I’m not a “huge” fan of Disney. But having a daughter who is very attracted to the “princess” theme and story, I can’t help but be constantly exposed to Disney Princesses. No, unlike other hippie mamas, I don’t keep my daughter from watching them. I didn’t encourage it, either–it just happened.
So over the years, I have watched many Disney Princess movies, both as a child and as an adult. I must say, my view and response to these movies has changed greatly since becoming an adult, and even more so, when I became a mother. A mother of two daughters, at that, whom I wish to protect from damaging images of romance and expectations of womanhood.
I don’t call myself a feminist, but I do find it very important to experience the fullness of womanhood as God intended. And that includes some perspectives that may sound somewhat feminist.
In this post, I will look at the Disney Princess movies (that I have seen–there are a couple I haven’t seen) through the last eight decades, and give a brief response to their message of womanhood and relationships. And yes, I know that many of these were adapted from fairy tales from ancient times, but I still see a trend growing, and have witnessed a change over the years.
Enough prefacing already! In order of their release dates, here are the Disney Princess movies:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
The first of the Disney Princesses, this is the classic tale of Snow White. I don’t think I need to explain the plotline, as it’s well-known, even across multiple cultures (though it can vary slightly from culture to culture). As far as relationships are concerned, this is a very typical princess story: Princess is abused by step-mother. Prince hears Princess singing and is in love. Princess is in trouble. Prince fights for Princess. Prince and Princess live happily ever after. Sure, there are some unique details (like the short, bearded men she lives with), but it’s a fairly common premise. But the message conveyed is one of demonizing step-mothers, and praising the “love at first sight” nonsense. Also, can Snow be any more gullible?? Apparently her dearly departed father never taught this girl any kind of “stranger danger”.
The things wrong with this movie are much the same as any other “princess in distress” movie. Girl is in trouble (from her own foolishness and naiveté) and the prince is the only one who can save her with a “true love’s kiss”, because of course it’s true love, even though they only interacted for about five minutes prior to her being drugged. Okay, I think you get my point. On with the next one.
Nearly 15 years later, we still see the same story: Evil step-mother’s abuse… Yada yada. And although the prince doesn’t save the girl from physical harm, and it’s actually Cinderella who “makes a way” to follow her dream (or whatever you want to call it), there is still the “love at first sight” notion. The prince is so enraptured by this girl after just one evening with her that he’s willing to marry her. After one evening. Probably just three hours, maybe four hours tops. And his father is so desperate to marry him off to anyone, that he declares “Whoever fits this shoe is the one the prince will marry!” Sure, it makes for some interesting scenes, and allows Cinderella to prove she was the one at the ball (by producing the other glass slipper), but what if, ten houses before the Duke ever reached Cinderella’s house, some other girl just so happened to have the same sized feet?
So again, same issues–love at first sight coupled with the “poor abused girl” scenario. Though I understand these heroines must endure some hardship to complete the Hero’s Journey, I don’t understand what the obsession with step-mothers is.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Just nine years later, we see a slightly different opening scene: Rather than an evil step-mother, it’s the evil Queen Maleficent, who curses Aurora. I’m honestly baffled at the twisting of logic that was required to make this story work. So, King Stephan and Queen… Whatever-your-name-is, your daughter has been cursed to die on her sixteenth birthday. This means you have sixteen years to openly teach her not to go near spinning wheels. But rather than enlighten the girl about her predicament, they hide her away in the forest with the three fairies, and burn all of the spinning wheels. Is anyone else wondering how they made new clothes during those sixteen years? Just me? Okay, anyways, you could have protected her better by keeping her close, educating her on the curse, and giving her the willpower to not poke her finger. But instead, confused and upset by her true identity being revealed, she wanders off and, not knowing what the curse was, she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and falls asleep. The whole mess could’ve been avoided with a little education. The whole hiding away thing was completely unnecessary.
And the prince? Once again, they spent one whole afternoon before deciding they were in love. And she didn’t even know his name, nor did he know hers. But they were both willing to throw away their birthrights, essentially, by rebelling against their parents (Phillip more than Aurora–she mostly just cried) for the sake of this “love”. And of course he risks his life for “true love”, killing the dragon (aka Maleficent), and wakes her with “true love’s kiss”, and they live happily ever after.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
After a 30 year gap, we see Disney attempt a faint image of a woman’s independence, but they miss the mark. Rather than a girl standing up for herself against a tyrant or forging her way through a difficulty, we see an impulsive teenage girl rebelling against her father to pursue a potentially dangerous relationship based on her seeing Eric for a few minutes. Let’s make this clear: Eric and his countrymen fish for their food. I have no objections to this, but I would if I were a mermaid whose closest friend was a… fish. Think about that. She pursues this man whom she does not know (basing her “love” on a few minutes watching him party with his crew, and singing to him on the beach while he was mostly unconscious), at the risk of her friends being killed and eaten by his people. Her father understandably wants her to stay away from humans, but she foolishly ignores his warnings, seeks the help of a witch to pursue this man, and then endangers her friends as well as her father’s kingdom, all because she “loves” this guy she doesn’t know. Of course it all turns out all right in the end, but her choices revealed a severe lack of judgment.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Ah, a breath of fresh air! A bookworm–smart and witty–who tames a wild beast and becomes a princess. But let’s break this down a little. Though it’s nice to see the two romantic leads actually knowing each other before they fall in love, and though Belle did know that the castle was “enchanted”, she didn’t know the whole story. She didn’t know–for certain–that the Beast was actually a prince. Yet she loves him. Isn’t that bestiality? Okay, fine. We’ll give Belle the benefit of the doubt that she maybe read a book in the library, or overheard the servants explain the curse in detail, or something–so that she actually knew that the Beast was really a man trapped inside a beast’s body. We’ll let that one slide. And I’ll pass on the Stockholm Syndrome accusation as well, because the Beast actually did change, so I’ll give them that.
