Frozen and the art of unlearning
I was born as a child of winter, in the midst of a blizzard. I feel it down to my bones, feel rime creep in around the corner of my eyes when I close them, feel my skin exult at the biting air that blows in when October starts to die and make way for November. When snow falls, I smile. The cold really never did bother me anyway.
That is not why I feel a connection to Frozen. But it certainly makes the film’s chill landscape feel that much more welcoming. A kingdom of ice and frost looks less like a lonely wasteland and more like a comfortable place to be, if not forever then at least for a time.
But the connection goes deeper than that, and it ties into the fact that both of the main characters in the film have such a profoundly personal journey that you kind of half to check yourself on occasion to remind you that is, at its heart, a film for children. The themes of the movie are a lot deeper than you’d expect, and for me – for a lot of people – this is a story detailing the same journey that adult life has already put us through, but with a great deal more compassion and acceptance than you’d think possible.
See, most movies – especially for the demographic that Frozen is aimed for – are all about learning lessons. About taking something you didn’t know before and applying it to your world. Wreck-It Ralph is about learning the importance of accepting yourself even if others say it’s not valuable. Aladdin is about learning to be strong and noble without being born into strength or nobility. Shrek 3 is about learning that companies never cared about you, that you were always just a balance at the end of a spreadsheet, and once they had your money they were never going to care what piece of shit they put up for you to watch for an hour and a half.
That might not have been the lesson explicitly stated in the film, but it was the lesson, all right.
Frozen is different, albeit in a subtle way. Those films, at their core, are about learning lessons. Frozen is about unlearning lessons. It’s about discarded horrid and toxic ideas that have been planted in your head and making yourself into a different person specifically by removing those lessons, even though it costs you a lot in the process. The two main characters of the film don’t spend the film specifically learning, they spend it trying to get rid of ideas that have made them, quite frankly, miserable.
Anna has lived her entire life being more or less a media brat. She’s grown up with an idea of what’s supposed to happen thanks to stories and romantic images, and she’s never had any of that checked under the harsh light of reality. It’s why she’s such an easy mark for Hans, why at the end of the film she sees Kristoff coming for her and almost starts walking to him before realizing that her sister is in imminent danger. She’s been so thoroughly conditioned to think that her story had a particular way to go that she never stopped to question the script in even a cursory fashion.
In many ways, Anna is a victim of the same problem a lot of adults face in the world. I know I did. We spend so much time growing up and being told that things like a job and a relationship and friendships will just happen, surrounded by songs that glorify new relationships without recognizing that actual relationships aren’t about sweeping generic gestures but about small, personal intimacy. It’s a bunch of crap that we have to unlearn to be functional individuals, a script that doesn’t ring true.
Elsa’s a different story, and one that stole the show for a lot of people, because while Anna’s internalized problems are a bit more subtle Elsa wears her on her sleeve. She was told as a child that there was something wrong with her, that she needed to hide herself away and control her every breath for fear of hurting the people she loved. Her life has been lived not just in fear, but in self-hatred, consumed with the belief that everyone would be so much happier if she weren’t around.
The whole time, what’s inside of her is screaming to be let out. Every part of who she is fights against what she’s been told she has to be.
No, she doesn’t handle it perfectly. It’s easy to forget that “Let it Go” isn’t a song at the end, but an anthem from near the start of the film. It feels like a conclusion simply because of the soaring sense of triumph therein, but Elsa’s so accustomed to being bottled up and being ashamed that when she finally steps free she does wind up hurting people. She doesn’t know her limits. Hurting anyone was the last thing she wanted; all she wants it to be herself.
It strikes a chord for a lot of people. Anyone in the world who’s spent their lives being taught that they’re bad for existingknows that feeling, both the exultation of being yourself and the fear and shame when you realize that you went too far and maybe what you were taught all along was right, you can’t be yourself. You’re just not a good person. You deserve to be shut away, it’s the only way you can keep others safe.
Both girls are product of environments that have told them certain things to believe about their world, certain things to expect, certain things to do and feel constantly. One has spent her life being ashamed that she exists at all. Oh, you can say that it’s not quite the same, that’s not what her parents told her, but when you’re repeatedly told that something about you is wrong as a child, you can’t separate the two. You can’t divorce yourself from your identity. The other girl spent her life being shut away from people and being fed an image of how life is supposed to go, never understanding that what she’s been told has no basis in reality. It’s a set of convenient stories, not a blueprint, but she hasn’t got anything else to use as a template for her adult life.
By the end of the film, those lessons aren’t gone, but they’ve both gained perspective. What they needed wasn’t to learn something new, what the girls needed was to unlearn this. So the message becomes less about “here is your lesson” and more about “be careful whose lessons you’re learning, because they might not actually be good lessons. They might even be horrible ones. They might make your life worse. You need to take the things you hear with a grain of salt.”
You can say it’s cynical, but I think it’s part of the reason why the film has resonated so much with adults, because these are the things you wind up learning through your life anyway. I know that I had to spend a good portion of my life coming to terms with the idea that I don’t need to feel shame just for existing; heck, I still struggle with that on a regular basis, because I was told that over and over as a child and eventually I accepted that it must be true. I grew up on a steady diet of films and books and everythring that painted relationships and careers in a certain light – lo and behold, there’s no correlation between the two other than the broadest details.
For kids, it’s important to learn that maybe some of the things you’re told aren’t necessarily true, something kids don’t hear a lot of. For adults, for misfits and outcasts and marginalized people, people stuck in a system or just surrounded by individuals who don’t care about them, it’s a touchstone you can cling to, an island that doesn’t tell you a pat “it’s all right to be yourself” but instead offers you a sort of welcoming sorrow. Yes, people are going to tell you that you deserve nothing and are the worst, and you have to find the ways to move past that. It’s about letting go of the lessons you’ve learned.
It’s not a perfect film, but it is an important one, and it stays with you after you’ve left. It’s telling you to forget the worst parts of what you’ve been taught. For such a cold environment, you can feel its warmth.
This article is a Patron-funded piece, outside of the usual schedule. If you like what you see, take a look at the Patreon page; you can fund an article yourself and get access to bonus articles.