How Frozen and Frozen II's music codes Elsa as aroace

If you’re reading this essay, you’re probably already aware that many people like reading Elsa as queer. But if you’re not, the basic gist is that while Elsa isn’t canonically queer, her character resonates with many queer people who can draw connections between her experiences of having ice powers in a kingdom of non-magical people, and their own experiences of being queer in a society of cishet people. (That’s a bit of a mouthful to explain, so people normally say that she’s coded as queer for short.) This is yet another essay about reading Elsa as queer, but I’m expanding on existing writing in two ways: first, I’m exploring the ways that Elsa is coded specifically as both aromantic and asexual, or aroace for short 1 2. Second, I’m focusing on how the music in particular 3 codes Elsa as aroace.

Part I: Frozen

Frozen Heart

From the very beginning, Frozen’s music uses the idea of the cold to code Elsa as aroace. Aroaces are often rudely called “cold”, “cold-hearted”, “icy”, etc. for not feeling sexual or romantic attraction, especially when turning down someone who’s interested in us; since Elsa’s powers give her control over ice and snow, there are lots of lyrics about Elsa having powers that we can reinterpret as being about Elsa being aroace. For instance, “Split the ice apart! And break the frozen heart” and “Split the ice apart! Beware the frozen heart” from “Frozen Heart”. This song warns that Elsa’s literal icy powers are dangerous and need to be impeded or eliminated by making Elsa non-magical, but through an aroace lens, it warns that Elsa’s aroace orientation is dangerous and needs to be “corrected” by making her be straight and conform to heteronormative ideas.

For the First Time in Forever

Frozen’s music also codes Elsa as aroace by contrasting her with Anna. For example, in “For the First Time in Forever”, Anna is excited about meeting people and quickly focuses on the potential for finding romantic love, asking “What if I meet the one?”; in contrast, Elsa sings “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see” to remind herself to keep her distance from other people, lest they find out about her magical powers or her aroace orientation. She continues, singing “Be the good girl you always have to be”, telling herself she needs to “put on a show” of being normal (that is, being non-magical and straight) to “conceal” the true version of herself. Frozen doesn’t explicitly confront the idea that women are “supposed” to be straight, marry a man, and raise children, but nonetheless, the phrase “good girl” can be read as a subtle reference to that gender role. Thus, in this moment, Elsa is trying to hide her aroace-ness in the closet and emulate her sister, who’s closer to being the ideal “good girl” than she’ll ever be. Finally, as the gates start to open, Anna and Elsa trade lines in a duet that contrasts their primary goals, most notably with the exchange “A chance to find true love / Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know”. Given how Anna’s very overt yearning for romance is contrasted with Elsa’s total silence on the topic, Elsa’s line hints at a second goal for herself: “Don’t let them know about my powers or that I’m aroace and don’t long for love like my sister does”.

Let It Go

As just about any queer analysis of Frozen will tell you, “Let It Go” reads like a coming out ballad; after all, the song is about Elsa finally accepting and embracing who she really is after leaving a non-magical society where she had to hide her true self from view, and that strongly parallels the experiences of many queer people who stayed in the closet for a while before eventually coming out. But I’m actually going to skip over the lyrics that are about coming out in general 4, and instead focus on the ones that are more specifically about being aroace. First off, “Turn away and slam the door” serves as another point of contrast between Elsa and Anna. Earlier in the film, Anna happily sang about how “Love is an open door”, but instead, Elsa finds power and validation through closing doors, not opening them.

The next lyric I want to highlight requires a bit of background information. Aces and aros face a lot of dehumanization in society, often in the form of phrases like “sex is what makes us human” or “(romantic) love is what makes us human”. One method of coping with this dehumanization, called voidpunk, focuses on de-weaponizing those hurtful phrases by actively embracing a lack of humanity as a neutral or positive trait. For example, if an aroace was told that they must be a robot because “love is what makes us human”, one voidpunk respons could be “okay, cool, I’m not human. What’s so great about being human, anyways?”. By questioning the implicit assertion that being human is inherently valuable, voidpunk makes being told that one isn’t human less hurtful. 5

How does that apply to “Let It Go”? Well, the lyric “I don’t care what they’re going to say / Let the storm rage on / The cold never bothered me anyway” strikes me as an incredibly voidpunk moment. Elsa has just fled from her own castle after being called a monster, and she’s using words with negative connotations like “storm” and “rage” to describe herself and her actions; but at the same time, she’s fully embracing her powers for what they are, saying that she’s never perceived them as bad or wrong like everyone else does. In the same way, I can easily imagine her saying “you’re claiming that my lack of attraction means I’m not human? Sure, whatever, I don’t really care. I’m going to ignore you and keep living my life, because being aroace doesn’t bother me”. Finally, in the last chorus, Elsa sings “That perfect girl is gone”, referencing when she sings “Be the good girl you always have to be” at the very beginning of “Let It Go”. However, instead of mourning her ability to hide her powers or aroace identity, she’s now finding joy and freedom by rejecting the notion of being a “perfect” (i.e. non-magical and straight) girl.

For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)

Next, “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)” briefly introduces an experience familliar to many aroaces, being told that something is in our best interests even if it really isn’t. Aroaces are often pressured to date or find partners by friends and family who don’t listen when we say we’d rather stay single; and while the people we talk to may have good intentions, when they project their own experiences onto us, such as by assuming that we must be lonely because we’re single, they end up doing more harm than good. So when Anna asks Elsa to return to Arendelle and Elsa replies “You mean well, but leave me be / Yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free”, she’s saying two things at once. First, Elsa is saying that she’d prefer living in an ice palace where she can freely use her powers over returning to non-magical Arendelle and restraining her powers to avoid hurting anyone. Second, Elsa is saying that she’d prefer being single over returning to heteronormative Arendelle, where she’d sacrifice being single to appease Anna’s fears that she’s lonely or unhappy.

