I’ve had Frozen stuck in my head for weeks now. The Disney movie. For those who don’t know, Elsa can manipulate and create snow and ice. She used to use her powers to play indoor snow park with her younger sister, but one day an accident happened and her little sister gets hurt. In an effort to help Elsa learn to control her powers, her parents decide to cut off all contact from her sister and from the entire world. Little Anna grows up without her sister, while Elsa struggles to control her powers. Elsa ends up terrified in every moment that she’ll hurt someone with her powers, or be discovered as a witch. When she becomes queen, she is discovered, and runs, setting off eternal winter in the land. Elsa finds herself suddenly free of the burden of fear without anyone to hurt, and builds herself a fortress in the mountains. Anna chases her down to try to convince her sister to come back and figure out how to lift the cold.
That’s the gist. Elsa’s afraid of her own power; Anna just wishes she had her sister back. It’s not just the songs that are in my head, but the story.
Apparently there has been a lot written about how Elsa is the first Disney heroine to a) suffer abuse as a child, b) have a mental illness, c) demonstrate its okay to be yourself in such a potentially gay-positive way, etc. etc. etc. The only thing that struck me as politically important whilst watching the movie was that there was the very first demonstration of requesting (sexual-related) consent I’ve ever seen in popular films. But, Elsa’s acceptance of her powers are still resonating with me.
The analogy that most people seem to be drawing is that Elsa’s powers can be seen to be a mental illness. There are some strong points, and some problems, with this analogy.
Firstly, let’s be clear about what this analogy is proposing: Elsa’s powers = mental illness, in that they are unique, misunderstood, and anxiety causing. Say my ‘power’ is BPD. Yep unique (i.e. the majority of people I know don’t have it), yep misunderstood (by society and even by friends), and yep anxiety causing (I, too, am terrified of hurting people because of lashing out).
This falls down, of course, when one remembers that Elsa’s powers can manipulate snow and ice, generally defy the laws of physics, and would allow her not only to wear a dress made of ice, but also build ice sculpture, ice palaces, make skating rinks at will, fight bad guys with ice and snow, make snow golems, and have the best tobbogga-boozing night ever.
Strictly speaking, BPD will not do those things. Depression is not going to do anything particularly grand. Anxiety is not going to be cool, pun or not. Is it a superpower to be stuck in bed? To be sure, I am an Olympic Worrier. But my champion skills at wondering if Patrick will come home safely from the train station or get hit by a car are not going to do much good for anyone.
It could be argued that those are symptoms, not the power itself. Elsa’s symptom was anxiety too. So my superpower is…what exactly? Grieving for a loved one? Homesickness? A lack of serotonin? If I had bipolar disorder (and I don’t, so forgive the generalization) would my superpower be changing moods, not-at-will?
You can see that this line of reasoning has holes in it. But! About face, ladies and gentlemen, I am now abandoning criticism and focusing on the two ‘superpowers’ for which this analogy rather does work.
Perfectionism. And a chaotic, out-of-control, insane imagination.
Perfectionism is one ‘superpower’ that I have. I can create work of fairly exceptional quality (aside: you have no idea how hard it is writing those words. I do not believe I can actually do things that are good but the general consensus is that I can – it’s not my fault blame people I know I think they are insane agh agh agh I suck). In fact, I am rather stuck making work of high quality. Producing even an email of less than perfect quality is anathema to me. Unthinkable. Shameful. And difficult. If I can’t do it perfectly, I avoid doing it at all.
But there is Elsa, belting out the line, “That perfect girl is gone,” and looking happy, powerful, and in control. My brain’s reaction:
How can she be in control if she is no longer perfect? How can anyone toss away the struggle for perfection? It’s like saying, Yep, I’m going to go ahead and fuck up and just See If You Can Stop Me. Why would you even want to?
(aside: another part of my brain was going, dude, your old dress was way nicer, and also, what the hell Disney, why does she suddenly have to sashay and be a sex queen?)
I want that, though. I want how happy she looks. I want her freedom.
But this got me thinking about the thing that I am actually afraid of. It isn’t perfectionism. It’s my imagination. It’s my nightmares. I am afraid of the ghouls that haunt me in my sleep. I am afraid of the monster my mind’s eye can create in a flash – the monster that could kill Patrick, that could take a jagged knife and rip my own flesh apart, that could destroy property, break dishes, toss myself into traffic…I can see it all. I have seen it at the some of the worst possible moments.
I wrap up my imagination in a straight jacket. It’s in a cell, buried several stories down, and it wants out. It feels like a vindictive, cruel, and malicious creature. If I screw up just once, watch just five seconds of a scary commercial, it feeds on that material until, dripping at the mouth, it sits me down and expands five seconds into months of visualizations and dreams.
At the same time, my imagination is one of my most powerful abilities. It is my superpower, if I have one. It breathes life into my thoughts – into my research even. It swims in the waters of life, and returns to the bankside to tell my feeble body of the magic it encountered in the waves. It fires my soul.
When I hear “That perfect girl is gone” with such conviction, I am overcome with emotion: hope and possibility. When I hear “I don’t care, what they’re going to say, let the storm rage on…”, with ballad piano and strings, colour and fireworks and fantasy burst through my head, dancing. “I’m never going back, the past is in the past” makes me yearn for the strength to commit to this superpower, for better or for worse.
Mind you, “The cold never bothered me anyway” just causes me to drop all the juggling balls I threw in the previous paragraph, because my imagination’s vividness has most definitely bothered me. I think ultimately that’s the problem with the analogy: it really isn’t just about letting go of what other people think – it’s about letting go of what you yourself think. Elsa may be joyously be casting off the bonds of society’s impositions, but the song fails to address her own fears. This shows up in the movie again, that she is still afraid, but with this incredible song of redemption and confidence being so early in the film, sometimes listening to it, that one line of “The cold never bothered me anyway” stands out like an elephant in the room. My cold still bothers me, and always has. There’s a solution missing from this song, and that’s it; what if your power always did bother you? How can you embrace yourself with that standing ominously in the background?
Thus I find myself still pondering the film and the song, over and over, wondering how to throw open the door to my nightmares, and invite them in for tea.