The Frozen Franchise is about a princess named Elsa (Idina Menzel) grappling with her awesome ice powers. She is given help in the form of her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), and an ice hauler called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). The series has always been about feminine strength. The first installment ends with the two sisters hugging to break a curse that requires an act of true love, which is a subversion that harkens back to the plot of Disney’s 1937 film Snow White.
Some thought that Elsa’s lack of a romantic partner meant that she was queer. The first movie ends with her happily governing the Danish kingdom of Arendelle with only her sister and friends for company. There was also speculation that a side character named Oaken was depicted with a male-presenting romantic partner in one brief shot of his family.
Disney could have made this subtext text in Frozen II. Instead, the company chose to tweak its formula of romantic love in a way that will undoubtedly validate some viewers, while alienating others.
This is a song Disney has sung for decades.
The Siren’s Call
The first Frozen movie is best known for the quintessential power ballad Let It Go. In the song, Queen Elsa chooses to let go of her suppressed feelings (and ice powers), and instead live a life in the mountains unencumbered by the constraints of society. It didn’t take long for the Internet to liken this feeling to that of stepping out of the closet. The Twitter campaign #GiveElsaaGirlfriend went viral shortly after the movie’s release. Many queer Disney viewers read a subtext from the first film that Disney has thus far refused to confirm or deny.
There is no official coming out of the closet for Elsa in Frozen II, but there is a lot of queer subtext. The thing that lingers with me from the second movie is the haunting first few chords from the song Into The Unknown, where a siren voice calls out to Queen Elsa to embrace the unfamiliar. These notes repeat throughout the entire film, and again, it’s queer AF. Here’s a lyric from the song:
Or are you someone out there who’s a little bit like me?
Who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be?
If, from a queer lens, Let It Go is about coming out of the closest, then Into The Unkown is about abandoning your small town to move into the gayborhood (or these days, a group house seven miles away). There are other queer signifiers in this film as well: we see Olaf run across the screen for half a second in what appears to be an icicle dress; there is a female lady friend named Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews) Elsa chats with briefly over a campfire. Yet, we see nothing that would make Elsa the first queer princess.
When I think of these songs, which are undeniably empowering to many young female-presenting viewers in the audience, I can’t stop thinking about the singer Adriana Caselotti. You might not have heard of her, and that’s by design on Disney’s end. She’s the voice of Snow White in the song Someday My Prince May Come, which is a haunting song about waiting to find your true love. A mindset Frozen rightfully parodies through its character Anna, who, in the first movie, wants to fall in love with a guy (any guy).
There is an old Hollywood legend that Walt Disney blacklisted this singer so that her voice could remain unique in the public imagination. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that this is true, but they certainly stiffed her. In the words of Caselotti, who sadly died of cancer in 1998:
‘They had told me that it was going to be a little longer than their shorts, which were 10 to 12 minutes. So I thought it would be 20 minutes long or so. I didn’t realize what had happened until I went to the premiere. I saw all these movie stars — Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper — everybody was there. I discovered this thing was an hour and 23 minutes.’’
Caselotti was 18 years old at the time of recording her song for Disney. She was paid about $970 for her efforts or a little over $17,000 when adjusted to inflation. She never had a breakout moment career-wise. Someday My Prince May Come has been covered by famous singers such as Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis, but Caselotti remains a footnote in history because Disney didn’t care to prop up the career of a young woman with dreams offscreen.
Frozen is viewed alongside Brave (2012) and a host of other recent films, as pushing back against the sexism of the past, but something that often gets lost in the shuffle is how major Disney was (and in some cases still is) in contributing to that sexism. There has been some evidence to suggest that the consumption of princess media affirms damaging gender stereotypes for young girls. An analysis published in 2016 found that men dominated a majority of the speaking roles in princess movies, and that includes Frozen — though Frozen II is bucking this trend. Other evidence indicates that princess culture has a racist tinge to it. As Jeff Guo wrote in The Washington Post:
“To modern eyes, the classic trio of Disney princess films — released in 1937, 1950 and 1959 — can seem painfully retrograde. Why are characters so obsessed with Snow White’s looks? Why doesn’t Cinderella have any talents or hobbies? And why doesn’t Sleeping Beauty do anything besides get drugged and await rescue?”
I had hoped Disney would have learned from this past and strived not to repeat the mistakes of Snow White, and yet, when it comes to queer representation, history seems to be repeating itself.
Breaking The Dam Too Late
The second Frozen movie hinges on the character’s redressing the sins of the past. It’s revealed that Elsa and Anna’s grandfather built a dam in an enchanted forest to weaken the people there (who are referred to as the Northuldra). He feared the magical spirit’s potential to unseat his throne, even though they demonstrated no desire to do so. Years later, Elsa and Anna have to travel to these lands to right this wrong by blowing up that dam so that the forest’s powers can be restored.
