Today, May 30, is the feast of St. Joan of Arc, that 15th century mystic, visionary, and soldier whose life has touched millions of people for the last few hundred years. While I am not a scholar of Joan’s life, I do know a contemporary work of art that employs Joan’s life as a kind of hermeneutical foil–that is, an interpretive centerpoint: by this I mean Disney’s Frozen, of course!
Now…I have three young children, ages 4, 2, and 1, so let me just say that I have seen the movie multiple times and heard the soundtrack to the film, oh, at least a few hundred times. When your professional life focuses you intently on critical thinking and you hear a single album of music a few hundred times, one is bound to examine. And in Frozen, I saw something good and possibly profound. Not perfect, of course, but quite good. In Frozen, much to my own surprise, I saw a vision of God that splits the heavens with its absurdity and faith like the brazen life of St. Joan of Arc.
[Note: There are spoilers here! Obviously!]
1. What is Love: A quick trip through Anna’s journey
Let’s begin with the song, “Do You Want To Build a Snowman?” Here, Anna sings to a closed door–a very obvious metaphor used throughout the film to signify what love should be and what love should not be. Elsa sits, aging, behind the door, never interacting with former best-friend, never obliging her desire to play. A few songs later, Anna sings “Love is an Open Door,” as an interpretive contrast to Elsa’s earlier actions. Anna’s earlier love for Elsa was love focused toward a closed door. When she meets a seemingly nice young man (who turns out to be horrible), she is so relieved at the concept of openness that she mistakens this openness for love which she so desires.
As the movie continues, Anna is forced to discover this mistake in the light of her own impending death. Elsa fires some ice into Anna’s heart, and the dagger of ice will slowly kill her if something is not done (a nice embedded Tolkien reference). What is this something? “True love,” the wise troll tells Anna. This is immediately overplayed and explicitly interpreted as “a kiss from Hans,” the boy with whom Anna was smitten earlier in the movie. Once this kiss does not happen (because Hans is evil, we are shown), Anna discovers that it’s Kristoff who loves her, so she goes in search of him. In the climatic scene of the film, Anna is about to reach Kristoff when she sees Hans about to kill her sister. In a final act of self-denial, Anna chooses her sister over herself, and turns to ice in the process.
Because this is Disney, this act of self-sacrifice does not end in death, but becomes interpreted as the (an?) act of true love, and actually heals Anna even while she is turned to ice! Anna thaws, Elsa realizes that love can thaw–and then somehow “loves” the earth and thaws it. Hans is captured; Kristoff gets to be with Anna.
This brief overview seems to give us the movie’s attempt at defining love: love is not only a true romantic love, but also includes a self-sacrificial calling, even in the face of a closed door. In the Disney world, this sacrificial love will allow us to experience the most fun kind of love: an open-door, accepting, everybody-happy love. The real world does not end like this most of the time, but the silver screens heals all problems…
2. Hans Didn’t Need to Be Evil: Or, what is love for the other characters?
Ok, so we have the general sense of the movie’s intentions, but what about the individual characters. For Hans, especially, if we follow the definition of true love, being evil wasn’t the main reason why he couldn’t cure Anna. A less cruel Hans and a more cruel film (perhaps not rated PG) would have had Hans kiss Anna, as she requested, and then nothing happen–for, as we know, their love was not true. It was infatuation, at best. This would have left Anna writhing and confused, feeling betrayed not only by Hans but by the trolls who pointed her to a true love’s kiss. Instead, Anna is hopeless in the face of Hans’ cruelty, but the happy snowman points her to Kristoff’s selflessness, and Anna becomes convinced that kissing Kristoff will heal her. Thus, the climatic ice scene.
For Kristoff, on the other hand, love was devotion to Anna, a closed door in terms of mutual affection.
For the snowman Olaf, if I may, love was hoping and working for “summer,” even though he started to realize that summer would leave him nonexistent. As he says, “some people are worth melting for!”
For Elsa, love was hiding herself from Anna and the world, so that she could not hurt anyone. The closed door for Anna was also closed for Elsa, and much more psychologically detrimental for the latter. Elsa was about to commit assisted suicide due to the closed door she felt necessary for her love.
Returning to Anna, the climatic ice scene shows us that, for Anna, true love is just Kristoff. Her choice of Elsa was not an act of love in her mind–it was an act of duty, which brings us to St. Joan of Arc.
