Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | December 21, 2013

Disney’s Frozen and Autism

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Disney movie Frozen, which I watched this past week with some of my friends. If you don’t want spoilers, please don’t read below. TL/DR summary: Great movie, go see it! [also, the paragraph below, while containing no plot points, does have a short discussion of an event in the film, so if you want to be totally surprised stop here, if you want a little non-spoiler commentary, read the paragraph below, then stop... :)]

Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the film – I’d heard mixed things, a review by someone who hadn’t seen it, but who hated it because it destroyed the Ice Queen story, and some people who had seen it and loved it. But I love Idina Menzel, and I’m always game for a fun movie (though not usually in the theater). So my friends and I went to a morning showing (fewer people, less crazy, etc.), and I absolutely adored it. I am sooooo going to see it again. In addition to being a really fun film, there are a couple of really awesome things that Disney doesn’t often do – it puts the self-worth of the female protagonist(s) on their own terms, rather than those of the male supporting characters. And there is an *amazing* scene where they model consent incredibly well, and that absolutely made me giddy, because that is the model of a relationship we want young people to see. (The line went something like: “I could kiss you right now!… I really want to kiss you… may I kiss you?” and then he *waited* for her response!) But the thing that stuck with me was something I wasn’t expecting… there’s a couple of really interesting parallels to autism and how we treat autistic kids/people (and disabled kids/people in general), and I really related much more closely with Elsa (the sister/ice queen) than I did with Anna, the protagonist/official Disney Princess for the film. That’s what I’ll be discussing below. But all I have to say is that if you haven’t seen the film yet, I think it is really worthwhile. Obviously, it’s not perfect, but I was really pleasantly surprised. And it made me happy. Oh, and I’ve had “Let It Go” on repeat basically continuously since I saw the film… I think a good 1% of the 12 million views it has on Youtube are courtesy of your truly. I’ll get my hands on the actual soundtrack next month when my budget allows…

Do not read below this if you don’t want spoilers. Sorry, I’m not skilled enough to make a “click here to read below the fold” so I just have to trust that you, my lovely readers, are smart enough to stop here if you don’t want spoilers for the film.

——————————-

*******SPOILER ALERT*******
DO NOT READ BELOW HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT DISCUSSION OF THE STORY!

Despite the fact that obviously, Anna (the younger sister) is the main character of the film, and we’re supposed to relate strongly to her, I found myself much more attracted to her older sister, Elsa. From the very beginning, when Anna climbs on top of Elsa in bed begging to play, and I was reminded of how my little sister used to do similar things to me. But more than that, I saw a lot of parallels to how my family (and how lots of people) treated me and my autistic traits when I was growing up.

Elsa’s “power”, the ability to cast ice and snow wherever she is, especially when it comes in contact with her hands, is unique, and it makes her seem special to her sister. But as Elsa grows, her powers grow with her, and become harder to control. Anyone else see a parallel to autistic traits and development/growth of autistic kids?

When Elsa is officially “diagnosed” by the trolls, they tell her father to lock her up and keep her hidden. [edit: as was pointed out in the comments, and as I noticed the second time I saw the film, the trolls don't tell Elsa's parents to lock her up, they do, however, warn of scary things and tell them she needs to learn control, as well as remove all mention of magic and conceal all things related to it. It is Elsa's parents who have such an extreme and unnecessary response.] They are to hide this abnormality, and to keep her sister and the rest of the world away from her. This is ostensibly for Elsa’s own protection. They basically place her in solitary confinement, and instead of teaching her how to wield her powers, they teach her to suppress and hide it. They even hide her whole identity from her sister. And when she is unable to do what they want, unable to appear normal, they lock her up. They bind her hands (where her powers come from) with gloves – quiet hands – and they force her to conform or be locked away. This is what happens to autistic kids. We are forced to conform. We are forced to suppress our autistic traits, to hide them from everyone. And when we fail, as we often do, because autism is an integral part of who we are, we are hidden from view instead. There isn’t any help for us to learn how to work with what we are given. We don’t have the opportunity to learn and grow with our powers, we are told to suppress them or there will be dire consequences.

