As part of her ongoing research, Dr Sara Louise Wheeler places Frozen’s protagonist Elsa in context of historical and contemporary depictions of those living with genetic conditions which cause depigmentation and deafness.
Historically, hegemonic depictions of depigmented characters have been almost exclusively negative – the children in the The Village of the Damned, The Mallens (including Barbara Mallen who was deaf), The Malfoys, and Lily Munster – whose hair is the inspiration for Halloween fancy dress wigs. However, Elsa from Disney’s animated musicals Frozen (2013) and Frozen 2 (2019), is part of a pleasing trend of characters countering this vilification, and, unlike Game of Thrones’ Khaleesi, she does not turn bad at the last minute, perpetuating the stereotype. Elsa has reportedly had a positive impact on perceptions of depigmentation, for example in children with albinism, and I myself have enjoyed the benefits of this positive framing. My current research explores the rise of the onscreen silver-haired princesses and their impact on perceptions of depigmentation, deafness and genetic difference.
The release of Frozen 2 (2019), and its availability on the Disney channel from July 2020, met with the expected flurry of excitement – not least amongst academics. Since gracing our screens in 2013, Elsa has been interpreted by transdisciplinary scholars worldwide, as the metaphorical representation for a plethora of marginalised identities. Professor Nathan Abrams highlighted her underlying Jewishness, Dr Angel Daniel Matos offered a Queer reading, whilst Michelle Resene made a compelling case that Elsa represents the studio’s first disabled princess; this latter interpretation is the closest to my own analysis.
I have Waardenburg syndrome type 1. My phenotypic traits include depigmented skin, bright silver hair with still slightly discernible white forelock, hyperplastic nasal alae with small nares (button nose), heterochromia, and ‘dystopia canthorum’ – widely spaced eyes of ‘feline appearance’. I am from a Deafhearing family and I have progressive, sensorineural, low-frequency hearing loss. For me, Elsa figuratively embodies all the characteristics of WST1, and her narrative metaphorically echoes my own. Below, I offer my own counter-hegemonic reading of Frozen and Frozen 2, reading the films as a positive portrayal of depigmentation, Deafhood, and genetic difference.
Elsa is depigmented. She delights her sister, Anna, with her magic, beginning with hand actions which look like the British Sign Language (BSL) sign for ‘Sign language’. She accidentally hits Anna with a bolt of magic, causing Anna to develop a white forelock. This reflects parental anxieties regarding visible traits of genetic syndromes, and perceptions of risk regarding ‘normal’ siblings – which is why genetic counselling can be useful. This scene also reflects societal fears about the impact of signed languages on the communication skills of both children. This is an unfortunate consequence of the negative prestige and oppression of signed languages worldwide, following the infamous conference of Milan in 1880.
Anna’s parents rush her to the sacred realm, where discussions with the trolls reveal that Elsa was born with her powers/ depigmentation and deafness, rather than them being due to illness or accident. Grand Pabbie troll heals Anna but removes her memories of Elsa’s magic. Henceforth, Elsa is instructed by her parents to conceal her powers. Whilst reminiscent of the suppression of signed languages, this also echoes the narratives of many deaf people who feel compelled to conceal their deafness in order to succeed in a predominantly Hearing culture.
The King and Queen are killed in an accident at sea. Over the years, the relationship between the sisters is strained, as Elsa continues to shun Anna. However, for her coronation, Elsa comes out of isolation. When one of her gloves is removed, her powers are revealed and she is vilified and called a ‘monster’; this term has been reappropriated in disability spheres – ‘Monstering’.
Elsa flees and sings ‘Let it go’. The lyrics so closely echoed my experiences that I found it quite confronting, particularly since it was being sung by a character whose physical appearance so precisely mirrored my own. The kingdom of isolation is the perfect description of living with progressive hearing loss, and there’s a book about disability in film called ‘The Cinema of Isolation’. The wind howling like the swirling storm inside reflects the triadic tinnitus, hyperacusis and hearing loss, conspiring to trap me in a cage of confusing internal sounds, whilst blocking external sounds. It also describes the emotional turmoil of frustration and exhaustion resulting from ‘effortful listening’.
The lyrics regarding concealment reflect my experiences of denying my hearing loss and tinnitus for several years. They also resonate with memories of hiding my depigmentation by dying my hair, and tanning and burning my skin, without adequate SPF protection. Letting go and being at one with the wind and sky reflects my relief upon ceasing to conceal my WST1. It was liberating to finally relax and reflect openly and sociologically about my condition. Elsa achieves a similar level of self-acceptance, albeit isolated in her ice palace. Again, this reflects the change in my behaviour as social situations become increasingly difficult.
