As of 2013, when it hit theaters, Frozen was the most trans movie ever. At least so it seemed to many trans girls (it was and is a story that centered girls; transmasculine and nonbinary people deserve other movies). It’s a film about growing up different, playing with girls–or with one girl in particular–until you realize that your difference could hurt them, and then isolating yourself till you ache (the song alluding to this is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). It’s a movie about the strenuous, artificial, beautiful visual worlds made by trans girls, first in our heads and then where other people might see them; it’s a movie about trans girls’ fears that we could make monsters, or become monsters, if we reveal who we are. As every parent who has seen a kid shocked at Prince Hans’s heel turn might attest, it’s a movie about how heterosexual, cisgender, romantic, monogamous love, the kind that leads to marriage, cannot be the only kind. It’s a movie where trans girls may see that once we come out—if we learn not to lash out, but to reach out—we might renew the love and friendship we need.
That reading of Frozen (the first movie) seemed so clear, and so important, to me, that I’m still surprised when cisgender people don’t get it. And here I am explaining it again, with added urgency, because Frozen 2, which hit theaters this week, isn’t just a beautiful movie: it’s even more trans than the first one. I want every trans girl, and everyone who cares for a trans girl, to see it.
Frozen was a movie about coming out within existing relationships, and finding acceptance where you already live. Frozen 2 is about finding trans and queer community: it shows what happens after you come out, if your life and work as you knew them aren’t enough. How did I get to be the way I am? How can I find others like me? Why do I feel like they—we—must exist, even though I haven’t seen them yet, as if I were hearing a voice nobody else heard? (The Frozen 2 song for those feelings, with its slow build and its belted high notes, is “Into the Unknown.”)
Those are feelings I constantly experienced from 2013 to 2017, when I finally told the world I was a girl. Since then I’ve found and strengthened friendships with other trans people, in person and online. I’ve at least tried to participate in trans culture, to learn our history, to put myself where people I would not have met earlier can see me (the song for that is “Show Yourself”). I’ve wondered how far cis friends, allies and loved ones would follow as I tried to find new communities, new people, new ways to live. The usual answer has been: farther than I thought, by a generous measure. But not all the way. It was a risk, and a challenge, both logistical and emotional. But it worked: for me, and—in a far more epic way– for Elsa in Frozen 2. She seems, when I see her story, as trans as I am.
The new film begins by reminding us that the big dilemmas of Frozen have been solved: things look orderly, the quasi-Norwegian seaside kingdom of Arundell has peace and prosperity, Elsa’s powers are under control, and the people around her accept her for who she is. Anna even says to Elsa “When will you see yourself as I see you?”–something that anyone with both gender dysphoria and a loving cis partner has heard before. But Elsa’s not satisfied with what Anna sees: she hears that voice telling her to find out who she really is. Trying to tune into that voice’s song, she summons the elements of primeval nature—ice, wind, earthquake– and nearly destroys Arundell (though the people are safe; only its structures suffer).
That voice then leads the cast we know from Frozen— Elsa and Anna, Olaf the snowman and Sven the reindeer and Kristoff the boyfriend— north to a forest hidden by magic auroras. This is what the script calls, repeatedly and obtrusively, a “place of transformation” (a trans place, as it were). But Anna and the rest can only enter the magic forest if Elsa goes first. (Trans people have to let the cis people into our worlds; cis people can’t just go investigate on their own.)
What’s in the forest? Magical forces; invisible creatures (such as the wind spirit nicknamed, punnily, Gale); symbols for the four traditional elements. There’s also a violet and blue salamander, a traditional fire spirit, who endangers the forest until Elsa befriends him or her or them. Don’t tell your kids how much this super-cute salamander resembles a vibrator, nor how much the salamander’s behavior—destructive only until it is recognized and befriended—could represent sexual desire.
The forest also holds what’s left of Arundell’s combatants from a long-ago battle, and what’s left—perhaps all that’s left—of the Northuldrans, reindeer-herding, Eurasian-looking people who fought on the other side. Northuldrans—their appearance and their history—speak to a lovely if sometimes jarring dimension of Frozen 2 that’s not, first of all, about gender. Visually modeled on the Sami in Finland, the Northuldrans were first tricked, then defeated in battle, then made to disappear (behind the aurora, under permanent cloud cover) by the power-hungry, long-deceased former Arundellian king.
This same king (Elsa and Anna’s grandfather) built the Northuldrans an enormous dam, which looks like the Great Wall of China and behaves like the Keystone XL pipeline: it’s the proverbial gift you’re better off without, a gift that severs the Northuldrans’ connection with the watercourse that represents nature. To save the forest and the Northuldrans, and perhaps nature itself, the dam must go, even if it means flooding Arundell: the film asks whether doing right by indigenous people today requires the demolition of civilizations. The answer is no, but it’s a close call. There’s also an allusion to global climate change: will Arundell survive the higher seas? Can it install the right technology (in this case, a seawall)? It can, but only with Elsa’s magic to help.
Yet the Northuldrans also serve as figures for a trans and queer community. Elsa’s first big song, “Into the Unknown,” has her wondering, while still in Arundell, “if there is someone out there who’s a little bit like me”–and if “deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be.” She’s meant, at least, to travel to the forest, which feels (if you’re trans) like the emotionally dangerous process of seeking, for the first time, people like yourself. There, Elsa begins to feel more at home, and she makes a new special friend, Honeymaren. The non-white Northuldrans have their own mores and rituals (including marriage rituals) unlike Arundell’s: they might remind you how many real-life non-Western and indigenous cultures have third-gender and gender-nonconforming roles (Samoan fa’afafine, Diné Nádleehí), and ceremonies around those roles–roles that, if your whole world is white, you’ll never see.
