frozen Elsa mental health journey

What Disney’s Frozen Teaches Us About Emotional Wellbeing

[CW: Spoilers for both Frozen 1 and Frozen 2; TW: mention of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation]
In the song “The Next Right Thing” in Frozen 2, Anna is feeling visibly desolate and bereft, as she hums,

I’ve seen dark before,

But not like this.

This is cold, this is empty, this is numb.

The life I knew is over.

The lights are out.

Hello, darkness.

I’m ready to succumb.

Just a few moments before this, Anna’s magic-bearing elder sister Elsa turned to ice as she met her (temporary) magical death and Olaf flurried away, disintegrating right in her arms. It is a moment of Fridge Horror, as the full extent of her loss dawns on her. She continues singing, “This grief has a gravity. It pulls me down.” This debilitating lack of resolve finds resonance for those who live with depression and/or suicidal ideation. Fatigue, hopelessness, loss of interest and apathy are often just the tip of the iceberg — depression is capable of clawing its way much deeper into one’s life, impairing our emotions, relationships, careers — often irreparably.

FROZEN IN TIME: The show must go on?

I think back to the first time I watched the movie and what I was expecting would happen next. Conventionally, stories would exploit this moment to project Anna as a phoenix rising from the ashes. They’d justify this portrayal with a seemingly innocuous argument like “the show must go on.” It would be seen as a moment for Anna’s character to do something heroic, to seek vengeance. But not Frozen. “The Next Right Thing” is revolutionary in that it lets Anna be human in her moment of loss. It doesn’t create a spectacle out of it. It does not glamourise her sadness or grief by painting her as brave or optimistic. Instead, it lets her break down under the weight of her crushing loss, shatter and emerge from it in broken pieces. And that is what makes it real.

It does not glamourise her sadness or grief by painting her as brave or optimistic.

So, when she heads out to face the world, she decides she will take it one step at a time, “I won’t look too far ahead. It’s too much for me to take.” On the other side of the screen, the viewers get a little more comfortable with the progress they’ve made in their own healing. It’s silent, but it’s there.
Let’s be downright honest about this. When it comes to the empathetic depiction of people living with a mental health issue or going through an emotional crisis, pop culture is culpable of doing more harm than good. The narratives in the movies and media, at large, are damaging, often depicting people with mental health problems on either extreme: demonized as perpetrators of violence or worshipped as tortured artists. The reality, however, is that plenty of people live with their illnesses in an ongoing way, leading what we consider “normal” lives.
Even in Frozen (both 1 and 2), there is an awakening — redemption in the midst of a crisis and disruption. What a flair for the dramatic! But the writers don’t sensationalise it just to create a titillating plot. At least, not at the cost of authenticity. In that respect, the Frozen universe presents itself as a microcosm of the world we live in. A little flawed, a little damaged, a little hopeful. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail:

Stigma, Shame, Struggle

Society is so obsessed with conformance to the status quo that anyone who is born different or dares to choose a different path instantly becomes a target of judgemental stares.
In the first movie, when the secret of Elsa’s power gets out, she runs to the North Mountain and builds herself a glass castle. She preempts her fate. She knows that she’d be shunned and ostracised. Later, the villain Prince Hans leaves her chained and bound, confirming this theory. In fact, let’s consider how their parents dealt with the ‘situation’. As kids, the sisters used to play together. One accident and the entire tone of their relationship changes. Why? The parents decide to keep Elsa house-bound and isolated with an echoing “Conceal it, don’t feel it.” Of course, the parents were being protective and doing what they thought was the best for her. It is a telling commentary of how we deify emotional repression at the cost of our authentic selves, just because we don’t want to be the deviant one, the eccentric one, the anomaly.
Usually, I’d argue that metaphors are a dangerous territory to tread when you are dealing with a sensitive topic. After all, they leave humongous room for (mis)interpretation. However, in the case of Elsa, her journey perfectly encapsulates how people with mental health struggles live. They believe their behavioural patterns make them unlikeable, they build up walls (or literal ice castles), push people away, indulge in self-blame, try to repress their true feelings. They build a cocoon for themselves where they believe they can protect their loved ones from harm, even if it’s artificial insulation. Going forward, her journey of “letting go” and “showing herself” is a massive act of self-care. Or as Audre Lorde worded it,

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Grief and its many frozen companions

Going back to the time they were growing up, the dysfunction is hard to overlook. None of us escapes childhood unscathed, and the movie does not gloss over the impact of their odd childhoods (Anna was locked out of the loop and Elsa, as mentioned before, was shunned to her room) that they carry into their adult lives — learning, unlearning and healing — now that they have a fresh awareness of the possibilities of life. In Frozen 2, we find out that Arendelle and Northuldra had a tumultuous past based on deceit, exploitation and oppression. The sisters, then, also have the legacy of intergenerational trauma to carry with them.

None of us escapes childhood unscathed, and the movie does not gloss over the impact of their odd childhoods on their adult lives.

And then we have Olaf. If you think Olaf is just here for comic relief, think again. In Frozen 2, he is almost existentially ruminating over the impermanence of life and things. And surely, the song “When I’m older” doesn’t just exist to pepper the musical with some humour. The resemblance of the song to a near-panic attack is very obvious. The plot doesn’t downplay Olaf’s overwhelming anxiety in the midst of uncertainties and catastrophic events.

The most important of all: Kindness

The movies also teach us a lesson in kindness, more specifically, self-compassion. By repressing our true emotions and identity, we do a great disservice to our brilliant, authentic selves. Humans are a heartbreaking mess of flesh and bones and it is upon us to let ourselves be this flawed, loving mess.

Frozen movie

Elsa is finally happy in the enchanted forests, where her magic can flourish and be understood; Anna takes the reins of the kingdom of Arendelle. The message is clear: happiness carries a different meaning for everyone. We are all chasing our own definition of it.
Normalising the mental health conversation is an intended byproduct of the movie, as pointed out by the creators. The sequel is proof that if a story is told well — and authentically, it can be an unassuming paragon of empathetic representation. This heartwarming animation talks about mental health without ever talking about it. And in the process, Frozen serves its purpose: we all feel seen, and a little less alone than before.

Featured Image Credits

Previous Post:

It is okay to have a bad day — and to cry when you do: In Conversation with Sasha Greene, Author of Something Like Happy

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.