Has anyone else been wondering what’s up with the extreme winter weather we’ve been experiencing in the northeast lately? I’m seriously wondering if Disney ice princess Elsa isn’t up to her tricks again… The following article is the first in a three-part series on the movie Frozen as an illustration of the emotional turmoil we all feel from time to time.
Last week I watched the movie Frozen with my teenage daughter. For the last year she’s been singing the songs and telling me she’s the spiritual twin of the lead character Elsa. Having dodged the original theatrical release in 2013 and subsequent viewings on DVD, I figured my time was finally due.
Although my taste in movies runs more towards Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City than Disney’s The Princess Diaries, I found myself enjoying this uplifting destined-to-be-classic princess movie. Maybe it was the experience of bonding with my daughter as I began to understand the story’s meaning for her. At the end, I turned to her and said in my overly analytical manner “Great movie! But I think that Elsa must have been experiencing emotional dysregulation.” “Duh…” she said. “Why do you think I identify with her?”
I am a strong believer that stories, especially myths and fairy tales, are a window into the human psyche. Over time, stories touching on universal human truths become ingrained in the collective unconscious as folktales, myths and fairy tales. When an animated feature becomes the fifth-highest grossing film in history, I have to wonder what insights into the human psyche it holds for us.
Disney’s Frozen is a modern re-imagining of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” A typical Disney treatment of this story would have stayed closer to the source material, with the evil Snow Queen as the stock female villain, and the boy Kai re-cast as a Disney Princess whose frozen heart is thawed by a handsome Prince Charming (think Snow White on a frozen tundra with a reindeer and a snowman as two of the seven dwarfs).
It is ironic (and perhaps instructive) that Frozen, the most successful animated movie of all time, is Disney’s most radical departure from that tried and true formula of past success. The movie is actually more about the relationship between two sisters than it is about the “Prince”. For the first time in a Disney animated feature, the villain is really the enemy within. Frozen has a minor bad guy whose true colors do not show until late in the story but the real antagonist is Elsa herself, as she battles with her inner demons.
Like most great fictional characters, Elsa’s gift is also her curse. Her ability to create both mountains and monsters of pure ice at the wave of a hand may be pure fantasy. But I see it as a metaphor for emotional dysregulation. What’s that, you ask?
Emotional dysregulation is the inability of a person to control or regulate his or her emotional responses to conflict or other provocative stimuli.
Think of a toddler watching this movie for the first time. When Elsa gets mad, she loses her temper and bad things happen to the people she cares about. This is one of the central dilemmas in the life of any three-year-old: she gets scared by the intensity of her angry emotions and the negative consequences that may result.
With a theme like that, it’s no wonder that Frozen was so popular with the Dr. Seuss set. But for a movie to be this successful, it must appeal to all ages, cutting across genders, cultures and national boundaries. Emotional dysregulation is something we all experience and can relate to. Yet in some adults and teens, it may in the most extreme cases take the form of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Borderline Personality Disorder is a serious mental health condition that effects about 1.6% of adults and involves a greatly increased risk for self-harm and suicide. Intertwined with the emotional dysregulation of borderline personality disorder are instances of emotional instability, bursts of anger, intense efforts to avoid real or perceived abandonment, and unstable interpersonal relationships, all of which abound in Frozen.
The real world of a person with Borderline Personality Disorder is nothing like a Disney movie.The movie Frozen, like the best-loved fairy tales, is a child’s take on a profoundly frightening human experience. It is a parable for a common psychological state which can in severe cases lead to extreme dysfunction. We call it emotional dysregulation when it takes the form of BPD. But it is really something all of us have felt: the fear that an inability to control our emotions will hurt other people and leave us abandoned and isolated.
One of the key ingredients of success in a Disney princess movie is the soundtrack. Part II of this series will examine the songs of Frozen as expressions of the theme of emotional regulation. Part III will conclude with a look at some of the triggers of Elsa’s emotional dysregulation and how she learns to manage it, leading to the final resolution of the conflict.
Want to see the movie? Check out the link below!
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