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Letting Go? - The Frozen “Snow Queen”

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

One who is the opposite or reverse of a hero; esp. a chief character in a poem, play, or story who is totally unlike a conventional hero. (OED, “anti-hero, n.”)

Anti-heroines and -heroes do not have an easy standing in children’s literature. Nor do they in children’s films. They are not non-existent, nor invisible, but they are rare. And they tend to be ‘redeemed’ – either within the story itself or in adaptation. “Mistress Mary, quite contrary” (10) in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) is an example for the first, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911) for the latter: Disney’s cutified version(s) of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up have preciously little in common with the “gay and innocent and heartless” (153) Peter of the original stories. As so often, there additionally seems to be a gender divide: while there are quite a few male anti-heroes – building on a long tradition from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) to Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl (2001) –, anti-heroines are much rarer. Girls, apparently, are not allowed to be mean.

Or cruel.

Or diabolically clever.

Perhaps not even unconventional.

And, yet, there is an abundance of ‘mean’ women figures in children’s literature and film. Clever and – more often than not – old and ugly witch figures regularly take on the role of the archenemy in myth, legend and fairy tale. While their male counterpart, the trickster, is feared as well as admired, nothing, it seems, can vindicate these ‘fallen’ women. Judaeo-Christian prejudice still running strong. H. C. Andersen’s “Sneedronningen” (1844) is no exception. His Snow Queen is anti-heroic in more than one sense: she is the antagonist of the story and, though of “superhuman strength [and] ability” (OED, “hero, n.” 1.), she is definitely not to be “admire[d]” (OED, “hero, n.” 4.). She is powerful, manipulative, contriving and – perfectly beautiful. Her beauty, however, is deceptive and as cold as the frozen element she reigns:

A few flakes of snow were falling, and one of them, rather larger than the rest, alighted on the edge of one of the flower boxes. This snow-flake grew larger and larger, till at last it became the figure of a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice – shining and glittering ice. Still she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance. She nodded towards the window and waved her hand. (Andersen chapter 2; my emphasis)

A trap for young Kay, the male protagonist of the story; a trap from which, paradoxically, only a young, innocent girl can save him.

Women at their best and worst.

The Snow Queen’s palace further underlines her “cold,” “perfect” nature, her surroundings reflecting her inner world:

Empty, vast, and cold were the halls of the Snow Queen. The flickering flame of the northern lights could be plainly seen, whether they rose high or low in the heavens, from every part of the castle. In the midst of its empty, endless hall of snow was a frozen lake, broken on its surface into a thousand forms; each piece resembled another, from being in itself perfect as a work of art, and in the centre of this lake sat the Snow Queen, when she was at home. She called the lake "The Mirror of Reason," and said that it was the best, and indeed the only one in the world. (Andersen chapter 7)

“Reason” reigns in this “empty” place and there is no room for emotion, kindness, warmth, “feelings of belonging” or “comfort” (OED, “home, n.1” A.n.1I.3.b.), nor for “refuge” (OED, “home, n.1” A.n.1I.4.). All qualities which make a house a home and are embodied by Gerda who reverses the Snow Queen’s cold “kisses” (Andersen chapter 2, chapter 7) which had caused Kay to forget all about his old life. The Snow Queen numbs Kay’s memories and emotions. She hibernates, as it were, his childish innocence. Still, she is not all evil. The Snow Queen did not cause Kay’s misfortune as the splinters from the cursed mirror which enter his heart and eye at the beginning of the fairy tale are not of her making. She is consequence rather than cause, and – in her role as nature goddess – a necessary “evil”:

"Now I must hasten away to warmer countries," said the Snow Queen. "I will go and look into the black craters of the tops of the burning mountains, Etna and Vesuvius, as they are called, – I shall make them look white, which will be good for them, and for the lemons and the grapes." (Andersen chapter 7; my emphasis)

Winter precedes summer, bareness enables bloom.

