Monday, February 24, 2014

Reflected in Ice: An Aspergers Review of Frozen

The following movie review contains mild spoilers. I try to tread lightly, but can't avoid addressing a few in-movie moments or thematic elements.


There are two measures of good art.

The first is anything that can make me feel strongly. The other is that which holds up a mirror to the viewers, in which, each sees herself.

Frozen accomplished both of these goals with resounding success.

Secret Wish - Tami Vaughn
I had this printed on a mousepad I used for years.
Good mirrors are composed of metaphors and character traits and plot in the right combination of vague and specific to reflect a broad range of life situations and personalities. Many types of people see themselves in Frozen: girls who are raised to be perfect, sisters who struggle in their relationships, women who are deceived by those they trust, those who have secrets, neurodiverse people, anyone who is misunderstood, and anyone who is rejected for all the wrong reasons. And like the second trial in The NeverEnding Story, a mirror which reveals the viewers "true self", Frozen's mirror can reflect the ugly parts of some people, like the blogger, "Well-Behaved Mormon Woman", who calls Frozen part of the "gay agenda to normalize homosexuality" and who says it's terrible we're letting kids get the message that rebellion is better than obedience.

Can you hold it down, please?
I'm trying to make history over here.
Whatever, lady. I have an entirely different view when I look at myself in art.


Frozen reflected many visions for me. Most strongly, it portrayed my autism in a very accurate way. It also reflected my relationship with my sister, and my struggles to leave the religious culture of my birth (incidentally, Mormonism), and my struggles relating to my family members who still belong to that culture. I will cover my thoughts on all these points.

Social equality activists argue for more representation of minorities in fiction. There are many good reasons to do this, but for any creator, the biggest reason should be "to make better art". When the same old characters are dancing to the same old plots choreographed with the same old tropes and the same old twists, only the same old segment of society is allowed to see themselves reflected in art. And even that segment is only allowed to get the same messages they always have about themselves. The mirror is cracked and the reflective backing is faded. It ceases to be useful even for the intended audience.

What's fun is a funhouse with only one twisted mirror?


Frozen is the first movie I can remember that explores the relationship between two sisters. I'm sure there are other examples, but they are few and far between. Often, to find them, you have to leave the mainstream film scene, into the art houses and foreign films.

Because of this dearth, Frozen had it easy. Its subject and plot is low hanging fruit. Disney made the only mainstream movie about sisters in recent history, so of course anyone who is a sister and has a sister is going to see herself in it. Finally, someone is showing her herself.

Because women are so rarely represented in movies, outside certain highly limiting tropes, we latch on to anything we're given. And it benefits us all greatly. Frozen allowed my sister and I to have a conversation we were unable to have before, because we lacked any kind of context to have it. Frozen helped her and I understand one another more.

Any filmmaker following in Frozen's footsteps will face a steeper challenge. The next attempt will require a little more thought and nuance in order to be good art and not simply derivative.

This is a good thing. I hope many attempts will be made to best Frozen's "sisters" mirror. And while we're at it, let's take a look at other female-female relationships. Mother-daughter? (Brave got us started there.) Business partners? Partners in crime? Buddies? (More Thelma and Loiuse, please.)

And God forbid.. Perhaps we could see female-female romantic partners? In spite of the success of the big gay agenda, I currently only have one small part of one song that describes what it feels like to be snuggled up with my lovely girlfriend. That ought to give well-behaved blogger up there a real example of homosexuality portrayed in the media.

Anyway, there's plenty more low-hanging-good-art fruit for the picking. Half the movie-viewing audience are women who really want, crave, and need more mirrors.

Now, I'm not implying Frozen's creators were amateurs and that it only succeeded because they entered unexplored territory. They tread some other ground which is extremely well-trod and managed to find a fresh mirror there, too.

The "be your own unique self no matter what people say" theme has been done to death. It's part of American culture, and we love it every single time. Where this theme gets stale is, again, where we endlessly see the same take on it. The underdog nonconformists who win in the end, they all start to blur together after awhile, until we forget that this is the theme of pretty much every single movie, ever. We don't even notice it anymore. The individualist rebel has become the new conformity, the ideal that we all strive for equally, to the point where we shun anyone who fails.