Fixer Upper

The pressure to find a partner adversely affects aroaces, but we aren’t the only ones who can be hurt by it. In fact, as “Fixer Upper” cleverly shows, everyone can be hurt by external pressures about dating and finding partners. Narratively speaking, the song ends up wasting Anna and Kristoff’s time, as the trolls’ attempts to set them up to marry each other prevents them from getting advice about Anna’s frozen heart 6. In addition, there are a few specific lyrics I want to highlight. The song opens with a troll asking Anna “What’s the issue, dear? Why are you holding back from such a man?”, which immediately makes it clear that no matter how many times Anna says she’s not interested in Kristoff, the trolls will still believe that she’s really just artificially “holding back” her attraction to him instead of actually listening to what she’s saying. As the song progresses, the trolls start to judge Kristoff, saying that “His thing with the reindeer / [Is] a little outside of nature’s laws”. Even though reindeer make Kristoff genuinely happy, the trolls look down on it, afraid that deviating from societal norms will make him a less suitable partner for Anna. At the end of the second chorus, the trolls sing “The way to fix up this fixer upper / Is to fix him up with you”, explicitly stating their belief system: love and marriage will “solve” all of life’s “problems”. (That last idea is further evidenced by how, as soon as they learn why Kristoff brought Anna to see them, they believe that romance, in the form of “a true love’s kiss”, is the way to thaw Anna’s frozen heart.)

These ideas (“if you’re not admitting your attraction, you’re repressing it”, “you should prioritize your suitability as a partner over your own happiness”, “romance fixes people and problems”) are all part of an unspoken, widely accepted belief called amatonormativity that dictates that romance is (or should be) universally desired and valued above all else. It’s one of the driving factors behind why many aroaces find our wishes for singlehood go unheard and are told that we’re lying about not experiencing attraction, or that we should change our behavior so that we can attract a partner, or that our lack of interest or innate feeling of romance makes us “broken”. By expanding on the idea of romantic pressures introduced in “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”, the movie shows why it’s important to give people the space to freely choose (or not choose) different relationships: these assumptions and pressures can lead to people justifiably lashing out, like when Elsa accidentally freezes Anna’s heart at the end of “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”, and they also can make things worse for those on the receiving end of similar pressures, like when Anna and Kristoff lose valuable time during this number. In this subtle but subversive way, “Fixer Upper” refutes ideas that are especially hostile to aroaces like Elsa, and instead says that pressuring people to pursue relationships is much worse than choosing not to pursue relationships at all.

Non-musical moments in Frozen

While “Fixer Upper” is the last musical number in Frozen, there are two other moments I want to talk about before we start with Frozen II. First, when Hans reveals his true motivations to Anna, we get this exchange:

Hans: As heir, Elsa was preferable [for marrying into the throne], of course, but nobody was getting anywhere with her. But you–

Anna: Hans!

Hans: You were so desperate for love

This dialogue goes by quickly, but it’s one of only two moments in the entire Frozen franchise that potentially address Elsa’s orientation. It’s not clear how Hans and other suitors were trying to marry Elsa (maybe they sent Elsa letters that went unanswered?), but it’s not surprising that none of them could make progress courting an aroace like Elsa 7.

Second, at the end of the film, we get a genre-defying twist: the act of true love that saves Anna is her choice to sacrifice herself to save her sister, not a romantic kiss. Frozen could have let the trolls 8 be right, and make romance be the magical solution to all problems, at the cost of suggesting that its aroace main character was somehow fundamentally “broken”. But instead, in this moment where romantic love is wholly irrelevant and unimportant, Frozen suggests that a fairytale “happily ever after” is accessible to aroaces, too. 9 10

Part II: Frozen II

One of the things I like so much about Frozen II is that instead of relying on contrasts between Elsa and Anna to code Elsa as aroace, Frozen II focuses more directly on aroace themes, in particular the question of Elsa’s (in)completeness as a person 11. When it comes to relationships, many people believe that anyone who’s single is naturally “incomplete” in some way, but made “complete” or “whole” when they search for and eventually meet their soulmate/perfect partner. (This belief is even reflected in the language we use, like calling someone’s romantic partner their “other half” 12.) However, many aroaces don’t particularly care about having or actively don’t want a partner, so this belief suggests that we’re “permanently incomplete” since we’ll never find “the one” to complete us.

The music of Frozen II initially sets up the idea that the siren Elsa searches for is the person that will “complete” her, but by subverting the payoff in two different ways, it actually refutes the idea that aroaces are “incomplete”. First, the siren turns out to be not a person, but the fifth spirit, who uses memories of Elsa’s mother to call out to her 13. Second, Elsa eventually becomes the fifth spirit, so instead of being half of a duo (“Kristoff and Anna”, “Anna and Elsa”, “Elsa and the siren”), she’s just “Elsa”, complete and whole all by herself.

All Is Found

The question of (in)completeness is first introduced in “All Is Found”, when Iduna sings “Come, my darling, homeward bound / When all is lost, then all is found” 14. This line is repeated later in the film, so I’ll save the bulk of the analysis for later, but the main thing to notice here is the words “lost” and “found”, and in particular that “lost” occurs first and “found” occurs second.

