December 2019 Media and Reviews

Review: Frozen 2 Calls Us To Reject Empire Capitalism

Western wealth was taken, not by innovation and ingenuity, as we have long told ourselves, but by “murder, mutilation, and downright robbery.”

by William Horne and Zoie (Zane) McNeill

Elsa hears a mysterious, haunting voice. She pauses momentarily, takes a breath, and sprints directly into a tumultuous sea.

As in the original Frozen, past events shape the lives of Elsa and Anna in dramatic ways. Again, family secrets refuse to be kept, disrupting the fairy-tale ending in Arendelle. Yet in the sequel, these secrets move beyond Elsa’s mysterious powers. Indeed, they seem almost to offer an explanation for them. Together, the sisters journey “into the unknown,” searching for the cause of the troubles afflicting their kingdom.

Over the course of their journey, they uncover the truth about their parents who—it seems—were extremely bad at having difficult conversations with their daughters. Their kingdom, they learn, had invaded Indigenous land, altered its ecology, and initiated a climate crisis that threatened to upend life as they knew it. The problems faced by Arendelle, in short, feel eerily similar to those we face today.

We Americans live, not in an egalitarian democracy, but in an empire. Its foundations lie on Native land plundered by white American settlers as part of an explicitly racist and capitalist imperial project. White Americans framed their arguments for empire on their sense of racial superiority which, they claimed, gave them the unique right to control and alter that North American landscape. Since that time, white Americans have constructed elaborate mythologies to hide this history of racial plunder and to justify racial inequality in the present.[1]

In Arendelle, Elsa and Anna uncover a similar history of empire hidden by their ancestors. The mysterious voice brings the sisters to the Enchanted Forest, home to the indigenous Northuldra people, a tribe inspired by the Sámi peoples of Scandinavia. Elsa and Anna grew up hearing stories from their father, King Agnarr, that depicted the Northuldra as dangerous and savage.

Agnarr’s narrative epitomizes how settlers actively create histories that benefit the settler-colonial state in order to blame Indigenous populations for the violence perpetuated against them. In Agnarr’s story, his father, King Runeard, established a treaty with the Northuldra people by building a dam in the Enchanted Forest. Despite Runeard’s generosity, the Northuldra people stop the festivities and attack the Arendellean soldiers, killing Runeard. Young Agnarr barely escapes alive with the help of an unknown rescuer. This story frames Arendelle as the undisputed victim—Agnarr loses his father as a child, the Northuldra people betray the trust of the Kingdom, and Arendelle is cut off from the Northuldra’s homeland after an impenetrable wall of fog encapsulates the Enchanted Forest.

British and German wounded walk together along a road during the WWI Battle of the Somme on July 19, 1916. Here, victims of empire cast aside their imperial banners in the name of survival. Earnest Brooks, “Five British and German walking wounded,” via Wikimedia Commons.

America’s rabid imperial expansion—and that of the Global North more generally—led, not to greater stability and prosperity, but to widespread suffering and destruction. Following the outbreak of World War I, African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois argued in “The African Roots of War” that the heart of the conflict lay in the nature of the expansionist empires of the West. For Du Bois, the war that claimed more than 20 million lives began in Germany’s “undisguised robbery of the land of 7 million natives,” seizing an African empire to rival those plundered by Great Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain.

These imperialists were driven by nothing less than unmitigated greed. As Du Bois explained, Western imperialists were “so rich, with such splendid prospects of greater riches” precisely because they stole “from the darker nations of the world—Asia and Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies and the islands of the South Seas.” Western wealth was taken, not by innovation and ingenuity, as we have long told ourselves, but by “murder, mutilation, and downright robbery.”[2]

Daniel Hoskins poses with guns temporarily confiscated during the state of martial law that followed Longview “race riot,” one of a string of white supremacist attacks after the return of African American soldiers from WWI. Black Americans’ experiences in what came to be known as Red Summer show the ways WWI was indeed a war of empire bent on racial oppression, just as Du Bois had described it. “Mr. Daniel Hoskins during ‘the Red Hot Summer of 1919’ race riots in Longview, Texas,” July 13, 1919, Library of Congress.

