On one of our weekends together, some time back, I took my daughter to the Target in Brooklyn (we live in Manhattan (by accident)). At age five she’d recently become aware of this store that is, for her, full of splendors—she even asked her babysitter, one day, if she’d ever heard of it. Of course it is not full of splendors but is rather a hellscape where shelves of goods shine under merciless fluorescence seemingly designed to reveal the glaze of tears extruded from dignified human bodies by the rapacity of capital. You’ve heard of it, right? Whatever, it was a snowy Saturday, and we had nowhere else to go.
The idea of this trip was not to browse but to obtain a precise item: the Elsa doll. This is a Barbie-scale toy model of one of the two main characters from winter 2013/14’s mega-hit movie Frozen. More on that movie’s success later, but the conundrum of the day was as follows: my daughter’s best kindergarten friend had recently brought an Elsa doll to school. My daughter wanted her own Elsa doll. My own close friend had purchased this doll already, for my daughter, and meant to give it to her in a few weeks, when my daughter was going to spend the night at my friend’s house. I’m not uptight about this kind of thing: I wouldn’t mind buying my daughter a $20 doll that lights up and plays a few bars of the movie’s hit song, especially not if it was going to be her favorite thing in the world for a while. And I understood that two weeks was an eternity for her to wait; she’s a kid. But also, come on, my friend had already bought her the doll, she was going to get the doll. She didn’t need two of the same doll. There’s a limit.
So my ploy had been this: take her to Target—again, snowy day, we needed an outing—but then convince her to wait on Elsa and instead get the doll of Anna, Elsa’s sister in the film. That way, I reasoned to her, she’d wind up with both sisters in the end, the better to play out scenes, arrange duets, etc. This seemed like a fine compromise, but when the moment came, with ten or fifteen Anna dolls arrayed before us, she’d outright refused. No Anna. Elsa. And yet Elsa was nowhere to be found. Elsa was sold out. Annas piled high. Understand, Anna is in many ways the heroine of the movie: it’s she who is the object of romance for both the manipulative prince and the charming if goofy ice-peddler dude, it’s she who journeys great distances and overcomes many obstacles to find her sister, it’s she whose sacrifice redeems the entire tale. She’s one of Disney’s most progressive princesses, a smart, self-reliant agent who grows and matures and achieves—essentially without male aid—her own deliverance and with it that of her sister and their entire kingdom. So why doesn’t anyone want her doll? Why do all the little girls want Elsa?
In case you haven’t seen Disney’s Frozen ten times: it tells the story of two young princesses. Elsa has the power to create and manipulate snow and ice, and in their youthful play together she accidentally wounds Anna with this power. Through the help of some magic trolls (just go with it) Anna is healed, but both Elsa and her parents, the king and queen, are unnerved by Elsa’s powers, which grow stronger as she grows into adolescence. Afraid, she lives sequestered, abandoning a confused Anna to a lonely life in the palace. Just before Elsa comes of age, her parents take a journey and are lost at sea. After their loss, Elsa is given her coronation as the new queen of Arendelle, and the palace is opened for the event. Anna, starved for attention, immediately falls for a visiting prince at the ball, which leads to a confrontation with her sister, who loses control during the argument and publicly reveals her powers. Exposed, Elsa panics and flees to the mountains, leaving in her wake a change from the summer weather to a sudden, deepening winter: all the visitors’ ships sit encased in ice in the harbor, and snow falls endlessly on the frightened town. Shocked by what even she did not know about her sister, Anna rides off into the wilderness to seek her out and save both Elsa and their endangered land.
Act one raises many questions: Why does Elsa have supernatural powers? Did she inherit them from her parents? Why doesn’t Anna have them? What does it mean to have the power to manipulate the cold and its manifestations? The idea that Elsa has, within her, a power that is growing as she grows into womanhood, and which her parents are both training and imploring her to master, suppress, and subdue—“Conceal it, don’t feel it” her father counsels—suggests that it may be Elsa’s sexuality that is really the crux, here. But this explanation doesn’t entirely work, since the first real expression of those powers involves the wounding of Anna. Certainly, in the libidinal economy of childhood, sisters can be thought of as sexual rivals—Elsa is undoubtedly the victor, as the result of the incident, in securing her father’s attention—but this isn’t an entirely satisfying explanation. The main complication is kind of structural one: Elsa grows, and is trained to be, cold. But she was also already coldness’s source and conduit. The real question becomes: does her childhood’s particular history make her cold, or is she, inherently, cold, is it her actual nature? No one in the story really has the access to find out on our behalf; Anna, the audience’s surrogate, spends her childhood outside of Elsa’s door, begging her to come out and play. After their parents’ death, Anna slumps against this door—the door of her sister’s mystery—which the camera passes through to reveal Elsa, crumpled on the door’s other side, her entire room filled with ice that has emanated from her in streaks that magnify the isolation of the baffled body at their focal point. She’s a mystery even to herself.
