Why Disney is queer baiting Elsa, and why they need to step up.
by Charles Vivian
I don’t think I’m the only person who would say that Disney has been a huge part of my childhood. So many of my fond memories and the important lessons I have learned were cultivated through the exciting and colourful stories the entertainment giant explored onscreen; I have no doubt that it will always hold a special place in my heart. The Lion King taught me about grief, Inside Out about mental health, and The Little Mermaid about how it’s a good idea to sell off your entire identity to grow some legs and quite literally run after a man and society’s patriarchal expectations. OK - I feel like there are a lot of issues I could raise (don’t even get me started on the rampant sexism in Sleeping Beauty and Snow White), but today I want to focus specifically on LGBT+ representation (or lack thereof) in the Frozen franchise. Sadly, the older I get, the more I start to realise that Disney has a diversity problem.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2013, Frozen was released. It took off. I am proud to say that I was one of the relentless thirteen-year olds screeching ‘Let it Go’ at the top of my lungs and forcefully engraving it onto the consciousness of the nation. THANK GOD I took down my YouTube channel before I started secondary school – the cold may not bother Idina Menzel, but my painfully ambitious pre-pubescent cover certainly would have.
The film was praised for subverting convention and emphasising familial love over romantic love. I live for Elsa’s metafictional shade at basically every Disney movie since the beginning of time when she turns to Anna and says, “You can’t marry a man you just met.” Elsa herself has no romantic interest whatsoever (wink wink), and the act of “true love” that saves Anna at the climax of the movie is her sacrifice for her sister and has absolutely nothing to do with Kristoff.
Frozen resonated with LGBT+ audience members, especially with the character of Elsa, because of the queer sub-text. If anyone tries to tell me that Elsa’s suppression of her powers is not a metaphor for her coming to terms with her sexuality, then I will fire up my Frozen karaoke set and belt ‘Let It Go’ at them until they curl into a ball and confess their sins.
First of all, there’s the fact that Elsa’s parents discover that she is different and literally shut her away for no apparent reason. We find out at the end of the movie that Elsa’s powers can be controlled through love. All she needed was support and acceptance for her to be able to learn how to control them. Starting to ring any bells?
Anna’s song ‘Do You Want to Build A Snowman?’ where Elsa is shut away in her room, hiding her powers and her entire identity from her sister, is quite literally the physical embodiment of being “in the closet” - just with a lot more ice.
Don’t even get me started on Let It Go;
“Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.”
Sounds like an extract from my diary when I was thirteen and trying to write angsty poetry.
“Let it go, let it go! Turn away and slam the door!”
Sounds like an extract from my diary when I was thirteen and that one time I put on make-up and drew a cartoon rainbow on my hand.
She goes from trying to suppress her powers to accepting that they are a part of who she is, and embracing them wholeheartedly at the end of the film. I mean, COME ON! Then came the announcement in 2016 that Disney was going to make Frozen 2, prompting the #GetElsaAGirlfriend trend on twitter. I must say, I was hopeful. But Frozen 2 didn’t really provide us with anything more than its predecessor. It doesn’t turn Elsa straight (THANK GOD), and I guess the queer subtext is turned up a couple dials, but Disney held back from taking a real step in the right direction. They played it safe.
First off, let’s look at what we have.
The first song, ‘Into the Unknown’, was promising. The line “I’m not where I’m meant to be” hinted at the fact Elsa still had some self-discovery to do, and that maybe there was still a part of her that she has been supressing, aside from her powers. A mysterious, beautiful female voice entices her and draws her away from her conventional life at Arendelle and “into the unknown”. She is unable to ignore this instinct telling her she is different, and spurs her to run out into the wild world beyond.
Then Disney kind of gave Elsa a girlfriend. In a cute campfire DMC with the female character Honeymaren, there was a spark which suggested to viewers who were eager for Disney to make Elsa LGBT+ that they could end up being more than just friends. Their relationship in the film even mirrors that of Kristof and Anna. Both pairs are together (geographically) in the forest at the beginning of the film, become separated in the middle, and reunite at the end, which is when Anna and Kristoff get married, and Elsa decides to live in the forest where Honeymaren is.
Most importantly, I come to Elsa’s climactic power ballad: ‘Show Yourself’ - Frozen 2’s attempt to write another ‘Let It Go’. The song starts off with an intimate verse where Elsa declares “I can sense you there, like a friend I’ve always known. I’m arriving, and it feels like I am home.” that made one of my friends label it a “lesbian power ballad”. Although, I think that she forgot that it was a duet between Elsa and her dead mother, so let’s not read too much into that...
Elsa declares “I have always been so different, normal rules did not apply. Is this the day, are you the way, I finally find out why?” Of course, this is in relation to her powers, but much like in the first instalment, it is dripping with queer connotations.
If Frozen was about Elsa coming to terms with her powers, Frozen 2 is about her total and wholehearted self-acceptance. Elsa comes for answers, and her mother tells her that she is the answer to her own question – “You are the one you’ve been waiting for ... all of your life.” This is conveyed visually when Elsa looks down, as if seeing her- self as she truly is for the very first time, and suddenly has an iconic costume change and unleashes her ice magic in the most powerful way yet seen across the two films. This resonated with me because I spent a lot of my struggle with my sexuality asking similar questions – wondering why I was gay and wishing I wasn’t. I finally came to the realisation that it was just who I was, and can no longer imagine what it would be like if I were straight, because that just isn’t me. For me, ‘Show Yourself’ really seemed to embody this feeling of total self-acceptance.
