How Elsa Surpassed Sympathetic Villainy

I just can’t seem to write enough about Frozen.

It’s been recently brought to my attention that Elsa was originally written as the villain of Frozen. Admittedly, when one considers the source material (in the loosest sense possible), some of the concept art and the film’s early marketing, this is unsurprising. Nonetheless, learning how close Elsa came to being another villainized outcast makes me appreciate her all the more and turns my thoughts to the nature of villainous characterizations in general. The original premise that Disney released was:

When Anna is cursed by her estranged sister, the cold-hearted Snow Queen, Anna’s only hope of reversing the curse is to survive a perilous but thrilling journey across an icy and unforgiving landscape. Joined by a rugged, thrill-seeking outdoors man, his one-antlered reindeer and a hapless snowman, Anna must race against time, conquer the elements and battle an army of menacing snowmen if she ever hopes to melt her frozen heart

In all fairness, this doesn’t sound like a bad movie. The fact that Elsa was still going to be Anna’s sister suggests that she would have made a more complex villain than most Disney bad guys. And according to the movie’s composers, Robert elsaconceptart4Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, in an interview with Examiner.com, the set up to “Let It Go” was the same even when the show stopper was intended to be Elsa’s villain song. “Elsa was going to go from being this perfect princess that had tried to keep her personality down her whole life to saying, ‘Screw it. I’m gonna be me,'” said Lopez. The difference was that, instead of “Let It Go” being a ballad of self-empowerment that audiences would identify with, it was originally supposed to signify that “Elsa had gone evil,” as Anderson-Lopez put it. We were expected to condemn Elsa’s embrace of her powers rather than celebrate it. In short, Elsa was going to be another outcast who is villainized for not trying to fit in. It’s tricky to discuss villainous characterization in broad terms because there are so many exceptions to every example but this is a fairly common tactic in creating bad guys.

Yes, there are plenty of misfit and underdog protagonists- especially in children’s entertainment- but the qualities that mark them as such are either harmless or even admirable foibles such as clumsiness, bookishness or forward-thinking or else issues that don’t have much resonance with a 21st century western audience, such as low birth. On the rare occasion that good guys have traits traditionally found in villains such as a physical deformities (like Quasimodo), status as an adopted child (like Tarzan), or dangerous powers (like Hercules),  the story usually focuses on their quest for acceptance. It’s the outcast characters who don’t seek validation from others and refuse to be doormats who end up as the bad guys.

Such villains are surprisingly scarce in children’s films so we have to look to other media for examples. Morgana, from BBC’s Merlin, ultimately pits herself against Merlin by choosing not to hide her powers anymore like he has and to oppose the regime that oppresses her. Magneto is a villain because he embraces his powers and refuses to submit to a society thatmagnetoprofx persecutes mutants (though, to the credit of the X-Men mythos, the merits of Magneto’s logic are acknowledged and a topic of debate amongst characters). Granted, unlike Elsa, these villains also seek to destroy or take over the world that rejected them in order to give the story conflict and a sense of urgency. But, fundamentally, their character development is built on the idea that they embrace whatever it is that makes them different and have no interest in endearing themselves to others. Society seems to have progressed enough to acknowledge that demonizing such characters is unfair, but not enough to consistently make them the protagonists. The product of this limbo is the sympathetic villain, an archetype that casually calls into question the moral ambiguity of the situation but still reinforces audiences’ instinct not to trust an unrepentant outcast. Dress it up as poignantly as you like, it’s still equating being the “other” with being evil (unless your heroes are also self-accepting outcasts. God bless you, X-Men). 

So, Elsa was clearly intended to fit this archetype as she embraces her cryogenic powers, which are shown to have destructive potential, and isolates herself from society. Then Frozen‘s producers heard “Let It Go” for the first time and elsaguardswere so moved by it that they basically rewrote the film to make Elsa a protagonist. What makes Elsa such a remarkable character, though, is that (from what I can gather) in the process of changing her from a villain to a heroine, the filmmakers didn’t take her evil acts out of the story: they just changed the framing. So, Elsa wasn’t reduced to some benign sweetheart who only uses her powers to build castles and make dresses. She still plunges Arendelle into an eternal winter and curses her sister, but she does so on accident. Elsa has good reason to fear her own powers, and the townspeople have good reason to fear her. She has the capacity to be a villain. But that doesn’t mean she is one.

I don’t mean to overstate the significance of Elsa’s character and I certainly don’t think that Disney intended to make some sweeping statement about villainy when they chose to make her a heroine. Nevertheless, Elsa brings a remarkable sophistication to Frozen by being a Snow Queen (a character type who’s always bad) who has the power, opportunity and even the backstory to become a villain but doesn’t because … she chooses not to. Take that, stereotypes and predestination.

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One response to “How Elsa Surpassed Sympathetic Villainy

  1. I really do appreciate your reviews for Frozen and how you are one of the people who enjoys Elsa not being a villain. I thought it was a cool choice and it’s nice to meet someone else who shares that notion.

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