As Christmas approaches, my mind is on all things whimsical, and what could be more whimsical than Disney? I felt this would be an appropriate Christmas quick post, since Frozen is currently considered a Christmas film (not sure if it actually is, but whatever).
Now, we’ve already discussed the dearth of Disney princesses with disabilities, what representation would or should look like, and all that fun stuff. I’m not here to reopen that discussion, but to examine whether one princess has stronger ties to the disability community, specifically the autism community, than we first thought in 2013.
There is no definitive proof Elsa is or isn’t on the spectrum; nobody at Disney or otherwise affiliated has confirmed she is. If she’s not, or if you conclude she’s not, that’s fine. This is just a theory, and I am well aware that every fan theory has its detractors and supporters. I’m a proponent of some and think others are silly, insulting, or downright repugnant (like the one that says Belle had Stockholm Syndrome and spent the entirety of Beauty and the Beast committing bestiality, or the ones that claim sexual subliminal messages are everywhere). But if you have always wondered if Elsa is autistic, or if anybody at Disney ever confirms she is…well, I wouldn’t be too surprised.
Evidence of Elsa’s Presence on the Spectrum
Before writing this post, I wanted to investigate whether anyone else had the same thoughts I did. It turns out there are others who support this theory and have written about Elsa as a role model or character with whom to identify for autistic children. There are several pieces of evidence to suggest this, some of which come from my research and some I put together myself.
-High anxiety. Columnist Helen Tager-Flusberg of spectrumnews.org brings up this point as her first piece of evidence. Elsa consistently distances herself from other people, even her parents and little sister. This isn’t because she lacks empathy or the desire to socialize. Rather, it’s because Elsa recognizes her ice powers set her apart, and often in a negative way. She has seen them wreak destruction; in fact, the powers could have killed Anna when the girls were little, and they do again a decade or so later. Thus, Elsa internalizes, “To get close to someone is to hurt them.” As an adult, she remains extremely proper, genial, and poised (we’ll get to that in a minute). But as Anna says, Elsa shuts out the world at large.
Anxiety, even high degrees of it, doesn’t mean someone is on the spectrum. However, people who do have autism, especially women, experience this level of social anxiety all the time. They want to socialize, make friends, and have fun. They want to participate – a lot of people with autism ache to participate. But for so many reasons, they struggle to do so or have internalized that they can’t. Maybe that’s because they’ve seen the effects of meltdowns on other people. Maybe it’s because they’ve been told over and over, “You’re autistic, which is different, which is bad.” Maybe it’s because the rigid social scripts they try to use (often to please therapists, teachers, and other experts), don’t work. Whatever the reasons, anxiety, social and otherwise, characterizes Elsa’s life and the lives of people on the spectrum.
-Meltdowns/loss of control under pressure. Tager-Flusberg compares Elsa’s uncontrolled ice powers to autism-driven meltdowns. I don’t think they’re accurate representations of meltdowns for every person, but Tager-Flusberg raises a good point. When Elsa controls her ice powers, they create beautiful structures. She can use them to protect herself and others from real danger. She can use them to bring joy to others (see Arendelle’s new skating rink at the end of Frozen).
Yet often, Elsa cannot and does not exhibit this control. She has never been taught how to manage her powers, and so she fears them. Out of that fear and inner frustration, she reacts before thinking. Huge, threatening ice shards shoot from her palms, surrounding her and the people she loves. The icy structures she creates become barriers and sources of danger. When this happens, Elsa also vents her feelings with exclamations like, “I can’t control the curse! You’re making it worse! I don’t want to hurt you!” And isn’t that the heart cry of so many people with disabilities, but especially those with autism? Yes, we know our disabilities might hurt people, or inconvenience them, or cause undue stress. But like Elsa, we don’t want to hurt anyone, and when the TAB world insists otherwise, it just makes it harder for us to maintain composure. To put it more succinctly: Elsa was called a monster in her world. If you call a PWD, with autism or anything else, a monster, that is what they will become. You may not use that word, but trust me, we’ve used words that are a lot worse. The best thing we all can do for PWDs, especially those on the spectrum, is teach them how to manage what they live with so it can be used positively. And when meltdowns do happen, because they will, then we can take a cue from Anna. Just be there for the person. Understand. Offer help, and keep offering until the person can accept.
-Frequent “masking” of symptoms/hard to pin down autistic traits. This is the reason a lot of people say Elsa isn’t on the spectrum (aside from the fact that the writers didn’t come out and say so). Years of research has taught us that it’s much harder to spot autism in females than in males, because females are often better social “actors.” That is, a boy with autism might go ahead and spill every detail he knows about his special interest to anyone who’ll listen, social appropriateness be darned. (And that’s not always a bad thing). By contrast, research has shown girls usually observe their peers closely, and do what they must to fit in. They’ll imitate certain phrases and mannerisms. They’ll express interest in what their peers like, even if they have to fake it. They’ll study examples of successful social interaction without knowing they’re doing it. For example, girls with autism might internalize the way a movie character with a lot of friends behaves, or act the way a romantic heroine does to try to make boys notice them.
