Monday, May 20, 2024

Frozen: The Economics and Politics of Arendelle

Share This Post

Oh Frozen, either everyone’s favorite Disney movie because we’re this starved for vaguely feminist messaging, or least favorite because of hipsters. There is no middle ground.

By in large, Frozen is a decent movie. The commitment to a white “Scandinavian” setting in a place with magical trolls is pretty unforgivable, but on the other hand, there’s incredibly positive messaging as entire theme of the movie is “self-love and don’t hide from who you are.” Like…if there are people out there claiming that your movie is the “work of the devil” because it will “teach kids to be gay,” then you’re probably doing something right.

And yeah, when I saw it for the first time, it was enjoyable. Good even. I liked that the protagonist didn’t have to shirk away from her femininity and be “not like other girls” in the way most female leads must, I liked that the sisterly love was the actual OTP and the “romance” was secondary, and I liked that Elsa’s powers were basically the same as a waterbender’s. The Trolls-of-specific-knowledge-and-limited-use and the singing snowman were a little, whatever, but for a Disney movie? Yes, I’ll take this over the 16 year old who gives up her entire species for a dude she met 3 days ago because he was vaguely hot.

However, I recently rewatched it. Uh… with my niece. And on second viewing, I must say, the suspension of disbelief just does not hold up. No, not because we’re supposed to blindly accept the fact that Elsa spent 12 years of her life locked in her room, or because Kristen Bell has an insanely recognizable voice so every time she speaks you can’t not hear Veronica Mars. Instead, it was the politics and economics of Arendelle that shattered the illusion.

Because seriously. What. The. Fuck.

First of all, we need to just talk about the basic governmental structure of this place. According to a 3-second Google search, Frozen is set in 1839 (how oddly specific), and Arendelle is “based on” Norway. Now, of course, we all know that Norway became a constitutional monarchy in 1814, and by the 1880s, the appointments of the monarchs were really nothing more than a formality when there was a clear parliamentary majority. And…yeah, I could totally buy that under the reign of Elsa’s family, laws were passed de jure by the monarch, but not de facto, because for 14ish years the royals were able to stay shut up in the castle without visitors. Which is not particularly conducive to effective governance.

But here’s the issue: the Duke of Weseltown arrives and is exceedingly eager to get into the castle because Arendelle is a “mysterious” trade partner. That implies that there is not any sort of cabinet or parliament making these decisions, because surely in that case there would have been accessible members for the Duke to talk to. I suppose it’s possible that any time trade agreements were supposed to be struck, whoever was running the day-to-day of Arendelle would say that the demands they had were from the queen (again, de jure), and hide behind that as a negotiation tactic. Yet if that were the case, would “mysterious” have been the right adjective?

Oh, also, a quick aside but I have to assume that Weselton is a sovereign duchy, because the Duke seems to be acting of his own volition in terms of his desire to exploit Arendelle, suggesting he is not reporting to a higher power. If he were say, in charge of a fief, these actions would almost certainly be political suicide given their high-risk, not to mention the role of a Duke in such a system would be more focused on the governance of regional matters rather than negotiating international trade agreements.

But yes, let’s talk about the day-to-day of Arendelle. Because even if we ignore the ridiculous possibility that it was run entirely by monarchs who hid in a castle and apparently never even had “parties” (totally not important to such a society), it is canonical that Elsa did not ascend the throne until a full 3 years after her parents’ death. You know, when she came of age… at 21. Which doesn’t seem incredibly late or anything (but I guess otherwise we’d have a 15 year-old Anna asking to get married, so fine).

Who was regent during this time? The only other person we see in a vague position of “power” is Kai, because he like, announces Elsa’s arrival and reads her orders later on. But he also has that whole “milord/milady” speech down and fetches Anna her cloak when she needs it, which suggests that he is a servant; a seneschal at best.

And where the fuck is the court? Because even in Frozen Fever, which yes I did hunt down for the purposes of this discussion, Elsa-the-literal-Queen-of-Arendelle is the only person taking care of party arrangements. You’re telling me it’s proper for the crowned monarch to be futzing with table centerpieces?

There clearly had to have been someone running the kingdom after the parents’ deaths. At the very least, there’d be a steward or minister who was in charge of all the servants schlepping the 8,000 salad plates (and then they were just all canned or ran away from Elsa the Sorcerer by the time the events of Frozen Fever took place, I guess).

Was the head of the church leading the state in the interim? Because Elsa’s coronation ceremony was certainly religious, so there could have been some sort of theocratic oligarchical structure going on. Or maybe there were some Cromwell-esque interregnum shenanigans, but given that it was a clearly defined 3 year period, that’s unlikely.

Now, here’s where things get particularly hairy: did Elsa or Anna receive any sort of education regarding governance? Or social responsibility? Or anything usually necessary for members of a ruling family? Because it really seems like Anna spent her days talking to paintings and not realizing that the windows in her house opened, while Elsa hid in the corner of a bedroom and fought off panic attacks.

And I’d totally be fine going back to the possibility that they’re simply figureheads, but there’s three main issues with that:

1.) Elsa does, in fact, have real and tangible powers that she uses to break trade relations with Weselton and give her almost!brother-in-law a job in the end.

