So, this post has been a long time coming. I mean, I didn’t actually have a blog to write my half-rant-half-informative posts on when I initially found this issue annoying, but it recently came up again, and I felt the sudden need to clear a few things up for my younger readers.
You see, since the release of the hit Disney film in 2013 (oh my gosh that’s five years ago. I feel damn old), people have speculated about Elsa’s sexuality. Initially, I found this really weird. I mean, we have one of the very few stories about a Disney princess (and a Queen) in which the main focus of the plot isn’t the romance! While there is a romantic element to the story, the act of true love that saved Anna was one of sisterly love, which is exciting and wonderful. Even better, it is an act that she performs herself. We have a princess who takes matters into her own hands and affects the plot without the explicit need of a man. Yes, men help her along the way. Everyone needs a little help from time to time. But it’s a world away from the times when women would just have everything done to them instead of trying to actively make their own lives better. I wouldn’t necessarily call this film revolutionary. I mean, by the time Frozen came out, we’d already had Military Mulan, Entrepreneur Tiana and Rebellious Merida, just to name a few! However, I can’t deny that the reception of Frozen and the subversion of the ‘magical-queen-is-evil’ trope helped Disney take a good few steps in the right direction.
So why would we need to discuss Elsa’s sexuality? Doesn’t that defeat the whole point? Well, not for a lot of my fellow left-wing friends who made the mistake of confusing a metaphor for reality. They began insisting that Elsa must be gay for a bunch of different reasons. To be honest, the actual, reasonable LGBTQ reading of Frozen is pretty cool. It makes a lot of sense and sheds a lot of light upon the complexity of the film. I loved looking into it, and I think that it can be essential for understanding how people from the LGBTQ community can be demonised and ostracised for things they can’t control. So what is the legitimate LGBTQ reading?
Well, Elsa has a power she has no control over. However, pretty soon her parents tell her that she needs to hide all evidence of this power, “conceal, don’t feel”, and she begins to live in isolation to protect her secret. When her powers can no longer be hidden, she finds herself embracing what makes her different and realising how freeing it can be to accept who you are. While it can be isolating – she once again finds herself alone, though this time in a castle of her own making – she realises that a lot of the people she hid her secret from accepted and loved her anyway. Love was the key to help her control her power.
I mean, it’s pretty obviously a metaphor for being in the closet and coming to terms with who you are when you’re LGBTQ. It really resonated with me too, as a human being with empathy. When I had it explained to me, I watched the whole film again with a smile on my face. To some, even the fact that Elsa didn’t end up with a man by the end seems to reinforce the idea that she could be gay. Awesome!
So where does it fall apart? Well, it falls apart when you get a bunch of people who don’t know what a metaphor is, making broad assumptions and alienating people who don’t interpret Frozen in the same way. The beauty of Fantasy as a genre is that it uses the ‘unrealistic’ or fantastical elements to make a comment on our society without being intrusive or portraying a good or bad person. Its vagueness lends to its ability to help people be more objective about what you consume. You can never be 100% objective, but it’s much easier to come to a moral conclusion about something that isn’t so close to home as a real-life event. Metaphors are wonderful things like that. I mean, could you imagine if Tolkien made a story about a man trying to overcome the Catholic idea of sin instead of a hobbit who dumps a tempting, evil and sentient ring into Mount Doom? It wouldn’t have the universal appeal. People wouldn’t be able to apply it to other situations in the same way. People who don’t agree with the Catholic idea of sin probably wouldn’t find The Lord of the Rings appealing. As it is, loads of people from all kinds of faith can speak Sindarin, let alone watch the films and read the books!
And when it comes to Frozen, I can interpret Elsa’s power to be so many other things than simply homosexuality. It doesn’t just have one single reading. If it did, it wouldn’t hit home with as many people as it does! For example, if people are being particularly annoying and rude to me about my religion, I can sit down and watch Frozen and identify with Elsa’s power as a metaphor for my religious beliefs. If I’m experiencing a lot of racism from one side of my family and am forced to deny half of my ethnic identity and pretend I’m not mixed race, I can see Elsa’s parents’ advice in the same light as my relatives telling me to act more Indian (whatever that means). When I’m treated badly for being intelligent and opinionated, I know Elsa’s got my back because she knows what it’s like for people to hate you for who you are. All of those things that make Frozen special don’t just apply to the LGBTQ community, even if they fit it so well. Sometimes it’s not just your sexuality that you’re forced to hide from the people around you. There are so many things that Frozen could apply to.
