So I’ve only seen Frozen a couple times by now—five or six, but who’s counting?—and yet I’m still struck by how amazing this story is. Sure, it has some problems. I mean, nothing’s perfect, but Frozen has so many progressive themes that it’s hard to ignore what a great movie it truly is. Additionally, while being caught up in its awesomeness, it might be a little hard to articulate why certain parts of the movie are so great. I knew that I didn’t really like Elsa’s and Anna’s parents when I first saw the movie, but it wasn’t until the second or third time through that I realized I disliked them because of how abusive they were to their daughters.
Spoilers after the jump.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, Frozen is about two sisters, Elsa and Anna, and the struggles they face and overcome in their relationship. Elsa was born with cyrokinetic abilities, and one night while she and Anna were playing as children, she accidentally hurt Anna with her powers. After this event, their parents had trolls remove Anna’s memories of Elsa’s magic, and additionally, they wanted to hide Elsa’s powers from the rest of their kingdom. They kept their castle gates shut—inadvertently secluding Anna from the rest of the world, along with her sister—and separated the sisters from each other as well.
This is a form of emotional abuse, and it doesn’t stop there. The king and queen’s idea of helping Elsa control her powers was to erase them. Elsa’s cyrokinetic abilities are an intrinsic part of who she is, but under her parents’ guidance, she tried to distance herself from her own abilities, losing control of them completely in the process. By the time Elsa comes of age, even after the king and queen have tragically died, she’s still hiding herself, keeping the castle gates shut, and refusing to spend time with Anna.
Anna herself is also not handling the seclusion well. She’s an outgoing person who used to spend a lot of time playing with Elsa. From Anna’s perspective, due to her erased memories (which is a huge violation of her rights on their parents’ part) Elsa just stopped spending time with her, and Anna grew up thinking that Elsa resented her somehow. Anna knew nothing about the situation, but her parents essentially punished her for Elsa’s powers as well, and by the time she’s older, Anna is so deprived of human contact that she’s willing to marry the first man she meets the day she meets him.
This is not the first time Disney has delved into the world of abuse—something similar happens in Tangled—and I do like that the abuse is subtle and not glaringly obvious, since that’s how most abuse is. Though in both Tangled and Frozen the abuse is emotional and neglectful, as opposed to something that might be more obvious to the audience, such as physical abuse, the reasons behind the abuse are different. Mother Gothel never really cares for Rapunzel outside what Rapunzel’s magical hair can do for her—you may even notice in the film that every time she compliments Rapunzel, it’s about her hair, and she only ever kisses the top of Rapunzel’s head, on her hair.
Elsa’s and Anna’s parents don’t abuse their daughters because they want something from them; they abuse them because they want to protect them, and they believe that this seclusion is the best way to do that. Additionally, they were also motivated by a desire to protect Anna from Elsa, which is why they separated the two sisters. Elsa then internalized this and started believing that their parents were right, that she was dangerous and needed to hide herself away. Though in this case, the abuse does come from a place of love and simple misunderstanding, the abuse is no less horrible—in some ways it’s worse—and I can only appreciate that Disney doesn’t attempt to make excuses for the king’s and queen’s actions. We know why the king and queen abuse their daughters, but we can never agree with it, because it’s not justifiable. It’s a fine line that the narrative has to walk, and I think Disney did a wonderful job portraying it.
Never at any point do the sisters turn around and say that they really miss their parents, or that their mother and father were just attempting to do the right thing. It’s not until they start directly going against their parents’ wishes that they become truly happy. This is particularly noticeable with Elsa, during her song “Let It Go”.
This is a powerful moment in her life, probably one of the most critical moments she’ll ever have. She starts the song off, not only lamenting, but resentful that other people have discovered her abilities, that all the years she spent hiding it didn’t change anything. She quotes the lessons her parents taught her—to not feel her own magic—but eventually gives into it. This is the moment in time when she embraces herself as who she is, someone with powers, and she loves them. It’s also at this point, when she’s learning to accept that she has abilities, that we see her capable of controlling her them.
The sad part about this montage, however, is that Elsa’s still secluding herself from the rest of the world. She discovers she’s happy being alone so long as she can be herself. We later discover that though she has now embraced her abilities, she’s still afraid of them in other capacities. When Anna comes to talk to her, Elsa wants Anna to go away, because she doesn’t want to hurt Anna. And when this fear arises, Elsa loses control again.
All of these problems stem directly from how their parents raised them. Even when Elsa was a small child, she had more control over her magic than as an adult, because not only did she accept her powers, she also had the acceptance and support of her sister. Yes, Elsa still accidentally hurt Anna at one point. Accidents happen, though that doesn’t make the fact that it happened any better. However, they were both still children, and their parents handled this situation in the worst way possible. Every single thing they did to try to help made the problem worse.
I have heard people make excuses for a character like Mother Gothel. There are people out there who do believe that she really did love Rapunzel, and regardless of whether or not you believe that is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether or not people are apologists for her behavior. I could certainly see where people would get the idea that Gothel does love Rapunzel—I think there’s some value to that assumption as well—but it wouldn’t change the fact that abuse is still abuse. The relationship between the two ended up being toxic to Rapunzel, and Gothel needed to be stopped. When it comes to Elsa and Anna’s parents, there is no question that they loved their daughters. And I’m sure there are going to be people out there who will make excuses for them as well. After all, they were only trying to do the right thing—they were only trying to protect their daughters, and they just didn’t know how to handle the situation. I mean, would any of us? So is it really fair to blame them for being abusive?
Yes, it is, entirely.
Ignorance and intent are not excuses for doing terrible things, especially when those things are damaging to other people. The king and queen abused their daughters, and I think Frozen, like Tangled, did an amazing job portraying that. It goes to show that emotional abuse is damaging, regardless of the abusers’ intent, and that that abuse can have a long-lasting effect on an individual’s psyche.