Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Frozen

the cold never bothered me anyway
(src)

I finally watched Frozen, the latest blockbuster Disney movie, over the weekend. People have been pressing me to watch it since Thanksgiving weekend, and I finally got around to it.

ATTN: If you haven't seen the movie yet, be warned that in the rest of the post I will discuss spoilers.

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I was expecting good things, and I did enjoy the movie. What I wasn't expecting was 1) how serious and dramatic it was (I think the Olaf trailer made me think it would be a light and fluffy film--nope, two girls orphaned in the first ten minutes), and 2) how powerfully the film would resonate with me on an emotional level. When I say "the film," I really mean, Elsa.

A few obvious things drew me to the character of Elsa: introversion, blue color scheme, being accused of lacking emotions, disliking public events, having a much more energetic sister (though mine is my older sister, and she is far more rational about love than Anna). And the whole deal of an innocent being ostracized, hated, feared because of magic, is a theme I take up in a lot of stories (so much so that I wonder if I should do some psychological thinking about why). The sequence that really cemented my identification with her, though, was--don't snicker--"Let It Go."

Even before I'd seen the movie I watched the clip of the song "Let It Go." But somehow, in the context of the movie and in that day, it became much more powerful. Let me explain.

I watched Frozen the evening of Saturday, March 22. That entire day, I'd been at the Berkeley Math Tournament, getting my ego smashed up repeatedly and mercilessly. This was not unusual: I know when I go to math tournaments that I, and in fact everyone on my school's team, am severely outclassed because our school's STEM offerings are...slim.

What made it different on Saturday was that this time, I realized that the uncomfortable feeling of being the dumbest person in the room is going to be my constant state of being for the next four years.

I got into Caltech--the California Institute of Technology, recently named the number one university in the world, again. I haven't gotten hit too hard with impostor syndrome yet, so I'm not questioning that I got in, but I do recognize that I'm coming in from a high school that has, as I've mentioned, weak STEM offerings, and that I will have to brush up on my calc and physics for the placement exams I'll take (since Caltech doesn't take any AP credit).

Throughout high school, my identity has been "the smart girl." Even though I try not to define myself by my academics, in all other fields I base my sense of self on how I help other people: being on band staff, leading a volunteer club, tutoring people. In the context of my high school, I am the smart kid who likes helping people.

Kind of like how Elsa has to be the benevolent queen.

Looking at the next four years, I see a future in which I am at the bottom of my class, the underdog again, striving mightily to learn concepts that might be too far above me. Asking for help instead of giving it. Getting my ego ground down to nothing. Developing resilience. Working harder than I think I can. Burning out? Having breakdowns?

I see a void into which I must leap. And to do so, I can't be encumbered by my current self, the self that assumes she's going to end up at the top, who assumes that she can handle any class material with an hour of effort.

The gloves have to come off.

Elsa has powers that have hurt people she loves. She is told "conceal, don't feel, don't let them know." She is told that she is too much. Her fear controls her, forces her to repress her feelings and to draw away from the people she loves. She is afraid that she is too much.

My problem is the opposite--fear that I am not enough--but the result is the same: both of us, quotidian me and the animated snow queen, are afraid that we aren't going to be able to be what we're expected to be. And to become the person we need to be, for ourselves, and are, it's necessary to let it go.



I've read some commentary on the song that points out the irony of Elsa singing about freedom and self-realization...when she's going into the mountains to isolate herself even further. But I see no contradictions. Her powers aren't the problem, her fears about her powers are the problem.

And people are the problem, people's expectations. She needed to let go of the person other people wanted, even needed her to be; she had to go alone into the mountains to find herself, to test her powers, to find the core self that she'd bent and distorted to accommodate others. "That perfect girl is gone," and good riddance.

Of course, Let it Go isn't the end of Elsa's journey. She still has her responsibilities as monarch, she still has to deal with the eternal winter, she still has to uncover her abilities to love. And once I shed my high-school-created ego, I too will have to work very hard if I am ever to amount to anything.

As this analysis of the song states, "The story has just begun, so [Let It Go] cannot be the end of the character development for Elsa - it is actually only the end of the beginning, and the primary function of the song is to set down the conflicts that Elsa must go through - the demons that she must face - before the story is over. In fact, much of the rest of the story will be played out to specifically reverse many of the most triumphant lines of her song."

The analysis then goes on to refute that Elsa actually is okay with being isolated and ostracized--she doesn't want the storm to rage on, and the cold does bother her. Yeah, okay, fair enough. But she needs to get away; she needs to leave everyone behind in order to have a chance at finding herself.

Before you leap, you must look. Inside. And accepting who you are on your own terms, and casting aside the chains that others would put on you, the masks they would bind to your face, seems to me a prerequisite to the jump into the chasm of your new challenges.

Another objection from the NaClhv analysis above:
Personal empowerment is obviously good. If you look carefully at Elsa's expressions while she's singing, the few tens of seconds around this line is the only time she is genuinely happy. But personal empowerment, though good, is fraught with danger, as indicated by the next line: "No right, no wrong, no rules for me".

Seriously, how many characters say something like that and not become evil? These are probably the most telling lines for picking up on the narrative meaning of the song. And that is the second thing that she's letting go of: her sense of right and wrong, of the rules and restrictions that being a "good girl" imposed on her releasing her powers. Now obviously some of the rules constraining her before were restrictive and counterproductive, but they were also for the safety of others. How much of that is she letting go? Only some specific rules? All of it? The entire concept of goodness? We don't know, but her singing "No right, no wrong, no rules for me" should have set off alarm bells in the audience's heads. "Let It Go" was originally meant as a villain song, and Disney wanted the possibility of Elsa being a villain to be alive in the audience's minds. We are suppose to be worried for Elsa's soul at this point, and the rest of her character development is about how she is saved from her precarious position.

This is an interesting analysis that I didn't pick up on by myself, but I don't think the possibility of Elsa becoming a villain in any way destroys the meaning of the song. I have heard, in many forms, that the way you know you're doing something worth doing is if you might fail hard. Of course in some cases the downside and upside are not balanced, but in this case, the potential of evil suggests also the potential for overwhelming good.

One final detail that made Elsa my second favorite Disney princess (after Mulan): she didn't get a guy at the end. She retained her independence, her sovereignty. Moreover, Elsa had only just figuratively unfrozen her heart, and rushing her into a relationship would deny her the opportunity to work out her issues in her own time.

//One more: the fact that she mentioned fractals and that apparently it's official that she's into geometry. Math is beautiful even if I don't think I'm smart enough to understand it as deeply as I want.

For me, the film was not about romantic love, or even familial love. It was about loving yourself, honoring who you are independent of others' expectations, and, if shouldering duties set by others, doing so on your own terms, as yourself. I do not think this is the message that most people got from the film, and certainly it is colored by my own deep-seated selfishness.

But the slammed door at the end of "Let It Go"--that is love. Closing the door to others so you can discover who you are. Realizing you're not who they want and just letting go.

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