Elsa and Trans Iconography: The Snow Queen’s Gloves Come Off
“She alone dares and wishes to know from within, where she, the outcast, has never ceased to hear the resonance of fore-language. She lets the other language speak—the language of 1,000 tongues which knows neither enclosure nor death.”
Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of Medusa
The creative imagination, at both the personal and collective level, has the capacity to interpretively recreate meaning through mediation. So, when we speak of a reception history for an artistic work — we’re mindful of both the initial intentions, as well as the afterlife of inventions through which audiences produce unique perceptions. These perceptions, and how they function as new possibilities through reflection, often depart starkly from whatever purpose the original author had. Indeed, more often than not, they exceed the limits set by their creator. (Think of how much better Star Wars is because of the audience’s fictive whimsy, as opposed to what George Lucas had set out to say.)
So, in writing about Elsa, from Frozen, as having an iconic value in an emerging canon of a new trans creative mythology, of course I’m not saying that’s what Disney intended. What interests me is not the official image, but how the image gets ported into a kind of dynamic sensation of sympathy within a collective group. The number of trans women who told me — “I never liked princesses, but I get Elsa.” What are we all detecting in her at such a shared resonance?
I don’t think it’s surprising. Considering some of the archetypal suggestivity of Elsa — she does not transform into someone new so much as divest herself of something false — it’s readily apparent that “Let It Go” has taken on a trans anthemic vibe in a way reminiscent of “Reflection” from Mulan.
Let me first say that, as I propose to offer a trans reading of Elsa, I’m not claiming there is any intrinsic connection between my analysis and the Disney creators. Far from it. I’m also not implying the appeal of Elsa as a trans symbol is universal: my spouse, who is also trans, informed me that she hated Frozen decidedly.
However, when many of us reflect on the stressed, condensed condition of gender dysphoria, of being encased in a fraught awareness internally and a false presentation outwardly, Elsa suggests to our collective spirit of survival the joy of release. We always wanted to believe our lives would get better, that the empowerment of freedom comes from the beautiful truth of becoming. Yes, there are many costs associated with this act to “turn away and slam the [closet] door”, and Elsa must confront in the isolation of liberation. But the slow motion suicide of “conceal, don’t feel” attests to what is truly frozen — the state of denial that rejects the possibility of living free.
I think, generally, trans people have utilised imaginative powers as a tool for survival. The urge to find correlatives to help us negotiate the inward experience of gender dysphoria lead us into creative spaces to undo what appears to be “the real”. Transformation requires invention, and invention necessitates imagination. For every trans little girl whose pillow of dreams becomes the only place when she feels alive in the mental scope of being herself — for me, I only endured adolescence because of my inner visions, that world I turned to in desperate defiance of the daylight prescriptions in which invisible versions of myself as a girl were allowed to be. Because only in secluded wishes, veiled prayers, desperate aches, and the yearning — yearnings received only by the quietest privacy of the night — could I be the girl who ghost-presided in tears inside. Because, to awake, the rules of existence once again put upon me the doom of corporeal foreclosure.
In a way, Elsa, as a conditionalised character, is condemned from birth by a state of disarticulation: she is not born in a wrong body — but her body is wronged by others. Through parental enforcement, she is not dismembered, but rather mummified. For her own good, she’s told. Ruled into abject withdrawal and silence.
Frozen, ice as an initial condition of paralysis, coincides with her own internal fear of having a congenital defect — of something wrong about herself that cannot be undone or “cured”. She quickly realizes that concealment is appeasement to authorities — that roles must be adapted and personhood must be repressed. “Don’t let them in” becomes the mantra of the locked door, and the girl permanently ensconced in the darkness of self-dispossession.
Throughout the film, entrances and exits are key symbolic features of the narrative of release. Castles, in fact, can be read as metaphors for bodies in Frozen. Thus, the terror of Elsa’s claustrophobic imprisonment — the tiny lightless room of her crying childhood — becomes transformed into the spectacular crystalline palace of her coming-out. Frozen really lends itself to this interpretation, since the architecture of body — how we move and understand our corporeal form — is coincidingly expressive of the spatiality of place. The royal halls are symbolic structures of restraint and control; the wild heights of the ice turrets give news vantage points of sight from the throne of Elsa’s self-agency.
Thus when we hear Anna call “open the gates”, we’re aware of her urge for escape through a romantic liaison. For Elsa, however, enclosure is absolute negation. Her life has been a sequences of adverse conditions performed out of fulfillment of unsought duties. For her, there is no joy, only a subliminal terror: Elsa’s possessed by an unshakable dread of enforced disconnection from her very body. Think of it this way — Hélène Cixous describes this condition in a way reminiscent of being a hostage of the skin: “I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! What’s the meaning of these waves, these floods, these outbursts?”
Elsa restrains these outbursts: she is not a body, but an encased form whose skin is a site of fear, aversion, and terror.
