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

Reviews
by Sam Adams
February 17, 2014 2:55 PM
32 Comments
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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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More: Frozen

32 Comments

  • Fred | July 4, 2014 11:19 PMReply

    Stefan Molyneux's video the truth about Frozen from youtube
    Everything is scrambled in this story, he takes a philosophical dive into this film and reveals it for what it is.

  • Jfo | June 25, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    I feel this paticular critique of the movie is just so far off base and misunderstood its almost laughable. People are always out to make something out of nothing. But basically if you take what commenters Anna Robbins, Mfurst and Moondragn are saying and ball it all into one comment that is exactly how I would explain the movie but find no need to since their comments are out there already and are said far better than I could have said it.

  • Anna Robbins | May 21, 2014 5:18 PMReply

    I've read countless articles about everything wrong with the song Let It Go, and everyone seems to be missing one crucial detail: Elsa is depressed. Like, legitimate clinical depression. I don't know if you've ever experienced depression, but I've had it for the past three years. This song is perfect. It may not send a good message, but it's not supposed to. Let me tell you something, when you're depressed, and everything starts falling apart and you're watching your entire world crumble before you, you lie to yourself. That is what Elsa is doing during this song. "I don't care what they're going to say"? BS. "No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I'm free"? BS. "You'll never see me cry"? BS. You tell yourself these things, you're motivated and inspired for anywhere between five minutes to a few hours, and then you feel even worse than before. I am just so sick of hearing everyone saying that Elsa is a crappy character or Let It Go is a crappy song because she contradicts herself or because she's too spazzy or because it sends a bad message or whatever the hell your excuse is. And as for her being sexualized and becoming a "bad girl", if you had the power to make yourself into a beautiful goddess, would you not? I'm being serious. I'm pretty sure anyone would do that if they could, and if you say you wouldn't you're lying. And her making references to her being a good girl is not referring to sex life (or lack thereof) if that's what you're trying to imply. She's been told her whole life that if she can't control herself than she'll hurt people, and that's exactly what happened.
    Oh, and by the way, I read that article on Slate article already, and I was going to comment but my computer won't let me. Anyways, I just wanted to say, that whole article annoyed me too, for everything it said about the sex stuff, plus that part that said that Frozen was great because of the "satisfyingly feminist twist at the end". I mean, really? It's not about effing feminism, it's about sisterly love and families! This is why I hate feminism, they make everything about themselves. Just thought I'd throw that in there too since I couldn't say it on there.

  • Em | May 27, 2014 8:13 AM

    I thought feminism was about sisterly love and families? What else would be the point of it?

    Agree about depression and the interpretation that for a young person, 'good' doesn't have to be about sexuality (although it can) as much as 'what my parents want' (because they may have learned that love and acceptance are only offered if they meet certain norms). Elsa thinks she has to choose between expressing herself and being accepted. Anna loves her sister unconditionally (and sees her talent as a miracle, not a curse) so reconnecting with that love is Elsa's bridge back to the world on her own terms - the only way any of us can be whole. The snowman is a wonderful motif of how ice doesn't have to be emotionally 'cold' and his survival at the end shows that while Elsa thought she had a snowball's chance in hell of finding joy, with love, anything's possible.

  • Chida Tali | May 20, 2014 4:29 AMReply

    Frozen is the best animated movie i have ever watched, The story of two sister who love each other but not show and express her feeling for her sis just of her powers was awesome...

    Latest Hollywood Movies

  • Georgia | April 21, 2014 12:14 PMReply

    The 'Fixer Upper' song plays an important role in the movie as it supports Elsa's statement: "You can't marry someone you've just met." It addresses how TRUE LOVE mends and is what you need, rather than lust which was the reason for the 'love at first sight' that Hans and Anna experienced. The point is that true love sees through people imperfections, taking time to develop , whereas lust is based on looks, interests, and selfishness, and only burns for a short period of time.

  • Anna Robbins | May 21, 2014 5:22 PM

    Thank you!!!! Someone else understands!!! Yay!! ^_^

  • MFurst | April 2, 2014 10:46 AMReply

    There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about Elsa's motivation.

    "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)."