Into the Unknown

Next, “Into the Unknown” introduces the siren as a conversational partner that gradually causes Elsa to confront the question of whether she’s truly happy in (heteronormative) Arendelle. At first, Elsa is very resistant, singing “[I should] ignore your whispers which I wish would go away”. In the second verse, she sings “Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls” while looking at two portraits: one of her and Anna as children with their parents; and one of her and Anna as adults with Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf. Notably absent in either of these portraits is a love interest, which corroborates her lyric. Whether “these walls” refers to just the castle or the entire kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa seems happy to stay single as an aroace. However, she’s won over by the siren at the end of the third verse, singing “Who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be”. Her doubt about whether she truly fits in in Arendelle mirrors the feeling of not quite fitting in with conventional society that many queer people have, even before they fully become conscious of being queer.

Lost in the Woods

Frozen II explores the question of (in)completeness in “Lost in the Woods”, connecting it to the idea of being, well, lost. In the first verse, Kristoff sings “Now I turn around and find, I am lost in the woods”, connecting his figurative situation (feeling metaphorically lost since Anna isn’t with him) to his literal situation (being physically lost somewhere in an unfamiliar forest). Also, notice that Kristoff uses the words “find” and “lost” in the opposite order in which they occurred in “All Is Found”, suggesting that his situation is inverted or “backwards” compared to “All Is Found”.

As the song continues, Kristoff questions his place in the world, asking “Who am I if I’m not your guy? / Where am I if we’re not together forever?”; a little earlier, Kristoff was prepared to propose to Anna, so her unexpected disappearance leaves him feeling existentially unsure of what it means if she isn’t “the one” to complete him. In the second chorus, Kristoff sings “Now I know you’re my true north, ’cause I am lost in the woods”; by comparing Anna to a navigational aid to guide him forward through life, he reiterates that her absence and his subsequent solitude leave him so metaphorically and emotionally lost that it spills over into him being literally and physically lost in the woods.

The Next Right Thing

I’m going to skip over “Show Yourself” for just a moment and instead discuss “The Next Right Thing” because of how closely Anna’s situation mirrors Kristoff’s in “Lost in the Woods” and expands on the notion of incompleteness. Anna sings “I follow you around, I always have / But you’ve gone to a place I cannot find”, deeply saddened by her separation from Elsa, just like how Kristoff was saddened by his separation from Anna. Later, she sings “You are lost, hope is gone”, paralleling her own situation to Kristoff’s; Anna relied on Elsa and expecting her to always be there, so she feels lost and fundamentally incomplete without her. And again, notice that like Kristoff, Anna uses the word “find” first, and “lost” second. Before the second chorus, Anna sings “The only star that guided me was you”; by echoing Kristoff’s line about “true north” and navigational aids, Anna is suggesting that the strength of her feelings for Elsa and the loss she now feels is similar to Kristoff’s feelings for Anna and the loss he felt in “Lost in the Woods”. This reiterates the first movie’s message (that Anna’s “true love” is Elsa and that the strength of Anna’s love for Elsa is on a similar level to that of romantic love), but it also highlights how Anna now feels incomplete without Elsa.

Show Yourself

“Show Yourself” ties together the question of (in)completeness and the idea of being “lost” or “found” in such a beautiful, aroace-affirming way; if “Let It Go” was a general coming out ballad, then “Show Yourself” is an anthem about aroace self-acceptance. In the first verse, Elsa sings “I’m arriving / And it feels like I am home”; headed towards the glacier, she’s finding a sense of comfort and belonging in a place she’s never been to before, just like how many queer people feel like they’ve found a second home when they first become a part of the queer community. Next, Elsa sings “I have always been a fortress / Cold secrets deep inside”, referring to the time she spent trying to conceal her magical powers, as well as the time she spent being closeted and hiding her “cold” aroace identity away from view. Elsa continues the closet analogy, singing “You have secrets too / But you don’t have to hide”; this lyric shows how much she’s grown as a character, from struggling with who she is (both in terms of having magical powers and being aroace), to trying to help others through a similar struggle. If we factor in the fact that Elsa eventually becomes the fifth spirit (that is, the person she’s talking to), we arrive at the very powerful interpretation that Elsa is giving herself permission to come out of the closet as aroace and be who she really is.

In the first chorus, Elsa suggests that the siren could “complete” her in some way by asking “Are you the one I’ve been looking for / All of my life?”. Although Elsa doesn’t explicitly say she’s “incomplete”, it’s easy to imagine someone like Kristoff or Anna using the exact same wording in an overtly romantic/soulmate way. (For instance, Anna’s already made reference to “the one” in “For the First Time in Forever”.) Elsa starts the second verse with the idea that she’s somehow “half” or “not yet whole”, singing “All my life I’ve been torn”. A little later, Elsa sings “I have always been so different / Normal rules did not apply”, referring to her ice powers that made her different from most people, as well as her aroace identity that makes her buck societal expectations of “normality” or straightness. In the second chorus, Elsa sings “You are the answer I’ve waited for / All of my life”, doubling down on the idea from the first chorus that, whatever the siren is, it’s akin to the soulmate/”other half” that other people might spend their lives searching for.

