If there was one idea to unite people across barriers, languages, and oceans it could quite possibly the enchantment of Elsa. Last November the sequel to Frozen (2013), Frozen 2, released in theaters and continued the story of Anna and Elsa. Idina Menzel, who voices Elsa, said in regards to the sequel, “It didn’t feel like they were doing it to make a buck, just come out with a sequel and be commercial and materialistic about it” (q on cbc, 2019). There is reason to believe that the creators took this opportunity to create something meaningful, something that would impact people around the world just as Frozen had six years earlier. And that this opportunity was important because Elsa’s character is a unique figure in entertainment: she is a rare representation of someone overcoming trauma.
Perhaps for many general audience members the idea that Elsa’s character was subjected to trauma may be a bit of a stretch. After all, aren’t all characters in stories exposed to some sort of hardship in order to inform the central conflict? And while it is typical for characters to go through difficulties, what makes Elsa’s story uniquely representative of recovery is that her experiences across the two films involve certain hallmarks of traumatization. There is evidence that writers recognized this: in The Art of Frozen II (2019) the process the writers underwent in creating the sequel film is described in the forward, “We started answering these questions by doing a ton of research, speaking with psychologists and trauma specialists, and diving deep into character assessments and personality tests” (p. 6). This piece unpacks the ways in which Elsa’s story represents the process of trauma recovery by using Judith L. Herman’s (2015) book, “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” to chart the progress Elsa makes in her recovery across the two films.
According to Herman, recovery occurs in three general stages. She notes that in any individual person’s life, their path may not travel through the three stages like a road map, sequentially and cleanly one after the other, but rather may occur a bit out of order. The person may repeat a stage more than once, or they may double back to old stages. The purpose of her recovery model is not to emulate the order perfectly, but to find oneself in it and to aid understanding of a bigger picture of recovery. The three stages are: (1) Establishing safety and security, (2) telling and transforming the trauma story, and (3) Recreating the ideal and actual self.
For Elsa, her story of recovery begins in Frozen (2013). Elsa is born with magical powers to conjure ice and snow. Although her parents mean well, they don’t know anything about how to help Elsa deal with her powers, let alone how to parent with them. After an incident where Elsa accidentally harms her younger sister, Anna, using her powers, her parents react in fear. After consulting the nearby magical trolls they decide to separate her from everyone in order to prevent her from causing any further accidental harm. This is the initial incident that was traumatizing for everyone involved: not only Anna, but Elsa too. She is devastated by how her actions unknowingly hurt her sister and feels unbearable shame from it.
Elsa and her parents are consumed with desperation to gain control over her abilities by way of stifling them. She uses satin gloves, repeats helpful phrases (“Conceal, Don’t Feel”), and remains isolated in order to repress her abilities. It is after the untimely death of her parents that Elsa becomes entirely alone. She lives this way through the rest of her childhood, adolescence, and into early adulthood when we see her again on her coronation day.
According to Herman, the core experiences of psychological trauma are helplessness, disconnection, and disempowerment (p. 147; 210). Because of this, trauma inevitably involves a loss of one’s sense of self. Elsa’s entire life becomes devoted to suppressing this magical part of herself. She feels powerless to control her abilities so she isolates and disconnects herself from all forms of support. This is most clear when she sings her chant, “Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. 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.” At this point in the story, Elsa has been so consumed by suppressing herself that there isn’t room for anything else. Her entire sense of self has long become devoted to shame and hiding her powers.
Then, when Elsa loses control of her powers during the coronation, she risks harming Anna again, so flees the kingdom on foot. This departure marks her journey in the first stage of recovery. Each step she makes, spurring ice across the water bridging her path, brings her closer to the first stage of establishing safety and restoring control.
The priority of the first stage is to urgently find a sense of safety and predictability. Herman states,
“The acutely traumatized person needs a safe refuge. Finding and securing that refuge is the immediate task of crisis intervention. In the first days or weeks following an acute trauma, the survivor may want to seclude herself in her home, or she may not be able to go home at all. … Once the traumatized person has established a refuge, she can gradually progress toward a widening sphere of engagement in the world.” (p. 172).
Elsa’s signature song, “Let it Go,” is sung as she begins to build that safe refuge. In her case, a grand castle of ice rises up from the mountain as she uses her powers to create a place of safety. As she builds her icy fortress, she sings about letting parts of herself go that were connected to the trauma. Among them, her gloves, cape, crown, and chants she learned from her father. She lets it all go. This song is an anthem of liberation because it is about the euphoria of running and escaping trauma: of reaching out deliberately towards a place of safety.
The remainder of the film explores how total isolation doesn’t necessarily equate to safety: Anna travels to the ice castle to tell Elsa that the kingdom is still frozen from her powers despite Elsa leaving. To Elsa’s horror, she repeats the initial trauma of accidentally hurting Anna when it happens again. In a moment of high emotions, she unknowingly strikes Anna with her ice magic, thereby freezing her heart. The film resolves when Anna sacrifices her chance of recovering from the frozen heart in exchange for saving her sisters life: with little time left, she jumps in front of an attacking sword to block Elsa from being hit and killed. Through that act of love, Anna saves herself and unfreezes back to life. It is this action that makes Elsa realize she can better control her powers by utilizing her feelings, like love. With Anna’s help, Elsa learns that isolation is not a viable long-term strategy for recovery: love and support are needed.
