Frozen Character Analyses: Elsa

So I've been very badly bit by the Frozen bug and have no intentions of letting go anytime soon. I've written fanfiction, read much more of it (current favorites include You Are, Skadi, The Sting of Summer's Winter, and The Royal Reunion), spent far too much time on Elsanna and Frozen-related Tumblrs, watched countless fanvideos, and of course downloaded the movie on my iPhone for brushing up on scenes.

A major part of appreciating a story is analyzing the characters to death. And who is more interesting to analyze than Elsa, the pseudo-villain and tortured witch? This will be a shameless dissection of Elsa's character, from start to finish.


Childhood
As a young child, we see Elsa as happy and carefree but conscious of the responsibility she must shoulder. At first she is irritated by Anna's early-bird habits but quickly shows that she loves to please Anna by using her powers. Elsa even at eight years old is responsible: she shushes Anna so that their parents won't overhear, and seems careful and precise when she uses her magic to amuse her little sister.


The accident reveals that Elsa cares very deeply for her sister. Perhaps this has to do with the absence of other playmates, an attempt to shelter her from responsibilities that Elsa has as future Queen, or an attempt to preserve Anna's perpetually bubbly nature. This love is turned against her by her father, who sharply turns the blame onto Elsa and her magic: "Elsa, what have you done? This is getting out of hand."

The visit to Grandpabbie and her father's reprimanding convince the young princess that her powers are a) not worth the beauty they bring, b) her fault for not controlling them (as opposed to expecting young children to make accidents), and c) best suppressed. To protect both his children, the King accepts Anna's wiped memory and his older daughter's isolation. The King equates Elsa's powers with Elsa herself, and in his efforts to suppress the former he hurts the latter deeply.

Random thing I discovered: Elsa's freezing the fountains and making snow in the hologram thing are the exact same motions she makes at the end of the movie.
Conceal, Don't Feel, Don't Let It Show
The King forbids Elsa from telling Anna about her powers. Should Elsa have told Anna anyway, and risk another deadly encounter? Perhaps. But Elsa's fear of both punishment and hurting Anna overcomes any courage and desire to be free that she has. And at such an impressionable age, it is understandable that Elsa takes her father's attitude to heart. She sees herself as nothing more than a monster to be suppressed, fit to rule Arendelle and no more.

At any rate, Elsa's fear is so strong that she cuts off all contact with people, which was probably not her father's original intention. She shackles herself in fear and self-loathing, convinced that since her powers are an abomination her entire being must be. Elsa perhaps forgets the beauty her magic once brought, or does not wish to remember it.

The princess's self-loathing is built ironically out of love for her sister, since Elsa's desire to protect Anna is so strong that she is willing to essentially martyr herself. After their parents' death, Elsa is so entrenched in her mantra of protection that she does not let Anna in. Perhaps this shows how Elsa underestimates Anna, since in her head, Anna is still a shivering five-year-old girl. The blonde princess's sense of responsibility carries over to the coronation.

(Practicing for) The Coronation
Here we see Elsa continue to try fulfilling her father's last wish of becoming Queen while controlling her powers. Elsa clearly caves in to societal pressure and responsibility, for she practices in front of her father's painting as a reminder of the restrictions he placed on her. Yet the advice the King gave her obviously does not work in theory or in practice, since the scepter (and gold lollipop? flail? epic staff? what is that thing?) freezes over both during her practice in front of her father's portrait and at the actual ceremony. At this point perhaps Elsa should realize that her father's advice is never going to work, but she is too stubborn/fearful/entrenched in years of shame to let it go. 

Elsa loathes herself and her powers for failing to live up to the King's expectations. It is unknown how much Elsa blames herself versus her father/Grandpabbie for her inability to control her powers. She seems like the type to follow authority figures/tradition (either from personality or upbringing), and the way she looks at her hands suggests that she prone to self-loathing rather than blaming others.