So the romance isn’t so unbelievable, and the story is fine on that. But there are a few holes in the plotline. For instance, if Philippe ran away before the wolves chased Maurice to the Beast’s castle, how did he take Belle to the castle to find him? And exactly what season is it? It seems to start in fall, and clearly goes through winter, but in the extended version, there’s a song in which spring comes. So Belle stays there all through winter, into spring, and her father takes THAT long to look for the castle… that he’s already come from? And actually, it shows Maurice coming home, asking for the town’s help, and immediately after being turned down by them, goes out alone to search for Belle. And in that time, he falls down in the snow and becomes sick. But if he had, as the time-lapse of Belle’s time in the castle asserts, been out looking for her for the whole winter, he would have died by the time she got around to looking for him. So then let’s assume that she only spent a few days there, allowing Maurice to still be believably alive, and then we’re back at the start with, “She just met him and now she’s in love??” and also, “It’s unlikely he would have made lasting changes in that short amount of time.” You were so close, Beauty and the Beast. And I think we’re getting a little bit warmer. Not the immature girl rebelling against her father, nor the helpless girl in need of rescuing. It’s getting better. And then…
Wham! One year later, we meet Jasmine. A strong-headed princess who refuses to marry someone out of obligation and wants to love someone, and wants to be respected by that “someone”. Sounds great. Until once again, we see this “strong woman” interpreted as a rebellious teenager, putting herself in danger for the sake of “freedom”. And in the end, she was in need of rescue. But that wasn’t so much of a big deal, in the grand scheme of the movie. Taking the focus off of the princess, though she is still a “Disney Princess”, and narrowing in on Aladdin, we see the message of “It’s okay to steal as long as you really need it…” Aladdin never attempts to work for his food. He resorts to stealing and never seeks any other alternative to earn his food legally (and ethically). And then he lies to get in with Jasmine, thinking he has to be a prince to impress her even though he knows they got along great when they met in the marketplace. Stealing, lying, and rebellion, all glossed over and almost praised. And shall we also comment on how Aladdin doesn’t immediately release the Genie, but uses him for his own purposes, keeping him in slavery, until he gets what he wants? Well, I guess it’s an improvement over the original story, but if you’re already going to change it, why not change it to have a better message?
Okay, on with the next. I think we might be moving in a better direction here…
Plenty of people have pointed out the blatant historical inaccuracy of this story. But let’s just take it completely out of its historical context and look at the story itself, pretending for a moment that it’s not a terrible interpretation of actual history. A girl meets a man in the forest and magically understands him. After one afternoon alone with him, she finds herself “drawn” to him. She finds out he’s a threat to her people, and both she and John try to work towards peace, despite their superiors wanting to go to war, basically. She is the heroine, and it seems a great improvement for her to be the one saving the man, rather than being the damsel in distress. I must say, that is an improvement, and that’s probably the ONE historical fact they mostly got right. Other than the names. And it didn’t end with them living happily ever after. They went their separate ways, and they just fondly remembered each other. That was a little more realistic of relationships–I’ll give them that. Sometimes the ones we feel strongly about wind up being just a slight detour, and not someone we spend the rest of our lives with. And I haven’t seen the sequel, so I have no idea if they ever wind up together.
Mulan (1998), Mulan II (2004)
Mulan is not actually a princess, but we’ll just go with it, because she is considered a “Disney Princess”. She’s the daughter of a middle-class family who goes to war, pretending to be a man, to keep her aged father from going to war and possibly killing himself. Having been rejected by the matchmaker, she feels she ought to do something to bring her family honor. Though clumsy and not the “perfect bride” (as the song “Reflection” points out), she does have integrity and wants to protect her family, even though it means running away in the middle of the night and lying about her identity. And though she never becomes a princess, she does meet a “special someone”. And at the end of the movie, you’d almost expect the typical “happily ever after”. And Mulan’s grandmother even asks him to stay “for ever”, but Mulan quickly interjects “for dinner”, and Shang agrees to “dinner”. So we see that–hooray!–it’s not a love at first sight premise! These two spent time at war together (though Shang didn’t know she was a girl), and though the romantic feelings were only on Mulan’s side (once again… he didn’t know she was a girl), Shang did have respect for and trust in “Ping” (Mulan’s alter-ego). So there was something to build upon, and no rushing into anything.
