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Someday My Prince Will Come: Examining the Evolution of Disney Princesses

The Official Disney Princess Lineup.

The Official Disney Princess Lineup.

Introduction

The animated princess franchise is one of the Disney Corporation’s most profitable markets, raking in roughly $4 billion dollars annually. The films almost act as textbooks for little girls across the country, and the princesses that star in them are regarded as role models. As a result, a vast array of products have been spawned: toys ranging from dolls to video games; all types of clothing, including not just costumes, but also sneakers, bathing suits, and underwear; hygienic products such as bubble bath and toothpaste; and even fruit snacks and Spaghettios. Needless to say, Disney has made a pretty penny off of the pretty princesses. But what is it about these cartoon heroines that makes them so captivating? More importantly, is it healthy for young girls to idolize them? Many feminists have criticized Disney Princesses, saying that the films encourage feminine weakness by promoting the idea that women need not fend for themselves because someday their prince will come and then they’ll live happily ever after. They also point out that this is only effective if the woman is both beautiful and docile, her greatest act of rebellion being wishing upon a star. Unfortunately, this is often the case, especially with earlier films such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty,and Cinderella. However, it should be noted that none of the princesses created after the 1960s have merely sat around waiting for a prince to rescue them. They all had designs on a goal, whether it was marrying for love or achieving autonomy. But the question remains: Do these moments of independence make up for the blatant sexism in the films? A thorough examination of seven of the canonical princess films will hopefully provide an answer.

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the-evolution-of-disney-princesses-part-i
To be honest, the only way you'd get me to like Snow White is if she were played by Rachel Weisz.

To be honest, the only way you'd get me to like Snow White is if she were played by Rachel Weisz.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - 1937

Snow White is kind, gentle, and as pure as the driven snow that she is named after. Obedient and eager to please, she is more than happy to be a mother to the Seven Dwarves, cooking and cleaning for them without even being asked. In short, she is Disney’s idea of feminine purity. She takes it upon herself to domesticate everything—even the wild fauna, putting them to task helping her bake pies and wash dishes while the men go off to work. Her naïve passivity is depicted ad nauseam: Not once does she question why the wicked Queen, her own stepmother, would force a princess into a life of abuse and servitude, nor does she try to reclaim a throne that is rightfully hers. Instead, she cheerfully dons her ragged gown and whistles while she works to scour an entire castle. Though she later admits that she does long for something—a traditional, heterosexual relationship—she never attempts to achieve this herself. Her desire is keenly expressed in the song “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” yet the lyrics are still passive: Her prince will come for her, someday; she’ll just have to wait.

The Queen, though nameless, is considerably more interesting. Yes, she is evil, but at least she has a personality. She takes action to solve her problems (superficial though they may be) instead of waiting for someone else to do it for her. She is intelligent, sophisticated, worldly, and beautiful. Yet she is simultaneously vain, jealous, and selfish, prioritizing her insecurities about her looks above all else—doesn’t she have a kingdom to rule? Because of this, the Queen embodies everything wrong with giving women a position of power. Granted, Snow White eventually returns to a life of royalty…but it’s on the arm of a prince, a potential husband and future king—something that the Queen distinctly lacked. Therefore, the film seems to imply that women are allowed to be empowered, as long as there is someone (a man) to rein them in.

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Cinderella - 1950

Initially, Cinderella appears to share many traits with Snow White: She is a steadfast Pollyanna who is forced into a life of servitude yet somehow maintains her sweet disposition and wins the heart of a handsome prince. However, unlike the other princess, this one is fully aware of how dismal her life is. In a way, she is admirable because she remains hopeful when she could have easily sunk into a depression. She doesn’t sing while she scrubs because she’s so enamored doing chores but because it makes the task more bearable (and it drowns out stepsister Drizella’s caterwauling). With this in mind, it’s no wonder that she wanted to marry Prince Charming after only sharing a two-minute dance—she most likely figured that anything was better than staying with her stepfamily.

