The Truth About Feminism and Disney Princesses

by Lisa Kaye Cunningham on

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Disney’s Frozen doused the internet with a resurging feminist critique of Disney princesses.  Although the Frozen women certainly show strong, unique feminist characteristics, I hate to see small-minded feminists assume Elsa’s and Anna’s only strengths are the lack of needing male rescuing.  Don’t negate and ignore every real feminist trait they represent!  Elsa and Anna are strong feminists because they actively pursue their dreams and make bold choices that progress their own lives, not because they refuse male company or kisses.

In an effort to teach girls feminism, society seems to push the lessons so far that radicals would program all girls to believe that any male involvement in their lives is disempowering and offensive, but such extremist and shallow thinking only gives women a scapegoat to blame their problems on (men) and limits feminism’s true potential.  Feminism isn’t about dragging down men and trampling them under female foot; it is about raising women up with equal opportunities to pursue their own passions and dreams.

In that respect, yes, both Elsa and Anna are strong feminists, but they could never present the powerful female characters they do without a solid feminist foundation established by their princess predecessors.  Almost all Disney’s classic animated films include female leads, but only eight before the release of Frozen in 2013 are deemed princesses: Snow White (Snow White, 1937), Cinderella (Cinderella, 1950), Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959), Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989), Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992), Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009), and Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010). 43215678

Too often these princesses are unfairly attacked and accused of presenting anti-feminist role models based solely on the fact that their stories climax being saved by a man.  However, realizing that feminism means the active pursuit of one’s dreams, we clearly see that each Disney princess, in varying degrees, represents feminist ideals.

An avid Disney fan, I wondered why these girls are attacked so much more than other female characters.  What makes them different than other Disney heroines such as Pocahontas, Alice, Jane, Wendy, Meg, or Mulan?  Aren’t they just as skinny and doe-eyed?  I discovered four important aspects unique to only the Disney princess status:

  1.  A Disney princess claims her title “princess” through birth or marriage.
  2. A Disney princess is rewarded with a happily-ever-after ending by marriage.
  3. All Disney princesses begin their stories trapped in unhappy oppressive circumstances, physically, emotionally, or socially, and they all dream of escape, freedom, and/or happiness.
  4. Most significantly, the actions of Disney princess’ villains directly violate the princess’s agency and liberty, in essence her opportunity to practice strong feminism.  These villains are bent on oppression, making a princess’s struggle for freedom all the more compelling and relevant in the modern feminist world.

Simply fitting this formula doesn’t make a princess a feminist or not.  Again, strong feminist characters actively work toward following their dreams, whether their dreams include finding love, building a career, or anything in between.  The rest of this essay is devoted to a study of the eight above-mentioned Disney princesses from the least feminist to the most, analyzing how their decisions do or do not mark them as strong feminist leads.

 

8. Snow White

9Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a huge step forward in the animation world, unfortunately this princess is extremely passive and not very feminist.  Tormented and abused by a jealous stepmother Snow White dreams of a handsome prince taking her away, a person who would actually love and care for her, but she acts very little to obtain this dream.  In fact, she acts very little at all and her story is driven completely by the other characters’ actions and Snow White’s reactions to them; she reacts to her mistreatment by dreaming of a loving prince, she reacts to meeting the prince by falling in love, she reacts to the huntsman’s orders to leave by running away, she reacts to finding the dwarves’ cottage by making herself at home; she reacts to the queen’s poison apple trick by falling for it; she reacts to the prince’s kiss by waking up.  Over and over again, Snow White simply lets things happen to her rather than actively making things happen for her.  It was complete luck then, that her dream actually came true at the end.  Thank goodness the prince found and kissed her, or Snow White would died with all her dreams unfulfilled.

10Although Snow White doesn’t rank high on feminist charts, she redeems herself according to the theme of her centuries-old parent fairytale.  While some princess movie adaptations only loosely resemble their original stories, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs follows the original Grimm story so closely that it requires a basic understanding of Grimm themes to fully understand Snow White herself.  A common theme in Grimm fairytales is the moral that righteousness is rewarded and wickedness is punished.  It might sound too obvious to be true, but bearing and reacting to her stepmother’s abuse righteously, kindly, and obediently proves Snow White justly deserves her happy ending and her handsome prince.  On the flipside, the queen wickedly tries to kill Snow White repeatedly, and so likewise deserves her reward of falling off a cliff to her death.
11I don’t condemn Snow White for honoring this theme, but it forces her into a passive character, righteously accepting all the bad things that happen to her.  If, for example, she had actively tried to fight back against her stepmother it would have been judged by the Grimm brothers as a wicked act and Snow White would have been denied her happily-ever after.  However, against modern standards Snow White’s lack of attempting to obtain her agency and follow her dreams labels her an anti-feminist, regardless of whether or not she was rescued by a prince.  While she isn’t a strong feminist, Snow White certainly is as brave as a woman of her time could be by enduring such abuse for so long and for enduring it righteously, sealing her happy-ending fate.