One thing I was very worried about when writing this article, was coming across as if I was trying to undermine Elsa’s independence and take away from the empowering message that Elsa doesn’t need ANYONE to be as kickass as she is. And she absolutely doesn’t. She’s one hell of a protagonist in her own right – I didn’t dress up as her for Halloween a couple of years ago for no reason. And, of course, my reading of Elsa is significantly tailored to my own experiences. I’ve seen some readings of Elsa as asexual, which is what makes her character so great!
The way she has been written means that she resonates with the LGBT+ experience on numerous levels. However, I think that the reason why Elsa’s queerness has become so integral to my (and others) experience of Frozen, is because I believe that Disney is guilty of queer baiting. Queer baiting refers to the way in which creators market projects by hinting at same sex romances, but then not depicting them onscreen, in an attempt to bring in queer consumers, whilst at the same time not alienating other audience members.
This is the textbook definition of the marketing used for Frozen 2. There were extensive interviews where the stars responded to their excitement for potentially making Elsa a lesbian, and directors like Jennifer Lee responding to the rumours by being deliberately ambiguous and saying they were “really conscientious of these things”, and only saying they weren’t going to focus on Elsa’s sexuality until after the film was released. An ambiguous teaser trailer of a girl playing with magic in a forest – which is something I refuse to believe wasn’t playing off the 2016 twitter campaign - made lots of people think Elsa was going to get a girlfriend. However, despite how much I willed Elsa and Honeymaren to have an intense make-out scene instead of that weird segment where a horse spirit made out of water tried to drown Elsa like eight times, her queerness is not canon. It is only hinted at.
The mysterious voice that everyone thought was going to be Elsa’s girlfriend in the teaser trailers turned out to be her mother; the queer connotations of ‘Show Yourself’ could easily be dismissed as a misreading of Elsa’s independence; even Honeymaren is only in the film for a few minutes before Elsa rushes off on her own journey. There is no doubt in my mind that Disney was playing on the queer subtext to reel in LGBT+ fans. But it remains just that – mere subtext. It appeased those who were looking for it, and went over the heads of everyone else.
Unfortunately, Disney’s queer baiting is a trend I have seen often these past couple years. I’ve read so many articles where minimal attempts at representation is praised as “ground-breaking”. I read an article which said that the first openly gay character in Disney was an unnamed character in Frozen who sells Anna and Kristoff some supplies, because there’s a shot of his family waving with two kids and a man who could be his husband, and how important this was. I read another article praising Disney for making La Fou gay in the live action ‘Beauty and The Beast’, when they had him dance with a man at the end. I watched an interview with the director of ‘Avengers Endgame’ talking about how ground-breaking it was to have an unnamed man talk about losing his husband to Thanos (in a therapy scene which I know none of you can even remember), as though he was one of the main characters. Most shockingly, J. J. Abrams, director of the Star Wars films ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Rise of Skywalker’, has claimed that Disney did not allow him to write a romance between two of the main characters (Finn and Poe) because Disney claimed that it “wasn’t ready”. And these are only a few examples.
Disney seems to think that merely sprinkling in a handful of unnamed and inconsequential LGBT+ characters is enough. Disney seems to think that subtly implying that characters, such as Elsa, are queer, whilst heteronormative relationships, like Anna and Kristoff, are fully explored and pushed to the forefront is enough. But it’s not enough. It sends a message – one that suggests our stories don’t matter. By Disney’s standards, our stories don’t deserve to be in the spotlight.
It reminded me of the whole Dumbledore situation. J. K. Rowling came out and said (no pun intended) that her beloved character had been gay all along. However, she did this without actually writing it into the text... I wasn’t expecting Dumbledore to launch into an erotic monologue about his “kiss of death” dementor roleplay with Grindelwald when Harry asked him what he saw in The Mirror of Erised! It’s just that if you have to independently announce that a character is gay (because it isn’t clear in the text in the first place), it is not proper representation!
Of course, I am not oblivious to the fact what we have is still progress. Not so long ago, even small things like the lesbian kiss in ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ would have been completely unthinkable. I know that from a financial standpoint LGBT+ storylines and how they translate internationally can be difficult. I know Disney does need to think about money. But, quite frankly, I don’t care (and neither does Disney it seems). Disney appears to be overemphasising its contribution to the increasing LGBT+ representation in the entertainment industry, and even uses queer baiting and queer subtext as a marketing tool to reel in viewers, without adequately fulfilling their advertised promises.
In 2019, of the nine movies that managed to gross over one billion dollars at the box office, only one of them (‘Joker’) was not released by Disney. They included: ‘Captain Marvel’, ‘Avengers: Endgame’, ‘Spider-man: Far From Home’, ‘Toy Story 4’, ‘Frozen 2’, ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’, and ‘Aladdin’. Given Disney’s huge influence, I believe that it is Disney’s duty to lead the way in representation if any real progress is to be made. I may be fresh from cramming my CO2001 exam and writing essays on the importance of culture in instigating change and influencing public ideology, but I wish Disney had more of a cultural conscience as opposed to just being a blind-sighted ticket sales fanatic.
Maybe Disney should take a leaf out of Elsa’s book? Stop suppressing their queer-ness (or ice powers - same thing), release it onto the world, and then “turn away and slam the door” on anyone who disapproves. Recurring death threats and the near loss of her sister aside, it worked out pretty well for her anyway. Well, enough to get a sequel at the very least. And a cool water horse.