Elsa’s arc in Frozen 2 is a beautiful and moving depiction of a trauma survivor finally embracing herself for who she is.
This essay contains spoilers for Frozen and Frozen 2
By Roslyn Talusan
I walked out of the theatre after Frozen 2 with tears streaming down my face, stunned and breathless at its emotional resonance. Sure, my feelings were already sensitive after crying for the first time in 5 years of therapy earlier that day, but the story just hit so close to home.
I had been looking forward to the sequel ever since I came across a tweet with an excellent point about Queen Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) journey in the first movie: unresolved childhood trauma can cause you to hurt the people you love. It makes perfect sense—Elsa is shamed into repressing her powers after she accidentally hurts her sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Instead of comforting or helping her, their parents react with fear and resentment, isolating Elsa from the world because her powers, her differences, are too dangerous to those around her.
Her father, in particular, weaponizes this vital part of her identity, insisting that she be a “good girl” by keeping her powers a secret, causing her to internalize shame and self-loathing. “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 sings in “Let it Go.” She physically and emotionally shuts her sister out of her life, thinking that it’s in Anna’s best interests that they stay away from each other. By the end of the movie, Elsa lets go of the harmful shame programmed into her by her parents, learning to wield her powers with love, and not repress them with fear. Hiding them is what made them uncontrollable and dangerous. She finally opens up the gates, letting love into her life for the first time in years.
Frozen 2 follows Elsa as she fully reclaims her identity after her childhood trauma. She’s presented with the choice of maintaining her comfort or using her powers to right the injustices perpetrated by generations past. By following her intuition and listening to her magick, she breaks a cycle of abuse, discovering the truth about her family and her identity.
Elsa struggles to ignore the voice calling her from beyond Arendelle. “I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you,” she sings in “Into the Unknown.” She doesn’t want to risk the love and community she’s built, but deep down, she knows something is wrong. Ultimately, her curiosity wins, and she uses her powers to awaken the elemental spirits, causing a supernatural catastrophe that forces the evacuation of the kingdom. Grand Pabbie, one of the forest trolls, uses his magick to see what has happened. “The past is not what it seems. A wrong demands to be righted,” he warns. “The truth must be found. Without it, there can be no future.”
That wrong turns out to be a violent lie her grandfather told in the interest of his continued power as Arendelle’s king. In a flashback sequence, he conspires to attack the people of Northuldra, an Indigenous tribe, fearing their ability to work with elemental spirits. “Magick makes people feel too powerful,” he tells one of his soldiers. “It makes them think they can defy the will of a king.” He lulls the tribe into a false sense of security, presenting them with a dam as a gift of peace and attacking them when they’re vulnerable. He’s killed in battle, and Elsa’s father is knocked unconscious. A mysterious Northuldra girl saves him, later revealed to be their mother. The violence angers the spirits and a magickal fog falls over the forest, preventing anyone from entering or leaving for over three decades. For years, her father perpetuates the lie told by his father, which explains his own fear of Elsa’s powers.
Once she realizes the truth about her mother’s Northuldra background, Elsa resolves to liberate the enchanted forest and restore Arendelle. She learns of a fifth elemental spirit, thought to be the bridge between nature’s magick and humankind. It must be what’s calling to her. As she continues to follow the voice, she encounters the still-enraged spirits of the elements, taming them in what I see as a metaphor for learning to move through painful emotions like anger and grief after trauma. Instead of reacting with fear or avoidance, Elsa meets the spirits with compassion and acceptance, listening to what they have to say. She allows them to guide and support her on her journey to Ahtohallan, a frozen glacier where she finally finds the voice and learns the full truth of her powers.
Elsa makes her way deep into the glacier, using her powers to shift heavy ice columns and cross dark chasms in a visually stunning demonstration of her strength. She sings “Show Yourself” to coax the voice out of hiding in a sequence that had me fully sobbing in my seat. “I’ve always been a fortress, cold secrets deep inside,” she alludes to her self-exile in the first movie. “But you don’t have to hide… I’m dying to meet you!”
Her guides lead her to a chamber where she converses with her mother’s spirit. “Show yourself, step into your power,” they sing together. Her mother assures her, “You’re the one you’ve been waiting for all of your life.” Elsa stands transformed in the middle of the four elements, realizing that what she was looking for was inside of her all along—she is the fifth spirit. Her purpose is clear and her life finally makes sense. Confronting her family’s past, Elsa finally allows herself to embrace her magick as a gift, rejecting her grandfather and father’s belief that it should be eradicated. “Fear is what can’t be trusted,” she tells her grandfather’s spirit with steely defiance.
Ultimately, Elsa’s arc in Frozen 2 is a beautiful and moving depiction of a trauma survivor finally embracing herself for who she is. In the aftermath of trauma, our connections with ourselves and our communities are shattered. To heal, our sense of safety must be restored, and we must feel encouraged to trust ourselves and the world around us again. Elsa no longer has to hide away from the world in fear and shame of her identity. Having unconditional love and support from her family, friends, and community-at-large helps her feel safe to be herself again. She chooses to use her magick for the greater good, and it’s her strong commitment to truth and justice that allow her to finally love and appreciate herself the way she deserves.