Three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president I went to see Disney’s Moana. It made me smile for the first time since the election and cry for the hundredth. A few months later, I came out as trans and the movie’s power ballad, “How Far I’ll Go” became my private little trans anthem. There was something about the simplicity of a Disney “I want” song that captured my intense feelings.
But the voice inside sings a different song/What is wrong with me?
I’m certainly not the first queer person to project their coming out onto a Disney musical. Some people watched Pinocchio and wished to be a real boy. Others watched The Little Mermaid and longed to be part of that world. Many, many watched Mulan and wondered when their reflection would show who they were inside.
But none of these movies, not Moana, not even Mulan, elicited the same queer uproar as Frozen. By 2013, the possibility of a gay Disney movie didn’t feel as far-fetched as it might have ten years prior. Mainstream LGBTQ+ acceptance was moving at a rapid pace, at least when it came to palatable queerness, and what was more palatable than a white cis femme snow queen?
While certainly unintended by its straight co-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and its straight co-songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Frozen works remarkably well as a queer allegory. Its power is not simply that Elsa reads as queer. It’s the specificity of her queerness, and her struggles with that queerness, that really make it sing.
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see/Be the good girl you always have to be
Frozen is not about Elsa falling in love with another woman. And it’s not just about her feeling different and learning to accept that difference. What Frozen is really about is the guilt queer people feel when coming out – the feeling that being ourselves will hurt the ones we love most. Elsa and her sister Anna make me think about my own family members that told me again and again how hard my coming out was on them. When I watch the sisters hug at the end of the movie I feel a possibility for healing – the stuff of fairy tales, but comforting all the same.
I didn’t expect Frozen 2 to give Elsa a girlfriend, despite the widespread internet campaign. I was far more worried that the perfect allegory of the first film would be ruined with the opposite. I was worried they’d give her a boyfriend. Thankfully the sequel did not make that misstep, but it makes another that’s more complicated, and, in its own way, equally painful. It doesn’t erase the magic of its predecessor, but it strips itself of its own potential.
If Disney wasn’t ready to explicitly represent a fifth of its young audience, they could’ve at least given Elsa a gal pal. I don’t need to see Elsa make out with the mysterious voice calling her to the next chapter of queer life, but lord did it have to be her mother?
The plot of the sequel is both convoluted and familiar. Elsa is feeling another swirling storm inside and unleashes the power of the nearby enchanted forest. It was closed for decades – ever since her father narrowly escaped as a teen after a mysterious disaster. With the magic forces freed, Arendelle has become unlivable, and Elsa, along with Anna, her boyfriend Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and their snowman Olaf, must venture into the mystery. Elsa must follow the voice.
Are you someone out there who’s a bit like me?/Who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be?
The enchanted forest allows for some truly stunning animation, and the introduction of creatures that I’m sure have already been turned into toys. But the emotional beats of the forest often feel hollow. Anna’s insistence on following her sister lacks the motivation of the original film, instead reading as a foolish death wish. She knows she lacks Elsa’s powers, so why doesn’t she realize her presence is simply a burden? Allegorically, why is Anna trying to tag along with her sister to the gay bar?
But, of course, this isn’t the allegory at play. When Elsa finally does discover the voice, it’s not a coded lover – someone a bit like her – but instead the spirit of her mother. This is made especially painful by the incredibly gay lyrics in her dead mom duet.
Are you the one I’ve been looking for/All my life?
Elsa’s mother reveals why she’s been calling her daughter to this land – and reveals the actual allegory. The inhabitants of the forest are coded as Indigenous and Arendelle was responsible for the destruction of their land. Elsa’s mother reveals that she was one of these Indigenous people but she rescued Elsa’s father out of love. There’s a moment where it seems like the movie might be making an interesting point about reckoning with a colonial past, but then Elsa finds a way to save the forest and Arendelle, and any strength in the metaphor is removed. A statue is erected to commemorate their parents’ love, a painfully reductive celebration of people coming together. The film’s take on colonialism ends up being as morally complex as Disney’s Pocahontas. Ultimately, this becomes the film’s most abhorrent misstep, beyond its disappointing approach to queerness.
What made Frozen special as a queer allegory is it didn’t require a double consciousness. Unlike other very-gay-not-gay movies, there are no scenes in Frozen that have to be ignored; no moment where Elsa is forced to engage in compulsory heterosexuality. You can enjoy the movie from beginning to end with your whole gay heart. But Frozen 2 does not allow that. Instead you have to parse through the complicated mess that is Elsa having queer longings for her mother.
This isn’t to say Frozen 2 is without its pleasures. The soundtrack really is phenomenal, as is the animation. The world that’s built is a joy to watch and the script is filled with a lot of fun humor. The movie also contains a thread of environmentalism that works much better than its attempts at portraying colonization. But despite these strengths, the movie just made me feel sad. When Kristoff proposes to Anna near the end of the film, I felt its message deep within me: queer children still don’t get a love story.
Maybe someday we’ll finally see the movie we deserve – a queer Disney musical that loves us back. But until then I’ll listen to the Frozen 2 soundtrack and imagine it was supported by a movie with even a single snowflake of moral courage.