Why Elsa from Frozen is a queer icon — and why Disney won’t embrace that idea

Elsa goes on another adventure in Frozen 2. But will that adventure bring her a girlfriend??? (No.) | Disney

The queen of Arendelle might have been accidentally coded queer in Frozen, but Frozen 2 goes all in. Kinda.

In the spring of 2019, a flurry of headlines sprang up around the blockbuster hit Avengers: Endgame, insisting that the film featured the first openly gay character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When these headlines first appeared, I was confused. I didn’t remember a scene where Captain Marvel kissed a girl (and liked it) or a scene where Groot declared that he only liked boy trees or a scene where Captain America turned his chair around to remind kids that gender isn’t binary. But reading the details revealed that, sure, Endgame featured the MCU’s first openly gay character. He just didn’t have a name or a personality, and he appeared in one scene.

Dubbed the “Grieving Man” and played by director Joe Russo, the character turns up early in the film, at a support group attended by Captain America. The entirety of Grieving Man’s character is: He lost someone in the Thanos snap that eliminated half of all life in the universe, and after working his way through the ensuing grief, he’s started dating again. He explicitly says he’s dating a man.

This is all well and good, honestly. If you’re going to use a random peripheral character to illustrate how the world is struggling to get past this traumatic event, why not a gay guy? But the triumphalism around the “first openly gay character” headlines irked me and plenty of others. “First openly gay character” doesn’t imply “random peripheral character.” It implies someone who at least has a name.

This is often the way these things go when it comes to Disney and its many subsidiaries. The company dominates the entertainment press because the 2010s have proved especially fruitful for two specific types of stories in the entertainment press: stories that tease major developments in new projects based on major pieces of intellectual property (Marvel, Star Wars, Disney animation, etc.), and stories that suggest important progress has been made in terms of representation both in front of and behind the camera.

That’s how we end up with headlines like the “first openly gay character” ones, or the ones that confirmed Lefou was gay in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast — technically, what these headlines say is true, and the milestones they celebrate seem like a big deal. But they really, really aren’t. They reflect onscreen representation where the fine print contains “some assembly required,” because it merely nods to queer subtext and asks you to go digging around for it. The works themselves chicken out of doing anything meaningful, in favor of winking at you and nudging you in the ribs, daring you to read queerness into properties where none exists.

Anyway, Elsa from Frozen is queer, and I can prove it. Just don’t ask Disney to check my math.

Based on Frozen, a bunch of people decided Elsa was a queer character. Mostly she’s just not explicitly straight. Good enough!

Elsa sprinkles some snow over her new salamander friend.Disney
Elsa meets a lil salamander who seems rife with merchandising potential, just like all of her friends are.

Before we go much further, I should warn you that there are a bunch of spoilers below for both Frozen (the 2013 Disney film that dominated the box office, won two Oscars, and unleashed “Let It Go” upon an unsuspecting nation of parents) and Frozen 2 — so if spoilers concern you, bookmark this story for after you’ve seen the movies and retreat to your ice palace until then. If you’re (ahem) “cool” with spoilers, let’s proceed.

Image of a spoiler warning

Canonically, Elsa of Arendelle, who sits upon the tiny northern kingdom’s throne at the end of Frozen, is not queer. Canonically, she is not romantically interested in anybody. And lest you wonder if that description means Elsa is asexual or aromantic, neither of those qualities is canon either. Canonically, she’s nothing when it comes to her sexuality.

Which also means she isn’t (yet) canonically straight.

Elsa’s characterization stands in direct opposition to that of her younger sister, Anna, who is so hungry for love and affection (after essentially growing up without either in a big, empty palace) that she throws herself at the first guy who glances at her, the small-time prince Hans. He turns out to be the first movie’s villain, a twist that is cool the first time you see it, and then makes less and less sense the more you think about it.

