Little in my life prepared me for parenthood. I was not raised with a soft spot for children. My own deeply broken family exemplified many of the worst cliches of WASPy upper middle-class repression: my mother died young due to substance abuse, and my father remains so emotionally distant that I have never really known him. My older gay brother certainly taught me many valuable lessons but offered no template for how to have kids. For me, family was an F word—and yet, at age 41, I found myself engaged to the woman who would be my wife, and we were expecting a young girl.
My wife and I first met at a dance in the ninth grade and became friends throughout high school. Years later, we realized that our own misplaced anxieties about each other, which prevented any sort of romantic relationship early on, were nothing more than that: misplaced anxieties. Thankfully, adulthood sometimes gives us a chance to do things over again, and by some divine circuitry, we found ourselves in love and confronting parenthood, all rather late in the game.
My daughter Adelaide is now almost four years old, and much of this feels like ancient history. But when she was born, I had to ask some difficult questions: how could I raise a young person, and how could I raise a young person in this world? My mother raised me with a second-wave feminist ideology which had very little to do with the world I was entering in the 1980s and 90s. By her urging, I read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch at age 12 or 13, and of course it largely eluded me. Yet this perspective stayed with me and formed a part of my own moral core. The conventional images for many young girls of fairy princesses made my inner feminist gag, and I was committed to remove them from my daughter’s life. I would come to read Peggy Orenstein’s essays on young girls and “Princess Culture” and know I was in good company.
But try as I might, there was no way to elude Frozen. It was part of the everyday parlance of my daughter’s world at daycare, and it entered her consciousness without me ever realizing. It suddenly appeared on shoes, bags, cups, sunglasses, Christmas wrapping paper, t-shirts, and so on—some of which began to clutter our home. I thought that the gross consumerism of the Frozen franchise was more than a little disgusting, and it did not leave me with a sense that it was anything other than a money-generating machine imagined by Disney (which, on one level, it surely is). Still, I could hardly win this fight, and so we watched it together—and then watched it and re-watched it dozens of times.
As my subtitle suggests, seeing the film was a revelation, and the timing worked out such that we could see Frozen II for the first time in the cinema. But it was during Christmas 2019 when, in those hazy pre-pandemic days, a church in our neighborhood screened Frozen for all the local children. They came in droves. They wore costumes. They sang and danced and shouted and cried. Young girls lip synched to Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” on the stage of the church wearing Elsa dresses and wigs as tears ran down their faces with a conviction that was variously moving and a little cringey. There were over one hundred girls (and some boys) communally celebrating the profound love for what is surely the foundational narrative of their generation. It was amazing to see: these children staged an ecstatic ritual in a church that required no liturgy, no direction from a man (or from anyone, really), following the thunderous pulse of the film itself.
What is the appeal of Frozen? How did Disney get a film franchise so right? (The answer does not lie in its source, Hans Christian Anderson’s 1844 The Snow Queen, or Snedronningen, which offers little more than a point of departure for the films—I checked). On one level, the female subjectivity of the film and its unfiltered emotional intensity surely mirrors that of very young girls. But that only gets us part of the way. A large part of the answer, I think, is that Frozen is an epic—as Joseph Campbell famously defined it—and as such, it stages an expansive allegory for the viewer’s transition from childhood to adulthood.
But Frozen is, in particular, a feminist epic, something seemingly unknown to Campbell. At its core, Frozen features not one but two epic heroines: Elsa, who we learn in the first film was born with magical powers to create snow and ice, and Anna, Elsa’s younger sister. Typical of a long tradition in children’s literature, the story begins with the loss of parents, when Elsa must assume the title of Queen of Arendelle and her sister, Princess. Because of a childhood accident, Elsa has been taught to hide her powers (and thus much of who and what she is) while Anna’s memories of her sister’s magic have been erased. During the coronation festivities, Elsa’s powers are revealed, and she must flee to the extraordinary ice castle of her own making (cue “Let It Go”). Anna goes to retrieve her sister but is again accidentally struck by Elsa’s magic (what Elsa most deeply feared). Now mortally wounded by a “frozen heart,” Anna must be healed by an “act of true love,” which comes not from a Prince Charming (or Prince Hans, as he is called) but from her sister, an inversion of the heterosexist and patriarchal narrative. As an epic, the heroines both need to leave their home to learn things in the outside world and return home as different people. Elsa assumes her role as the openly magical Queen of Arendelle, and Anna finds her own true love in the bumbling figure of Kristoff. And so a new status quo is achieved.
