Thawing Frozen Hearts with Anna and Elsa*
At its core, the story of Frozen is about two sisters who love one another but cannot be together. As children, then as adults, a heavy door always keeps Anna and Elsa apart. In the early days of their childhood, Anna jumps into Elsa’s bed and asks, “Do you want to build a snowman?” There is a wonderful mix of excitement and intimacy. But alas their joyous intimacy does not last. While building the snowman together, Elsa inadvertently shoots ice magic and hits Anna. Anna crumples to the floor. Though not life-threatening, the event causes a life-changing rupture in the sisters’ relationship. The intimacy that initially binds them is forever closed off behind the heavy door to Elsa’s room.
The door between the sisters is both a reminder of how close they used to be, and a barrier keeping them apart. Both sisters are worse off for having to endure this separation. Anna expresses hope that the door will open despite knowing it will stay closed, when she repeatedly asks, “Do you want to build a snowman?” Elsa, her voice sad, says distantly, “Go away Anna.”
“Let It Go”: The Psychology of True Love
The physical separation that the girls experience carries significant psychological and emotional weight. Elsa internalizes the accident in a way that defines her character. As she and Anna sing in anticipation of Coronation Day, Elsa steels herself to face the public (which will include her sister): “Conceal, don’t feel, put on a show. Make one wrong move and everyone will know.” Elsa fears that she will be unmasked as one who harmed the sister she loves, and by extension she fears that her feelings make her dangerous to everyone she loves.
The reason for the coronation makes this point implicitly. Elsa’s parents are dead as the result of another accident. Elsa’s closest relationships as a child and young woman are defined by significant trauma. Her isolation is a precaution against her ability to harm the ones she loves.
Anna has also internalized the accident and subsequent separation from her sister as being her own fault. This is why Anna struggles to make small talk with her sister at the coronation. In the same song where Elsa reminds herself not to feel, Anna expresses a fear directly tied to that childhood accident. She longs for the intimacy she knew before she was separated from Elsa: “For the first time in forever, I could be noticed by someone.” Anna has no preconceptions of who this person could be; this is not an explicit desire for a masculine romantic partner. Rather, it is a desire that reaches back to the intimacy she knew with Elsa. Her isolation while growing up, coupled with the death of her parents, ensures that she doesn’t have another mental template for who this person could be. She could be noticed by anyone, but the someone in her mind is, or at least resembles, Elsa.
Thus the sisters share a mindset grounded in fear, rooted in their separation and the love that binds them together. The point is made clearly when the sisters’ separate verses converge in “For the First Time in Forever.” Just before Elsa sings to let the gates open, Anna and Elsa sing the same line: “It’s agony to wait.” Expectations differ, but their shared feelings grow out of their experience of intimacy followed by separation.
To fully understand the love that defines Anna and Elsa’s relationship, we have to appreciate the driving force of their shared fear. Anna is afraid she’ll be rejected because Elsa is continually absent. But why is that? It’s because of Elsa’s own fears. “Listen to me, Elsa,” the ever-wise Grand Pabbie says, “your power will only grow. There is beauty in your magic … But also great danger. You must learn to control it. Fear will be your enemy.” “No, I belong here¾alone,” comes the reply, “where I can be who I am without hurting anybody.” So there it is. It’s not just that Elsa is afraid she’ll hurt Anna one more time. She dreads Anna’s rejection¾of who she is and cannot help being.
Ultimately, it is an act of true love that saves the sisters. The notion of true love that unfolds in Frozen is not your typical two-dimensional story, where the prince saves the princess. It’s far more complex and counter-cultural.
Love Is an Open Door: The Deception of the Typical Romance Narrative
There is a vast difference between the nature of true love and how love can be twisted to meet our own needs. Hans’ desire to be king and his manipulation of others reveal how a self-driven love is precisely the opposite of real love. Hans’ declaration of “love” is merely “vanity” and thus not love at all. His actions cast him as the very antithesis of his “loving” words to Anna as they dance through the night. Vanity and love are oil and water.
This point is abstract but crucial to understanding the competing loves in Frozen. Hans’ “love” for Anna reveals his selfish intent. There is no love in him beyond what he wants for himself. Just imagine Hans asking: “Could anyone really love me for who I am?” The question answers itself. For as we come to see, Hans is actually a terrible person; so “no.”
Stronger Than One, Stronger Than Ten: Defining an Act of True Love
A willingness to be loved exists alongside the possibility of being rejected, but this does not deter the love that drives Anna to knock on Elsa’s door. It is a love that risks rejection. In her willingness to speak despite their separation, Anna reveals a hint of the true love that will later save both Elsa’s life and her own.
Now of course we can read Anna’s struggle against her own disappointment as a drift towards selfishness. We may even hear in Anna’s voice a demand that her own desires be satisfied. “Please,” she pleads, “I know you’re in there.” However, let’s remember that these words are spoken only after Anna’s hopeful request to build a snowman with her sister. They are an aftershock of the love that pulls Anna closer to Elsa. They’re not a sign of Hans-like self-centeredness. Instead, they are an attempt to reopen a loving relationship. As St. Paul says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” These words lay bare Hans’ lack of love, and they set a standard for love that is rare in our world.