When she is being crowned, and has to remove her gloves, you see her muster every tiny ounce of self-control she has, so that her hands will work the way “normal” people do. She is able to do it, but only briefly. Because that’s not how her body works, and there are limits to how much anyone can do to “pass” as normal, and she is finding her limits. And when she is pushed past her limit later at the party, she has a meltdown, and her magic spills out uncontrollably. She accidentally hurts someone she loves, terrifies everyone around, and spirals into a complete shutdown, running away from everyone in the process. I’m sure I am not the only one who has had this experience…

And heck, she even has a song that I related to:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in; Heaven knows I’ve tried

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
Well now they know

But there is a happy ending, of course. In the end, Elsa learns that her powers aren’t so bad. She learns to control them, to work with what she has. While it isn’t easy, she learns how to be her true self, and when others see that her true self, powers and all. Others see that her powers are just a part of the person who she is, and they love her for all of her, strange power and all. Only when she finally stops hiding herself, does Elsa truly gain acceptance. She isn’t normal, but she is a person, a wonderful person, with some very unique things to bring to the table. And when that happens, everyone is happy.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Elsa is an autistic character. I’m not saying that autism is a superpower like the magic in the animated film (obviously it is totally different!) All I’m saying is that Elsa’s childhood and coming of age experience that is portrayed in the film has a number of parallels to my own life, especially based around my being autistic. And I wanted to recognize that, because it made me really really happy. I almost never relate to movie characters that way, but I did, and it made me smile.

So overall, I have to say well done, Disney, very well done. Of course there were some issues with the film, but nothing is perfect. Sure there were some missed opportunities (yet another white, blonde haired, blue eyed princess). Sure, there were some ridiculous over-sexualization moments that were a little unnecessary (Ice-Queen transformation, anyone?). And sure, they mangled the original story to the point of near unrecognizability, with some pretty weird plot holes, but what Disney movie doesn’t? If we can’t suspend our disbelief and just enjoy a fun, animated, obviously fiction story, then that’s another problem. I think this is going on my list of awesome movies I want to own that make me smile and feel good.

Elsa’s main song, “Let It Go” is here:

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Responses

  1. Aw… love your review and now will ask Em if she’d like to see it! <3

    • :) I’d be interested to see what she thinks of it… does she know the musical Wicked? Because Idina Menzel is amazing… that’s the main reason I went to see it…

      • We haven’t taken her to see Wicked. I may have to investigate that one too!

      • I second the Wicked musical. But be aware the book is VERY grown up.

      • Indeed… I’m not sure I recommend the book to anyone, really. (I didn’t love it).

    • hi ariane — knowing Emma in school & now that I have seen frozen… I know she will LOVE it. warning: she may never stop singing it. Too beautiful!!

  2. This is SO perfect. We brought our autistic four year old to see Frozen and were convinced by the end that there were absolutely parallels to draw between Elsa and the experiences we’ve read about other children having. Our girl won’t know what it’s like to be told “quiet hands,” but she does have a new favourite movie!

  3. Thank you for posting this. I saw it in the theatres too & cried during ‘Let it go’. So glad you wrote this post!

  4. Thank you for posting this. As a mom I struggle everyday to understand what is going on in my son’s mind. I’m his mom and it’s my job to try to understand him, to understand why he says and does what he does. Though, that is a hard thing to do, only he knows what it feels like to autistic. It is so nice to hear from someone who is so I can understand more. More movies/tv/books need to portray what it is like to have autism. Christian is dying to see this movie!

  5. Oh, but in a way I think Autism *is* a super power; it’s just about knowing how to use it to your advantage. Once you do though, world, WATCH OUT! :D

  6. telling her not to cast ice with her hands is a bit like telling a kid not to flap his fingers. this is so parallel to me, because i’ve been ordered to make friends as a child and told the other kids would make my life miserable if i didnt. i was yelled at for acting different.
    the ability to cast ice and snow can be turned to good use instead of surpressed. just like people on the spectrum can be taught to use their special skills and interests in a positive way instead of told to act as if they’re normal, something they cant do. great movie, great message.

    • :) Thanks for your comment. I felt the same way about the film. :)

  7. I found your post by searching for why people loved the film so much. What I am dead certain of, is that the introverted blond women at Disney made a film about themselves, and thus made a film that appealed to other introverts.
    I am also pretty certain that the all white casting helped, as you could concentrate on the story, without worrying about colored people becoming offended.

    As it is white introverts that mainly produce content on the Internet, it was bound to be a hit.

    I don’t like the diagnosis Autistic. It is inheritable, so they must have existed in the past, but when I read Scandinavian history, I am unable to find them. What I do find, is a society where being introverted was seen as good, and where there were strict social rules for how one behaved in public. You of course find some obvious candidates, Swedish king Karl XII comes to mind, but nobody saw his behavior at the time as sick, rather they saw a King that really served his country, led his men on the battlefield, before he was killed campaigning in Norway.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_XII_of_Sweden

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. While I agree that the movie was, for lack of a better term, too white (and quite frankly, Disney has a pretty bad track record of this), that is not the subject of this post and irrelevant to the ideas I’m discussing. Secondly, I did not say that Elsa (or any of the characters) was autistic. I simply drew a couple of connections and similarities.