Repeat after me...
For Frozen to pull this old trick out of the bag, dust it off, and make it seem like they were the first to ever think of it, is a pretty tremendous feat. A mirror is pointless if we keep seeing the same image. It's the one that reveals a different side, or that pimple hiding under the chin, is the one that wins the "Good Art" award from me.

The song "Let It Go" is good art for the same reasons. It speaks to these common themes and others, of social rejection, of turning ostracization into chosen isolation, of the damage caused by suppressing feelings, of finding self-acceptance, and of having uncontrollable emotions or an inner power which is misunderstood.

This scene made me cry the first time I saw it. Which leads us to autism.

Others have written about this topic. But I shall write more about it. Because when you meet one person with autism, you've only met that one person with autism, so there's no one definitive autistic perspective.

[Mild spoilers incoming!]

Elsa is born with her power, and she is taught to hate and suppress it. She learns from her well-meaning parents that she is dangerous and likely to hurt others, especially her sister Anna, who she loves. She has to hide away in her locked room, stuff her feelings, and resist using her powers because of these inaccurate beliefs about herself.

Her powers are a double-edged sword. They started as a force for good, which she used to make her sister happy and strengthen their sisterly bonds. But after one mistake, her talent turns into a dark and ugly thing, not because of Elsa herself, but because of how the people around her view it.

Ironically, it isn't her magic that hurts Anna. It's Elsa's self-imposed isolation because she believes herself to be dangerous. All Anna wants is the same love they once shared. The door that separates them wounds more sharply than the ice which was easily healed.

In a perfect case study of unintended consequences, Elsa's suppression of her power is what keeps her from controlling it. It all comes out sideways at the worst time, and she ends up in mutually-agreed upon exile, but with disastrous results for both her and her people. Again, it isn't her powers that are dangerous, it is how she and everyone else is handling them.

Olga Bogdishina's book, "Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger's Syndrome", talks about the ways autists process sensory information differently from neurotypicals (NTs). Among other issues, autists deal with being either hypo- or hyper-sensitive to stimuli. "Their senses seem to be too acute…or not working at all…"

Excellent book.
So read it.
Every autistic individual has a mashup of different conditions under which their senses are either ramped up or remote and blocked off. For some, sounds will always be too loud (auditory hypersensitivity) but they have no idea what they're feeling (alexithymia). For others, they do fine with sound... until they get overstimulated. Then they can hear a pin drop on the other side of the house.

Emotions should be counted among the "five" senses. Emotions are a sense, giving us information about our internal reactions to outside events, and are subject to hypo- or hyper- sensitivity effects. For autists, emotions can be remote and incomprehensible, or very loud like a blaring siren. While I've had periods in my life where I was more hyposensitive to my feelings (my teen years), these days, I tend to be more hypersensitive. I usually know what I'm feeling, and why, and even what I need to do to change those feelings. The downside is that strong emotions are very, very strong. Overwhelmingly so. Uncontrollably so.

And that's where meltdowns come in. 

Add to the complication, I was raised in a passive-aggressive environment, where showing certain emotions was never allowed. I quickly learned that crying would invoke an angry response, or accusations, or that I could hurt the people I loved. I became very good at repressing my tears if anyone else was around. When I became an adult, I had to teach myself to cry. It's a lesson I've never fully learned, and I have lots of triggers and shaky boundaries around that. All stuff I continue to work on.

When I feel cornered and triggered, I can meltdown. My emotions become so overwhelming that they shut down my thinking brain, with symptoms very similar to panic attack. I feel anxiety like fire, in my whole body, even my skin. I can't breathe, I can't think straight, I can't act in the best ways to protect myself. Everything becomes all-or-nothing. I may lash out and say hurtful things.