The famous Trinidadian thinker C.L.R. James made much the same argument about World War II. James explained in “Why Negroes Should Oppose the War” that “by the support of this war you will be tying a thousand times tighter, the chains which now bind you as the pack-horse, the servant and the slave of capitalist civilization.” James argued that to serve the Jim Crow American state in a “great war for freedom” without any hope of equality on the home front was to forever cement the oppressive system of racial capitalism in the U.S. After the end of the conflict, James observed that U.S. capitalist imperialism was on the march, that “from end to end of the world its economic power economically supports the most reactionary and oppressive regimes.”

James concluded that American empire was unstable because its worldwide system of racist plunder would be impossible to sustain. “The economic power of American imperialism,” he wrote, “is counter-balanced by the colossal drain upon its resources of maintaining the world-wide system of satellites within its syndicate.” [3] Were he alive today, James doubtless would have noted that the empire capitalism of the West caused the destruction of the planet—that imperialists may well plunder the human species into oblivion and wipe out life on earth as we know it. In the instability of the capitalist empire, James found hope for a new, egalitarian world order that would rise up and destroy empire. As we sit on the precipice of climatic collapse, such a movement may be humanity’s only hope.[4]

We learn that Arendelle’s imperialism causes something of an ecological crisis in Frozen 2.

After the elemental spirits force Arendelle’s people out of the kingdom, Elsa remembers her father’s story about the Enchanted Forest as well as her mother’s song about the magical river, Ahtohallan. Elsa travels to the Northuldra homeland in search of the mysterious voice and the answers she hopes it will provide. The wall of mist parts for her and her company, allowing them entrance. Elsa’s journey takes her to Ahtohallan, where she finds the truth about her powers, discovers her secretly-Northuldra mother was the mysterious person who saved her father, and learns that there is a historical wrong that needs to be righted.

The audience learns that the story her father told her as a child about the dam and her grandfather’s death was a lie. The dam was built to weaken the Northuldra’s land and deplete their resources, forcing them to rely on and submit to the Kingdom. The Northuldra leader brings up his concerns at the festivities celebrating the dam but is assured that King Runeard will speak to him about it during tea. Instead, Runeard kills the Northuldra leader, who has his back turned away from Runeard drinking tea. This starts the battle that angers the spirits and closes off the Enchanted Forest in fog.

It is true that Disney is profiting from this history of empire in Frozen 2, and while it criticized the relationship between white mythologies and state violence, we have reason to be skeptical of their altruism. Disney has been a prime example of cultural imperialism since the early 2000s. Activists critiqued the company for ‘Green-washing’ its brand while dramatically exacerbating global climate change. And sadly, Disney’s longstanding history of racism is beyond dispute.

We should be sure to ask whether Frozen 2’s anti-imperialist themes challenge institutional power relations, or whether they offer an illusion that creates a ‘friendly’ brand that sugar-coats the anti-Semitic, anti-indigenous, and anti-Black histories of the Disney corporation.[5]

Four Zapatista women wear bandanas in the Mexican state of Chiapas, participating in a massive, ongoing Indigenous resistance movement that rejects the logic of empire capitalism. Via libcom.org.

The Zapatista uprising in 1994 answered James’ call for a rebellion of the “slave[s] of capitalist civilization” and presents a real-world rejection of Western imperialism imagined in Frozen 2. When the Zapatistas rose up in protest against NAFTA and the imperialist forces of capitalism that it embodied, those of us old enough to remember still recall the frightening images of masked gunmen. Yet the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) were more than the bandits depicted on Western newscasts. They led an Indigenous uprising that sought to insulate their community from the outside economic forces that brought crippling poverty and dispossession. In Chiapas, Mexico, where the revolt began, small farmers and ranchers were already suffering at the hands of well-connected capitalists, and while they continued to supply substantial labor and production to global corporations, their returns diminished significantly.[6]

A prominent spokesperson for the movement, Subcomandante Marcos, argued that their struggle represented a necessary rejection of Western empire capitalism. He explained that, “for the powers that be, known internationally by the term ‘neoliberalism,’ we did not count, we did not produce, we did not buy, we did not sell.”[7] In Marcos’ telling, the dispossessed Indigenous people of Chiapas were being victimized by wealthy elites and ignored by their own government. “The trickster government sends us the aluxob,[8] the liars who fool our people and make them forgetful. This is why we became soldiers.” Just as James and Du Bois had argued generations before, Marcos found that imperial capitalism was designed to kill, maim, and steal from communities of color.