Metaphors are not real. They’re used to describe real life on different terms – to take the real out of context and make it into something new. If I compared you to a graceful gazelle, to use a cliche, it wouldn’t actually make you a gazelle. And while ‘Let it Go’ applies beautifully to coming out of the closet, she’s talking about her literal ice powers, because this is a fantasy in which she has powers. Yes, that may be a metaphor, but that doesn’t mean she has to be talking about her sexuality. It means we’re challenged to understand the implication of what her powers could mean in our world. The song is about the fact that she literally has ice powers. I mean, it’s not like she’s come out as gay any time in the story, so why would she say something like “couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried”. If she is gay, then she is certainly still keeping it in.
But that’s not my only issue with people being willing to fight each other over whether or not Elsa is gay. My problem is the sheer lack of women who don’t end up with a lover, boyfriend or husband by the end of the story. Out of the three women I mentioned in the Disney canon, both Tiana and Mulan end up in relationships by the end. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, and their relationships are wonderfully modern, but would it kill for a woman to just be on her own from time to time? So we have one of the few characters in the Disney universe who doesn’t need a man. Why does she suddenly need a woman? Why do we need to judge her sexuality on the fact that she hasn’t found someone yet? I mean, do you know how annoying that kind of thing is in real life? Assuming that women who haven’t found a husband yet must be gay?! Are you saying that only gay women can be sassy and independent?
In the canon of the story, Elsa has shown no signs of being gay. We have already said that the canon discusses her powers when they’re saying ‘Let it Go’ and that the LGBTQ reading of the story is one that we apply to our own world, not hers. So I don’t consider all of my single friends to be gay because they’re not interested in dating, they’re picky, or they haven’t found anyone yet. That’s a ridiculously counterproductive attitude. Loads of gay people are seeking out loving partnerships and marriages, and loads of straight people have other fish to fry. It all depends on what it is we want to – and are able to – prioritise at that moment. Gay people aren’t defined by only their gayness. They have a whole life, just like the straight people. So Elsa’s whole story doesn’t revolve around her being a member of the LGBT community – if she even is gay. She’s a queen, for heaven’s sake – and a new one at that. She’s got bigger things to deal with than finding a (wo)man. Anna, who has a lot less responsibility, does end up in love with someone by the end, sure. Elsa, on the other hand, is more concerned with running her kingdom and stopping herself from icing everyone to death to deal with courtly love and finding a suitor – male or female.
In a lot of older films and books, the goal of most heroines would be to find a romantic relationship with a man. Male protagonists would go on exciting adventures, change the world and kick butt. They would affect the story and proactively chase what they want. Love would often be a sideline thing. They may find romance along the way, but that doesn’t mean that the story revolves around their romantic attachments. Romance is a side story for them. Most of the female protagonists would be consumed with their need to find someone, and their story would likely fall into the romance genre. And when they’re being proactive and chasing desires other than romance, it’s often because they’re a femme fatale with ominous aims. In Elsa, we have a character who fits into neither of those boxes. She seeks out acceptance and love on a purely sisterly and plutonic level. Romance never crosses her mind, except to assess Ana’s naivete. Why are we forcing that old-fashioned need to make a woman’s journey about romance upon her?
Does that mean that Elsa can’t be gay? No! It means that we need to stop assuming we know a person’s sexuality before they tell us or make it clear. It means that not every woman who ends up with no man by the end of the story has to be gay. Straight people can also take part in the liberal revolution and be an important part of it. I don’t assume someone’s sexuality either way. I let them tell me or show me. I think that’s how everyone should be! We shouldn’t make assumptions about sexuality based on a metaphor or two, or a person’s singleness. It’s not only gay people who may choose not to date. I personally wouldn’t be super excited if Elsa did turn out to like women in the Frozen 2, purely because I’d much rather her be asexual and not need anyone apart from family. I would love that! I mean, how much representation does asexuality get in the media? None! But if she does turn out to be gay in the next film, it will be completely separate from this one, and I’ll be happy for her if she finds love.
Do you know what I think Disney is in need of? A new princess who is lesbian and finds love. Someone who doesn’t adhere to the usual stereotypes about being lesbian, and whose story is just as cute and romantic as all the straight romances that it has offered in the past. Heck, Disney needs a lot of new characters who are members of the LGBTQ community, because one or two just isn’t enough. I hope that it chooses to do that in the future, but not at the expense of making it look like you need to be gay to be a good feminist character. When that happens, I’ll be in the forefront, praising Disney for its progressiveness. We all need representation.