The power of the princess

Disney Princesses: depicted as preserved, outdated stereotypes for women and girls alike. A princess is well-mannered, quiet, and graceful — or so these qualities manifested in the first Disney Princesses shown on screen: docile Snow White (1937), submissive Cinderella (1950), and helpless Aurora (Sleeping Beauty (1959)).

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Helen/" title="View all of this person's work">"Helen</a></span>

graphic by Helen Schrayer

Snow White, a passive girl, cleaned up after tiny men, talked to animals, got poisoned, and waited comatose for true love’s kiss. What a heroine she was, with cleaning as her superpower. Cinderella, a girl forced to clean for her stepfamily, also had the ability to talk to animals, and her only dream was to go to a ball, an opportunity that she waited years for to fall into her lap. Truly inspirational. Last, but not least, we have Aurora, who was placed under a sleeping curse and waited for her Prince Charming to kiss her, saving her and her kingdom from danger. Shocker. This common ability involving animals ties into the perfect image of the American woman: caring, nurturing, and loving. Giving the princesses someone to care for even in isolation. It almost serves as a stand-in for the husband — and eventually children — they are yet to have. Unfortunately, that’s the type of girl that Disney wanted millions of girls to emulate—at least at the beginning of the Disney Princess franchise, which reflected the societal values at the time.

Lately, Disney’s princesses have been evolving to attempt to better suit what real women are like today. They are now shown to be hard-working, independent, and strong — values which should be taught to all girls from a young age. Still, the leap from waiting heroines to the type of initiative-taking princess we want young girls to look up to today didn’t happen overnight.

A great step in the right direction was the making of Mulan (1998). Finally, a girl with a mission: save her family, save her country, and save her freedom. Instead of becoming the proper lady groomed to marry wthat she was supposed to become, she defied her fate to become who she wanted to be. This defiance of one’s fate is seen in all of the Disney Princess movies after the release of Mulan. The deviation from the predetermined path of the princess customarily involves marriage. In most of the Disney Princess movies, the princess is presented with the “need” to marry or, eventually, an actual marriage. Although romance is part of the subplot in Mulan, Disney is able incorporate a bit of romance in a way that shows that the looks and mannerisms of the ideal woman are not necessary. We see this evolved version of romance repeated in other Disney Princess movies such as The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), and even in Frozen (2013). Each having romances between two individuals perceived as equals, and in one, we find that true love can be found outside of a romantic relationship, like in a sister. That being said, romance could have been cut out of the movie all together, leaving the fiercely independent Mulan just as she is. Instead of having the stereotypical princess, we are shown a girl, who when presented with what she is supposed to be like, pushes back to fight for what she wants to become — a trait reworked in future princess movies. Due to the evolving princesses and their romances, the two of the most recent Disney Princess movies haven’t had a romance resolved by the end of the film, Brave (2012) and Moana. Moana never even had a mention of a love interest or future marriage — something, which until its release, had never been done before.

A change in ethnicity came to the Disney Princess lineup, opening the doors to greater representation. This deviation from the white Disney princess brought Jasmine from Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Moana from Moana (2016) to follow. In each of these films, we see hardworking girls of color with ambition. Each with their own sets of challenges to face, each working their way along the path towards achieving their goals.

Although Disney has worked to evolve from the stereotypical damsel in distress, there is still more to do. We have yet to see princesses involved in modern- day challenges or jobs as well. In order to truly break the boundaries of the stereotypical princess, Disney needs to create princesses that children aspire to become today, such as a professor, a computer scientist, or even a president. Despite the more recent Disney princesses changing the meaning of what a “princess” is, Disney still has a long way to go before fully portraying princesses with the attributes that many people are looking for.

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