In the lead-in to the third chorus, we get the lyric “Come, my darling, homeward bound / I am found”, which directly calls back to “Come, my darling, homeward bound / When all is lost, then all is found” from the beginning of the movie, and examining the difference between the two lines reveals a lot. When Iduna ends her lullaby with “When all is lost, then all is found”, she suggests that there’s a causal relationship between the two ideas, that being lost somehow leads to being found; additionally, the fact that she uses “lost” first and “found” second sets this moment apart from Anna and Kristoff, who “find” (first) themselves “lost” (second) in their solitude. Now, let’s compare this with “Show Yourself”. Although Elsa is alone in this moment, instead of feeling lost, she declares “I am found”, avoiding even using the word “lost” at all, and she turns the word “all” into “I”, associating herself with a sense of totality or wholeness. There’s no one around to “complete” Elsa, but she doesn’t need anyone else to be complete; conventional wisdom would dictate that she should be lost since she’s alone, just like Anna and Kristoff were, but her solitude, her state of being conventionally lost, is what leads her to realize that she is instead found. Indeed, if we add back the part of Iduna’s lullaby that Elsa cut, her line becomes “When I am (conventionally) lost, then I am (truly) found”.

Finally, in the third chorus, Elsa and the fifth spirit 15 sing “Show yourself / Step into your power”. On the surface, they’re referring to Elsa becoming the fifth spirit and understanding the full extent of her magical powers, but through an aroace lens, Elsa and the fifth spirit are affirming and accepting Elsa being aroace as she truly realizes that she’s whole by herself. As the duet continues, we get a callback to the earlier choruses with the lyric “You are the one you’ve been waiting for / All of my life”; rather than needing some special person or thing (i.e. “the one”), Elsa has always been complete, even if she didn’t realize it. In a society that suggests that people can only be complete when they find “the one”, a society that suggests that aroaces are fundamentally incomplete since we’ll never find “the one”, this is such a powerful and important message for us to hear, not just that we are whole, but that we always have been whole.

Part III: The score of Frozen II

Now that I’ve gone through all the lyrics, we must be done, right? Well, lyrics are definitely an important and effective way to convey meaning and tell a story, but they’re not the only way to do that. That’s right, it’s finally time to talk about the incredible use of musical motifs in Frozen II. (If you don’t know music theory, don’t worry; I’ve tried to make this last section as approachable as possible, and I think you’ll find the final payoff is worth the time it takes to get there.)

A musical motif is a short section of music (often only a handful of notes long) that acts as a musical representation of an idea in a story by being repeatedly associated with that idea. If you’ve ever seen Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, you’re probably familiar with the motifs for the Rebel Alliance or the Fellowship, and when you hear the motifs, you know the entities are literally or narratively nearby, even if they aren’t visible on screen. 16

“Rebel Alliance” motif
“Fellowship” motif
By cleverly using and reusing different motifs in a film score, a composer can enhance the audience’s experience, helping them follow the plot or better understand the emotions of different characters. In Frozen II, the musical motifs augment the strong aroace coding within the lyrics by making the boundary between Elsa and the siren be musically “blurry”, foreshadowing the fact that the thing Elsa is looking for, the thing she and the audience expect to “complete” her, is in fact herself.

At the end of Agnarr’s bedtime story, we’re introduced to the siren motif, sung by an unknown person (later revealed to be Iduna) who saves Agnarr. The next time we hear the siren motif is at the start of the third verse of “All Is Found”, when the pattern is briefly played by the violins to accompany Iduna’s lullaby. These two occurrences suggest the siren is both mysterious and familiar, distant and close, simultaneously hiding that Elsa becomes the fifth spirit and foreshadowing it.