Anna’s big arc in that first movie involves learning about the nature of true love and that it’s the result of time and effort, that a relationship between two sisters who’ve known each other for years and years is more likely to qualify as true love than anything having to do with some guy you’ve just met.

A lot of Disney movies might have given Elsa a guy to fall for, too. In fact, if we look at Frozen as a classical Broadway musical (the form it resembles even more than a Disney princess movie — indeed it would eventually be adapted basically as is for the stage), then a secondary romance is all but required. In a more traditional version of this story, the darker love triangle among Anna and the two guys vying for her heart would be counterbalanced by a lighter love triangle with Elsa at its center.

Instead, Elsa has no love interests. Her lack of suitors could be a function of the first movie’s rushed production process, which necessitated completely revamping much of the story with just under a year left to go before its release. In at least some versions of the story, Elsa was going to be the villain, and the story was going to be a more complicated one about the two sisters’ relationship. (It is, after all, inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” where said Snow Queen is more villainous than not.) But Elsa’s also the gal who sings “Let It Go.” She can’t be the film’s ultimate villain, even if she’s redeemed in the end.

So the Hans twist transformed Elsa’s arc into something else entirely. But it also meant her sexuality was left undefined, a princess — and ultimately a queen — without a prince.

You are probably familiar with the conversational tendencies of the internet, and you probably know several LGBTQ people as well. “Not yet confirmed as straight”? We’ll fucking take it. We’ll take it and run with it, baby.

Queer readings of Frozen and Elsa’s role within the film started appearing on social media shortly after the movie was released in November 2013, but they really began taking off in early 2014. In particular, San Diego State University professor Angel Daniel Matos, who studies the intersection of queer narratives and children’s literature, wrote a January 2014 article in which he argued that considering Elsa via the lens of queer literary theory made lots of sense.

Matos wrote:

Queen Elsa is approached by some viewers as a queer or gay character, not only because she doesn’t engage in a romantic relationship in the film, but also because she is forced by her parents to suppress and hide the powers that she is born with. Although the movie implies that her parents desperately try to conceal Elsa’s powers because of the danger that they impose to herself and to others, this does not justify the degree to which they prevent Elsa from having any human contact whatsoever. Furthermore, the fact that Elsa’s parents view suppression and isolation as solutions further emphasizes notions of the infamous queer closet.

I’d even go one step further than that. It was an unfortunate trope for far too long that if a film or TV show featured an LGBTQ character, that character would often be the story’s villain. (See, for instance, The Silence of the Lambs’ serial murderer Buffalo Bill, a character the movie goes out of its way to insist isn’t actually trans, despite also depicting him as pretty darn trans; he is, after all, killing multiple women to sew himself a suit made from their skin to transform himself into a lady. (Bill! Take some estradiol already geez!) As a result, scores of “villain” tropes have also become attached to LGBTQ characters and vice versa. Scar from the original Lion King is a good example; the movie never comes out and says he’s gay, but c’mon.

So Elsa, because she was at one time meant to be Frozen’s villain, exhibits lots of traits that we associate with LGBTQ characters, rightly or wrongly. She isolates herself from society. She has strange, barely understood powers. She lashes out at those who would drag her back to the mainstream. She’s kind of like one of the X-Men, and the X-Men have always welcomed queer readings as well.

Critically, Elsa isn’t the movie’s villain. Her love for Anna, and Anna’s love for her, is what saves the day by the end of the film, and she learns to revel in her powers once she discovers that she can control through love (awwwww). Elsa fears what makes her different, and she’s encouraged to do so by her parents. But she ultimately embraces that difference and is happier for having done so. A queer reading of the character all but suggests itself. Lots of fans thought so, too, and in 2016, a #GiveElsaaGirlfriend hashtag briefly became a Twitter sensation.

But if you didn’t notice any queer subtext in Frozen, then Frozen 2 wants to hit you over the head with it — so long as you go in asking to be hit over the head.

