AndPhilosophy.Com: The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series (2022)
Disney’s Frozen (2013) and Frozen 2 (2019) are among the highest-grossing films of all time (IMDb 2021) and are arguably among the most influential works of fantasy produced in the last decade in any medium. The films, based loosely on Hans Christensen Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” (Andersen 2014) focus on the adventures of the sisters Anna and Elsa as they, together with their companions, seek to safeguard their people both from external threats and (importantly) from Elsa’s inabilities to control her magical abilities to summon ice and snow. While Anna’s choices drive much of the action of both films, Elsa has undoubtedly been the more influential and popular of the two characters, as indicated by measures such as merchandise sales (Ellen Byron and Paul Ziobro 2014), Google search data (Play Like Mum 2020), and even baby name choices (Wolfers 2015).
Despite her popularity, Elsa is in many ways a paradoxical sort of hero, as she finds her actions all but predetermined by both external and internal forces. This is particularly the case in the first film, where we meet an Elsa who has been born with a power she cannot control, and which appears more as a force of nature than as anything that “belongs” to Elsa. The film’s action is driven, in large part, precisely by Elsa’s failures to exert control over her emotions and abilities. She begins the film by accidentally injuring Anna. This, in turn, causes Elsa to become fearful and withdrawn and to isolate herself from her sister, even after their parents die on a quest to find a cure for Elsa. Elsa's fear and lack of control lead to an even more dire outcome when she inadvertently calls down winter on Arendelle and abandons her people for the mountains. It is only through Anna's devoted quest to rescue her sister, first by pursuing her to the mountains, and later by throwing herself in front of the villainous Hans’ sword attack on her sister, that Elsa (and Arendelle) are saved. Elsa's most active contribution to this is to appreciate the import of Anna's sacrifice and to discover the power of "love" to overcome her fear.
What then, are we to make of Elsa as a character? It is the younger sister Anna who corresponds most closely to Gerda, the unquestioned protagonist of Andersen’s original tale, and her character arc fits neatly with the well-known “Hero’s Journey” model for describing myth (Campbell 2020). It is Anna, for example, who goes on a quest, meets a group of motley companions (the human Kristoff, the reindeer Sven, and the magical snowman Olaf), accepts advice from wise elders (the trolls), undergoes a severe trial, and even gets the "reward" of romantic love at the end. All of this has led some scholars (Niemiec and Bretherton 2015; Heit 2019) to hold up Anna, rather than Elsa, as something like the hero of the story. Existing scholarship on Elsa, by contrast, has focused largely on issues related to her gender and sexuality (Law 2014; Lee 2015; Steinhoff 2017; Streiff and Dundes 2017; Dundes, Streiff, and Streiff 2018; Dundes 2020; Llompart and Brugué 2020).
In what follows, I’ll be taking a closer look at Elsa’s unique status as a protagonist, and what her struggles with fate reveal about the nature of free will and ethical responsibility. I’ll argue that Elsa provides a useful model of a “Stoic hero” and that her strengths and weaknesses as a character provide valuable insight into an often-misunderstood school of philosophy. My argument will proceed in several stages. I’ll begin by describing the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy, paying special attention to the role of fate and nature. I’ll then move on to a more detailed treatment of Stoic ethics, as exemplified by Elsa’s own character development. I’ll close by considering the infamous “Lazy Argument” against