The thing on the left is one of those weights used to hold balloons in place.
The Coronation Party/Outing Herself
At the coronation party, Elsa's affection and awkward love for Anna show themselves as the Queen wishes to go back to pre-accident days. A bit of her old playfulness resurfaces when she sends Anna to dance with the Duke of Weselton. Yet the fear and loathing bar her from breaking the walls the blonde spent years putting up. Prolonged contact with Anna, says Elsa/the King/Grandpabbie/Anna's white streak, can only result in murdering the redhead.
The heated conversation Anna has with Elsa about Hans again shows Elsa's sense of responsibility and propriety. Perhaps those traits are a necessary contrast to Anna's carefree and unconventional nature.

Anna's snatching the glove from Elsa's hand is both a psychological and emotional undoing for the Queen: her powers are theoretically unshackled (we later see that any part of her body can perform magic. I've always wondered if her eyes could have fought the guards instead of her hands. But I digress.) thus breaking the mental bars that were already fragile at the coronation ceremony, while Anna's desperation claws at Elsa's heart since Elsa blames herself for Anna's loneliness.

I know this is a serious moment but Elsa's face is hysterical.
The fear in Elsa's eyes as she throws the icicles are obviously from fear of societal repercussions/witch-hunting and hurting Anna again--but could it also be from the knowledge that this moment was inevitable? The fear that no matter how hard the Queen tried, the truth would eventually have come out anyway? That Elsa would always fail?

Elsa's flight from Arendelle confirms her fears of not living up to her father's expectations, of not being good enough or strong enough to control her powers, of failing as a sister, as sullying her reputation by becoming a monster, of letting down the people of Arendelle, and of unleashing the powers that she so loathes. Clearly her father's advice continues to not work, because her freezing of Arendelle is entirely unintentional if her reaction to Anna's later statement is to be believed.

Flight from Arendelle & Building the Ice Castle
The ice castle is obviously Elsa's big moment of freeing herself of societal expectations to discover herself without repercussions. Here the Queen regains a sense of her own beauty that her father destroyed. Yet the song has a melancholy undertone: she must do so in isolation because she still sees herself as a threat. In other words, Elsa does not trust her mastery over her magic and thus does not trust herself.

This moment shows that Elsa is perhaps overwhelmed easily by emotion. She runs away without thinking ahead, accidentally throws icicles when provoked, and is willing to die upon hearing of Anna's death. Perhaps this trait stems from a lifetime of being forced to hold emotions inside rather than a natural volatility (the kind that Anna possesses.)


Anna at the Castle
Of course, the second Anna walks through the door Elsa wants her little sister back. But again her protectiveness overcomes the need for love, even though Elsa is perhaps closer this time to confidence due to unleashing her magic. Elsa wishes to keep Anna in Arendelle because the Princess, as the more personable of the two, fits in better than the Queen does. The Queen again is willing to sacrifice herself for what she perceives as the greater good. Here, Elsa ignores that her isolation hurts Anna, who traveled all this way to get Elsa back. Perhaps her fear blinds her, or the blonde does not want to believe it, or she considers the protection worth the pain.

Elsa understands that Olaf is a product of her love and sense of freedom; he is further proof that her magic is not all terrible. The Queen seems to need tangible proof of this fact in order to believe it and thus overcome years of denying the fact that her powers can bring beauty. When Anna remarks that "He's just like the one we built as kids," Elsa perhaps is reminded (however painfully) of the time when nobody feared the Queen.

My friends ship Olaf and Sven because they're weirdos.

Elsa equates society with suppression of the self, a sentiment further expressed when she calls herself a fool for thinking she can be free of her fear of not hurting people when she causes the Great Freeze. The blonde's self-loathing, loss of control, and sense of self as her powers is apparent when she asks Anna, "What power do you have to stop this winter? To stop me?" The Queen's self-worth is apparently based entirely on what her father wants, for once she fails him she is harsher on herself than ever before.

The Queen's love for her kingdom, previously only hinted at, is apparently a clear cause of her panicking. Does she fear more for her people's lives or her own life once Grandpabbie's predicted witch-hunts start? Perhaps both. At any rate, Anna's vulnerability around Elsa is another factor. Once Anna is struck of course, Elsa's walls go up again and she summons Marshmallow to further her isolation.