“Siren” motif
“Siren” motif in purple from “All Is Found”
A little later, the siren features prominently in “Into the Unknown”. At the very beginning, we hear the siren motif three times, and the third time, the pattern is extended by an additional two notes that continue the downwards movement. Later, as Elsa sings the verse, instead of singing completely different musical material that could give her a musical identity distinct from the siren, her melody dances around the siren motif without quite recreating it, suggesting the line between her and the siren is musically blurry.
“Siren” motif with two-note extension in purple
Excerpt from “Into the Unknown”
When Elsa sings “wish would go away, oh…”, she introduces a second motif as a “response” to the siren 17. After the fifth spirit sings the siren pattern again, Elsa sings back an additional two notes. It’s unclear whether these two notes are a continuation of the downward motion in her response motif, or if it’s the continuation of the siren’s pattern like earlier in “Into the Unknown”; both answers are entirely reasonable, so it’s ambiguous as to whose thought Elsa is continuing.
“Response” motif in green and two-note extension in purple from “Into the Unknown”
Next, at the chorus, Elsa imitates the siren motif exactly, when she sings “Into the Unknown” for the third time; taken in combination with the later lyric “Every day’s a little harder / As I feel my power grow”, the way Elsa’s melodic material slowly drifts towards imitating the siren’s suggests that eventually, there will be no difference between Elsa and the siren. Additionally, an incredibly subtle but nice detail is that the most iconic notes of the most iconic song in Frozen, when Elsa first allows herself to use her powers in full, are the exact same notes as the siren pattern, just in a different order, suggesting that this slow progression towards becoming the siren has been going on for longer than one might expect.
“Siren” motif in purple from “Into the Unknown”
“Let it go” motif from “Let It Go”, and “Siren” motif
After the second chorus, Elsa sings the siren pattern exactly, and the siren echoes her up a third. (Remember the idea of echoes up a third – they’ll be important later.) At the very end of their duet, Elsa sings the response motif again, helping to associate it with the idea of “dialogue” or “communication” with the fifth spirit. (She also sings it unaccompanied before discovering her parents’ ship.)
“Siren” motif with echo up a third in purple from “Into the Unknown”
“Response” motif in green from “Into the Unknown”
Once Elsa and her friends enter the enchanted forest, they quickly encounter the wind spirit. While Elsa fights inside the hurricane, we’re introduced to another important motif, the “fifth spirit” motif, which plays when Elsa sees memories of the past within the vortex. Later in the film, it frequently plays when Elsa acts as a bridge or mediator between the magical spirits of the forest and other humans, as well as when Honeymaren looks at Iduna’s scarf and tells Elsa about the fifth spirit.
“Fifth spirit” motif
Given how strongly the lyrics of “Show Yourself” code Elsa as aroace, it’s no surprise that the score here does the same. When I first heard “Show Yourself”, I thought the empty space in the accompaniment at each chorus felt off-balance. (After all, if you compare it to a song like “Let It Go” or “Into the Unknown”, every downbeat and important lyric is supported by a rich orchestral texture). But on a closer inspection, it turns out to be a stroke of hidden genius. The sudden lack of other instruments mimics the twist of there being no other person calling to Elsa; the music “answers” each command of “Show yourself” by putting a solo spotlight on Elsa. 18
Excerpt from “Show Yourself”
At the end of the first chorus, Elsa sings “I’m ready to learn / Ah ah ah ah” on the same notes as the siren motif, and the siren voice answers her with “Ah ah ah ah ah” on the same notes as the response motif. This role reversal, where Elsa and the siren each sing the other’s motif from “Into the Unknown”, blurs the boundary between Elsa and the siren, suggesting that they could be one and the same. And finally, at the very end of “Show Yourself”, Elsa sings the siren motif again, further emphasizing how she’s finally become the fifth spirit, the voice that she thought was “the answer [she’d] been waiting for”.
“Siren” motif in purple and “Response” motif in green from “Show Yourself”
While the end of “Show Yourself” is the last time we hear the siren motif reproduced exactly in the film, if you listen closely, the siren is still musically present. After the earth giants break the dam, Elsa races back to Arendelle while the fifth spirit motif plays. First, a horn plays the descending three note introduction, and then a second horn echoes it. Second, when Elsa creates the ice wall to protect Arendelle, we hear a choral line added to the orchestral texture. The choral line echoes the descending end of the fifth spirit motif that the orchestra just played, but because of how it’s been delayed in time, the choral line also ends up harmonizing a third above the orchestra. The only other time that echoes, harmony a third higher, and a choral line appear together like this is during Elsa and the siren’s duet in “Into the Unknown”, so it’s clear this music is supposed to evoke the idea of the siren motif without directly using the four note pattern or specific siren voice that within the context of the narrative is literally the siren. At this point in the movie, Elsa has fully merged with and become the fifth spirit, so evoking the idea of the siren while playing the motif associated with Elsa mediating between the spirits and the humans suggests those two ideas are the same; that is, that Elsa is the siren she’d been looking for all this time.
“Fifth spirit” motif from “The Flood”
Now, if you compare the contour of the siren motif and the fifth spirit motif, you’ll see that they have the same shape. The fifth spirit motif is a bit longer than the siren motif, but they both have a distinct down-up-down movement.
Looking at every motif in Frozen II, we see that only the fifth spirit motif and the siren motif have this exact shape. Put another way, if you look at the just the shapes of the motifs in Frozen II instead of looking at all the notes, the fifth spirit motif (representing Elsa) and the siren motif (representing what Elsa’s looking for) are the same motif.
Every motif in Frozen II, with the “Siren” and “Fifth Spirit” motifs in purple
If we add in all of the motifs that only appear in Frozen, we find just one other motif with the same down-up-down shape, a motif that represents Anna and Kristoff 19.
Every motif in the Frozen franchise, with the “Anna and Kristoff”, “Siren”, and “Fifth Spirit” motifs in purple

Now, when I first realized that the down-up-down shape was used by another motif in the Frozen franchise, I was crestfallen, because I thought it ruined the nice aroace coding (that Elsa and what she’s searching for are the same) given by the uniqueness of the down-up-down shape. But then I noticed the common thread tying the three motifs together.

The Anna and Kristoff motif represents the two of them being together, and judging by “Lost in the Woods”, being with Anna makes Kristoff feel existentially “complete”. The fifth spirit motif plays when Elsa acts as a mediator, getting closer to “completing” her job of being the bridge between humans and nature. For most of the film, Elsa believes the siren is what she’s been searching for and implies it might “complete” her.

Do you see why this sort of motivic analysis excites me to no end? Frozen II gives us one musical motif representing what Elsa searches for, and another motif representing what she eventually becomes, but the film uses the same shape for both motifs to indicate that Elsa herself is the answer she searches for and hopes will complete her. By itself, that’s already really strong aroace coding, but by reusing a motivic shape and building off of the musical ideas from the original Frozen, Frozen II ends up stretching the idea of self-completeness, the foundation of Elsa’s aroace coding in the film, across the entire franchise.

Part IV: Closing thoughts

Researching and writing this essay was quite the adventure. From the start, I knew there were lyrics and moments that resonated with me as an aroace, but I had no idea there would be so much aroace coding waiting to be found. (In fact, the Frozen franchise is so musically rich that I wrote an extra piece just about the motifs). Luckily, my journey led me to a satisfying conclusion: Elsa is very strongly coded as aroace, and the lyrics and music of Frozen and Frozen II play such an important role in making this queer reading so fruitful.