      And is it really such a bad thing that introverts are featured in a major film? In a world that glorifies extroverts, I think it is high time that introverts are portrayed as something other than evil or pathetic.

      • I disagree that the film was too white. Once you have multiple races in one film, you no longer have the option to do what is good for the narrative, but have to think about how the public and the pundits views it.

        For a Norwegian, it would also have been a bummer if Disney had casted it multiracial, as basically every prop in Frozen is based on 18-19 century Norwegian folk art and architecture. The only exception I can think of, is Elsa’s snow queen dress, but even here they might have copied queen Maude.

        http://harriet.nasjonalmuseet.no/draktgallerier/den-kongelige-draktsamling/

        That said, I don’t think it is bad to glorify introverts, and I did not mean to imply that you said Elsa was autistic. What I mean is that the introverted (autistic?) ladies at Disney animation, based Elsa on themselves. The whole hide your true self, so not to hurt others, is not something men think a lot about. (If they did, you would have seen Elsa before introverted women got power)

        I don’t think Disney and others knew before, that there is money to be made by appealing to introverted women, but they would be both blind and deaf, if they did not understand it after having taken a look at Tumbler and Deviant art after Frozen.

        I never thought about this before, but we could see something similar with the Swedish/Danish tv-series “The bridge”, as the lead female police investigator struggles with autism. In Scandinavia, where people are four times more afraid to speak in public than of dying, it might be a real possibility that quite a few recognized themselves, friends and family, and that this is part of the explanation of the success it had.

        When it comes to Black Metal, it is definitely so that Asperger played a huge part in creating and propagating the music form internationally. This is a short clip from a documentary about Black Metal, where one of the originators of the style, explains Norwegian personality.

      • I don’t think Disney is “whitewashed” at all. Disney adaptations are done according to the culture from which the story was adapted. Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, etc, are white because they’re traditional “white” tales. Take it up with the Brothers Grimm. The Jungle Book (Indian), Aladdin (Arabian), Mulan (Chinese), Pocahontas (native American), and Lion King (African) are also all appropriately racially casted. They flipped around the plot for Princess and the Frog, set it in New Orleans, and arranged the cast around that (awesome!) They moved Oliver Twist to New York. If they did a native African tale, I’m sure there would be more black protagonists. They simply haven’t adapted those tales yet … and frankly I believe Disney chose those tales because that’s what he grew up with. Of course it’s going to be white – it’s stuff from a white guy wanting to cinematically adapt the stories from his white childhood.

        It would be totally weird for there to be black people in Mulan, Asians in Pocahontas, or Floridans in Oliver & Company. Frozen is another Scandinavian tale, therefore it makes sense for it to be every bit as white as The Little Mermaid.

        Anyway, that’s my two cents. I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  8. hello – I asked my 13 yr old (who has traits of autism) about the film and if she liked Elsa (I didn’t see the movie) she answered just as was described in this post – she mentioned controlling the hands, the meltdown. I asked her if he had read that somewhere, about autism and “Frozen,” and she said, “no.” So I read this post to her and she said “yeah!” and laughed. Very astute post, thanks for blogging!

    • That is awesome :) I’m glad your daughter appreciated it as well.

    • I too asked my 5 yr old who her face character was she said Elsa mine was Olaf lol!! She also said something about when she gets nervous she shakes her hands and it feels like powers and she tries to be a nice girl like her but gets in trouble I teared up! My girl is often excluded out of things and it breaks my heart that people in this age can be so cruel!!

  9. I absolutely lived this movie also. As a mom of a child with autism I also saw the parallels. But the part that stuck me the most personally was the ending where she returned to remain the ruler of the kingdom and she wasn’t “cured”. She stil had what was essentially a disability but it didn’t stop her from achieving whatever she wanted to. I think it is a very empowering message. She didn’t have to change at all. And she was successful, loved and accepted!! What happier ending could they have come up with!! :-)

    • Yes! I completely agree – the ending is great, where instead of being scared of Elsa and her powers, everyone works WITH her and her powers and it makes life better for everyone. :) Thanks for your comment!

  10. Thank you for this! I had similar thoughts about the film. For all that people criticize Disney for anything readily available, I really feel that this and Wreck it Ralph show a certain sensitivity to – for want of a better term – disabled populations that no other filmmakers, let alone family filmmakers, are willing to go for.

