Last week at a graduate conference an educator asked me whether I thought we should teach children about “homosexuality”. I was feeling generous, so I chose to interpret her question as a request for children’s texts with excellent queer representation that she could use as teaching resources with her primary school class. I had already grabbed my pen and ripped a page out of my notebook to begin compiling my list when she clarified that she was asking whether I thought it was ‘okay’ for children to learn that gay people exist. She was asking me for a moral judgement. I spent a very long time folding up the torn piece of paper.
Rationally, I know that it is best to respond to ignorance and bigotry with patience and warmth, but it’s hard in these situations to resist the impulse to “turn away and slam the door”. I mouth-smiled, and said, “Well, what about gay children? Or children with gay parents? They may already know” – I lowered my voice to a theatrical whisper – “about the existence of gay people.” She went on to speak about how she felt uncomfortable describing graphic sex acts to pre-pubescent children, mentioned that she taught at a faith school whilst fondling her crucifix necklace, and concluded, I believe with genuine concern, that she didn’t want to ‘confuse’ the (straight) children in her class. Wonderful, I thought, religious homophobia, my favourite flavour. I could feel myself physically withdrawing from her, folding myself up like I had folded the piece of paper. “Don’t let them in…don’t let them know,” Elsa sang in my ear. But this woman had asked me a question, and for the sake of the queer students in her class, I decided to give her an answer.
I had recently been to see Frozen 2 with some members of the children’s literature centre, and so the example was fresh in my mind. “I don’t have a particularly complicated or fraught relationship to my sexuality,” I said, “but if I had had a princess like Elsa as a role model when I was a child, who knows how much more quickly I would have come to understand and accept my queerness.” The crucifix was clutched, and yet I did not burst into flames – ice queens are fireproof, duh.
Elsa isn’t explicitly gay in Disney’s canon – like me, she is ‘straight-passing’ – but she has become a queer icon, and her story has been read as a classic Coming Out narrative. In the first film, Elsa’s younger sister, Anna, has to have her memory of Elsa’s powers erased, leaving her ignorant and unable to connect with or support her beloved elder sister. If we understand Elsa’s magical powers as a metaphor for her sexuality, the imperative to hide the truth from her younger sister parallels the logic of withholding the truth about “homosexuality” from school children. Both Anna and Elsa suffer as a result of this secrecy, but the closed door between them isn’t Elsa’s sexuality: it is the taboo surrounding her sexuality.
I don’t know if I changed this teacher’s mind – I doubt it – but it made me want to write about the queerness of Elsa’s anthems. Not as a literary critic, just as myself. Let it Go is about purging internalised homophobia. Yes, this is a declarative statement and I won’t couch it in cautious qualifiers so don’t make me say ‘it could be read as’, you cowards. This song is defiant and empowering, with its urgent, rising crescendo and building volume that climaxes in a roar; but it is also defensive, angry, lonely, and essentially advocates emotionally numbing oneself to protect against the pain of rejection. “Conceal, don’t feel” recalls “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies that operate officially and unofficially in many public spaces, including in schools, such as Section 28 in the UK. Elsa screams into an icy void, “I don’t care what they’re going to say / Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway.” She tries to liberate herself from an oppressive social community and disowns the chaos that her non-normative presence occasions within this group, but she only manages self-exile, which is just an alternative type of imprisonment. She has been so lonely for so long, she doesn’t perceive her “kingdom of isolation” as the punishment that it is.