In Frozen 2, Elsa gets a girlfriend, except she doesn’t at all

The inhabitants of the enchanted forest meet the citizens of Arendelle.Disney
Honeymaren is on the left, and I, for one, think she and Elsa will be very happy together.

Early in Frozen 2, Elsa begins to hear a strange, female voice calling her into the great unknown. She might as well be a gay teenager in 1972 seeing a news report about “unusual communities” of “like-minded men” gathering in the Castro. She races after the voice, dragging the rest of the film’s dramatis personae with her.

Almost immediately upon entering the enchanted forest that blocks Elsa from locating the source of the voice, she’s set upon by local warriors, including a fetching young woman named Honeymaren. Once everyone is convinced Elsa and her entourage mean well, they’re welcomed into the forest village, where Elsa and Honeymaren have a heartfelt chat around the campfire. The setup for this pairing is shockingly similar to that of Anna and her eventual boyfriend Kristoff from the first film.

Here we go, I thought. They’re going to embark on an adventure together, and Honeymaren will be Elsa’s girlfriend, even if the movie never comes out and says it. Instead, Elsa heads off with her established group of friends, finally ditching even Anna, and Honeymaren basically exits the film except for a very quick shot where she waves to Elsa at the end. (Elsa does obtain a horse she finds in the ocean, which is not nothing.)

Even by the standards of “giving Elsa a girlfriend where everybody knows they’re together, but nobody says it, you know, like your aunt and her ‘special friend,’” this was weak tea (though Elsa does eventually abandon the throne of Arendelle to live in the Enchanted Forest, so it’s VanDerWerff Canon that she and Honeymaren hook up after that point). While it’s true that the center of Frozen as a franchise has always been the relationship between Elsa and Anna, Frozen 2 gives Anna and Kristoff a rather elaborate plot about getting engaged; meanwhile, when it comes to love interests, Elsa gets nothing.

The movie offers zero evidence as to her romantic inclinations, which in and of itself is interesting.

To be clear, it continues to be subversive that Elsa is a character defined entirely by her lack of a love interest. I don’t want to discount Frozen 2’s emphasis on Elsa’s powerful independence, which will undoubtedly hold a lot of sway with parents who want their daughters to know you can be queen without needing a king, assuming you can command the ice itself. But listen to me and about 500 of my friends here: Give Elsa a girlfriend!!!

The upshot of Frozen 2 is that Elsa remains canonically non-straight but also canonically non-queer. And yet where the queer subtext for the character in the first Frozen seemed mostly to arise by accident, it feels more intentional in this movie. The Honeymaren scenes have the feel of meet-cute moments, and Elsa’s ultimate story involves a significant sequence where she seeks support from the spirits of her deceased parents for choices she’s made. What’s more, many of the scenes with Elsa in Arendelle early in the film underline how she doesn’t seem quite at home there, in Anna’s heteronormative paradise. She’s gotta follow the voice! Of a beautiful lady! To another place! Where she feels more at home! No reason!

Frozen 2 doesn’t tell us that Elsa’s gay, but it all but begs writers like me to say things like, “Elsa from Frozen is queer, and I can prove it.” And that should be enough. The value of art and culture is inherently linked to what we bring to it as viewers, and Frozen 2 gives viewers more than enough to conclude that Elsa is, indeed, Disney’s first queer princess and Honeymaren her queen! That’s sufficient! Right?

Nah.

Disney’s movies often make gestures toward progressive representation while avoiding doing anything truly new or radical

Elsa and the gang play charades.Disney
Elsa, on her life as Queen of Arendelle: There must be more than this provincial life!!!

Let’s briefly veer away from whatever queer subtext exists within Frozen 2 to discuss the film’s treatment of native peoples displaced by colonizers, in a story told via the inhabitants of the enchanted forest — who were very nearly destroyed by the forces of Arendelle before magic sealed off the forest through means the movie barely explains.