2.) There seem to be absolutely no other figures of authority around Arendelle at any point. When Anna needs to go pursue her sister, she puts the kingdom in the hands of two foreigners (Hans and the Duke) without so much as a second thought. And sure, maybe that’s supposed to highlight how ignorant Anna is to these matters, but given that the audience is also kept ignorant, it doesn’t quite work. 

And this is especially true as every single in-verse character just blindly accepts that a random foreigner is now running the kingdom:

Thank you, random Spanish dignitary???

3.) Meaningless figureheads tend to be nothing but socialites, and things such as hosting balls and attending weddings in neighboring countries is basically their duty. Or at the least, waving at the people to distract from a famine. That’s the boon of having the monarchs in a constitutional monarchy. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the parliament have just done away with them completely? The residents are that attached to 2 antisocial princesses who don’t even know what their kingdom looks like?

Now, I actually have a lot more to say about Elsa’s trade relations (or just foreign relations in general…who is this random French dignitary with an inexplicable amount of power?), but that first requires us to discuss the economy of Arendelle.

From the get-go, ice is established as an important industry. And for good reason. As our main man Frederic Tudor showed us around the turn of the 19th century, ice can be quite a valuable commodity. Before the establishment of the ice trade, it was only an item for the aristocracy. But harvesting and storing it in a large quantity allows for the preservation of foods throughout the year without an over reliance on salt, which also in-turn reduces dependency on expensive spices that were used to balance a meal’s flavor-profile.

So the “strike for love and strike for fear” men at the beginning are participating in an very important industry, and one that is likely quite lucrative for Arendelle. I’m sure we could have a spirited debate about whether or not this land on which the ice is harvested is held in allodium—a direct parallel to Norway (Elsa certainly didn’t have qualms about raising an ice-castle out there)—but that’s for another day. For now, let’s just accept that ice is a necessary good.

However, later in the movie, the Duke yells at Hans that he is giving away “all of Arendelle’s tradeable goods” as Hans hands out blankies and soup. Which, yes, textiles and food are things that people can trade too. But should these be the exports about which the Duke is chiefly concerned? Is Weselton a land that is unsuitable for planting cotton, grains, or raising sheep? And wouldn’t he still have to pay for those things, or was his idea to literally infiltrate Arendelle and steal all the goods. Because that’s kind of…pillaging. It’s an act of war.

Now, I’m not pretending that such a thing would be beneath the Duke, who outright states that he plans on exploiting this place. But “trade partner” does indicate that Weselton probably needs this relation in some way, even if it’s a “mysterious” partner. Whatever that means. Perhaps there’s been fruit tariffs that are inconsistent with market fluctuations and it flummoxes Weselton’s Lord Treasurer.

Okay, so what we can kind of parse out about Arendelle from all of this is: ice…yes. They grow food, sometimes (I think). And they have close trade partners, which makes sense, because a land based on Norway is probably going to be limited in its capacity to produce crops such as barley and oats, though there may be a healthy livestock industry. But I’m quite sure they would need to import a large quantity of vegetables and spices.

(There’s also no indication that this world is industrializing the same way an 1839 Earth was, so we can leave discussions of oil exports for the nonce.)

So given that… Look, Elsa, I get that you’re new to leadership, but was it really wise to proclaim “Arendelle will henceforth and forever no longer do business of any sort with Weaseltown”? I mean yes, the Duke tried to kill you. Let him face justice and deal with him as is appropriate. Hell, this is casus belli, if you really want to go there, and given that you have the complete moral high ground, not to mention superpowers, I’m sure it’d work to your advantage if you pointed that out to… whoever is ruling Weselton at the moment.

Also is this decision in any way legally binding if the name is spelled incorrectly?

But to that point, I guess Elsa couldn’t have the Duke face any sort of justice, because the legal system in Arendelle is also completely nonsensical. He is just banished, and all trading with Weselton is done. Okay. However, Hans, who tried to kill both the Queen and a Princess of Arendelle and then straight up lied to…the Spanish dignitary (??) in an unequivocal power-grab, is led away by the French dignitary (????) who says that Hans’s brothers will give him a stern talking-to. Did he have diplomatic immunity or something? Because I’m quite certain that’s not how it works. And does this imply that Arendelle’s relationship to the Summer Isles is more important than its relationship to Weselton? God, Kai at least had a royal decree to read for the Duke, but Hans was just dragged off by some French dude and no one said boo.

WHO WAS HE? Was he Hans’s boyfriend and this was a clever ruse, like when Han put manacles on Chewie?

Yeah, this checks out…

I could go on about how Hans was a complete political idiot, but I’m pretty sure the point of his character wasn’t about how awesome and infallible his plans were. Instead, let’s pretend that Elsa actually made a really smart call blowing up trade relations, since she realized something: Arendelle’s going to be just fine on its own now. Because guess who just figured out how to harness the power to produce ice, call forth spring, and create life?

