As humans, we tend to express our views, feelings, and experiences through art, whether we do so through written works, drawings, videos, or other means. In turn, we are influenced by the art we see in our daily lives. The media we create and consume is a reflection of the culture and norms of the society we live in.
As years pass and trends change, we see our movies and shows evolve to imitate the current social order. A prime example of this phenomenon is the continual evolution of one of the most influential and widely known media franchises in the world: the Disney Princess movies.
Ever since the feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first released in 1937, Disney has been a trailblazer in the animation industry. Throughout the decades, they’ve released hit after hit of family movies that have shaped the childhoods of so many people. The Disney Princesses, in particular, are often adored and idolized by young girls, even seen by some as models of “the ideal woman.” And as society’s view of womanhood evolved, so too have the depictions of Disney Princesses changed to reflect them.
Here is a breakdown of the different “eras” of Disney Princesses and what these films say about our continually changing perspective on feminine gender roles:
• 1930’s to 1950’s – Embracing Traditional Femininity (Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora)
Think of all the stereotypes one might associate with the word “woman,” and you’ll see that most—if not all—of these apply to Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. Their defining traits as characters (like gentleness, warmth, humility, and sensitivity) are ones that are traditionally cited as feminine. They are also shown to love doing household chores, such as cleaning, cooking, and sewing, and they are rarely portrayed doing other activities.
Though they are the protagonists of their respective films, they are not the drivers of the plot. The story seems to merely happen to them instead of occurring because of their actions or decisions. Their entire story arcs and character development depend on their relationship with men. They are portrayed as damsels in distress, often taking a backseat and letting their love interests go on adventures to resolve the conflict of the movie.
After Sleeping Beauty in 1959, Disney did not release another Disney Princess movie until decades later. And by then, the cultural landscape had changed drastically, bringing along a new wave of animated classics that challenged the norm of how women were traditionally portrayed in film…
• 1980’s to mid-90’s – Challenging the Norms (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas)
The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, three decades after the last official Disney Princess film. Its release brought about a new era for the studio dubbed the “Disney Renaissance”—a return to form after the long box-office slump that plagued the company after the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966. From the get-go, Ariel was remarkably different from the princesses of old. She was a curious mermaid who explored and appreciated human culture so much that she openly rebelled against her father’s wishes to stay away from humans.
No longer were the Disney Princesses passive participants in their own movies. Ariel’s characterization started a chain of heroines who challenged their roles in their respective societies. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle was called strange for loving books in a town where reading wasn’t valued. Aladdin’s Jasmine questioned why her only role was to be a prize won by the right suitor. Pocahontas opened her heart and mind to a person whose culture diverged so dramatically from hers and taught him to see the beauty in her world.
Though these characters were now given agency and interesting character traits, they were similar to the Classic Era Princesses in the sense that their stories still revolved around their love interests. Ariel was driven to become human because of her infatuation with Prince Erik. Belle’s arc was treated as secondary to the Beast’s development. The same is true for Jasmine and Pocahontas, whose love stories are the core of their respective films.
This time, though, it wouldn’t take decades for Disney to make a new Princess film. The next entry in the franchise not only challenges the norms but breaks away from them…
• Late 90’s to 2010 – Prioritizing Female Character Arcs (Mulan, Tiana, and Rapunzel)
Released in 1998, Mulan broke the mold for what we expect from our Disney Princess line-up. All of the previous movies in the franchise were centred on Romance, or at least have Romance as one of the primary motivations of their protagonists. Mulan, however, was a movie about war, family, honour, and challenging societal expectations. Li Shang, the love interest in this film, did not in any way overshadow Mulan’s character arc and development.
In The Princess and the Frog, Romance was a key plot thread, but Tiana’s arc complemented—and got more focus than—Naveen’s. Rather than having Tiana take a backseat to his story (similar to how Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas gave the male characters more substantial arcs in comparison to the female characters), they were written as opposites who learned and grew from the other’s influence. As for Tangled, Flynn is a huge part of the story, but he mostly functions as a support for Rapunzel’s character growth and journey.
This era presented us with diverse female characters with varying strengths, weaknesses, character traits, and backgrounds, but Romance is still seen as vital to their arcs. In the next entries, this is no longer the case…
• 2012 to present – Rejecting Romance as the “Default” (Merida and Moana)
For so long, women’s stories have been heavily associated with romantic love. A female character’s “happily ever after” would almost always end in marriage, and before 2012, Disney Princess movies followed this trope too.
Brave was the first to buck this trend, with the main character Merida rebelling against the notion that she had to get married to be queen. Instead of following a romantic plot, this film instead focused on Merida’s strained relationship with her mother and their different views on respecting history while still being open to breaking old traditions.
Moana followed the path paved by Brave and did not add a love interest for the female protagonist. Instead, we got to enjoy an action/adventure musical film about a young woman who is torn between following the rules set by her island’s elders or pursuing her dream of exploring the sea.
Disney’s Frozen, though it’s not officially part of the Princess franchise, also has the character of Elsa, whose entire arc does not involve even the slightest hint of Romance, instead of being about self-acceptance and the power of sisterly bonds. The film also pokes fun at the Princess trope of “marrying a man you just met” by having Anna’s prince turn out to be the villain.
What’s Next for Feminism in Film?
As this article discussed, societal norms and perspectives on womanhood have changed so much over the decades, and the media we consume has evolved to mirror these views. Women used to be depicted as solely dependent on men but nowadays get to be the heroes of their own stories. Though the feminist movement has made a lot of strides in its advocacy for better and more diverse female representation in films, there are still avenues we haven’t explored.
How about a Disney Princess with a disability?
Or one who doesn’t fit the traditional “tall and slender” body type?
Perhaps, a lesbian or transwoman Disney Princess?
The world is changing, and so is our media.
No longer does society believe that there is one “right” way to be a woman.
Now, we try to celebrate differences and embrace women in all their many forms.
Here’s to hoping for more diverse female stories in mainstream films!