In 1934, Walt Disney embarked on what many in the film industry considered a fool’s quest: he had Walt Disney Productions begin work on a full-length animated feature named Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Completion would take three years, and the movie was released in December of 1937. It was received unexpectedly well by American audiences and would go on to become the highest grossing movie of 1938.
It would be the first film in the wildly successful Walt Disney Animated Classics Series, and it marked the birth of a cultural icon: the Disney Princess.
The Disney Animated Classics series has produced 53 full-length animated features to date; of those, only fifteen are centred around a female protagonist, thirteen of which are (young) adults – Disney Princesses – though not all of these protagonists are, in fact, princesses. From Snow White, through Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, and Belle, all the way through to Anna and Elsa, the Disney Princess has been a part of popular culture. Considering the influence these films have on successive generations, as they are geared to children in their formative years, what is the perception of the Disney Princess, and how does it relate to the role of women in society? And exactly what is a Disney Princess in her capacity as a role model, and how has she changed over the years?
Examining the very first Disney Princess, Snow White, we can list a very finite number of qualities this animated Disney leading lady possesses: she is of royal descent, she is modest and kind, and has a special way with animals, something that stands her in good stead as she has to go through her ordeal before living happily ever after. Last, but certainly not least, she is beautiful: beautiful in a way that fits the temporal aesthetic according to which her character was created. In fact, the very nature of Snow White fits the essence of what was considered “a good girl” in the 1930s: someone who was special, but never bragged about it, and someone who did as she was told, who knew her place, who might be miserable but would never complain and would always somehow make the best of a bad situation. A girl like that would ultimately be rewarded for being so pure of heart by having those qualities recognised and cherished by a prince who would rescue her and offer her a safe, unconcerned and happy life.
This wasn’t only a temporal-cultural concept of 1930s America, of course; the Grimm brothers’ fairytale upon which the Disney classic is based featured a similarly passive creature, though the emphasis in the Grimms’ story was slightly different from that in the movie: the fairytale served to highlight the intense rivalry that could grow between a mother and daughter as a daughter grows up and threatens to displace the mother, whereas the Disney movie seems rather to say that bad things and people will happen to good girls, but fear not, for there is salvation in the end! – thus relegating Princess Snow White to the role of helpless victim.
Conversely, the strongest female character in the movie is the Evil Queen, again as informed by the fairytale. She is the one who moves the plot, who orchestrates the events that lead to the unintended result she was aiming to prevent. While it might be going too far to conclude that the message is that powerful and ambitious women are to be feared, one can hardly be blamed for inferring exactly that from the way the Evil Queen is positioned and portrayed: like Snow White, she is a one-dimensional character, with no nuance to her personality whatsoever. Never once is the viewer given any indication other than that her actions are informed by vicious, unmitigated envy. There is no hint of the insecurities that might be experienced by a woman who realises that her position in society is unavoidably subject to change (as is everyone’s), or – to float just one psychological theory – the possible sadness and frustration she might feel because she doesn’t know how to connect to her stepdaughter, assuming, of course, that she would want to.
Although the story in Snow White revolves around the title character, she does not actually move the plot in any significant way. Rather, she is the instrument by which we are led through the story: her actions are informed by other people’s plans for her, and by their intentions towards her. This is particularly clearly highlighted towards the end, where she is literally a passive object carried around by her good samaritans, the seven dwarfs, until the Prince – who had seen and fallen in love with her at the very beginning of the movie – decides he must have her for his own, to have her radiant beauty near him even if she is not alive for him to have any kind of relationship with. Again, this is not solely due to the screenwriters at Disney; it is a well-known, central element of the original fairy tale. It is interesting to note, however, that the passivity of the leading lady in that story from 1812 fit seamlessly into the celluloid storytelling tradition of 1937.
This storytelling culture was heavily informed by women’s standing in the real world. An example of this could be seen within Walt Disney Productions itself. In 1938, a woman by the name of Mary Ford applied for a position as an animator at Disney. She received a politely phrased, yet condescending rejection letter in reply, which stated that “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men.” The full letter can be found at Letters of Note.
