Can We Let Go of "Let It Go"?

In a previous post, I pointed out some of the issues surrounding the storytelling in Disney's film Frozen. In this post, I'd like to tackle the issues surrounding the Academy award-winning song "Let It Go", performed by Idina Menzel. However, I'd prefer to view it as much as possible as a separate entity from the film itself. Although the song is intimately linked to the plot movement of the story and the character development of Elsa, there are many elements within it that go beyond the confines of the Frozen storyline and address ideas and behavior choices that are more applicable on a universal level. Elements of Frozen, and Elsa's character particularly, may be noted, but I'd like to keep this discussion about the message of the song more than the message of the movie, since the two are very different from one another. In one sense, it's strange that "Let It Go" has become the defining song of the film whose message is that true love sacrifices itself for another person, whereas this song expresses almost the exact opposite. In fact, if this had been any other Disney movie, "Let It Go" would be considered the villain's song. And, really, it is.

The lyrics, while intended in the film to be a representation of the inner thoughts and feelings of Elsa, can be considered characteristic of many adolescent (and even adult) experiences of self-discovery and burgeoning self-esteem. Neither of these things should be looked down upon. In fact, self-discovery should be encouraged in every person throughout the entirety of one's life, not just in the personality-defining, angst-ridden throes of a painful adolescence. Self-esteem is also a good thing that should be encouraged. However, when these are placed as ultimate goods in comparison to being a "good girl", when isolation is encouraged rather than integration, when  subjective individualism takes the place of communal understanding, we start to see serious issues cropping up. The poetess correlates the complexity of her personality with a "swirling storm" which must be constantly kept under control in order to be "good", implying that, when the "storm" breaks into the public sphere, the goodness of the poetess is lost. The problem inherent in this statement is the conflation of moral goodness with having a good reputation or the good opinion of the public. The idea is that, if the poetess's true self, her inner storm, were unleashed on the public, she would be rejected by them and vilified. "Being yourself" or expressing your inner thoughts, feelings, or anxieties to others is considered "bad", an imposition, and to be avoided at all costs. The poetess tells herself to "conceal, don't feel" in order to maintain her reputation as a "good girl", as if the definition of goodness relied on wearing masks and being robotic. "Goodness" is about "faking it", about playing a role in society that pleases others, about following social norms in order not to cause a stir or make others uncomfortable. "Goodness" is one's ability to follow social norms and please society; "badness" is one's failure to conform and the display of unsolicited emotion.

The problem with this is obvious: social conformity is not equivalent to moral goodness. Far from it. Moral goodness has to do with behavior choices that aspire to the attainment of virtuous habits; goodness is something you practice, like being on time for work to make a habit of justice, or giving your spare change to the homeless to make a habit of generosity. Moral goodness is about your own personal growth as a human being and has nothing to do with public opinion. In fact, it can be argued that moral growth increases the less public opinion is aware of it. Being just and generous is not worth much if the only reason you're doing it is to gain a good reputation. Another important aspect of moral goodness is that it has an objective value that does not change. Acts of justice will always be just, even if public opinion about the act changes. It will always be just to be on time for work, even if all your coworkers consistently arrive late and your supervisor informs you that being on time is not going to get you a raise. It will always be an act of generosity to give to those who are less fortunate then ourselves, even if public opinion is that they "deserve" to be poor because they're lazy. Public opinion blows with every change in direction of the wind; it is an exercise in futility to spend one's life trying to appease it. Moral goodness never changes and it is always profitable: even if public opinion doesn't reward you for your efforts, you will be a more confident and happier person despite them.

Herein lies the danger of conflating "good girls" with "socially accepted girls": the two are rarely combined. It is in the striving for social acceptance that young people (all people, really) receive the worst blows to their self-esteem and their self-knowledge. By chasing the social ideologies blown about us -- the images that show us how we should look, what we should eat, how we should act, what we should wear, what we should say, what opinions to hold, how to be popular, how to be liked -- we necessarily set ourselves up for failure, disappointment, resentment, heartache, self-doubt, and an unfulfilled life. The price we pay for reputation is too high and ends in too many regrets. Many of us, like Elsa, will find ourselves turning our backs on the world and striking out on our own to build castles of isolation around our hearts where nothing can ever touch us again. Oftentimes, especially when social acceptance is masquerading as moral goodness, our rejection of public opinion can lead to a rejection of the rules of objective morality as well: "No right, no wrong, no rules for me, / I'm free". This is the great mistake of all movement toward "freedom" from social constraints. In rejecting the superfluous expectations of public opinion, we often throw away the very things that can help us to both build up true esteem for ourselves and help us gain true knowledge about ourselves: the objective moral laws that entreat us to be just, to be merciful, to be generous, to be modest, to be temperate, to be chaste, to be courageous, to be truly loving in that self-sacrificing way that Frozen tries to exemplify. It is not in having no rules that we become truly free; it is not in having no boundaries that we truly set out on the road to self-discovery. It is the very farthest thing from the truth when the poetess exclaims defiantly that "That perfect girl is gone"; the perfect girl had never even existed. To conform to social expectations is not to be perfect. Perfection is gained through the practice of moral virtue, through building up those habits of justice and patience and courage and love that bring out the best we have to offer. Our true selves are not discovered or revealed until we begin to go beyond the superficiality of life, until we break through the isolation of wearing masks, and truly reach out to others in our imperfection and invite them to grow perfect along with us.

"Let It Go" fits the narrative of Frozen quite well as it reveals the disjunctive sense of herself that Elsa is experiencing at that moment. She is still caught in the mindset that believes that goodness is found in living up to social expectation; she has failed to do so and has rejected society altogether in favor of isolated navel-gazing. But this is not where the story ends. Elsa still needs to learn that she will only find self-fulfillment in the practice of the virtue of love for society and within society. We can truly say, "The cold never bothered me anyway" when what we mean by it is that the displeasure of society will never stop us from pursuing virtue and acting in accordance with moral goodness. We cannot end the story with "Let It Go". It can't be the anthem of a generation. It can never be anything more than a momentary resting place before we pick ourselves up and continue on the journey of self-discovery which ends in love for both ourselves and others.

After all, isn't that what the film is all about?


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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