Why Elsa and Anna from “Frozen” are the ultimate martial arts role models

posted in: Empowerment, Girls, Movies | 8

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Excalibur – By BrittonLaRoche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
My Sensei says:

Power without love is violence. Love without power is perfume.

For me, this simple statement is the absolute heart of the martial arts journey. It’s about exploring and coming to understand these two attributes; and discovering how to develop, balance and integrate them within our own heart and daily life.

And this journey is expressed more clearly and beautifully in the Disney movie Frozen than any other source I can think of.

At the start of the film, Queen Elsa is all power, devoid of love and human warmth. Her quest will be to discover and understand love; as this is the only way she can master her dark powers, and use them for good instead of evil.

Her sister Princess Anna is pure love, with no power. Her quest will be to access and develop her personal strength and power. In doing so, she at last finds the true love that she craved all along, but which eluded her when she was “too nice”.

Here’s a summary of the journey each sister takes.

 

Elsa’s journey

Elsa is gifted with spectacular magical powers to create ice and snow. As a little girl, she unselfconsciously enjoys this, and simply uses it to play with Anna. But as she grows older, her powers increase and become uncontrollable, making her dangerous to others – and scared of her own destructive potential. She is confined to her bedroom, and cut off from human contact during her adolescence.

Finally Elsa’s powers break out, causing devastation, horror and an eternal winter to descend on the kingdom. Elsa flees to the icy mountains, where she fully unleashes her glorious powers for the first time, in the most inspirational Disney song and video everLet It Go:

 

It’s time to see what I can do / To test the limits and break through / No right, no wrong, / no rules for me / I’m free!

[…] My power flurries through the air into the ground / My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around / And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast / I’m never going back, / The past is in the past!

In martial arts terms, Elsa is the side of us which possesses the power to hurt and even destroy others – and which we are taught to fear and deny. This can be particularly acute for women. Jennifer Lawler writes:

I knew that women had masculine traits that they could embrace instead of scorn. I knew that by finding and examining these traits and accepting them as part of who I was, I could be a fuller, more complete person […]

I felt sorry for the feminists who would never know what it was […] to be strong and to know that you were strong, to acknowledge that you had aggressive instincts, that you had anger, that you had power, and that you could channel all of these things. [1]

Elsa’s powers are now so immense – and dark – that she can see no way back to her kingdom. When Anna begs her to return home and undo the eternal winter, she says, distressed, I can’t. I don’t know how. She says also, I belong here. Alone. Where I can be who I am without hurting anyone.

frozen heartIt’s only when Anna sacrifices herself to save Elsa from death (see below) that things change. Elsa is moved to overwhelming love and grief for her apparently dead sister. This thaws her frozen heart, and marks the entry of love into Elsa’s life.

This in turn renders her able to control her frozen powers at last; to undo the eternal winter and harness her power into the loving and constructive service of her kingdom.

In martial arts terms, this is the person who has understood and accepted their own destructive potential – and gained the skills to devastate another body – but learned also to control and use their power for good.

Elsa has journeyed into the depths, and returned with the ability to love, and a new softness and lightness of heart. She is no longer the monster that people (including herself) feared – but a wise, compassionate and powerful queen, fit to rule her kingdom at last.

 

 

Anna’s journey

Anna doesn’t have any of Elsa’s darkness within her. She is pure sugar and spice, and light femininity (while Elsa represents dark femininity). As a little girl, she grieves over Elsa’s withdrawal, and sits outside her sister’s bedroom door for hours, helplessly begging her to come outside and connect with her again.

As Anna reaches young womanhood, her one desperate desire (apart from longing to regain Elsa’s love) is to meet The One. When she meets handsome Prince Hans, she happily consents to marry him within a few hours, believing that she has found true love with her soulmate.

After Elsa then causes havoc and flees to the mountains, branded a sorceress and a monster by the people, Anna cheerfully sets off in a flimsy party dress to bring her sister back. When people try to warn her of the dangers, she naively replies, She’s my sister; she would never hurt me! She takes no companion, weapons or other resources to help her on her quest (she takes her horse but soon loses him).

What follows is a series of adventures, and an accelerated coming of age for Anna. She defeats a terrifying pack of wolves, escapes a giant snow-monster, and faces all kinds of testing trials and adventures.

But having finally scaled the mountain, she faces Elsa in complete vulnerability, full of nothing but love and trust – only for Elsa to lash out and inadvertently freeze Anna’s heart. This condemns Anna to certain death – unless an Act of True Love can be realised.

Anna returns home to seek this healing love from Hans. But to her horror, he tells her he doesn’t actually love her, and was only ever after her title. He says cruelly, As heir, Elsa was preferable, of course, but no one was getting anywhere with her. But you.[…] You were so desperate for love, you were willing to marry me, just like that!

