The Evolution Of Disney Princesses

Disney Princesses Have Come A Long Way Since The 1930s

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Patrick Deliz

From 1937’s Snow White to 2021’s Raya, Disney princesses are a cultural phenomenon.

Kate Stout, Writer

Disney princesses are a cultural staple for Disney lovers around the world, with characters like Cinderella and Snow White gracing our screens since the 1950s. But, as times and audiences change, so does the idea of the Disney Princess.  

Early Princesses  

The first three Disney Princesses (Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella) are by far the least progressive.  Their movies were released in 1937, 1959, and 1950 respectively, with Snow White being one of Disney’s first animated films.  It should come as no surprise that the manner in which these films showcased womanhood reflected the ideal woman of that time, who was demure and reactive. 

Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella are all relatively one dimensionally characters. Remakes and sequels may have given them personalities, but in the original films they do not make any major decisions or take unprompted action.  They lack initiative and ambition within their own stories, the plot is based around how the princess will be rescued by a man. 

Also, one thing important to note about the first three Disney Princesses is that they tend to equate goodness with beauty.  In her thesis “The Shatter Slipper Project”, graduate student Caila Leigh Cordwell explores the impact of Disney princesses on young girls.  She highlights Snow White as showing the beauty-goodness association most starkly, with the entire conflict within the movie being the result of the Evil Queen no longer being beautiful enough to be respected. 

Cordwell highlight’s Snow White’s conflict with the Evil Queen showing the fight between powerful women and women who submit.  Snow White being beautiful and willing to do what is asking of her is at odds with the aging Evil Queen wanting to be in control of herself.  Cordwell observes that the only time that Snow White takes action is when she eats a poisoned apple and dies, her attempt at autonomy is punished.  In her relationships she almost always takes a very submissive role, such as cooking and cleaning for the dwarves.       

Many Disney Princess movies emphasize the importance of physical appearance, especially for girls, and this emphasis can be traced directly back to some of the original fairy tales by Brothers Grimm.  Professor Lori Baker-Sperry and Professor Elizabeth Grauerholz calculated the number of times female beauty is mentioned in these fairy tales.  According to their research the three most reproduced fairy tales, Snow White, Cinderella, and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), contained an average of 41.7 references to appearance and 12 to beauty.  None of them included any references to men’s handsomeness and had minimal references to the appearances of men.   

Discussing feminine beauty is not a bad thing, but the first three Disney princess movies are very much a product of their time and they reflect a lot of misogynistic values.  Considering these movies and characters are still very much relevant today, it is difficult to not see the need for Disney princesses that are a little more adventurous.  However, the next generation of Disney Princesses begin to provide children and parents with a more balanced array of characters and role models.  

Renaissance Princesses  

The Disney Renaissance occurred from 1989 to 1999 and it produced some of the most beloved Disney films of all time, being with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan.  It produced another five Disney princesses: Pocahontas, Mulan, Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle.  

There are not as many generalizations to be made about these five princesses, the next wave of Disney princesses had a lot more variety and diversity.  They had goals, interests, and purposes in their stories.  Two of the princesses (Mulan and Pocahontas) were based off historical figures, which made them heroines in their own right, rather than dependent on heroes like the first three princesses.  

Within the five films, the women’s lives still revolve around men, but they have a significant amount of autonomy not present in the early princess era.  For example, Belle is literally held hostage by “her prince” for most of the movie and must be defended by him in order to survive.  However, she ends up in his captivity in the first place by making the decision to protect her father.  She is also the oddball in her town rather than perfect and refuse the romantic advances of Gaston.  She has an interest (reading) and makes choices (turning down a proposal and saving her father), things the early princesses did not have or do. 

In her film, Pocahontas does not even end up with her love interest, she decides to remain in America rather than go with John Smith, making her the first Disney Princess to not end up in a romantic relationship.  Additionally, Mulan’s romantic relationship is not the main plot of her film, it happens mainly off screen, with the focus more on how she saves her father and her country.  She has both masculine and feminine qualities, spending most of the movie dressed as man and expresses discomfort in the feminine clothing she wears at the beginning of the movie.   