I'd put something funny here but it isn't really funny.
Cue Elsa. Here she has this double-edged power. She can build magnificent complicated fractal-based buildings using only her mental powers, but when she loses control, she shoots icicles from her hands.

Elsa's big triggers are related to emotions. When her parents die, her room turns frosty. And just like me, she becomes most dangerous during conflicts. She always risks hurting someone when she feels powerful things. And most of all, no one understands her. She's hurting and afraid, but everyone thinks she's a monster.

Her powers are just like my overwhelming emotions. As a child, I dealt with them by never feeling anything. As an adult, I still try to stuff them sometimes, but it totally backfires, especially when it reminds me of being a helpless child and I get triggered.

Power over ice is the best metaphor here. Aspies are often thought of as being emotionally cold, yet like Elsa's power, our emotions are often very active and passionate. Emotional repression is like trying to freeze feelings. And when I get upset, words come more difficult to me, as if my thoughts are freezing up. When the panic sets it, it's hard to breath, like my chest is frozen with fear.

It's not an icebeam, no that's all Jonny Snow!
(And Elsa the Snow Queen)
Anna tries to reason with Elsa, so together they can solve the endless winter problem. I related to Anna here, as well. My solutions are so simple, yet sometimes so hard to convey.

This is when Elsa whirls around in frustration, erecting a defensive ice barrier all around herself. Unknowingly, she hits Ana in the heart with an icy ray.

How often have I whirled about in my own pain and frustration said something that wounded someone I love? The closer to meltdown I am, the worse it is. I'm not trying to hurt anyone, though people accuse me of doing so. I'm as surprised as Elsa is, when she hears Ana's little cry of pain.

The metaphor continues through Anna's reaction. She seems fine for awhile. She knows she's got a problem, but she runs around for awhile and even has a comedic musical number with the trolls, before the ice starts to take over and incapacitates her. That's how painful words work. We stand up and shake them off and move along in life, but if the words were painful enough, they cause traumas that are hidden but still slowly freezing us to death.

Elsa finds her answer, and it's the answer I found. By stuffing her emotions, by trying to deny who she really is, by allowing social shame to consume her, she becomes explosive. It's only when she "lets it go" and accepts who she is in spite of what others tell her, that her talent becomes a controllable force for good. A unique power no one else has.

The message here, for anyone with autism or Aspergers, is to be true to your autistic self. NTs are going to set up alot of incomprehensible social standards for you to follow, but maybe you don't have to. At least not all of them, not all the time. Maybe there are ways around them, or maybe you can just do what you're going to do anyway, without shame. Maybe some of those social standards are lame and need to be questioned and rejected.

Art by FabUUlousGear.
Because you can get this as a mousepad.
By accepting and being open about all facets of your personality, you learn to control your powers. You can avoid those pesky painful meltdowns altogether, and forgive yourself when you can't. You can create your own environment, a palace on a hill, free from overstimulation and ridiculous social rules. And when you get really good at that, maybe you can come down off the hill and be a leader for others.

Or not, and that's okay, too.

One of the emotional elements of Frozen, for me, was Elsa's entire story arc. I had a rotten 2013. I was diagnosed in April. Conflicts between me and Roland were increasing in intensity and frequency. For many reasons, my anxiety continued to increase, until it pained me every single day. I was melting down every couple of weeks, every month at a minimum. I had multiple scary suicidal moments which recurred for months.

My diagnosis was helpful, but it also spun me into turmoil. I had my own self-rejection/self-acceptance narrative arc. I had to learn about my traits, my powers, and my limits, and then learn to articulate them to others.

As I watched Elsa struggle on screen, trying on various options to deal with her power/curse, I watched myself. I felt her pain and confusion. I understood her loneliness. But I also triumphed with her. I danced with her as she sang of how she no longer cared what anyone else thought, she no longer wanted to hide her true self, she would no longer try to be the perfect girl everyone expected her to be.

It's making me tear up as I write about it.