That’s right… Elsa’s powers have marked geopolitical and economic implications. For one, she just got rid of the entire need for the ice diggers, because she can produce an unlimited supply at any moment. That’s kind of her specialty and junk. Which means that she just put all these men out of work. And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, because it’s definitely a high-risk job, and certainly her powers make it so that Arendelle will have more to export (and thus prosper), but then Elsa just up and names Kristoff the official “Ice Schlepper Master and Deliverer” because he’s dating her sister. So these other ice-diggers can’t even keep working in their trade, or at least if they do, they’ll certainly be disgruntled because of this blatant nepotism.

What else is for them to do? Maybe… tilling soil or something for crops? Oh, well that’d be nifty it weren’t for Queen Climate Control, who yes, can bring forth spring and flowers as easily as she can start winter. Frozen Fever confirmed that her powers are not just to create snow and then de-spawn it at her will; she can literally grow flowers. On people’s dresses. Frankly Elsa’s magical apparel creation could be an industry in and of itself.

But the fact that Elsa has this ability has a ton of implications for Ardenelle’s harvest. She can extend their growing season by months, or potentially even forstall winter forever. Get a 3-field rotation going (or even better, 7 for optimal nutrient replenishment, as science will later reveal to them), and they’re going to be raking in quite the bounty! Literally.

Though a quick note, while Elsa’s powers do seem to be on a microclimate scale, this must have a global effect, right? We all know about urban heat islands, and how they do warm up their immediate surroundings, so I’m curious if neighboring countries experience heavier rainfall or anything.

Maybe all of this actually is good for those ice-diggers? They’d have tons to plow and harvest, and Elsa could regulate the temperature enough so that Arendelle could now grow those crops that were previously grown in only in countries to the south. We’re talking the potential for citrus here! And then later in life, she can sit back and look at overripe blood orange trees and wonder if her style of governance has been her shame or her glory.

But here’s the thing: Elsa can also create life. I mean, she literally sneezes life out of her nose.

And these pieces of sentient snot immediately begin collaborating to steal a cake. Not to mention they’re exceedingly fast learners:

Instant literacy is nothing to dismiss, guys.

We also know that when she intends it, she can create snowmen with incredibly bizarre senses of humor, as well as impressive snow soldiers. This means that Arendelle definitely doesn’t need an army anymore, because she can create these guys on a moment’s notice:

So I have to think that she’d be able to intentionally create workers suited for menial labor, which does, of course, include farmers. Maybe Kristoff remains the ice schlepper because he genuinely enjoys it? But what I’m saying is that Elsa can almost single-handedly abolish the need for physical labor. Which leaves…what for the people of Arendelle?

Well, just like we’ve seen in post-industrial societies, it leads to the rise of the arts, typically. Of an educated aristocracy, though in this case, all citizens of Arendelle would be able to participate. This means that we would see an increase in literacy and scientific pursuit, a larger entertainment industry, and in general an overall transition from the production of goods to the provision of services. All of this very much puts Arendelle at an advantage over the rest of the world, doesn’t it? This increase in knowledge as its primary source of of human capital, if you will?

It would breed a “creativity culture.” There would be a rise in technology, but at an alarming rate, because this country basically “industrialized” overnight. Perhaps more unnerving still; Elsa’s powers require absolutely no fossil fuels; she just has to wake up and take care of this, which means that Arendelle doesn’t really need anyone else. Ever.

And at what point do these people, living with with this increased quality of life, begin to look at the state of the world around them and think “we could share this prosperity?” Enter Emperor Elsa. Who would ever stand up to her? Hell, Frozen Fever even ends with her dropping a bomb on The Summer Isles, and she didn’t give so much as a second thought (though a lot of that may have been because she was high on cold medicine the whole time):

Don’t get me started on the Isles’ need for penal reform.

So given everything, this is why Frozen is a middling movie for me. I want to be there, I want to suspend my disbelief, but what am I supposed to make of a land where random foreigners can just be put in charge because a princess wants to run off into the Scandinavian Arendellian wilds without a chaperone to hunt down the queen that may have just abdicated?

But it’s okay; I’m sure these were very common criticisms. I look forward to Frozen II: Do You Want to Build an International Trade Commission, which will undoubtedly follow through on all of this.

Images courtesy of Disney

Latest Posts

Legendary Iron Fist Creators Alyssa Wong, Chris Claremont, David Aja, And More Return For 50th Anniversary Special

This August, celebrate 50 years of the Immortal Protector of K’un-Lun in IRON FIST 50TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL #1!

Skybound Announces New Invincible Licenses For Board Games, Dice, And Other Collectibles

Skybound Entertainment Announces Strategic Licensing Deals That Take Invincible from Screen to Shelf

Why Vecna is the Ultimate Dead by Daylight Killer

Vecna's addition as a Dead by Daylight killer recognizes DnD's 50-year history by making him a perfect addition to the murderous affairs of the Fog itself.

‘Thelma the Unicorn’ is too Autotuned

I don’t know quite how to feel about Thelma the...

New Spider-Society Series Pulls In Every Spider-Hero From The Multiverse

Spinning out of the hit Edge of Spider-Verse comic book series, Alex Segura and Scott Godlewski’s SPIDER-SOCIETY launches this August!