But Elsa isn’t simply looking for signals of various and farflung cultures. She’s seeking a new community with keys to her own history, and for the source of that voice she hears. Anna finds the historical secret: the old king betrayed the Northuldrans; the forest’s blight is his fault. And Elsa finds, after arduous magical journeys across a cold ocean, connections to her lost mother. Elsa’s well-intentioned parents—her royal father and her secretly Northuldran mother— died in a shipwreck, not (as the children had believed) far to the south, but rather while journeying north, beyond the forest, in quest of the secret of Elsa’s magic.
Cis parents should not ask what made their kids trans: like most such quests, this one went badly for the parents.
Elsa herself, on the other hand, has every right to try to figure out how she became the woman she is, and what she can learn—belatedly—from her mom (the song for that—a duet between Elsa and the ghost of her mom—is “Show Yourself”). Elsa rides to the tomb or the shrine that holds her mom’s secret by commandeering a horse made of ice that looks, for all the world, like the glass unicorns girls (but not boys) sometimes get from adults. And once she communes with her late mother, in that secret place, she gets a new, lacier, more feminine outfit. (How much could we real-life trans girls have learned from our mothers, if the culture that raised us had allowed us to speak with them honestly about being girls? How much could we learn just about how to dress?)
Both Frozen movies seem meant to help viewers, of any age, see the full damage done by patriarchy. The civilization where Anna and Elsa grew up, the one that fed, clothed, and housed them and raised them to positions of governance, is the same civilization that propagated the myth of love at first sight, the myth that a girl needs a guy, the suppression of difference (in Frozen 1), the misuse of large-scale technology, the erasure of history, the building of barriers between good, appropriate, white straight types and everyone else, and the forced disappearance of Native, trans and queer peoples (in Frozen 2). Arundell as we know it is built on a wall and a lie. (A dam lie.)
It’s a wall and a lie that create a false binary, dividing Northuldra from Arundell, masculine from feminine, LGBTQ from cis and straight. If we tear down the wall, if we let nature do as it must, will we endanger the children? The child-figure within the story—the one whom the other characters treat like a child—is the bubbly, chatty, indefatigably optimistic snowman Olaf, who loves Anna but needs Elsa to survive. Of course she does, and—after a big scare– he does too.
Frozen 2 is never more trans than in its ending, where Elsa realizes that she belongs at once in Arundell (as a frequent visitor) and in the revived—and sunny—Northuldra, the space that best fits her, where she might spend lots of time with Honeymaren. Elsa’s powers, with her ice-horse and her ice-bridges, let her travel at will between Arundell and Northuldra, much as lucky trans adults (myself included) might travel between social spaces and friendships and families marked out as trans (often, chosen families), and social spaces, friendships, families that are not.
And yes, at the end, Anna and Kristoff get married: it’s as if the concept of marriage had first to be rescued from the bad, wall-building history of rigid patriarchal norms. But marriage itself is OK. So is technology: without it, Arundell would fall into the sea. Also OK, as the songs imply, is adulthood: not the condition where you stop growing up, not the time of your life when you stop learning things (though Olaf, comically, thinks it is—the song for that is “When I Am Older”), but a time when you have the freedom to move from place to place, settle down or not, and choose your role.
Anna, who marries her man, and lives in one place, belongs in the role of queen; Elsa not so much. You don’t have to give up the people you already love—as Frozen 2 rightly says—to leave home and find more. You don’t have to lose yourself, your community, or your existing family, in order to figure out who you are.
When I was still trying to be a dad, rather than being the best mom I could be, when our kids were in preschool, when Frozen arrived–I found myself in repeated conversations with parents, both mothers and fathers, who didn’t like Frozen because of the princess culture and the way it encouraged young girls to wear frills and sheer gowns and tiaras and all the other outfits that, in older fairy tales, meant attracting a man. The parents saw these outfits as disempowering, and it’s true that some of them, the worse ones, made it harder for kids to climb, jump or run.
But other outfits didn’t impede kids at all: it was only the stereotypes around girliness, femininity, lace and ruffles and pale pink and paler blue, that led the parents to see them as not OK, incompatible either with real-life power or with the imaginary powers that Queen Elsa learned how to wield. Princess getup can come with great power, I told those parents. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, or with femme style. I was drawing on my own (partly-unacknowledged at that time) love for lace and ruffles and pink and ballet flats, as well as on what I knew about superheroes—and Elsa makes sense in part as a superhero, analogous to those extremely queer, sometimes trans, heroes, the X-Men (there’s a hilarious video showing as much).
I think I was right, back then. But what I didn’t see back then, but do see now, what Frozen 2, but not Frozen, highlights throughout every beautiful sparkling CGI minute—is the way princess getup and girl conventions, from pale pink and ballet to unicorns and crystal and endless attempts to match colors and outfits, also announced a kind of solidarity. I am a girl, they say. I belong with other girls. I share things with them. It’s not something trans girls, when we were small, could say. We can say it now, though. We can say that we belong with other trans people, too. And a movie can say it for us. See it with your favorite trans girl today.