As the resident asshole, I couldn’t let Andrew’s new blog post pass without comment. My reaction, in short:
Now before people get too up in arms about this, bear in mind that my criticism of Andrew’s points in his post are a matter of interpretation and not of fact. This means that no one is necessarily wrong or right, just that we read the text (Frozen) in very different ways. But while I may respect Andrew’s opinion, I don’t have to agree with it. So let’s do this. SPOILERS AHOY.
“When non-villainous characters are put into isolation, it is often portrayed as a punishment or something that needs fixing… In Aladdin, we’re supposed to root for the Genie to escape the isolated confines of his lamp, and inversely, we’re supposed to see Jafar’s damnation to the lamp as a punishment for his actions…In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo wants nothing more than to escape the confines of his tower and join the rest of Paris for the Festival of Fools. In Tangled, Rapunzel wants nothing more to escape the confines of her tower and join the rest of the kingdom for the Festival of Lights. Once again, the list goes on.” – Andrew
In his post Andrew points an interesting thread running through Disney’s animated canon of characters being confined to isolation. Our fundamental disagreement I think lies in how we interpret that last section. While Andrew places his focus on the word “isolation”, mine lies in “confined”. As to why I offer the example of the House of Mouse’s princess calling card:
Now here’s the thing. Would you say that Cinderella’s big problem is that she’s isolated or that she’s confined? To me it seems like the latter. The villain, Lady Tremaine, is villainous because she has confined Cinderella against her will. Similarly, Frollo is an evil git because he uses Quasimodo’s fear of rejection to keep him from the rest of Paris and Mother Gothel traps Rapunzel in a tower just because she wants to be
The problem of confinement isn’t just isolation, its the forceful removal of agency. These characters are prevented by the villains from doing what they want. Consider how the Genie’s story ends.
Genie: “I’m free! I’m free! Quick, quick, wish for something outrageous. Say ‘I want the Nile.’ Wish for the Nile. Try that.”
Aladdin: “Uh…I wish for the Nile.”
Genie: “No way! Hahahahahaha!”
Genie’s immediate reaction to becoming free isn’t to look for people. In fact he actually leaves behind the people he cares about to go do what he feels like doing. He comes back soon enough, but his immediate instinct is to flex his capabilities and explore his new found freedom.
So I would argue that Disney hasn’t actually been portraying isolation as a negative thing. It’s more of a by-product of many of their characters being confined or trapped against their own will. And in the case of most of these characters, isolation doesn’t seem to be a thing they gravitate towards. Rapunzel and the Genie in particular seem like jolly, bubbly types whose forced isolation would be a crime.
And while we’re doing the rounds of the older Disney movies, I’d also disagree with Andrew’s characterization of Simba’s journey as about isolation. Nah man:
Simba’s problem is his abdication of the throne and his personal responsibility. As the Sky Ghost says:
“Remember who you are.”
Nala doesn’t chastise Simba for his introversion. She chastises him for abandoning his responsibility to his pride. As Andrew points out she “scorns him for his negligence and cowardice”. But it’s because he neglected his duty and was scared to face his duty.
Again, Simba’s self-imposed exile may appear to make a comment on isolation, but I would argue that it should be read as an abdication of responsibility. So I don’t buy the “Disney thinks isolation is bad” school of thought and, to my mind, that reading misses the forest for the trees. And I think a similar thing is happening in Andrew’s reading of Elsa as an introverted character.
To my mind Elsa isn’t an introvert. She’s repressed.
After the childhood accident with Anna, Elsa is forced to lock herself away from the world lest she cause harm to others. Remember her mantra: “Conceal, don’t feel.” She’s repressing the elements of her character that might lead her to be rejected or shunned by society, like Quasimodo from Hunchback.
What makes Elsa’s story more tragic (in some ways) is that she’s taught to keep herself locked away not just for her own good, but also that of others. Her isolation is a choice that’s been made for her and one that she’s accepted, like Quasimodo and Rapunzel. However, unlike Quasi and Rapunzel, Elsa doesn’t have a scene where she explicitly comes out and expresses her longing to be outside with other people. But just because she doesn’t outright say it, doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel it.
Andrew’s post defines introverts as “those who draw energy and happiness from within themselves, and lose energy when surrounded by other people” and I can’t think of a single scene where that is true of Elsa. If Elsa doesn’t seem to be comfortable around other people in the coronation scene it isn’t necessarily because she doesn’t like being around other people. Its might also be because she’s scared of hurting them and exposing herself to rejection, fear and hatred (Hi, Quasi!).
It’s pretty tough to tell what kind of social person Elsa is because she’s never been allowed to be a social person. Perhaps the years of isolation might have made her more comfortable being by herself, but that doesn’t mean she is a natural introvert who likes to keep to herself. In fact I can think of a couple of cases where Elsa’s references to being alone come off as a negative:
Elsa’s body language as she sings these lines don’t convey a positive emotion. She seems sad, sad that she’s been rejected by her kingdom, sad that she’s alone. The ways she’s tightening up her body in the above screencap make it look to me as if she’s steeling herself for this future of loneliness. If the song slowly moves towards a triumphant climax, it isn’t because she embraces her isolation. It’s because she can finally let it go and push the limits of her abilities, free from the shackles of her repression. And when Anna offers to take her home in the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever” consider the way Elsa frames her rejection “Yes I’m alone, but I’m alone and free.” The “but” is the key. Elsa clearly sees being alone as a bad thing as the line’s structure indicates that she has made a choice between loneliness and freedom. She wouldn’t have to do that if she didn’t consider being alone to be a negative thing. And for what it’s worth the freedom/loneliness choice isn’t the easiest and I’d bet even people who aren’t introverts may choose the freedom to be who they are. Especially after years of repression and such an orgasmic coming out party.
We don’t get to spend too much other time with Elsa exploring this theme, but let’s also consider how the movie ends. The day is saved, Elsa is queen again, she makes an ice skating rink in the castle so all the townsfolk can enjoy themselves, she participates in this group activity and then declares that the castle gates are never to be closed again. Yeah, I just don’t see the introvert angle for Elsa.
But you know who I do see it for?
Kristoff is a guy who doesn’t have a human family, is adopted into a troll… horde… and spends most of his time selling ice with only the company of a pet reindeer. And says things like (paraphrasing) “people usually climb tall mountains to be alone”.
And he ends up with the extroverted Anna (no argument on that score).
That I would be totally on board with.