When I was a kid, my favorite Disney Princess was Belle. It was for the most inane reasons. She liked to read, I liked to read! She’s didn’t like her small town, I didn’t like my small town! She didn’t fit in, I didn’t fit in! Could it get any simpler than this?
Beauty and the Beast takes difference and essentially twists it into an advantage in the story. Belle is a smartypants who goes to the bookshop and treats it like a library. She doesn’t have time to ogle boys. She’s too busy wanting adventure, unlike these small-minded French countryfolk. This is a problem for two reasons. First: Belle is hot (as everyone keeps reiterating in the opening theme) and non-threatening. And as everyone knows, it’s okay to be a little quirky as long as people don’t think you’re a monster.
Also, second: Belle is weird, but at whose expense? By plopping bright, beautiful, adventure-seeking Belle next to the sighing, unnamed, blond triplets, even a kid can pick up that Belle is “nothing like the rest.” And if you identify with Belle, you feel “nothing like the rest” of those people too. You might choose to differentiate yourself from your peers. You might even choose to differentiate yourself from other girls. What do those triplets know? They like Gaston, and Gaston is the bad guy. If you identify with Belle, Beauty and the Beast might actually be a primer on how to become a special snowflake. I mean, who would you rather be? This?
Frozen is particularly interesting because it succeeds in taking difference and looking at it honestly. It follows in the footsteps of Mulan, showing that if you don’t fit in, there are constant signals from the outside that remind you of your difference, and many forms of condemnation. I’m saying “difference” now, because Frozen is ambiguous about difference, meaning you can interpret it or relate to it any way you want. A lot of Elsa’s character has to do with not understanding her body, and the not-too-oblique metaphor of feeling “frozen” in a place where she is not allowed to grow or move forward. But I’ll go ahead and say that Frozen gives a pretty strong wink and a nod to certain people because it seems to have very strong LGBTQ themes.
[Spoilers ahead, y’all.]
Elsa is “born” differently from everyone else, and she learns at a young age that her difference is unacceptable. Her parents encourage her to hide it and control it. Even though they might be loving parents, they inadvertently teach her to be ashamed of it. She learns the mantra “conceal, don’t feel,” and spends her most formative years becoming withdrawn, feeling anxious and afraid that others will find out her secret. It’s not until she comes of age that her uniqueness is revealed when she literally opens the doors and “comes out.” But as mentioned before, it’s only cool to be weird if people don’t think you’re a monster, and that is exactly what everyone thinks of her. Elsa escapes from society, where she finally feels free. In short, this is the face of Elsa we see before:
And this is the face we see immediately after she escapes:
Until then, she is filled with self-loathing and intense shame for her sorcery, the very thing that makes her unique. It’s not until she’s alone with no societal expectations that she can be super fierce and even have her own diva number, complete with a costume change, a smirk, and a crystal stage. She can finally be herself, and with no one to judge her, she comes out of her shell, no longer having to hide who she is. However, there’s one caveat: the only way to be truly herself is to remain outside of her home.
Beauty and the Beast shows both a highly optimistic and simplistic view of what it is to not fit in with society, and basically outlines the parameters of what kind of difference is okay from a societal point of view. You can be different, as long as it’s good different. Belle is never really tortured by the fact that she doesn’t fit in, when that usually isn’t the case for most people. Elsa and Belle make similar choices to abandon their homes and start new lives far way. But Belle’s narrative is that of the small town girl who yearns for more, and then discovers her true calling is to ditch her lame town and become a princess (unlike those superficial triplets, ugh!). Elsa, on the other hand, is already a princess, which makes the consequences of leaving much greater. And as special of a snowflake as she may be (perhaps, literally), Elsa doesn’t feel special. She feels trapped and lost. Frozen is a film that feels very aware of those who are ostracized because of their difference.
The movie ends with her sister’s ultimate sacrifice, showing that she loves and accepts her no matter who she is. It’s interesting subtext, and it’s a shame that it can’t be more overt (maybe one day it will be). In the meantime, it’s exciting to see a Disney film that at first, feels like it’s going for the tired tropes of ye olde princess movie, only to reveal that the “true love” theme is not romantic in nature, but familial. Even for the straight pairing of Anna and Kristoff, a “happy ever after” doesn’t include a rush into marriage, as with all the previous princess movies. Rather, the end shows Anna and Kristoff taking it slow, building a relationship, and maybe giving some consensual kisses.
However, for young women and girls who relate to Elsa’s character, who relate to the feeling of being outcast and isolated, it’s the familial love that proves most powerful in the narrative. She doesn’t have to choose between being herself and being with her sister. Anna’s love for her—for all of her—is an affirmation that she can be the same young woman who belts out “Let it Go” in Idina Menzel’s voice while making sweetass ice castles and wearing sparkle dresses (okay, a lot of us would love to do that). It assures her that she is hurting no one, and that she is, in fact, not a monster. It allows her to accept herself, make amends, and come home.