Before you read this, I recommend that you listen to our podcast episode about Disney’s Frozen. It’s not required that you listen to it in order to fully appreciate this post, but it’s a good time, and goes much further into detail about the film. Also, this post will be written with the assumption that the reader has already seen Frozen, so naturally, it contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you’ve been warned.
For those who don’t know yet, Disney’s Frozen is my favorite movie of 2013. Many critics (this podcast included) have lauded it for its animation, its music, its forward thinking approach to gender, and its willingness to subvert common Disney tropes while staying true to the Disney magic. However, I think there is one aspect of this movie that hasn’t received nearly enough praise; it’s treatment of extroverts and introverts. Frozen shows that even though both personalities are different, they can still coexist and care for one another. It effectively teaches its audience how to respect those with different personalities, and how neither one is intrinsically more “right” than the other. It’s a theme that subtly pervades the entire film, and I think it’s a big reason why the film has such broad ranging appeal.
How Frozen Teaches Extroverts to Respect Introverts:
Let’s face it; Disney doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to portraying introverts. This is mostly because most of Disney’s biggest introverts are also their biggest villains. Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid spends most of her time isolated from the other merfolk in her grotto and is hated and feared by them. The Evil Queen locks herself away in her castle to plot against Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In The Lion King, Scar is first seen brooding by himself, removed from the rest of the Pride Lands until Simba comes to him. The list goes on.
When non-villainous characters are put into isolation, it is often portrayed as a punishment or something that needs fixing. In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast’s standoffish nature is seen as his greatest flaw, and much of the film is dedicated to making him a warmer and more welcoming person. 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 Hercules, Herc sings an entire song about how his ultimate goal is to find a place where he “belongs” (“Go the Distance”). 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.
For a long time, the Disney Animated Canon has shown isolation negatively, either by portraying it as a condition that needs to be escaped, or by making its isolated characters villains. However, that changed with Frozen.
Frozen gives us Elsa, a cryokinetic Princess who is forced to shut herself off from the rest of her Kingdom both physically and emotionally. Early in the film, Elsa accidentally injures her sister Anna with her powers, so her parents lock her within the castle gates in order to prevent further danger. Furthermore, Elsa learns that her powers are controlled by her feelings, so she emotionally castrates herself in order to keep them in check. Not long into the film, Elsa’s parents die in a tragic shipwreck and, as next in line for the throne, Elsa becomes queen. She is forced to open the gates for her coronation, letting in her subjects as well as foreign trade partners. However, in another incident involving Anna, her powers are revealed and in panic, she flees to the isolation of the surrounding mountains.
This scene is the first time we see Elsa truly happy. In the film’s breakout scene, Elsa sings the powerful “Let it Go”; a veritable anthem to introversion. Finally free of the pressure exerted on her by her parents and the people of Arendelle, Elsa is able explore the full extent of her power, building herself a beautiful castle of ice and even creating life in the form of Olaf. More importantly, Elsa revels in her isolation. Towards the end of the song, she proudly exclaims:
“And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast/I’m never going back, the past is in the past”
It was not Elsa’s isolation that made her unhappy when she was in Arendelle, it was her proximity to others. For the perceived safety of those around her, Elsa was never allowed to be truly happy, and can only find real peace when she is alone.
This is exactly how an introvert functions. Introverts are usually defined as those who draw energy and happiness from within themselves, and lose energy when surrounded by other people. For Elsa, the constant regard she must maintain for those around her, especially during social events like her coronation, is emotionally stifling. It isn’t until she removes herself from the company of others that she is finally able to relax and be herself.
But what is important to note, is that the introversion portrayed in Frozen is not vilified. The actions that Elsa’s parents take are not done with villainous intent. They are not punishing Elsa by locking her within the castle gates, they are trying to keep her safe and help her figure out how to control her powers. When Elsa leaves the kingdom, she doesn’t become an evil sorceress or plan revenge on Arendelle, she just wants to be alone.
This understanding of isolation is encapsulated perfectly when Anna comes to Elsa’s ice palace. Anna (a natural extrovert), can’t understand why Elsa would want to remove herself from society and pleads with Elsa to return to Arendelle. If this were an earlier Disney film, this would have been the point in the movie where Elsa is called out for her introversion. I am reminded of a similar scene in The Lion King, when Nala discovers Simba after years of separation. Like Elsa, Simba is the rightful ruler of a kingdom who flees to isolation. However, Simba is chastised for his introversion. Nala tells Simba of the declining state of the Pride Lands, and scorns him for his negligence and cowardice. Almost immediately thereafter, Simba returns to the Pride Lands to fight Scar and reclaim his kingdom.
However, things play out differently between Anna and Elsa. Like Nala, Anna comes to Elsa and informs her about the eternal winter plaguing Arendelle. However, unlike Nala, she doesn’t vilify Elsa for running, or even for the blizzards that are largely her fault. Instead she extends a helping hand and an understanding heart, and even offers to help Elsa end the storms. She sings:
“For the first time in forever, I finally understand/For the first time in forever, we can face this hand in hand/We can head down this mountain together/You don’t have to live in fear/Because for the first time in forever, I will be right here”
As much as Anna is unlike Nala in this situation, Elsa is even less like Simba. Unlike Simba, she refuses to return immediately to Arendelle, and does not return until she is forcibly dragged there much later in the film. But more importantly, Elsa’s refusal of Anna is not angry or vindictive. Instead she responds respectfully and understandingly, singing:
“I know you mean well, but leave me be/Yes I’m alone, but I’m alone and free.”