Mulan, Pocahontas, and Jasmine all brought something else to the table as well: racial diversity.  Three out of the five renaissance Disney princesses were not white, beginning with Jasmine in 1992.  This was a major shift compared to early princesses, who were all white and European.  

Yet, this diversity was far from flawless.  In Aladdin, Cordwell noted that stereotypes were everywhere, and they were not positive.  One piece of lyrics from the original film describing Agrabah (where the movie takes place) is “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”  The villains in the film tended to display more traditionally Arabian features as well, whereas Jasmine and Aladdin were very Americanized in comparison.   

Some the renaissance Disney princesses seem to send very mixed messages when it comes to the roles of women too.  Ariel is the biggest example of this, she is simultaneously the most and least progressive of these transitional princesses.  She expresses some big dreams and desires, but she literally gives up her voice for a man, a fact that is difficult to overlook when analyzing gender roles in “The Little Mermaid”.   

In an article for “The Atlantic” Senior Editor Lenika Cruz discussed how what we look for in a princess has shifted over time. She explained that at the time of her creation Ariel was the perfect Disney princess, with a daring adventure to match, especially since she is the one who saved her prince (not the other way around).  But as time wore on, what people thought made a princess a good role model shifted.  She also discussed the sexualization of Ariel, mainly by male critics, at the time of “The Little Mermaid’s release, a fact made increasingly creepy by the knowledge that Ariel is only a teen. 

21st Century Princesses  

The final set of Disney princesses includes Tiana, Rapunzel, Elsa, Anna, Moana, and Raya.  These princesses span a full decade and include the most diversity, with princess that feel more like real people and adventures that do not involve romance.  

Characters like Rapunzel and Anna take some of the tropes presented in the early princess movies and manage to subvert them in a way that makes them much more progressive and slightly ironic.  This includes Anna’s failed attempt at love at first sight and Rapunzel’s decision to use her love interest to save herself (rather than allowing him to save her).  

Tiana, Moana, and Raya all continued to add more racial inclusivity to the princesses with Tiana being Disney’s first (and only) African American princess. Tiana is also the only Disney princess to have lived during the 20th century.   

However, Raya’s role as a southeast Asian princess was met with some controversy. CNN explained that some people online thought it was ridiculous for Disney the make such wide generalizations in “Raya and the Last Dragon” about such a diverse part of the world.  Also, many of the actors in the film (including the actress playing Raya) were east Asian, not southeast Asian.    

Online controversies aside, Raya was a very different type of Disney princess than her predecessors.  Her movie was much more like an adventure story, especially with the decision to not include any musical numbers in the movie. Her lack of a love interest has prompted the actress who voiced Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to share that she viewed Raya as having romantic feelings for Namaari, one of the antagonists in the movie.  

“I think if you’re a person watching this movie and you see representation in a way that feels really real and authentic to you, then it is real and authentic,” Tran said. “I think it might get me in trouble for saying that, but whatever.” 

Disney has yet to have any Disney princesses that were written explicitly as LGBT, but this is not the first time a Disney princess has had her sexuality speculated.  During 2016, #GiveElsaAGirlfriend gained traction in Twitter, and while Idina Menzel was not as vocal about the idea as Kelly Marie Tran, Elsa’s sexuality was never confirmed.   

Neither of these instances quite qualify as representation, since they are not canon, but hopefully they are setting the stage for a Disney princess that is out and proud about being LGBT.  

Sociology professor Dr. Elizabeth Grauerholz explained that the impact of having more role models from different backgrounds that are Disney princesses is hard to measure, but she did highlight one area where Disney still seems to be missing the mark.  

“Disney has made some progress in creating more racially diverse princesses, and that’s a good thing, although they still perpetuate ideals surrounding female beauty (and other “feminine” traits),” Grauerholz said. “It’s also important to note that they are likely doing this for profit-motivated reasons, not out of any moral responsibility.” 

She explained the need for role models that fall outside of what Disney has already created and that it is important to include role models that make mistakes and are not always perfect.  She said that traits like “pretty, white, young, slender” are now outdated and tired.  

Overall, Disney princesses seem to have shifted along with cultural values.  Media changed to account for this, even if children’s media seems to lag in terms of representation and diversity.  Disney princesses have grown in leaps and bounds in the last 84 years and the future of the brand seems brighter and more diverse than ever.