Disney, disability and Frozen

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Written By Maureen

Frozen charts feminist territory and a glimmer of a more enlightened view of people with disabilities for Disney writes Maureen Shelley.
Despite the singing (I lost it when the snowman started warbling a ballad to summertime), Frozen is a stand out in the Disney movie archives. The plot – loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen – has two beautiful young princesses face the requisite number of obstacles before they discover the meaning of true love. So far, so Disney. What’s different is that true love IS true love, the sisters are agents of their own destiny, the issue of disability is taken out and examined implicitly in a shockingly different way for Disney (more on   that later) and the plot is intricate, complex and engaging.

True love

For Disney true love has been, until this century, what we in the real world call infatuation or lust. In Frozen, true love turns out to be the love that two people have for each other and is based on years of relationship, shared memories, selflessness and self –sacrifice. It is based on more than a few hours of acquaintanceship or a single kiss. So not Disney. Further, one of the beautiful princesses falls for a bad boy who is prepared to kill her and her sister to win a kingdom for himself. The princess sees the bad boy for what he is and doesn’t fall in love on the rebound. Disney, it seems, has lost the plots on which it has relied for about 90 years.


Yes, these two princesses are beautiful, size 6, talented (singers at least) and privileged. Yet, in Frozen the young women get to do the rescuing as well as being rescued. They
get to make decisions for themselves and implement them. They order people about and have their orders followed (I think that’s the princess bit but it’s a start). These women do more than stand around singing. Although the animators at Disney still have foot-in-mouth disease where women are concerned (it’s hard to animate them, make them do things and keep them “pretty” said one), at least Frozen sheds a glimmer of light on the equality of the sexes in Disney. It doesn’t stretch to the women being plain, ordinary, lacking in privilege or, you know, with a job or anything but it is progress.


Frozen was shown in the session we attended with Get A Horse – a short cartoon based on old footage, reworked for the digital age. The villain in Get A Horse is Peg-Leg Pete. Pete’s name is a dead giveaway – he’s a person with a disability. He’s the only person with a disability in the cartoon and he’s the villain. He’s a pretty nasty character and he has Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt himself) to contend with, so there are no prizes for guessing who wins the day. Mickey ensures that Peg-Leg Pete, who is a would-be thief, is repeatedly injured by taking advantage of his clumsiness that results from him only having one leg. Now, apart from the unsympathetic treatment of Pete, Get A Horse is a nasty little story, so we won’t dwell on it. However, it does show Disney’s (sometimes very unsympathetic) treatment of characters with disabilities. Disney has depicted a range of characters with disabilities in Princess films over the years, namely:

  • Seven men of short stature in Snow White (achondroplasia or dwarfism is a recognised disability)
  • Ariel in Little Mermaid (at times she can’t walk and at others she can’t talk)
  • Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (she’s in a coma for much of the film and may have brain injury)
  • The Beast in Beauty and the Beast has a debilitating disease that causes dysmorphism or physical malformations
  • Pocahontas believes she can talk to animals, commune with spirits and understand unknown languages, which makes her a savant, possibly on the autism spectrum or she may be delusional
  • Cross-dressing Mulan is very clumsy and may be living with ataxia, a movement disability
  • Tiana in The Frog and The Princess believes she turns into an animal. This may be psychiatric therianthropy or delusions associated with schizophrenia.
  • Rapunzel in Tangled clearly had a form of polycystic ovarian syndrome that resulted in excessive hair growth
  • Merida’s mother Elinor from Tangled and her brothers Harris, Hubert and Hamish all turn into bears – a similar dilemma to Tiana in The Frog and The Princess. These may be just delusions created by drug abuse but they also may be symptoms of mental illness.

Elsa-the-good ArielvoiceThese disabilities are usually “inflicted” on the characters by a “wicked witch” or a “curse” and are often resolved (cured) at the end of the film by true love (a different form of magic).Yet it is in Frozen that we see Elsa, the character with a disability that is both a “power” and a “curse”, as being the subject of two very different treatments as a result of her condition.

Elsa has a condition that makes things she touches become frozen, which can be a good thing – she can create ice castles in the air – and causes problems (she accidentally puts ice into her sister’s brain).

Her parents’ response is to lock her away, to not let anyone see her, to have her learn to control her emotions and to be a “good girl”. She and her family become very isolated.

It reminded me of how families with children with disabilities would put them in institutions, send them to special schools (we don’t see how Elsa was schooled) and generally cut them off from mainstream society. Both Elsa and her sister, Anna, suffer loneliness as a result of Elsa’s isolation – much in the way that families with members who had a disability did in the past.

Elsa runs away to the mountains and embraces her condition and the power it gives her. Interestingly, when she does so, she becomes much more womanly. She sheds her “good girl” clothes and walks with a wiggle; she creates a beautiful palace and becomes more queen-like. However, she is even more isolated than when she was shut in a room by her parents. In her room she could talk through the door to her sister or the servants. In the ice palace, she is alone except for the snowman and a Yeti-like beast that she creates. Clearly, in the Disney cosmos, disability is a reason to isolate people in the most extreme way. Anna, when she learns of Elsa’s “power” (curse) wants to investigate what can be done, she wants the condition out in the open and she wants to use relationship to address it. It seems odd to me that Elsa’s parents don’t ever try to get help for her to learn to control her emotions (psychiatric treatment) so that she can manage her condition. They seek advice from a troll when she is a child but no further intervention is sought until she comes of age.

The intersection of sexuality and disability in Elsa’s life is like a double threat and echoes the experience of many women with a disability. The disability may be tolerated when they are children but when they become women the disability needs to be dealt with more strictly. In extreme situations (in real life) this has resulted in many women with intellectual disability being sterilised. In Elsa’s case, she has to run away to become a woman but is seen by some as a “monster”.

Anna works to get Elsa to return to the city so that it can be removed from the permanent winter she accidently created by letting her emotions loose. By Anna’s self-sacrifice – she takes an injury meant to kill Elsa – Elsa’s heart melts and she is now able to control her condition. She uses it to create beauty. Through the self-sacrificing love of her sister, Elsa is able re-join society, live in the city and be crowned queen. She is no longer isolated, her condition is known to everyone and the people are indulgent of her and proud of the way she uses her power to create beauty.
However, Elsa doesn’t win the ultimate Disney prize that of a relationship with a man. Maybe, that is a stretch too far for even this new 21st century, Pixar-driven Disney universe.