For someone who has no interest in children, I’m weirdly invested in what kind of role models little kids, specifically girls, have access to in the 21st Century. I’ve taken a great interest in media representation and the value of seeing a variety of characters on TV for everyone to relate to, whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or none of the above. Like it or not, the media informs a lot of the world’s impressions, and the youngest audiences are often the most vulnerable.
Now personally, I can’t specifically recall any role models from my youth.* I remember for some reason my sister and I were needlessly cruel to the Snow White doll we had, but there is no clear reason for this. And we didn’t specifically exalt any character over the others. But I do remember that Disney princesses were pretty much our go-to for pop culture icons to look up to, and I think that’s a pretty typical element in American girls’ childhoods since Disney made it big.
However, I think in this day and age it’s much better for girls to look up to Disney princesses than it was up until the 80’s. In addition to being a fascinating study in the shifts of cultural values, the evolution of Disney princesses represents an encouraging trend in how we as society treat women, from Sleeping “I’ll Just Nap Until Someone Comes and Rescues Me” Beauty to Princess “I’d Rather Fix my Relationship with my Mother Than Get Married” Merida. I guess Frozen probably has some merit, but I’ve been doggedly avoiding it ever since one of my speech teammates sang “Let it Go” a capella on a bus, so for the purposes of this blog Frozen doesn’t exist.
It’s not a terribly difficult change to see, but in case any of my readers are out of touch with their animated Disney feature films, I’ll break this evolution down into three stages:
- Stage One (1937-1959): Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
- Stage Two (1989-1992): Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), and Jasmine (Aladdin)
- Stage Three (1995-present): Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), Rapunzel (Tangled), and Merida (Brave)
Stage one, the earliest princesses, are kind of terrible role models. Stage two are alright role models– I wouldn’t particularly want my hypothetical daughter to emulate them, but I wouldn’t be devastated if she did– and stage three are good female characters for girls to look up to (and, by the way, way more diverse than any of the other stages. Good one, Disney.)
I make these statements based on two main criteria: first, what does the princess actually do for herself and/or others? and second, what kind of expectations for romantic love does this film create? All of the movies in stage one earn a “jack shit” and “unrealistic ones,” respectively. Before you say it, yes, I know that Aurora and Snow White and Cinderella all have wonderful traits. Most everyone has at least a handful of admirable attributes, but just because Ted Bundy was charming and polite doesn’t mean children should emulate his behavior. While these princesses are kind and hardworking, the only value given to them is based on how beautiful they all are. Aurora and Snow White only got their “happily ever after” because their princes were so enchanted by their beauty that it somehow made sense to them to kiss a pseudo-corpse. Cinderella won because she had dainty feet and a nice dress.
This leads me to the second of the two criteria. Which of these three princesses actually spent any time getting to know their rescuers before getting hitched (or agreeing to get hitched)? That’s right, none of them. I’m not saying Disney alone is responsible for creating unreal expectations of love and relationships, but they’re definitely a part of a larger issue. Not as big of a part as rom coms, but that’s a blog for another day. The point is, all three of these early Disney princess movies have the same lesson to little girls: If you’re pretty and wait long enough, someone will marry you and, in doing so, give you a fulfilling life. And that’s bullshit.
Thirty years later, Disney seemed to agree that they maybe should have more dimensional princesses for children to look up to, and they got back into the princess game with The Little Mermaid, thus kicking off stage two. As the transition phase, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine embody traits of both stage one and stage three. Honestly, if I really wanted to simplify things, I could put Ariel in stage one and the other two in stage three, but I don’t so I won’t.
These three princesses are pluckier than their predecessors. They have individual interests and ideas for their own lives– Belle would rather read a book than marry a boorish show-off, Jasmine is less interested in finding a husband than understanding Agrabah, and Ariel is a hoarder- oops, I mean a collector. Our 90’s (and late 80’s) princesses have more independence in a delicately gloved hand than Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora have combined, and that’s the kind of characterization I like to see.
However, these movies and their stars still have their shortcomings. I will start with perhaps the greatest quote in any Disney film ever: “But Daddy, I love him!” This is said by Ariel, a 16 year old, to her father, about a man she has only ever seen from afar.
While Ariel is creative and adventurous, she applies all of this wit to winning over a boy instead of a lucrative career as a singer, interior decorator, or marine biologist. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with pursuing love, but it’s a little disturbing to see someone willing to surrender her voice– a valuable and defining skill and trait in Ariel’s life– in order to meet a guy she, once again, has never met and has no assurance of actually winning over. It just seems a little desperate (and like the kind of thing a mom could talk her out of, if Disney wasn’t obsessed with killing off mothers).