    What's weighing on Elsa is her inability to control or keep in check what could be an amazing power and self. There are so many applications here: from the way girls' voices become muted the older they get; girls' struggles with expressing their voice and/or opinions; growing up in a world in which women in particular are expected to sacrifice their talents and ambitions to meet demands of mother/woman/body perfection; to coming out as gay/lesbian; to any person who has felt they had to hide their talents/self in order to not disappoint/hurt those close to them.

    The appeal of Frozen is its wide applicability actually: just because it features girls it is not a 'girls' movie.

  • Ana | April 6, 2014 10:24 AM

    "What's weighing on Elsa is her inability to control or keep in check what could be an amazing power and self. "
    There. you said it perfectly. See, that's why I spend more time in the comments section.

  • Dave | April 1, 2014 2:09 PMReply

    Some people just have too much time on their hands and no real talent of their own. Say like people who tell us why we should or should not like a movie.

  • MoonDragn | March 20, 2014 2:02 PMReply

    I think the main issue with the good girl image was a misinterpretation of what the trolls said by her parents the king and queen. The troll said that she needed to learn to control her powers to prevent an accident like this again. The parents only heard the control part and interpreted it as control her so she won't hurt anyone again.

    This parallels real life to a large extent. How often are parents so overprotective of their children that they control them to the point that they rebel against that authority and become "Bad" to spite their parents. In this case the parents were dead but the guilt was not.

    This theme is what plays into the whole good girl/bad girl idea and why she sings "be the good girl you always have to be". She was still trying to be the girl from her parent's image she could not live up to.

  • KatchProFILMS | February 22, 2014 7:42 PMReply

    Some people have a lot of time on there hands. I do not. I have work. Or, rather… CREATIVE WORK… to do. (Like the supremely creative and innovative folks who brought us, "FROZEN".) YOU, OBVIOUSLY, DO NOT. (PEACE.)

    Regards,

  • KatchProFILMS | February 21, 2014 7:17 PMReply

    I'd like to see "Miss Piggy" do this number. [I was reviewing some Clips.] (I think she, her Character, could handle it quite well. In fact with, at least, equal rigor and [feminine] panache. But, would she cause a [an alleged] 'firestorm of controversy"?

    Unfortunately... not. Why? Who knows.) Peace.

  • KatchProFILMS | February 21, 2014 6:04 PMReply

    After careful thought and [mindless] reflection... it has been earnestly pointed out to me that:
    I WAS WRONG.

    "Miss Piggy" is a beloved character from, "The Muppet Show" -- not, "Sesame Street". (Peace.)

  • Jesse | February 20, 2014 12:11 PMReply

    I have some answers to some questions that I assume are rhetorical but are so answerable that you asking them confused me:

    "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?)"

    It seems pretty obvious that Elsa has turned her father's bad advice into part of what she thinks means being a "good girl" -- someone who honors her responsibilities and parents' legacy. I wouldn't take it as a literal endorsement of that connection. Kind of the opposite, actually.

    "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?"

    While it's probably the weakest and least necessary song in the movie, the idea that love can triumph over imperfection very much contrasts with the idea of perfect-match-love put forth in the earlier song between Anna and Hans. Also, the soundtrack CD has the songs play in chronological order, followed by pieces of the score, in chronological order. As such, "Fixer Upper" -- coming at the end of the songs with lyrics, but before the score -- is in the middle. Was this mystery really eating away at you?

    "And why does an ostensible musical abandon the form for its final act, with only 23 minutes of music in a 108-minute movie?"

    It is a little odd that there isn't an obligatory finale song, and given the quality of the other songs in the movie I would have welcomed one, but it's not strange at all for an animated musical to emphasize action and dialogue more in its final act. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid all have more music in their first two-thirds than their last two-thirds. And this movie has a similar number of songs performed onscreen as those and other Disney musicals (if you want to see a Disney musical where the songs feel half-assed and half-included, I'd recommend the otherwise quite enjoyable Mulan, or Hercules). Is it really "sloppy" to not distribute them all with mathematically timed precision?

  • ANA | April 6, 2014 10:39 AM

    The "fixer upper" song was important. We had to see that the wisdom imparted by the trolls was not some kind of time-tested universal truth. Their advice that Elsa had to conceal her feelings forever was as hasty and misinformed as their advice that Anna and kristoff should marry.

