Sunday, February 16, 2014

Disney's Frozen and Mental Difference

Once again I was late to the party and only just now managed to see Disney's Frozen.

I can see why it's blowing up my Facebook and why Buzzfeed has such a massive crush on it: It's a snarky liberal arts-major nerd's dream come true. I was planning to write a very straightforward review like I did with Mother Courage. Instead the English Major in me has smelt blood in the snow (see what I did there?) and wants to write about everything. The merits of adaptational media, deconstructionism of fairy-tale archetypes, feminist readings, anti-feminist readings, queer identity, family dynamics...they're all there and just screaming to have someone far more expert and far more scholarly extract them from the movie.

But you know what? I'm not really known for not doing things because I don't have credentials. In fact I love doing things that I'm not qualified for because I'm not qualified. So let's talk about Elsa and Mental Difference.

First let me say, I've tried to keep this relatively spoiler free and while their won't be many plot details, thematically it'll be pretty comprehensive for this character. The rest I think you can live with since even the things I say about the ending are vague and pretty obvious to anyone who's watched a Disney movie. Second? Yes I am pursuing counseling my self. The nature of my counseling may or may not have anything to do with this entry, and I believe everyone should pursue some counseling as a matter of course.

Anyway, based off of two distinctly different characters from the original fable, The Snow Queen and a young boy she abducts, Elsa acts as both her captor and her own captive. She's a cryokinetic (that's powery person), and like most magic in fiction when magic is used as a metaphor it works off of her emotions. It can be extremely beautiful and tender. The first thing we see her do is build a snowman for her sister, and even when she's using it for just herself she's really quite capable of awe inspiring feats of art and design. The trouble is, since her powers work on emotion, even when she's happy or acting with good intentions she can get carried away. The second thing we see her do with her powers is nearly kill her sister by trying to save her life.

What does this have to do with Mental Difference you might ask? Well if we look at the magic as a metaphor and not one for homosexuality (as tempting and as easy as it is to write about it) we've got a girl who's bipolar.

Yeah, yeah I know. At this point you think I'm reading too much into it. Whenever someone utters the 'b' word everyone seems to scream and run into the hills and discredits the utterer. Alright. Assuming that's true, think about why we tell stories. Failing that, think about the kind of stories Disney tries to tell. While making no claims to literal truth, they want to be applicable to life. If there were no people like Elsa in the world, they wouldn't have tried to make it a point to have her be worth your sympathy. It just happens that those people are bipolar, manic-depressive, or have others mental differences.

But what do I mean when I say that? Well I'm using bipolar to mean capable of extreme moods (both high and low) and the activity, creativity, and interpersonal relation skills that can come from those moods. Elsa is very even-tempered throughout the movie, but if you read her powers as her moods then it's a pretty easy jump. Especially when you consider that a lot of people with mental difference are pretty damn productive. A person allowing herself to ride the high of her manic episode may get a bit of a skewed view of the world but will feel unstoppable and will be all the more creative because of that. Even if they accidentally hurt someone or themselves. Again the parallels with Elsa practically scream.

Anyway back to the movie. Her parents, feeling that her uncontrolled emotions will get put someone in danger again, decide to impress upon her that teaching her to control her powers is of utmost importance. Since her powers are linked to her emotions and they really don't know the slightest thing about magic, they lovingly (but firmly) decide that she can't express herself. A lesson Elsa eagerly adopts. The second song in the movie is in fact about how her door is always shut and all that implies to her little sister Ana, who just wants to build a snowman with the older sibling she adores.


Will get to emotional self-policing later. Let's do a close reading of the movie's best moment; the song Let it Go. Here's a nifty link to it for context.

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I’m the Queen.

This can be read as a depressive episode but honestly it can also be read as a reaction to anyone whose felt 'othered'. Elsa is surround by her own element, but that element (be it her depression, her mania, or some other thought pattern) just shows her how alone she really is. As she says, there are no footprints in the snow.

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried

Here the movie is practically begging to be interpreted since it's making her magic and her emotions explicitly linked. Cool reserved Elsa has a storm that can't be stopped by just wishing it away.

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 

So many people with mental difference struggle to fit in and associate their 'success' with being 'good'. The  line shows the issue with that by using 'have to' instead of 'want to''. Elsa is expressing this unfortunate attitude, especially with her little 'Conceal don't feel' mantra which she uses a lot more throughout the movie. Like a bipolar person she's afraid of her own emotions and how they effect her relationships. 

