In honor of the recent Valentine’s Day, I thought we could focus on one of the most iconic symbols of love in US culture. Disney Princesses. Since Walt Disney’s 1937 release of Snow White, little girls everywhere have idolized and sought to emulate the many Disney Princesses. From Cinderella to Pocahontas, almost every little girl dreams of one day being a princess.
And there many that have, rightfully so, taken issue with these princesses. From their impossibly small waists to the patriarchal societies portrayed in the films, there are some very legitimate reasons to be concerned about our daughters wanting to grow up and be like Jasmine or Ariel. Although I take issue in a mermaid princess whose waist is as thin as her neck, I frankly find even greater fault in the overall lack of personality shown by the original princesses and the romantic relationships portrayed in the films. Thankfully, there has been a slow progression in princesses over the years, culminating in our most recent Disney movies, Tangled and Frozen. I would argue that this change in Disney movies is a pretty fair reflection of our changing times. Although society still clearly has some major issues to work through, we are portraying princesses more and more as intelligent, opinionated women who work hand-in-hand with their love interests.
Let’s start at the beginning:
Snow White, our original Disney princess, is the ultimate damsel in distress. Sure, she her step-mother, is kind of a pain, but Snow White really does nothing for herself. It is by sheer luck that she happens upon the cottage where the seven dwarves reside. Once there, she takes on household chores, opens the door to Maleficent (after being told specifically not to), and falls into a coma until Prince Charming comes to the rescue. Of course she marries him at once. Hardly a role model for our children.
Cinderella is one of the most beloved princesses. Given, she has a bit more personality than Snow White but falls sadly short of any kind of heroine. Cinderella accomplishes a bit more in the movie than her predecessor and doesn’t come off as a total idiot (no offense, Snow White). She spends her days subserviently cleaning, makes a wish, and is whisked off to a magic ball. When the clock strikes midnight, though, she runs for home without a word, leaving her glass slipper behind. Lessons we don’t quite learn from Cinderella: be assertive and, for goodness sake, communicate. That romantic moment when you were dancing might have been a good moment to, I don’t know, talk to Prince Charming?
Aurora came next, with a bit more personality than the two ladies before her, but she spends a good majority of the movie sleeping. Sleeping, seriously? And waiting for Prince Phillip to come to the rescue. Thank goodness he shows up, because if it had been up to her, she and her kingdom would have been doomed. She marries him for love (after knowing him at least a day or two) and they live happily ever after.
Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas then came in quick succession (late 80’s to early 90’s). These girls definitely have quite a bit more personality—as for wits, well, some of them got them. Others—not so much. Ariel has plenty of spunk, but she’s about as intelligent as a dinglehopper (aka a fork). At 16, she runs away from home, makes a deal with a sea witch and spends the rest of the movie trying to convince a boy to kiss her. She is portrayed as spunky but fairly simple-minded. Belle is one of the first really intelligent princesses. She heroically takes her father’s place in the Beast’s castle, and eventually falls in love with the Beast. Jasmine, too, is a princess with some serious personality. She refuses to marry someone she doesn’t love and is quite a bit more adventurous than our pre-80’s princesses. Pocahontas, of course, is quite the heroine. She fearlessly offers her life in the place of John Smith. In each of these movies, we finally see some real character development between our leading lady and her man—rather than marrying someone they met moments before, the characters in these movies meet early and we see their love develop as the movie progresses.
Things just keep getting better from there. Next came the hard working princesses, Mulan and Tiana. Mulan gives up the safety and restraint of her patriarchal society to fight the Huns. Her courageous acts save the Emperor (and China as a whole) from the horrific reign of the Huns. Her relationship to Shang is a far stretch from our original princesses. They rely on one another on and off the battlefield and he is clearly the kind of guy who can stand next to a strong, independent woman. Tiana comes from a very different time and place and portrays a modern (1920’s) young woman who works full time to make her own dreams come true—until a prince-turned-frog named Naveen convinces her to kiss him and the real adventures begin. She has to teach him the power of hard work and chasing your dreams and they become a real team. They marry in the closing scene and watchers can rest assured that that is not the kind of marriage where she will be pushed around.
Rapunzel is a princess beloved by all little girls today. She is determined, courageous, and fairly personable. She’s only sixteen when Flynn Rider climbs her tower and they embark on the adventure of a lifetime. She wields a frying pan and fearlessly fights off thugs and palace guards. She gets them out of a number of sticky situations and you really see a relationship develop between these two. Flynn and Rapunzel are both willing to sacrifice everything for each other and they really take care of each other. It even appears that the two wait a while before getting married—novel concept.
Merida (from the movie Brave) is our first leading lady without a single love interest in her film. She fearlessly climbs mountains, shoots arrows, and figures out how to save the day. All without a man.
Frozen is unlike any Disney movie yet. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it yet!) This movie has not one, but two leading ladies, Elsa and Anna. This film threw the actions of many previous princesses into question. After singing an entire song and eating some chocolate fondue with a boy, Anna declares that she is engaged and Anna and Christoff react much more like most of us would today—Wait. You’re marrying someone you just met? Seriously? You don’t even know him. Anna and Christoff work as a team throughout the movie, and Christoff is clearly unafraid of standing next to such a powerful woman. Elsa, too, is a very strong female character. She doesn’t have a love interest introduced in the movie, but saves the day by overcoming her fears. My very favorite moment of the film is when Anna performs an act of “true love” and sacrifices herself for her sister. In this case, true love was not about some boy kissing her, but about being willing to give up something for someone else.
These Disney movies show that culture really is changing. Of course, we have a long way to go, but as Disney princesses are being portrayed more and more as strong, independent, kind, wise women, this will change the culture further. Who wouldn’t want their daughter to grow up to be like Merida, Anna or Elsa? In just about 75 years of film, we have seen massive change in our leading ladies. These women have gone from damsels in distress to empowered, interesting women who are out to change the course of history.