two sisters, Elsa and Anna, as joyous playmates and inseparable friends. Elsa possesses cryokinetic powers which enable her to produce or manipulate ice, frost and snow at will. But when one night Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the former comes to realize the threatening aspect of her magic. Although Anna is healed, a perturbed and guilt-ridden Elsa retires to a life of seclusion in her castle room. Being shut out of Elsa’s life devastates young Anna who longs for a reunion with her sister. Although Elsa herself yearns to break away from her life of isolation, her apprehensions seem to paralyze her. Thus an inevitable rift develops between the siblings. But when the time for Elsa’s coronation arrives, the sisters experience an awkward reunion. While the perky, quirky Anna is a little nervous but also overjoyed to see her sister again, the reserved and reluctant Elsa is anxious lest she reveals her cryokinectic powers during the coronation.Tragedy strikes when, after the coronation, Anna introduces Prince Hans to Elsa, seeking her consent for their marriage, which leads to a squabble between the sisters that culminates in the exposure of Elsa’s magical abilities in a moment of emotional outburst. Instantly branded as a “monster” by the visiting Duke of Weselton, a flustered and fearful Elsa dashes away in a fit of self-imposed exile, while inadvertently unleashing an eternal winter on the sunny, idyllic kingdom of Arandelle.

Afterwards the story settles in Anna’s courageous efforts to retrieve her estranged sister and restore order to the kingdom with the assistance of an unemployed iceman, Kristoff and his pet reindeer, Sven. While the journey seems overly familiar, the destination retains surprises in store.

Although the story seems to have immense potential of developing into a tale of heteronormative romance, the focus is consciously shifted to the profound and complex bond of love that binds the two sisters. Even after staying isolated from her sister for years, Anna defends her sister when Duke of Weselton tags Elsa as a force of evil once he encounters her magical powers. The duke’s attitude not only betrays his intentions of inventing ploysto exploit Arandelle, but also hints at the age-old practice of denouncing magically-gifted women as “witches” in a patriarchal setup. Conventional patriarchal society tries to stereotype “virtuous women” as typical “damsel in distress” figures and their association with any sort of power, magical or otherwise, is bound to be decried by the patriarchs who want to keep women under their thumbs. But the way Frozen subverts this by portraying the magically-gifted Elsa in in a positive light, is refreshingly new. The movie upholds her as the most complicated and compelling character. Born, and not cursed, with her cryogenic powers (as clarified by her father to the troll king), Elsa’s magic has an aesthetic and procreative side to it. It is made evident by the magnificent snow castle that she architectures for herself, and her creation of the snowman, Olaf, whom she unknowingly brings to life. But in order to be “the good girl you always have to be”( “Let It Go”) in a conservative society where women have little choice but to abide by socially-imposed roles, even at the expense of repressing their individuality, Elsa has spent all her life being trapped in a four-walled room of royalty and desolation. Elsa is relatable— as a woman who claims her identity. Like many real women, she seems to have spent her life trying to keep her emotions locked away and being forced into denying her true self. But the moment she flees the kingdom of Arandelle, she seems to taste liberation for the first time. Her swelling emotions pour out as she belts out the power ballad “Let It Go”: she resolves to let go of the pretentious life of restraints she has lived so long and embrace a new future where she can literally be the monarch of her own destiny. Her soaring declaration of independence is accompanied by her flashy physical transformation from a prim princess to the overtly sexual Snow Queen.

The sexual and aesthetic dimension of the transformation is noteworthy. The magically-gifted Elsa seems to display a femininity and sexual aura typically associated with the monster in traditional narratives, but significantly she is seen as a complex but positive character devoid of any evil intentions. This renders the hackneyed angel/monster dichotomy dysfunctional. Discussed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work, The Mad Woman in the Attic, and described as “eternal types” that male authors have invented for women, the “angel”/ “monster” binary corresponds to the distinction in the representation of pure, innocent women and the rebellious, thus, monstrous, women. Elsa’s layered character seems to possess the potential to upset this angel/monster dichotomy which Disney movies till now have seemed to propagate while catering to the demands of mainstream audience. Also, Elsa turns out to be the first Disney princess to become a monarch and rule, that too without needing a consort. As Elsa retains her transformed avatar even when she returns to Arandelle and takes up her position as the queen, it seems to  challenge the sexist  notion that the domain of the public and political is exclusively reserved for the male, and any woman who dares to venture into it needs to de-sexualize herself and make herself mannish (Hillary-ous, isn’t it?). Elsa’s overt sexuality – hinted at by her sheer dress and her graceful gait— however, does not diminish her into a mere sexual object (RGV, take note), but rather becomes a means of her self-expression. From being a girl who has spent her years enduring the worst form of isolation, the pain of being divorced from her true self, Elsa transmutes into a strong, independent woman who does not hesitate to claim her individuality. She also realizes that embracing “love” – which perhaps hints at the concept of self-love – is the key to having a steady control over her cryokinetic powers. Accepting herself the way she is, and firmly establishing her individuality,  helps Elsa to mend her bonds with Anna, whose sincere love for Elsa predisposes her to accept her sister in her singularity.

In terms of the sorts of messages that Disney animated classics have sent out for decades, mainly catering to the demands of mainstream Western society, Frozen (2013) emerges as a game-changer. Contradicting critical claims that Disney movies, in spite of involving lots of female characters, are seldom women-centric, Frozen breaks new ground with the depiction of strong, independent-minded female characters. It plunges into the psyche of Elsa and Anna, explicating the pains each undergoes, the potential each possesses, and the profound bond of love and solidarity that the sisters share. But most significantly the movie challenges conventions, blasts stereotypes and emerges as a filmic paean to the ideas of individuality and self-acceptance, which involves a realistic albeit subjective understanding of one’s strengths and drawbacks.

-Semanti Nandi

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