What then, does the 2013 Disney film Frozen do with this ambivalent Snow Queen figure? Her beauty, her perfection, her maleficence? First of all, it humanises her: she is provided with a human name which places her in Scandinavia, Elsa, and a family. She is not isolated from the world, as the godlike Snow Queen always must be – though taking in Kay might suggest that she is not quite as content in her isolation –, but part of it. We see her grow up, loose her parents, take on responsibility – or, at least, trying to. As in Andersen’s fairy tale, (pseudo) sibling relationships are at the heart of the story. Elsa’s sister Anna takes the place of both Gerda and Kay: as Kay, she is wounded by a magical coldness which threatens her life; as Gerda, she is going on the journey through the snow to save her sister – and, ultimately, herself. Strictly speaking, of course, Elsa does not need any saving, she needs to learn how to control her powers. Elsa’s cold magic is something she was born with, and, in the first few minutes of the film, these abilities are positively connotated as she creates an on-demand winter wonderland. But when carefree play is replaced by concern and fear, she loses control and tragedy strikes. Ice enters Anna’s head – and, mirroring Kay, later her heart as well – and in her role as Gerda and Kay, saviour and victim, it follows logically that only Anna can eventually save Anna. And in doing so she teaches Elsa how to counteract the ice: in genuine fairy tale tradition through love and self-sacrifice. Christian ideals coming through once more.

As Andersen’s Snow Queen, Elsa, too, is beautiful in the classical Disney sense: blond, long hair, big blue eyes, slim figure. But she does not use her beauty to achieve her goals or ensnare innocent and helpless little boys (as beautiful women are wont to do…). Her fight is with herself, what happens on the inside is what matters. And Elsa’s inside world is not governed by cold and cruel “reason” (Andersen chapter 7) but, rather, it is emotion which triggers her “superhuman” (OED, “hero, n.” 1.) powers:

The snow glows white On the mountain tonight Not a footprint to be seen A kingdom of isolation And it looks like I’m the Queen
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! I don’t care what they’re going to say Let the storm rage on The cold never bothered me anyway (Anderson-Lopez and Anderson 1-23)

In cartoon – and as pointed out above, literary – fashion, her inside is reflected on the outside. Her inner turmoil is translated into a snow “storm” (7). Elsa continuously has to “Conceal” (13) her true emotions and “feel[ings]” (14). She is a Snow Queen who is unable to govern the cold. Thus, for most of the film, Elsa is a victim of her powers. Once the façade shatters, though, she rules her frozen “kingdom of isolation” (4) for a while. Literally letting her hair down, creating a beautiful ice palace and giving life to more and less pleasant snow creatures. Elsa’s exile is self-chosen as she is trying to protect her family and people, rather than harm them. The perfection Andersen’s Snow Queen relishes in, is both absolute necessity and deep trouble for Elsa, keeping her – as it does, in fact, the Snow Queen – apart from life. Elsa does wonderful things and terrible ones (initiated by anger or fear and externalized in ice spikes and a snow monster), not mean or cruel ones. She is not an anti-heroine out of choice, but rather driven by emotional responses to a world that does not appreciate the ‘other.’

As so many anti-heroines, Elsa is redeemed at the end of the story. Redeemed by “an act of true love” (01:06:15-01:06:17) on her sister’s part – an “[un]conventional” (OED, “anti-hero, n.”) ending in so far as the passive princess is not saved by the prince (who – spoiler alert – is one of the real villains in this story). Anna teaches Elsa how to control her power: positive emotion, love, counteracting the cold and creating warmth. Another law of nature? The Disney Snow Queen, as her original does in the natural world, eventually creates a balance by being both antagonist and heroine of Frozen, “superhuman” (OED, “hero, n.” 1.) and human, feared (or rather misunderstood) and – eventually – “admire[d]” (OED, “hero,n.” 4.) for her powers over the cold as she recreates the winter wonderland of the sisters’ childhood.

The beautiful, the good and the true girl characters may have been on the retreat even in more mainstream children’s literature and films for a while now, but the cracks the characters replacing them – as Elsa in Frozen – show, it seems, need to be fixable ones. And though girls are, within limits, now unconventionally allowed to be their own (sister’s) heroines, they still cannot be mean.

Or cruel.

Or diabolically clever.

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Snow Queen.” 1844. Translated by H. P. Paull, Wikisource, Accessed 20 April 2019.

Anderson-Lopez, Kristen, and Robert Lopez. „Let It Go.“ Frozen, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013, Accessed 20 April 2019.

“anti-hero, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 20 April 2019.

Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. 1911, 1906. Edited by Jack Zipes, Penguin, 2004.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. Edited by Peter Hunt, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Frozen. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Disney, 2013.

“hero, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 20 April 2019.

“home, n.1 and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, Accessed 20 April 2019.

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