He then tries to kill her.

Anna’s love without power has rendered her utterly defenceless, and caused her to uncritically waste her precious love on a man who only wishes her harm.

In martial arts terms, Anna started off like the soft, cultured, well-intentioned dojos who abhor violence, and so reject all hints of violence in their training and mindset. As a result, they learn and transmit something ineffective, and no longer fit for martial purpose.

But like her sister, Anna has journeyed into the depths – and changed. She already had the love that Elsa lacked, but didn’t have any personal power. Now she has both.

And this is demonstrated in a spectacular scene where Anna heroically casts herself between Hans’ striking sword and Elsa’s undefended body.

 

In the early scenes, Anna can only show her love for Elsa by piteously begging her to come out and play; which only distresses Elsa and does no good at all. In this later scene, she expresses her love more maturely, by sacrificing herself to save Elsa’s life.

Her love has become infinitely greater and more effective, through the incorporation of power.

As Inazo Nitobe writes, Bushi no nasake – the tenderness of a warrior – is special. Because that tenderness did not remain merely a certain state of mind, but […] was backed with power to save or kill […] it implied the power of acting for the good or detriment of the recipient.

It’s only at the end of the story that Anna realises who her true love really is. It’s Kristoff, who was by her side through all her harrowing adventures in the mountains; protecting her and being protected by her in the face of danger. The trials they have endured together have been the crucible to unleash her formidable powers; and produced a real, robust and durable love.

And as an aside, Anna expresses her new-found contempt for Hans by throwing a perfect, satisfying punch to his face, sending him flying backwards into the water. Who would have thought that the sweet, helpless girl of the opening scenes ever had it in her. But she always did; it only ever needed to be accessed and released.

 

Conclusion

Each of us has our own path to follow in our martial arts journey, and no two journeys are alike.

However, the central quest to develop, integrate and harness both power and love will be at the heart of this journey for many of us.

Some of us may start off stronger on one side and some on the other; and this will lead to two broadly different types of journey. Elsa and Anna offer us an archetypal model for each journey respectively – and being sisters, they also remind us of the interdependence and synergies between the two.

There are very good reasons why little girls (and grown women) responded so obsessively to this movie after its release in 2013. And it’s not about the dresses, or the pretty faces, or the cute snowman and reindeer. It’s more to do with the pure, mesmerising, elegant narrative of self-actualisation and empowerment dripping from every last scene. Girls don’t often get to see this directly expressed through female lead characters; so you can’t blame us for having succumbed to crazy levels of so-called Frozen Fever.

So if you’re tired of watching dark, bloody Samurai movies to get your inspiration, try an unexpected perspective that’s infinitely lighter, more beautiful and more feminine – the magical, enchanting martial adventure of Disney’s Frozen.

With thanks to my own lovely sister for her help with working through these ideas at the weekend xx

[1] Jennifer Lawler. (2002). Punch! Why Women Participate in Violent Sports. Wish Publishing. Pages ix-x.

[2]  Inazo Nitobe. (1899). Bushido, the Soul of Japan. Available for free download at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12096

8 Responses

  1. I have to see this film now! I thought it was just another kiddies’cartoon, twee + cute and following the usual formula. Thanks Kai!

    • It’s a brilliant movie, hope you will enjoy it Fiona! 🙂

    • None of these movies are just a “kiddie cartoon”. 🙂

      The underlying stories go much deeper and, along with comic books, may be “our” (USA national) folklore & myth. Our society is so young that we don’t have stories of heroes for motivation and inspiration. We get it from these movies and books.

      Your thoughts fit along the lines of Joseph Campbell’s work. “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” would be another supportive piece to your post. Thank you for the efforts, Ms. Morgan.

      • many thanks Robert; will definitely follow up your recommendation to read that book . . .

        I feel that the rich archetypal material suffusing this movie is the reason that the movie was so phenomenally successful – certainly for me, the first time I watched it (with fairly low expectations, similar to Fiona’s tbh) it resonated on an intense emotional level that I could hardly believe.

  2. Great insight as always, Kai!

    I couldn’t make it through the whole movie, but I did make it through your whole article… that’s the best compliment I can give! Thanks for letting me know what I missed. 🙂

    • LOL can’t believe you didn’t watch it all the way through – all I can say is that it was your loss Sensei Ando! 😉

  3. LOL, I never thought to connect “Frozen” with Karate, but you’ve done a beautiful job. Bushi no nasake – I’ll have to remember that. I’ve seen it and experienced it loads of times, but never knew it had a name 🙂

    • Hi Joelle, yes as we have previously concluded, everything can be connected back to Karate 😉 take care and thanks for stopping by . . .

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