However, the fact that she allows the abuse to continue is rather disheartening. It is intended to showcase her kind nature and serve as a contrast to her stepsisters’ brash and spiteful personalities. Instead, it presents Cinderella as a passive entity in her the execution of her own fate, an advocate of the belief that “no matter how your heart is grieving / If you keep on believing, / The dream that you wish will come true.” On the other hand, at least her song isn’t about how someone else will come and whisk her away from a life of drudgery.

If nothing else, Cinderella has more personality than Snow White, and she has her subtle moments of defiance. It is seen in the way that she sarcastically rants at the morning church bells, sets the mice free, and makes them clothing—something that her stepfamily isn’t likely to appreciate. She does eventually stand up to her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, by pointing out that it is unfair that she be excluded from the Prince’s soirée when the invitation clearly states that every eligible maiden is to attend. Clearly, she desires something better than what she’s been made to endure and isn’t afraid to at least take quiet action to achieve it. Yet when her stepsisters tear her gown to shreds, thus dashing her hopes of attending the ball, Cinderella isn’t finally driven to fight back but instead runs away in tears. The only reason that she triumphs later is because of her Fairy Godmother’s intervention via bibbidi-bobbidi-booing. This perpetuates the notion that women are incapable of dealing with their own problems. In addition, Cinderella’s transition from rags to riches prior to meeting Prince Charming reinforces the idea that one needs to alter their physical appearance in order to impress anyone.

Glass slippers always did seem a bit impractical.

Glass slippers always did seem a bit impractical.

Well, this is a dilemma.

Well, this is a dilemma.

Sleeping Beauty - 1959

Admittedly, writing an in-depth analysis on Princess Aurora/Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty is not an easy task. There is little to say in her defense, just as there is little to criticize. This is largely because she isn’t even the star of her own movie. In a film that runs for seventy-five minutes, Aurora only has eighteen minutes of screen time—the majority of which are spent sleeping. However, in the short time that she is awake, at least a few hints about her personality are provided. She has been isolated almost her entire life, allowed no companions other than the local wildlife and the three Good Fairies who take care of her. But she is not completely docile, openly admitting that she longs to meet someone new and wishing that her adoptive moms didn’t keep her so sheltered. When Prince Philip shows up, Aurora is startled but doesn’t run away, unlike Snow White who immediately flees, or Cinderella who does likewise following her star-struck dance with Prince Charming. Though initially Aurora is hesitant, all it takes are a few cliché pickup lines and a waltz through the woods to win her over. She then panics upon realizing that she has ignored everything the three fairies have taught her about Stranger Danger, but even when she is fearfully hurrying home, she agrees to rendezvous with the Prince that evening—and it’s her idea, not his. Therefore, while there clearly is a desire to rebel, Aurora finds it difficult to give in to it due to social conditioning.

If anything, the three Good Fairies are arguably the real heroes of the story. Despite being viewed as sidekicks, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather all have both more screen time and personality, and they constantly intervene to rescue Aurora and Philip. At the end of the film, they successfully breach Maleficent’s castle, break into Philip’s cell, provide him with armor and weaponry, then help his escape and protect him from everything that Maleficent (quite literally) throws at him. In the final confrontation, Maleficent has transformed into a fire-breathing dragon and Philip slays her his sword—but it is Flora’s enchantment that ensures that the weapon kills the villain effectively. In the end, one has to wonder, if not for the fairies’ involvement, would the Prince have succeeded at all? Really, he was a tool used as a means to stop an evil tyrant and save the princess, yet not only is he given all of the credit, the fairies give it to him as if they had nothing to do with it at all.

