Disney’s Frozen is a fantastic movie and if you haven’t seen it yet you should go do so now, then come back to read this post. It’s also a great place to start talking about shame, which I perceive to be a (if not the) central theme of the movie.
This post contains spoilers so, seriously, if you haven’t seen the movie yet go do that and then come back. It’s definitely worth whatever it costs, I promise you.
Okay, so, let’s take it from the top.
We don’t really know anything about Anna and Elsa’s parents, except what little of them we get to see at the very beginning of the movie. Clearly they’re frustrated with Elsa for regularly turning their home into a winter wonderland. They’re also terrified of the safety risks involved in allowing her to play with Anna unsupervised… which, wait a minute, they shouldn’t be doing anyway. Young children need supervision, whether they have special powers or not. Where were all the adults throughout the protagonists’ entire childhood? But I digress.
The parents reach out to the trolls for help in order to save their younger daughter’s life, and that’s where the true problems begin. The Elder Troll introduces secrecy by altering Anna’s memories so she won’t know that Elsa has special powers. The King decides (and we never see the Queen disagree) that Elsa should be hidden from the world until she learns to “control” her powers… by which he actually means until she can hide and/or repress them.
I feel the need to point out that Elsa is in control of her powers and can do absolutely amazing, wonderful things with them… until something happens to stress her out. That’s the only time her powers get out of control, because they are tied into her emotions. Fear, anger, sadness, and other emotions that are considered unacceptable in society are very very powerful and difficult if not impossible to control. But we need them; they motivate us to do something to create change when it becomes necessary for our survival.
A huge part of raising children who don’t have potentially-deadly ice-manipulating powers is teaching them to identify, accept, and find safe ways to express their emotions. Those of us who don’t receive adequate training are more susceptible to mental illness. From what I can tell in my own life, I learned that there was something different about and wrong with the strength of my anger, sadness, fear, and other emotions. I never fully learned to respond to and express them adaptively – that is, in ways that benefit me without hurting or manipulating other people. Every time I lost control I received the message (from the adults in my life) that I was being bad. This further confirmed in my own mind that I was, inherently, bad.
I still believe that I am bad, and I fear every moment that people will see it and attack or abandon me.
Wait. Stop. I’m writing about Frozen here. Elsa and her parents and Anna.
The King gives Elsa a pair of gloves but otherwise does nothing (that we see) to teach her how to conceal her powers. He does nothing to teach her how to not feel – or, more realistically, to take the edge off, such as through meditation. All he ever teaches her (that we see) is that she shouldn’t use her powers – that she shouldn’t even have her powers – and that she shouldn’t feel. (“Conceal it, don’t feel it.”) Basically, the King teaches his daughter that she shouldn’t be herself at all.
The King teaches his daughter that she shouldn’t be.
When Elsa does feel, she’s doing something wrong, and since she can’t stop feeling, then clearly there’s something wrong with her. When she feels the powers come out against her will so that’s something even worse that’s wrong with her.
The Queen never steps in to stop what the King is doing or to try a different approach. The parents never reach out to anyone who might be able to help with any aspect of their daughter’s plight. They keep it all hidden, even within their own household.
Secrets, secrets, secrets. They are our worst enemy.
Anna grows up never knowing why her sister won’t come out and play with her; she thinks it’s because Elsa hates her or can’t be bothered with her. Anna learns that she’s unlovable because the person who should be the closest to her won’t give her the time of day. As soon as someone shows interest in being with her, she agrees to marry him.
Finally, LOVE! I can’t let it get away or I’ll never find it again!
I’m still writing about Frozen, honest.
So Elsa’s spent the majority of her life trying to stop being, failing miserably, and taking that failure as further proof that she shouldn’t be. She’s also spent it deprived of any opportunity to express her love for her sister or experience her sister’s love for her… which pretty much traps her in exclusively feeling the very emotions she’s supposed to not feel. In other words, she’s fallen victim to shame. And anxious depression, by the way.
Meanwhile Anna’s spent a larger majority of her life going stir crazy, believing that her sister doesn’t love her, and possibly (probably) internalizing the message that she is unlovable. Another victim of shame.