At the end of all of this, I should acknowledge the queerphobic mouse elephant in the room. As awesome as all of this aroace coding is (especially when it comes to coding hidden in musical motifs), I think it’s a total accident. Disney Channel shows are slowly inching forward with queer representation, but Disney’s films so consistently queerbait audiences that there’s no way Disney would make a central character in one of their most lucrative franchises be queer. If Disney decided to make a Frozen III, there are so many different ways they could explore Elsa being aroace 20, but the sad truth is, Elsa is not and will probably never be canonically queer.

But even though she isn’t canonically queer, even though her aroace coding is unintentional, even though it’s the last thing Disney wants, that can’t stop us from looking at the source material and drawing our own conclusions about her. Elsa isn’t ever shown to be attracted to anyone, she’s contrasted with her straight sister who so badly wants to find romance, she’s shown to be happy without a relationship, and so many aroaces resonate with her experiences and see themselves in her. In short, she’s one of the strongest aroace coded characters in all of Disney, and she even gets to sing about being aroace and accepting who she is. Don’t get me wrong, it would be incredible for Disney to explore aroace themes in the story of a Frozen III and say outright that Elsa is aroace, but as far as I’m concerned, the music’s beat them to it.



1.
Wondering what those words mean? “Aromantic” is a romantic orientation commonly defined as referring to people who experience little to no romantic attraction. “Asexual” is a sexual orientation commonly defined as referring to people who experience little to no sexual attraction. You can learn more about aromanticism here, and you can learn more about asexuality here. From now on, I’ll be assuming you have a basic understanding of aromanticism and asexuality, but I’ll explain terms, concepts, and experiences you might not have come across if you aren’t very familiar with these identities.

2.
If you’re wondering why I’m reading Elsa as aroace specifically and not another aspec identity, there are two main reasons. First, when it comes to media that depicts romantic attraction but not sexual attraction, audiences often assume that a character experiences sexual attraction in the same way that they experience (or don’t experience) romantic attraction. Put another way, the most direct reading here would that Elsa is aro and that Anna is heteroromantic, but since they’re in a Disney movie, people assume that Elsa is aroace and that Anna is heterosexual and heteroromantic. Second, I’m aroace and often project my experiences onto characters, so I have a personal tendency to read many characters through an aroace lens.

3
For this essay, I’ll only be focusing on Frozen and Frozen II. Other media in the franchise, like Frozen Fever, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, Once Upon a Snowman, and Myth: A Frozen Tale aren’t as well known and don’t have anything to add to this analysis.

4.
“The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside / Couldn’t keep it in, Heaven knows I tried”.”Let it go, let it go / Can’t hold it back anymore”. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me / I’m free”. “Here I stand / And here I’ll stay”. “I’m never going back, the past is in the past”.

5.
You can read more about voidpunk here and here.

6.
The trolls are also framed as being generally in the wrong throughout the song, since Kristoff sensibly objected to how Anna wanted to marry Hans after knowing him for less than a day, but the trolls are trying to get Anna and Kristoff to marry each other despite how Anna has known Kristoff for even less time than Hans.

7.
Also, notice that “nobody” is gender neutral; this means that if Disney were to ever make queerness canonical within the Frozen universe, they could reinterpret “nobody”, which in this case likely means “male suitors”, to be “no suitors, regardless of gender” to support reading Elsa as aroace.

8.
who I can only assume grew up watching classic Disney fairytale movies

9.
I’m still not 100% happy with this ending, because it still says that “love”, even if it isn’t romantic love, is what has saved the day and solved the problems here. Love can be a difficult or alienating topic for many aros, some of whom don’t feel love at all. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t support these loveless aros, since it has only slightly deflected the arophobic idea of “romantic love is what makes us human/saves the day” to “love is what makes us human/saves the day”. However, it’s relatively rare to see media that says that non-romantic forms of love can be important and meaningful, so I still appreciate this moment, and I’m hopeful that the idea of “love is what makes us human/saves the day” can be eventually rejected in its entirety.

10.
I’m leaving out the songs that play in the credits of Frozen and Frozen II because for each song, the slight lyrical changes (if any) augment the queer readings presented here in fairly straightforward ways. The other songs that I haven’t mentioned don’t have anything to add to this analysis.

11.
But I still appreciate and enjoy the (non-musical) moment of contrast between the sisters when we briefly get to see young Elsa and Anna playing together. When Anna suddenly veers towards romance, Elsa is uncomfortable and calls it “gross”, a sentiment often shared by aroaces. Additionally, interest in romance (and, later sex) is often seen as a rite-of-passage or sign of maturity, which causes many people to see aroaces as young or childish (especially if sex or romance make us uncomfortable), but luckily Frozen II dodges this infantilization; even though Elsa is the one put off by romance, she’s 3 years older than Anna and acts more mature than her throughout the opening.

12.
And the idea that finding a romantic partner makes us “whole” or “complete” is related to the idea from “Fixer Upper” that romance fixes people, which is related to the idea that aroaces are broken for not wanting sex or romance, which is related to how well-intentioned people can end up pressuring us to date. It’s all a big, interconnected, amatonormative mess.