What’s more, at the beginning of the film, the fairies vow to give up their magic when they agree to act as Aurora’s surrogate mothers. This is intended to be for the princess’s safety, but it is interesting to note that they become powerless the moment they decide to take on roles that are maternal and domestic. This is juxtaposed with Maleficent, the considerably more powerful yet unmarried and childless Mistress of All Evil. Unlike her predecessors, Maleficent doesn’t target Aurora out of jealousy over the girl’s beauty or spite because the princess is widely loved. Her main goal appears to be earning respect or at least acknowledgement from the King and Queen, who have slighted her by excluding her from their daughter’s christening. Yet she overreacts and her retribution is disproportionate compared to the offence. The most powerful, active, strategic woman in the film—the one who doesn’t obey every order she is given—is the villain, and the ones that remain gentle and obedient—even when being oppressed—are good. And since the only trait that Maleficent shares with any of the “good” characters is that of beauty (with Aurora) could one interpret the film as saying that intelligence, independence, and power in a woman makes her evil? In short, it implies that, because she is a woman with knowledge and authority, Maleficent must be eliminated.

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The Little Mermaid - 1989

During the thirty years that followed Sleeping Beauty, the world saw no new Disney films featuring cartoon princesses. However, it did see the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and Women’s Liberation. Which is why, when the Little Mermaid hit theatres, its princess was noticeably different from previous heroines.

The eponymous mermaid is not the first princess to aspire to a life outside of what she was born into, but she is the first to actually try to turn those aspirations into realities. Before she even makes her first appearance, the audience is made aware that Ariel is rather willful: She skips out on the vocal concert (and its rehearsals) that is intended to glorify her father, King Triton, and turn his daughters into public ornaments, instead choosing to go exploring. While her sisters have no qualms about it, it is clear that Ariel would rather sing on her own terms rather than have her talents exploited. And though he is entirely well meaning, the King is still highly paranoid and controlling, and his rants against humans are xenophobic and borderline racist. Ariel is obviously feeling oppressed, but rather than escaping to dreamland or wishing upon a star, she defies the rules set forth by pillaging sunken vessels for human artifacts and making repeated trips to the surface to indulge in her fascination with the human world.

Regardless, the film is often accused of being anti-feminist because of claims that Ariel alters her physical appearance and throws away her family, her culture, and her voice in just to be with a man whom she barely knows. What should be noted is that Ariel wants to be “part of that world” long before she meets Prince Eric. What’s more, while she is clearly infatuated with him after only one encounter, there is never any evidence to indicate that she intends to change anything about herself in order to attract him. She expresses a desire to see him again, but that is the extent of it. It is only after her father discovers and destroys her collection of human-made knickknacks that Ariel seeks out Ursula the sea witch and barters for a pair of legs. There is a moment, before agreeing to Ursula’s bargain, where Ariel laments that “If I become human, I’ll never see my father or sisters again,” but the fact still remains that King Triton’s oppressive parenting methods are what have driven her to this point.

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Another supposedly sexist moment is Ursula’s telling Ariel that “it’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man,” which implies that men have no interest in conversing with women. Rather, they try to avoid it and therefore women should strive to be quiet and submissive. To make matters worse, Ursula goes on to say that if Ariel is so worried about being mute, she can always use her looks to win the Prince’s heart. What many seem to overlook is the fact that these notions are being promoted by a villain. Most children know better than to believe the words of the bad guy. Besides that, Prince Eric frequently laments the fact that Ariel cannot talk. Part of what initially drew him to her was her beautiful voice. In fact, when she disappears after rescuing him from a sinking ship, he declares that her voice is what will help him recognize her, as he was too dazed at the time to see her face. This marks another improvement to Disney Princess Films: The princes are shown to be interested in heroines beyond their physical appearances, which is demonstrated by the fact that they spend time together, albeit briefly, and get to know one another before having the fairy tale wedding.

