It has been stated that of all film studios to produce princess movies, Disney has the claim on this particular market (Whelan). From Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora to Rapunzel, Tiana, and Merida, there has been a progression in the way Disney portrays the females in their movies. In the beginning, Disney studios went along with the beliefs from the period that women should be frail and in need of a man to come and rescue them. By the last few movies, however, the women became independent and strong characters that no longer could do anything without a man to help.
In 1939, Disney studios released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In this retelling of the Grimm fairy tale, a princess named Snow White loses her father and is forced to grow up with her evil stepmother who wants nothing more than Snow White’s death. However, the desire of the queen to see Snow White dead has nothing to do with power or money.
Instead, her motive is vanity. While Snow White lives, the queen can never be the fairest in the land. Pride wounded, the queen tells her huntsman to take Snow White to the woods, kill her, and bring back her heart in a box.
However, the huntsman takes pity on Snow White and tells her to run. When he returns to the castle, he has the heart of an animal in the box, and the queen is placated. By this time, however, Snow White is making her way through the forest, terrified and alone.
She finally stumbles across a tiny cottage and walks in. When she walks in, she notices that the cottage is dirty and decides that there must be men living there and that she should clean it. This she does with the help of her animal friends. Eventually, the Dwarves return and see Snow White in their home. They welcome her with open arms, and Snow White cooks for them.
Snow White and the Dwarves continue on their lives of the Dwarves going off to work and Snow White staying home and continuing to cook and clean for them until the Evil Queen catches wind that Snow White is still alive and travels to kill her herself. Snow White, being too naive to see the bad in others, takes the poisoned apple that the disguised Queen gives her and falls into a deep coma. The Dwarves take her to rest in the forest, where she is destined to rest until Love’s True Kiss, which would break the spell. Finally, Prince Charming on a White Horse comes by and kisses Snow White, waking her from her sleep and saving her.
Together, they ride off into the sunset and live Happily Ever After. This portrayal of the first Disney female is exactly what one would expect from this time period. Even though “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” didn’t take place in the 30’s when it was released, Snow White cooked, cleaned, and pined for her Prince Charming to come save her and take her away into the sunset. One of the first impressions we have of Snow White is her singing a song about her imagined Prince, with the lyrics, “And away to his castle we’ll go, to be happy forever I know . ” There is nothing for her to imagine but a life with a husband.
When she lives with the Dwarves, Snow White simply stays home and cooks and cleans for them while they go off to work. This anti-feminist view is prominent in many of the Disney films. Cinderella was the next Princess in the franchise, with a movie release of 1950. In this film, Cinderella, the daughter of another Evil Queen/Stepmother has been forced into a life of servitude, and must cater to every whim of said Stepmother as well as her two Evil Stepsisters. Though Cinderella is not happy with this life, she simply goes along with it. Then, Cinderella hears news about a ball at the palace.
She asks for permission to go, and her Stepmother says yes, as long as she finishes her chores and can find a dress. Like Snow White, Cinderella enlists the help of her animal friends and together they fashion her a dress to wear to the ball. However, when the stepmother and stepsisters see the dress, they tear it apart and ensure that Cinderella will not be able to attend the ball. Devastated, Cinderella runs out to the courtyard where she begins to cry. Then her Fairy Godmother appears and agrees to help Cinderella. She gives Cinderella a beautiful gown, a fashionable hairdo, and incredibly functional glass slippers.
The only rule that Cinderella has is that she has to leave the ball by midnight, which is when her beautiful appearance will disappear. Everyone knows the story after this. The clock strikes midnight and Cinderella flees the ball leaving behind a single glass slipper. The Prince, captivated by Cinderella’s presence, sends the slipper throughout the entire kingdom, looking for the foot that will fit into it. When the prince’s assistant arrives at Cinderella’s, her stepmother locks her in the attic, trying to make sure that Cinderella will not be able to try on the slipper for the prince.
While Cinderella’s animal friends help her again to escape the room, the stepmother and stepsisters each take their turn trying on the slipper, only to find out that their feet are much too big to fit. Just as the assistant is about to leave, Cinderella rushes down the stairs. When she tries on the slipper, it’s shown that it’s a perfect fit, and Cinderella is brought to the castle to marry the prince. In this story, there is a very strong emphasis placed on the importance of beauty for a female looking for her prince charming. Both the stepsisters and the stepmother are shown to be rather unattractive, with large features and feet.
However, Cinderella with her dainty feet and beautiful ball gown ends up with the prince. This movie also reflects the anti-feministic practice of women sabotaging other women. The stepsisters ruin Cinderella’s original dress, ensuring that she will not be able to attend the ball. The stepmother locks Cinderella in the attic to make sure that she won’t be able to try the slipper on. Aurora, the princess of 1959, ends up in a coma much like Snow White’s. As a baby, she’d had a spell placed on her saying that on her 16th birthday, she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep.
