Friday, 21 November 2014

Cold and Hungry: Discourses of anorexic femininity in Frozen (2013)

Su Holmes

On the 14th November, 2014, I had my first McDonalds. As I was driving home I leant forward and instinctively clicked on song no.22: ‘Let it Go’. Purchased for my 3 year old daughter, this was not a song that I usually listened to alone. It was normally the context for a rousing duet, belted out between us in the car (even whilst I am instructed, at regular intervals, to ‘stop singing Mummy!’). But as I listened and sang, the words began to get stuck in my throat and I felt hot tears streaming down my face. What was going on? I had listened to this song at least 100 times before. I mulled over the experience for a couple of days before typing the words ‘Elsa/ anorexia/ Frozen’ into Google, and felt a mixture of fear, surprise and recognition as the search returned a sizeable number of results. What had felt like a deeply personal or even ‘crazy’ reading was suddenly made real and given social validation. As one blogger wrote, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t just me who saw it’, whilst another stated, ‘To me, the whole story seemed to accurately parallel the path I and many others have taken to suffering and recovering from an eating disorder’. I’m not sure about ‘accurate parallel’ (and as someone who lectures on and writes about the media, I’m aware of a heightened and pre-disposed cynicism toward the Disney films, particularly with regard to the representation of the female leads). But I do know that having suffered from anorexia for 20 years, and after being fully recovered for five (it just took me a while to tackle a McDonalds),  I felt a personal connection with Frozen’s lead song and then, as I thought more, with the symbolism of its characters and narrative possibilities.

‘Well, now they know…’
Given Frozen’s unprecedented popularity (and it is also the first film to be (co) directed by a woman to gross over one billion dollars), it will no doubt become the focus of considerable academic research. So far, however, it has been popularly deconstructed in blogs, reviews, fan forums, fan fiction, and social media, clearly questioning the idea that Disney ‘successfully invites mass audiences to set aside their critical faculties’ (Bell et al, 1995: 4). Commentators have variously debated its apparent status as Disney’s first real venture into feminism, its potential for a ‘queering’ of the Disney fairytale, its problematic status as quite literally, Disney’s whitest film, and the extent to which it can be read as a narrative about mental illness and the social stigma, struggles and isolation which sufferers may endure.

Some bloggers have offered quite detailed comparisons of how Elsa’s narrative of repression, secrecy, loneliness and ‘othering’ can be read in relation to the plight of anorexia, with comparisons made to their own experiences. Others have created fan-fiction in which Elsa is literally anorexic, whilst others still have simply wanted to share interpretations and to stimulate debate. As one pro-ana blogger asked, ‘Don't you think Elsa, from Frozen, is the stereotypical anorexic girl?’, whilst a male viewer confided: ‘When my wife and I saw Frozen for the first time with the kids a few months back we left the theater overwhelmed with the eating disorder connection. No one we talked to saw the symbolism’. Critics and fans were also quick to point out that the second version of  ‘Let it Go’ was released by Demi Lovato, ‘whose struggle with eating disorders and triumphant public reemergence has uncanny parallels with Elsa's plight: Substitute rehab for an ice castle and you can fill in the details yourself…' There has even been the suggestion that the message of the film, and ‘Let it Go’ in particular, offers helpful discourses on recovery, with one American clinic even using its symbolism and lyrics in eating disorder therapy.

Women in the Disney animation films have been regularly lambasted for their perpetuation of extreme and unrealistic images of the slender ideal and Frozen, which has drawn its female leads with exaggerated eyes wider than their waists and ‘lollipop’ heads, has generated particular concern in this regard. As such, the suggestion that Frozen may have something to say about the potentially fatal misery of anorexia, as well as the possibility of conquering it, is surely worth some thought.

