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Snow White whistles while she works, Ariel flips her fins, and Rapunzel gets really into crafting. Cinderella sings while scrubbing the floors, and Tiana wishes on a star in between running a business.
And in Frozen II, Elsa stands alone atop the highest tower, looking out on the blackness of the night. “The winds are restless,” she says to no one, before launching into a song about the inevitable forward march of time.
Oh, babe! Welcome to the community. Self-isolating, immobilized by the weight of personal expectations, and largely unable to experience joy, Elsa is the Anxious Girl’s heroine. The model for Disney princesses has changed over the years, but every one of them has fallen somewhere between aggressively perky and blindly optimistic. Cinderella is an indentured servant, Moana is tasked with saving her people from mass starvation, and Belle is both a kidnapping victim and an adult literacy instructor, but they each maintain the cheeriness of Mrs. Maisel after an extra-large cold brew. That’s the way some people function, and how nice for them! But in Frozen and Frozen II, now in theaters, Elsa is the queen of feeling fear without succumbing to its darkness. She doesn’t conquer her fear. She doesn’t vanquish it. She lives with it.
Elsa’s backstory reads like a therapist’s notes after an especially long intake session. When we meet her in the first Frozen movie, she’s an especially gifted child saddled with other people’s expectations. She sustains a major trauma after she feels responsible for her sister’s near-death experience. Her well-intentioned parents ask her to conceal the thing that makes her different and tell her to control her erratic emotions. (“Conceal, don’t feel” is not a great wellness mantra.) She loses her parents. She is politely reminded that the well-being of an entire Scandinavian kingdom rests on her. “Don’t panic,” her sister, Anna, cries, midway through the first movie, trying to extricate Elsa from her solitary ice palace. One fan theory is that Elsa is queer, and that the pressure to conceal her identity causes her constant distress. Elsa, shutting down, mumbles to herself, “There’s so much fear!” There is, she believes, “no escape from the storm inside of me.”
Elsa might be an animated fictional character with a deep-conditioned horse’s tail growing out of her head, but she’s also just a lady dealing with mood disorders. Elsa action figure dolls should come complete with a course of cognitive behavioral therapy. She’s the struggling, striving queen we’ve been waiting for.
In Frozen II Elsa has everything. She’s developed a social network and support system and learned to manage her emotions and powers. She’s a benevolent fjord queen and exclusively wears cute tops that show off her clavicle. But she’s still sad and full of doubts and consumed by a sense of being different from other people. Sounds like anxiety, depression, and trauma to me, party people! Also, she’s started hearing voices that no one else can hear.
The great triumph of the Frozen movies is that Elsa’s differences—and difficulties—are also her great powers. That sounds cheesy, but demonstrating that social and psychological differences can be gifts is radical. Disney women are at their best when they run bravely toward peril, à la Mulan galloping into war to save her father and protect her country. Elsa running directly into the ocean again, and again, and again, is a different kind of challenge for a heroine. She’s not fearless; she’s just put aside enough of her fear to be brave.
“What do you want?” Elsa asks the mysterious voice in the movie’s biggest analogue to “Let It Go,” a power-belter called “Into the Unknown.” She’s troubled by the intensity of her own feelings, but she’s also compelled. She’s come a long way from the girl who sang, “Yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free.”
In the new Frozen Elsa is plagued by personal demons, terrified of human implications for the climate, and, believe it or not, newly aware of the evils of colonialism and her complicity in it. Essentially, she’s a Millennial–Gen Z queen. Whereas other Disney ladies had peppy mottoes and adorable clumsiness, she has a purple smoky eye and a well-developed inner life. They wanted all kinds of good things—princes, freedom, adventure, and honor. Elsa’s desires are just as good and a lot more goth—she wants to walk bravely into the unknown.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour