Frozen and Depression

Before I get into this post I know the legions of Frozen fans will come after me if I don't slap a disclaimer on here, so let me first say that I am not speaking for anyone except myself in this post. I can't say with certainty what depression feels like for anyone but myself. I'm also not trying to say you can't or shouldn't identify with Elsa or like Frozen. If you find yourself in Elsa, that's wonderful and I'm absolutely not trying to take that away from you. This is just me speaking for me.

(art by kmcmorris.com)
"The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen is one of my favourite fairytales. There are several reasons for this - the heroine, the villainess, the winter themes - but one of the reasons it stands out to me is the depression metaphor. Andersen suffered from depression from a young age, and many of his stories have a more melancholy tone to them than most fairytales, but "The Snow Queen" in particular gives an explanation that resonates: the devil's mirror.

One day he was in a really good humor because he had made a mirror that had the quality of making everything good and fair that was reflected in it dwindle to almost nothing, but whatever was worthless and ugly stood out and grew even worse. The loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach in it, and the best people became nasty or stood on their heads without stomachs; the faces became so distorted that they were unrecognizable, and if you had a freckle, you could be certain that it spread over nose and mouth.
...
Then the mirror quivered so dreadfully in its grin that it shot out of their hands and plunged down to the earth, where it broke into a hundred million billion - and even more - fragments. And now it did much greater harm than before, for some of the fragments were scarcely bigger than a grain of sand; and these flew about in the wide world, and wherever they got into someone's eyes, they remained there; and then these people saw everything wrong or had eyes only for what was bad with a thing - for each tiny particle of the mirror had retained the same power as the whole mirror. Some people even got a little fragment of the mirror in their hearts, and this was quite horrible - the heart became just like a lump of ice. 

When I read this story when I was younger, I don't remember identifying with that passage so much, but re-reading it as a teenager and an adult, it really, really hits home. Part of how depression feels to me is being unable to see the good in anything: in myself, in the people I love and the people who love me, in the world at large, in any good things that happen. I get convinced I have no redeeming qualities at all, that everyone who loves me secretly hates me and thinks I'm a burden, that it's all a massive joke everyone's playing on me pretending to care about me, that nothing good will ever happen again, that any good things that do happen won't last or will have terrible consequences. It really does feel like an evil enchanted mirror fragment landed in my eye and now all I can see is the bad in everything. Having a story that hits so close to home on something you don't really expect to see in fairytales makes "The Snow Queen" particularly dear to me. Knowing how well the source material did is one of the reasons Frozen so deeply disappointed me in its take on depression.



I know there are people who feel Elsa is an accurate representation of their own depression and I understand that and wouldn't want to tell them they're wrong for feeling that way, because they aren't. But for me, Elsa's feelings don't resonate with me as depression. Elsa concentrates a lot on repressing the intense emotions she feels, but depression doesn't feel like intense emotion to me. Depression is the absence of intense emotion. Depression feels like nothing, like lying in bed and staring at the walls for hours, feeling nothing but a big crushing weight on my chest. It's not a repression of anything, it's just emptiness, feeling like an empty shell. It's not sadness so much as despair, and that isn't what I see in Elsa. She's trying not to feel, but she's feeling. Depression isn't trying not to feel, it's more trying to feel. Trying to feel anything. Happiness, sadness, whatever, just something. Elsa feels so much and that just isn't what depression is. It's not feeling a lot, it's feeling nothing.


I also think Frozen failed not just in their depiction of depression but in the cause of it. So often when I'm at my lowest people will ask me why I'm depressed and what happened. For Elsa, her abusive parents are portrayed as the cause of her repression for locking her away, isolating her, telling her she had to repress her feelings and never let anyone in or let anyone know her secret. But more often than not, there's no real reason for me feeling so low. It just comes out of the blue and there's no explanation I can give, and I fear this makes people think I'm faking it or that I'm just being dramatic or something. That's why the mirror explanation is so important to me; it was just a random flying shard of an evil magic mirror that got stuck in my eye, it was just a misfiring in my brain. Story-wise it makes sense to give Elsa a reason for her sadness but that doesn't ring true to real life depression.

And I deeply wish that Elsa had been a more accurate portrayal of depression, and I wish Frozen had been an actual adaptation of "The Snow Queen," because I would adore to have something well-known I could point to and say, "This, this is what depression is, this is what is happening to me, this is what it looks like." Because I feel like 'looking for the cause of sadness' isn't helpful in the context of depression and Andersen depicted it so well, but Frozen didn't deliver on that front. I'm not necessarily dying for a depressed princess, but knowing that the source material was an accurate depiction makes the failing of the film hurt more. Because we had a chance, because they could have done so well, and they didn't. And I'd be surprised if Disney ever did another adaptation of "The Snow Queen" that was more accurate to the story (you know if they ever did one of their recent live-action remakes, it would be based on Frozen more than going back to Andersen's story - look at Once Upon a Time).

Comments

  1. Its funny many people say Elsa resembles themselfs with depression, but to me, she resembles Anxiety, the dont feel thing just feels like that. And that scene on the castle where she is allmost having a panick attack, our when she runs away from her problems instead of facing them. That to me seems a lot like anxiety and yeah the "cure" is love, love for you´r self and understanding if you want to have a relationship with someone you have to express you´r emotions.

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  2. "The Snow Queen" is also one of my favorite faery tales, and I think your analysis of it is spot on. I have to say, I love FROZEN too, but I agree that it doesn't speak to depression. Growing up as a closeted gay teen in the '80s -- in Texas -- it would've been very welcome, but I also would like to see a more faithful adaptation.

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