Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Elsa and the Relatable Character

In the two months since Frozen hit theaters, I've noticed that Elsa has become far more popular than her sister. Anna is the main character, so why do we all like Elsa? Is it because Anna's appearance and adorkable personality is reminiscent of Rapunzel? Is it because "my soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around" sounds more eloquent than "the window is open, so's that door"? Or is it just the dress?
Whatever the reason, I've also heard quite a bit of backlash against Elsa's character. Most of the complaints are about how the characters of Frozen are white. And I've seen fanart like this.

           Not sure what to make of her hair. I feel like it should be darker too. But maybe her winter magic means her hair will always be white no matter what? Okay.
Yes, there's plenty right with creating non-white characters. But there's nothing wrong with making a character white. Especially when the movie is based on a Danish fairy tale. Arendelle was inspired by Scandinavia. During production, Disney sent researchers to Norway to study architecture, fashion, and fjords.
What do you want Disney supposed to do, reanimate the entire movie? If you believe it's important to have diversity in popular culture, buy a ticket for some movie with a non-white character. Money talks in Hollywood. If you want to see a difference you have to make one.
We have several non-white princesses already. Jasmine. Pocahontas. Mulan. Tiana. In fact, Disney didn't make a single white princess between 1991 (Belle) and 2010 (Rapunzel). That's almost twenty years. White doesn't automatically mean racist. If you walk out of a theater and all you can remember is the character's race, clearly you didn't watch the movie.
And on an unrelated note, can we please stop it with the 'Elsa is gay' theories? There is zero evidence in the film to suggest that. So she doesn't dance with the Duke of Weaseltown at her coronation. Nobody wants to dance with the Duke of Weaseltown. So what if she forbids Anna from marrying Hans?
That's not gay, people. That's common sense. She managed to say in one sentence what people have been telling Disney for seventy six years. Elsa's an independent woman, a regal queen, and a powerful sorceress. She doesn't need a man in her life much less have time for one. And please, can we stop with the 'Elsanna' pairings? They're sisters. How does that not disgust you? I think these people just can't wrap their brains around the idea of a girl in a non-romantic relationship.
And the reason she feels shut out and unloved? That's because of her ice powers. They're not a metaphor for gayness. If she were lesbian she'd be shooting rainbows.
Ever since The Little Mermaid hit theaters twenty five years ago, Disney has been trying to shake their 'damsel' image. To create strong female characters. The modern Disney princess saves her prince instead of the other way around.
But strong doesn't just mean "not a damsel". A strong character is interesting, complex, and she connects with the audience. That brings us back to Elsa.
Elsa isn't career driven like Tiana. She doesn't take out a man with a frying pan like Rapunzel. She doesn't shoot for her own hand like Merida. She doesn't man up like Mulan. She's a horrible ruler who abandoned her people. Every problem in the movie is a result of her inability to control her powers. She ignored her sister for thirteen years, even refusing to come out when her parents died.
And yet we love her.
Why does everyone relate to Elsa?

It's probably because each of us has something we conceal, don't feel, don't let it show
We see her at her lowest moments

And we see her at her highest
We watch her run off a cliff held up by nothing but her own confidence
It's not the ice powers we want, or the ability to make sentient life out of snow. We want her confidence. We see our own weakness in her, and when she conquers her demons, we believe we can too. Normally weakness makes us pull back from a character. We don't want to relate to wimpy damsels or grumpy girls because that means admitting our own shortcomings. But Elsa is different because she rises above it. We want to connect with her. That's why Elsa is so likable.  Instead of her personality coming from conquering gender norms, she conquers herself.
Race, sexuality, gender-those things shouldn't define a person. They're just demographics. And really, if you actually care about any socio-political issues, you're better off trying to change the world you live in than complaining about a fictional one.
A relatable character shouldn't be someone who matches us in dull, census statistic ways. And if you refuse to relate to someone because they don't match up with you, you're missing out on some great ones. Elsa succeeds because we see pieces of ourself in her and forget what makes her different. Personality is a thousand times more important than anything else.
And man, does Elsa have a great one.
Edit: I just realized that this post could be misread to mean I don't think diversity in fiction is important. Of course it is. And that's why we need to spend our time and energy creating and promoting media with diverse characters. Slamming a movie for having "default" characters won't bring about change.


  1. Your opinion and voice on this subject are so refreshing. I have already spent way too much time and energy being annoyed by articles about Frozen's "gay agenda" (see Kathy Skaggs' article). But I think your words here are appropriate to end on. Not only are you obviously much more level-headed than these radically conservative religious people (I consider myself somewhat religious), or radically liberal oppression-seekers and watchdogs, your writing is less circular, more concise, and ultimately less judgmental, of any party. Thank you for such a fresh insight! Cheers!

    1. (Kathryn*, not Kathy Skaggs)

  2. Dark skinned Elsa looks like Storm from X-Men :D

  3. I stumbled across this blog post today and I agree with everything you've got to say my dear! I love it and I'll be sharing this post! <3

  4. finaly somebody sees it; this gay-Elsa garbage is so disturbing ):-(

  5. and dark Elsa looks strange u cant make out the details of her face; and the white hair? just strange

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  7. Thank you for this. I agree, with everything you said.

    It's perfectly okay to have white characters. In fact, I'd say thinking white automatically means racist is pretty racist in of itself. If people complained about a movie having black characters I'm sure everyone would agree they're being racist.

    And it's fine for gay people to relate to Elsa. I have no problem with that. But that doesn't mean she's a lesbian, especially not for her sister. They love each other the way family does, not in a romantic sense.

    1. Thank you. The sisterly love is one of my favorite parts about the movie. Ariel and Merida both had siblings but they weren't important to the plot. That makes Frozen new and interesting.
      On the lesbian thing, I don't see how Elsa could fall in love with Anna when their 'romance' consists entirely of her not wanting to built a snowman.