 

7. Aurora

12Nine years after Cinderella‘s smashing success, Princess Aurora graced the Disney world, more commonly known as “Sleeping Beauty” and as the notoriously least successful Disney princess.  Aurora only appears on screen for roughly eighteen minutes of the seventy five minute movie because of course she falls asleep until Prince Philip awakens her.  So little screen time makes Aurora difficult to classify as a feminist, but her single active decision shows great promise in the evolution of feminist Disney princesses.

13Similarly to Snow White, Aurora appears a girl of reaction, reacting to Prince Phillip’s insistence by falling in love, reacting to the fairies revealing her true heritage by crying, and reacting to Philip’s kiss by reawakening.    However, when able to follow her dream of finding loving companionship, she actively pursues that chance to the best of her ability.  When love stumbles across her path unannounced, Aurora recognizes the opportunity and takes it, making the bold decision inviting Philip to see her again.

14Unfortunately the Aurora’s tragic circumstances sabotage all her at strong, feminist dream-pursuit.  Over and over again Aurora’s agency is denied by her parents, her fairy friends, and of course by the evil Maleficent.  Despite her active decision, she can’t help that the fairies force her to break her word when they return her to her father’s castle.  With her agency so harshly removed, Aurora has little time for any reaction except to weep, continuing Aurora’s losing battle for agency.  When Maleficent discovers Aurora’s location she casts an eerie green light which, accompanied by creepy music, forces the entranced Aurora to follow her to the spinning wheel, again refusing Aurora’s power.  At the last moment Aurora tries asserting her own decisiveness by slightly withdrawing her hand, but the insistent voice of Maleficent intensifies, magically removing all Aurora’s willpower and, most importantly, her power of choice.  Finally a kiss and a prince rewards the sleeping Aurora, not only restoring her consciousness but her decision-making power, which she immediately exercises to follow her dream by staying with Prince Phillip.

By making one active decision to try and follow her dreams, this princess made a big step forward as a stronger feminist than Snow White, though Aurora remains bogged down with passive reactivity.  Still, congratulations to the character who did her very best in dire circumstances against the formidable Maleficent who, most cruelly and effectively of all, removed Aurora’s power of choice.

 

6. Tiana

15As the hand-drawn style of animation lost popularity to computer graphics, Disney made a final attempt at its traditional animation, and in 2009 Princess Tiana joined the league of Disney princesses as perhaps the most unique princess in the entire genre.  Tiana differs from all the previous princesses in several key points.  Most visibly, Disney created Tiana as a black woman, and because the film takes place in the deep American south during segregation’s height, it not only raises questions of feminism, but also of racial equality.  Its strongest critique is shown by comparing Tiana and Charlotte, Tiana’s white friend.  Charlotte represents a negative stereotype of princess-obsessed girls, arguably a critique on Disney’s own fan base, while Tiana realistically notes the ridiculous aspects associated with princesshood, particularly having to kiss a frog.  Though perfectly kind, Charlotte is a rich, spoiled airhead who believes in passivity, expecting her dreams to come true simply by wishing them so.  Tiana, oppositely, is down to earth, hardworking, and recognizes that dreams come true only through active hard word, a worthy feminist ideal.

16On the surface Tiana appears the most modern and forward-thinking feminist, a hardworking businesswoman, but that doesn’t necessarily make her a strong feminist character; only her actions, active or reactive, will tell us that.  She only makes two decisions to follow her dream of opening a restaurant: first to get a job and earn money, and second, to kiss the frog prince in exchange for his promised cash.  These two strong steps toward her dream are indeed commendable, except that the rest of Tiana’s film comprises her reactions to being turned into a frog; she reacts and follows Ray’s directions to the Voodoo woman, reacts and follows Mama Odie’s instructions to turn back into a human, and reacts to the news that she must stay a frog and sadly accepts it.