3. “Hang in there, Joan”
In the song, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” the film foreshadows this tearing between duty and love in Anna’s life. As the child Anna hops through the castle, she sings,
Do you wanna build a snowman?
Or ride our bike around the halls?
I think some company is overdue
I’ve started talking to the pictures on the walls…hang in there Joan!
The picture here is a screenshot of the last line, which has Anna pointing up to a large painting of our 15th century heroine.
At first I was unsure as to why Joan was being used here–a foil for contemporary feminist themes? A strong woman? Perhaps an example of self-sacrificial love, clearly a theme of the move? But looking at Joan’s life, I found that her love was not so much as self-sacrificial as it was intrinsically tied to a religious conception of duty, or perhaps devotion, to none but the will of God.
Joan heard voices, plain and simple, which she interpreted as the voice of God and God’s messengers. Joan led the French army to many successes, but her unrelenting devotion to the voices of God in her head brought her under suspicion, eventually ending with her death by burning at the stake. Joan’s last words were “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” She spoke these words while staring at a crucifix that was held up for her to see as she burned.
Joan was not a modern person–she did not define God by a sense of pacifistic love for those around you. Joan defined God through devotion, through action, through obedience (to the visions), and through honor to death. For Joan, God’s call led her to be bold, brash, and fearless in the face of terrible danger. She commanded an army at 17, stayed behind at the army retreated, and held to her visions and her calling in the face of her execution.
Joan’s death was not out of some misapplied notion of love. Unlike Anna, Joan understood what she needed to do from the the beginning. Joan’s journey was not one of personal discovery, but one of duty to the word of God. When I study Joan’s life and death, I am reminded of the words Brian Flanagan wrote yesterday in talking about the ascension: “it is profoundly unsettling, if potentially empowering, to think of the mystery of Christ as not being a past event, safely defused and filed away in distant history, but as live, as radioactive, as still potentially destabilizing to us and to our world.” Joan’s forceful devotion to the voice of God–to her very personal visions–strikes me as similarly unsettling and radioactive.
If we look beyond St. Joan of Arc as only an icon of female strength and, instead, see someone fiercely devoted to the voice of God despite all the closed doors around her, even to the point of death, we find an image of Christological suffering and sacrifice that deepens the Disney film way beyond what the originators may have intended. Like Christ, Joan listened to God to the bitter end, despite the arguments of the experts around her. Like Christ, Joan held to her vision of God and her special place in God’s vision.
4. Anna’s Love: Duty to Sacrifice
In that final scene of Frozen, though the lens of Joan’s brazen devotion to God, one finds Anna’s “love” completely re-conceived. Indeed, Anna was not saved via an act of love, but an act of blind devotion to her sister. The “true love” that the wise troll told Anna she needed was somehow fulfilled in this act of self-sacrificial devotion to her sister.
Now, duty is not a new theme for Disney. The Lion King was all about duty, and indeed has a bit in common with Frozen. The song “Hakuna Matata” is “Let It Go” from 20 years ago. Simba finds the need for duty through Nala’s presence; Elsa plans to give her life for her duty of saving the kingdom.
But in Frozen, through the lens of St. Joan, duty moves not only Elsa to return, but duty moves Anna to give her life for Elsa. Anna sees her sister about to die and intrinsically realizes that this type of self-sacrifice is not “right”–assisted suicide, to put it theologically, is not the will of God. Anna uses her final breath to save her sister, and this act becomes defined as “true love” for the purposes of the film.
So what is love? It is not just self-sacrifice. It is not just finding the real type of romantic love. Love is devotion to an ideal of what is right and what is not, to the point of an authentic life and an authentic death. Using the film’s reference of St. Joan as a foil, this ideal must be God, and this divine realization transforms this entertaining Disney movie into something truly fantastic: for Frozen, the “true love” needed to thaw the ice is a devotion to an ideal of life and death formed by a vision of God as authenticity, sacrifice, and duty.
Coming to this exciting realization, one might ask the question: if the movie defines true love as Anna’s devotion to Elsa through a conception of Divine duty in the face of all, could this “true love” still include the romantic love that was just budding between Kristoff and Anna?
Put more succinctly: if Anna had chosen to kiss Kristoff and allowed Elsa to die at the hands of Hans, would she have even been thawed? Would she, instead, have turned to ice in Kristoff’s arms? True love is not a good feeling. True love, indeed, is a fierce devotion to the will of God.