The first thing to know about feminism is that it’s concerned with women’s well-being, and the well-being of all. The second thing to know about feminism is that it’s incredibly complicated. There are many, many forms of feminism, including ones that directly conflict with one another. One of the things that all feminists can agree on is that we need good role models for young girls. But what kinds of role models are we talking about? Disney Princesses are a source of love and contention for many feminists. We can’t seem to agree on which princesses are the best; these two different rankings both claim to be done through a feminist lens, yet they’re completely different. In one, Mulan is at the top, the other she’s near the bottom.
On one hand, we see lots of little girls so excited (excited is putting it mildly) to watch Disney Princess movies, wear Disney Princess costumes, meet Disney Princesses at theme parks, and pretend to be Disney Princesses. Many of the popular Disney Princesses exemplify traditional Western standards of feminine perfection, and what’s wrong with wanting to be feminine? On the other hand, some of the Princesses are treated like objects instead of people; their agency is limited to going about their lives until a man (usually a Prince, but not always) swoops in to rescue them. They’re also drawn as unrealistically skinny, and I’m certain that barring a few height differences, every single one could swap outfits with each other. It’s a bad message to send to girls who are already subjected to a lot of body image issues. Other more modern Disney Princesses do have strong personalities and dreams of their own, and send good messages to kids. So which ones really are the good princesses, and are there any redeeming qualities to the seemingly not-so-feminist ones?
While there are a lot of female protagonists in Disney movies, I’m going to stick with the ladies in the official Disney Princess Lineup. The first three princesses are Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. These three usually get the most flak, and rightly so. Each has enough beauty and grace to infuriate even the most confident beauty pageant queen, to the point where these are defining traits of their characters. Snow is the most beautiful person in the land, and Aurora’s beauty comes from a magical fairy gift. Cinderella’s beauty isn’t quite up to supernatural levels, but her charm is enough to enrapture the Prince after a few hours of dancing and socializing. These women also spend time doing a lot of servile work. Snow White keeps house for seven dwarves. Aurora spends her life in a small isolated woodland cottage, and clearly does her fair share of housekeeping (or at least berry-picking). After her father’s death, Cinderella seems to do the work of a whole team of servants in her rather large home. Third, all three women can easily commune with nature. Animals do their bidding or act tame around them, a traditional sign of feminine purity or “virgin power”. From these women we see that womanhood equals beauty, service, and (sexual) purity.
The next three Disney Princesses have a little more dynamism going for them. They all have a strong dream or wish, and pursue it. Ariel wants to see the world on land, and meet the people who live there. Belle craves adventure in the “great wide somewhere” beyond her little town. Jasmine wants to make her own choices in life, namely defy tradition and choose her own spouse. All three are still beautiful, but their beauty is incidental to their characters. Purity symbolism also breaks down. Ariel talks to sea creatures, but so does everyone else. Jasmine has a pet tiger (like Aladdin’s pet monkey). Belle befriends a fleet of servants turned into furniture. Beyond a few of Belle’s usual chores (she is a commoner, after all), these women don’t do much servile work. So while we’ve left most of the trademarks of the first few princesses behind, we still have the pursuit of a man a central vehicle to their stories. All three follow their dreams by falling in love with a guy.
We finally move further away from “Man equals Dream Fulfillment” in the next three princesses: Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana. While Jasmine was the first person of color in the Disney Princess franchise, race and culture actually have an impact on these three princesses. All three do still fall in love with a man, but that’s separate from their real story lines. Pocahontas teaches John Smith to see the world through her people’s eyes. Mulan goes to war in her father’s place. Tiana works hard and eventually opens her own restaurant. All three wouldn’t have the same kinds of problems if their race or culture were different. Pocahontas saves John’s life, but he has to go back to England for medical treatment. Mulan’s commanding officer General Li Shang comes to her asking for her hand only after the war with the Huns is over. Tiana learns from Prince Naveen that hard work can’t replace family and friendships, but together they work hard to establish her restaurant. However, even though each woman’s culture is inherent to her story, all three cultures are still portrayed in a stereotypical fashion, and don’t reflect reality in the slightest. It’s only a win for diversity in the sense that Disney is acknowledging that cultural diversity exists… and that’s pretty much it.
So what can we draw from these first nine Disney Princesses? The first three (Aurora, Snow White, Cinderella) are often criticized for upholding anti-feminist standards of femininity, and are thus bad role models. And rightly so; some of them play an active role in their stories, but most of the time it seems like major plot points just happen to them, and a Prince comes to whisk them away. Aurora is the biggest culprit. She is the one most treated like an object. For most of the story she’s either ordered around or in a coma while being rescued. You could replace her with a dog and have the exact same plot. A really nice, friendly dog. Yet she’s still the titular character, and her movie contains women as the star, the villain, and the supporting cast. Unlike Cinderella or Snow White, Sleeping Beauty has far more female characters in a variety of roles.
But I think we might be a little too hard on them. These princesses (especially Snow and Cinderella) are kind, self-sacrificing women, who are happy to help others. Those are perfectly wonderful traits. They’re gentle, but gentleness isn’t a sin. Snow White stumbles upon a cottage in the woods, and immediately takes it upon herself to make the place inhabitable by directing a whole menagerie of animals to perform various tasks. Not for herself to live in, but for the “little children” who must live there. Snow is selfless and industrious, and possesses leadership qualities that princesses of this era often lack. Cinderella spends her youth taking orders from her evil step-family, and her big wish isn’t to find a man to take her away; it’s to go to a fancy party for one night. She uses what little she has to care for the mice, birds, and other animals in her home, fashioning clothes for them and freeing them from traps. She’s compassionate, despite being treated like dirt by what remains of her family.