All because of a stupid, completely unnecessary, counter-productive SECRET that their father wedged between them… Why? Because he was faced with something he didn’t know how to deal with and he was too ashamed to admit it. He needed to present a strong, decisive front. Perhaps the Queen never defied him because she didn’t want to shame him… or because she was also too ashamed to admit that she didn’t know what to do, either… or because she was too ashamed to admit and reveal to the world that her husband didn’t know what he was doing.
This would be a great place to begin a discussion of the different pressures society places on men and women and how gender is related to shame. I want to keep this post focused on Frozen as much as possible. However, I strongly encourage readers to write about social pressure, gender, and shame in comments or your own blog posts; if you choose to do the latter please let me know and I’ll be happy to link to your specific relevant post. I also encourage discussion of the roles family can play in perpetuating shame, particularly from one generation to the next.
Which brings us to “Fixer Upper” and why it’s my favorite song in Frozen. Go ahead and take a break from reading to watch the scene it’s in on YouTube; I think we can all use a break from the heavy topic of shame. (The link will open in a new tab.)
The term “fixer upper” is commonly used to refer to something (e.g. a house) that has some problems but is, overall, well worth the time, effort, and other resources it requires. At its core, this song argues that we are all worthy of love.
Perhaps even more importantly, it urges us to perceive each other as worthy of love.
The trolls are definitely fixer uppers; they get so caught up in their own excitement about the idea of Kristoff getting married they don’t listen to what he and Anna are actually trying to say… not to mention that they assume the two are ready to get married in the first place. They also fall into the all-too-common trap of tying love to romance when romantic love is not what anyone truly needs – especially not Anna and Kristoff at that moment.
That said, they provide an excellent antidote to shame: love, and more importantly honesty.
The trolls spend the first 2/3 of the song being painfully and embarrassingly honest about their perception of Kristoff, over-sharing about his flaws but also pointing out some of his positive traits as well. I love it when they point out that he needs “healing hugs” – who doesn’t?
They call him a fixer upper, admitting that he has flaws and announcing their acceptance of those flaws as well as everything else that comes together to make Kristoff who he is. He doesn’t have to do anything to earn their love and he doesn’t have to hide any aspect of himself, either. He just is, and they just want the best for him.
My absolute favorite part of the song begins at 2 minutes 33 seconds in the above YouTube video. Here’s a link directly to that starting point; it will open in a new tab. I’ve also included the relevant lyrics (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) below:
We’re not saying you can change him
’cause people don’t really change.
We’re only saying that love’s a force
that’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices
if they’re mad or scared or stressed.
But throw a little love their way
(Throw a little love their way)
and you’ll bring out their best!
True love brings out the best!
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper;
That’s what it’s all about!
Father! Sister! Brother!
We need each other
To raise us up and round us out!
In other words, it’s not about changing the other person to get rid of whatever you perceive to be their flaws. It’s about loving them with their flaws. The lyrics outright acknowledge that people get angry, scared, and stressed; these emotions interfere with decision making. What’s the solution? Love! (including forgiveness)
I really like that they mention family relationships to show that love isn’t exclusive to romantic couples; they’re actually not talking about romantic love in this song. The love in question is love between family and friends; compassion. We need each other’s support; that’s nothing to be ashamed of. As Olaf explains later in the movie: “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”
And what does love do? Well, in Frozen it saves both sisters’ lives and gives Elsa the key to controlling her powers. (“Love thaws.”) According to the trolls, it brings out our best. It is by loving Elsa through her actions that Anna saves the day and enables her sister to finally accept and express herself without hurting others. Elsa is able to love her family and subjects by using her powers responsibly for their enjoyment.
Maybe Anna could have done it without hearing the lines I quoted from “Fixer Upper” above, but I interpret that as a turning point for her. Prior to that point she was trying desperately to get Elsa to be kind to her. Afterward (and after learning that she is loved by Kristoff – therefore perceiving herself as lovable), Anna is able to forgive Elsa and do what is necessary to save her sister’s life. She’s not thinking about her own needs in that moment, and she’s overcome her fear of death. That’s, wow, that’s amazing. I never really thought about it that way before; I always identified more with Elsa.
I really hope Frozen – and especially “Fixer Upper” – will empower the loved ones of people with mental illness (diagnosed or not) to love us powerfully and unconditionally: forgiving hurts, supporting our efforts toward growth/recovery, and most importantly reaching out for help. Frozen is a perfect example of how devastating shame can be… but also how powerful love is; ultimately, love thaws the shame that would keep us all frozen.