Saturday, November 15, 2014

CGAA Cinema: I Am What I Am When I'm Watching Disney's Frozen

It's already old news that Disney's pop-culture behemoth Frozen is gay-propaganda... What?  You haven't heard the theories that make Frozen the gayest movie of the year?  Here's a quick summary for those of you who've not been paying attention, courtesy of Steven D. Greydanus @

"With her ice powers, Elsa is notably different from other people. “Born this way or cursed?” asks the troll king, and her parents confirm that she was born that way.

Nevertheless, her difference is an occasion of fear and secrecy. Misguidedly, her parents teach her to “conceal it, don’t feel it.” This repression of her true nature leads to isolation, anxiety and finally a meltdown at Elsa’s coronation, at which she inadvertently outs herself, revealing her ice powers for all to see.

Regarded with fear and revulsion by others, Elsa defies the society that has rejected her as well as the unjust strictures placed on her by her parents, celebrating her acceptance of her true identity in the power ballad “Let it Go.” No more “Be the good girl you always have to be” for her; now her mantra is: “Let the storm rage on / The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Elsa - Disney princess & gay icon?

The thing is, while I don't believe Frozen is gay propaganda, (i.e. some precision-engineered indoctrination device) there is something about this film that speaks undeniably to me as a gay man - and it's not the big hair and sparkles.  That's not to say that the big hair and sparkles won't be doing it for some gay men.  Indeed, the first time I watched Elsa transform from anxious wallflower to 'fuck-you' diva, my first thought was 'the drag queens are going to love this!' and in the following Youtube clip, Miss Alaska Tastee Freeze proves my point rather wonderfully.  

That bloody song!  Like everyone else it seems, it's been going around my head for months.  According to this year's graduates I could be heard singing it up and down the Campus stairs (though don't believe them when they likewise tell you I was carrying aerosols of spray snow and a sequinned cloak...).

Let It Go is absolutely a gay anthem - I'm sorry, Paster Kevin Swanson, but it really is.  I'm not contradicting myself here; like I said, I don't think Frozen is gay-specific (though would it be so terrible if Elsa was a lesbian?), but I do believe her song captures a key moment recognised by many gay people; the moment you decide finally to align yourself with your true identity and not a give a shit what the neighbours say.

My point is more Barthesian than anything: Roland Barthes argued that the meaning of something is written, not by its writer, but by its recipients.  Is Frozen a gay film?  Is Let It Go a gay anthem?  Well, yes, if the gay community experiences it that way.  

The moment I heard Let It Go, I was reminded of I Am What I Am from the musical Les Cage Aux Folles - and not just reminded.  I almost heard them playing in stereo, so similar are their respective attitudes. Both songs share euphoria and defiance, and a structure that parallels burgeoning confidences, requiring vocal performances that transition from internalised and tentative to externalised and lung-busting.  I Am What I Am is the musical number sung by Les Cage Aux Folles' drag queen character, Zaza, in defiance of the judgement of others - performed in this clip by John Barrowman (I suspect Miss Alaska Tastee Freeze was too busy scraping the snow from her frock).

Disney has always spoken to the LGBT community. Despite the hetero-normative couplings that conclude most Disney films (Frozen being the notable exception), their narratives favour outsiders, iconoclasts and misfits.  The songs they sing are always soliloquies of yearning; alienated, different, bound by convention, they wish to find a place where they can belong more comfortably.  It's also true that the relationships these characters seek are non-traditional; mermaids with princes, peasant girls with bipedal beasts, thieves with princesses...  A friend of mine - gay, hairy, very tattooed and nearing fifty - admitted recently to identifying most strongly with the song Part of Your World as sung by Ariel the mermaid in Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989).   For him, it expressed the ache of an inhibited transformation, and that inevitable magnetism towards taking a fateful decision, even in the knowledge that it will pain and disappoint loving parents. 

Consider for a moment these lyrics from Disney's gender-bending Mulan (1998), as our titular heroine struggles to meet the expectations of her family: no wonder Lea Salonga's vocal has gay men and women wiping their eyes in an excess of empathy!

Look at me,
I may never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I'm not meant to play this part?
Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family's heart.

Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don't know?
Who is that perfect bride?
It's not me, though I've tried.
When will my reflection show, who I am, inside?

How I pray, that a time will come,
I can free myself, from their expectations
On that day, I'll discover someway to be myself,
and to make my family proud.
They want a docile lamb,
No-one knows who I am.
Must there be a secret me,
I'm forced to hide?
Must I pretend that I am someone else for all time?

And consider too, the opening number from Beauty In The Beast (1991), in which Belle - another outsider who refuses to conform to the expectations of her gender and is immune to the hairy-chested charms of Gaston - dreams of a life beyond the bounds of the humdrum village of her upbringing.  Again, the gay experience glimmers brightly here; that desperation to escape from 'the provincial life' of privet hedges and narrow minds to an existence less conventional, to affairs of the heart more potent and transgressive.

For me, it's not Ariel's big Broadway number from The Little Mermaid that speaks to my remembered-longings for the freedoms of a life lived out of the closet.  No, my big gay Disney showtune of choice comes from the House of Mouse's Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996) - a film that is no one's favourite in the Disney canon - but boasts a dazzling vocal performance by Tom Hulce of a song written by the great Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz that near makes me light-headed in terms of its bitter-sweet euphoria - its dream of a life lived 'out there.'  Indeed, given Hunchback's wider themes of sexual guilt, abnormality, and its ultimate plea for tolerance, Out There couldn't be any gayer.

The truth is I love Let It Go.  There, I've said it.  Look,  I want to be done with it (I certainly want it out of my head!), and yet, each time I hear it, I truly feel my pulse quicken a little.  In truth, it incites me.  I feel inspired to act.  It makes me want to go tell all those poor scared bastards who are yet to give voice to their inner-Elsa not to waste any more time or energy repressing their true identity. It returns me to my own decision to come out nineteen years ago - and no, I didn't magic an ice-palace from nothing with my bare hands - but I did finally decide to 'let it go' - and what I'm talking about is shame and fear.

So, no, I don't think for one minute that Frozen is a film about actual gay characters, or likewise some queer subtextual conspiracy seeking to convert children to the dark side (though if some of the kids I've heard singing this song so fulsomely do turn out to be gay, only happier and more confident for Elsa's example, then, hey, thank fuck for that).  I do think Let It Go is one hell of a protest song, albeit wrapped in sass and sparkles  - a glittery, star-struck roar of defiance likely to resonate with everyone and anyone who has felt cowed by the strictures of normative convention.

I'll leave you with this second version of I Am What I Am as performed so powerfully by George Hearn.   In common with Let It Go, it's a big crowd-pleaser of a showtune, but don't be fooled, as what this out-and-out gay anthem also shares with Elsa's power-ballad is its message, which isn't 'please accept me for who I am' it', but rather, 'I no longer give a damn what you think of me.' 

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