I said I would discuss Frozen’s popularity: okay: it’s a fucking bona fide global phenomenon. At the time of this writing it has made a billion dollars; it’s won Oscars; the Broadway musical is in the works. My daughter was bound and determined to have a Frozen-themed party that I had to explain to her could not include an ice-skating component (her birthday’s in July). One day in Washington Square Park I saw someone had built a snowman: on closer inspection it was Olaf, the animate, comic snowman from the movie.
A large part of the explanation for why Frozen has penetrated the cellular being of every five-year-old in America and around the world, and not a few college freshmen too, is the music, including songs written by the talented Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The entire soundtrack is far more clever and catchy than the norm, but the centerpiece is, without a doubt, “Let it Go”—Elsa’s big number, and the progenitor of a million youtube videos of kids singing it in every known human language. Maybe “Let it Go” is the place to start asking about the allure of Elsa, though it’s hard to remember, in the face of all those kids happily belting it out, what perhaps they know: that the song and the sequence in which it is performed are themselves incredibly ambiguous, anything but an answer.
Elsa has fled the town, and arrives in the mountains. She realizes she’s now in a “kingdom of isolation”—the song’s begun—and mechanically repeats her father’s injunction to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.” But then, suddenly, in an exhilarated moment, she understands, “well now they know.” Off comes the glove. “Let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore,” she tells herself. She fashions Olaf, her childhood playmate, with a gesture, then warms up with a few flourishes of ice. Free for the first time in her life to use her power, she palpably delights in it, constructing a sumptuous staircase of crystalline ice to cross a chasm, then using her whole body’s strength to raise, from the frozen ground, an ornate palace whose geometric columns and spires we watch her imagine feature by feature into being. The song soars and soars. What’s happening? A sexual awakening? She lets her hair down and drapes herself in an adult’s dress of icy white. An artistic rebellion? She creates with assurance and vision. Maybe both—it’s a moment of joyous self-making, with stirring vocal accompaniment. And yet what she’s saying is not so simple. “Turn away and slam the door”; “It’s funny how some distance/makes everything seem small”; “no right, no wrong, no rules for me/I’m free”; “I’m never going back,/the past is in the past.” Elsa’s triumphant separation is also a profound severance, a canceling-out of history, family, home, community, and law. The song ends with a line from its beginning, delivered the second time with an insouciant smirk from the balcony of the ice-palace before its queen slams the door, literally, on us: “The cold never bothered me anyway.” It’s a weird line to hear a five-year-old echo, an apparently empowered announcement that appears, on second thought, to seal a fearful retreat into isolation.
Have you ever known someone cold? Someone who might even have decided to simply own up to this quality in themselves, someone who might well have uttered, in a defiant moment, a claim like “The cold never bothered me anyway”—who told you, look, that’s the way it is? Someone who lived ever on the far side of a heavy, inscrutable door whose shielded interior, if you did glimpse it once, you can only dimly recall and doubt you’ll ever see again? Someone you chased? Someone you would have chased a great distance, across actual space or emotional terrain? And who, at the anticipated end of your chase, appeared better fortified than ever, in a castle constructed from the psychic material of their own monumental reserve? Someone who deflected, somehow, the source of their coldness—a pain, a trauma, a terror—into the fact of coldness itself, who had by an almost supernatural power transmuted that which was visited upon them into their very identity? And yet, also, someone with a beauty to them, with art in their fingertips? So that you second-guessed yourself, so that you weren’t sure anymore if a scared child was calling out to you from within that forbidding fortress or if it was you that was scared, scared that they really didn’t need you, scared that if you looked up at the palace you’d see how its beauty made your terrible need look small, fleeting, childish? Have you ever known an Elsa? But of course you have.
I ask my daughter why Elsa is her favorite. “Because she has powers.” A simple, heartening response: she’s interesting for her strength. But then, her powers are strange, aren’t they? A literalization of her emotional limitation. The best we can say of Elsa is that she knows how to make her pain into something beautiful. But her palace isn’t much of a dwelling; it’s an abstraction, a jewel. And a misunderstanding. Elsa’s family home—the real palace—couldn’t be more different: beside a harbor rather than atop a mountain; horizontal and integrated into the town rather than vertical and unapproachable; full of paintings and statues, carpets and canopy beds, fireplaces and banquet tables rather than stark and empty (where does Elsa sleep, or even sit down?).