The Fight Scene
Here obviously Grandpabbie's prediction of Elsa's powers attracting bigotry comes true. Yet there is a bit of a twist: it isn't the presence of the magic itself that causes Hans to fight Elsa, but rather the magic's potential for harm. Or in other words, Grandpabbie and the late King caused the fight scene by not allowing Elsa to master her magic.

Here Elsa acts in self-defense at first, clearly loathing that she has no choice but to use her powers for the thing she hates the most: hurting others. Later however she is provoked by a combination of anger, desperation and perhaps hopelessness. She never kills the guards outright, and Hans' provocation that she has become a monster stops Elsa from perhaps doing so. Would Elsa have killed the guards? After all, they are not someone she loves. And if she did so, how horrible would she feel? Would she accept her fate as a destructive freak of nature? Would she kill herself?


In Chains/Running Away
The Queen's conversation with Hans reveals how scarred she is. When she asks him why she was brought to the dungeon, he explains it was to prevent the others from killing her and she pleads with him to "tell them to let me go" since she's "a danger to Arendelle." Elsa here is implicitly suicidal and extremely self-sacrificing: she would rather die than cause harm to others.

When the blonde attempts to permanently flee the kingdom, she is reigned in by Anna--who is really the only person Elsa has ties to. The news that she killed Anna of course is Elsa's undoing; her giving up to Hans's sword implies that she would rather die than live in self-loathing and grief. Without Anna, Elsa has nothing to live or stay for. Thus Elsa's personal ties trump her sense of societal responsibility (the same as her sister.)

Anna's sacrifice is Elsa's worst nightmare.

"Just take care of my sister."
The Necessary Happy Ending
Here Elsa tentatively tries to reconcile being herself with being Queen, against everything her father told her. It is unknown how much Elsa will attempt to suppress her powers again. Will she continue to hold on to the belief that in order to rule properly she must reign in herself, or can she let go from what her parents taught her?

In Conclusion
Elsa, Queen of Arendelle:
  1. is bound above all by personal loyalty to Anna
  2. bows easily to expectations pressed upon her, either due to her upbringing or her personality
  3. displays perfectionism
  4. has her worst fear: hurting others
  5. has emotions and thought patterns that can go unchecked to cause massive psychological damage
  6. prefers remaining in old thought patterns instead of formulating new ones
  7. can be blinded by her good intentions
  8. would rather blame herself than others
  9. has a playful and gentle side hinted at by her pre-disaster days, the coronation dance, Olaf, and the skating in the courtyard
  10. needs an outside force in order to change her mental habits.
Over all, a superb person to have around, I say. Yet do we consider the aspects of Elsa's character shaped by her experiences with her magic to be truly part of her personality? Or are they just damaged aspects of her "real" personality, the one apparent with Olaf and her pre-disaster days?

Comments

  1. Excellent analysis. I, too, have become deeply involved in Frozen, and consider Elsa the most complex Disney character is a long time.
    My takes on a couple of points:
    1) Hans is a total jerk, but I am glad he broke into Elsa's anger before she killed the Duke's guards.
    Having said that, killing in self-defense is an ethical moral choice. They attacked her. She begged them to go away. They shot first. Image the result if Elsa's magic hadn't stopped that arrow. (She did it unconsciously, BTW.) The effect of a crossbow bolt with that kind of arrowhead on it, when hitting a person IN THE FACE, is the stuff of nightmares. It wasn't until they had kept trying to kill her repeatedly that she finally was angry enough to PERHAPS kill them.
    If Hans had not intervened, and she had killed the Duke's men, IMHO, she would have been morally and ethically justified.
    But, under the circumstances, it would simply have added to her already tremendous burden of guilt.
    2) Although the movie ends on a positive note, I suspect Elsa (and Anna to a lesser extent) will need lots of work to exorcise all the demons.
    3) If there is a Frozen2, I would like it to be all about Elsa. But without any hint of romantic involvement. The problem would be defining the problem she would need to overcome in the plot, and how to show further character development.

    Wonderful analysis. Glad I found it through the magic of google.

