Sara Bressi, Ph.D., LSW
Film stars and fictional characters are often used as sources of identification for children and adults alike. Anna Friedberg (1990) writes that obsessions with particular characters become “institutionally sanctioned fetishes” that engage the mind’s desire to incorporate a beloved character; to literally and figuratively internalize this ego ideal. This dynamic has been crucial to the success of The Walt Disney Company’s empire in recent decades. Children encountering Disney princess films seek to inhabit the skin of the princess through devouring their clothes, crowns, and jewelry, and other toys and merchandise that help them become a beloved and esteemed heroine.
From a postmodern perspective, and as many psychoanalytically-informed readers of cinema have noted (Gabbard, 2001; Kaplan, 1990), films in particular are compelling because they both look at and are looked at (Kaplan, 1990); they are commentary on the psychological and relational experiences of the audience and at the same time construct viewers’ meaning-making around these experiences. Thus, this form of media represents a powerful canvas for exploring identity construction and developmental crises of the child as well as those of the child within the adult.
In 2013, Disney released the film Frozen©, its newest offering in its princess genre to US audiences and since then, the film has become the highest grossing animated feature of all time. Frozen©’s main character, Queen Elsa, has achieved a cultural resonance that seems to have surprised even the executives at Disney. Frozen© is the first Disney princess film to be written by a woman, namely Jennifer Lee. Although Hans Christian Andersen also receives billing, as the concept for the film was inspired by his tale The Snow Queen, published in the mid-19th century, the film’s narrative bears little resemblance to Andersen’s icy tale.
Frozen©, like all fairy tales, as noted by Bettelheim (1975), tells a story replete with danger, loss, imprisonment, recovery, transformation, escape, and lastly, consolation. However, the film is strikingly compelling because it diverges from the old-school Disney princess tales that obfuscate complexity and multiplicity by presenting heroes and villains that are unidimensional, monolithic and unambiguously good or evil. Likewise, the film disintegrates prior Oedipal tropes that were centered around a feminine vulnerability created by an obliterated mother, taken advantage of by a cruel envious older woman, and is resolved through passive submission to a rescuing prince. In these stories, vulnerability is something to overcome (Nikolajeva, 1998).
Instead, Frozen©’s biggest and most profound departure from those other princess stories is that Elsa’s relational consolation and escape from early experiences with neglectful caregivers is achieved through surrender to her vulnerability within the holding environment of loving encounters with her sister. Overcoming for Elsa is achieved in entering the most vulnerable parts of herself through a reparative loving relationship — and thus the themes of the film are symbolic of the developmental needs of our patients in the consulting room.
While prior Disney princesses oft represented the status quo patriarchal construction of the feminine in the flat, unfailingly cheerful, doe-eyed princess awaiting rescue from Prince Charming, Queen Elsa is far more subversive and breaks these traditional boundaries. Elsa is more representative, and thus intensely identified with, because her character is a complex tapestry of part-objects openly struggling against core anxieties around loss and abandonment. Through Elsa’s magical power of creating icy and snowy projections, her self-parts become visible to the audience over the course of several developmental transition points, including her transformations from child to adult, from princess to queen, from daughter to orphan, from victim to perpetrator, from villain to hero and from child to mother and back to child. Elsa’s self states as they traverse this developmental plane are literally projected by Elsa for the audience to experience her internal world. These include the sweet bumbling Olaf which represents Elsa’s happy child self, full of adoration and love for her sister; her snow monster that displays the villainess rage of a retaliatory bad object, and her icy castle that manifests the profound stalwart loneliness of a neglected and unattended child.
Early in this narrative, after an innocent yet intense display of love and affection for her sister during play, she is cloistered by her parents, and taught very directly to control her emotional states and subvert her need for nurturance from others in an endeavor to protect the people she loves. Elsa’s mantra of “conceal, don’t feel” creates her existence where she is literally and figuratively imprisoned because of fears surrounding the destructiveness of her intense human emotions. And thus, a perfectionistic control freak is born. Stephen Mitchell (2002) wrote, “the more endangered we feel, the more control we seek, the more illusory are the controls we strive to maintain, the more vitality seeps out of our lives (p. 27)”. Mitchell’s language of “seeping vitality” happens before the audience’s eyes and Elsa morphs from a fun-loving child to a cold, shivering hermit.
Elsa develops a sense of self fueled by a perceived omnipotence over valued objects. As a result, she is thrust into a subjective complementarity in which, as Benjamin (2004) writes, she identifies as either doer or done to. Elsa is deeply afraid and lonely, unable to find in others a recognition of her own developmental needs, and thus, she is unable to feel any safety in the presence of others (Chodorow, 1979). Elsa laments openly in the film about always having to be “the good girl,” and indeed, the audience, in seeing Elsa cry behind her bedroom wall, witnesses the done-to complement to Elsa’s doer-identity — she is the person who must maintain the love of her parents by not hurting her sister and by controlling her destructive powerful emotions. And after all that work, she loses her parents anyway, and then is left with only her sister to destroy her or be destroyed.
Elsa’s character illustrates early separation and individuation-related developmental challenges as explained by Winnicott in his discussion of the transition from omnipotence to object usage and by Klein’s proposed shift from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive one that occurs ideally in the context of a good-enough caregiver-child relationship. Winnicott, in his text Playing and Reality (1971), defines object usage as different from object relating. He writes, “the thing that there is in between relating and use is the subject’s placing of the object outside the area of the subject’s omnipotent control; that is, the subject’s perception of the object as an external phenomenon, not as a projective entity, in fact recognition of it as an entity in its own right (p. 89).” But of course with object usage one assumes way more risk as it also places the loss of the other outside one’s control. Yes, to love means letting go. And to be loved, means the same.