Female Sexuality: ‘Conceal it, don’t feel it…’
If considered in relation to the abundant feminist work on eating disorders and anorexia in particular, these readings of Frozen are simply offering particular interpretations of femininity in the film – a topic which has been unsurprisingly prominent in debates about the Disney princess films (Bell, et al, 1995, Davis, 2007). This is because much feminist work on anorexia has argued that the problem is an extreme manifestation of the oppressions, struggles and contradictions involved in inhabiting a female identity in Western patriarchal society. The early authors, writing just after Second Wave feminism and in a culture that was apparently witnessing a considerable rise in eating disorders, linked the problem to the consequences of the Women’s Movement, and the resulting contradictions and pressures surrounding the female role (see Houston Grey, 2011). Some authors invoked the importance of the mother-daughter relationship (Chernin, 1985, Orbach, 1986), emphasising the anorexic’s fear of assuming a traditional, domestic and maternal role. Desire was also seen as particularly central here, in so far as anorexia was seen as the ‘solution’ to a culture in which, despite a process of socialisation intended to curtail the woman’s needs, she continued to feel ‘her own needs and desires intensely’ (Orbach, 1986: xvii). In this respect, starvation was theorised as a means of controlling, containing or even eradicating female desire. Yet feminists also see the political connotations of anorexia as contradictory. So whilst the anorexic body might be seen as taking the patriarchal slender ideal to extremes, it can also be seen as a form of resistance through the body  - the rejection of traditionally female subjectivity and sexuality, and an escape into a childlike, boyish or defeminised form (Bordo, 1993).

If anorexia is about female sexuality, so is the narrative and symbolism in Frozen. Frozen is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, and in in fairy tales, magic is often linked to sexuality.It is thus not a huge leap to read Elsa’s magic abilities as a metaphor for powerful female sexuality, and as one critic notes, her powers ‘are connected to her emotions and mature with age’.   Furthermore, the mantra of ‘conceal it, don’t feel it’, is handed down via the patriarchal lineage of her father (and her mother, in contrast, plays no significant narrative role). What is presented as a great responsibility clearly weighs heavily on young Elsa, and the rules she must follow require her to remain sequestered in the private sphere. Anna emerges here as the confused younger sister, bewildered about what is wrong with her older sibling, compared, in some readings, to the extent to which siblings are often misguidedly shielded from the realities of an eating disorder and any ‘talk of the illness’ within the family. Anna’s repeated pleas to engage in playful activities – as articulated through the keyhole in Elsa’s door - offer an evocative image of a childhood lost to anorexia. Elsa’s incarceration, and the repeated shots of Anna knocking at her door, also fit neatly and visibly with feminist writer Marilyn Lawrence’s description of anorexia as living ‘behind the walls of your own solution… [Anorexia] is in a real sense a “No Entry” sign (1984: 21). Elsa, like the anorexic, represents a walled self, someone who is ‘closed up’ and ‘not receptive, nor there for others’ (Ibid: 94) (‘Go away Anna’). As Lawrence expands, self-denial in our culture is often regard as a ‘good thing’ from a moral point of view, but this is especially the case for women who are seen as ‘more inherently prone to ‘badness and moral weakness’ (Ibid :95).
To be sure, Elsa’s incarceration can be read as a metaphor for queer sexuality which must be shut away for fear that it will influence or ‘infect’ her younger sister. In fact, it is important to note here that the queer and anorexic readings need not be seen as oppositional or separate. The feminist (and certainly the psychiatric) work on anorexia has historically pivoted on an assumed heterosexuality. But more recent empirical research has shown how, with regard to lesbian girls/ women, anorexia can indeed develop as a means of repressing or evacuating the feelings of ‘forbidden’ lesbian desire,  whilst offering a means of ‘looking straight’ by taking to extremes the thin, heterosexual ideal (see Jones and Malson, 2013 ).
But the moral and social restrictions placed upon Elsa can just as easily be read a hyperbolic dramatisation of the condition of femininity, to which many feminists read anorexia as a response: if Elsa’s magic powers stand in for female sexuality, she is effectively being warned by her father of the appropriate sexual conduct of a woman befitting her royal (class-defined) status - instructed to live a cold and solitary life disconnected from her own desires. As Cassandra Stover observes, the newer Disney princess films from the early 1990s onwards tend to dramatise seemingly more liberated heroines who are trapped in the worlds created for them, yearning to escape (2012: 4). In positioning the women in what are effectively pre-feminist worlds (trapped by ‘marriage pressure or royal status’), this enables their feisty spirit and ‘breakout’ strategies to offer an illusion of post-feminist autonomy. Frozen might well be seen as fitting this trajectory given that Elsa’s enforced incarceration appears very far from ‘modern’ – later enabling the great ‘breakout’ sentiment of ‘I’m free’ - and her royal status and magic powers can be read as effectively a cover story for a ‘general discomfort around sexuality in all its forms’.