13.
If you disagree and think that the siren is actually Iduna calling to Elsa, I’ll concede that the movie is a bit ambiguous as to who or what the siren is, but I think the interpretation that the siren is the fifth spirit using Iduna’s memory is the most reasonable. First, just like in any other musical, in the world of Frozen, singing and dancing are avenues for characters to express their emotions when dialogue is too limiting; if Iduna is the siren, then she somehow managed to predict her daughter’s free, emotional expression well enough to harmonize with it and play a game of call-and-response (such as when Elsa calls out to the siren near the beginning of “Show Yourself” and the siren responds). Yes, this is a universe with magic, but every bit of magic, from the source of Elsa’s powers, to her abilities and limitations, to elemental magic, to Elsa’s ability to reconstruct memories, except Iduna being able to see the future or communicate from beyond the grave, is explained to some degree, so saying that the siren is Iduna seems a little silly and inconsistent to me. Second, in “Show Yourself”, the only times we actually see Iduna singing is when she calls to the wind as a young girl and when she sings “Come, my darling, homeward bound” from “All Is Found”; I believe the fact that she isn’t shown on-screen singing any original music or any other line in this sequence indicates that it isn’t really Iduna who’s interacting and communicating with Elsa. Third, while Jennifer Lee does say that the voice is Iduna in the documentary Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II, I think this interpretation confuses the fact that the siren (that is, the fifth spirit) acts as a maternal figure to Elsa by giving her ice powers with the siren being Elsa’s literal mother. (Plus, I believe that an author’s interpretation of their own art is on equal footing with that of any reader’s interpretation, rather than being “more canon”.) Furthermore, the documentary shows how the “Show Yourself” sequence underwent many different iterations during production, and I believe the earlier iterations, including some where the siren that calls Elsa is meant to be the best version of herself or her future self when she is the fifth spirit, have a clear and consistent influence on the music and overall direction of the sequence, whereas the interpretation that Iduna is the siren has fairly limited influence and is only supported by the moment when young Iduna calls to the wind.

14.
Although if you take Elsa and Anna’s snow game and dialogue as foreshadowing for the plot of the entire film, you could argue the idea of (in)completeness is introduced even earlier.

15.
Remember, it’s not really Iduna in this moment. The fifth spirit is using Iduna’s voice to communicate with Elsa.

16.
For example, if you rewatch the opening of A New Hope, you’ll immediately know that Princess Leia’s ship is part of the rebellion, even though we only get half of the Rebel Alliance motif during the shot in which it first appears on screen. Or if you jump to the scene where Frodo and Sam leave the Shire, you’ll hear the Fellowship motif as they start off on the eventual Fellowship’s mission to destroy the One Ring.

17.
It turns out, you can actually see this motif as an organic extension of the second siren call during Agnarr’s story. It’s a subtle connection to make, but it blurs the line between Elsa and the siren, since it’s not clear who came up with the pattern in the first place.

18.
This rhythmic gap also appears when Elsa sings “I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you / Into the Unknown”, which could suggest that even earlier in the film, the music was trying to point to Elsa being the voice.

19.
and doesn’t appear in Frozen II at all.

20.
  • Elsa might be comfortable being aroace, but what about the people around her? I could imagine Anna being concerned for her and inadvertently putting pressure on her to date (calling back to “You mean well, but leave me be / Yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free”).
  • How do Elsa and Anna think differently about love? I can definitely see Elsa having a more cynical view of love than Anna, due to how her parents’ made the questionable decision to lock her away from the outside world ostensibly out of love.
  • Do Anna and Kristoff feel pressured to have kids, due to their status as royalty and/or being married? Maybe Anna complains about this to Elsa without realizing that Elsa’s felt amatonormative pressures her whole life.
  • Does Arendelle have any traditions surrounding marriage? Does Elsa feel conflicted seeing Anna experience them and wish she could too, or do they make her uncomfortable and glad she never has to do any of them?
  • How do different groups of people think about love or react to aroaces? The people of Arendelle, the Northuldra, the trolls, and other kingdoms/trading partners might have varying levels of acceptance when it comes to aroaces. Do some people think Anna is weird for caring about Elsa more than Kristoff?
  • Frozen III could feature an antagonist who very clearly feels romantic love but is willing to hurt others to get what they want (possibly using love as a motivator to justify their actions), and contrast that antagonist with Elsa, who’s aroace but cares deeply about not hurting anyone.
  • Does Elsa know any other aroaces? How did she realize she was aroace? Does Elsa openly talk about being aroace? Maybe there are some younger aroaces that look up to her as a role model.
  • How did Elsa react to the suitors Hans mentioned briefly in Frozen? How does Elsa react when people are attracted to her?
  • In short, what is it like to be an aroace living in the world of Frozen?

7 thoughts on “How Frozen and Frozen II's music codes Elsa as aroace

  1. I really love this essay. I’ve loved Elsa since I saw the movie in high school, though I thought I was straight back then and related to her based on the anxiety-coding you can also read into her narrative (I should write an essay about that). Even back then it bothered me when I’d see fanfictions shipping her (shipping her with Jack from Rise of the Guardians was weirdly popular) and it seemed natural to switch to thinking of her as aroace once I realized that I was.

    Your point about the contrast between Anna describing love as an open door and Elsa talking about slamming the door is wonderful. It’s my favorite part of the whole essay.

    I actually do really love the climax of Frozen (where Anna sacrifices herself for Elsa and breaks the curse), but I also feel like I’ve spent a large portion of my life screaming into the wind about how platonic and familial love are powerful and important and interesting and worthy of attention. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very good aro and an even worse kinda-sorta-maybe aplatonic* so who knows how much my opinion counts for.