  • KatchProFILMS | February 19, 2014 2:46 PMReply

    Does the writer... like.... (c/o: Slate) take issue with, say, the "Miss Piggy" character; [of] Sesame Street... as well?

  • Adam Wu | February 19, 2014 2:24 AMReply

    The "good girl" buts in the lyric may be a holdover from an earlier version of the plot, where Elsa being the prim and proper "good girl" in contrast to Anna was more emphasized.

  • Sam Adams | February 19, 2014 9:26 AM

    That definitely seems like a possibility, as might be the case with the one line that's in Lovato's version of "Let It Go" but not in the movie's: "I know I left a life behind but I'm too relieved to grieve."

  • Bill Thompson | February 18, 2014 3:17 PMReply

    I think we're coming at this from different places to start off with. You find Frozen incoherent, I think everything about the film makes perfect sense. You say the film is confused about its themes, I think the film presents its theme clearly and strongly. You say the film isn't as musical as it should be, I say the film uses its musical numbers just right.

    I like Dana Stevens, she's a critic, much like yourself, who I respect. However, on this issue I don't see what you see. That song is about many things, one of those is Elsa growing up and being her own person. The good and the bad are both a part of her, and she's coming to realize this. Her new look is a representation of that, and I found it neither over sexualized or troublesome. My wife and daughter didn't take issue with it either, and love the song, and sequence, for reasons beyond my own.

    Like I said at the start, we're coming for different places on this one. I can't really see what you and Miss Stevens are arguing for. Doesn't mean you're not entitled to your interpretation, but it's not one I share this time around.

  • Dave | April 1, 2014 2:30 PM

    I don't take anyone serious who has no real talent and thinks they are in a position to talk about real talent. These critics are almost all the same. They interject what the believe just like we all do when we watch a movie. Their opinions are no more valid then anyone else's. Frozen is just plain fun and many are trying to interject politics into the issue because Disney is a supporter of equality for everyone.

  • Johnny | February 18, 2014 9:31 AMReply

    I love IndieWire. Having said that, this review completely misses the point.
    I still love you IW, but stop tying to make "fetch" happen.

  • Anna | May 21, 2014 9:13 PM

    This made me so happy <3 I haven't read any other articles on here, but whoever wrote this definitely did not understand Elsa's character at all. Plus I liked the Mean Girls reference ^_^

  • WinstonWolfe | February 18, 2014 2:52 AMReply

    I couldn't help but chuckle at this article. Laughed even harder at the Dana Stevens piece. Great examples of people deciding they want to see things that are not there. Or perhaps great examples of bloggers who want to create controversies in the hopes of some publicity by getting people all up in arms over a new and extremely popular movie. Just because we can imagine or wonder about a subtext doesn't necessarily make it real.

  • Dave | April 1, 2014 2:24 PM

    Just goes to show you some people have way too much time on their hands and no real talent.

  • Bitemelo | February 17, 2014 7:39 PMReply

    To me it's about repression. She has to be these things for other people but decides to take herself out of their equation and be who she wants to be. And if she has to be alone for who she wants to be, it's worth it.

  • Jesper Sichlau | February 17, 2014 6:02 PMReply

    I always thought "Let it go" was some kind of metaphor for coming out as a homosexual. The song refers to hiding her true self and not letting them see this person, until she breaks out "Let it go, can't hold it back any more."

  • Dave | April 1, 2014 2:18 PM

    A lot of people could use this song to express inner hidden thoughts and feelings. It's not limited or directed a gay people unless you so choose to do so.

  • Zeke | February 17, 2014 5:39 PMReply

    I kind of disagree on your comment about the being a good girl thing. She has to be a good girl because she must obey her father. I dont think its all that important that isnt mentioned on the movie itself. Clearly is part of the subtext.

  • Joe H. | February 17, 2014 3:16 PMReply

    yeah, the movie was a bit of a mess. Quite severely overrated. Monsters University was far more compelling.

  • Dave | April 1, 2014 2:22 PM

    Really? The movie based on Animal House better than Frozen? Don't think so.

  • 1974 | February 17, 2014 5:23 PM

    Nope, it was great, on the other hand MU was a mess.

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