The Scrambled Sexuality of 'Frozen's "Let It Go"

The advance marketing for Disney’s Frozen literally buried the lead, stranding its female protagonists up to their chins in snow while the lovable snowman Olaf thrust his head in the air. But with the movie nearing $1 billion in worldwide box-office, the secret is out: It’s a movie about girls. (Spoilers for Frozen ahead, but come on.)

I’m sure there are boys who love Frozen — and I know a few grown men who do as well — but take in a singalong screening as I did last week, and the voices asking “Do you want to build a snowman?” will belong to girls (and, possibly, one of their dads who sneaks in extra listens to the soundtrack when his four-year-old is at school, but I digress). Although the standard logic of a Disney fable would have sisters Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) paired off with romantic partners by the closing credits, Frozen resists that impulse — sort of — in favor of extolling their love for each other. For most of the movie, Anna labors under the misapprehension that the “act of true love” she needs to save herself is a “true love’s kiss”: If only she can get the comely prince Hans or the goofily endearing Kristof to fall for her, everything will turn out all right. But at the last minute, Frozen flips the script and has Anna save herself, not by passively receiving love but by actively demonstrating it.

Notwithstanding its nigh-universal appeal, Frozen is a flawed, at times almost incoherent movie, deeply confused about its basic themes and even the identity of its protagonist(s). Given that Elsa’s powers are linked to her emotions — her father warns her, “Conceal, don’t feel” — why the lyrical references to her needing to be a “good girl”? (Do only bad girls feel things?) What’s with “Fixer Upper,” the arbitrarily upbeat ode to love’s ability to triumph over imperfection so incongruous it’s displaced to the middle of Frozen‘s soundtrack CD? And why does an ostensible musical abandon the form for its final act, with only 23 minutes of music in a 108-minute movie?

At the core of Frozen‘s peculiarity is “Let It Go,” a powerhouse ballad about emotional isolation that has become an unlikely pop hit. Menzel’s delivery, and the animated sequence that accompanies it, is ecstatic, liberated: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me — I’m free.” But the price of Elsa’s emancipation is steep; she’s free to feel, but she can only show those feelings to herself. 

The subtext of “Let It Go” is a perfect match for Demi Lovato, a former Disney princess (ahem) whose struggle with eating disorders and triumphant public reemergence has uncanny parallels with Elsa’s plight: Substitute rehab for an ice castle and you can fill in the details yourself. But though her fans certainly get the connection, Lovato’s pop version of “Let It Go” never quite caught fire  — certainly not the way Menzel’s has.

Whatever your feelings about Lovato, there’s some sweet justice in the failure of her version of “Let It Go,” and the triumph of Menzel’s, giving the lie to the idea that a 42-year-old Broadway goddess can’t put across a simple pop song. But there is, nonetheless, something archetypically adolescent about “Let It Go,” which sounds as if it was meant to be sung by a teary-eyed teenager shut up in her room with the volume cranked high. “You’ll never see me cry [sniff].”

That’s what Slate’s Dana Stevens keyed into last week, when she wrote about the disconcerting physical transformation Elsa undergoes in the middle of “Let It Go,” as she’s building her own personal fortress of solitude:

At the song’s emotional climax, as Elsa is about to see the sun rise for the first time from the balcony of her new crystal palace, she suddenly sees fit to express her freshly unleashed power by giving herself … a magical makeover. “Let it go/ Let it go/ That perfect girl is gone,” she declares as she ditches her old look (a modest dark-green dress and purple cloak, hair in a neatly tucked-up braid) for one that’s arguably even more “perfect.” By the time she sashays out onto that balcony to greet the dawn, Elsa is clad in a slinky, slit-to-the-thigh dress with a transparent snowflake-patterned train and a pair of silver-white high heels, her braid shaken loose and switched over one shoulder in what’s subtly, but unmistakably, a gesture of come-hither bad-girl seduction.

The idea that Elsa’s rebelling against the need to be a “good girl” appears several times in Frozen‘s lyrics, though it has nothing to do with the plot: What’s weighing on Elsa is not the imposition of archaic moral codes but the responsibility of an orphaned girl for her younger sister (and, okay, the kingdom she’s meant to rule). But it tracks with the way “Let It Go” is staged, and with the involvement of Lovato — who, unlike Elsa, can properly claim to have suffered the scrutiny of public life and defined herself in spite of it. 

In fairy tales — like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” on which Frozen is (very, very) loosely based — magic is often linked to sexuality, and that’s true for fairy tales’ modern-day equivalents as well: The X-Men‘s mutants typically discover their abilities at the onset of puberty, and so does Stephen King’s Carrie White, who might have turned out better with a supportive sister instead of a crazed fundamentalist mother. So I don’t think it’s wrong to point out there’s a sexual element — albeit in its most sanitized incarnation — to “Let It Go.” But it’s critical to note that Elsa’s not transforming herself for someone else. She’s not dressing up pretty in the hopes of snaring a man; she’s doing it to express who she is, or who she’s becoming. She’s a teenage girl finally getting her a pair of jeans that really fit, perhaps a little more tightly than her parents would like, or dying her hair purple for the first time. (Don’t worry — it’ll wash out.) 

Like Brave, the first Pixar movie developed after the merger with Disney, Frozen palpably, sometimes clumsily, wrestles with the conglomerate’s history of pitching diamond-studded perfection to preteen girls. (When my daughter got impatient with the pre-film ads, her friend explained, “This always happens when I see my princess movies.”) Disney’s not about to abandon princesses, but they’ve clearly realized that the archetype needs to shift, and just as clearly don’t know how to shift it. Perhaps that’s why Frozen‘s such a jumble, as if its script were cobbled together from parts picked at random. (“I kinda liked the Les Miz opening. Maybe we can do something like that?”) Children, of course, don’t know they’re in the midst of an ideological battle, and may not even sense it, but they know there’s something different about Frozen. They’ll get it when they’re older.

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