How Your Life “Changes” When a Disney Queen Takes Your Name and Becomes a Cultural Icon

The original title of this post was going to be “How the Disney Frozen’s Popular Iconic Character May Have “Ruined” My Life.”

But I realized it would come off a bit melodramatic. And as a training diplomat, I thought to be diplomatic.

I put “Changes” in quotes largely because there is no direction to an association and it can be a positive change, but that may not entirely be the case here.

I am Elsa. Yes, that is my real name.

I was born and raised in Oshkosh, WI. Oshkosh may be an epitome of Midwest America: largely homogeneous white dominated population; friendly atmosphere generally; you might find some subtle racism, not too much, but here and there. Overall, generally, people are very nice. They may smile at you when you walk past them. And people may even ask how you are doing. That’s the general feeling in the Midwest. Slightly different from the East Coast :), where I have been situated now for nearly 8 years. Most of the time, nobody really cares how you are doing. Or there may be limited expression of it.

I always thought my name was simple. But at times some people could not pronounce it easily. For some reason, it was difficult, and perhaps “foreign.” Often they would call me Elsi, Elisa, Alissa, Elise, or something of that like. Of course, a brown girl like me had the name, so ultimately it must be “foreign.”

Usually this happens. I buy a really nice dress from a place like Nordstrom Rack, wear it, and all of sudden, it is labeled an “ethnic outfit.” Funny, but sadly, my truth, and perhaps the same for other brown, and in the words of some people I’ve encountered, “exotic looking” women.

Having the name Elsa was a struggle to the extent that I found myself wanting to change my name as a kid. The replacement would have been the name “Aisha.” Always loved the name, and didn’t think at the time that it was the name of one of Prophet Muhammad’s wives (which was cool), and also didn’t know it was common in larger Muslim communities. I just liked the sound of that name. It was elegant.

I am assuming you won’t find many people of Pakistani American Muslim origin and background named Elsa. It was not until in my late teens and early 20s when I started to appreciate this name.

When bullied in middle school, some kids would often call me “Smellsa.” They would say I smelled. And I probably did. I was a late-bloomer in many ways and didn’t start using deodorant until, hmmm, I think after being bullied so much with this name. So, I guess I understand the nickname “Smellsa”.

It traumatized me quite a bit, though. To the extent that it still has an effect on me today. My OCD will not allow me to leave my home until I’ve drowned myself with my favorite Georgio Armani perfume. Several times I would be ready to drive my car out of the garage, but had to park and return to my apartment, simply to spray my perfume, forgetting I had not done so. Now, people know when I have been present in a room, because of my distinct perfume. At least it is not the other way around.

The same kids called the Henna on my hands, from my cultural celebrations,…s***. Sadly, it was a bit humiliating and hurtful as a child.

Now henna is getting popular among westerners. It was not something people knew about growing up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at least in my circles, and at that time.

But despite the challenges with this name during my childhood, I also had pleasant reactions from people. Those reactions I remember very well, because it made me feel special and different.

People would remark on the unusual nature of the name. They would ask what the name means, where it comes from, and some people would even ask how, I, as a Muslim and originally Pakistani, would be named Elsa.

The origins of my name have always been questionable. I got many different stories from my family over the years. My father named me. As a child, I heard stories such as being named after the lion in “Born Wild,” or a dormitory or building in Karachi, Pakistan, called E.L.S.A. It was only very recently when my father told me that he heard Elsa Klench, a fashion reporter on CNN back in the 80’s, on the TV screen during the delivery in the hospital, and really liked that name, Elsa. SO, if that story is really true, I guess it turned out it may not be too deep and meaningful, like being named after your Grandma (no offense to Elsa Klench). Regardless, it had become meaningful to me for many other reasons over time, including the fact that my father named me.

It is also interesting because I am the only one of six siblings with a name that does not have Pakistani or Muslim origin, and the only one of six with a name that does not start with a letter “S.” I am one of the two middle children, the one that may have turned out to be the black sheep, so I guess it all makes sense.

So when people asked me, why am I named Elsa, it is not a Muslim name, (especially after hearing the names of all my siblings in my family, there is this natural curiosity), I liked to tell them that it is a Muslim name, because I have that name, and I am Muslim. Simple as that. 🙂

And this was ALL before the whole phenomenon of Frozen…… Deep breath.

Now the reaction I get is shock or surprise. “Wow, really? No,way! Your name is Elsa?”