The next six give us more variety and representation, which is great. While the first three could probably be interchanged with each other without any impact on their stories, these others have more distinctive personalities. They aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves or be different. Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine aren’t as gentle as Cinderella, Snow, and Aurora. They get angry when faced with injustice and unreasonableness, and confront powerful people. Ariel and Jasmine get in heated arguments with their fathers over their dreams, and each father eventually comes around when they see how happy and fulfilled their daughters are. Belle is probably the best example of this era. The whole town thinks she’s odd because her favorite pastime is reading and because she rebuffs the advances of the brutish town hunk Gaston. Belle courageously offers herself to the Beast as prisoner in exchange for her father’s freedom. She effectively gives up her dream to travel to save her father. She constantly challenges the Beast until he modifies his behavior, and tries to warn him when the town revolts against him. Her movie ends with her implied marriage to the Beast (now Prince Adam), but her dream of exciting adventure akin to a storybook plot is fulfilled before then.
These women also stand up for others (Pocahontas) and face real dangers (Mulan). They also learn that sometimes they have to change their perspective in order to achieve happiness (Tiana). There’s a real variety of role models for young girls. Mulan is often held up as one of the more “feminist” Disney Princesses (now Tiana tends to challenge her for that honor). Mulan becomes a war hero and effectively saves her whole nation. When she and the guys are dreaming about their ideal woman, Mulan tentatively offers some comments about a woman who speaks her mind (which are shut down by the guys, of course). But I think the biggest reason why Mulan is beloved by many is because she totally rejects traditional femininity and gender roles. Mulan is utterly horrible as a young bride-to-be sent before the matchmaker, but an incredible soldier. In the words of Jasmine, she’s not “a prize to be won,” instead, her commanding officer is the one who becomes her prize. She plays the hero, and gets the guy. What can be better than that? The one major drawback is that from Mulan, one can get the idea that you can’t just be feminine to be powerful. Near the climax of the movie Mulan and her battle buddies distract the Hun leader by donning feminine costumes and fighting with fans. While it’s great that it’s included, the takeaway message is that femininity needs to be augmented with something masculine to be of real power, and thus value. Femininity, even in its Western traditional form, can be valuable.
Rapunzel and Merida are the final two princesses currently in the lineup (Frozen’s Anna and Elsa haven’t officially been inducted yet). Rapunzel is artistic, curious, and adventurous. Like many princesses before her, her dream is to go on an adventure, specifically to see the floating lights. She embodies a lot of traditional feminine qualities (she sings, reads, cooks, paints), but at the same time is quite clumsy. Her power comes from her body (magical hair and tears), but her value as a human extends beyond it. Rapunzel’s character arc isn’t actually focused on falling for a man or chasing a specific dream, though those are elements of her story. Rapunzel’s real journey is about learning to stand up for herself against the abusive Mother Gothel.
Merida’s story also focuses on her own internal character development. She has to learn to balance her fierce independent streak with her duties to her family and kingdom. While Rapunzel learned to stand up to her mother figure, Merida had to find a way to seek forgiveness from her mother and repair their relationship. Merida doesn’t like a lot of traditionally feminine activities, and is the only princess to end her story without a man in the picture. She encourages a new tradition in which the firstborns of all the clans can decide for themselves who they will marry, not just herself.
Both of these princesses show how far we’ve come with the Disney Princess franchise. Rapunzel is more like the traditionally feminine princesses, with lots of talents, kindness, a fierce desire to follow her dreams, and a great love interest. Merida is more like the modern ideas of princesses, rejecting traditional feminine activities, fighting for a greater cause, and totally rejecting any suitor’s hand. All of the Disney Princesses can be good role models, because they have redeeming qualities. The key is to not focus too much on one over the other, whether they be extra-feminine or not so much. No matter how you take your feminism, you’ll find something of value in the Disney Princesses. The whole pantheon is what really offers young girls a whole host of good role models that balance each other out. Which ones are your favorite and why? Let me know in the comments.
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While reading this, it occured to me that interestingly enough the first three princess movies do at least pass the Bechdel test. Which I know is not the be all, end all of whether or not a movie is feminist, but it’s always nice to have. In fact, all of the Disney princess movies except for Aladdin pass. And I think if one had to not pass, it should be the one named for the male protagonist, and the only one that’s really more his story than the princess’ anyway. Kind of a nice overall trend, that they can at least manage that bare minimum qualification throughout all the movies, when there are so many movies that don’t meet it.
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Jasime sticks out because she’s the only one who’s not the lead in her film. Other male lead Disney animated films never become part of the Princess line, even if they had Princesses (Black Cauldron and The Lion King). I know BC is ignored because it mostly flopped (I think it’s an unaccredited influence on Zelda).
In Beauty and the Beast both are technically equally the title characters. But it is still Belle who is the active Protagonist. If you reversed the genders of the characters the Beast wold be labeled a damsel in distress.
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