Everything else is unimaginably, unbearably bleak and terrifying, so here’s why Elsa is neurodivergent.
It’s worth noting from the outset that very little of this is new – autistic Elsa fan theories were all over the internet at the time of Frozen‘s release – but I’ve wanted to revisit it for a while and I needed something light-hearted to blog about, so here we are. I’m focusing primarily on the first film, both because you’ve all seen it and because I re-watched it this week for Official Blog ResearchTM, but will also touch on Frozen II later. Major spoilers ahead, obviously.
“Conceal it. Don’t feel it. Don’t let it show.”
Elsa was born different. Her sister Anna used to think of it as “magic” and delight in playing in the ice, until one day she tried to jump higher than Elsa could reach and got hurt. Guess who got the blame? From this point on, Elsa’s powers are more commonly referred to as a “curse”. Anna is quickly patched up by the local trolls, who advise that Elsa “must learn to control it… Fear will be your enemy.” Their parents heeded this warning against fear by… um… isolating Elsa from the world and coaching her to Just Act Normal. Unsurprisingly, this does not make her differences go away.
Elsa’s powers, once a source of joy entirely within her direction, become an uncontrollable force tied to her emotions (see above, following the loss of her parents). She grows up fearing her powers, ashamed of them, seeing them only as a danger to others. Feeling is wrong, because the way it’s expressed marks her out as different. For the most part, though, the early narrative focuses on Anna’s distress and isolation – I suppose, for most, as the audience identification figure. We’re shown how hurt Anna is that Elsa doesn’t realise she needs her. Sometimes, shutting Anna out is cited as an example of Elsa’s social differences. Personally, I think she’s just doing what she’s been taught to do for her entire life.
“Make one wrong move and everyone will know!”
For The First Time In Forever contrasts Anna’s joy and relief at finally opening the gates and meeting new people with Elsa’s dread and anxious preparations:
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel
Put on a show
Make one wrong move and everyone will know
A variant of this is famously reprised later on, but this version more explicitly shows Elsa’s need to, essentially, camouflage: focus all her efforts into pretending to be “normal” for the day. Only then is she considered “good”. Not only is Elsa expected to keep up a pretence of being a different, typical person, but she is expected to do so without even the most basic, harmless aids – the gloves – because that, too, would mark her out as atypical. In hindsight, this camouflaging Elsa looks, sounds, and moves very differently to the character we’re used to seeing – at least for the most part…
But this isn’t sustainable – and Anna’s surprise engagement to Hans is the last straw. To Anna, unaware of what her sister’s been putting herself through all day, Elsa’s anger seems over-reactive. Eventually, as the argument escalates, Elsa is pushed into meltdown. My first choice of words was “lashing out” but nobody is attacked – Elsa is pushed into being noticeably different, and that alone is dramatic enough to serve as a turning point for the plot. As she flees, we see in real time how abruptly the way others view her shifts from “beautiful queen” to “monster”.
“And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all”
This history explains why the threatening of Arendelle with a gloomy eternal winter is paired with, well, Let It Go. The key moment of peril is, for Elsa, a moment of empowerment. “Well now they know” – finally, there’s no reason to hide who she is. She’s “free”. (It’s worth noting that, for similar reasons, Let It Go and Elsa’s arc more generally is also often read as a coming out narrative. There’s more than enough room for both.) And if I were the sort of person who drags temperature into every blog post, I’d claim “Let the storm rage on/The cold never bothered me anyway” as a clear sensory processing difference. It certainly bothers Anna.
Away from the judgement of others and herself, Elsa can use her powers purposefully and harness her strengths. She not only builds herself an amazing castle, but casually creates a fully sentient comedic side character snowman in the process. Anna, having “never [known] winter could be so beautiful”, immediately comments on this transformation:
Anna: “Whoa, Elsa, you look different! It’s a good different!”
Elsa: “I never knew what I was capable of.”
Having only ever been allowed to aim for typicality, Elsa could not have considered aiming to achieve with her powers. Her ice, previously dark and jagged as later seen when provoked or overwhelmed, is now smooth and perfectly formed.
“I belong here. Alone. Where I can be who I am without hurting anybody.”
Yet, Elsa is still fearful of her effect on others. As a young girl creating play landscapes for Anna every morning, she could presumably un-freeze them, but after years of suppression and denial she no longer remembers how. She “can’t control the curse” – that terminology again! – and in her frustration, she really does hurt Anna.
What later follows is a crash course in how not to handle a meltdown. Elsa instructs herself to “Get it together. Control it. Don’t feel. Don’t feel. Don’t feel,” which works about as well as it did before. Hans’ men try attacking her, which makes everything worse. Hans himself imposes impossible demands while playing on others’ prejudices: “Don’t be the monster they fear you are… if you would just stop the winter!” Ultimately, Hans sets out his villainous plan to position himself as “the hero who saves Arendelle from destruction” – he knows he would be believed over the already-disliked “monster”, and nearly succeeds as a result.
Notably, the attempted suppression of Elsa’s powers fail to protect Anna from being harmed by them. In an extremely Disney move, what does save Anna – and Arendelle – is Elsa’s love. That Elsa had forgotten that “love will thaw” speaks volumes about how little of it she received. While it wouldn’t have made a good movie, Elsa’s concealed ice powers being met with acceptance rather than fear would have stopped things escalating to “eternal winter” stage.
The happy ending doesn’t involve Elsa being suddenly “normal”; instead of isolation and snowstorms, we have beautiful decorations and a bustling ice rink. Instead, it involves Elsa being supported and knowing how to work with her differences rather than against them.
“You are the answer I’ve waited for all of my life”
Admittedly, Frozen II‘s signature song being called Into The Unknown is incovenient. That said, it nicely summarises the sequel’s central narrative of Elsa finding where she belongs:
Or are you someone out there who’s a little bit like me
Who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be?
As it turns out, there’s nothing like a pandemic and indefinite separation to make you realise the importance of autistic community. Many of us take it for granted, but many others go their whole lives without (knowingly) meeting anyone who thinks the way they do. Sure, Elsa now has supportive and accepting people around her, but that’s not quite the same thing.
Enter Show Yourself, the actual key song in Frozen II. (I assume it wasn’t promoted as such because it incorporates the main twist of the ending!) As Elsa discovers more about who she is, she reflects on never quite fitting in: “I’ve always been so different/Normal rules did not apply”. I won’t go into details here but the reveal is a big moment, allows Elsa to finally find the community and self-understanding she’s always wanted and, ultimately, harness her differences to save Arendelle rather than to destroy it.
So, there’s the non-exhaustive case for autistic Elsa. It isn’t just that I’d really like ice powers. Although, additionally, I would really like ice powers.
3 thoughts on ““Conceal, don’t feel”: The case for autistic Elsa”
Honest to God, I never really thought of Elsa, one of my all-time favorite characters, being on the Autism Spectrum. I myself have Autism, Aspergers to be exact. The thought of Elsa POSSIBLY being Autistic in some way, its fascinating to me.
This was a great read.
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Reblogged this on Autism Candles.