Imagine it. You’re sitting down to one of your favorite Disney movies, watching the well-loved story unfold before your eyes when suddenly the heroine of choice, in a stunning scene of sparkles and tailored finesse, gains her traditional princess garb. From as far back as Cinderella to Disney’s most recent flick, Frozen, a wide majority of the heroines have a scene dedicated to “transforming” into a princess—or maybe a “more marketable princess” in the case of characters like Elsa. By this point in our media culture, we’re so used to scenes like this that the possible underlying meanings don’t even cross our minds. Sure, they’re turning into a princess, but why? Are these transformations really all about the typical fairytale ending? I argue that no, they’re not. They’re more than a neat bow to tie a romantic subplot with and so much more than a tool for companies to sell princess garb (although that’s certainly part of it). Princess transformations are all about tapping into a positivity that’s accessible to both children and older audiences alike.
Princess transformations aren’t the only type of transformation. For instance, take a look at franchises like Power Rangers, games like Viewtiful Joe, or even some magical girl anime like Magical Knight Rayearth. These character transformations are clearly for one purpose: to become more powerful. Even if they have character arcs that flesh out the characters well—which many of them do—it’s still mostly based around becoming even more powerful to do something like save the world. Ultimately, these transformations tend to give some sort of power, weaponry, or the ability to do some intense form of martial arts and that’s it. Princess transformations tend not to get anything like that, but that doesn’t mean that they’re getting boned out of an arsenal of sweet tools. The fact is that these princesses don’t need anything like that. The princess transformation isn’t about gaining power; by the point the princess transformation occurs, the character has all the power they need. Instead, it’s all about a feeling, and that feeling is a sense of security in yourself and a confirmation of your own inner strength.
I think one of the best examples of this is Tiana’s transformation in The Princess and the Frog. Throughout the entire movie, Tiana worked hard achieving her goals, despite the people around her not necessarily being supportive or understanding. She even manages to change her worldview a bit, learning to take time for herself every once in a while. Yet, no matter how much her views adapted, in the end Tiana still knew exactly what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go after it; her final hurdle was learning to accept her new life as a frog. In realizing she had the strength to deal with this admittedly awful situation with the support of Naveen, she gains that gorgeous princess dress and becomes a princess. Yes, the magic is caused by a princess’s (technically a prince’s, but the spell says it’s a princess’s) kiss, but Tiana wouldn’t have even gotten to this point if she hadn’t had faith in herself. Her strength saved the both of them from a life of frog-ness.Another interesting example of this is Sailor Moon. Fans remember the big fight scene at the end of the first season: Serena versus Queen Beryl. Before getting to the heart of Beryl’s lair, all of the other Sailor Scouts die, which causes Serena to lose faith in herself. I definitely can’t blame her: they’ve been fighting as a team for a while, so to lose the friends you depend on who also happen to be the best comrades you’ve ever had? Yeah, that really sucks. Channeling the hope of her friends and her own inner strength, Serena surpasses her Sailor Moon form and changes into Princess Serenity. Princess Serenity isn’t inherently stronger than Sailor Moon, so without this point being made it seems superfluous to stick it in. The audience already knows that Serena is Princess Serenity at this point; there’s no mystery to be solved. But in turning into her princess form, Serena is sending a message to Queen Beryl as well as herself. To herself, she’s reaffirming her own strength: she can do this. She can fight Queen Beryl and win because she has her own power along with the power of her friends. To Beryl, the message is “don’t think you can intimidate me. I know what I’m capable of.” I think I just fell in love with this series a little bit more.
Even in modern day video games this trend persists. In Child of Light, Princess Aurora is already a princess; however she goes through two more transformations in her journey. With each transformation—into an older princess with, helpfully, a different dress—Aurora becomes more confident in herself, more willing to believe that she does, in fact, have the power to save both Lemuria and her kingdom in Austria. Her party members have always been aware of this fact: they trusted in her strength and her kindness from the beginning. Aurora’s transformation, then, is important because she’s accepting her own strength. No longer will she allow other people to dictate whether or not she can do something.
In the end, I think that the most important difference between power transformations and princess transformations is that while power transformations give strength, ultimately it’s a strength the character doesn’t fully understand. However, a princess transformation is drawing from a power that’s been inside the character all along: the transformation is a symbol of understanding their own power and embracing it. Even if most of these transformations, especially in terms of Disney flicks, are written off as being caused by love only, dismissing their importance completely as some romance trope is doing a disservice to the little girls and boys that look up to these princesses. By undervaluing princesses and those that turn into princesses, we are also undervaluing the growth of self-confidence. There’s more to being a princess than getting a prince, after all: after the marriage the princess still needs to rule.