Lessons from a Princess

Princess Elsa is a trans/trauma icon, and Frozen 2 is a powerful message about equality.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

So, as you already know if you’ve read the rest of this blog, I see myself in the odd Disney princess now and again. As a child I didn’t ever really identify with Disney because I just saw girls in pretty dresses chasing princesses and tuned out. I know now that there was more going on than that, but I never really identified with a Disney princess… until I saw Rapunzel.

There’s a lot of my character in Rapunzel, and her experiences of childhood trauma have some uncanny parallels with my own. I wanted to see her break free and be happy, because if she could do it, then maybe I could find my own path… I wasn’t really interested in a Flynn Rider of my own.

Brave? No doubt that Merida’s an empowered princess in her own right, but her film is all about bonding with a mother figure. Moana has incredible music, but she’s happy and secure and confident in herself – her opposition is mostly external, which makes for a great movie but not really a connection with me.

Then we get Frozen.

Frozen instantly shows us a child deeply affected by trauma, different from the people around her, and willing to be portrayed as evil and exiled from society if it gives her the right to be her real self. Elsa is taught from the beginning that being an ethical human being means masking who she is, and the harm she DOES do is due to a society that gives her no coping mechanisms for living in the closet, and no means to leave it. Frozen is a coming out story, and it’s message is that people who are different are not evil.

Fun fact: “Let It Go” is Disney’s best trans anthem, although if you want non-binary representation, check out “Lesson Number One” from Mulan Two.

Frozen Two brings us back to Elsa, showing her as part of a loving and “accepting” family. She’s given limited opportunities to use her powers, although they’re still jumping out of her skin, and her trauma is accommodated by those around her as they allow her to be socially distant, awkward, and easily upset. If you are not trans or traumatized you could look at the first part of Frozen and think that Elsa is in a great situation – this is what love and care looks like. This is an assimilation model of inclusion: difference is fine if you can mold yourself into something palatable. Good little queer.

But Elsa isn’t ok. She’s distracted and disassociating, terrified of change because she thinks it will take all her stability away. Spoiler alert: if your stability feels like it could slip away at any minute, or is contingent on you hiding things about yourself, it’s not that stable!

The climax of this pain is “Into the Unknown” where Elsa begins the song still desperately trying to mask herself, reveals that it’s getting harder by the minute, and by the end of the song is ready to abandon her home and literally run off a cliff after a strange ball of light because it might possibly offer a way to someone – anyone – who sees and understands her. It’s telling that at the end of the song Elsa implores: “Don’t leave me alone.” Not “don’t leave me here” or “don’t leave me without answers” – alone. That’s how she feels in her own community, surrounded by people who love her but don’t understand her.

For anyone tracking my feelings, that was about the point where I started BAWLING.

Another theme in Frozen 2 is that even those who love Elsa best cannot understand how her identity shapes her experience. In a few places she’s treated as fragile, or unable to understand what’s going on, when in reality her strength and understanding and emotional responses are the clearest and best informed by context. Elsa has access to more layers of information than her sister Anna because of her identity, but Anna frequently assumes that Elsa’s identity is causing her to overreact, or get it wrong. Anna is furious with Elsa when – after repeatedly stating what she needs – Elsa makes an accurate assessment of what she has to do to achieve happiness, and goes for it.

I’m sure many of us have experienced being forced into palatable models by the world around us. I know that many of us are told that are surgery is too dangerous, that we are “overreacting” to discrimination, that if we just all work together to follow the cis vision of our liberation we’ll be happy in the end. Well, here we have a princess who wholeheartedly accepts the risks of her own transition and healing, even when her main source of emotional support is telling her “no.” I love that Frozen tells us that Elsa unequivocally made the right choice. I love that she’s allowed to be happy, and to find a place where she’s truly accepted for who she is.

I know that some people might be unhappy with the message in Frozen 2 that there are some kinds of diversity that cannot be solved just by loving each other. But for Elsa, happiness means being herself, even if that means finding a new community, new friends, and a completely new way of living that matches who she is on the inside. At the start of Frozen 2 Elsa is surrounded by people who love her, but deeply unhappy and unstable because love cannot provide the things she needs. By the end of Frozen 2 Elsa is able to embrace her own love – love for herself and love for others, and to create new loving relationships as a result. She is resilient, caring, and engaged with her community. She is living a life where she can be fulfilled, stable, happy, and truly cared for.

I know that there are problems with what Elsa represents – her proportions, her whiteness, her impossible beauty. But even with all her privilege she still cannot succeed in a world that doesn’t accept her internal self. If transition is urgent for her, it must also be important for people who are not so fortunate in their wealth, their looks, or their families. Elsa shows us that living as someone you are not, however comfortable the circumstances, is simply unlivable. That risking death is preferable if it allows you to be who you are, to be seen, and to be understood.

I hope people watching the movie take that message away, and can understand what it means to those of us who see something of ourselves in a queer, traumatized princess.

If you love us?

Let us go.

Into the unknown.

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