Sometimes children get excited, but then there are some kids that just don’t want to believe it, look me up and down and just shake their head in disbelief that I am a real person named Elsa.

My absolute favorite reaction is one Punjabi Pakistani auntie that I met on the phone. (Apologies for those who don’t understand Urdu and/or unable to picture the “sexy” indo-subcontinent accent 😉 )…. “Elsa? Achaaaaa!? Woh Frozen wali Elsa?! ”

Gotta love the aunties!

My response to these reactions is always the same. I smile, I sigh, and I say: “Let us just remember, I am in my early 30’s now, and I had this name first.”

I must say, when I first heard about my name being used for a Disney Princess in Frozen, I was not happy. Then, I got a lot of attention from people in my close social circles or people I would meet, which was admittedly nice. But then I started to miss the initial positive reactions of people who have never heard the name Elsa before.

Then you would find those individuals who would just randomly start singing “Let it go”, when I would tell them my name,.. random people I would speak to on the phone, co-workers, etc. Some people would even ask ME to sing it. (It is a super empowering song, as you all know, so despite this “backlash”, I was compelled to memorize it!).

But that kind of attention that came from the movie, for a name that I struggled with as a child, was fine. I may have deserved it because of the many things I endured, as “Elsa,” and what I have overcome. I earned that name. And that name now symbolizes something more for me. And I can’t allow some huge, incredibly successful Disney movie to erase the history I have had with this name, to erase it’s significance to me. I have a feeling I may not be the only Elsa that feels this way.

So why is this any different from people named Ariel or Fantasia, Cinderella, or Pocahantas, or any of those other Disney Princesses or icons?

To some perspectives, it may not be really too different. The thing is, Elsa is the Iconic Disney Queen of this new generation and she stands for something more in this generation. And something is different about Elsa. She is quite a lovely character. But Let’s take Elsa’s appearance. The identity of Elsa is blond, beautiful, tall, blue-eyed, thin-wasted, and she is a powerful Snow queen with powers to freeze. 

What does this cultural icon say about beauty to this new generation? If she is such a prominent figure and cultural icon for children, she yet again embraces another image of beauty, which will continue to be internalized among children everywhere, especially with her incredible popularity.

There were some articles in the past few years that have come out, talking about Elsa’s embodiment of feminism, independence, and girl power. But the intersectional feminist may ask, who’s feminism is it? What does this cultural icon say about feminism to the new generation?

Also, just a thought, in regards to my experience, could these features be equivalent to someone “from” Wisconsin, or an average American would assume someone to be “from” Wisconsin?

I sometimes get a sort of confusion from people, embodied in questions and non-verbal language, about where “I really am from”, most likely because I am not white. This experience resonates with most non-white “ethnic-looking” people.

I am not trying to make this a race thing. Because race is never made to be a thing. It just exists and it’s real. And we cannot say that we “don’t see color.” Because color is everywhere. And we need to see it and understand it.

I don’t have powers to freeze things, unfortunately, but I was in fact born and raised in the cold state of Wisconsin. I have the ability to withstand the cold and laugh a little at people who freak out with the slightest indication of snow on the ground in the East Coast. 🙂 That’s actually quite the super power, if you think about it.

But I am in fact, a Midwestern American. Despite my brownness and my brown pride. I am proud of my origins as a Midwesterner.

Let me be clear, I am not hating on White people with this post. But it is fascinating if you understand my story. White people made fun of me for having this name growing up in the 90s, in a largely white-dominated environment, and now the White world has taken it from me. Nothing intentional or harmful or anything like that. But I wonder if that sounds familiar in any way. Maybe it is a big stretch. 🙂 But interesting, regardless.

I think it is also just different because when it happens to you and affects your daily life, things can change for you. You once felt special in your circles. But now, when someone hears your name, they wonder, is it really your name.

One example is something that happened earlier this year. A woman who works in the kitchen at a coffee shop thought it was a joke that there was a food order put in for “Elsa.” She came out to ask the cashiers if this is some sort of joke. One cashier started laughing and the woman joined her laughter. I was just looking at them, studying their reactions as I love to do when people get surprised over my name, and I came forward to retrieve my food and explained, “Yes, that is me.” I have been coming to this particular coffee shop for many years. The woman asked me, “Is that really your name?” And I said, yes, that is my name. But she still didn’t believe me. And started laughing, saying, “Nooo, Very funny. Well, nice to meet you Miss Elsa,” in a sarcastic manner.

