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University of Birmingham's Lisa Bortolloti speaks at Hay festival

When it was released in 2013, Frozen was praised for having a leading female character who was different: a guest at Elsa’s coronation calls her a monster when she loses control; Elsa isolates herself from the people she loves for fear of harming them; and she is unsure of who she is because she does not fully understand what happens to her. Elsa does not ‘fit in’, and often makes those around her feel uncomfortable. 

When Elsa celebrates her liberation from stuffy conventions with the song “Let it go”, some critics talked about Disney’s ‘gay agenda’ and Elsa was welcomed in some circles as a ‘queer icon’. Some were expecting her to have a girlfriend in Frozen II.  But there is another form of diversity that Elsa embodies just as convincingly, that of a young person who struggles with her mental health, attempts and fails to suppress those unusual experiences that make her different, and is neither fully understood nor supported by her immediate social circle. At the end of the original Frozen movie, the renewed love and understanding of her sister come to the rescue, and Elsa agrees to play her role as queen, even showing that her quirkiness can have some unexpected benefits. However, the last scene where she turns the palace courtyard into an ice-rink feels vaguely unsatisfactory. Will her people really trust her not to disrupt their ordinary lives again? Will she able to adjust to a life that never felt her own just because she is allowed to play with a little ice?

Those questions come back to haunt us in the sequel. If the mental health angle might have been dismissed in Frozen as reading too much into the character, Frozen II confirms that Elsa has experiences that other people do not share and do not understand. Indeed, the whole premise of the movie is that Elsa hears voices, not just any voice, but a voice that makes her doubt the nature of the reality she is supposed to accept and invites her to distance herself once again from a normality that she never found authentic. In the course of the movie, Olaf and Anna keep referring to Elsa as someone who is different and needs protection because of her difference, as someone who takes unnecessary risks and is bound to lose control in critical situations. Elsa appears frustrated as she appreciates their concern but does not want to be sensible—or maybe she does not know how. In the end, Elsa’s difference is acknowledged, and ‘normality’ is no longer imposed on her. She remains an outsider, one who has learnt to tame her demons by embracing her difference.

Young people who struggle with their mental health may not meet Hollywood beauty standards as Elsa does, enjoy the privileges of a queen’s wealth, or make stunning ice sculptures on a whim to delight their friends. Reality is still a world away from Disney fairy tales. However, it is refreshing to see that the latest Christmas blockbuster for kids reflects on how having unusual experiences can affect young people’s lives and the lives of those around them, for better or worse. In particular, it addresses the key issue of self-stigma, when young people come to think of themselves as unreliable or dangerous due to the influence of society’s prejudices, because they see themselves through the eyes of others. Gradually changing popular culture one movie at a time can help to alleviate self-stigma. And, as we have argued with project PERFECT, creating a safe and supportive environment where young people can talk and think about their own experiences also helps.