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Which Frozen Character Has Better Coping Skills?

November 23, 2015 by ·

Frozen is one of the most popular animated movies of all time. It is ironic, however, that Anna, a role model of many strengths for children and youth (and adults) sits in the shadow of the far more popular – and far more unhealthy – character of Elsa.

A recent publication by my colleague Roger Bretherton and I argue that the Elsa-fetish across cultures (our cultures of the U.S. and U.K., at the least) is an unfortunate mistake.

Parents, teachers, and viewers can challenge themselves and their kids by asking the following questions:

  • Which character is most empowering?
  • Which character do I want my child to emulate?
  • Which character best copes with adversity?
  • Which character displays high levels of bravery? Of perseverance? Of love?

There’s nothing wrong with liking a character who’s a beautiful blonde, who sings catchy songs with perfect pitch, and has a fascinating supernatural quality of turning what she touches into ice. But, to what end? To what value?

What seems to be forgotten is that while Elsa usually has good intentions, she engages in many unhealthy behaviors:

  • Avoidance: Avoiding problems and avoiding fears is the hallmark of anxiety and many human problems. This perfectly describes most of Elsa’s behaviors. She avoids people, avoids her fears, avoids problem-solving, avoids honesty, and on and on.
  • Neglect: Elsa perseveres in neglecting her young sister who was in desperate need of attention and love. This neglect is not for a few hours or a weekend, it is for several years!
  • Abandons community: A key task of the newly crowned Elsa is to lead and protect her town of Arendelle. When times get tough for her personally, she leaves the town with the intention of never returning.
  • Poor learning: Elsa does not learn from her mistakes. On two occasions, although not intentional, she seriously injures Anna.
  • One dimensional coping – secrecy: Elsa copes by avoiding others and keeping secrets. There are no attempts to find alternate solutions to her affliction. Instead, she hides her problems from others and is immersed in self-pity.
  • Selfishness: Elsa turns her “frozen” ability into a creative force (turning a negative into a positive) by creating a beautiful castle of ice. This is where there is promise and potential transformation for her character, but this, too, is mere selfishness because this creativity is only meant to benefit her – to sit alone in a beautiful place, away from others. When others arrive, she uses her creativity for harmful purposes by creating an abominable snowman to attack Anna and other supports.

Contrast these stunningly unhealthy behaviors with the character strengths of Anna:

  • Love: Anna is catalyzed by this character strength. It is her unconditional love for her sister that leads her to express many other character strengths. This is a perfect example of what I call a “character strengths driver.” I believe we all have one or two unique character strengths that cause us to actively use our other strengths.
  • Bravery: Anna is an exemplar for courage. Anna is tough. She does not hesitate to take on challenges alone and with others. She faces down wolves, navigates the wilderness, and confronts those who are intimidating.
  • Perseverance and forgiveness: Elsa rejects Anna too many times to count in the film. Yet Anna perseveres in the relationship. She turns the other cheek. She perseveres in her forgiveness. This combination of two strengths that mutually and positively impact one another is a “character strengths synergy.”
  • Humor and zest: Anna is quick to laugh at herself. She is playful with her love interests, ready to laugh and smile, and has a contagious level of energy and enthusiasm. She is vibrant and has an aliveness in her eyes that is palpable. This is another “character strengths synergy” for her.
  • Kindness: Anna knows Elsa is suffering. She empathizes and reaches out with deep compassion to help her. Her care is a self-sacrificing type of care that is entirely focused on the “other.”

Considering these observations, I return to my previous questions: Who do you want your children to imitate? Who do you want to learn from?

In our journal article, Roger and I conclude with the following statements:

“Anna and Elsa have sometimes been presented as a complementary pair, the yin and yang of human experience. Indeed, there is a lot we can learn from both characters…but if we are looking for an exemplar of the good life, of how to build a positive relationship, or how to put our character strengths into action, we would be better served to look to the less popular of the duo. We believe it is Anna’s perseverance, bravery, love, zest, leadership, and forgiveness that are the true underlying ingredients of the film’s impact.”


Niemiec, R. M., & Bretherton, R. (2015, June 29). The character-driven person: How Frozen’s Anna, not Elsa, is an exemplar. PsycCRITIQUES, 60(26), Article 10.


Free, validated test of character strengths: VIA Survey

List of 24 universal character strengths: VIA Classification

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