“Immense, vast, and cold were the Snow Queen’s halls.” In his story, “The Snow Queen,” the great Danish fabulist Hans Christian Andersen tells of how a little boy named Kay, usually to be found playing with his good friend Gerda, goes missing one night on the trail of the Snow Queen. Kay’s been stricken with a tiny piece of ice in his eye, itself one of countless shards of a broken mirror, crafted by a wicked hobgoblin, that shows everything in its worst light. Kay, with the shard in his eye, sees every part of reality as shrunken and full of faults. All except the Snow Queen: “She was delicately lovely, but all ice, glittering, dazzling ice. Still she was alive, her eyes shone like two bright stars, but there was no rest or peace in them.” In her presence, Kay never knows himself: “She always smiled at him, and he then thought that he surely did not know enough, and he looked up into the wide expanse of heaven, into which they rose higher and higher as she flew with him on a dark cloud…” The story is of a long, baffled enchantment, into which Kay disappears, both in time and as a person. Andersen was a hapless and hopeless lover. When he died, a letter from the girl he’d loved unrequitedly as a youth was found on his person. Women as well as men rebuffed him all his life. His stories are fanciful and meandering but also chilling; the creators at Disney discussed adapting “The Snow Queen” as early as the 1940’s, but dismissed it as too dark. Another attempt to adapt it, in the 90’s, also fizzled, and a further attempt in the aughts, too, seemed doomed—until the Frozen we know was conceived and born. The new adaptation plays loosely with the facts of Andersen’s tale but keeps the figure of the remote, beautiful Queen.
And of course, Frozen has Olaf. The movie’s funniest bit offers a playful riff on its larger vision of desire. Olaf is the cute snowman that Elsa used to build for Anna and her to play with as kids. Now, born from her powers in their full force, Olaf is alive, and wanders the mountainside until Anna and Kristof the ice-peddler arrive looking for Elsa. Olaf meets them, and when he hears them mention summer launches into his own song, “In Summer,” a naive fantasy about the hot season’s arrival: “Bees’ll buzz, kids’ll blow dandelion fuzz,/and I’ll be doing whatever snow does in summer.” “I’ll finally see a summer breeze blow away a winter storm./And find out what happens to solid water when it gets warm!” The entire number’s a pocket allegory for what it would mean to get what we want: our own utter undoing—and worse, an undoing as precisely the result of who we inherently are: a self that is fundamentally incompatible with its own desire. Anna, soon afterward, finally tracks down her sister, but her approach terrifies Elsa, who strikes out blindly and freezes Anna to the core.
At the end of the movie, chilled nearly unto death from this blow, Anna will nevertheless sacrifice herself for her sister, and in so doing save herself, as well as teach Elsa about the nature of love sufficiently for Elsa to reverse the eternal winter she’s unleashed. And yet, for all the maturity and heroism she demonstrates, as I learned in Target, Anna is not the object of anyone’s desire. Because who would want an Anna doll, anyway? Anna, to the last, is just us—my daughter in the first skirmishes of her yearning, me in some unfortunate romance too raw to do more than allude to here, and indeed anyone dazzled and distracted by the turned-away face of another. Anna labors to make it all better, and to be better. But there is always the chance that she is merely trying to normalize her strange sister, hunting her down to bring her back to the fold of kindness or sweetness or care that might be more about Anna’s weakness and fear and misplaced sense of who owes whom what for their affection. Elsa, meanwhile, remains the figure of our fascination, and our madness. She is the principle of seduction itself: alone, unreachable, a black hole from which nothing escapes and into which we project our own light whose final flash of disappearance we misread as the glimmer of appeal. When we seek her we seek nothing so much as our own extinction: it beguiles us as the mountaintop where he’ll perish beckons the mountaineer; it rivets us like the one door in the palace we know we’re not permitted to open.
When we discover him again toward the end of Andersen’s tale, Kay has spent a long time trying to work out the puzzle put to him by the Snow Queen; he “thought and thought, till something gave way within him. He sat so stiff and immovable that one might have thought he was frozen to death.” But his dear little friend, Gerda, has sought him far and wide, and when she cries, upon finding him, he is awakened by her tears, so that bits of ice rise up and dance, then take the shape of the word—“Eternity”—that is ordained to be his “order of release.” My edition of “The Snow Queen” is illustrated by the masterful Edmund Dulac, and I like to gaze at his vision of her: that brave savior: little Gerda with her loyal and generous heart.
Postscript: A few weeks after she’d finally received her Elsa doll, my daughter surprised me when, just after activating the bit of music it plays, she threw the figure to the floor and cried, “Shut up!” She’s not usually aggressive that way; I asked her why she’d said that to Elsa and she told me, “I’m sick of ‘Let it Go.’” Perhaps Elsa, obtained, had proven too much to handle up close, or could not possibly repay, in reality, the longing she’d engendered. A few hours later my daughter took back the gesture. “I still love her,” she said, the doll in her arms, and again played the scrap of the song.