Jasmine is far better off than Ariel; she gets to know Aladdin before falling in love with him. Well, actually she gets to know Prince Ali, who is still technically Aladdin, but more of a giant sham than the real guy. And she still agrees to marry him in the end. In all fairness, she is furious about his deception (I think, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie), and I guess being able to forgive someone is an important life skill that very few of us truly master.
Belle, in my opinion, is the best role model of the three listed here. She has a hobby. She would rather spend time with her father, someone who supports and encourages her to be herself, rather than entertain Gaston, who would rather see her pretty face than a book in front of it. Her kindness earns her the friendship of the castle’s furniture, and the prince she falls in love with is someone she took the time to get to know and understand. Even when he was a literal monster. Furthermore, Prince Adam (who knew the Beast had a name?) made an effort to understand Belle as an individual, and appealed to her interests and passions in an effort to make her happy. In the end, he was willing to sacrifice every chance of his future happiness in order for Belle to have hers. Now that’s a relationship I can get behind, not to mention the kind I think every young girl should feel like she deserves.
The release of Pocahontas a few years later, however, was the dawn of Disney’s greatest era of princesses– and, happily, the most extensive of the three stages. Now Pocahontas and Mulan are my favorite Disney princesses and movies for a number of reasons (I’ve been looking for an excuse to write a detailed analysis of Mulan for years), but since you’ve already read upwards of 1,300 words on the matter I’ll do my best to keep this brief.
First things first: Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida are all dynamic, multi-faceted, competent girls. Each of these movies includes variations on the themes of fate, and each and every one of these princesses has a strong hand in directing the course of their lives.
Additionally, there’s a wonderful variety of relationship types– Mulan and her father, Merida and her mother, Rapunzel and her “mother,” Tiana and her (female) best friend, Pocahontas and her raccoon. Maybe I didn’t care so much in my youth, but as an “adult” looking back, I am very pleased to see role models that value their family and friends at least as much as romantic relationships, if not more so. Again, there’s nothing wrong with romance, but your parents and friends and siblings are the ones who will be there for you 100% of the time– including when you get your heart broken. I’m sure everyone comes to that conclusion regardless of what role models do and don’t espouse that message, but it’s encouraging to see it being shared so early on in children’s lives.
On a similar note, the romantic relationships presented are far, far more realistic than being woken up from an indefinite nap by a stranger kissing you and then marrying him. Hell, Merida and Pocahontas don’t even need a prince to feel fulfilled by the end of the movie. As for the rest, they fall in love with someone only after getting to know them. Furthermore, while they all had goals and quests in mind, none of them were “find rich and attractive mate.” Mulan wanted to protect her father, Tiana wanted to open a restaurant and help her mother, and Rapunzel wanted to learn who she truly was. Shang, Naveen, and Flynn/Eugene win their respective princesses’ hearts by helping them grow as individuals and achieve their goals, not by kissing them or being rich and/or attractive (although I guess it didn’t hurt).
Overall, the role models that Disney’s third phase of princesses provide are the kind of people you want your young daughters looking up to. Hell, I’m almost 20 and I still look up to them. Disney started with meek, mild-mannered girls waiting for a husband and worked up to dimensional, driven, and inspiring leading ladies. I would even go so far as to say that, recently, they’ve gone beyond following cultural trends to creating them. Think about it: While Mary was being low-key stalked by a number of suitors in a “romantic” comedy, Mulan was literally saving all of China. Also, by the way, Mulan also debuted Disney’s first bisexual character.
All in all, Disney has come a long way from pretty heroines who are good at cleaning and not much else. Media, and Disney in particular, has an undeniable role to play in cultural perceptions, and it’s so encouraging to see them taking that responsibility seriously and creating diverse and dynamic princesses to be this generation’s first fictional role models. Now the only thing left I’d like to see is a princess who’s a damn alto.
*Since starting this piece, I have consulted my mom on the matter. She said I looked up to Mulan, but it is unclear whether that was because she’s a bamf or because she ended up with Shang, my first ever fictional character crush.
In writing this, I have been reminded of how compelling and important the issues of media representation are. I will very likely be tackling more facets of this topic in the future since I think it’s fascinating and significant, so buckle up.