Elsa acts and reacts in many of the same ways, though she’s not a kid or teenager – Disney literature states she’s the oldest of the princess/queen line at 21. She fully accepts her role as Queen of Arendelle and has meticulously studied how a queen should speak, act, react, etc. Until her gloves are literally ripped off in one scene, the people of Arendelle have no clue their queen is hiding a secret, because she’s the picture of decorum. If anything, the Arendelle citizenry might have raised their eyebrows at Anna, who is classically clumsy and awkward, and whose lack of social graces are pretty obvious. Elsa though, has their respect and trust immediately, partially because she knows how to mask what’s really going on. Should she have to do that? No, just as any person with autism shouldn’t have to cover up who they are. But for Elsa, the primness and apparent standoffishness are survival mechanisms, as they are for many real life girls on the spectrum. That’s why I beg neurotypical people – never assume someone is stuck up because they’re acting “too proper.” They’re probably trying too hard to gain acceptance. Let them know they can relax.
-Specialized interests. This is one trait I looked hard for when considering Elsa as a candidate for the autism spectrum. In her film at least, it’s not there – unless you want to say she’s wholly focused on being queen and that her only outlet seems to come from ice. But tie-in literature indicates Elsa is more multifaceted than she looks.
Perhaps the best example of this comes from a picture book titled A Sister More Like Me, by Barbara Jean Hicks. In this book, we get both sisters’ points of view, as each wish for a sister with whom they have more in common. Anna points out that while she likes to run, jump, and play, Elsa prefers to read or do geometry. Anna considers school boring; Elsa thinks it’s fun and gets along well with tutors and nannies. Again, nobody ever says, “Elsa is like this because she has autism.” But Elsa’s bent toward the scholarly, her comfort level with adults, and deep interest in academia at the expense of traditional “kid activities,” suggest she may have something going on. As an adult, her intensely introverted nature lends more credence to this. No, not everyone on the spectrum is an introvert, but it’s a fairly common trait.
-Struggles to maintain friendships/relate on a friendly level. Hicks sums this up in a poignant line of her book: “[Elsa] could be an older sister, but she couldn’t be a friend.” Indeed, once her magic hurts Anna, Elsa is so convinced of her monstrosity, she isolates herself. But even after coming out of hiding, Elsa can’t relate to Anna on a friendly level. She tries, and the young women have some good moments, like their shared love of chocolate. Ultimately though, Elsa sticks to the role she knows she can play – older sister. This isn’t entirely spectrum-driven; since the sisters’ parents are dead, Elsa may feel she has to act as Anna’s de facto mother. Yet even when she should relax, she doesn’t. To go along with that…
-Rigid adherence to rules/routine/what “should be done.” This is a huge trait for a lot of people on the spectrum, and if you subscribe to the theory that Elsa is autistic, she’s no different. “Be the good girl you always have to be,” is her motto, and she doesn’t deviate. At one point, this rigidity wounds Anna, when Elsa refuses to bless her engagement to Hans. “You can’t marry a man you just met,” she says bluntly. She’s right, but her delivery and timing worsen the situation. Real life autistic people often struggle with this; the desire to be right or good can supersede “social appropriateness,” or the need to tune in to others’ feelings. However, this does not mean these people should be shunned. At its core, the desire to be a good, dare I say righteous, person is a positive thing. People on the spectrum simply need more help balancing that with social grace. Be especially aware if the person in your life is also devoutly religious or spiritual. They may engage in what Catholic writers have called “scrupulosity,” or assume God will punish them if they are not always 100% righteous.
-Deep empathy, sometimes to detriment. Taking into account the above, one might assume Elsa has no empathy, the same way they assume all autistic people have no empathy. In real life and fiction, this simply is not true. If anything, people on the spectrum are often empaths – people who feel so deeply, who try so hard to put themselves in others’ shoes, that they actually sabotage themselves. They come across as thinking everything is about them, and neurotypical people say so. Cue the shunning, the frustration, the grim predictions, you name it.
Elsa is no different. Again, it’s not obvious in Frozen, at least not for much of the film. Little kids won’t observe it, or if they do, they won’t know how to square Elsa’s empathy with the seemingly cold parts of her persona. But more mature people (read: Disney nerds like yours truly), can do some heavier analyzing. Elsa clearly loves Anna; even her attitude toward Hans stems from love. When she decides to “let it go,” it looks like she’s selfishly abdicating her position as queen. Yet through her dialogue, we see her first concern is actually for her people. Elsa’s reasoning, again, is that if she has to risk hurting those she’s supposed to care for, she needs to stay away from them. She actually lets herself be locked up rather than take that risk, or stand up for herself. And as we all know, Elsa’s ultimate act of empathy and love comes from recognizing, appreciating, and responding to the sacrifice of another.
So, is Elsa on the spectrum? I say probably so, and that thus, she has traits autistic people can relate to/might find themselves emulating. But again, that’s my opinion alone. You might read this and think, “Chick, you’ve hit the cocoa too hard.” And that’s fine. Just consider this a fun holiday post – a Christmas gift, if you will – to help you think about autism and other disabilities in a fun new way.
P.S.–Do other princesses or characters have disabilities/are they on the spectrum? Possibly. We’ve gone over a few who obviously do, like Quasimodo, and a few who represent disability, like Vanellope Von Schweetz. We may talk about this again; in fact, we probably will. But for now…
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and goodwill to all from the Nest!