I think those who have had, or have dealt with, mental illnesses—particularly, OCD, anxiety, or depression, had a much easier time identifying it in her. It jumped right out to me. That’s what I kinda liked about it. The familiarity helped the pieces fall into place without screaming it at us.
Mm, see, I’ll have to throw in a contrasting opinion and say that wasn’t my experience at all.
I didn’t know it/realize it for the longest time, but I’ve had depression/anxiety issues for most of my life. Like, serious, hardcore issues. I still have them, to the point where I’m pretty sure most people don’t even know I exist but my brain will still find ways to convince me that they hate me and wish I was gone. It’s an issue. The point in bringing this up is not to garner pity or sympathy, though, but to say that even with that, Elsa having actual anxiety/depression on its own was not something that jumped out at me in the movie, because it seemed more to me that she had anxiety because of her powers … which is an entirely separate ballgame.
I mean, from my experience, anxiety disorders usually cause someone to have over the top anxiety about things that aren’t that big of an issue. Like, for instance, I’ll make a simple mistake at my bookstore job which causes the manager to have to abort a customer’s transaction so we can start over and I can ring out their items properly. Logically, I know this isn’t a big deal, but it still makes me want to scratch up the back of my neck so I can stop myself from breaking down into tears. I feel ashamed and worthless because of little mistakes like that, my breathing gets shorter, my stomach twists into knots. I hate myself for that tiny mistake. It isn’t a big deal.
In Elsa’s case, however, she almost killed her little sister. That is a big deal, a very big one, especially considering that she has issues controlling her powers after that. If anything, if we want to call any sort of mental illness, it would be post-traumatic stress disorder, because the act of almost killing Anna—accidental though it was—traumatized Elsa. But the point is, the trope of someone being unable to control their powers and freaking out because of it—the trope of someone screeching “stay away from me!” to their loved ones because of those powers—is just that: a trope. It’s extremely common practically to the point of cliché in stories where people have superpowers or other preternatural abilities. We see it multiple times in X-Men, with examples like Jean Grey and Rogue; we see it with Red Star in Teen Titans and even more so with Terra from the same series; we see it even a little bit with the story of Ariana Dumbledore from Harry Potter, though how much she was aware of the damage she was causing/how much she tried to get others to stay away from her after her trauma is up for debate. The point is, there are multiple literary tropes that deal with this sort of thing, so when I watch Frozen I don’t see someone struggling from depression or anxiety; I see someone who has superpowers, who can’t control them, and who ends up having a complete freak-out because of her inability to control them/the danger she poses to those closest to her.
(And now that I think about it, Elsa’s story is frighteningly similar to Terra’s, with the exception being that Elsa doesn’t actually end up joining forces with a Big Bad (though Terra ended up redeeming herself, but all the same). If Elsa’s powers were earth-based instead of ice-based, DC might have had to sue somebody.)
I agree with Azul-Ocean in that if Disney really wanted to showcase a heroine with depression/anxiety, then that’s what they should have done. They don’t have to say, “Hey, Elsa has depression/anxiety!” (though that’s the same sort of on-the-nose writing they used in the actual film, to be honest), but they could have based the story in reality instead of magic and accomplished the same effect.
Frozen (named something different, I imagine, but work with me here) is based in a modern setting. Elsa has no magic powers and isn’t a princess, but ever since she was a little girl she has been plagued by “monsters” that only she can see. Little things set her off; she’ll think the shadows are moving and trying to get her, her own thoughts—that she can’t control, can’t shut off, maybe even convinces herself belong to the monsters of her imagination—tell her that she’s awful, that she’s bad, that she’s stupid and worthless and maybe even evil. She doesn’t want to play with Anna (even if she used to when they were smaller) because she thinks she doesn’t deserve to, and maybe one day when they were small Anna got hurt somehow (tripped over her own feet and tumbled down stairs, perhaps?) but the little brain demons in Elsa’s mind convinced her that it was her fault even though she had nothing to do with it. Because of all this, Elsa goes to see a therapist perhaps once a week, and her parents treat her with as much care as they can as she grows up to try and help her through her own issues.
… But then there’s Anna.
We see the film through Anna’s eyes, but instead of Anna being a naive, sheltered, spunky Disney version of Jennifer Lawrence, she’s an average girl who doesn’t understand what her sister is going through. While their parents are super supportive of Elsa, this means that they’re not as receptive to Anna, who is by all accounts “normal” … and not as sensitive to Elsa as perhaps she should be, which means that she gets scolded by their parents sometimes. Grounded, even, depending on what it is she does. It’s not really that bad, but perhaps around the age of fourteen or fifteen Anna starts to feel really misunderstood and put-out by the “special treatment” Elsa gets, starts to feel really frustrated at the fact that Elsa can supposedly do no wrong in their parents’ eyes while Anna gets the short end of the stick and the higher expectations (Elsa gets Cs and that’s all right, but Anna brings home Cs and gets told to try harder, etc). Anna “knows” that her sister has mental illness because she has been told, so she understands it at on a logical level, but she can’t empathize which—along with typical teenage angst—leads to a lot of feelings of resentment and frustration toward her sister, especially since Elsa doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to Anna.
Eventually, to set off the true conflict of the film, something happens to set Anna off. Maybe Anna gets held to another standard that her sister isn’t being held to and blows up at their parents for it, and Elsa overhears this. This sends Elsa into a panic attack/downward spiral, and maybe she, I don’t know, ends up running away to try and make things better for Anna, because Elsa convinces herself that it would be better for her family if she wasn’t around to burden them anymore. Anna realizes this later and is horrified, because she does love Elsa no matter how frustrated she gets at what she perceives to be unequal treatment from their parents, and is afraid that Elsa will hurt herself if left alone for too long—or worse. This leads Anna to set off to try and find Elsa on her own (despite their parents getting the police involved), and if Disney wanted, they could even introduce Kristoff as a friend of Anna’s from school and Hans as a guy that Elsa meets while on the run who acts like he’s super sympathetic toward her, but really has Bad Intentions toward the mentally unstable, underage runaway. In the end, Anna ends up finding Elsa and convinces her to come home, that Anna loves her etc., and that life wouldn’t be better without Elsa in it—it would be worse. Elsa ends up agreeing to come home, and both sisters end up learning important lessons: Elsa learns that it’s okay to open up about her problems, that her family loves her and will accept her no matter what, and Anna learns how to empathize with Elsa and what Elsa really is going through, and also learns to look at life from the perspective of others, not just herself.
I understand that, when laid out like this, it might seem really heavy for a Disney movie, but when I look at movies like Lilo & Stitch and Mulan, I see no reason why Disney couldn’t find a way to handle something like this. Sure, L&S and Mulan had some fantastical elements to them, but they still dealt with real issues (the effects of a teenager raising a child and CPS getting involved, war and death) without couching them in magic, and as a result they hit a lot of emotional buttons that Frozen simply missed the mark on. Hell, Tangled even hit those marks, because while Tangled dealt a lot with magic, but the emotional and psychological abuse that Mother Gothel raged on Rapunzel was very, very real, and they didn’t try to dance around that, either. I feel like if Frozen had been grounded in reality—if Elsa’s problems really were products of her mind rather than products of her magical powers, Disney could have told a much more emotionally powerful story that, in the end, might have actually stood up to the title of Disney classic and might have actually deserved that Oscar.
But those are just my two cents.