Shame, unconditional love and self-acceptance: The universal appeal of Disney’s ‘Frozen’


If you’re like me, you watched Disney’s twinkling wintry extravaganza “Frozen” over and over this holiday season, probably with a flush of goosebumps and a lump in your throat when she’s building that freaking awesome ice castle.

If you’re not like me, you’re probably a little sick of the movie being quite so everywhere, seeming to have captured the imaginations and hearts of the entire spectrum of humanity. This global adoration for Disney’s latest effort could be due to the impressive animation, lovable characters and insanely catchy songs, but these are not new features for a Disney movie. What “Frozen” seems to have that others did not is a deeper symbolic resonance, an amazing interpretability that makes it at once universal and personal.

There has been huge speculation about the meaning of the movie and there are certainly some fascinating interpretations out there from which to choose.

“Frozen” could be a coming of age story, exploring the frightening power of budding female sexuality, or a Christian allegory, in which pure love and sacrifice save the day. It could be a metaphorical exploration of the queer experience — parental rejection, the closet, coming out, acceptance — an interpretation that has upset a fair few right wing bloggers and parents, while delighting people like us with its shame-shedding anthem “Let It Go”. It could even be — and this is my favorite interpretation — a metaphor for living with mental illness, specifically borderline personality disorder, a condition characterized by explosive, uncontrollable emotion and a troubled, unstable sense of self.

There has been plenty of controversy over which interpretation is correct and whether certain interpretations are appropriate for the film’s target audience. While I have loved reading about these specific ideas, what struck me the most is that all of these interpretations have one thing at the center. That one thing is the true subject of the film and (I would argue) the reason the entire planet has gone so nuts over it.

“Frozen” is about shame. Specifically, it is about overcoming shame through unconditional love and self-acceptance.

Elsa is locked away by her family for having super mega ice powers of doom. She is made to cover her hands, the part of her body from which her power emanates and to stay away from people. She has the instruction to hide her true self (“Conceal it, don’t feel it”) drummed into her from a young age and as a result develops an obsession with being perfect.

Sound like anyone you know? (Hint: it sounds like everyone you know.) Elsa’s belief that there is something fundamentally bad and wrong about her is, sadly, a very relatable feeling for most of us.

In her incredible book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” shame researcher Brené Brown writes, “We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.”

Brown believes that shame prevents personal growth, which is why it is terrible as a motivational tool — a fact beautifully illustrated several times over in “Frozen.” No matter how many times Elsa is told to hide, asked to change, implored to stop the winter, she is not able to and these demands in fact only serve to make her worse. Only when her sister shows her unconditional love, bringing with it the implied acceptance she needs, can Elsa finally be the confident, happy, queen/ice-skating coordinator she was born to be.

Elsa is not the only character in the movie dealing with shame either. Think about the devilish Prince Hans, lyrical liar, kingdom stealer and textbook narcissist, “When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens,” writes Brown, “I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

Hans, shamed into insignificance by his twelve older brothers, is that part of us all that longs to be important, special, significant, to prove “them” wrong. The adorkable bad ass Princess Anna, who also spent her entire childhood being ignored, is dealing with her own shame feelings. Like Hans, she doesn’t want to be “completely ordinary” and longs to find someone who will notice her. Only when she forges genuine connections with Olaf and Kristoff does she learn that love is about more than being noticed; it is about seeing and being seen — warts, flaws, freaky ice powers and all.

What “Frozen” teaches us, and it’s a lesson we desperately needed, is that whether we’re striving to be perfect, important or noticed, a quest driven by shame will ultimately fail. As research suggests self-criticism elevates stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the bloodstream, a state that does not foster personal growth.

The adorably named “Cuddle Hormone” oxytocin, however, which is released when we receive various forms of affection, is associated with optimism, trust and self-esteem. Love really does set you free (from your crippling shame and low self-esteem and uncontrollable ice problems). An important, perhaps life-saving lesson, backed up by science, you can learn from watching 90 minutes of Norwegian ladies running around singing in the snow.

Francesca Lewis is a queer feminist writer from Yorkshire, UK. She writes for Curve Magazine and The Human Experience as well as writing short fiction and working on a novel. Her ardent love of American pop culture is matched only by her passion for analyzing it completely to death.

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