Into the Unknown, in Frozen 2, begins with the allure of a female voice. Elsa hears a “secret siren” calling to her, a mythic creature associated with sexual desire. Elsa is fearful and unwilling to take risks: unlike in Let it Go, in Into the Unknown Elsa has something to lose. The idea that everyone she’s “ever loved is here within these walls” is subtly claustrophobic – it is small, and confining, in addition to being safe and snug. The “fears that once controlled” her in Let it Go have evolved, but they still centre on her anxious inability to put her whole trust in her loved ones (which is kind of understandable considering the fact that her doting parents locked her up for ten years). Elsa has achieved conditional acceptance within the heteronormative space of Arendelle’s palace walls, but the “unknown” that she longs for is an unconditional queer space. The volta in this song happens with the quiet questions, “Or are you someone out there who’s a little bit like me? / Who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be?” Elsa yearns for connections with someone ‘like her’ in a space where she is not the exception to be accommodated. She explains that every day is getting harder as she feels her powers growing, suggesting that as she is approaching adulthood her longing for queer intimacy is intensifying. As with Let it Go, Into the Unknown races up the staircases of pitch and volume in a way that only Idina Menzel could render effortless, and is joyous and infectious. Whereas Let it Go slams doors, Into the Unknown throws open windows, revealing the vast, wild forests and lakes beyond the palace walls. A colleague, Leila M-K, spoke persuasively about the queer significance of the recurring images of doors and cupboards in Frozen at IRSCL. The audience’s desires are aligned with Elsa’s – the audience wants their princess to go on a thrilling adventure, and Elsa wants to leave the stability of the home. The remainder of the song is a series of desperate questions – the kind of questions a young queer school child might have – and having failed to silence her desires, the song ends with Elsa begging the voice not to “leave her alone”. This is something that Anna struggles to understand – how can her sister feel alone when she is surrounded by people who love and respect her? But a part of Elsa is still locked in her room and trapped in the closet – she hasn’t yet made that part of herself available to receive love and care.
The song Show Yourself in Frozen 2 is a beautiful imperative. It transforms Elsa into the persuasive siren urging queer children everywhere to heed her call. In Frozen, Elsa tries to build a kingdom with a population of one, but in Frozen 2 Elsa has a dual-belonging. She acknowledges, “All my life I’ve been so torn” – caught between who she is and who she thinks she should be, and the only way for her to maintain a sense of wholeness has been to remove herself from the location at the centre of these opposing forces. In Let it Go Elsa proclaims that she’s “never going back” to living in a fractured state, but when Elsa is allowed to express herself fully, she finally feels at home: “I’m arriving / And it feels like home”, she sings. In the narrative conclusion, Elsa is shown traveling freely back and forth between her chosen community in the Enchanted Forest and Arendelle on the back of an icy pony with a chandelier mane. The lyrics from Let it Go “Here I stand / And here I stay…Here I stand / In the light of day” are heard again in “Here I am…I am found”, but in the latter song she is truly seen. The ‘light of day’ exposes her in Let it Go, but her social community only sees her through the lens of their own fears and prejudice, whereas now she is invited to ‘show herself’ with confidence, honesty, and pride. It turns out that the female voice she has been chasing has been self-acceptance all along – represented by the affectionate authority-figure of her mother. This song, which uses love lyrics like “Are you the one I’ve been looking for / All of my life?”, is actually about her relationship with herself, and this is reflected in the tender softness of the melody and gentle, intimate volume. As she’s singing, her dress changes into a glittering bridal gown, and she repeats the refrain “Open the door”, coaxing the imprisoned part of her identity to join with her in this moment of loving anagnorisis and reunion.
Elsa’s arc does not end with her getting a girlfriend (HONEYMAREN IS HER GIRLFRIEND … IN MY MIND), but it does end with self-reconciliation after abusive treatment at the hands of her family and community. For real life Elsas, wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t have to go through the initial experience of transforming themselves into a “fortress” with “Cold secrets deep inside” and instead by-passed that trauma and went directly to stepping into their power? And don’t teachers have an obligation to create an environment in which it is possible for children to ‘grow themselves’, irrespective of their teacher’s personal beliefs? In silencing and erasing queerness in her classroom, that teacher is committing the same mistake as Elsa’s parents.
Emma Reay is a 3rd year PhD student researching representations of children in contemporary video games. She doesn’t believe that austerity tactics work either at a governmental level or a faculty level, and thinks that making graduate students undertake unpaid administrative work for the centre is exploitative, especially when this kind of labour usually falls to the most vulnerable students whose time would be better spent in other ways. She isn’t going to shut up about this until the centre stands up for its members.