What Frozen Teaches us about Power, Privilege, and Community
February 3, 2014
Just as polar vortices sweep through America, Elsa, one of the main characters in the latest Disney princess movie, Frozen, unleashes her icy power in the fictional kingdom Arendelle, across theaters everywhere. In addition to delighting progressive audiences by satirizing Disney’s own trope of “marriage at first sight”, the story compels viewers, young and old, to find courage to be their true selves. The Oscar nominated signature song, “Let It Go,” poignantly expresses the sentiment of letting go of fears, secret pains, and pretense. Fans of the song, from celebrities to little girls, have been belting the tune theatrically from kitchens to car rides to the internet.
G.K. Chesterton says,
Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
A good story is more than a pleasurable experience, but empower us to live a changed life. Frozen is filled with beloved characters and catchy melodies, but also has much to teach us about power, privilege, and community.
The queen of the kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa, was born with a special ability to manipulate ice. After an accident where she hurt her adoring sister, Anna, she was scared into hiding her powers by locking herself away in her room at the castle. The fear of hurting others and the shame of being different kept her from exercising her powers altogether.
Power is not distributed equitably in society. When we think of people in power, we think of kings and presidents, celebrities and tycoons. But depending on our individual contexts, most of us hold a certain degree of power over others. Society is such that members are held in submission to those in authority: employers over employees, adults over children, the rich over the poor. Even within marginalized peoples, there are varying degrees of power. Being aware of the imbalance of power helps us protect the vulnerable and hold the powerful accountable. Sometimes in our conversations regarding justice, we end up shaming those who hold power. What Frozen teaches us is that power is not inherently evil, and fear and shame are never the criteria with which to determine how to steward the powers we are gifted with.
At her coronation, Elsa fails to conceal her powers, and holding on to the shame she has internalized, she copes by running far away. She experiences an epiphany to let go of her fears and decides to “test the limits” of her power by building a stunning ice castle on top of the mountain. Later, when Anna tries to convince her to go back home, she releases a terrifying snow beast to chase Anna away.
When we are in a position of power, we have the choice to use it to create beauty, or to unleash terror. Like Elsa, sometimes we cover our secret fears and insecurities by lording our power over others. As a mother, I hold the power within my words to tear down my children or to lift them up. We can choose to both build up a castle of confidence and security, or speak words which trample, destroy, and chase away. We are capable of both great evil or great good.
Beautiful as the ice castle may be, Elsa built it in order to keep herself safely isolated from her kingdom, from all the people she cares about, and everything worth protecting. This isolation, although well intentioned, resulted in her complete ignorance of the suffering of her people, frozen in a state of eternal winter because of her powers.
Despite the globalization of our world, it is still extremely easy for those with privilege to live in isolation from those without. We consume products made in developing countries by laborers working under inhumane conditions. We eat food safely distanced from the cruelty inflicted on animals in the process. Our powers inadvertently inflict great harm, but as long as we live up on the snowy mountain, we need not confront the injustice. The freedom Elsa experiences blinds her to the suffering of her people. This makes one consider whether freedom enjoyed at the expense of others is freedom at all.
The story goes on to resolve the conflict through a series of events involving several characters. Kristoff sacrifices his own apparent feelings for princess Anna to save her from a fatal wound. The villain surfaces and threatens the lives of both Elsa and Anna. At the climactic end, Anna risks her own life and happiness to save her sister, and Elsa discovers through this selfless act that only true love can wield her powers to save her kingdom.
I am reminded the work of making things right in our world requires the work of not only those in power, but the ordinary folks. Anna, the awkward princess, Kristof, the smelly mountain man living in the margins of society, and even Olaf the snowman, a whimsical side character, all play a central role in bringing resolution. An African proverb says,
If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.
Justice work can never be done in isolation, but requires the efforts of all the players in society: artists, musicians, politicians, journalists, businessmen and women, educators, parents and children. It can only be done in community with ordinary people, with extraordinary love. Elsa finally learns the deliverance both for herself and her kingdom, is not to hide in shame, nor to isolate her powers, but by allowing it to flow organically through giving of herself fully in relationship with her community.
We may not have magical cryokinetic powers, but we all have a part to play in resolving the global crises facing our generation. Disney has given us a story to help us reflect more deeply on the powers inherent in our interconnectedness, and how we can best move towards life, leaving the death of winter behind.