The next Disney Princess would not appear for another 13 years: Cinderella found her way to the screen in 1950, followed by Sleeping Beauty another nine years later. Both these princesses are again fairly passive creatures, nearly devoid of agency. Cinderella has a burning desire to meet the Prince, but her wish is realised only by the intervention of a fairy godmother who uses magic to circumvent the limits placed upon Cinderella by her stepmother, a far more powerful and – perhaps by extension? – evil woman. Similarly, Sleeping Beauty’s entire life has been planned around the intentions others have for her: her parents ship her off to live in the forest with three fairies in an effort to save her life from an evil spell so that they can then marry her off to the heir to the throne of a neighbouring kingdom. In both these stories, again the villains are powerful and petty women, one-dimensional and single-minded in their quest to destroy the princesses, who are innocent personifications of perfection, both in nature and in appearance.
While Disney was not necessarily out of step with the temporal context in which they were producing these films, it would have been refreshing to have seen them aim to break a lance for a movement striving to accomplish greater opportunities and equality for women in a rapidly changing society. They had, after all, already started developing towards a more enlightened position vis-a-vis women inside their own company: in 1942 Ms. Retta Scott was the first woman credited as an animator, on the movie Bambi.
It would be another 30 years before the next Disney princess would make her appearance: in 1989, Walt Disney Feature Animation produced The Little Mermaid, with its leading lady Princess Ariel. She is the daughter of King Triton, who is exasperated at her headstrong nature despite his obvious fondness for her for exactly the same reason. Unlike her predecessors, Ariel is a true protagonist, in that her actions are what moves the plot: she is the one who longs to see another world, to head out and have her own experiences, free of anything others might have in store for her. Even though she falls in love with a human prince, which exacerbates her desire to live out of the sea, the seeds for her desperate actions had already been sown long before she ever met her love interest. It is her decision to enter into an ill-advised agreement with the evil and vindictive witch Ursula that drives the story forward.
In The Little Mermaid, the character of Ariel is far more fleshed out than that of the villain: Ariel is a complex character, with both admirable qualities and character flaws, whereas the witch still falls victim to the usual one-dimensional treatment. She makes only a few appearances and the only motivation we can see for her actions is that she seeks revenge on King Triton for a past slight.
In a significant departure from the traditional plots up until then, early on in the movie it is the princess who rescues the prince after he nearly drowns in a shipwreck (a plot point informed by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale). In the denouement, Ariel is rescued by her friends, as well as by the prince, who throws a splintered bowsprit at Ursula as much in self-defence as in defence of the woman he loves.
The evolution of the Disney princess went one step further with Beauty and the Beast (1991). Its main character, Belle, is an independent young woman, well-read, and longing to make a place for herself in the world, something she realises isn’t easy considering the societal standards of her world: “I want much more than this provincial life! I want adventure in the great wide somewhere – I want it more than I can tell!” But she continues: “And for once it might be grand to have someone understand I want so much more than they have planned.” Her dream is hers, but she longs for someone to share it with and who respects her as an independent spirit. She does not consider her independence to be compromised by the possibility of love.
The character of Belle is the next step in the evolution of the ‘new’ Disney Princess. Says Mark Henn, supervising animator for 'Belle' in Florida: “Belle fits into what I call our new style of princesses. A lot of the earlier princesses, you know, Snow White and Cinderella, things would happen to them and they were more reactive. And I think starting with The Little Mermaid, Ariel, they tended to be more proactive, they were more involved in the story. She was her own person, and had her dreams, She’s intelligent, beautiful, you know, just all those wonderful qualities that you would expect in a Disney leading lady.”
The animation on the character of Belle is a continuation of the Disney princess tradition as much as it allows for a new direction. “We couldn’t have done Beauty and the Beast without that link to the past, without that whole Disney lineage, that line that went through all those pictures,” explains David Pruiksma, supervising animator for 'Mrs. Potts' and 'Chip' in the documentary film Beyond Beauty: the untold stories behind the making of Beauty and the Beast.
In another departure from the tradition up until then, the villain in Beauty and the Beast is male: the vain and boorish Gaston; he represents the outdated ideals of a male-dominated society and is supported in his views by the entire village, which sees no reason to change the status quo. The Beast, by contrast, proves to be an enlightened partner in Belle’s quest to lead a fulfilling life. He supports her hunger for knowledge and her love of stories by offering her unlimited use of his extensive library. He also allows her to teach him to read, indicating no problem whatsoever with her having a skill set that he does not have. It is a happy meeting of minds and hearts.
As in the fairy tale, in the end it is Belle who saves the Beast by giving him her heart. In fact, even earlier on in the movie, after the Beast’s efforts to rescue her from a pack of ravenous wolves, there is an exchange of recriminations between the two in which the winner is still Belle, who can not only be seen to have clear and well-founded motivations for her attempt at escape, but who can also be seen to be the better debater.
