What “Let It Go” Is — And What It Isn’t

[Note: This post discusses plot details from the movie Frozen.]

C: When Frozen opened in theaters I wanted to go see it, but thanks to a busy Thanksgiving and Christmas season, I missed my chance — or so I thought. Two weeks ago, I searched online to see if it had come to the late-run theater in the city. With amazement, I saw there were still plenty of showings at the local cineplex.

From this, you can probably deduce that my social world is mostly made up of childless young professional types. Before this moment, the Frozen Phenomenon — its immense popularity with children, teens, and parents — was scarcely a blip on my radar, minus a stray post here and there on social media. But I was soon to learn much more.

I dragged a roommate out to see the movie, and I loved it. I loved the whole soundtrack, the story, the visuals (other than the admittedly disturbing proportions of the male and female protagonists), and especially that thing everyone’s been talking about, the cool fact that Disney finally* made a movie about a positive relationship between females.

[*If you haven’t noticed the disparity, let’s briefly list a few Disney and/or Pixar movies centering on orheavily featuring a positive relationship between males: The Sword in the Stone, Bambi, The Fox and the Hound, The Jungle Book, Pinocchio, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up.]

But when I got home from the theater, the main thing I remembered was “Let It Go.” I cried when I heard it. Okay… while I may not cry as easily as E, I’ll admit that’s not too unheard of. What is unusual: after a dozen listens (to the original and various covers) on Youtube, I well up every single time. I can think of only two songs I’ve had this reaction to in the past, and they both come from movies. One is “My Heart Will Go On” (look, I was a kid at the time — and I maintain the tin whistle must’ve been invented by the National Tissue Board’s crafty marketing division), and the other is “Into the West.”

All three songs are sentimental, with soaring vocals and haunting key changes. But while the older two are sad, “Let It Go” is rousing and empowering. At least, that’s the effect it has, right? Isn’t that why thousands of people, mostly young girls, have learned all the words and recorded their own renditions? It encapsulates a fantasy so intense many older viewers may not have allowed it up to the surface for years. The moment when Elsa pulls off the gloves she’s worn ever since her magical ice powers almost killed her little sister and belts out the chorus for the first time — let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore — seems to resonate with everyone who’s felt the need to repress a part of themselves that wasn’t accepted, and evokes the transformative bliss of not hiding anymore.

let-it-go

It’s easy to get caught up in lyrics like these, to get swept up in the emotion: “Here I stand and here I’ll stay.” “The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.” “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.”

Have you paid attention to the next line, though? “No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I’m free!”

Yeah, that’s right — we need to back up a second. What was that bit about the gloves? Why was Elsa wearing them again? Oh yeah. Because her sister nearly got killed. Never having learned to control her powers, Elsa is a danger to the people she loves. Why does she now feel so free? Because she is in exile. Sure, this is a song about a woman taking control over her life. But this is also a song about a woman deciding she can never be with other people ever again. “A kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I’m the Queen.”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t love “Let It Go” — that would be hypocritical. (Hang on while I go Youtube that cool “Africanized” version again.) I am saying, though, that the comments one hears from all sides about how this song speaks to personal experiences from coming out of the closet to cancer survival ought to be food for thought, and for conversation.

Goodness knows I don’t want to take anything away from a person who feels encouraged by this song to be themselves, publicly and honestly. But let’s just, for a moment, ponder the fact that this was written as a villain’s origin story. What does it mean to really let everything go? Do we really think “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” is an ideal expression of fulfillment and self-worth? Do we consider the fact that for Elsa to fully liberate herself in this scene, she has to turn her back on the country that she is in fact ruler of? “I’m never going back, the past is in the past” isn’t metaphorical. She means it.

Essentially, what is lost in singling out “Let It Go” from its context, making it a viral empowerment sensation in its own right, is the entire message of the movie: Elsa should not let everything go. She is being fearful, and she is being selfish.

Elsa has to go back and face the people whose very existence constricts what she can do. She can’t just “let the storm rage on.” She can’t live in that kickass ice palace, not if she’s going to be Queen — she has to settle for a frozen courtyard. But she makes it work, because what actually matters to her is the relationships in her life. They were stunted while she was shut in her miserable palace bedroom — but they were nonexistent when she was in exile. She had to show others the truth about her, but she also had to take their needs into account. And if she hadn’t accepted the limits imposed by considering others’ needs, she would’ve missed out on one whole aspect of her powers, the key to wielding her gift with control and purpose. Empowerment, the writers of Frozen understand, has to be in service of a stronger, better, more truly vibrant community, or it’s about as meaningful as the rulership of an unpopulated mountain.

What “Let It Go” is, is a beautiful song about the very human longing for self-expression without consequences. What “Let It Go” isn’t… is the full arc of a heroine’s origin story.

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8 comments on “What “Let It Go” Is — And What It Isn’t

  1. M says:

    To get this out of the way, I will quibble slightly (we have to, right?) with your “finally” comment about the positive relationship between two female characters. I believe that Merida and Elinor in Brave beat Anna and Elsa to that title, really on similar grounds, but especially if you are going to include the likes of Buzz and Woody (adversarial) and Marlin and Nemo (parent and rebellious child) on the list.

    That aside, I feel much the same way as you do about the song. I heard it a few times before seeing the movie (I do not live in the same pop-culture averting bubble as you, apparently), and when I saw it in the movie I was taken aback at how different the circumstances were than what I was expecting, having not studied the lyrics.

    Now, I loved the movie, and the music, despite having some issues, like the tone of that song, but also including the fact that Disney parents MUST die, and that they are horrible parents (really, “conceal don’t feel”, and never go near your sister again?), or that despite trying to hurt all the people attacking her throughout the movie, the only person that Elsa’s powers negatively impact is Anna. But those are topics of another discussion. Well, not all of them. Conceal don’t feel is relevant, because that horrible bit of parenting sets up Elsa’s inability to control her power, and her need for rebellion, which is the heart of the song. Her eventual transformation, thanks to the selfless love of her sister (and thank God it wasn’t “true love’s kiss” for once!) is the real story. Let It Go is a catchy, fun step in the wrong direction… that eventually caused her to learn the right lesson.

    • psychohist says:

      Yes, what horrible parenting. It would have been so much better for them to have let Elsa continue playing around with her ice powers, killing her sister in the process.

      • C says:

        Surely there is a third option between total repression and total freedom? Parents in the real world may not have to deal with ice powers, but there are plenty of circumstances where teaching your child to be cautious and responsible in the use of their abilities is considered the best option. For instance, it’s not usually a case of letting children roam entirely at will versus never allowing them out of your sight…

        • Warren Dew says:

          The parents were already using an intermediate option between total repression and total freedom. It was Elsa herself that initiated the “no touching” thing, not her parents.

          Now, had the parents been experts on responsible use of ice magic, they might have been able to do even better. But, they weren’t – neither they nor anyone else knew what constituted “responsible use”.

  2. […] “Let It Go” is one of the most popular Disney songs to come along in a long time — but does it really mean what we think it means? An online buddy of mine ponders that question here. […]

  3. MMGF says:

    Why didn’t her gloves turn to ice…?

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