One shortcoming of the otherwise progressive film is the portrayal of the villain. Once again, women are pitted against each other, though unlike those before her, Ursula doesn’t view Ariel as a threat nor is she jealous of her, and the sea witch isn’t the one trying to suppress Ariel’s independent nature, the princess’s father is. To Ursula, the little mermaid is simply a tool for her to use in her plot to usurp King Triton and rule the seas. This is a refreshing change from the petty motives of the previous villainesses, but it is still disheartening to see another strong, intelligent, adult woman depicted as evil. As a competent sorceress, Ursula is undoubtedly powerful, but it would appear that her abilities cannot compare to the might of King Triton’s rather Freudian trident, therefore she plots to steal it. In a way, Ursula’s ambition, her rejection of convention, and her desire to have more out of life is reminiscent of Ariel. They even have to hide out in remote caves because their society condemns their interests. The difference is that Ariel only wishes to be independent without scorn whereas Ursula wants to be independent by viciously controlling every ocean. In doing this, the film creates a contrast that shows either that women shouldn’t use nefarious methods to achieve their goals, or, from a more cynical perspective, that they can have aspirations as long as they refrain from reaching too far. It brings up the question of why Ursula couldn’t have helped Ariel out of empathy and then proven to be a better ruler than Triton because she’s more pragmatic and open-minded?

However, when it comes down to it, Ariel can be seen as a headstrong young woman who longs to expand her mind and explore other cultures but is continuously denied the opportunity to grow. At one point, she surmises that “on land, they understand, / That they don’t reprimand their daughters: / Bright young women, / Sick of swimmin’/ Ready to stand.” Her fantasies of living with humans coincide with those of her living in a pro-feminist society where she is free to speak her mind and expand her intellect. Ultimately, the film sends the message that one should be allowed to have these desires, that there are times when rules and social conventions should be defied, and that showcasing a woman’s allegedly “feminine” talents is acceptable if it is what she wants.

But seriously.

But seriously.

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Beauty and the Beast - 1991

As the fifth film in the princess franchise, Beauty and the Beast marks a change in the lineup of Disney villains—namely, that they are no longer women. Instead, the audience is presented with Gaston, the embodiment of male perfection. Not only is he tall, dark, and handsome, he’s the village hero, an exalted hunter and fighter who excels in every reputedly manly pursuit imaginable. He doesn’t simply live up to the definition of “masculine”—he surpasses it. The drawback is that he’s also a parochial, domineering, chauvinistic narcissist with a hair-trigger temper. That the man’s physical appearance does not reflect his personality is, of course, the main theme of the film. But in doing this, Beauty and the Beast also ends up deconstructing the villain, hero, and heroine archetypes.

While Belle is the only one of the three who’s true nature isn’t hidden in some way, she is still noticeably different from the aforementioned princesses, even the nontraditional Ariel. Instead of being a spirited nonconformist, Belle is a quiet, bookish freethinker who is ostracized in her village because of it. As Gaston, in one revoltingly sexist moment, proclaims “It’s not right for a woman to read! Soon she’ll start getting ideasthinking…” She is subtly rebellious, and though she admits to wishing she had someone to relate to—not fall in love with—she feels no need to compromise who she is just to fit in.

Like Ariel, Belle is also capable of taking care of herself and doesn’t yearn for a man to whisk her away from her “poor provincial town.” Gaston is the obvious choice to remedy this, but while the entire village is enamored with him, Belle states that he’s “positively primeval,” as well as “rude and conceited,” and repeatedly spurns his advances. When he corners Belle in her home to all but force her to marry him, she not only rejects him but cleverly waits until he has her backed against her front door before opening it and sending him headlong into the mud.

Later on, after realizing that her father is in danger, Belle doesn’t hesitate in setting off in search of him herself. This is a recurring theme, Belle rescuing men. She goes on to save her father’s life twice, once by agreeing to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner and again by getting him to safety when he is lost in a blizzard. Even though the Beast does save her from a pack of rabid wolves, she fights them off before he arrives and proceeds to return the favor by helping him return to the castle after he is injured. When an angry mob is storming the castle, Belle hurries to warn the Beast instead of letting him fend for himself while she frets. Clearly, with the exception of the wolf attack, Belle spends more time saving people than being saved. In fact, in the end, it all comes down to her: She is needed to break the spell, the Beast and his servants are dependent on her, and it is only through her love that they will all turn back into human beings.