Now that I have your attention, I need you to go watch “Frozen.” It is a remarkable movie that I think everybody can enjoy.
Excellent. Now, back to me. I had this post halfway written in my head by the time I stepped out of the theatre several weeks ago but have been procrastinating on everything in life. Well, today I’ve realized that I’m the last person on the planet who has yet to chime in on this subject. The sign of great art is that it can mean many things to many people; by that criterion, Frozen counts as a masterpiece. Apparently, the protagonist, Anna, is helping to advance women’s rights while Elsa, Anna’s sister and the film’s glamorous antiheroine, is a symbol for anything from a gay teen discovering herself to Satan. There also may or may not be a gay couple, which is either amusing or a disturbing sign of the times depending on who you ask.
So, I might as well take a stab at this too. Be warned, I am going to talk about everything in the movie. No hiding of spoilers (I wouldn’t be able to write this post without discussing too much plot-sensitive information). SO GO! Go watch the movie if there is any chance you might want to watch it ever.
Just in case you were foolish enough to proceed without watching the movie (or just to give a general refresher to everyone) here is a basic rundown of the plot. If you think you remember it, then just skip down to the boldface text right after the picture of self-pronounced renowned family man Robin Thicke.
Elsa and Anna are two princesses (yes, it’s a Disney film all right!) who served as each other’s best friends when they were young. However, Elsa (the older sister) has a magical power to create snow and ice that she was born with. One day there is an accident where Elsa accidentally hits Anna in the head with some ice magic. Their parents bring the girls to this bizarre rock-troll shaman who heals Anna but has to remove the memory of the ice magic. Although Anna remembers all the fun she had with her sister, she has no idea anymore about the magic powers.
Since Elsa’s powers are growing out of control, her parents decide that she should no longer use them around Anna and that Anna should remain ignorant. Elsa is devastated but stays perfectly obedient and spends the rest of her childhood locked in her increasingly cold room. Anna is equally crushed. She remembers an incredibly fun sister and now has only silence.
Their parents die tragically. When Elsa turns 18, she has a coronation (the interregnum/regency period is never explained). Elsa’s powers have grown to the point where she can no longer touch stuff without it icing over, which is a major problem since she’s supposed to grab an orb and scepter or something during the ceremony. She wears special gloves but, predictably, everything goes amok when she loses a glove and starts icing everything. People are shocked, Elsa runs away into the wilderness, Anna chases after her into the wilderness, chaos ensues, and people start breaking out into song every five minutes.
Elsa ultimately builds an ice palace on a mountain for herself and Anna embarks on a long journey to reach Elsa, beg her to come back, and mention that oh yeah you left our entire city frozen. Elsa gets upset and accidentally sends an icicle into Anna’s heart, which according to rock-troll shaman dude is no bueno. More chaos ensues, Elsa continues to be obstinate, Anna grows increasingly weak, and another visit to rock-troll shaman dude reveals that only an act of true love can save Anna. Anna returns to her city thinking she needs to kiss the hot guy she left behind but he turns out to be kind of an asswad. Like Robin Thicke levels.
Since that didn’t work out, Anna resigns herself to dying of a frozen heart (is that better or worse than a broken one?) Meanwhile, Elsa got kidnapped by angry townsfolk and ends up breaking out of prison. Chaos ensues. It ends with Anna throwing herself in front of Elsa to prevent Duke Asswad from murdering her, and it is in fact that act of true sacrificial love that thaws her heart out. In true Disney style, everyone ends up happy except for the bad guys.
So what in the world does this have to do with depression?
Let’s start with the obvious. Elsa is a very tragic character. At the beginning of the movie, she is a rambunctious girl, an even stronger character than Anna, who loves her sister and lives to make her happy. Strong, fun-loving, clever, giving.
However, throughout her childhood, she is constantly at fault. It was HER fault that her sister got hurt while they were playing. It was HER responsibility to protect her from future harm. She LET DOWN her parents as well as Anna. Most importantly, she was unique. As in, no one else in this world (as far as we can tell) had this power. She was literally different from every other human being out there.
This is EXACTLY the type of mindset that lends itself to depression. Chronic depression, separate from the depression that normally occurs during the mourning process, is predicated upon believing in your inherent worthlessness. I often call depression a narcissistic disorder because the depressed person really believes that they are incompetent on a global scale. My clumsiness, disorganization, and scatter-brain was, in my mind, like Elsa’s ice power. I couldn’t believe that anyone else was like me. I was a mutant: part human, part screw-up.
Depression is also a disorder marked by tunnel vision. A depressed person’s self-evaluation is entirely negative. Poor Elsa is prone to catastrophic thinking, truly believing that her ice powers are capable only of destruction and harm to her sister, despite the life-nourishing effects that their previous snowy escapades had on Anna.
Elsa’s reaction to this is isolation (or in her words, a kingdom of ICE-olation). Elsa locks herself in a frosty room, slowly icing over her whole world in an effort not to hurt anyone. She doesn’t want to do it. In fact, it’s killing her. But she feels like her very presence is always a burden on others.
This is not a light feeling. This is not a matter of feeling embarrassed. This is an all-consuming worry. I have stood at the side of a highway deciding whether to throw myself in front of a truck because my presence is so onerous on everyone that I come into contact with. People with depression literally become convinced that they are only capable of hurting, harming, destroying. Many times this conviction leads them to killing themselves in a desperate attempt to do something right for once in their life.