It was quite remarkable how she couldn’t believe it was my name! People normally accept it when I explain: it has been my name for over 30 years, I didn’t steal it from Disney, I didn’t all of sudden change my name for the sake of beautiful tall white blue-eyed petite/thin waist-ed snow queen with magical powers to freeze everything.

But this was really the first time someone besides a child wasn’t willing to accept it… It was slightly embarrassing. This is really my name, people. 🙂

I think it was this precise moment that may have urged me to begin writing this article. I had been thinking about it for some time, but never got around to it until then.

I myself have sort of fallen in this Frozen Elsa obsession perhaps. I remember meeting a scholar I particularly admired at my university, during a book signing. I accidentally introduced myself, saying “Hi, I’m Elsa, from Frozen.” Another embarrassing moment. I was quite star-struck. But I was more shocked at how natural it came out of my mouth.

It’s still nice being named Elsa. It is certainly a unique name overall, but I am sure some babies will be named Elsa in the new generation. And sadly, it isn’t the same for me anymore, as it used to be, unfortunately. And that is fine, many things change in life. But I can say, I always had this name first. At least for perhaps 30 years before Frozen became a massive Disney pop-culture hit.

And all I am suggesting, is that perhaps the real life Elsa, Queen Elsa, or at least one of them, is Brown.

As part of my healing process in all of this, just for fun, and a way to reclaim my name for myself, I wrote a short children’s book. It may not be original, but what I have written is a cute little story I would have loved to have read when I was a timid shy little girl, going through those challenges of understanding my place in a largely white dominated society, and with my socially constructed identity, made to feel as if I was second rate to everyone else.

It was just something for fun, but I can say, with much certainty and pride, when I took that brown colored pencil and colored little “Elsa,” the main character’s face brown, I felt a small rush of empowerment, and it was a refreshing and a liberating moment. Perhaps that may not be something that most people will understand and perhaps difficult for me to explain, but it’s my personal truth.

One final observation.

As I was about to publish this article on my blog (which I have not shared publicly at the time of this writing), I came across this piece in another amazing blog that highlights voices of those suffering with various disabilities and illnesses, “the Mighty.” The piece described Frozen Princess Elsa and the metaphor of Mental illness in the movie. I was initially sad that I couldn’t get to it first! But regardless, I was so glad to see this article! Because I learned I was not the only one who saw this connection to mental illness. And no matter my personal “beef” with Disney, I am glad that Frozen Elsa has been seen as a strong figure for little girls to have a sense of empowerment in their lives. I still think some things are questionable.

I will also say, it was the use of my name in this movie that initially made me consider the title of my blog as a way to challenge the character’s identity, based on my own experience, and it naturally worked to match the anticipated theme, partly as a personal blog discussing topics surrounding mental illness and intersectionality.

It was only in recent years that I have been calling myself a warrior queen, working it in my daily affirmations and support my own mental health and well-being. And as I noted in my first ever blog post featured here, I did feel a connection to the character, not only from my name. She also did remind me of myself, because of how misunderstood I have felt at various points in my life. When watching the movie in the theater, I sort of felt it was actually me on the screen, in some of the scenes, especially after hearing my name. This is the case because most of my life, childhood and adulthood, I never heard someone else being referred to with my name. It was that unique and uncommon.

I do believe so many people, boys and girls, men and women, felt that same connection with the character, which is why she resonated so much with people around the world.

By the way, I first saw this movie alone, in the theater and it happened to be a sing-a-long version. LOL. Yes, I did sing along. If only all the Elsa’s in the theater wearing the blond wigs and blue dresses knew that the real-life Queen Elsa was in the house. 😉

Those kids were right when they were shaking their head in disbelief for me being named Elsa. I don’t look like the stunning Frozen Queen Elsa.

I am brown, short, a little plump, have a big nose, black hair, and dark brown eyes. But this is me. I am Elsa. With over 30 years of struggles from the many intersections of my identity, and more, I have gone through ALL of it, as “Elsa.” I earned this name. I am a real-life Queen Elsa.

I am a warrior for what I have endured in my life, and my name is just a scratch of the story. And for that reason, I write this post and have this blog with the appropriate title. It may be very difficult for many Frozen fans to accept this, if they ever read this post… I am not anyone significant in their life.

But at least among my tribes, I will make sure of it: I will always be the real life “Elsa, the Warrior KQueen,” striving to be a public servant, to support people who are suffering and the less fortunate in any way possible.

Peace and Blessings, Always,

Elsa, Warrior KQueen

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