Elsa’s decision not to return to Arendelle does not make her the villain. She thinks and functions differently than Anna, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t understand Anna, or that she’s automatically opposed to her. The sisters simply have two different personalities.
Disney has finally given us a realistic depiction of introversion with Frozen. With Elsa, they’ve shown that being an introvert does not make you a bad person, and that being alone isn’t necessarily undesirable. After years of impressing their (mostly child) audience with the idea that loneliness is either a sin or a punishment, they’ve finally portrayed a solitary character sympathetically. In addition, through Anna’s interactions with Elsa, Frozen shows its extroverted viewers how to respect introverts.
However, it also tells its introverted viewers how to respect extroverts.
How Frozen Teaches Introverts to Respect Extroverts:
Even though Frozen celebrates Elsa’s introversion, and does not maker her into a villain for it, it cannot be ignored that Elsa is the driving force behind the films central conflict: the eternal winter. When Elsa flees the kingdom during her coronation ball, her sudden outburst of emotion creates a vicious blizzard that buries Arendelle in several feet of snow. Being that it’s July, the people of Arendelle are vastly underprepared for the cold, and there is a very real threat that they’ll freeze to death. Anna’s primary motivation in getting Elsa to return to the kingdom is so that she can reverse the winter weather.
When Anna reaches Elsa’s palace and informs her of the eternal winter, Elsa is immediately stricken with guilt, and the brief happiness that her isolation brought her is immediately ripped out from underneath her. It would appear that the film is punishing Elsa for the very introversion that it glorifies with “Let it Go.” However, the film is not punishing Elsa for her introversion; it’s punishing her for abandoning Anna.
Anna is an extrovert, meaning that she draws energy and happiness from other people, and is drained of it when she’s alone. When her parents make the decision to lock Elsa away from the world, it negatively impacts Anna just as much as it does Elsa. Anna’s relationship with her sister is her primary means to happiness, and without it, she sinks into depression. This is further compounded by the fact that her memories involving Elsa’s powers are erased; making it seem like Elsa is intentionally avoiding her for no apparent reason.
During the number “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” we see Anna continually pleading at Elsa’s door for interaction. As the years go by, she grows gradually disheartened by her sister’s aloofness until she is literally reduced to a heap of sadness after the death of her parents. Even as an adult, she continues to ask Elsa if she wants to build a snowman, desperate to rekindle the relationship they once had as children.
In the following scenes, we see the impact of Anna’s isolation. During the number “For the First Time in Forever,” we see Anna’s excitement at finally being able to engage in some form of interaction. Later, during “Love is an Open Door,” we see how her desperation for meaningful connections coupled with her inexperience in social engagement has given her unrealistic expectations about love, and she leaps into a marriage with a man she’s just met. As an extrovert, Anna depends on forming relationships with others to remain happy. By being kept away from her sister for most of her life, Anna is deprived of her primary relationship and instead defaults to an irrational and (eventually) destructive relationship with Hans.
But this is not necessarily Elsa’s fault. It was her parents’ decisions to lock her away and to keep Anna in the dark about the circumstances. However, when Elsa decides that she’s “never going back” and that “the past is in the past” during “Let it Go,” she is, in a way, slamming the door in Anna’s face. Even though her powers are now out in the open, she makes the conscious decision not to interact with Anna or to repair the relationship they had as children, thus leaving Anna once again starved for meaningful interaction.
This is what the film punishes Elsa for. The eternal winter is symbolic of the unintended consequences that befall a person’s loved ones when he or she decides to leave them behind. Just as Anna silently suffers while Elsa is locked away in her room, Arendelle suffers as Elsa isolates herself in the mountains. While the film does not vilify Elsa for being a solitary person or for being happiest while she’s alone, it does recognize that cutting yourself off completely can negatively impact the ones you care about.
Just as Frozen teaches its extroverted audience to respect introverts, it also teaches its introverted audience to respect extroverts. It shows that it’s okay to want to be alone, but it also recognizes that there are people who depend on interpersonal relationships in order to attain happiness, and that it’s not okay to leave those people out in the cold. This is shown symbolically when Elsa learns that love can reverse the eternal winter. By reconnecting with her sister, she is able to mend the unintended damage that was done by ignoring her. Although Elsa prefers to be by herself, she still needs to show love to the people she cares about. There are people like Anna who depend on that love.
Frozen is an excellent exploration of both introverted and extroverted characters, but more importantly it shows the interaction between them. With the love that Anna and Elsa show for each other, Frozen shows its audience that just because the two personality types are opposite, it doesn’t mean that they’re incompatible. Personally, I’m hoping that we drop the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” completely in favor of calling ourselves “an Elsa” or “an Anna.” That way, instead of implying a duality, it will imply interdependence, respect, and love.