By the end of the year, I'd found my balance, an equilibrium, of how to live with autism and accept myself. The hardest part was learning how to be around others. Living in an ice castle is one thing, but I have family. I learned to set boundaries to keep other people from hurting me, which also resulted in me hurting them less. Like Elsa, I am now able to step out on the stage, confident, knowing I am loved.

That's not to say I won't continue to struggle. Every story arc repeats itself. On screen, it's just a sliver, a slice, of the cyclic life-themes we continue to deal with. Frozen gives us a common language to think about it and discuss it.

The story also reflects isolation, of being around others and yet effectively alone because true communication is impossible. This is the story of autism.

When I first started researching autism, I wondered what non-verbal autists could possibly have in common with me and other aspies. Yet I still had this deeply empathetic response to any non-verbal autist I read about or saw on video.

In the documentary Wretches & Jabberers, two men with classical autism travel the world to meet other autists and advocates. I found myself almost in tears through the whole film. Even though their experience of life is, in so many ways, very different from mine, I felt some common, mysterious tie.

Wretches and Jaberers
There's a moment in the film where Larry expresses how painful it is when people thinks he's stupid because he can't talk. I related so hard to this moment, not because people think I'm stupid. The opposite, I'm normally perceived as being above-average. It took me awhile to figure out what I had in common with Larry in this moment.

Then it occurred to me – the key thread is being misunderstood.

I know myself really well. I know my capabilities and feelings and outlooks. Yet often NTs think they know these better than me. They make assumptions about my motives, and then they argue with me, trying to convince me their outside perceptions are more real than my own experience.

All autists are deeply misunderstood. NTs often think we're stupid, or out of control, or crazy, or drama, or unfeeling, or unempathetic, or dangerous. They think we're emotionally unintelligent. We are painted in broad strokes with wide brushes that assume intentions and ascribe meanings which aren't true.

It's even harder, for those of us who are skilled in the use of language, when what normally works for us suddenly stops working. We sometimes can't find words, or the words we use are suddenly incomprehensible to NTs because of their assumptions or because autistic thought patterns are so different and difficult to communicate across the divide. Other skills, like sensory processing or executive function and abruptly fail, and we blow through expectations set by past behavior.

For this and many other reasons, I've known instinctively, since I was a small child, that I could expect to be misunderstood on a regular basis.

To see Elsa fleeing her own kingdom really struck a chord. She tried so hard to be like everyone else and to avoid hurting anyone, and yet she still failed and had her motives misascribed. This is something many autists can relate to.

The misunderstanding is even more acute because Elsa looks normal. Her "disability" (diversability) is invisible, so when it suddenly appears, it is all the more shocking and horrible and more difficult to understand. Aspie behavior is much the same. Because no one can see a reason for strange behavior, NTs can hurtfully ascribe motives that make sense to them, but not to us.

"You just need to try harder..."
Helpful advice, but only a little
It's easy to see why someone in a wheelchair isn't running in a marathon, but when a well-dressed, intelligent, and verbal aspie with sensory processing disfunction fails to reciprocate a friendly greeting, it must be out of rudeness or meanness or a lack of empathy, not out of severe social anxiety, or an inability to assemble the words into meaning, or the inability to instinctively understand what the appropriate response is.

Likewise, when Elsa's power first escapes in public, she is accused of being a sorceress, a monster. The people are not only afraid of her, some of them hate her and want her dead.

This reflects the quick switch of being admired by everyone, then abruptly alienating them, and not knowing why. That's the life of an aspie who passes as neurotypical, builds up expectations, then shocks everyone when we reach a limit and breakdown, or fail at some seemingly simple task (like shaking someone's hand). People don't realize the capricious nature of Aspergers, that sometimes those little things are impossible for us, even if it was possible just a minute ago.

Just like it became impossible for Elsa to contain her powers.

Though Elsa is a secondary character, she upstages Anna, the protagonist, who may also be a relatable character for aspie viewers. She is clumsy, socially awkward, blunt, practical, lonely, and unorthodox. She also expresses an impulsiveness and devil-may-care attitude which is not only endearing, but common to the Asperger's experience.