Though her parents did their best to keep her safe by ordering the destruction of every spinning wheel in the kingdom, Aurora was drawn to the only one left: the one in the castle. Upon pricking her finger, she does indeed fall into a deep sleep. The only way she can be saved, again like Snow White, is by being kissed by her one true love. In order for this to happen, Aurora’s prince, Prince Phillip, must battle the sorceress Maleficent, who just so happens to be able to turn herself into a dragon. After defeating a dragon sorceress and locating Aurora, Phillip kisses her and brings Aurora back to life.
Again in this movie, the presence of a weak dependent female is the driving force behind the whole movie. She cannot protect herself, and therefore has to depend on a man to come and save her. If Phillip had not been able to defeat Maleficent, Aurora would have been doomed to spend forever in the tower, sleeping. In the next Princess, we are shown a new type of Princess. Ariel came to the screen in 1989, and barely resembled the three prior princesses. The daughter of King Triton, Ariel was expected to stay safely at home. Instead, she enjoyed exploring, seeking out remains from ship wrecks.
Slowly, she built up a collection. When her father found out, he destroyed nearly everything but this didn’t deter Ariel. She continued to venture up to the surface of the water, watching the humans from a distance and pining to join them. On one such journey, she witnesses a ship wreck first hand, and saves the one man who didn’t make it onto a lifeboat. She swims him to shore and leaves before he fully wakes. Unsatisfied with this brief contact, Ariel goes to the witch Ursula, and barters with her. In exchange for Ariel’s voice, Ursula will give her legs so she may be around the prince.
However, there are always conditions. In this arrangement, Ariel has only a few days to make the prince fall in love and marry her. If she fails, then Ursula gets ownership of Ariel forever. Ariel agrees and signs the contract, trading over her voice and getting whisked away to the surface to be with her Prince Eric. When she reaches the surface, she is soon found and brought to the Prince’s castle. While she does manage to woo him, Ursula attempts to ruin the wedding by using Ariel’s voice to pretend to be her. In the end, Ursula is defeated and Ariel and Eric end up happily married.
Though this film shows a more active female with her own thoughts and desires, it still revolves around Ariel’s desires leading to a man. Though she’d always had the desire to go to the surface, it wasn’t until she’d seen Eric that she made actions to make it happen. By doing this, Ariel is devoting all her time to a man, instead of just to her dreams. It is not to be said that a woman cannot achieve her dreams if she wishes to be with a man, but Ariel’s dreams shift from just being able to be out of the water to wanting to be with Eric. Belle is the first princess that is not born as such.
Instead, she is born to an inventor. She enjoys books, loves to learn, and dreams of life outside of her small village. She’s the first princess to show an interest in academics at all, which is a progressive step towards a positive feminist message in the Disney Princess Films. When her father, Maurice, travels to show an invention, Belle goes after him and finds him at an old castle deep in the woods. Once inside, Belle finds Maurice trapped in the dungeon, sick and scared. Suddenly, the Beast appears. Belle arranges for Maurice to be released in exchange for her to be the Beast’s new prisoner.
Though Maurice protests, Belle remains in the castle. While Maurice returns to the village and tells the people there about Belle being held prisoner, Belle has to learn how to live with the Beast. When the villagers finally listen to Maurice and get proof that Belle is with the Beast, the villagers, led by the man interested in marrying Belle (though this interest is not reciprocated in the least) lead a rescue mission to the castle. When they get there, the villagers and the inhabitants battle, driving the villagers save Gaston out. From there, Gaston and the Beast fight.
Gaston is defeated, and Belle declares that she is in love with the Beast. The curse that had been placed on the castle is lifted and all the inhabitants, including the Beast, return to their former human forms. Belle is a female like Disney had failed to produce before. Smart, driven, and curious, she is independent and has no desire to settle down. Instead, she wants to travel, to learn, and to read and experience as much as she can. She is also brave, which she shows by offering to stay prisoner in her father’s place. Belle is also the first princess who does not need a man’s help to be happy.
Though she was originally a captive in the Beast’s castle, by the end she is happily in love with him, and she creates her own happy ending. In fact, the Beast does not obtain her trust and admiration by being a typical man, but by talking with her about books and topics that she’s interested in. Belle is also the first princess to have full conversations with her prince before marrying him. If it had not been for Belle and her bravery, the inhabitants of the castle would have been doomed to live their lives as furniture and dining room accessories.
