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“Frozen”: A Study in Over-Interpretation

"Frozen": A Study in Over-Interpretation

With “Frozen” anointed the best animated picture of 2013 by the liberal din of sin known as Hollywood, the culture-war skirmishes over the film have gotten more intense, most recently with the accusation by Christian broadcaster Kevin Swanson that the movie is part of a Satanic push to indoctrinate children with the idea that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle:

Friends, this is evil, just evil. I wonder if people are thinking: “You know I think this cute little movie is going to indoctrinate my 5-year-old to be a lesbian or treat homosexuality or bestiality in a light sort of way.”… This is fracturing our society and I can see how it might, I can see how some parents might be very strong, they don’t want their children indoctrinated in any way into the lifestyle of sodomy.

Swanson, who, he’ll have you know, it “not a tinfoil-hat conspiracist,” hasn’t seen the movie, but he’s drawing on the work of others who’ve interpreted the film in similar fashion. On one side, you’ve got Gina Lattrell at Policymic, who calls “Frozen” “the most progressive Disney movie ever,” because its occasionally fumbling princess Anna departs from the preternatural grace of her Mouse House predecessors and the glimpse of what she takes to be a coded gay family inside a mountain sauna. (We’ll come back to that.) On the other, you’ve Kathryn Skaggs, a self-described “well-behaved Mormon woman” who claims the film is an elaborate polemic in favor of same-sex marriage.

The fact is, that not one of us would allow a person, contrary to our values, to come into our homes and teach our family many of the principles advocated in the movie “Frozen” — such as rebellion/disobedience — as good. Yet, when the same element cunningly creates a medium within to share the same doctrine, which intensely overwhelms the senses, we are blinded — and rather than put on glasses, we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by the overall experience — focusing only on the good that we see, or perceive, highlighted for our viewing pleasure.
Given social media’s facility in gathering like-minded individuals to take down an easy target, Skaggs was roundly mocked, to the extent that Salt Lake City Weekly‘s Scott Renshaw was moved to come to her defense, pointing out that no one had ridiculed people who praised the film for having a pro-gay subtext rather than attacking it:
Skaggs was far from the only person who noted that “Frozen” might be more than slightly sympathetic to the Lavender Nation…. And for what it’s worth, I happen to agree with all of them: It’s absolutely possible to see the estranged relationships and Elsa’s rebellion against hiding her true nature as a coming-out story. It’s certainly far less of an interpretive stretch than the “Andy’s mom in ‘Toy Story’ is Jessie’s grown-up owner” theory that a Pixar enthusiast put forth recently, yet nobody burst blood vessels shame-linking to that interpretation.
To make things even more complicated, some Christian writers have interpreted “Frozen” as a religious allegory, prompting National Catholic Register critic Steven A. Greydanus to write a post entitled “How Christian Is Disney’s ‘Frozen’? (Not very.)” Although Skaggs backed down under criticism from seeing an explicit wink to same-sex coupledom in the film, Greydanus does see it: His followup post, “How Gay Is Disney’s ‘Frozen’?” could be subtitled “(Maybe a little?”).

So where, other than confused, does this leave us? With a movie that, as I’ve argued before, is too confused about what it is to put forth any coherent agenda. And also a story that is so vague in its definition of “difference” that it can be interpreted to be almost anything. Much of Skaggs’ interpretation follows naturally from the equation of Elsa’s frosty powers with same-sex marriage, but she provides no evidence, or even an argument, for making that equation. In her world — and, as Renshaw points out, these days, we often stick to our own ideologically homogeneous universes — it doesn’t need arguing. You just know, in the same way that Kevin Swanson takes for granted that pushing a rebellious message is anti-Christian by default. (Perhaps I’m overlooking the part of the Gospels where Jesus politely did everything the Romans asked of him.)
Fairy tales are open-ended by nature. Although “Frozen” bears little resemblance to “The Snow Queen,” the Hans Christian Andersen story which very loosely inspired it, it’s written in archetypes (or, less charitably, cliches). Overprotective parents: check. Rebellious daughter who both yearns and fears showing her true self to the world: check. The movie tweaks and cross-breeds some of its stock elements, but it doesn’t create new ones, which means that not all the pieces fit smoothly together. In some ways, this is a strength, especially from a commercial point of view: You don’t get to a billion dollars worldwide by tying your film to a narrowly tailored message. 
But it also leaves “Frozen” open to interpretation(s). It isn’t like Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, whose coded coming-out scenes clearly tie its heroes’ genetic difference and outcast status to homosexuality. Elsa’s difference is just that: difference. Although her inability to control her emotions, and therefore her powers, is tied to the trauma of her parents’ death — and, subsequently, the weight of caring for both her younger sister and her kingdom — her powers predate the accident. (We’re explicitly told she was born with them, not cursed.) As Greydanus points out, there’s no ideological interpretation of Elsa’s powers themselves that really holds: What is it that, when we lose control of our emotions, turns others hearts to ice?
In essence, “Frozen” is an interpretative vacuum, less a Rorschach test than a half-finished sketch that invites viewers to complete it any way they choose. You want it to be about a gay teenager proudly owning her sexuality? Great. Two sisters casting off the yoke of patriarchy and taking strength from their love for each other? Why not. None of these interpretations fits exactly, but more importantly, they don’t not fit. It can be almost anything you want — including, in my household, a way of teaching my four-year-old daughter about the importance of expressing her feelings, and more importantly a lesson in the joys of screen musicals and contrapuntal duets. The problem lies in foisting one ironclad interpretation upon the film and then praising or damning it for its point of view, without acknowledging that the argument says much more about the person making it than “Frozen” itself.

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