I related very strongly to Anna's confusion and pain when Elsa shuts her out the way my sister did me. Elsa's reasons for the rejection seemed to be good, but it caused more harm than it prevented. As in their case, my own relationship with my sister seems to be improving the more time we spend talking to one another, not less.


My sister's reasons for shutting me out are rooted partially in long-running misunderstandings about my behavior vs. her interpretation of my behavior. Once I told her I am as aspie, she could understand me more. (No everyone reacts this way, however. I have heard that revealing an Asperger's diagnosis sometimes causes increased misunderstanding in families.)

My sister's reasons are also partially rooted in religion, which leads me to the last mirror that Frozen held up to my life.

When I chose to leave the religion of my birth, I felt a mix of conflicting emotions. I still do. On the one hand, I can celebrate my freedom from expectations and rules which never quite fit me, as Elsa does. There is much joy to be had in that. My new beliefs and new way of living is very me. I've lived this way for thirteen years, and the more time that passes, the more I know this path is totally right for me, and I won't let anyone take it from me.

Yet like all good stories, there are tradeoffs and conflicts. This isn't a Mary Sue story, and the price I paid is steep. I left most of my family behind. I left my cultural homeland behind. I could no longer fit in there, so I exited. By isolating myself from them (and that isolation is a two-way street), they can no longer hurt me, and likewise, I no longer hurt them by being myself in their presence. But my leaving had unknowable destructive effects back home. My family misses me, and though their desire for me to fit their mold is unrealistic, it is also real.

Though we now live in very different worlds, we are still family. This story arc has not ended for me yet. I'm still the Elsa dancing in her ice palace, singing "Let It Go", trying to forget the people I left behind, trying hard to pretend they're better off without me as I am better off without them.

Our issues seem insurmountable, but maybe they aren't. The trolls sing a song about fixer-uppers which is about marriage and romance, but it also addresses blood-family. "Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper, that’s what it’s all about! Father! Sister! Brother! We need each other to raise us up and round us out." 

Getting to the point of acceptance is the hardest part. Unconditional love isn't loving in spite of differences; it's loving because of the differences. Unconditional love has no room inside it for wishing the other person were different. We can wish they'd treat us better, and set boundaries towards that end, but when we want them to act a certain way so we can pretend they are a fantasy version of themselves? That is very selfish indeed. That's alot of strings attached, enough to turn our loved-one into a puppet.

I love you...
I just don't approve of your choice to be a chicken.
The way I choose to live is a very spiritual path for me, uplifting, deep. Like Elsa, I feel ostracized for being who I am. In "Let It Go", when she sings the words, "No right or wrong, no rules for me", it's because those rules don't fit her the same way fit the others. She's decided "the perfect girl is gone" because she has a new standard of perfection all her own. This feeling is reflected in the lyrics of the radio version by Demi Lovato, "Up here in the cold thin air I finally can breathe; I know I left a life behind but I'm too relieved to grieve".

Having gone through that, it really is a weight thrown off. 

It's sad that by creating her own standard and cutting those strings, Elsa has to isolate herself: "Standing frozen in the life I've chosen, you won't find me, the past is so behind me, buried in the snow."

Elsa does eventually find acceptance among her people, but the movie fails to explain how this happens. The implication is that it magically happens once she comes to accept herself. In real life, it's kind of that simple, but not really. The reality is that some people will accept you. Others will reject you even more. Still others will reject you at first, and then slowly decide that love is more important–and more effective–than trying to form everyone else into a standard of false perfection.

In my case, whether talking about autism or religion, self-acceptance is my priority. If I have to reject myself to be accepted by others, their love isn't worth it. I would rather live my life in the best way I know how, and let them come around to me, if they want. In many ways, this is my "kingdom of ice-olation", but it's a price I am willing to pay.

11 comments:

  1. Wow, how did you get into my head! :D You just described *exactly* why, as a woman on the spectrum, I relate to Elsa. Especially the bits about the "defensive ice barrier" and the "quick switch" of alienating people. Good stuff! Subscribed.