The princess in Aladdin (1992) is another variation of this “new princess”: the movie itself might not be about princess Jasmine, strictly speaking, but she is once again a strong female character who is the inspiration for Aladdin’s actions. She has a considerable hand in the plot’s development, and shows herself capable of handling herself despite the pressures placed upon her by the evil Jaffar who seeks to impose his will upon the whole kingdom through his influence over Jasmine’s father, the sultan. Jasmine, very much her own woman, initially rejects Aladdin as a symbol of a male-driven system that seeks to dominate and limit her. Only when she sees that Aladdin holds her in high regard and that his feelings for her are genuine does she accept him as a partner.
In its commitment to the further development of the Disney heroine, the studio also departed from the fairytale as its source material, and instead decided to centre two of its movies around historical figures. As such, Disney's eponymous princesses in Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998) are both of a different mould: these protagonists are based on legendary historical figures, with the understanding that Disney altered their stories almost beyond recognition. Still, they boldly go where no Disney princess has gone before, exercising very real influence over the course of history by doing what they feel is right and taking all the risk and hardship that comes with their decisions. They prove themselves more than equal to the tasks that in their respective societies were reserved strictly for men.
But there was yet more territory to be discovered. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) offers yet another type of heroine: Esmeralda, the brave and conscientious gypsy woman who offers her friendship to hunchbacked outcast Quasimodo while having to fend off the advances of the lecherous Judge Frollo. The Disney movie makes Esmeralda a more successful, and far less flawed heroine than her counterpart in the source material: whereas in the movie she is able to distinguish true love from mere infatuation and an attempt at either possessing a desired object or crushing the source of temptation, in the novel she only shows Quasimodo one small act of kindness and is otherwise visibly disgusted by him. She is then unfortunately seduced by a Phoebus who is far less honourable and noble than Disney’s Phoebus.
Disney's Esmeralda is based (rather loosely) on the character in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris. The original work has many different themes, but the main ones adopted by Disney were an indictment against class and against judgment based on appearance. Disney’s Esmeralda combines in a leading lady many of the elements that we expect in a strong, modern woman: independence, intelligence, compassion and a strong moral compass.
Ultimately, however, the fairy tale format is still a most fertile source for characters to build on and to flesh out, and – importantly – allow room for interpretation. In Tiana, the main character in The Princess and the Frog (2009), Disney created its first coloured protagonist, which drew both praise – for obvious reasons – and criticism, mainly because they had left it so late. The claim was that Disney had a penchant for pretty white princesses, but this claim of course discounted Mulan and Pocahontas, though there it can certainly be argued that they were drawn as white as the studio could possibly manage.
Tiana is a variation on the traditional princess, in that she starts out as a special, yet ordinary young woman. Among her many admirable traits are a strong work ethic, a sense of loyalty, and an outright rejection of the entitlement of the higher classes. Respect is earned, not granted by birth into a privileged position. Here again we notice a shift in perspective: the merit of the leading lady is based firmly on her values, her character and her skills. The modern woman is independent, intelligent, hard-working and capable; she makes her own success.
Similarly, Tangled (2010) features a smart and emancipated, if understandably timid Rapunzel (after all, she has spent her entire life locked away in a tower by an evil enchantress who undermines her self-esteem at every turn – it’s a miracle she’s maintained such determination, a positive attitude, and even a modicum of faith in herself). Even though Rapunzel is a princess by birth, the story still shows the journey of an essentially self-made and certainly self-taught woman. It was a departure from the heroine who has been relatively self-assured from the start, but arguably Rapunzel’s journey is actually the most extensive and as a result the most satisfying: she develops into a strong, self-aware woman after her quest to answer a burning question results in her uncovering her true identity.
In the same vein, we see Princess Merida carve out her own identity and seeking to become the master of her own destiny in Brave (2012). Brave, incidentally, is the first collaboration with Pixar featuring a Disney princess. In this original story, i.e. not based on an existing fairytale, Merida seeks to break the restraints society, and more specifically her mother, Queen Elinor, places on her. Headstrong, fiercely independent and deeply frustrated at her lot in life, she is willing to do almost anything to avoid the fate awaiting her as the daughter of the clan elder. Interestingly, it is Merida’s father who seems not to have much of an issue with his daughter’s quest for independence; most of the resistance to Merida’s unconventional choices comes from Queen Elinor.