Thus in the pivotal scene of her departure — letting go of both identity and place — we witness her fashion another embodiment. The previous one was not wrong but had been made inhospitable through self-denial. In such a stalemate with herself, the options are the relief of truth or an internal collapse. And so the lyrics of “Let It Go” make this point clearly: “Couldn’t keep it in / heaven knows I’ve tried”.
I’ve studied the Japanese lyrics and their translation of the OST, which has provided me with additional ways of thinking about these themes. Part of the above quoted lines are rendered quite beautifully in the following way: 「このままじゃダメなんだと」. This means, loosely, “I can’t keep on like this” or a bit more literally “how this is, useless.” I think many trans women, when the absolute algebra of transition or dissolution becomes an existential crisis, understood in our way exactly what’s at stake. Likewise …
English: “Let it go, Let it go — can’t hold it back anymore”
Japanese translation: “ありのままの姿見せるのよ” (I’ll show you exactly how I am.) I’ll show you my true self.
Eng: Let it go, let it go — turn away and slam the door
JTr: “ありのままの自分になるの” (I’ll become exactly how I am.) I’ll become my true self.
In both of these verses, and their translations, Elsa proclaims ari no mama no [exactly as is / as truly I am] as a declarative state of awareness and agency. She finally locates herself within herself. She casts off the false enclosure of her attire, releasing her magic — a metaphor of the fantastic ecstasy of released self expression — converts the angst into the fractal eurphoria of her choreographed kaleidoscopes of joy. She further sings forth,
これでいいの自分を好きになって [I’m great the way I am, and I like who she’s become!]
これでいいの自分信じて [And just as I am — I believe in myself!]
And emboldened in new light, having crossed the crevice which had before seemed an impassable barrier, made traversable through the self-made bridge of her will . . . she emerges into a kingdom that is exactly how she designed, in which she will dwell in her own form. One glove on, one off — half in, half out — the moment of absolute decision. Declarative, her own hands fashion the pathway that leads away from all the lies. Elsa is not transformed — but rather enraptured at her own unimpeded self-awareness, she releases her vast world of formerly invisible beauty.
Being disowned by family. Lack of comprehension about what she has suffered. Dispensing with the unwanted wardrobe of old. Finding relief from an unnameable prison since birth. Casting off unwanted halos, the crown of the former prescriptions of restriction. Attaining new voice. Losing contact with her past. Elsa experiences these transitions, as do many trans people. And for all of the unfortunate punishments we receive for coming out as trans — we also know the joy of recalibration. Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. Elsa’s total release through disclosure is a kind of corporeal parrhesia — that is, her honesty is an ordeal of exposure in which instead of confession she attains annunciation. That’s what’s so beautiful — the visible testifying of her truth through physical declaration. We dance with her in seeing her life in dynamic relief for the very first time.
Not everyone adores Elsa, of course. In a moment of critical pique, Dani Colman declaims, “She’s repressed, that she’s a perfect storm (pun again intended) of avoidance and anti-social personality disorders . . . ” and that she likewise “avoids responsibility” by abandoning her monarchal obligations. Funny — we also hear this as trans women: that we’re suffering psychological delusions, that transition is selfish, that our decisions impact too deleteriously on the lives of others. Perhaps. And yet … why do we let it go?
… there is such uninhibited euphoria in the frost-flares of her bursting forth self-expression. Elsa has not just re-imagined a relationship with her body, but she has reconstituted an entire new experience of being embodied. Not ‘running away’, but freeing space — the storm that is whistling in the heart [風が心にささやの], a rather haunting metaphor for the immediate unease of dysphoria, comes flying outward in the exuberant delight of playfulness and comfort. Operatic. Ontological resposession of will as being. Elsa’s previous inability to be open meant that she was always lost, even in the largest of banquet crowds. But now, in self-actualization, even in utter isolation, self-acceptance attains the truest form of personal companionship. Openings were found, and exits achieved. As Cixous notes, “…those who are locked up know better than their jailers the taste of free air.” Of never going back. Of pasts consigned to the painfully elapsed.
And Elsa now realises, just as I had in coming out as a transsexual women, the visceral phenomenon of no longer hating the person she had been made to be. Dispersing the restraints, announcing the actual. Of letting him go. Of letting them know. Grief of concealment, hope in release. Look down in disappointment of enforced disappearance, look up in tranquility of being free.
This fanfic pic below made me cry, for realz. Like on that level, the Aoife-who-wasn’t level. I was that sobbing, shrouded girl in absolute astral secrecy. And so I too realised in Elsa an icon of freedom through transition, of letting go in order to be, of “never going back / the past is in the past.” I’m free. Elsa sings to me — from the crying child trapped in a cloister of the inexpressible, to the unconditional woman who is in animate possession of her authenticity — I heard so much of my own deliverance. The what that should have been transitioning into the who that absolutely must be.
And now they know. And, no, their cold does not bother me anyway.
All the feelz (sniffle)