‘You look beautifuller’: Eating desire
Yet what is clearly Anna’s budding and growing sexuality appears to cause no such consternation or trouble. Anna is not only warm, vibrant and funny, all the things that Elsa is apparently not, but we also see evidence of literal, and not just sexual, appetite. As she leaps exuberantly around the corridors on coronation day singing ‘For the first time in forever’, she tells with yearning of the things the day may bring, including a potential male partner.  Overcome with excitement and anticipation, she sings:

I suddenly see him standing there,

A beautiful stranger tall and fair [shot of a male bust made of chocolate].

I want to stuff some chocolate in my facccccccccccceeeeeee

The last line is muffled as she gorges on handfuls of chocolates – although she notably partially hides her face behind her fan which offers a more delicate and traditionally ‘feminine’ signifier than eating.  Anna then picks up the chocolate bust and throws it, with the sculpture landing with a ‘plop’ on top of an elaborate cake. The equation of eating / sexual appetite is explicit here: her imaginary suitor is made of chocolate, and the mountain of chocolates appears as an ‘answer’ to her desire (she has not met him yet). This equation between food and desire is also apparent in ‘Love is an Open Door’, when Anna completes Prince Hans’ line ‘We finish each other’s’ with the word ‘sandwiches!’.  In comparison, witness the exchange between the two sisters when they meet for the first time in years at the coronation dance:

Elsa: You look beautiful

Anna: Thank you – you look beautifuller… I mean not fuller. You don’t look fuller, but… more, more beautiful

Elsa: What is that amazing smell?

Elsa/ Anna (in unison): Chocolate!

Not only does Anna’s comment make clear that to be full in figure or stomach is not to be beautiful, but her stuttering anxiety about how to refer to Elsa’s physical appearance is comparable to the minefield of how (or whether) to refer to an anorexic’s physicality. (Don’t say ‘you look well’, ‘you look better’, and definitely don’t say ‘you look fuller’). Their giggly celebration of ‘chocolate!’ - which immediately brings them together in both speech and movement - also seems to represent a throwback to childhood: it recalls a playful time when they were together, before responsibility, repression and restriction got in the way. 

But in comparison with Elsa, Anna, it seems, shows just the right level of desire. Although she is chastised in the narrative for being too hasty and ‘desperate’ in her search for a male suitor (she nearly dies at the hands of the uncaring and exploitative Prince Hans whom she agrees to marry after one day), her desire is acceptable because it is channelled into heterosexual courtship and ultimately, we assume - with regard to her relationship with Kristoff - marriage. (The narrative rejection of Hans for Kristoff also emphasises the importance of a more egalitarian and ‘modern’ relationship).  This differing treatment of the two female leads may further support a queer reading, and Elsa is certainly horrified when Anna’s announces that she is eager to cement her status as a heterosexual bride and marry Prince Hans. But the really interesting point about Elsa is that she is constructed as essentially asexual. This is not so much at the level of physicality: although stick thin, the women have hourglass figures, and Elsa is sexualised during the transformation sequence in ‘Let it Go’, which is complete with falling tresses and a ‘come hither’ glance over her shoulder. But she is represented as asexual in the clear absence of human-directed desire which, as suggested, is symbolised by her magic powers. This indeed seems to be a departure for Disney, and can again be read in relation to discourses of anorexia. The anorexic is often read in terms of asexuality, whether this is interpreted as a retreat from (or resistance to) adult femininity, or an ‘excessive’ attempt to emulate the unattainable slender ideal. 

It is important to note, however, that one of the most obvious triggers for anorexic readings of Frozen, and ‘Let it Go’ in particular, is found in Elsa’s references to the ‘good’ and ‘perfect girl’ (‘Be the good girl you always have to be’/ ‘That perfect girl is gone!’). When one blogger asks ‘Don't you think Elsa, from Frozen, is the stereotypical anorexic girl?’, her reference to the word ‘stereotype’ attests to the fact that the post-war stereotype of the white, middle-class girl with perfectionist tendencies (who is terrified of not living up to parental expectations) still holds a certain currency. The American psychotherapist Steven Levenkron who treated Karen Carpenter, for example, wrote a popular book on anorexia entitled The Best little Girl in the World [1978] (Saukko, 2008: 63). Yet again, although specifically highlighted in relation to anorexia, this can be read as merely a hyperbolic dramatisation of the expectations surrounding femininity as socially pleasing, reflecting the early feminist arguments that anorexia speaks to women’s wider troubles relating to self-determination and entitlement. Feminist work has seen the idea of thin and frail femininity for example, as exemplifying the extent to which women are supposed to take up less physical and social space. In comparison, ‘‘Fat’ is the external sign of voracious appetite; it intrudes into masculine space’ (MacSween, 1995: 249). Indeed, in a critique of how the female characters in Frozen have ‘eyes larger than their wrists’, it was reported in a Daily Mail article how the Disney characters’ diminutive features send the troubling message that to be loveable, it’s best to take up almost no space at all…’