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door

...and then she says, "Fuck it!" This is a fantastic moment. She starts actively doing magic and has a genuine unrestrained smile. Again if we read 'magic' as 'emotion' (which the movie wants you to do) then she starts to acknowledge she has feelings to herself. This may like an obvious revelation to some;  people have feelings. When your own emotions are your enemy it's a lot easier to deny that you ever had them in the first place then to look at the raw fact of them. However all is not ice-roses. Notice the 'slam the door?' As we've seen this is a major motif. Don't worry, we'll come back to it.

I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

Oh dear. Now we have mania. This could easily come from a villain song (which this was in fact written as originally) but tonally the song is one of self emancipation. She's freeing herself from her fears, right guys?...guys? What I' getting at is while that may be true, and that acknowledging that your own emotions empower you is a good thing you have to recognize them in relation with other people. She doesn't. 'Let the storm rage on' is an extreme line and while 'the cold never bothered me anyway' is awesome and sassy she doesn't think that it's important that it bothers other people.  When manic, other people sometimes don't matter especially if you're busy 'slamming the door'. 

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all

Not much to say. Manic period after a lifetime of depression galore. Pretty obvious at least to me, and hopefully, now to you. 

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free

Remember that 'creative outporing' I was talking about? This is her deciding to do that. There's also some troubling language here like 'no right, no worn, no rules for me'. While she is absolutely portrayed sympathetically, what Disney princess have you ever heard say that? Even though she's meant to evoke our sympathy by learning more about herself, at this point her much needed internal focus comes at the price of her external focus. I would argue (and so would the movie) that people need to strike a balance. but when you're life is governed by extremes both high and low it can be hard to. This does not make you any less sympathetic or deserving.

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry

Oh dear.  More mania. Despite how literally true that claim may or may not be for a cryokinetic it's...pretty ballsy. So is 'you'll never see me cry'.  Implicit in that is an entire denial of ever feeling sorrow which when one is in the throws of happiness in extremis one tends to do.

Here I stand
And here I'll stay
Let the storm rage on

This little section is really impressive because of the animation. On 'stand' she stomps and a giant snowflake engrave ice-floor appears as a foundation for the castle she starts to conjure between this and the next stanza. Once you decide to embrace yourself as an emotional being, the narrative seems to be saying, you are capable of anything. Again though the troubling 'let the storm range on' is there. Often times bipolar disorder is characterized by racing and uncontrolled thoughts and if the storm is inside of her...

My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

...if the storm is inside of her you get stanzas like this. Wow. Her power (emotion) is not acknowledged by Elsa to be inside her anymore. The movie even uses the word 'soul' in conjunction with the words 'spiralling' and 'all around'.  Sure she's creating a kingdom for herself (and it's awesome!) but in being everywhere she's lost self control. Furthermore by 'never going back' she's dismissing control's value entirely. In fact she even throws away her crown! That was probably a family heirloom and it's the symbol of what makes her queen. Look. While 'bipolar' should not be a four letter word, it's a disorder for a reason and not just for the times when it's bearer is feeling depressed. It's good that she's taking steps to heal herself.  It's just that she has not taken all of them.

Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone

This is another moment when the lyrics are only really good because of the action on the screen. This is the part where Elsa gets rid of her conservative clothing and spins herself a sexy ice dress. While this is sung triumphantly 'the perfect girl is gone' is kind of sad if you think about it. She still has her parent's internalized standards. Her powers, while she chooses to revel in them, are still imperfect. Even when we see her looking and acting like the hot witch that she is, her emotions are still intrinsically imperfect to her. This is really poignant for people living with mental difference who are conditioned not to trust the way they feel. Even when acknowledging that they feel differently they still self impose. In this way Elsa is very realistic. Which is another way of saying 'she's a very cynical portrayal.'

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

I've already said what I want to say about these lines and if I haven't, you can probably guess by know what I would say. However you'll notice that the song ends with Elsa slamming a door in the viewers face. Interesting, no?

While it should be clear by know that people with mental difference (especially the bipolar) should be able to see themselves in Elsa, that's not the main point I want to make. No, the main point I want to make is that she's a sympathetic, loving, kind, powerful queen. Arguably largely because of her powers. It's so easy to self stigmatize, but here's an example, albeit fictious, of someone who is allegorically Mentally Different ruling a kingdom and using her art to enhance her rule (especially at the end of the movie). Also notice that while her parents love her and try to help her, they get her into the emotional mess in the first place. Being open with people is good, no matter how much you may fear you'll hurt them. Seeing a professional is better. They say each snowflake is unique. Go out and design your own.


The first version of this was nearly unreadable. I made it better.

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