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The Evolution of the Disney Princess

I’ve been having some great conversations with Estelle and my friend Steve (who I promise you will meet soon) about Walt Disney’s character- mainly whether or not he was sexist. It’s true that back then, animating was a boys only club. Women were offered only positions as ink and painters, but then again, it was the 1930s and that was society. In that same vein, it irks me when people analyze the early Disney princesses and criticize them for being poor role models for their children. It seems, however, that along with not liking the ladies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, people seem to have a problem with our modern day heroines as well. They do not agree with the “message” they send out to young, impressionable girls. While I hope our daughters look to more than just a cartoon for a role model, I do think Disney princesses aren’t as bad as people like to believe.

Snow White was our first princess in 1937, winning audiences with her sweet singing voice and her everlasting faith that someday her prince would come and take her away. Later on when the Wicked Witch is offering her the magic apple, she tells Snow White that all of her dreams will come true with one bite. The audience understands that her biggest wish is to marry the prince, which eventually happens and they live happily ever after. Cue the music.

Did someone forget to tell Snow White to try and aim a little higher than that?

But of course, she isn’t to blame. It WAS the 1930s after all and I’m sure that we can all agree that marriage was valued rather highly for all young girls back then. Instead of looking at Snow White as just another pretty girl who had to wait for Prince Charming to come rescue her, why can’t we focus on the positive? She was a really sweet girl who believed in her dreams. She was also a pioneer of her time. Without that first princess, the ones that followed would have never existed.

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And speaking of which, Cinderella, I think is one of the strongest early princesses of the Disney animated films. Folks like to say that those first ladies had to wait for the men to show up and save the day or in her case, a Fairy Godmother, but I don’t believe that for a second. Cindy worked hard for everything she got in the film. The Fairy Godmother showed up as a REWARD for never giving up on her dreams despite the many obstacles that were in her way. If you ask me, this 1950 princess would definitely be someone I’d want my little girl to look up to.

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In the case of Aurora, I’d like to point out one major difference between her and the princesses that followed. While Aurora furthers this idea that if you can put your heart into your desires, they will someday manifest into reality, one really needs to study her story a bit more closely. Did she really have a choice when Maleficent pricked her finger on the spinning wheel, thus putting her under a powerful spell?

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Fast forward to 1989 and the world is introduced to the next Disney Princess nearly 30 years later. Time had definitely changed and Ariel was headstrong and brave. Instead of waiting for Prince Eric to develop some fins and swim down to Atlantica, she struck a deal with Ursula and took matters into her own hands. The ultimate goal still was to marry the handsome prince, but things were starting to change for our princesses. They weren’t dependent on fairy godmothers to show them the way nor were they satisfied to sit around and accept what fate had given them.

I think the most important fact here that distinguishes these modern ladies from their older counterparts was the power of CHOICE. As Ursula asks Ariel, “Life’s full of tough choices, init?”

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Belle (my favorite lady) CHOOSES to save her father. She chooses to give up her freedom, her dreams, all to save the person she loves. She ALSO chooses not to marry the most desired man in all the village because she is convinced that her life was meant for something more (and besides, who could LIVE with that arrogant, smelly feet man?). She sees beyond the beast’s appearance into the man that he is, the man whose eyes she saw in that ravaged portrait and isn’t that something we teach our children to do every day? We want them to look beyond someone’s appearance and see them for who they are on the inside. Or even just to try to see the best in someone when they don’t always have the best attitude. She makes the best out of her situation when she sacrifices herself for her dad’s freedom.

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Jasmine, who some argue is a bit of a brat, is just a teenager tired of her sheltered life. HER choices seem to be taken away from her at every turn and she spends the beginning portion of the movie making it perfectly clear that her father or Jafar will indeed not dictate what her life has in store for her. I can’t say much about that outfit though beyond the fact that hey- the movie DOES take place in the desert, people!

