Sunday, April 6, 2014

Let It Go

What are we to make of the big number, "Let It Go" from Disney's Frozen?

In the song, Elsa sings:
"Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know..."
She mocks the people that she feels have wronged her, those who expect her to be a "good girl" and never show her feelings -- to conceal everything and be fake.  She mocks them and turns away.

How often do we hear that, that we expect people to deny their feelings and just meet some artificial standard of "good"?

In response, she decides it's time to leave those expectations and those people behind, to "be her own woman". She goes on, during a high point of the song:
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I'm free!
To her, being free means having no rules.  It means there is no longer anything "right" or "wrong".  I'm free when no one can tell me I'm wrong, even if that's because no one else is there.

The song is a paean to relativism and the unqualified rejection of authority.

So... Does this mean the song is bad and the movie is bad? Not at all.

It means that the song must be taken in context. When is the song sung? What is going on at the time? It's appropriate for a villain to sing a villainous song, or a hero to sing a heroic song. It's appropriate for a character that will grow by the end of the story to sound like she needs to grow.

Consider Hamlet's line, "there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so". This is close to Elsa's desire for "(n)o right, no wrong, no rules for me". Does that mean Hamlet is a relativist? Is Shakespeare backing that belief by putting in on the lips of his titular character?  Not at all.  We have to consider when and why Hamlet says it. Author and commentator Andrew Klavan put it well, in his own style:
"As Shakespeare put it 'there is nothing absolutely good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' Actually, Shakespeare gave those words to Hamlet, who was pretending to be insane when he said them. Which is to imply that moral relativism isn't just crazy, it's fake crazy..."
"Let It Go" occurs part-way through the story. It's not a closing number, summarizing the whole tale. It's an end-of-Act-One song. And Elsa, she's not making mature, rational statements -- she's throwing a tantrum. "You'll never see me cry!" she proclaims and stamps her foot. "Here I am and here I'll stay!"

She sings about wanting freedom, but does she understand what freedom is? It is not a lack of rules--that's license not freedom. If I follow no rules, I'm not free to play football or drive or own a gun or vote. If I break enough rules, I may end up in prison--put there by my poor choices.

And where does Elsa end up? What does she make for herself?  She shouts about freedom and builds herself a prison. Yes, it's a beautiful ice castle on a scenic mountaintop, but as Salmon Rushdie wrote in Joseph Anton*, "a comfortable prison was still a prison".  How free does this look?


Her ending line, "the cold doesn't bother me anyway", isn't said with the attitude of a brave woman overcoming adversity. It's said with a certain self-satisfaction that isn't deserved, with the tone of a child who's been sent to her room. "I don't care. I want to be in my room!"

And there she'll stay -- at least until the story continues, and she changes for the better.


* And Captain Picard paraphrased in "The Hunted"--I have geek cred to uphold here.

2 comments:

Benson Michaud said...

This is an interesting point of view about the movie. But one that makes some interesting omissions to the story. For instance, most of her life she had to hide away from the world to protect her sister and family from her uncontrolled, and unknown ability.
She is told to hide this power and never let anyone see it. Basically, deny who she truly is. One could say she was forced to hide in a "closet" who she truly should be.
Her "tantrum", as you call it, could be seen as her finally accepting who she is. No longer hiding her abilities. Coming out of the proverbial "closet". I wonder why you consider it a tantrum. Is it because you viewed it through the "male gaze"? A woman showing her emotions being seen as a child behaving poorly. Instead of being an assertive individual standing up for herself and no longer being locked away in a cage.
Her creation of the ice palace isn't to be a prison. But a true test of her abilities that she never used before. It was a freeing moment because no one could get hurt and she was happy to be free from her cage. Even though, her town was suffering slowly. And for the record, there have been great leaders and civilizations that lived on mountain tops. It's not prison to them, it is Home. As this castle is meant to be to Elsa. But in the words of Luther Vandross "a house is not a Home" without someone to share it.
As to the statement Elsa makes about the cold not bothering her. Really? She controls ice and snow. I'm pretty sure that was just stating a fact.

Joe Wetterling said...

Benson - thanks for reading! I think you made two major points; let me address them both:

1) Am I seeing this as a tantrum because I'm a man? I don't believe so. I'm seeing it as a tantrum because it is one. Her parents were wrong to do what they did, but to pay that back by making everyone suffer? That's a gross overreaction. Even if I only thought it was a tantrum because I'm a man and tantrums are what women do (I don't think that at all), it wouldn't invalidate the point. That's the genetic fallacy -- that a belief is wrong because of where it comes from.

2) I don't care if her statements are assertive or brave, I care if they're correct. One can assertively be wrong, or meekly be right. Neither takes a particular age or sex. If she's right in what she says, we should see it:

We should see it work out logically. If she's right, her point should make sense, and it doesn't. If there is no right or wrong, then her parents couldn't possibly be *wrong* in what they did. She has no justification for being angry, because they did not wrong her. But they did. They handled her unusual powers badly. If they're wrong, then there must *be* such a thing as "wrong". If Elsa is right to leave, then there must be such a thing as "right".

We should also see it work out literarily. If she's right, then her actions should be vindicated in the end -- that she is right and remains so through the end of the story. But that's not what happens. She discovered there is right and wrong (the villains are "wrong", letting her sister die is "wrong", etc.). She discovers that there are rules, and she sets them with Wesleton. She sings "let the storm rage on!" at the end of this song, but at the end of the tale, it is summer. She sings that she'll be alone - the queen of the kingdom of isolation - yet in the end, she's not alone. Her position isn't vindicated, it's abdicated.

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