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    1. Thank you so much, GrrlGeek1972! Google is amazing, innit?
      I agree with you that Elsa killing the guards would be morally justified; however, Elsa herself, given her past tendencies to blame herself for everything related to her powers (which really come to define her), probably would, as you said, only/mainly blame herself instead of the guards provoking her. I still wonder if Elsa would have killed the guards - the movie only showed them almost dead, and in the timeframe shown it would have been very possible for Elsa to kill them.
      An interesting sidenote about the bolt block: Elsa's magic can apparently protect her from danger, as long as that danger is not from another product of her magic, as shown with the chandelier. Perhaps Elsa was in too much shock/panic to consciously block the chandelier, and her subconscious magic made no move to do so either.

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  2. Oh, one more thing. I think Elsa's looser hairstyle is a callback to her childhood. If you go back and watch the childhood scenes before the accident, her hair is very similar. When she is 18, saying goodbye to her parents before they go on the sea voyage, she is wearing her hair in the bun. So, bun=adult responsibilities, looser braid=carefree childhood. My headcanon, anyway. YMMV

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    1. Very interesting! Disney does a lot of small things with hair and clothes and so forth, but I never noticed that. Her hair then could symbolize the societal pressure Elsa succumbs to, since as you said at the film's end her hair is loose since she is more sure of herself.

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  3. Wonderful analysis, thank you.
    I personally saw an indivisible metaphor in Elsa/Anna couple. They represent to me the two extreme sides of people's personality.

    Anna is our desire of love, curiosity, positivity, openness to the world. She may be naive and impulsive, but she is also the very emotional force powering our lives.

    On the other side, Elsa is our darker and magical side. More mental, silent, unique. It's the part of us enjoying (needing?) solitude, but also the most potent one, able to achieve and rule.

    Both parts are incomplete by themselves, they need their opposite.
    The only way to control the destructive power of ice is love, the only way to feel whole and happy for both is to complete each other.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Elisa!
      I noticed and agree with the Elsa & Anna metaphor. They are definitely two halves of the personality coin. I'm a bit confused when you describe Elsa as "the most potent one, able to achieve and rule." By potent do you mean she is more interested in climbing the social ladder and is better at management than Anna, who tends to run around doing whatever she wants, but Elsa is less personable than Anna? I would say that perhaps Elsa isn't interested in climbing the social ladder--she was born/forced into being Queen and constantly leaves the kingdom--but she does seem like she'd be very adept at ruling. At least in terms of logic and management/attention to detail.

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  4. Thank you very much for your wonderful analysis. I'd like you to think about the other implications of "Let it go', you noted the underlying melancholy of what most see as a song of empowerment. However, the very empowerment is at its heart a transformation into a being that utterly loses itself, its identity and is in fact the beginning of a path of self-destruction. Her self-delusion is plainly obvious in the song and is in fact made super obvious in the reprise 'First Time in Forever' when Elsa acknowledges that she was a fool to think she could control the storm inside, highlighting her 'freedom and empowerment' are just another level of martyrdom and self-delusion. She goes on to state the fear is even great now, now she knows just how much harm her powers can do, before in that state of denial she imagined but know she knows!
    One really believes after the reprise that there is the potential of Elsa to totally lose herself, to suicidal isolation or evil by reflex. Did anyone else note the ice that strikes Anna down comes not from Elsa's hands but directly from her own heart, echoed but the final musical accompaniment of 'Heart of Ice'.
    Elsa in many ways reminds me of the Character of Thomas Covenant, written by Stephen Donaldson. A tragically flawed heroic character, whose core is pure, but whose external nature has been shaped by self-denial and a curse, which can allow them to commit evil, but never being motivated by evil. In fact in Elsa's case she is unfailingly motivated by a desire NOT to harm anyone but always to let this harm fall upon herself.

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    1. I agree with most of your points, except the idea her empowerment is essentially self-destruction; the societal shackles Elsa throws off in the song never again control her, since her angst upon hearing her permanent freeze of Arendelle come from a sense of personal failure/responsibility and not from a need to conform. Your other points are interesting. I've never read anything of Donaldson (I have Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf and Julie Ann Peters to get through first) but I'll check him out when I have more time.

      Cheers.

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  5. loved your post. I always related a lot with Elsa and now I can understand exactly why.

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    1. Thank you, LU! Glad you enjoyed my post.

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