According to Maui in Moana, “you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick; you’re a princess.” The argument around a generic stereotype depicting Disney princesses has become so pervasive, it has even made its way in a few of the films. Disney enthusiasts, who have followed and studied the 80-year legacy of Disney Princess films, have watched it transform from frivolous flights of fancy only suitable for young girls, to progressive representations of heroines who are confident, curious, and courageous. The evolution of these films has charted a growth in female heroes.
The progression of these royals is broken into three waves, “Classic”, “Renaissance” and “Modern”. Although Disney has attempted to participate in the debate by creating criteria, including having royal lineage (marriage counts), being the primary character in their movie, and being human, they have even deviated from these ground rules. In the end, what truly creates a franchised Disney Princess is if the character has a crowing ceremony at the park. The most recent was Merida in 2013, becoming the 11th official Disney princess.
The Classic Era
The earliest Disney princesses, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, could only be described as products of their time. The first feature-length film for the company, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, depicted a young girl (she’s 13 years old in the movie) pining for a prince and turning into a housekeeper for seven grown men (even if they were dwarfs). When matching the story to the time it was created, it predated woman joining the workforce during World War II. Many also emphasized how the character was not fleshed-out because the filmmakers were focusing on the enormous feat of developing a feature-length film.
The next two to arrive on the scene, Cinderella and Aurora, enhanced the convention of damsel in distress. Sleeping Beauty, which is the epitome of this narrative, features Aurora with only 18 lines of dialogue in an hour long movie. In Cinderella, audiences are introduced to a woman who is only able to escape an awful family if she is wed. All three women, products of their circumstance, are not the champions of their own story, do not aid in the defeat of their villain, and continue a female narrative surrounding innocent and helplessness.
The Renaissance Era
After more than 20 years without a princess film, the company began to look to its roots and a new generation of princess was introduced: Ariel, Belle, and Pocahontas. The Little Mermaid provided audiences with a female protagonist who was the first in the legacy to have her own personal independence. She is curious, defiant, and willful, all strengths that then became her downfall. Ariel spends a majority of her movie unable to speak, which causes her to rely on appearance to achieve her goals. As usual, the villain is defeated by a prince.
The next two films, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas, make huge strides both in creating independence of their heroines. Belle and Pocahontas embodied independent thinkers who fought against traditional expectations. Although her name means beauty, Belle fought against gender norms by having a thirst for reading, and dreaming about adventure. Despite the many historical inaccuracies, Pocahontas fought against the cultural norm of arranged marriage. Both, however, cannot escape the love-story arc that continues to plague the movies.
The Modern Era
As the franchise begins to grow, the new themes adapted into films include princess actively attempt to rescue a meaningful character or redeem the villain, increasing the plot for both protagonists and antagonist. Tiana, in Princess and the Frog, attempts to save the prince, Naveen from an eternity as an amphibian. The 3D animated Tangled found a Rapunzel choosing to sacrifice her own freedom to save Flynn. Then as the scene escalates, the villain, Mother Gothel, is pushed out a window and Repunzel attempts to save her. This marks the first time a Disney Princess has tried to rescue a villain.
As the Modern Age Disney Princess stories develop, writers have started to overthrow the usual romance. Frozen, which focuses on the bond between sisters, even pokes fun at the love-at-first-sight theme in prior movies, with Hans declaring, “You can’t just marry a man you just met!” This film’s climax even differs from its predecessors; instead of a battle scene with a baddy, Anna sacrifices herself to save her sister and the kingdom. Lastly, there is the Pixar Disney movie, Brave, which features no love interest. Although the plot focuses on Merida defying her family to avoid taking a husband, she is not partnered in the end of the movie.
The culmination of “what is a princess” has started with frilly dresses and has transformed to courage and spirit in Moana. The story focuses on a defiant young girl on a mission to save her people. With the ability to see past the façade of fear around her, she helps liberate Te Fiti, whom transformed from a monstrous volcano to an Earth goddess. This movie has no romantic subplot, no prince that saves the day, and challenges the heroine to think critically, act resourcefully, all with compromise and understanding. It appears that the future of the Princess franchise is teaching the next generation that they don’t need to “wait for their prince to come”, but instead can to face their dragons themselves with real heart and compassion.