The Evolution Of The Disney Princess

Have you watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs lately? Though it is a historically important landmark of feature length animation, story and character wise, it’s not so great. Snow White herself has no agency and very little in the way of personality. It’s not entirely her fault, she’s only 14 after all and the movie is a product of 1937. But it’s an interesting starting point for Disney nonetheless who with their latest feature, Moana, have finally created an incredible princess who truly embodies independence and female empowerment.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was more about proving that an animated story could be sustained at a feature length run time than anything else. The film is a work of art and Snow White herself is not a terrible person. She’s kind and gentle. She can talk to the animals and they adore her, something I greatly envied as a little girl, and let’s be honest, still do. But she’s more of a pawn of the story, an object to be envied by the queen, protected by the dwarves, and swept off to live happily ever after (at 14?!) by the Prince who she never even talks to before he awakens her and carries her away on his horse. Snow White is the epitome of the Happily Ever After fairy tale – the idea that a kind, beautiful woman who can keep a good, tidy home, will find her “prince” someday who will sweep her off her feet. It’s a lot of facade and no real substance.

Disney made some strides with their next princess, Cinderella, who though a bit of a beatific martyr, is strong in her own way. She doesn’t let herself be broken by the cruelty around her; but again, her savior is her man, not her own inner strength and determination. Cinderella was followed by Aurora, otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty, who while another headstrong dreamer, and a bit of a free spirit, is yet another young woman at the mercy of everyone around her and rescued by her dashing Prince Philip.

There wouldn’t be more Disney princesses until Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine in 1989, 1991, and 1992 respectively. And while this crop of princesses found themselves at the center of love stories as well, more personality emerged. These were young women who stood up for themselves and made their own decisions. All three of them share a curiosity and adventurous spirit. They’re all interested in learning about the world outside their home. And so, while there are plenty of things to quibble about, Ariel running off and trading her voice for a man she hasn’t even spoken to, for example, the princesses from the new golden age of Disney animation represented a giant leap forward. Belle was a nerd who rebuked the advances of the handsome Gaston, who in an earlier Disney film very well could have been written as her Prince Charming. Jasmine, a victim of a monarchical rule proclaiming she must marry a prince to rule, declares herself “not a prize to be won”. She knows what she wants. It’s a handsome young man she wants, and not to be allowed to rule without being married, but still, it’s progress.

In 1998 we got Mulan, who in many ways is a Moana prototype, a strong, capable, fearless young woman fiercely protective of her family, people, and home. Despite writing a story about a young girl who infiltrates the world of men, becomes a soldier, and saves an empire, Disney can’t help but put a romance in the mix. Mulan’s story starts with her being declared incapable of ever finding a husband. She’s not the perfect young woman assuming the role she is supposed to. Instead of her proving that she’s a capable human being who doesn’t need to fit the mold of the perfect potential wife, all her heroics bag her a babe in the end. Mulan, technically not a bonafide princess, though she’s often regarded as one, would be the last female heroine for over a decade.

Enter Tiana, perhaps the most underrated Disney princess, and one of the strongest female characters the mouse house ever created. Tiana is not interested in love; she’s interested in her own dream of opening a restaurant. She works hard and doesn’t have time to fool around or look for a prince to sweep her off her feet. When she does eventually fall for the handsome Prince Naveen she doesn’t give up her life for him, he appears to give up his own for hers. He supports her and becomes a part of her culinary adventure. The Princess and the Frog is also notable for its relationship between women. Tiana’s best friend is a rich girl obsessed with finding a man named Charlotte La Bouff. It initially seems like these best friends since childhood are going to be pitted against each other, that they’ll eventually be rivals fighting for the same man. But they never do. They love and care about each others’ success in the different paths they want to take in life. It’s a refreshing change from the previous Disney princess films which center around a lot of female jealousy and cruelty.

After Tiana came the adventurers, Rapunzel and Merida, two headstrong princesses who don’t need a man to rescue them. Though Rapunzel does end up falling in love, at least she gets to know the guy first. And Merida especially finally looks the old Disney standard of marrying off princesses absurdly young and says, excuse me, isn’t this insane?! She fights for her right to choose her own fate and to come to the whole momentous love and marriage thing when she’s ready. Some have pointed to Merida’s refusal to marry as a sign that she’s a lesbian, uninterested in men. While that would be perfectly fine, she’s only 16. I think it’s more a sign of being a normal, reasonable teenage girl.

Being a reasonable teenage girl however almost went out the window with Anna and Elsa of the wildly popular Frozen, the Disney princess film most often cited as a symbol of girl power and you don’t need a man girlfriend attitude. While the story indeed focuses on the love and incredible bond between the two sisters, it does, unfortunately have the sheltered Anna falling head over heels for the first two men she encounters outside her castle walls, nearly ending in her death. Despite Anna’s wild abandon where a meeting new person is concerned, Anna has an effervescence that draws people to her and brings them together. Beyond that, Frozen continues the current set in motion by The Princess and the Frog, by not pitting its female characters against each other. Elsa is a powerful young woman, the ruler of a kingdom, and she is balanced by her fun loving sister Anna. There is a great deal of beauty in the way these two imperfect women elevate each other. Together they are stronger and their kingdom is the better for it.

So here we are, finally, at Moana. All the princesses that came before have had love as a major part of their story in some way. Even my beloved Merida’s story centers on the idea that she’s supposed to get married. Moana is the outlier. She is the daughter of the chief and is being prepared to rule. Her people trust her and already defer to her wisdom. No one mentions that she should find a husband to rule alongside her or that it might be more prudent for a son of the chief to rule. She is immediately embraced as a leader and she courageously embarks on a dangerous quest to save not only her people but the world. What makes Moana so great is that it is a young girl in a role that would traditionally be written for a boy or man and there is little if any attention paid to her gender at all. Furthermore it has been reported that the original version of the story saw Moana as a sidekick to the demi-god Maui played by The Rock. Not only that, Moana also had a love interest. It’s interesting that the film’s directors Ron Clements and John Musker and its writer Jared Bush, made a clear choice to rid the film of these traditional elements. Moana as a film and a character is infinitely better for it.

Where does the Disney princess go from here? It remains to be seen if the animation giant will continue on this path or if we’ll see a return to the more traditional love dominated stories of Disney past. For now, Moana stands as a shining example of how great the Disney princess can be and how far we’ve come from a 14 year old playing housewife to seven men to avoid threat of murder before being poisoned and whisked off to marry a man she doesn’t know. Moana’s creation and success is not a denigration of her fellow princesses but a sign of growth. She shares aspects with all of them, the kindness and faith in others of Snow White, the unbreakable spirit of Cinderella, she’s a dreamer like Aurora, curious and adventurous like Ariel, Belle, and Rapunzel, stubborn and determined like Jasmine, courageous and fierce as Mulan, a practical, hard-worker like Tiana, someone who brings people together like Anna but is powerful and gifted like Elsa, and a creator of her own destiny like Merida. She is a sum of the creations before her, a well-rounded, imperfect human heroine. She may very well be the pinnacle of Disney princess evolution.