Another characteristic separating Tiana from other princesses is the nature of her dreams, which differs so drastically that it begs a comparison.  It’s interesting to map the evolution of Disney princess dreams: in 1937 Snow White whole-heartedly sings, “Someday my prince will come” and openly dreams of only love, and 55 years later Princess Jasmine’s desire for love is greatly subdued, though still present: “If I do marry, I want it to be for love.”  Finally in 2009 Tiana dreams solely of opening a restaurant without a single hint of wanting any kind of relationship, even telling off her mother’s worries that, “I don’t have time for dancing.”  The decline of princesses dreaming of love would suggest that modern femi-nazis believe that love is a negative thing, again discouraging any male involvement in a woman’s life.

17Thankfully, however, Disney doesn’t appear such a femi-nazi and teaches Tiana the importance of love.  Mama Odie warns Tiana against solely pursuing her career but encourages the pursuit of family: “Your daddy was a loving man, family through and through.  You your daddy’s daughter, what he had in him, you got in you!”  Later, Dr. Facilier tempts Tiana mockingly using her father’s example again that his restaurant dream “never made it off the back porch.”  By now Tiana has learned her lesson and chooses to remain a frog and save Naveen’s life, whom she has fallen in love with.  Ultimately love triumphs over careers.

Sacrificing her restaurant dream for love is a powerful decision with great impact on the story, another active moment for Tiana.  However, the sacrifice is completely negated when she turns back into a human and opens her restaurant with Naveen, again an ending unique to only Tiana.  She now gets the best of both worlds, right?  Admittedly yes, but what lesson is taught here?

All the previous princess (though often mocked for their love-finding dreams) prove that finding a handsome prince might be easy, but the road to obtaining him is long, difficult, and full of obstacles.  But ultimately they all obtained their goal of finding love, because that’s where their focus remained.  However, Tiana’s obtains love completely oppositely.  Her goal and focus was on making a career, yet miraculously she obtained love.  Feminism aside, this is simply unrealistic.  Male or female, if your sole focus in life is on your career, then you will ultimately only end up with a career.  The same works vice versa for the other princesses: their sole focus was to find love, and ultimately they only ended up with a relationship.  I don’t suggest either extreme, but a balance.  People are allowed to have two goals, or two hundred if they want them, and if you balance your time and actively pursue any and all your goals, then I have every confidence all your dreams will come true.  Relationships, like careers or any other worthy goal, require active work and effort to obtain.  Love realistically won’t suddenly appear while you pursue other unrelated things, as it miraculously did for Tiana.

 

5. Belle 

A first in the world of Disney princesses, Belle didn’t benefit from love at first sight, as did all four of her predecessors.  Another first for Disney princesses, Belle’s dreams don’t revolve around falling in love, but it is only briefly mentioned:

I want adventure in the great, wide, somewhere.

I want it more than I can stand.

And for once it might be grand,

To have someone understand.

I want so much more than they’ve got planned.

Beauty and the Beast

For Belle, finding love doesn’t automatically accompany escaping her unhappy circumstances as it did for previous princesses; finding love meant increasing the happiness she already possessed.  But with such a vague dream, it’s hard to classify Belle’s actions as actively pursuing that dream or not.  We can, however, study her decisions that push her story forward.

18Like Tiana, Belle’s decisions balance between passive reactivity and story-driving activity.  She reacts to the Beast frightening her by running away, she reacts to his slow affections by slowly returning them, she reacts to the Beast letting her go by returning to her father, and she reacts to the Beast’s death by realizing her true feelings.

Belle also makes several hugely active decisions that completely change her entire life and the course of the entire film: she trades her life to become the Beast’s prisoner, she saves the Beast and returns to the castle after the wolf attack, she returns to the Beast to stop Gaston.  Without Belle’s strong decisiveness, her story would have been drastically different.

19Strangely, Belle’s reactive and active decisions dictate her own freedom and agency.  All her most active moments of decisiveness increase her own physical captivity, ironically removing her agency by continually choosing to be the Beast’s prisoner.  By actively choosing captivity over freedom, Belle forces herself into the situations where her most passive reactions occur.  Many would argue that this means Belle is the greatest anti-feminist yet discussed by choosing physical entrapment, but each of Belle’s major decisions, though they all end in her own passive captivity, unintentionally lead to her actually following her dream of finding adventure in the form of an enchanted castle and a cursed prince, somehow making each of these choices strong and assertively feminist.

20On the flipside, one might argue that there would have been no difference then if Belle had chosen the captivity of marrying Gaston.  False!  The Beast certainly imposes on Belle’s freedom, but he never imposes on her dreams; she is still free to find adventure in his castle as she always wanted.  Gaston’s offer completely negated all of Belle’s dreams, forcing his own ideals and dreams onto her.  Choosing captivity via Gaston, however active the decision would have been, would have been an anti-feminist choice because Belle would have given up on her dreams.  But choosing captivity via the Beast bizarrely marks Belle as a strong feminist character because that choice led to her own dream fulfillment.