Meanwhile, her sister Anna might even represent a different face of depression. The dynamic between the two of them is heartbreaking. Anna, while always maintaining a bold spirit and outward cheer, is clearly devastated by this abandonment, often sitting outside the door to Elsa’s room asking for her sister to come out. After showing several shots of Anna propped against the door, begging for a response, the camera finally pans to the other side of the door, where Elsa is in the exact same pose. Two girls separated by a door, both desperate to play with the other, both incapable of achieving that goal. At that moment, I could relate to both. Depression, especially suicidal depression, is a disorder of ambivalence. One part of you desperately wants to live; not to exist, but to fully partake of life’s glory. Another part thinks that this is hopeless and shuts the door on all opportunities, believing it to be their DUTY to “conceal, not feel” (a mantra of Elsa’s). A depressed person is really a composite. We all have an inner Anna that desperately wants a real life with real friends, and an inner Elsa that believes we have a heroic labor to live out, putting all that silly human emotion beneath us and existing to fulfill our duty and responsibility to keep others away from the danger.
By the time Elsa turns 18 and her coronation comes, she is literally a different person. The once ebullient, bold, vivacious girl is replaced by someone who seems to slouch ever so slightly, a woman who walks more gingerly than a guy with two broken ankles, one who speaks softly and flat where once we heard emotive yells of delight.
My best friend Rachel has a term for that. Oftentimes during college when I responded to the slightest setback or criticism with a withering pout, she would immediately complain “CONOR, why do you always act like a beaten dog?!”
Indeed, Elsa has gone from a strong girl to a beaten dog. Her posture, her tone of voice, the way she struggles to hold eye contact, everything about her seems like she has suffered through a lifetime of abuse. And she has. The emotional abuse that a person with depression like Elsa inflicts upon herself every moment of every day is as traumatic and scarring as any that a parent, sibling, friend, or significant other can inflict.
Her fears also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When her ice powers are suddenly revealed to the crowd, they react in shock. Ambivalent shock. Still open-minded. But Elsa immediately thinks that they must be as frightened and horrified with her as she is, and she immediately runs away, once again isolating herself. Eventually they assume that her powers must be evil since she treats them as such, where before they were open to accepting her if only she would.
Out in the wilderness, Elsa builds herself an ice palace while singing the movie’s show-stopping tune “Let it Go.” In the song, she hopefully sings that perhaps removed from everyone she can finally be herself and live for herself. She urges herself to just “Let it Go” and accept herself for who she is.
Many people have interpreted this song positively, an anthem for misfits everywhere who don’t want to conform to societal peer pressure. This is certainly a reasonable interpretation depending on what lens you are bringing to the theatre. However, in my depression point of view, I think of it as just the opposite. This is a mirage, false hope. I have spent a life of running away and hoping that my next situation is better. “As soon as I have my license I can spend enough time with my friends.” “All I need is a girlfriend and my life will be perfect.” “Once I go to college, life will work itself out.” “Once I get away from college, life will work itself out.” Instead of making the best of her situation, Elsa instead chooses to run away from her problems in lieu of addressing them head-on. What came next was predictable.
Anna finds Elsa alone in her ice palace, on top of a treacherous mountain, with topography and a giant ice monster intended to keep unwelcome visitors out. Elsa has shut herself out from the world, and although she verbally asserts her happiness the audience can once again see the beaten dog look appearing. While she briefly reverted to her old ebullient self during her escape, she is now returning to a brooding, slouching, unsure state. Her palace feels like a prison. Elsa ruined her childhood shutting out others; why would abandoning society help her now?
Throughout the movie, it seems that no matter how hard Elsa tries, she just keeps hurting people. She freezes her city, abandons her sister, and ultimately is led to believe that she has killed her sister with the ice bolt to the heart. Oftentimes when depressed I have felt that the harder I tried to do the right thing, the more I messed up, leading ultimately to a dull apathy intended to block out all emotion and all meaningful living. Elsa truly believes that she is the worst thing to happen in her world and that any hope of improvement is utterly hopeless.
The ending was perfect in my mind for a number of reasons, one of which is that Elsa discovered the secret to living the same way that I did. She had a person relentlessly pursue her in the frozen wilderness, a crazy quest to bring this lost soul back to reality. So did I. The love I have received from people like my best friend, despite the seeming irrationality of it all, finally got me to consider the absurd notion that I might be good for something. And that something is love. Elsa ultimately realizes at the end that love is the path to controlling her powers, just as I did. Every day structured around serving someone, helping someone, loving someone is a good day for me. I may have no intrinsic sense of self-worth but I can simulate it when I focus on serving others. I always feel good when I write one of these blog posts and the best part of my day is going into a school and working with the students there. This is one lesson that can help the depressed and the non-depressed alike: a life filled with altruistic, sacrificial acts of love, both given and graciously received, is a life well spent and worth living.
Anna is clearly the protagonist, meant to inspire young girls everywhere, and a friend watching the movie with me kept insisting that I was Olaf the flamboyantly goofy anthropomorphic snowman (okay, so maybe I am) but in Elsa I saw myself. Every step of the way, she acted in the exact ways that I do when struggling with my depression. I feel confident that other people with depression will recognize the similarity. And to you fortunate souls blessed with normal affect, go watch the movie a couple dozen times. This will really help you to be a more empathic friend and counselor to the depressed.