But it is in Frozen II where the story’s epic qualities are most manifest and where Elsa and Anna become themselves as adult women. And it is in this film that the epic’s psychoanalytic roots—as Campbell understood them—most clearly show, such as when Olaf (the soothsaying snowman) mimics Kristoff and says, “I need to go into the forest and talk to rocks about my childhood.” It is three years after the coronation, and Arendelle is at peace. But Elsa begins to hear a voice that is mute to everyone else in Arendelle, one of many features of Elsa that emphasizes her non-normativity. Drawn by that voice, Elsa accidentally awakens the elemental spirits (fire, wind, etc.), and the Arendellians are forced to flee Arendelle. Elsa and Anna consult Grand Pabbie, the Troll king, who tells them that they must right historical wrongs in order to save Arendelle. They learn that their grandfather, King Runeard, had made a false treaty with the Northuldra people and built a dam that would essentially starve their lands of water (for North American viewers, the parallels with colonial treatment of the Continent’s First Nations could not be more clear). It is revealed that Runeard had, in fact, killed the Northuldra leader, which caused the Enchanted Forest to be covered in mist and its inhabitants trapped. It is also revealed that the young King Agnarr of Arendelle, the heroines’ father, was saved from the forest by their mother, the future Queen Iduna, a Northuldra woman. Their dual ancestry revealed, Elsa and Anna discover within their parents’ wrecked ship a map to Ahtohallan, a river said to contain all the secrets of the past. Knowing that the voice Elsa has heard throughout the story emanates from Ahtohallan, Elsa sends Anna away because she understands that this journey (the hero’s journey) is one she must take alone.
The hero’s journey, as Campbell has it, is punctuated by trials (killing a beast, solving a riddle, etc). Elsa’s major trial is to tame the magical guardian of Ahtohallan—the Nokk—the water spirit in the shape of a horse. But it also requires a descent of sorts into the unconscious or, at least, the unknown; Elsa experiences this when she jumps deep into the bowels of Ahtohallan where the memories of her ancestor’s actions lie. Much like Luke Skywalker entering the Dagobah Cave in The Empire Strikes Back where he discovers the secret of his own paternity, Elsa makes a physical and metaphorical descent to learn the repressed truth of her ancestor’s actions. The story concludes when Anna must “do the next right thing” and save the Northuldra while potentially sacrificing Arendelle; but before Arendelle’s ruin is threatened by the tidal wave of the broken dam, Elsa returns transformed and saves her kingdom. It is here that we learn a long-standing secret in the mythology of Frozen: that Elsa’s powers were a gift because her mother saved King Agnarr. Elsa is, in fact, the fifth binding element that unites the natural world and brings peace to it.
But summarizing Frozen II so skeletally makes it sound far more schlocky than it is. Elsa’s profound alterity has been a feature of the story all along. Her lack of romantic interest (in men at least) as is expected from the Disney princess genre, her general oddness in the light of the kind but pedestrian company of Kristoff, the reindeer Sven, and the rest of the Arendellians, and the fact that she hears voices—all of this suggests that Elsa’s way of knowing and being is different from that practiced at Arendelle. Although it did not occur to me when I first saw the film, I was not surprised to learn that Elsa has been read as a queer character. Most superficially, Elsa’s overt glamour, chilly elegance, occasional bitchiness, and the fact that she belts out show tunes in a sequin gown in a fashion that would make Cher or Celine Dion envious, surely makes her a canonical queen. But, for some viewers, her close friendship with Honeymaren in Frozen II suggested a same-sex attraction which could, perhaps, go some way toward explaining her sense of difference from other characters in the film. Although the creators have contested this reading of the film, Elsa is certainly queer in the broadest sense of the term (whether sexually or not). Elsa returns from Ahtohallan finally understanding why she is different; she is not simply human but rather, a spiritual being—a human personification of an element. In Frozen II, she becomes who she was meant to be, a transformation that is physical and spiritual. And with this transformation, she has outgrown Arendelle, and she abdicates her throne to her more conventional sister in order to take her place in Northuldra with the spirits. In Campbellian terms, the hero’s journey has been completed, and s/he has fulfilled an unwritten destiny, and a new status quo is established.
Elsa is thus an epic hero, a feminist hero, and an allegory for human difference generally. The Frozen franchise offers children a vision of alterity in a setting that normalizes its many forms. It offers a feminist retelling of a hero story—much as Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess did for my generation—albeit in a way that is not heavy-handed but fluidly in line with contemporary sensibilities. Frozen and Frozen II promote strangeness and difference, offering young viewers a vision of living strangely but comfortably in the world.
In the end I don’t know if Frozen was a bigger revelation for Adelaide or for me. It helped me understand her and her aspirations for herself, and, surprisingly, to feel really good about them. Frozen also gave us license to explore what were becoming our shared passions: medieval(ist) narratives in film (we would also love Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon and Guillermo del Toro’s Troll Hunters) and architecture (Frozen gave me a good reason to explain Norwegian Stave Church architecture as a source for the film’s settings). When not parenting, I teach at a traditional university populated by Romanesque and Gothic Revival buildings that my daughter calls “castles” or “Elsa castles,” and our trips home from daycare many days demanded a detour to walk together through a new “castle” and basically poke around after hours. Adelaide became Elsa, and I became Anna—names that we still sometimes use today: a sisterhood between father and daughter. I recall one moment in which I understood what those adventures meant to her. I said, “Addy, what do you want for dinner?” to which I got no response. I asked again and again, and then it occurred to me to reframe the question: “Elsa, what do you want for dinner?”, to which she replied, “noodles, Anna.”
Matthew M Reeve is Associate Professor of Art History at Queen’s University. When not parenting and cottage building, he writes on aspects of medieval and modern art and aesthetics, and the history of sexuality. His recent book Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole came out in 2020 with Penn State Press.