‘No right, no wrong, no rules for me’?
If drawing on my personal experience, there is little doubt that ‘Let it Go’ blasts out a triumphant and rousing sentiment that is evocative of recovery from anorexia, or from an eating disorder more generally.  The suggestion that:

It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me

Can't get to me at all!

offers a powerful reminder of what is it like – once recovered – to look with incredulity at the rules, restrictions and punishments you have faithfully followed for so long. The suggestion that ‘It's time to see what I can do/ To test the limits and break through’ also conjures up the feeling of what it was like to try to restart my life after 20 years, waiting to embrace the opportunities of life which suddenly seemed so plentiful, so open and so endless. I was free.

Yet this sentiment, as well as the promise of ‘Let it Go’, is also somewhat utopian. In ‘Let it Go’, Elsa equates society, and social rules, with the suppression and repression of her true self. But as her self-incarceration in the beautiful but isolated ice castle shows, it is not possible to live outside of society and its expectations and ‘rules’. (Plus, as any anorexic knows, the cold is actually a killer). After all, she realises in ‘For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)’,  ‘I’m such a fool I can’t be free! (no escape from the storm inside)’. This is not to suggest that full recovery from anorexia isn’t possible. It is, I’ve done it: food no longer invades my every waking minute and dominates the structure of each day. But if, as the feminist work argues, ‘troubles relating to self-determination and gender identity affect all women in sexist societies, with anorexics simply representing the gravest end of the continuum [my emphasis] (Saukko, 2008: 5), then even in recovery, there is no utopian space ‘outside’ of the female social self. In a culture which foregrounds dieting and calorimetry as normal preoccupations for women, the female self (often reduced to body) will always be judged and surveilled, seen as the most important indicator of her being.  ‘Let it Go’ is powerful because it offers an impossible, or at least only temporary, fantasy that it is possible to be live outside of social norms. Returning a considerably tempered Elsa to Arendelle - she will only use her powers in what appear to be ‘de-fanged’ and insignificant ways - Frozen is in fact realistic about the impossibility of living in a world in which the subject is entirely autonomous and self-governing.

To be sure, there are certainly limitations to the feminist work on anorexia. It fails to account, for example, for why not all women suffer from anorexia, and why some (like Elsa), are the chosen ones. But it nevertheless provides a compelling account of the ways in which anorexia is inextricably linked to the condition of femininity in patriarchal society, and why anorexia should be positioned on a continuum with ‘normal’ femininity. Frozen invokes connotations of anorexia because the film is about the repressions and restraints of being female.

But whatever its meanings, and for whomever, ‘Let it Go’ is a beautiful and powerful song. Now, when we play the song in the car, I listen to my daughter sing along, missing out words as she eagerly waits for the chorus. I hope every day that she will find an easier route to growing up female than Elsa, or me. Maybe one day I will tell her about my journey, and why her Mum more than shared her fascination with Frozen. But for now, I just enjoy the musical pleasure we share. I click on the song, put the car into gear, and I smile.


Bell, E, Haas, L and Sells, L (eds) (1995) From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Bordo, S (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. London: University of California Press.

Chernin, K (1985) The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity. New York: Harper Collins.
Davis, Amy (2007) Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation, London: John Libbey.
Jones, R, Malson, H (2013) A critical exploration of lesbian perspectives on eating disorders. Psychology and Sexuality 4 (1): 62-74.
Lawrence, M (1984) The Anorexic Experience. London: The Women’s Press.
MacSween, M (1995) Anorexic Bodies: A Feminist and Sociological Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa. London: Routledge.
Orbach, S (1986), Hunger Strike: the Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. London: Faber & Faber.
Saukko, P (2008) The Anorexic Self: A personal and Political Analysis of a Diagnostic Discourse. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stover, C (2012) ‘Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess’, A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University, Volume 2,


  1. A very poignant and well-rounded piece. I feel I connect with this - I too have listened to that highly commercialized Disney song with powerful emotion sweeping over me. Thank you for you words of wisdom!

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