After Beauty and the Beast’s release in 1991, along came Aladdin in 1992. Though this is the first princess movie without the princess being the main character, Jasmine is still a prime example of Disney’s progressive movement towards pro-feminist messages in their movies. The first we see of Jasmine is her raising a ruckus about the fact that she must be married by her next birthday. She is striving for independence, independence that she cannot achieve while under the strict rules of her father’s kingdom. Frustrated, she dresses as a commoner and ventures into the streets of Agrabah, where she meets Aladdin.
When she and Aladdin get cornered, Jasmine reveals herself as a princess and both are taken back to the castle. Aladdin gets placed under arrest, but escapes and comes back pretending to be a Prince, with the help of his magical Genie. Though Jasmine begins to fall for “Prince Ali”, she soon finds out that it is actually Aladdin. However, a prior suitor, Jafar, learns Aladdin’s secret as well, and takes Jasmine captive, as well as Genie. Without the help of Genie, Aladdin must figure out how to save Jasmine. Though not as progressive as Belle, Jasmine is far more pro-feminism than the first three princesses.
She is actively going gainst the social norms of her kingdom, in that she is making it nearly impossible for her father to find a suitor for her to marry. Though in the end, she must be saved by Aladdin, this doesn’t make her weaker as a woman. She actually helps Aladdin to defeat Jafar, which is a remarkable change from the first three, two of which slept until their princes came to save them. It is also a mark of Disney’s march towards equalizing women since Jasmine is the first non-white female to have a leading presence in their films. Next, Pocahontas. The daughter of the tribe chief, Pocahontas is free minded, free spirited, and freely spoken.
She values the nature around her and hates that the Englishmen are destroying it in their search for gold. She teaches one of the men, John Smith, about the value of respecting the Earth and protecting it. Though not the first to go against her father, and not the first to reverse the savior role, Pocahontas is the first to really help change the ideals of an entire group of people. At the beginning of the most progressive pro-feminism Disney movies is Mulan. Mulan stole her father’s armor and went into battle for China, even though it was illegal for women to fight in the military.
However, she dressed as a boy and trained as hard as any of the other men to hide the fact that she was, in fact, female. After getting wounded, it is discovered that she’s a woman. Instead of turning her over, however, the General leaves her behind with her horse to find her way back home. By doing this, Mulan is able to see that the Huns are planning an attack, and she is able to warn the army when they arrive in Beijing. Though no one listens to her, Mulan helps to save China from the attack, and is heralded as a hero. In the end, the General comes to ask for her hand in marriage, to which she says yes.
Another film with an incredibly positive feminism message is the next Princess movie to be released from Disney studios, The Princess and the Frog. Tiana is hard working, driven, and the first African-American female to be featured in these films. She has big dreams of owning and opening her own restaurant. A dream that is put on hold, however, when she gets turned into a frog while attempting to save Prince Naveen from the same curse. Together, the two work together to find a remedy for the curse. In the next princess film, Tangled, we learn about Rapunzel.
Locked away in a tower, Rapunzel has spent her entire life believing that the woman raising her was her mother, when in fact she had been stolen from the castle when she was just a baby. Mother Gothel had stolen her because her hair had magical healing powers, which Mother Gothel used to make herself appear young. When a thief breaks into her tower, however, Rapunzel uses this as a way out into the real world, which she has always dreamed of seeing. With her companion for the trip, Flynn, Rapunzel gets them unscathed through a bar and to the kingdom, even though Flynn is a wanted man for his thieveries.
Soon, Rapunzel learns the real story behind her life and that she’d been kidnapped as a baby from the King and Queen. Mother Gothel does her best to make Rapunzel stay in the tower, since she will no longer be beautiful without Rapunzel’s hair. However, Flynn cuts off her hair, turning it brown and short instead of gold and long. Rapunzel found a husband that isn’t just interested in her for her looks, which is an incredibly important message for young girls. The final Disney female as of now is from Brave. Merida, as a 16 year old, is facing the same problem as Jasmine.
It is tradition in her land to get married young, and her mother keeps telling her that she is betrothed to a connection of her father. Merida revolts and accidentally turns her family into bears. To undo the curse, she and her mother travel together to try and find the cure. Upon returning to Dunbroch, Merida creates change between the clans by saying that the children should be able to marry whomever they wish. Merida is the first Disney female to have no love interest in the movie, which is important to the idea that a woman is only good if they have someone to help them out along the way.
Merida and her mother Elinor must work together to solve their problem, without the help of a man. Disney Studios has made incredible progress in their treatment of females in their films. From comatose helpless Princess to strong, independent, and strong warriors, the progression of the treatment of the idea of feminism shows that their progressive ways will only continue to be more and more proactive. By showing that a woman does not need a man in order to succeed, Disney is sending a powerful message to young girls everywhere.