 

4. Jasmine

21Aladdin introduced Disney’s only completely-invented princess, Princess Jasmine, whose battle for her power of choice dictates her entire movie and the actions of every male character around her.  Interestingly, Jasmine was the first princess to marry a non-prince and more than any other princess, has a fiery attitude.  Rather than singing sweetly to woodland creatures, Jasmine’s anger sparks perhaps the most profoundly feminist line in all the Disney princess movies: “How dare you, standing there deciding my future!?  I am NOT a prize to be won!”  Another first for Disney princesses, Jasmine openly chastises the men in her life for forbidding her agency, the power to make and follow her own dreams.
But Jasmine isn’t a strong feminist for telling off the men in her life.  While Jasmine hopes for love in marriage, more than anything she dreams of freedom in her choices, the freedom to choose her love, and she actively pursues that dream.  She actively runs away from home to maintain her power of choice and she actively chooses Prince Ali over all her other suitors.

22Despite Jasmine’s active attempts to gain freedom, her agency is constantly threatened and completely removed (similarly to Princess Aurora’s).  At the start of the film Jasmine’s choice is taken away in the form of her being forced to marry, the law itself limiting her agency.  The issue escalates when Jafar tries to force her to marry him, inventing the law that the “sultan must choose for her.”  When Jafar gains power he puts Jasmine and Aladdin into weird red light and forces them to dance around him like puppets.  Next seen, Jasmine wears chains, another symbol of her limited power.  Finally Jafar tries to force Jasmine to fall in love with him, which luckily isn’t possible.

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The only matter Jasmine has agency over is her choice in who to fall in love with (though not whom to marry); Genie tells Aladdin that forcing people to fall in love is one of his few stipulations and warns he’ll have to make Jasmine love him on his own, maintaining Jasmine’s single power of choice.

For her active decisions and active fight for the power of her own choices, Jasmine shows an incredibly strong feminist character.  The finale of the movie only allows her true happiness when the law is changed and her choices are fully her own, to which she happily replies, “I choose Aladdin!”

 

3. Rapunzel

242010 saw the release of Disney’s fiftieth animated classic, Tangled, and the powerfully feminist Rapunzel.  Rapunzel cherished dreams to leave her tower and see the floating lights.  Like Tiana, Rapunzel didn’t immediately dream of finding love, especially while force-fed lies from her stepmother about “men with pointed teeth,” but throughout her film Rapunzel’s dreams changed.  When her dream of seeing the floating lights is fulfilled, Flynn encourages her to find another dream.  At the film’s climax when he lay dying in Rapunzel’s arms they share two important lines: “You were my new dream.” “And you were mine.”  Although her dreams at first don’t include finding love, that’s clearly where her dreams ended.

25In the question of her feminism, Rapunzel proves herself an active decision-maker throughout her pursuit of following her dreams: she asks Mother Gothel to take her to see the floating lights, she enlists Flynn’s help and helps him in return throughout the film.  She bargains with Mother Gothel to save his life.  Every action Rapunzel takes actively propels her story forward and puts her closer and closer to her dreams.

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Rapunzel’s villain fights to take away her power to choose, imprisoning her in the tower.  Rapunzel’s story of defying Mother Gothel and leaving the tower is her own active fight for her power of choice.  When brainwashing no longer works, Mother Gothel still determinedly keeps Rapunzel physically captive and Rapunzel fights fiercely to escape and to maintain her power of choice.  Her final active decision, to sacrifice her freedom for Flynn’s life, becomes more tragic understanding that her offer is to give up her feminism.  Flynn understands this and cuts her hair, freeing her rather than let her remain powerless.  Her active decisions to follow her dreams throughout her battle for agency proves Rapunzel a very powerful feminist.

2. Cinderella

Disney made quite the jump from the very passive Snow White to the very active and strong Cinderella, although many extreme feminists might refuse to see it.  Like Snow White, Cinderella faces oppression by her wicked stepmother, with two wicked stepsisters to boot, and like Snow White, Cinderella bears her afflictions kindly and righteously.  By Snow White’s standards, Cinderella justly deserves her happy ending, but where Snow White was content to sing by her well and react to the actions of others, Cinderella makes decisive and powerful movement forward in her own story.

