Temperatures are dropping, the season's first snows are falling, and the long-awaited sequel to "Frozen" has swept into theaters like an icy blast. As we settle in for winter, let's examine the woman at the center of the storm. She's been a heartless, mystical Queen, a loving, misunderstood sister, a beloved global sensation, and yes, a gay icon; and through it all, Elsa remains an enigma.
The titular character of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen" (fittingly published on the Winter Solstice in 1844) bears little resemblance to Disney's Elsa. A mesmerizing, manipulative figure who reigns over the "snow bees", she lures an isolated young boy to her magical sleigh, enchants him, and imprisons him far away in her snowy palace. Later adaptations depict an even more malevolent ruler, elevating her to full villain status in some stories. This mysterious woman had long captivated the imagination of Walt Disney and other filmmakers but no one could quite figure out what to do with her until writers/directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck reimagined the fearsome Snow Queen as a lonely, tragically misunderstood sister, struggling to embrace her power, while protecting her loved ones.
We first meet Elsa as a happy, carefree kid, born with the unique and seemingly charming ability to conjure snow and ice. She is confident, kind, and devoted to her little sister Anna. But their world is shattered when Elsa accidentally hurts her sister with her powers. Anna recovers but all knowledge of her sister's abilities is wiped from her memory and their parents resolve to keep Elsa's power a secret. The girl is locked away in her room for years, to protect herself and others from any more accidents. Elsa grows up feeling guilty, ashamed, fearful and above all, lonely. She is locked in an internal struggle against her own nature. She is betrayed and isolated by her own feelings which she must vigilantly monitor and conceal, as strong emotions unleash her powers. Sadness could produce sleet; fear can provoke a flurry; anger might conjure a blizzard.
As might be expected from someone forced to repress all emotion, and to carry a heavy secret, Elsa emerges from adolescence as a cold, aloof, closed off young woman. It takes a series of accidents, confrontations, and a salvific act of true love to reveal the warm, courageous, inspiring heroine adored today by fans the world over.
Elsa's compelling story of learning to harness her powers for good and reconnecting with her beloved sister would be enough. But what if there is more?
In 2014, a year after "Frozen" took the world by storm, delighted, buzzy speculation began building in academia, in pop culture and on social media: Is Elsa gay? San Diego State University professor Angel Daniel Matos published a 2014 article examining the character through a queer lens. Pro and anti LGBTQ cultural critics chimed in. #GiveElsaAGirlfriend began trending on Twitter in 2016.
At the time, I had never seen the film; I had never heard the songs. As lovely and meaningful as it would be to have an openly LGBTQ Disney character, I dismissed the rumors as wishful thinking overreach.
Then I listened to "Let It Go" for the first time. I was in tears by the third refrain.
"...The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried!
Don't let them in, don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
Well, now they know!
Let it go, let it go
Can't hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door..."
(Oh my gosh, wow...)
"It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can't get to me at all..."
"My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I'm never going back
The past is in the past!
Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone!
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway!"
(Are you kidding me?)
So. Did Disney intentionally, consciously write its first major out gay character? No. Did they gift the world one of the greatest coming out anthems of all time? Yep!
I grew up in Texas in the 1980-1990's. When I was 11, I realized there was something very different, something "wrong" about me. I was reading a magazine and came across a picture of the actress Amy Irving. I was struck breathless by how beautiful she was. Two thoughts overwhelmed me simultaneously: 1) she was so lovely it made my head swim; and 2) I must NEVER EVER let anyone know about this weird, scary feeling. It took seven years before I finally admitted to myself that I liked girls; it took another seven years for me to tell my loved ones.
I tried for so long to conceal it-I plastered my teenage room with magazine photos of cute actors and the hottest boy bands; I got engaged to my boyfriend of six years; I pined for my real celebrity crushes in absolute secrecy, not daring to even write about my feelings in my diary. I kept my emotions locked away, even from my own consciousness, for years. When I did finally come out to myself, I was still too frightened to tell anyone else and too isolated to ever have any hope of going on a date, having a first kiss, falling in love. As far as I knew at the time, I did not know a single other gay person. So at 18, I resigned myself to keeping my secret for the rest of my life and to getting through each day as best as I could.
Obviously, miraculously, joyously...I eventually found the courage to come out and live openly. Luckily, I was met with almost universal acceptance by my friends and family. Coming out lifts such a heavy burden of secrecy and shame and fear. It frees you from physical and emotional stress. It allows you to truly connect with your loved ones because you are no longer hiding a core element of yourself from them. One friend gently prodded me to open up to her because she could tell I was holding something in; she says that when I said the words and came out to her, it felt like an opaque wall which had existed between us came tumbling down and she could truly see me for the first time.
Every LGBTQ person can tell this same story. Every. Single. One.
Though unintentional, "Let It Go" expresses the fear, joy and release of coming out in a way queer people cannot help but immediately recognize. In an April 10, 2014 NPR interview, one of the songwriters, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, distills the message as: "don't allow fear or shame to keep you from being the person you should be."
The song was the hook for me, but it was just the beginning...