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    1. I read your review, and I loved it. I am writing a Frozen Fanfic on FictionPress, in which Elsa has Asperger's. Though she has many talents, like playing guitar, and has a knowledge on railroads, she still struggles socially, and sometimes her actions can get her into trouble. Still, she wants to have a job, move out of the house, learn to drive, and have a boyfriend. There are some adult themes, so reader discretion is advised. Here's the link: https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3196670/1/A-Social-Winter

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  2. This is such an amazing post! I relate to so much that you share here. I think this is such an incredible piece I am bookmarking it to save and read to my daughter.

    We just bought Frozen this week and watched it for the first time, my husband said that when he watched it he finally understood a little more of what I have gone through in my life. If animated movie can move him, you know it is good. :-) It definitely, gave me strong feelings and my daughter shared that she really connected to Elsa.

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    1. Thanks!

      I just watched it again last night. I rarely see a movie more than once and I don't think I've watched a movie more than twice in over ten years, but I just did last night. :) Even my partner liked it, and he strongly resists liking any animated film hehe.

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  3. This was my reaction to the movie Frozen, there are few movies that have touched me as deep as this movie have. And Elsa in the movie touched something very deep inside of me a desire to fit in and be to accepted for the one who I am. I felt a great kinship with her ​​and could see myself in her, and how the ice both protected her but also alienated her from the environment, but also in the right circumstances to be a great joy for her when she is allowed to flourish in here own power and be the one she is. The ice in the movie can be seen as a metaphor for autism and asperger.

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    1. Hi Andreas. Yes. Thank you for your comment. :)

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  4. Hi! I was linked to your essay by Satyros Phil Brucato's commentary on Facebook. My son is 13, and was diagnosed as Asperger's when he was six. I was really struck by your essay, and called my son in so that we could read it aloud together, as we sometimes do with essays about autism, and then discuss it.

    We paused when you moved on to talking about your own experiences, partly because it's a very long essay and he said he was losing focus, and partly because it was different for you, as Young Sir said, because you were diagnosed as an adult and he was diagnosed as a much younger person.

    He liked the essay, and said he does love Frozen and sees himself in it a lot, but then he wandered off into talking about wanting to punch Hans and really loving the ice castle because it was an "amazing math creation," and said he needed to think about it more before he has more thoughts on it, and also, it's bedtime.

    Thank you very much for a wonderful essay which provided a fantastic springboard for me to talk more with my son and learn more about him so I can help him grow to be his best self. :) (Neither one of us are NT, but I am not, so far as I know, on the spectrum.)

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    1. Thanks so much. I'm glad this post could be of help to you and your son. That's why I wrote it. :')

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  5. As a 19 year-old who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum a few years ago (after many years of miss-diagnosis), I completely agree with this analysis. My college friends may be like "Oh such an awesome movie! So Pretty! What lovely music!" but I don't think many of them really realize how this movie is a perfect example of the challenges people like me go through.

    As a child, I often would have tantrums when I was frustrated or upset, but I didn't know how to communicate it to people so it made it very frustrating for my family; my mother would become depressed because she tried to make me happy but all my fits seemed to drive her away and made her feel like I didn't love her, even though sometimes I just wanted a hug from her to know things are alright but all I could spit out of my mouth was screeches and tears. After many years of therapy to help me understand my own feelings and how to communicate them to others, my mother and I have been on much better terms, in fact we are like best friends together.

    Brave is one good example of the lack of understanding one another in the beginning. After seeing that movie in theaters, my older sister and I looked at my mom and we both hugged her, crying over the moments in the past where we would bicker and argue because we were each stuck it our own mindset and forgot to acknowledge the other's views.

    Like you said, there are some movies out there that touch on the disabilities people have, but they don't make much of an impact with all of the mainstream society. They get noticed for a moment and then they are gone.

    I'm going to explain this review of yours to my friends so they can help understand me better.

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    1. I'm so glad my review was helpful to you. Please feel free to share it with anyone if you think it will help them understand you better. :)

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