Buying gifts for small granddaughters reminds me that the popularity of Disney’s Frozen (2013) is undiminished. This is a fine thing. It’s a great movie and includes some good role models for little girls. However, there is something faintly disconcerting about seeing children’s clothing emblazoned with the slogan “Let It Go” (title of the lead song from the movie).
“Let It Go”
At these links, you can find the lyrics to the song (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez); a video clip of the song as it appears in the movie, sung by Idina Menzel, with the lyrics helpfully added; and a pop version, with a driving rock beat, by Demi Lovato (with slightly different lyrics).
You’ll recall that Elsa, the newly-crowned queen of Arendelle, has her uncontrollable ice powers suddenly revealed in public, and flees the city. Alone on the mountainside, she abandons the careful restraint and concealment that her dead parents imposed, and gives her abilities free rein. As she creates a magnificent ice castle, she renounces the land and people she’s left behind. She proclaims that she will break through the limits and use her powers as she will: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me: I’m free!”
It’s a great song. I have both versions on my playlists. The music is powerful, and the lyrics take some clever turns. (It’s the first time I’ve heard the term “fractal” used in a song.) Moreover, the movie visuals that accompany the song are amazing.
Elsa as Role Model
As an anthem for young girls, “Let It Go” is a very appealing choice. It praises the kinds of qualities we all want to see in young people growing up: asserting your own identity, using your abilities, being unafraid to admit what you are. (“What you are” could represent anything from personal tastes and talents to sexuality—the latter of which is suggested by Elsa’s costume change). The song evokes the “breaking free” trope that’s so appealing to the young—not to mention, now and then, the rest of us—and speaks for self-reliance and independence.
So far, so good. We can always benefit from another strong female role model. The trouble is that fixing on “Let It Go” as a rallying cry assumes these attitudes are what we admire in Elsa. But that’s not actually the role the song plays in the story.
I assume that by now pretty much everybody has seen this movie, so I won’t issue the customary caution about spoilers—since we now have to discuss specific plot points.
Elsa wants to cast aside all association with humanity (“kingdom of isolation”). She has a praiseworthy motive—she feels she has to be alone, so others won’t be harmed—but she also revels in the freedom of isolation. She declares independence, not only from arbitrary constraints, but from moral rules (“No right, no wrong”).
Once we’ve seen Elsa’s moment of solitary glory—and it is glorious—the story starts to subvert that declaration. Her isolation leaves her unaware that she’s transformed summer to winter, not just where she is, but also back in Arendelle. Not until her sister Anna and the skeptical Kristoff struggle up the mountain to find her does she find out how far-reaching the consequences are.
To her credit, Elsa is taken aback at these unintended consequences (which are not a consequence of her self-assertion per se, but an incidental side effect). She hasn’t really abandoned all concern for other people. On the other hand, she still doesn’t know how to release this Fimbulwinter. She can’t turn it off. Her only resort is to further distance herself—which endangers Anna and doesn’t solve the problem.
In the end, renunciation of human contact and human limitations is not the right answer for Elsa. Her salvation comes in re-establishing contact with her sister and, eventually, with the rest of the world. Anna’s loving sacrifice reminds Elsa that love is the right answer. As soon as she realizes this, she is able to use her powers under full control, for good purposes. (The abruptness of this solution is a little implausible, but this is a fairy tale, and we’ll let it pass. Maybe she’ll return to Dagobah to “complete her training” some other time.)
Love does enable and empower; but through connection, not disconnection. In the end Elsa renounces the very withdrawal she was expressing in “Let It Go.” The disjunction may have been a necessary stage, but eventually it’s replaced by a deeper bond. Which is, after all, just the kind of development that normally faces a child making her way through adolescence to adulthood.
To Be Continued?
So I have some misgivings about “Let It Go” as an ideal motto for kids. The message of the whole story is broader and deeper than that of the song alone. It’s still a great song, though. What I’d really like is to have it paired with a song that’s as powerful an affirmation as ”Let It Go” is a renunciation.
There’s actually a sequel to the movie scheduled for release in 2019. I have no idea what it’ll be about, and such sequels don’t have a good track record for coming out well. But maybe the story will develop in such a way as to give an opportunity for just such an affirmation song. We can always hope so.