As Winnicott (1971) envisioned, caregivers survive the destruction of their young children by neither retaliating or withdrawing, but by providing acceptance, and a sense of safety in the face of their destroyers. Elsa’s caregivers withdraw from her and also retaliate (as we can imagine Elsa feels responsible unconsciously for and even punished by their death). In the narrative, the audience treks through Elsa’s enactments of bad caregivers — she withdraws, retaliates, withdraws again and retaliates in quick succession. As her sister Anna embarks on a provocative act of separation from Elsa in declaring her desire to marry Prince Hans, Elsa comes undone, and becomes the destroyer. She retaliates against Anna for this act of separation, and then withdrawals once again in her escape to the mountain.
On this snowy mountain, the audience actually feels her relief as she lets go of the full force of her emotions in creating her ice castle. She sings, in the film’s famous musical number, that she is “one with the wind and sky”. She submits in total, and melds with the elements, unafraid of her power, and free from containing her conflict. She annihilates her goodness by choosing a lonely, frozen existence. When Anna pursues her one last time to her ice castle, Elsa literally blasts Anna’s heart with an icy projection of her own isolation, loneliness, and rage. She further conjures a snow monster to chase Anna away forever.
As Mitchell highlights, omnipotence sounds nice — what better way to avoid loss than to be in charge of everything — but it is ultimately imprisoning and lonely. Conversely, the ability to use an object allows for the subject to achieve separation and individuation, to experience their thoughts and feelings as their own, and to understand that separation from the object will not result in their own demise or the personal destruction of the object. It renders the doer/done-to complement useless. Individuation requires an active incorporation of the good and the bad in an integrated form. It elicits the third space — a space outside the complementarity of doer or done-to, a space as Benjamin (2004) writes, that “permits desire,” where one can be loving, hating, reap the rewards of relationships, but also suffer losses. This space is vulnerability. This space is where good and bad objects intersect. This space affords surrender (Ghent, 1990).
Ultimately, Elsa’s reparation is delivered through the unconditional love of Anna, who protects her sister with an act of true love, and who refuses to retaliate or withdraw despite Elsa’s desperate attempts to destroy her. In her despair, Elsa’s tears allow Anna to survive. This moment is the culmination of a successful repetition compulsion. Elsa’s tears are felt by Anna. In other words, Elsa destroys, but Anna survives this destruction. This allows for Elsa to experience vulnerability in the context of a safe and loving other — and to finally experience herself as both good and bad all at once. With Elsa’s tears, her developmental fear of loss and her disavowal of her vulnerability melt away.
Amid all the noise of an ever-expanding world of media, Frozen© further constructs the discourse of vulnerability and its relationship to gender, separation and individuation, and developmental loss. More specifically, the film illuminates the internal world of girls and women of our time who are constrained by a different outcome of the patriarchy-namely a widespread relational press to deny their vulnerability. It highlights the dangerousness of a cultural shift towards the message of, “You can be anything you want to be, as long as you are good at everything.” Elsa’s story is a cautionary tale of the pressures modern-day princesses feel to be perfect, restrained and contained under an avalanche of expectations to lean in and do it all.
The processes of letting go of an archaic sense of omnipotence in our relationships, tolerating ambiguity, and vulnerability, and of internally reconciling good and bad internalized objects are themes that resonate in clinical work with people of all ages. After thinking so much about Elsa, I realized why: She is everywhere! In the consulting room, we consistently encounter the adolescent girl or the adolescent girl inside the adult whose goodness seems elusive because she is too busy with murderous rage. Or perhaps we might call to mind the hyper-controlled patient in midlife who is longing for nurturing and a recognition of her own needs, but is so angry at everyone all the time for not doing things her way.
Through this depiction of Disney’s snow queen and her relational field, we are all confronted with somewhat of an atypical princess story that deals directly with the complexities of a developing self and our basic need to be visible, separate, differentiated people that are both good and bad all at once. As such, the developmental themes of Frozen© discussed above allow for this fairy tale to tap into fantasy about the power of our emotions, the danger of losing those most precious, and the ways in which these things are internally managed and overcome. Through Queen Elsa we directly encounter the power of a loving dyad in the creation of self, and the intergenerational fall out of frozen failed situations of caregiving. As therapists, it challenges us to recognize and experience in another way how the vulnerability we inhabit and seek in our patients, in the context of a dyadic relationship, is important for grief processes to occur, as well as for icy castles to be shattered. We seek vitality in frozen ground.
In these respects, Frozen© breaks the ice that has crusted over the genre of the princess movie. The very imagery of frozen water, and melting ice, conjures an acceptance of constant transformation in an uncertain world; namely that everything moves between numerous states, or places of being, and has the capacity to change shape under the right conditions.
Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done to: An intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, LXXIII, 5-46.
Bettelheim, B. (1975). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Chodorow, N. (1979). Feminism and difference: Gender, relation, and difference in psychoanalytic perspective. Socialist Review, 46, 42-64.
Friedberg, A. (1990). A denial of difference: Theories of cinematic identification. In E. A. Kaplan (Ed.), Psychoanalysis and Cinema. London: Routledge.
Gabbard, G. O. (2001). Introduction. In G. O.Gabbard (Ed.), Psychoanalysis and Film. London: Karnac.
Ghent, E. (1990). Masochism, submission, surrender-Masochism as a perversion of surrender. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26, 108-136.
Kaplan, E. A. (1990). Introduction: From Plato’s cave to Freud’s screen. In E. A. Kaplan (Ed.), Psychoanalysis and cinema. London: Routledge.
Mitchell, S. A. (2002). Can love last? The fate of romance over time. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Nikolajeva, M. (1998). Exit children’s literature. The Lion and the Unicorn, 22(2), 221-236.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications.
Sara Bressi may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org