More than a story of self-realisation, through the character of Queen Elinor the film seems to suggest that with the position princess Merida occupies comes responsibility; it is an unwelcome message. Since both mother and daughter have very strong personalities, the inevitable result is an enormous communication barrier between the two.
In the embodiment of these two women, the movie presents two sides of an argument, and on either side we find a strong woman. On the one hand, Merida fights for the right to be her own person, to make her own decisions and to exercise her independence. Elinor, on the other hand, makes the case that while Merida may not have the freedom to make certain choices and decisions, she should not discount that the position in life she perceives as rendering her powerless in fact grants her a lot more power than she may realise.
Which brings us to the latest incarnations of the Disney Princess: Anna and Elsa in the 2013 film Frozen. Again we see two very strong ladies, princesses and sisters, who occupy a certain position in life. One of them, Elsa, the oldest of the two, has been almost completely isolated for most of her life and is damaged as a result – not by a villain, but by her own parents with the best intentions but a misguided approach to a difficult situation. The other sister, Anna, grows up feeling rejected and abandoned and can’t wait to find someone together with whom she can set out to enjoy her life.
In this movie the strength of the ladies’ character is simply assumed from the start: both ladies are strong and intelligent, and both have their own sets of issues. Rather upliftingly, Frozen sends a message that is important for girls and young women today to hear: love and loyalty are not weaknesses, but strengths, and sticking together in difficult times can be a great source of strength.
And so the Disney Princess has evolved from passive princess to proactive protagonist. No longer is she a one-dimensional puppet, an instrument used by the actual plot movers. Today’s Disney princess is a round, complex individual whose motivations express themselves in decisive action, and who goes a long way towards reflecting today’s capable, independent woman.
But as much as Disney has done to update and enrich the animated leading lady, there will always be criticism, some of which is very valid. Yes, a lot of these leading ladies are led by their hearts rather than their heads, and yes, they are all drawn as perfect creatures going by the (white) beauty standards of the time.
Yet some of the criticism also raises questions, such as the uproar caused when Frozen’s animation supervisor Lino DiSalvo reportedly described the issues with animating two distinctly different female leading ladies: “Historically speaking, animating female characters are [sic] really, really difficult, because they have to go through this range of emotions, but they’re very, very … you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to … you can get them off a model very quickly.” Granted, on the face of it, this doesn’t sound great. But DiSalvo is talking about animation techniques, and specifically about animating “two hero female characters”. The indigance this comment caused was substantial, yet no one seems to have had an issue when something similar was said about a male character by James Baxter, supervising animator for “Belle” on Beauty and the Beast: “Andreas [Deja] had his work cut out for him doing Gaston who […] on one hand had to be handsome, and on the other hand had to be incredibly evil. That’s an interesting challenge in animation.” Perhaps not a lot of people were aware of this quote, because it is buried in Act IV of Beyond Beauty: the untold stories behind the making of Beauty and the Beast, a documentary that only came out recently on the Blu-Ray anniversary edition of the film, but even if it had reached a wide audience I doubt it would have resulted in an uproar of the magnitude that DiSalvo’s response drew.
Then there is the complaint that almost every princess has a potential male love interest, or at the very least a male sidekick, which apparently undercuts her independence. But does the mere involvement of a significant or slightly less significant male character really devalue the strong female protagonist? And does feminism really prescribe that there is no place in the independent woman’s life for romantic love?
Finally, an often heard criticism is that the princesses are not “complete” characters, that only certain aspects of their personality are highlighted, but I think that might come with the nature of the source material as well. While Disney has proven itself more than capable of adapting fairy tales, literature and legend – sometimes to the point where the stories and the characters have become nearly unrecognisable – fairytale protagonists in the source material, both male and female, are often unimpressive as they lack in depth: they are two-dimensional at best, a shortcoming that comes with being the embodiment of a certain quality – it doesn’t leave room for much else to be highlighted. Such is often the fate of the lead character in a morality tale.
Disney, to its credit, has worked hard to make the modern Disney princess a complex character: an intelligent woman with choices and her own voice, the kind of woman who will inspire future generations of girls – and boys – for the better. Indeed, the princess has come a long way from Snow White, playing catch-up with the evolving role of women in society. Now, perhaps, it’s time for the Disney Prince?
A copy-writer and editor with a law degree and a wandering mind, Claudette Kulkarni is happiest when telling stories and spilling words onto paper on pretty much any topic that interests her – and those are many. She is the co-author of Legal English for Bachelors, and a former lecturer of Legal English at the University of Leiden.
Cover image by Annie Liebovitz, courtesy of Disney.