    Also, unless I’m completely misremembering the climax of Frozen, Anna never tries kissing Kristoff, so Disney dodges having to decide what that would actually do. Very useful for them given the reaction a lot of people would have to what would probably be perceived as proof Anna and Kristoff shouldn’t be together.

    I can’t really comment on your Frozen II analysis because I actually haven’t seen the movie (I should get on that), but I love the analysis of the motifs at the end. I can’t guarantee that someone with no music background at all could understand it, but I’m an ex-choir kid with an extremely shaky knowledge of music theory and I understood it so that’s something at least.

    * I “technically count” as aplatonic by at least one definition, but I’m never sure what to do with that because I don’t think of myself as loveless so much as having a lifelong track record of failing to preform platonic relationships in ways which others interpret as me being uncaring, selfish or unwilling to put in the work. Yes, that’s just as confusing as it sounds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really love this essay.

      Aw, thanks!

      Your point about the contrast between Anna describing love as an open door and Elsa talking about slamming the door is wonderful. It’s my favorite part of the whole essay.

      🙂 I’m actually surprised by how many people really like this little detail. Admittedly, I’ve been living and breathing Frozen for the past couple of months, so my sense of what’s “obvious” or generally known/understood is shaky, but I’m glad I left it in.

      I’m not a very good aro … so who knows how much my opinion counts for.

      I mean, I don’t think that valuing platonic and familial love makes anyone a bad aro. (Like how valuing romantic love doesn’t make someone a bad ace.) Your personal values and preferences are your own, and as long as you don’t use them to hurt other people, everything’s fine. I suspect that you’re wary of accidentally hurting loveless aros, but supporting loveless aros and valuing platonic love and loving the ending of Frozen are behaviors that can coexist with each other. (The point where trouble arises is when someone starts imitating amatonormative rhetoric, à la “platonic love is the most important thing ever and universally needed”.)

      I’m glad you like the motivic analysis. Truth be told, the very earliest version of this essay was going to focus 90% on motifs because I’m a huge music theory nerd there’s interesting stuff hidden in them, but when I decided to rewatch both movies, I realized there was a lot of stuff in the lyrics as well.

      Like

  2. I love reading this kind of in-depth textual analysis. 🙂 I only kind of followed the music theory stuff (like, there was a lot of me nodding and going, “Uh-huh… okay… I’ll take your word on that” 😉 ), but I liked your analysis of the song lyrics.

    The only place I would take issue with your analysis is on “Let it Go” and the “For the First Time in Forever” reprise. The “Let It Go” analysis seemed too affirmative to me, ignoring the song’s Sad-Song-That-Only-Pretends-To-Be-Happy status. I would have liked to see a discussion of the song that worked more with its inherent irony and pain. Similarly, Elsa’s part in “FTFTIF2” reads to me less like an affirmation of aroace self-sufficiency than an instance of internalised aro/ace-phobia: Elsa believes (wrongly and tragically) that there is no place for an aroace person like her in Arendelle and that society will be better off without her.

    Personally, if I were to contrast Anna’s “open door” with Elsa’s “slam[med] door”, I would make it about how amatonormativity has twisted both sisters’ expectations about relationships: Anna believes romantic love will lead her to liberation; Elsa believes her lack of romantic love means being permanently shut out. (“Love Is an Open Door” and “Let It Go” being two contrasting songs that are both ironic.) Both sisters have to move beyond their amatonormative assumptions in order to reach the embracing of sisterly love that brings about the film’s happy ending.

    I guess even seen through an ace/aro lens, this is a text that allows for multiple interpretations. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The only place I would take issue with your analysis is on “Let it Go” and the “For the First Time in Forever” reprise. The “Let It Go” analysis seemed too affirmative to me, ignoring the song’s Sad-Song-That-Only-Pretends-To-Be-Happy status. I would have liked to see a discussion of the song that worked more with its inherent irony and pain. Similarly, Elsa’s part in “FTFTIF2” reads to me less like an affirmation of aroace self-sufficiency than an instance of internalised aro/ace-phobia: Elsa believes (wrongly and tragically) that there is no place for an aroace person like her in Arendelle and that society will be better off without her.

      I see what you mean with FTFTIF2, definitely one of Elsa’s goals is to avoid hurting anyone else and she thinks the best way to do that is to stay away from other people. Through that lens, I think your Sad-Song-That-Only-Pretends-To-Be-Happy interpretation of Let It Go is more relevant, but I also think that the emotional arc through the first chorus is about Elsa accepting and coming to terms with everything that’s happened (both the bad things like revealing her powers and running away, and the good things like being able to freely use her powers), and the rest of the song is about choosing to focus on the good instead of the bad. (As to whether that’s True Happiness (TM) in that moment, we might agree to disagree.)

      Personally, if I were to contrast Anna’s “open door” with Elsa’s “slam[med] door”, I would make it about how amatonormativity has twisted both sisters’ expectations about relationships: Anna believes romantic love will lead her to liberation; Elsa believes her lack of romantic love means being permanently shut out.

      Ooh, that’s a good point. Elsa takes a voidpunk approach, but part of the impetus for that approach is that she thinks she’s permanently shut out (from society, from Anna, etc.).

      I guess even seen through an ace/aro lens, this is a text that allows for multiple interpretations. 🙂

      Absolutely :). I’ve presented my perspective here, but I still like seeing other interpretations, because (in my opinion) a large portion of art Being Art happens in our thoughts and discussions. (I’d also be interested in other aspec readings of Elsa. Like I said in the footnotes, I’m personally biased towards headcanonning her as aroace.)

      Liked by 1 person

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