9 Reasons Elsa's Storyline in 'Frozen' Is the Perfect Metaphor for Mental Illness
“Frozen” is my ultimate Disney movie. Elsa my ultimate warrior and the person I keep looking up to, time and time again, when my mental health is wearing me down. Why? Because I believe that Elsa’s struggles with her “powers” are more than that. I believe her struggles are representations of an array of different mental disorders, and that “Frozen“ contains a wide range of lessons that could impact and console almost any one who lives with a mental illness.
Today is the three-year anniversary of “Frozen,” and I want to celebrate it with you all; though not for its sharp or witty humor, nor its unique love story. I want to share with readers my reasons as to why Elsa’s struggles could represent someone struggling with a mental illness:
1. She has no control over her feelings.
Princess Elsa is born with magical “powers” to create ice and snow; powers which she uses to entertain her little sister and best friend, Anna. However, Elsa’s lack of control over these powers leads to a horrible accident which injures Anna. The King and Queen quickly take Anna to a tribe of mountain trolls to be healed. It is there that we learn of the darkness in Elsa’s powers, as she is warned that she must learn to control them or else she will become a danger to those around her.
Just as someone who has depression, bipolar disorder or any other mental illness, no matter how much she tries, Elsa cannot control the “darkness” that resides in her.
2. She experiences a turbulent rollercoaster of emotions.
Elsa experiences a rather turbulent rollercoaster of emotions, which determine exactly how her powers are used. Simply put, when she is happy, she is able to use her powers to create beautiful sculptures which are loved and admired by Anna. When she is stressed or experiencing heightening emotions, these powers spiral out of control, and can harm those around her.
Those with bipolar disorder, for example, will understand the endless highs and lows of changeable emotions, and the ways in which they cause those who have it to accidentally harm the ones they love.
As someone who has borderline personality disorder (BPD), I am aware of just how defensive and sometimes aggressive I can be, especially in the way I talk to people. What my family and friends may not realize, however, is that I often push people away in order to protect them from the emotions I have no or little control over. This is exactly why Elsa pushes Anna away — she fears hurting her like she did in the past.
3. She fears herself.
She even uses avoidance (for years) as a way of protecting Anna from herself; this is something many people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can relate to. Like myself, I go out of my way not to be around children because, as I have said in a previous article, it is my fear I might harm a child. Like Elsa, I too have spent years being locked away in my bedroom for this reason.
For me, Elsa’s fear of herself and the harm she may cause to others is the most striking portrayal of mental illness I have ever seen in a movie, Disney or otherwise. As someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I fully understand how devastating and painful it is to fear your own soul, to question yourself as a person and to consider yourself as morally bad or defective. In my opinion, there is no other sadness quite like it: to hate oneself and to live with the belief that you are a bad person, who is capable of harming others is an awful way to go through life, yet it is a feeling universally shared among those with mental illnesses.
Likewise, that same feeling of worthlessness, shame and fear at never being able to recover from your illness is stingingly present in “Frozen.”
Much like Elsa, I spent most of my life intentionally isolated from the ones I love out of a deep fear of causing them harm. So much so that I am still currently locked away in my home, housebound, due to the fear that I will “lose control” if I am near people. My OCD is a little-known type called Pure O. It developed when I was 14, the same year I developed post-traumatic stress disorder after I recalled a repressed sexual abuse I suffered when I was 9. Since then, I’ve gone out of my way not to be around all people, but especially children, because my OCD makes me obsess over if or not I’m capable of harming others. I live with that fear every day and like Elsa, I too have spent years being locked away in my house for this reason.
4. There’s a lack of understanding.
Every time I watch “Frozen,” I always wonder what it must have been like for my friends and family all the times they watched me close off from them. Much like Elsa, my isolation began from childhood, locking myself away from others in order to control my feelings or my thoughts. It never really dawned on me that my absence and coldness was causing those around me pain, too. I simply believed people chose not to understand the difficulties I was facing when I would cancel plans and instead hide away in my room. At university, I lost several friends because they told me I was cold, changeable and unreliable. Many believed they had done something wrong, when in fact, it was my fears of harming others holding me back. If I had opened up to them about my condition and my feelings, they would have surely realized my issue was not with them, but instead with myself.
5. She is taught to conceal.
Not everyone who has a mental illness will have been taught this, but many can surely relate to the way in which Elsa’s family forces her to bury her feelings, as opposed to overcoming them in a healthy manner. Elsa’s parents are invalidating, and do not offer her any support or guidance. Instead she is taught to conceal everything, to bury her emotions, and is actually given gloves which are supposed to help suppress her powers.
As someone who’s had a severe and debilitating mental illness dating back to childhood, I can tell you this is a sadly realistic portrayal of the neglect one often suffers as a result of their illness. Parental invalidation is likewise all too common in those with BPD, who because of their backgrounds are not taught to regulate their emotions healthily.
“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…”
It is only when Elsa is away from her family and all those that surround her that she is able to express herself and let go of the chains that have bound her for many desperate years. Though, of course, letting go of a lifetime of buried emotions is a recipe for disaster. Which brings me to my next point…
6. She experiences an emotional break down.
The minute Elsa realizes she is capable of freeing her emotions, she becomes stronger and more powerful than ever before. And while this might be viewed as a positive change, the dramatic nature of Elsa’s emotions result in a terrifying loss of control when she sees her sister again.
This is particularly true of a person with BPD, who may experience extreme moments of happiness, which can then turn into bursts of sudden anger and sadness; all of which is abundantly present throughout “Frozen.” It is due to Elsa’s emotional dysregulation that she is able to create both monsters and mountains, depending on her mood.
As a child of an alcoholic and abusive parent, I frequently saw my father lose control of his emotions, which in turn lead me to believe that emotions such as anger shouldn’t be shown. I’ve spent years trying to avoid showing anger to people, and that avoidance has lead to many emotional breakdowns.
7. She feels different from everyone else.
Which of course, she is. Born with the power to control and manipulate ice and snow, Elsa is different from those around her, but rather than celebrating those differences, she is taught to hide them from the world. It is because of this that her fear and isolation grows.
8. She feels ashamed.
People living with a mental illness tend to be made to feel ashamed of their condition. This is especially true of “Frozen,” where Elsa is treated like an outcast for displaying her powers. So much so that she feels the need to run away, and create a new life for herself, far away from everyone. Later in movie, Elsa is chained in a dungeon, which is heavily reminiscent of the ways patients with a mental illness used to be treated in asylums and hospitals.
9. She finds growth through self-acceptance and support.
It is said that we can only truly love someone when we learn to love ourselves, and while I believe this is a valuable lesson to teach to children and our younger members of society, it is equally as important to teach them to love someone regardless of their “flaws.” This is perhaps the strongest message to come out of “Frozen” – Anna’s love and acceptance for Elsa is what ultimately saves her. Elsa sees how much her sister loves her, despite the (unintentional) harm she has caused, and because of this, she is able to make peace with herself, to love and forgive herself for her curse. And by the end of the movie, she has even learnt to use it to her advantage.
In my opinion, “Frozen” is a movie unlike any other. It teaches us of the catastrophic consequences of concealing our emotions, while also helping us to see that we do not have to lose ourselves in order to change. In the end, Elsa doesn’t actually lose her powers/curse. Instead she learns the importance of control, without self-punishment. Much like a person with depression, even after treatment, the depression doesn’t tend to go away, you simply (and at the same time, not so simply) learn to control it, as opposed to allowing it to control you.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Image via Elsa’s Facebook page.