It is important to note that Elsa has not actually dealt with her trauma yet, she has only ended it and found a place of safety. In terms of trauma recovery, it is worthwhile to make this distinction because survivors will often wish that they could skip over their hurt and undo the harm caused by the trauma through an act of love (p. 202). While love and forgiveness are powerful tools that aid in the recovery from trauma, they are not magical, and alone they are not enough; trauma is much more complex than that (p. 202). It is therefore helpful to clarify that the act of love demonstrated by Anna is not a cure or magical remedy for trauma, but instead is an integral building block to establishing safety and healing towards recovery. This was undeniably a moving conclusion to the film, but Elsa’s story was not yet over. She still had more work to do.
After the first stage of establishing safety, the second stage, the act of telling and transforming the story of the trauma, comes next. This is necessary, Herman explains, because “traumatic events ultimately refuse to be put away. At some point the memory of the trauma is bound to return, demanding attention” (p. 187). And return, the trauma does. Frozen 2 begins by showing Elsa moving on in her life. Little by little, she has regained safety and predictability in her life. When she is startled on the balcony and accidentally freezes her hands to the railing, she doesn’t punish herself and feel ashamed as she may have in the past. Instead she laughs, frees her hands, and moves on.
This is radically different from the first film where she unwittingly freezes the fountain, becomes terrified, and flees the kingdom. She is more at ease with herself and more forgiving of her mistakes. She has also learned that she can have the confidence to rely on herself and on others around her. Whereas in the past she was afraid to speak to Anna beyond shallow formalities, now she participates in kingdom celebrations, and even uses her powers to have fun with the citizens. This is a new place of safety and security for Elsa.
Just as Herman explains, the memory of trauma is not easily put away for good. Eventually it will return. In Elsa’s case, it returns in the form of a singing voice, one that indeed demands attention from her, even while she is sleeping. It is this voice that sparks an instinct within Elsa, it inspires her to look toward the past for answers.
Often when trauma occurs, there isn’t always an obvious culprit to blame it on. This can make moving on difficult because there’s nothing to direct anger and sadness towards. In Elsa’s case, her traumatization occurred because of her powers. She didn’t intend to ever hurt Anna. Likewise, even though her parents and the trolls certainly contributed to the events as they unfolded, they weren’t to blame either. And even if they were, it certainly wasn’t on purpose. Therefore, the place for answers, the things that are still unknown, regards the question of why Elsa was born with magical powers in the first place. Why magic? Why her?
These are questions that are not unique to Elsa: every survivor eventually faces them. Those who survive atrocities at any age or culture at some point or another will always ask: why did this happen? And why did it happen to me (p. 189)? Making sense of this undeserved suffering is a crucial component of the second stage of recovery. It is, at its core, what the purpose of retelling the trauma story is about. For Elsa, this means finding out why she was born with powers, why this simultaneous burden and gift was bestowed upon her.
To discover the answers to these questions, Elsa and the gang journey north to the Enchanted Forest where they suspect the singing voice is calling from. As Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf walk through the magical mist of the enchanted forest, Olaf quips, “Did you know that an enchanted forest is a place of transformation? I have no idea what that means but I can’t wait to see what it’s gonna do to each one of us.” Olaf is right, especially where recovery is concerned. The purpose of telling the story of trauma in the second recovery stage is not to simply face the past, but rather to reconstruct and eventually transform the story in order to integrate it into the survivor’s life story (p. 188). This discovering, telling, and transformation of the past ultimately occurs in the story when Elsa travels alone to Ahtohallan, a frozen glacier located north of the Dark Sea.
Upon entering Ahtohallan, many magical things happen for Elsa to witness. She discovers the source of the singing voice, she learns why she was born with powers, and she discovers a way to learn about the legacy of her family. In discovering these lost secrets of the past, Herman’s words are particularly apt. She writes,
“The second stage of recovery has a timeless quality that is frightening. The reconstruction of the trauma requires the immersion in a past experience of frozen time; the descent into mourning feels like a surrender to tears that are endless. Patients often ask how long this painful process will last. There is no fixed answer to the question, only the assurance that the process cannot be bypassed or hurried. It will almost surely take longer than the patient wishes, but it will not go on forever” (p. 207).
As if bringing Herman’s words to life, Elsa travels through literal snowy reconstructions of the events of her (and her family’s) past. It is in discovering these truths that Elsa’s body becomes frozen, thereby threatening that the process will indeed go on forever.
