A confession: I love watching Frozen with my children, and I don’t mind at all watching it for the 37th time. When “Let it Go” comes on as the credits roll, I love howling and hopping around the room in a goofy dance just as much my 2- and 4-year-olds (their dancing is probably little less awkward.)
The dancing is part of it, but truth be told we watch the credits after every movie because to Logan, they’re just as much a part of the movie as the characters. Whether this is a trait of autism, a note of hyperlexia or just an excuse to put off bedtime—it’s hard to say. Regardless, somewhere around the 13th time reading through the credits of Frozen, I noticed it was inspired by “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christen Andersen.
Suddenly, our warm-and-fuzzy Disney night felt a little eerie to me. Let me explain.
Andersen is one of a dozen or so authors who researcher Michael Fitzgerald has identified as having been on the autism spectrum, before such a label existed. Citing Andersen’s social impairments, narrow interests, repetitive routines and communication problems – rather than back-and-forth conversations, he was known to talk “at” people, lecture them, on odd topics—Fitzgerald says it is “very likely” Andersen had autism. And according to professor Julie Brown, who teaches a course called Autism in Literature and has written a book titled Writers on the Spectrum, “The Snow Queen” can be seen as a perfect allegory of autism.
In the original fairy tale, the two young protagonists are a little boy and girl living with Grandmother rather than two young sisters living in a palace. And while the Disnified version grants icy, magical powers to one of the sisters (Elsa, in case you’re one of the 12 people in America who haven’t seen it) at birth, in Andersen’s story, neither child has powers. Instead, one day a beautiful but wicked Snow Queen appears at the window and waves her hand at the little boy, marking “the boy for induction into her kingdom” (Brown, 2012, p. 53). Ice enters his eye and heart, and he begins to withdraw from his loved ones. He no longer plays with his best friend or has any interest in his once-favorite roses. He becomes obsessed instead with snowflakes and all their mathematical precision. The Snow Queen finally brings him to her castle, completely locked away in near-frozen isolation.
“If I see Queen Elsa coming, I will run away!” Logan has declared more than once. And he does, in fact, flee from the little girls at daycare pretending to be Elsa on the playground.
“But Elsa’s not a bad girl,” I say to Logan. “She loves Anna!”
“No, she struck her with her powers on purpose,” Logan insists. “She’s a bad girl.”
Before reading Brown’s interpretation, I could never fathom why Logan would fear the Disnified queen with gigantic blue eyes. Elsa is the Snow Queen – but she’s a loving Snow Queen who misses her sister and longs for open gates. Is it too much of a stretch to ponder whether Logan relates so well to the autistic undercurrents in Frozen that he perceives Elsa as the silent spirit she started as?
In Brown’s reading of the story, the Snow Queen determines the boy’s fate, placing him on the spectrum. His withdrawal from his loved ones and interests echoes the autistic regression countless parents have seen. His intense focus on math and puzzles is all too familiar. Even the name of the queen’s lake, the “Mirror of the Mind” calls to my mind the phrase “Theory of Mind,” the idea that autistic children do not realize other people have thoughts, feelings or plans of their own. It also reminds me of mirror neurons and the theory that people with autism lack the brain cells to learn by watching others. Both of these theories are from well past Andersen’s life (1985 and early 2000s), which makes the connection even creepier—or more of a stretch.
“Why is Elsa running away?” Logan asks me.
“Because she’s different from everyone else,” I explain. “And she’s afraid of what all the people will think.”
Logan absorbs this without comment, his eyes quietly on the screen.
“Do you ever feel like that, buddy?” I ask.
Logan doesn’t respond.
Perhaps Logan relates to Elsa, the different, lonely one. Or perhaps he fears her as the cause of feeling isolated. Maybe—maybe—his fascination with Frozen stems from some deep-seated connection to the snow queen from a collective unconscious. Or maybe he simply loves the talking snowman, the singing trolls and irresistible pop creation of “Let it Go.”
Whatever the reason, there is one final connection between Frozen, “The Snow Queen” and me, and one final reason I’ll likely continue to watch it, even as we pass 50-plus views. Andersen’s little girl never gave up on the boy she loved, Anna never gives up on her sister, and I will definitely never give up on Logan. In Andersen’s tale, the little girl’s warm embrace, love and tears save her friend, and in Frozen, Elsa learns that love is the secret she needs to balance her icy side. While today parents look to therapies—and some of us to diet, too—to save our children from falling into icy isolation, may we never forget the lessons of kids’ tales. Love is more powerful than we think.
Feeling: Warm in winter
Brown, Julie. Writers on the Spectrum. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010.