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And then of course there is Pocahontas, who despite many arguments to the contrary, IS a Disney Princess. Her father was the Chief of the Native American tribe and that even makes her the first American Disney Princess. If you wanted a role model for your daughter, I doubt you need to look any further than this woman who saves John Smith from death itself. Yes, finally, the roles are reversed and it’s our heroine, not the prince/male lead who is the real hero in this scenario. The American family was rapidly changing and so were the times. For Disney to try and introduce a story of racism and tolerance was something that even as a 10-year old, won my respect. It was also the first time our couple did not end up together in the end. Again, with the power of choice, Pocahontas chooses the well-being of her people and their future over staying with John. This proves that not every girl needs to choose the husband or the boyfriend to be happy and that fulfillment can come from many different places.

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And then we come to Tiana, a heroine who I affectionately nicknamed the ‘Obama- Yes, We Can’ Disney Princess.  She is the pinnacle of over 72 years of hopes and dreams and is finally the girl who can show daughters everywhere that you can have the husband AND the career all at once. Her goal is independent from man or marriage, but rather she focuses on freeing herself from financial dependency. Little girls today maybe waiting for their Prince Charming, but they certainly are no stranger to rolling up their sleeves to create their own happy endings. Also, the important thing I liked about this movie (and there wasn’t much else-ask Stelle) was even while Tiana found herself falling for Prince Naveen, she never let that fact derail her from her desire to open her restaurant. She proved to be a good model for girls who so often give up everything about themselves when a boy enters the picture.

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Although in the beginning, Rapunzel is a bit naive and sheltered (the woman had never felt grass under her feet before for Christ’s sakes- can you blame her?) she gains her confidence throughout the movie from her main source of strength- her hair. Her dreams do not revolve around finding a handsome prince, but rather seeing the world. She paints, she reads, she sculpts, she cleans, she makes candles — she does EVERYTHING.  Her interests are infinite and after saving Eugene (I want to kiss the person who came up with the idea to name a male lead that) countless of times, the choice was always her own.

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I don’t want to make this entire piece sound preachy or an angry feminist rant (I know you’re thinking — too late!). My only wish is to show people that the Disney Princess brand doesn’t have to be seen in such a negative light. If parents would take the time to talk to their daughters about all these stories and dig a bit deeper, they would see more than just pretty girls in dresses. The ladies from the early 20th century, as outdated as we may see them today, made way for the princesses of today. Rapunzel would not be here today was it not for Snow White.  Our very first princess was the one who instilled these ideas of dreaming and wishing for better lives in the women who came after her.At the end of the day, one can see disturbing messages in almost anything really. We can distort ideas and films for mocking purposes or just to be witty. I have been guilty of this on many occasions, but I also know that there is an innocence in these stories that I remember from my own days of waddling in my mother’s heels and applying (not always correctly) her make-up. I dreamed of doing a million things and of my own Prince Charming who would accompany me on these adventures. I look back at those innocent days with a fierce affection that I would defend against any Disney naysayer. We all grew up with these characters and we find a piece of ourselves in every one of them and that is why Disney will stay embedded in our culture. Like us, it changes over the years, but never so much that its core belief is changed.

After all, 61 years later, do we not still believe in Cindy’s words? “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

Ain’t that the truth?

About Michelle


Michelle grew up surrounded by Disney characters and movies. As an alumni of the College Program, she has Disney’s Wishes constantly looping in her head when it isn’t filled with Alan Menken music. She has a deep love for Donald Duck since they both have self-proclaimed short tempers and she may very well be the biggest fan of Beauty and the Beast. As a fan of listening to Disney news podcasts at work. Michelle is always planning her next trip to Disney World so she could spend hours riding her favorite attraction- The PeopleMover. Tweet her @fierypixiedust.

Disney on WheelsAugust 30, 2011 - 9:39 pm

I LOVE this post and I couldn't agree more. These stories are what you make of them, good or bad. :)

HotpinkblackAugust 31, 2011 - 6:22 pm

Out of the "official" line up belle would be my favourite. Many because the film is amazing and bizarrely believable. On the outside of normal lists I'd prefer giselle, who seems to always get missed out. Positive outlook in a current setting is brilliant.

amandajcorreiaAugust 31, 2011 - 7:01 pm

Love this! Completely captures everything I want to say whenever I hear someone complaining about the influence that the Princesses have on young girls. I grew up with these characters — I KNOW the influence they have. These characters were made (and are continued to be made) in the name of family-friendly entertainment, and HELLO, these movies have all been extremely popular! Critics just want something to point a finger at, but what they're missing is the aspirational and inspirational power of these princesses. It's not about getting the Prince, and that's not the message that little girls pick up on. It's about being a strong, beautiful, and kind female, and providing families with a lovable character that will, in turn, bring them closer. I think it's just ridiculous that people are so critical. Well said!!

kristinycAugust 31, 2011 - 9:16 pm

Belle's always been my favorite, and I love you descriptions of each princess.