And where Elsa is frozen solid, Anna finds herself alone, abandoned, and lost. During this time, she sings,
“I’ve seen dark before, but not like this
This is cold, this is empty, this is numb
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down”
These lines echo the sentiment Herman describes in her book. She describes a fear that the sorrow will go on indefinitely, forever even, and that its weight feels unbearable. Anna mourns the wrongs of the past as Elsa remains frozen in them. To deal with her descent into mourning, Anna breaks her choices down into small steps to make them more manageable. She takes one step, then another, and chooses to do “The Next Right Thing.” The overall message of the song is that although it feels like the mourning will go on forever, it eventually will pass. And until that time comes, all that matters is to continue on, no matter how small the steps.
Because Anna endures her sadness, she is able to find her way out of the cave and realize what she must do to make things right, given what she now knows about the past. For Herman, it is not enough to simply remember the past, it is important to take action to reclaim history and one’s own place in it. Because of Elsa and Anna’s bravery, support for each other, and conviction in their beliefs, they work together to reclaim that history and make things right. Herman explains,
“The major work of the second stage is accomplished, however, when the patient reclaims her own history and feels renewed hope and energy for engagement with life. Time starts to move again. When the ‘action of telling a story’ has come to its conclusion, the traumatic experience truly belongs to the past. At this point, the survivor faces the tasks of rebuilding her life in the present and pursuing her aspirations for the future” (p. 207).
Anna’s restorative actions to right the wrongs of the past subsequently free Elsa from her frozen heart and cause her to fall into the North Sea. It is this moment where Elsa moves fully into the third stage of recovery: redefining the self.
If the first stage of recovery concerns the present (safety), and the second stage involves the past (retelling the story of the trauma), then the third stage is about the future. It is during this stage that the survivor no longer needs to feel constrained by the trauma in defining themselves. Instead they are free to think about what they want out of life, something the trauma likely took from them. Herman describes this stage as,
“Survivors whose personality has been shaped in the traumatic environment often feel at this stage of recovery as though they are refugees entering a new country. For political exiles, this may be literally true; but for many others, such as battered women or survivors of childhood abuse, the psychological experience can only be compared to immigration. They must build a new life within a radically different culture from the one they have left behind. Emerging from an environment of total control, they feel simultaneously the wonder and uncertainty of freedom. They speak of losing and regaining the world.” (p. 210).
Elsa never really had the chance to reflect on what her dreams were and what she aspired to do with her gifts because her trauma overtook every aspect of her life. But now, as Anna and Elsa work together to reconcile and transform the past, Elsa falls from Ahtohallan ready to become more active in the world. And she seizes the opportunity. Elsa decides to hand over her role as Queen of Arendelle to Anna and instead live in the Enchanted Forest among the other spirits and the Northuldra people. In doing so, she creates and defines a new home where she is able to have dreams and pursue goals for the future.
The final scene of Frozen II, Elsa is shown rounding up the spirits to go together in visiting Ahtohallan. Elsa rides the water spirit peacefully across the water. Bathed in relief and newfound freedom, Elsa tilts her head back slightly in the breeze, and takes a big slow breath to savor the moment. In realizing the third stage of recovery, she transforms not only the past but also her identity: from being a victim into a survivor. She has not only had the courage to face her fears and the past, but she also has the courage to define her wishes for the future (p. 216).
The significance of representing these stages of recovery through Anna and Elsa’s stories in both Frozen and Frozen 2, lies in the fact that trauma is something that people of all genders, races, nationalities, sexualities, and disabilities have the risk of enduring at some point in their lives. And when trauma occurs, it is necessary to heal from it. Given the myriad of factors contributing to growing mental health inequalities, not everyone has access to therapists who specialize in trauma recovery. Even for those who do have access: the opportunity to experience the story of someone else going through a similar process is at once legitimizing, informational, and empowering. This is the reason Elsa’s stories are important: this is why they matter. People who are recovering from all types of trauma can look to Elsa and Anna’s stories and know that they are not alone. They can feel inspired to reach these stages in their own lives. They can witness for themselves that survival and recovery are possible.
When I first saw Frozen in 2013, I was struggling in my own life to find safety and security from trauma. My initial reaction to first watching Elsa sing “Let it Go” was bittersweet; it was wonderful because I saw my struggles in her, but I was also profoundly sad. At once I remembered the teenager I used to be, stuck in an unhealthy situation, whose only solace was to take walks around an icy pond in the snow. I wished more than anything that my younger self could have seen her struggles reflected in Elsa because she was the one who needed to see it the most.
At the release of Frozen 2, I am also moving into stage three in my own recovery. After ten years I’m finally learning that I can imagine who I want to be, and revisit my old aspirations of my childhood. As Elsa sings the line “throw yourself into something new” it reminds me of how I’ve begun to imagine what my future could hold for me and that I might have the courage to pursue it, whatever that may be. Even though I didn’t know Elsa when I was at my lowest, I got to watch her again at my healthiest. And that gets me as close as I ever think I’ll be to what they call Disney magic.
Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Julius, J. (2019). The Art of Frozen 2. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
q on cbc. (2019, November 6). Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel field kids’ Frozen 2 fan questions. In YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMeR9uQ7iRo&t=926s