Photo of Subcomandante Marcos during the Marcha del Color de la Tierra. Marcos was a prominent spokesperson for the EZLN and articulated a decidedly anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist vision on behalf of the movement. Via Wikimedia.

The government’s aluxob mythmaking that Marcos denounced as an imperialist tool of forgetfulness finds expression in the enchanted fog of Frozen 2. Years of fighting the forces of Arendelle and the ecological damage wrought by the “gift” of the dam made the Northuldra forget the cause of Arendelle’s devastating imperialism. Here, the film and Marcos align. The mysterious voice calls Elsa for a reordering of things and, eventually, the destruction of Arendelle’s dam initiated by none other than Princess Anna herself. Those familiar cannot help but hear the words of Marcos ringing out:

The mountain told us to take up arms so we would have a voice.
It told us to protect our past so we would have a future.[9]

For Marcos and his comrades, moving forward into an equitable future meant understanding how the capitalist imperialists exploited them for generations. It meant reckoning with a past that was uncomfortable in hope of a future that was at least habitable. This is precisely the question Frozen 2 invites us to ask. Will our future be one of cascading catastrophe or can we, like Anna and Elsa, discover and destroy the legacies of empire causing suffering, oppression, and impending climatic collapse?

William Horne is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University who writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. His book manuscript, “The Birth of Mass Incarceration: Reconstructing the Carceral State in Civil War Era Louisiana” argues that white elites repurposed antebellum systems of plunder that had been applied broadly to poor and working-class folk to exclusively target African Americans. He holds a PhD in history from The George Washington University and is co-founder and Editor of The Activist History Review.

Zoie (Zane) McNeill is an independent activist-scholar with research interests in queer ecologies, environmental humanities, queer of color critique, socially engaged art, and critical geographies. Currently, they are on the editorial teams for the Journal for Critical Animal Studies, The Activist History Review, and Queer Appalachia’s Electric Dirt. He is also co-editing anthologies, forthcoming from Sanctuary Publishers and PM Press. You can also find their work in the forthcoming collections, What’s White in the Rainbow: White Supremacy in LGBT Movements, the Palgrave Handbook of Queer and Trans Feminisms in Contemporary Performance, and the Routledge Handbook of Vegan Studies.

Further Reading

[1] For more on the various cultural and political expressions of American imperialism, see Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Owl Books, 2006); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019); Amy Kaplan, Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); Marilyn Lake, Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” Atlantic Monthly vol. 115 (May 1915), http://scua.library.umass.edu/digital/dubois/WarRoots.pdf.

[3] C.L.R. James, “Imperialism Thirty Years After” in The Invading Socialist Society (New York: Johnson Forest Tendency, 1947), https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1947/invading/ch03.htm.

[4] Scholars have long identified a causal relationship between capitalism climatic collapse, spawning contemporary interest in the “Anthropocene”—the period during which humans dramatically shaped the climate. Even Max Weber linked the oppression of capitalism to ecology, famously arguing in the final chapter of the Protestant Ethic that the consumerist machinery of capitalism became self-sustaining and might structure our lives “until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.” For an overview of the Anthropocene, see Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016); Erle C. Ellis, Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

[5] Frozen 2 does important work normalizing reparations as a consequence of empire. However, unlike Anna and Elsa, who recognize that their home would need to be flooded and destroyed to right the wrong of the past, Disney does not attempt to dismantle the power structures from which it benefits.

[6] Mike Gonzalez, “The Zapatistas: The Challenges of Revolution in a New Millennium,” International Socialism 2:89, (Winter 2000), https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/gonzalez/2000/xx/zapatistas.htm.

[7] Subcommandante Marcos, Remarks of the General Command of the EZLN in the opening ceremony of the First Intercontinental Meeting For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, July 27, 1996, https://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/chiapas1996/en/opening.html.

[8] Tricksters from Mayan mythology.

[9] Subcommandante Marcos, Remarks of the General Command of the EZLN in the opening ceremony of the First Intercontinental Meeting For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, July 27, 1996, https://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/chiapas1996/en/opening.html.

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