Have you read the book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" by Peggy Orenstein? It's a really interesting sociological book about the whole Disney Princess phenomenon… (I was raised on Disney movies, and was lucky to be in kindergarten when The Little Mermaid came out, so I was at the right age during the best Disney movies, but this book was a really interesting perspective.)

Jeff HeimbuchAugust 31, 2011 - 9:43 pm

Rapunzel. But does she count because she isn't official yet? Does that special need to air before she's in the club??

ashlynwashereAugust 31, 2011 - 9:49 pm

My favorite princess is Tiana because I admire her determination and relate to her the most, being a perfectionist and workaholic–or rather, a "stick in the mud." Plus she snagged Naveen! ;)

I also can't help but love Snow for the sake of nostalgia, and Ariel, because I spent my childhood lugging around a lifesized doll who sang when I squeezed her hand. No regrets!

LSeptember 1, 2011 - 2:29 am

Belle and Cinderella are my favorite princesses! (They're my daughter's too, though she's asked to watch Pocahontas about five times this past week!) I think that if you actually sit down and watch these films with your girls, taking the time to explain what it is that makes them strong and unique, the whole "princess" lifestyle is just icing on the cake. It's when you focus just on the frills and sparkles that it can become negative. (That being said, I'll have a hard time not forking over $150+ for the Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutique when my daughter asks for it someday…a little pixie dust now and then doesn't hurt!)

Lady HillSeptember 4, 2011 - 12:38 am

Arielle is my favorite princess bc well, she is MY princess. I watched her in theaters and watched my VHS so many times it had to be replaced TWICE. She is so modern and so … Real. Yes, she is a bit of a brat, but she is a teenage girl! I adore her.

:DISTherapySeptember 6, 2011 - 1:57 am

True confessions- I saw Cinderella in 1962, and have been hooked ever since. From my perspective, Cindy was subservient to a woman (her stepmother), not a man; she was mentored by another woman (the Fairy Godmother) and rose above the situation she was born into. Works for me!!

JuliaSeptember 10, 2011 - 1:10 am

My sister wrote a paper about this in college (I think the topic was feminism in pop culture). She compared Aurora to Belle, and hit a lot of the same points you did! Great minds think alike ;)

Later, she added to the paper just for funsies: Aurora sought love. Belle sought adventure, but this only worked out through love. Tiana sought adventure (and furthermore, success); love was just an added bonus!

The Real Disney MomSeptember 10, 2011 - 3:30 am

I agree with Lady Hill, my favorite Disney Princess is Ariel because she is who I grew up with. The Little Mermaid was the first movie that I ever saw in a movie theatre! I also used to watch Cinderella over and over again, and most recently I have fallen in love with Rapunzel in Tangled. What I have always found most interesting is that all of the Disney Princesses are so young! The early ones marry at age 16, and even our most recent princess Rapunzel is 18 when she gets hitched! I married at 20 so this doesn't bother me much, but we all know people get up in arms about it. What I say is stand your ground Disney! I will never discourage my little girl from believing in fairy tales!

TheresaSeptember 10, 2011 - 8:55 pm

Belle is my absolute favorite Disney princess!

ErinSeptember 13, 2011 - 1:48 am

I love that you dedicated an entire post to the princess I grew up loving. Snow White started the princess craze, but it was Ariel who peaked my interest. I loved how inquisitive she was! It reminded me a lot of myself – minus the hoarding issues :)

goddessofmathSeptember 13, 2011 - 9:37 pm

Belle's always been a favorite of mine since she's a lot like me, but Ariel & Rapunzel hold a special place in my heart. :)

LOL @Erin! Never thought about Ariel as having "hoarding issues" but that's greatness!

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