Anna tries to reach her sister, but this results in another accident, visually depicted in Anna’s white forelock becoming more pronounced, eventually turning all of her hair white/ silver, like Elsa’s. There’s an interesting exchange between Kristoff, Anna and Sven regarding the effect of her depigmentation on her physical appearance and attractiveness, which links to the overall theme of stigma and the spoiled identity permeating the film. Following the usual fairy-tale trope about a true love’s kiss saving the day, there’s a twist – Hans isn’t the prince charming he appears to be, but Anna doesn’t need him anyway, because Elsa’s love restores her and everyone lives a Deafhearing, happily ever after.
Frozen 2 (2019)
If Frozen was the story of Elsa’s tentative first steps in exploring and accepting her genetic condition and deafness, Frozen 2 sees her dancing and singing into Deafhood, actualizing her Deaf identity, and embracing Deaf culture and ethnicity.
It begins with a flashback to Elsa and Anna enjoying bedtime stories with their parents. Their father Agnarr tells them that their grandfather negotiated a treaty with a neighbouring tribe, the Northuldra – building them a dam in their homeland, the Enchanted Forest. However, the Northuldra betrayed and attacked the Arendellians, resulting in a fight, enraging the elemental spirits, shrouding the forest in mist, imprisoning everyone, except for Agnarr, who was whisked to safety by an unknown saviour. Agnarr returned as king of Arendelle. Elsa asks their mother about the possible reawakening of the Forest and she replies that only Ahtohallan, the special river, knows. She sings to them about Ahtohallan’s location and powers.
The song fades and Elsa is on a balcony in her castle. Pulled from her daydream, she accidentally freezes the banister – her powers are not entirely under control. As she leaves the balcony, she hears a voice singing and turns back to listen; however, it becomes apparent that only she can hear it. Later she hears the voice again and sings ‘Into the unknown’ , with lyrics about blocking out the ‘secret siren’ which is just a ‘ringing in her ear’, whom she will not follow into the unknown. However, she also wonders if the voice is someone like her, who knows she is not where she is meant to be. Every day is a little harder as she feels her power grow and there’s a part of her that longs to go into the unknown.
Elsa’s narrative here resonates with experiences of increasing tinnitus due to increased deafness. She is distracted by these internal sounds and is having increasing difficulty in connecting to Hearing culture, her family and friends. She is having an existential crisis, wondering whether to explore her Deaf identity. At the end of the song, Elsa reawakens the elemental spirits, who promptly leave Arendelle, causing Elsa to evacuate the population. Once safely in the mountains, Elsa confesses her recent sensorineural experiences to Anna and they discuss what it might mean.
The remaining story is complex and infused with rich references to the history of Deaf communities worldwide, as well as Elsa’s existential struggles between a marginal and bicultural Deaf identity. Essentially, the main protagonists go on a quest for the truth about the wrongs of the past, to resolve the current deadlock trapping the Arendellians and Northundra in the Enchanted Forest. Elsa goes on alone to Ahtohallan, and learns that the voice was her mother’s, who was Northundran, which is why Elsa has powers. Elsa resolves her inner-conflict and feels enfranchised. Elsa also discovers it was in fact the Hearing Arendellians who betrayed the Deaf Northuldra in the Enchanted Forest/ Conference of Milan, and that the dam/ ban on sign language actually limits the resources of the Northundra.
Trapped and frozen, Elsa sends this information to Anna, back in the Enchanted Forest, through a series of ice sculptures. Anna resolves to destroy the dam in order to restore peace, even though this will lead to the flooding and destruction of Arendelle. At the last minute, an unfrozen Elsa arrives, just in time to freeze and divert the wave, saving Arendelle. Elsa reveals that she will return to the Enchanted Forest as the protector, whilst Anna will become Queen of Arendelle. The sisters will thus form a Deafhearing bridge between the two realms.
Dr Sara Louise Wheeler is a Visiting Research Fellow at Glyndŵr University and she writes the column ‘Synfyfyrion llenyddol’ (literary musings) for ‘Y Clawdd’ community newspaper. She is currently conducting an introspective project, exploring her embodied experiences of Waardenburg Syndrome Type 1 through a variety of creative and scholarly mediums. Twitter/ Instagram/ Medium/ Youtube: @serensiwenna