Let me preface this post by saying that I am not a neuroscientist. Neither am I a big Disney fan. I’m more like the opposite of both of those things. My only explanation for what I’m doing, writing about this, is that its a coping mechanism, both for the long chilly snowy week we’ve had at home, and for the phenomenon of the Disney film Frozen.
It’s amazing that all of our farm daughters have caught the bug. These kids don’t go to movie theaters. They don’t have much media access at all, but Disney nailed this one so well, it only takes one little dose, and the spell is cast.
Each time our girls see each other, they start to work on the next performance. They perform the story of Frozen – or as much as we give them time to. They know the words to the songs – a lot of them, by heart – and what’s even more disturbing to me – they get it. It nearly brings me to tears to watch them. They are so beautiful, and so innocent, but they bring the emotional intensity of the songs into full play.
So, let’s look at Elsa. The eldest sister – destined to be queen. She has a power to freeze. While having some fun with her abilities as a child, she accidentally freezes her little sister, Anna. After that, she lives in fear of her power and sequesters herself from society so as not to be dangerous to her family and her people. No one knows about her power except her parents who die in a shipwreck (anyone else see that coming?) and the trolls (more on them later) who first helped heal little Anna.
Then, when provoked by her sister on the eve of her coronation, she blows her top, and all the ice comes pouring out. Elsa goes into “fight or flight” mode. As I see it, she represents the workings of the sympathetic nervous system. She lashes out as much as she needs to, then runs away. The kingdom is plunged into an endless winter and she heads out for the mountains on her own.
But it works. The sympathetic nervous system is a key part of our survival. Once Elsa has made it to the mountain, things turn around. She builds a beautiful ice palace and embraces her power. She sings this emotionally, musically, and vocally compelling song (“Let It Go” in case you haven’t heard) and transforms from a scared young woman to a sexy snow queen.
The overall message: a woman who engages her personal power is beautiful. I dig that. I just don’t dig Disney’s version of attractive (big eyes, big boobs, low neck dress, tiny waist, and so on.), especially in the context of aggressive sales to pre-teen girls, including our daughters.
Part of the job of the sympathetic nervous system is to remove us from danger. Once we survive, we can grow. Elsa couldn’t grow until she broke out of her fear and restriction and came into her power.
Funny how some distance makes everything look small,
and the fears that once controlled me
can’t get to me at all….
let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway.
(Sing it, sister!)
Let’s go back to the little sister Anna, now. She was too young to remember the unfortunate ice incident that sent her sister into hiding, so she has lived a lonely life, wanting friends. For the sake of my thought stream, I’m going to equate Anna’s activities with the parasympathic nervous system, which is more deeply related to the “rest and digest” and “feed and breed” activities.
Anna seeks connection. She falls head over heels for that wretched Prince Hans over the course of a single song. She’s so sure she’s ready to marry him. But sometimes “Love Is an Open Door” that leads to nowhere. (Again – this is an important message for maturing girls – I’m not convinced that it’s appropriate for the 4 to 10 year old crowd.) Fortunately, Elsa, the sympathetic nervous system, dampens Anna’s party by forbidding her to marry him before she freaks out and calls in the big ice.
The parasympathetic nervous system does what it will do, though, and as Anna heads out to find her sister and reason with her, she tosses carrots to Kristoff and Sven (man and reindeer), befriending her way up to the ice castle. Even though the meeting with her sister does not go so well and she ends up getting a shard of ice in her heart, her natural impulse toward communication and connectivity does not fail her. The kindness she has extended toward others keeps her afloat during difficult, and cold, times.
The deal is that these two elements of the nervous system are not antagonistic. Even though they are very different, they are complimentary. They work together, and we need them to work together to keep us safe and healthy. Either one left on it’s own can create imbalance and havoc. Hence, Anna’s poor romantic choices and Elsa’s fear and isolation. The troll characters – magical, wise, and earthy – are my favorite part of the movie, by far. In their song “Fixer Upper” they say it pretty clearly:
People make bad choices,
if they’re mad or scared or stressed.
But throw a little love their way
and you’ll bring out their best.
Ultimately, the love of the sisters IS the true love needed to save the day. Love, true unconditional love, is the balm and the glue that heals us and makes us whole.
I have no problem with that message at all.