    Best!

  11. Can I use this ( share with) some other’s for them to have insight for my little one’s world? – it is soooo true! and you’ve explained ..what we ..go through.. rather well

    • Sure – I am happy to have this shared, especially if it can help others. :) I only ask that you please credit me, and if you share it online, please link back to the post. Thanks for stopping by and commenting :)

  12. I have to say having watched the film at least 18 times already with my own two autistic children that the trolls do NOT tell the king and queen to lock Elsa away. That decision is clearly made by the king and queen themselves! The trolls in fact tell Elsa her powers are beautiful and will grow in time, but that some people will be scared, and then that fear will be her biggest enemy (the context and animation indicates it will be both her own and that of other people).

    • Indeed, I noticed that too when I saw it for my second time a few days ago. Thanks for pointing it out, I’ve edited the post a bit to reflect the movie. Cheers!

  13. Thank you for this review! I have a six-year-old daughter with autism and teenage daughters — and we all love Frozen. My older daughters and I were brought to tears many times during the movie because of the parallels to autism. It hit me in a way I can’t put into words — which you did so eloquently.

  14. Yes, thanks for this post! I saw the parallels too and googled “frozen movie autism” and this gem popped right up! I have one disabled daughter who is 21 months, and my 5 yr old introverted daughter LOVES this movie!

  15. “The cold never bothered me anyway!” Best line ever!

  16. My Google search for “Elsa Frozen disability” lead me to your blog. I love the points you made and just want to point out that Elsa’s powers are a good parallel for physical as well as mental disabilities. Having used a wheelchair since age 4, I know how it feels when you’re physically unable to go outside and play with your sister in the snow. And the lines “conceal, don’t feel, put on a show, make one wrong move and everyone will know” are amazingly fitting when trying to deal with a burst colostomy bag in public.

    • Thanks for your comment! I tend to write about things strictly from my perspective (since I don’t have a physical disability, the experience is foreign to me) – but that being said, what you way makes a lot of sense. Thank you for opening op that viewpoint for me. :)

  17. Hi there – JUST saw this and wanted to connect you with it in case you hadn’t seen it yet. It’s an autistic young woman singing the “autistic version” of the song. YAY!

    • That was awesome! Thanks for sharing it here :)

    • I so love this!!! Now I really want to cover this myself. The autism version!

  18. LOVE your analysis! Your article made me see FROZEN and now I can understand more why so many of my students on the spectrum seem transfixed with it – the story, the characters, the music. Thank you for your terrific insight!

  19. Now I listened to “Let It Go” as it would pertain to my daughter w autism. I cried and cried. But it was beautiful. Thank u so much for the comparison.

  20. I think it is wonderful film because Elza’s powers act as an allegorical symbol, that anyone whose suffered marginalisation, for being who they are, for anything that is different, feared or misunderstood by the vast majority.As well as Autism, many gay people could relate to Elze for example. People with learning disabilities, mental health issues, depression, anxiety, physical illness, physical appearance, or style even.
    As a gay person myself, I related to Else’s experience of isolation and shame myself (conceal don’t feel). I also found Anna such a warm and selfless character; how she doesn’t even have the ability to make judgements about anyone who’s different. But this leaves her vulnerable to predators and their evil plans of deceit. This is where I think Disney have done an amazing job of not only avoiding, but smashing to bits, the hetero normative/patriarchal ‘princess needs her prince’ formula they were notorious of. Not everyone fits into that ideal or can even relate to it. I was also really pleased to see the family of a same sex featured (remember the spa?) Anna’s act of true love for her sister, was a breathtaking departure from ‘that’ formula.
    Finally, I thought the use of the metaphorical theme of ice was spot on. Suppression only builds up more isolation, shame and misunderstanding. Elsa’s subjects fear their own queen, simply because they don’t understand her differences, causing her to meltdown (or ice up), seek solitude in the mountains, whilst sending the subjects who are suspicious of her into an external winter, like they’ve frozen because of their ignorance. And Anna, like a polar opposite, with keeping her fun and her insistance on always revealing and feeling, selflessly seeks out her
    sister in torment, whom she never once judged, resented or gave up on.