“For the First Time in Forever”
Anna’s love really is remarkable in its commitment to Elsa. Anna’s patience, kindness, trust, hope, and perseverance in pursuit of Elsa is met with the constant refrain: “Go away Anna.” In the face of this dismissal, Anna nonetheless clings to the hope of future joy and relationship with her sister. And it is what motivates her to pursue Elsa after the Coronation Day Freeze. This possibility, however remote, is the crux of the matter in loving the way St. Paul outlines. Loving fully is a divine concept that carries us past life and death. As St. Paul explains, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” The answer does not arrive when we ask the question. It is the asking of the question that reveals partially what is possible when love is fully known.
Now it’s certainly true that Elsa’s answer doesn’t quite map onto Anna’s initial question. Anna asks if Elsa wants to build a snowman, but Elsa’s answer is only whether she will. Having grown up calling to Elsa through a closed door, Anna knows her request will be rebuffed. But in one way, it doesn’t matter. For the act of asking is the sign of the love that binds the sisters together. The willingness to ask, despite outward rejection, is the mark of a deep and abiding love. Anna’s risk-taking love for her sister, despite rebuffs plays itself out later when Anna immediately and without hesitation declares she will go after her “sorcerous” sister to make things right and bring back summer. Yet again, Anna thinks that the Coronation Day fiasco was all her fault, but Anna’s quick response to follow Elsa and her almost offhand reply to those in fear of Anna’s own safety – that “She’s my sister; she would never hurt me”—underscore Anna’s longstanding, patient, trust and commitment to Elsa. She loves Elsa.
Our culture has a clear storyline for thinking about love, and Disney has certainly capitalized on it. The man wins over the woman. In the process, the woman must typically be saved from distressing events she can’t handle on her own. The man’s success in saving the woman almost always stems from his culturally masculine virtues: strength, courage, a healthy sense of self, the jawline to match, and, often, a weapon to seal the deal. Hans not only embodies a self-interested conception of love, he also projects how the ego-driven understanding of love in our culture denies the openness and intimacy that characterizes true love.
With an understanding of true love based on asking and opening ourselves up to another, we can see the impotency of the unidirectional love that our culture so often privileges. Hans rages as he fails to get what he wants¾just what we’d expect from a prince based on our cultural stereotypes. It’s not Hans but rather Kristoff who embodies true love. The snowman, Olaf, is closer to the truth when he says to Anna,
Love is … putting someone else’s needs before yours, like, you know, how Kristoff brought you back here to Hans and left you forever. There’s your act of true love, right there, riding across the fjords like a valiant, pungent reindeer king! Come on!
Still, when Anna is most in need of true love, it is Kristoff who bursts forth to give her the kiss everyone, audience included, assumes will save her. To be sure, Anna’s salvation won’t be thanks to Hans’ extreme masculinity. Nevertheless, the structure of the story is the same. The man provides salvation to the woman.
Two important things happen that undermine this cultural construct. First, Anna turns away from Kristoff to save her sister. They are still distant in the true lovers’ sense; they have not been reconciled since the initial rupture from their childhood. Second, Anna steps forward to protect Elsa from Hans. As Hans swings his sword, which condenses all of the masculine-defined tropes of true love into a phallus he swings in anger, we finally realize the power of true love properly understood. Her sacrifice for the other shatters the sword that would make the lovers’ separation permanent in death. Anna defies cultural expectation and destroys the symbol of a love defined in masculine-normed terms.
We Can Fix This Hand in Hand
While Anna defies expectation in her loving gesture, it is important not to frame her actions as self-sacrifice. They are done for someone else. This is the gesture that characterizes true love. The decision to save Elsa is no different than her willingness to stand outside her sister’s door. Anna expects the answer will continue to be “no.” In the same way, Anna saves Elsa expecting that her act will make their separation permanent. For a moment, she is on her way, but then a single breath breaks through Anna’s apparent death. In fact, it is Anna’s act of true love that brings her back to life. Her passion for her sister, her act of true love, is fiercer than the grave.
Developing a frozen heart (and living a life devoid of true love) is an ever-present danger in a culture that rewards those who pursue pleasure and self-interest. If Frozen teaches us anything, it’s that there are no quick fixes. Like Anna, we need to heed Grand Pabbie’s words: “your life is in danger. There is ice in your heart … If not removed, to solid ice will you freeze, forever.” Like Kristoff, we prefer the quick fix: “So remove it, Grand Pabbie.” But even the magic of the trolls has its limits. “I can’t,” he says; for it’s not a matter of the head, but of the heart: “only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.”
*The unabridged version of this essay appears in Disney and Philosophy.
Jamey Heit, PhD, is the Co-founder and CEO of Ecree, which provides virtual writing support to students around the world. Prior to founding Ecree, he taught in Higher Education for nearly 15 years across Humanities disciplines. He has two Master’s Degrees from Princeton and a PhD from the University of Glasgow. Along the way he has published multiple books on popular culture covering The Hunger Games, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Simpsons.