Disney’s films this decade have been positively rampant with the idea of confronting the darker, seedier side of history to better understand where we come from. In the last couple of years alone, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and the Maleficent sequel have all circled this basic theme. These movies even rely on similar structures to reveal their shameful secrets: The characters have heard the generally understood history, then they learn a couple of pieces of information that complicate that history, and then they get the full, unvarnished truth late in act two. The end of each film becomes an attempt to synthesize the ideals that the characters stand for and their increased understanding of the less reputable aspects of their own history.

This entire arc plays out in Frozen 2, too, but when it comes time for the film to deal with its most consequential idea — that to put right what once went wrong, Anna and Elsa will have to destroy Arendelle — it blinks and lets everybody live. It’s like a paraphrase of that old Simpsons quote about alcohol: Arendelle — the cause of and solution to everybody’s problems.

Disney keeps coming back to the idea of metaphorically dissecting the unsavory aspects American history in order to move forward as a nation. But it almost never has the guts to actually suggest anything needs to change to upend the current social order, because the current social order places Disney at the top of the year-end box office nearly every year. A world where we really got serious about righting the wrongs of colonialism would be a world that might also start to undercut capitalism. And if you’re Disney, you can’t have that.

So the company’s films indulge in half-measures designed to let viewers who are progressively inclined feel as if they’re picking up on something truly new and interesting, while never actually challenging any of the baseline presumptions of a society that allows Disney to remain dominant. Even the best movie I’ve listed here — Black Panther — sweeps all of its messy thematic ideas mostly under the bed by the time it kicks off its final fight.

The same goes for Disney’s queer characters, to the extent that queer characters exist in its films. They’re either completely peripheral (like that guy in Endgame) or they’re queer in the sense that a box from IKEA is a couch. You can get from here to there, but you have to put in the work. Elsa is queer because enough of us say she is; we also live with the knowledge that Frozen 3 might well marry her off to the new Duke of Weselton or something.

And this trend extends across Disney as a whole. We’re a long way from, like, a trans Marvel superhero. Indeed, when Marvel’s Kevin Feige confirmed this summer that Thor’s Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is attracted to women, he didn’t do so by writing that detail into a movie. He simply said it was true while on stage at Comic-Con. How daring!

What’s goofy about this sturm und drang is that I don’t even like the Frozen movies all that much, but I feel so starved for a Disney story that might signal to kids that LGBTQ people are thoroughly fine that I’ll grasp at whatever straws I can get. Elsa’s not canonically queer, but she’s queer enough that it’s not too difficult to imagine some little girl seeing Elsa as a kindred spirit, then following that feeling as far as it will take her.

I know precisely why Disney doesn’t want to make Elsa queer. Just the sight of two moms in the background of a scene in Toy Story 4 sent right-wing watchdog groups into a frenzy with complaints designed to throw red, raw chum out to Facebook. It’s also very hard to get depictions of homosexuality, no matter how chaste, past government censors in China, one of the most important film markets in the world. If Elsa were canonically queer, even if canon amounted to “she once kissed a girl on the cheek,” even if canon amounted to “she had a flirty adventure with another girl,” Disney would be risking the loss of millions upon millions of dollars at the box office.

But also, you know what? I don’t care. If Disney really believes in the kind of progressive representation it pretends to stand for, then its choices to barely depict LGBTQ people in its films — while simultaneously winking to let us know that, yeah, Elsa’s totes gay — are more than just irritating. They’re an abdication of the moral code the company vaguely genuflects toward having, in the name of higher profits.

I’m not as incensed as I sound. There are dozens upon dozens of issues that affect the LGBTQ community far more than our representation in Disney films. I hope if Elsa gets a boyfriend in Frozen 3, he’s voiced by Broadway legend Michael Cerveris, and I hope the character is a werewolf. I don’t need Elsa to be gay to validate my humanity, because I’m really good at doing that myself.

But I do wish one of the biggest media corporations in the world would stop playing footsie with us and hoping we’ll all crow about how awesome and woke it is. Disney doesn’t have to make Elsa gay, but somebody should be.

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