Then in the sequel, it opens with Shang proposing to Mulan, but then they are both called into service to the Emperor. And on a journey to escort a trio of princesses, trouble ensues, and they nearly break up. It shows typical misunderstandings and a lack of communication, which is common in real relationships. It wasn’t a perfect fairy tale ending, and it showed the real struggles of a couple, and the amount of consideration and selflessness that must be incorporated into a romantic relationship. This story definitely made a turn for the better in Disney’s princess line.
[I have not seen "Princess and the Frog", so I am skipping that one.]
There were a few things that some people might find distasteful in this movie. The hero is a thief, and that is largely seen as “no big deal” (other than him being chased by the royal guard), and the viewer is even moved to root for him to escape justice. The fact that Mother Gothel kidnapped Rapunzel, though it is obvious, is never viewed as horrible as it actually is. She basically gets away with it, never facing true justice for her crime. Sure, she’s no longer a threat, but she just sort of “goes away” and doesn’t go to prison or anything. And though Gothel was very, very wrong for keeping her in the tower, it was an act of rebellion that took Rapunzel out of the tower; not an attempt at freedom from her bondage. She did not know she had been abducted as a toddler, nor that she was being used and abused by her mother, and some would even praise the realism of Gothel’s verbal and emotional abuse.
Personally, as entertainment, I very much enjoyed this movie. It had some great songs, it was a nice twist on the Rapunzel story, and in the end, Flynn did make the right choice, we saw an act of sacrifice and heroism on Rapunzel’s part (not the “prince” saving her, but her saving her man), and they didn’t immediately get married at the end of the movie. The epilogue/voiceover at the end said that they “eventually” got married. As in, after a time of courtship. So we’re getting there! Bit by bit, it’s getting better!
And now, finally, we see a princess story that has absolutely NO romantic storyline! Merida actually competes for her own hand, beating her suitors and “winning” the freedom of not being tied to an arranged marriage. Though the reality is that she would eventually be expected to marry, we at least see that she fought for herself, even using the confines of the law (tradition) to do so, and not merely resorting to outright defiance or sneaking around to accomplish it. Though she does run away to the witch, and then seeks her help, she does learn that using magic is dangerous and has a price. But more importantly, she repairs the relationship with her mother. The relationship in this movie is not one of “prince/princess” but of mother/daughter. That is a vast improvement for a princess movie. To focus on a non-romantic relationship and show the confidence of this girl to not settle for less than the best suitor for her, is a much better message than prior princess movies.
[SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.]
I will admit, I really love this movie. I’m singing “Let it Go” as often as my five year old. The focus on the sisters’ relationship, the exposing of the “charming prince” as the villain, and the scoffing at the “marrying someone you just met” trope? Beautifully done, Disney. You’ve finally delivered what we’ve been wanting for a long time. Strong female leads with a desire to mend the damage done by well-meant but poorly executed parenting, plainly stating that it’s not wise to marry someone you’ve just met (and depicting the real-life scenario of a girl being so desperate to marry, she’ll say yes to the first man who asks), and bringing in the uncharismatic Kristoff as Anna’s better love-interest… and yet still not having them married at the end of it. Because who marries someone they just met, right? And of course, Anna’s sacrificial protection of Elsa as the “act of true love” that saves her, rather than Kristoff–that was not only unexpected, but a very strong choice for the overall message. Not relying on romantic love to save us but seeing sisterly love as “true” and able to bring us out of the cold–literally, in this case–is something that has never been attempted.
Yes, Merida and her mother had to mend their relationship to break the spell, and that, I think, paved the way for Elsa and Anna to give an even stronger picture of family relationships being the “act of love” rather than romantic relationships. There is usually such an emphasis on a romantic partner being the only “true love” that we often forget about–and take for granted–the relationships between siblings, and between parent and child. And what’s so great about this particular story is that the parents, though misguided, did all they could (and what they thought they should) to protect their daughters, even though it was the wrong call in the end. The parents didn’t become the lesser villain. There was no anger or resentment or rebellion against the parents. And the two sisters, though at odds and of very different personalities, came to respect, love, trust, and rely upon one another. And in the end, they balanced each other out.
I’m not sure why it seemed so much stronger and impacting than Brave’s depiction of Merida and her mother having to work on their relationship, but somehow, this one was different. Perhaps because it took a step in an entirely new direction. The other princess movies do touch on relationships between parent and child, though it’s not the exact focus. The fact that the parents are hardly in the picture at all (though they did create the distance between Elsa and Anna by trying to protect them both) is something very new for princess movies. And any step in a new direction is refreshing.
They showed what true sisterly love is all about, and that, I think, is what I really connected with in this movie. My sisters are two of my closest friends, and I know not everyone can say that about their siblings. I consider it a gift, and I hope that my daughters can say the same thing when they are grown.
So there is my synopsis of all the Disney Princess movies (that I have seen). I’m no film student or a critic. I’m just a mom, daughter, wife, and sister, who wants to see improvements in the images of womanhood that are presented to all of womankind. And I think we are moving in the right direction. Let’s hope the trend continues.