The climax of the movie ends with the dam going down. The water rushes across the fjord and risks drowning out the capital of Arendelle in a massive tidal wave. For a brief second, it seems like the people of Arendelle will have to pay for their imperialist past, and then, in the last possible second, Elsa comes riding across the waters on a horse made of water. She uses her powers to freeze the tidal wave, and the water recedes, leaving the capital safely intact.
This scene perfectly encapsulates Disney’s approach to addressing past wrongs. When it comes to reexamining the past, nothing needs to be sacrificed from the former aggressor. The dam can be dismantled without having to question the things it helped build.
Disney has had a complicated relationship with the queer community. Until very recently, there has not been official LGBTQIA+ representation, but there had been a lot of queer-coded characters. Many of the company’s most illustrious villains have been depicted as effeminate, fashion-loving divas (e.g., Hades, Scar, and Ratigan). In one of the most direct examples, the vivacious sea witch Ursula was modeled directly after the famous drag queen Divine of Hairspray and Pink Flamingo fame.
This history is partly the reason Elsa resonated with so many people. For most of the first movie, her uncontrollable powers placed her in the role of the villain. In fact, in early drafts of the film, the creators toyed with her being just that, and consequently, she fit into a queer subtext that had existed since Scar. Many queer people consequently feel seen by Disney without actually being seen by Disney. In the words of Jamie Lee Curtis Taete in Them:
“Almost all of their films tell the stories of characters who don’t fit into the societies in which they live. And some get even queerer. Like Mulan, which explores non-normative gender identity and a debateably bisexual romance. And Pinnochio, whose titular character spends much of the film agonizing over the fact that he isn’t a ‘real boy.’”
If Disney wanted to “break the dam,” and welcome its queer members into the fold, then the best way to do that would be to make some of its heroes and villains textually queer — to validate a subtext that has lingered for decades. This is not the approach Disney has taken, however, with queer representation. They have instead decided to pick away at the margins.
In March of 2017, for example, a string of articles triumphantly remarked the debut of the first gay Disney character in the Beauty and The Beast reboot. This character turned out to be LeFou — a side character who has an unrequited crush on the movie’s antagonist Gaston. LeFou later comes out of the closet (literally) and shares a blink-it-and-you’ll-miss-it dance with a minor character at the end of the film.
Similarly, another string of articles lauded the first gay character in the Marvel Universe. He turned out to be a minor role at a Captain America-led bereavement group for people who had partners lost during Thanos’s snap. We see him for only a couple of seconds grieving his male partner.
This type of representation is so subtle that, for some, it might not even exist. As Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote in Vox:
“…the company’s films indulge in half-measures designed to let viewers who are progressively inclined feel as if they’re picking up on something truly new and interesting, while never actually challenging any of the baseline presumptions of a society that allows Disney to remain dominant.”
The company continues to make overtures to queer people without being willing to do the actual work.
Queer Representation Frozen In Ice
There will undoubtedly be young girls, boys, and nonbinary people who see themselves in one of the characters onscreen. The representation in Frozen and Frozen II is mostly good, especially when compared to characters of Disney’s past, such as Snow White. In Frozen, strong female characters are confiding in other strong female characters, and male-presenting characters are unthreatened by that strength.
All of this is positive. One has to ask, though, what sort of world we would live in if the company had decided to actively support its many queer viewers. If they had dared to make Elsa textually queer, then it would have been a powerful statement. Queer children all over the world who loved the first film, would have felt genuinely seen and loved.
Instead, Disney decided to defer to subtext so that their film wouldn’t be banned in markets such as China. When the chips were down, they chose to value their conservative viewers over their committed queer audience. The company has placed a lot of money in recent years with rebooting its old movies with a more progressive, feminist veneer. Yet, this queer erasure calls into question the authenticity of those decisions.
This move is especially frustrating because we know that eventually queer representation will become a “safe enough” idea for Disney to have a queer main character. The dam will inevitably break, and when that happens, the queer community will be expected to support the movie that follows. Disney will have its queer character on floats in pride parades, and a portion of proceeds from ticket sales will go to a nonprofit like the Trevor Project. Op-eds will be written in defense of the film’s socially conservative critics as a flock of gays remark on the power of “being seen by Disney.”
By then, though, the water that rushes out when the dam falls will be a trickle of what it could have been. Disney will think they were preventing a tidal wave, but really, they were stopping change from washing away the sins of the past. Many children who would have needed a queer prince, princess, or non-binary noble person will have found it elsewhere, or, sadly, nowhere at all.
Disney will have learned that it can once again pivot without questioning its past, and lost in the shuffle, will be about how Disney contributed to that culture of homophobia and transphobia that it is now rightfully criticizing.
It will be an unknown that is immediately recognizable and familiar.