    • Ceri, that was lovely, and spot on. I cried when her parents didn’t listen to the trolls, closed the door and made her wear gloves. I saw myself in Elsa, too, because I didn’t feel like I could be myself in my own family either. Hugs to everyone :)

      • Thank You and hugs well. This film is a masterpiece, that has so much universal appeal, that’ll be around for generations. The only other film I can think of that captures humanity so well, is ‘it’s a Wonderful Life’ :)

  21. Hi there. My son had an interesting connection to Elsa. I wrote a story about it:

    http://haydnsworld.blogspot.com/2014/03/haydn-and-snow-queen.html

  22. Loved this. I think anyone with a a disability (including depression, ADD, etc) can relate! It’s nice to see another person this resonates with.

    • Indeed, I think thats what makes Frozen such a great movie – it really has mirrors to many many people, and everyone can see their own story in it. It is just supremely well done.

  23. Hi, I’ve linked to your post at access fandom on Dreamwidth. Thanks!

  24. Great minds think alike :) http://my-asperger-life.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/why-elsa-from-frozen-should-be.html

  25. I just recently saw the movie with my husband and nearly started crying during “Let it Go.” Which I had deliberately not listened to prior to seeing the movie because I wanted to see it in context. Like you, I saw myself in Elsa. I am an introvert and others have mentioned that as a connection to the character, but for me it was her trying so hard to be composed, perfect, do exactly what was expected of her. Hide anything that could be viewed as different. I spent most of my life in that mode and felt I could never live up to what my father wanted. The funny part was that I excelled at nearly everything I did, but it was never good enough. I was always shown the imperfection, where I could improve, never allowed to revel in an achievement. Never allowed to just be me. I had panic attacks (which were finally discovered to be a heart issue at age 40), but I learned to hide them. I could be in full panic mode and no one would know.

    I think anyone who has struggled to hide who they truly are in order to fit in or to please another would see themselves in Elsa.

  26. I just found your blog. IS AMAZING!!! My 6 years old Leo saw the movie over Xmas and since then he is fascinated with Elsa! He has some sensorial integration problems and most of the time acts “not normal” I always wondered why he have been so attracted by the movie and the song… I perfectly understand now. I love your blog and how you are finding yourself in a world made for people “in the box” WAY TO GO!!!

  27. olá eu sou brazil!! eu também achei muitos traços autismo na princesa, por isso pesquisei no google se foi intencional, ótima matéria, li no tradutor, mas também me identifico com ela, sou deficiente monocular, e tudo que queremos pra começar a viver é aceitação, e a Elsa carrega sse conflito… linda personagem, viva as diferenças, bye !

    • Thanks for your comment, and for taking the time to read this essay through translation! :)
      This comment, translated through google translate:
      “hello I’m Brazil! I also found many traits in autism princess, so googled on google if it was intentional, great matter, read the translator, but also identify with her, I’m poor monocular, and all we want to start living is acceptance, and Elsa loads iff conflict … beautiful character, living differences, bye!”

  28. I have to say I loved this film after watching it a second time. First time I was quite underwhelmed but it’s grown on me. Love the blog. Feel free to check mine out and in particular my daughter’s contribution ;) http://t.co/v770Tw7hcE

  29. I saw this one night with my girlfriend at her house, because I too tend to avoid theaters. We had – she had – to pause the movie as I lost it over that song, and Elsa being tortured in an attempt to have quiet hands. There’s a certain wonderful irony to the fact that this very same girlfriend first put a real name to some of my observable traits and encouraged me to seek official diagnosis.

    She’d never seen me with loud hands, and I’d have to look at my journal for exact timing, but this part of the movie had me sobbing in pain uncontrollably for about half an hour. I grew up in a time when the only diagnosis they had was mental retardation, and really primitive ABA to attempt to quiet my hands.

    Really, really primitive. As in beating me until the pain of violence was more than the pain of living autistic. After the beatings I was forced to sit on my hands, on the edge of my bed, and stare at a thumb tack on the wall for hours without moving at all. For hours. Moving only meant more beatings. It was drilled into my head, beaten into my head that if anyone ever found out, I’d be locked away in a padded room FOREVER!!!

    So when it came to gently approaching the subject with my new doctor, I was scared to death, and talked around the subject until she finally put 2 and 2 together and said “You means stereotyped movements? Stims? No, you are NOT going to be locked up or tortured for that.

    It started me down the path to healing and growth, and now I flap, in public, if/when I need too. For years thought it was this source of horrible stress/shame/guilt/fear for me. Because I’d do it when no one could see, torn in half by the need to self regulate, and the pain it caused.

    So yes, I’m a 50 year old autistic woman, and I still have loud hands. But now, I don’t have the pain/guilt/stress/fear/shame to go with it. That said I can so relate to what you wrote here and shared your post with my girlfriend and on Facebook.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Sami.


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