27Like all the princesses, Cinderella has her dreams, though they are less pronounced than Snow White’s blatant wish for a prince to take her home with him.  Cinderella wants a happy home life, and although she obviously lacks those desired affections from her stepfamily, she resolves to make the best of her bad situation.  Some might see this passive acceptance as anti-feministic, but when the opportunity for greater circumstances comes along, Cinderella leaps into her very active role as a powerful feminist.  Walt Disney said of his favorite princess, “She believed in dreams all right, but she also believed in doing something about them.  When Prince Charming didn’t come along, she went over to the palace and got him.”

28Learning there is to be a ball Cinderella immediately asks to attend, holding her head high despite her stepsisters’ mockery.  Upon her stepmother’s outrageous conditions for letting her go, Cinderella doesn’t pout or bemoan her circumstances, but actively goes to work, doing her absolute best to make her own dreams of going to the ball come true.  The next morning she faces the opportunity to leave her stepfamily and gain the happy family she’s always dreamed of, and rather than stand by and wash her stepsisters’ laundry, Cinderella actively prepares to meet the duke and try on the glass slipper.

Paving the way for other princesses after her, Cinderella’s story isn’t only a war against her stepmother, but a continuing battle to maintain her freedom.  Like all the Disney princesses, Cinderella faces a terrible villain who continually sabotages her efforts at gaining agency.  Again, Cinderella shouldn’t be blamed for her villain’s cunning, but Lady Tremaine should be appreciated for her terrifying role.  By keeping her abused and downtrodden, her stepmother effectively keeps Cinderella a prisoner for many years before Cinderella manages to get free.  By enabling her daughters to ruin Cinderella’s dress and then by physically locking Cinderella away, her stepmother continually blocks Cinderella’s agency at every turn.29

Despite constant harmful interference from her stepmother, Cinderella shows great humility in recognizing that she needs help.  After Cinderella’s ability to make her own dreams come true become exhausted, she accepts help from her fairy godmother.  Accepting such help doesn’t diminish Cinderella’s strength of character, but enhances her in recognizing that she, like all of humanity, will never be perfect.  Her handsome prince and happy ending aren’t only a reward for her righteous dealings with her stepfamily, but also for her strong actions in changing her own future, regardless of what help she received.

 

1. Ariel

30Princess Ariel’s dream is perhaps the most definable and vivid; she dreams of being part of the human world.  A precursor to dreams like Rapunzel’s, initially Ariel’s dream lacks any mention of finding love, but her dream changes after meeting Prince Eric and she sings to be “part of your world.”

Physically barred from the human world by her own fins and her father’s rules, Ariel actively moves her story forward with her strong, feminist actions.  She disobeys her father and continues visiting the world above, she approaches Eric’s ship, she saves his life, she tries to get Eric to kiss her, she helps to stop Eric’s wedding to the disguised Ursula, and she grab’s Ursula’s hair to yank her aim away from blasting Eric to pieces.  Most importantly, Ariel bargains with Ursula and trades her voice for legs.  Many criticize Ariel for some of these rebellious acts of blatant disobedience, but her monumental sacrifice to follow her dream proves Ariel the strongest and most feminist of all eight Disney princesses.

31When following their dreams, no other princess faces the monumental choice of sacrificing something precious in order to make her dreams come true.  Ariel alone faces this epic dilemma: “If I become human, then I’ll never be with my father or sisters again,” to which Ursula replies, “Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it?”  But Ursula’s statement doesn’t seem to apply to the other princesses.  All the princesses faced their own difficult trials, but none seemed as plagued by such a difficult choice as Ariel as to follow her dreams or stay where she is comfortable.  Making the insurmountably difficult decision to permanently leave behind all she knows for a single chance to make her dreams come true is a daring and difficult one, choosing progression over safety.

But as strong, active, and difficult the decision must have been for Ariel, it is still undeniably a mistake; Ursula fooled and deceived her.  Ariel knows exactly Ursula’s reputation and she clearly feels uncomfortable and anxious around the octopus-legged witch, her face betraying feelings of mistrust and uncertainty.  But despite all her forewarnings and misgivings, Ariel still succumbs to the sea witch’s trickery and bribery.  If not for Prince Eric ramming a broken ship and jagged mast into the giant Ursula monster and saving everyone, all would have been completely lost and it all would have been Ariel’s fault.32

But if not for Ariel’s rash bargain, she never would have achieved her dreams.  Making a monumental mistake in the pursuit of her dreams, a mistake greater and more far-reaching than any other Disney princess has ever made, makes Ariel relatable, realistic, and the most powerfully feminist for fighting for her agency and actively working to make her own dreams come true.  Ironically, the most sincerely human of all the Disney princesses is actually the little mermaid who dreams of becoming herself a human.