How Disney Princesses Went From Passive Damsels to Active Heroes


Disney has taken many hits for their portrayal of women over the years, particularly in regards to the Disney princesses. Most of these critiques are quite deserved. However, there has been a shift at the Mouse House recently, one which shows the writers at Disney may have been listening to the critiques all these years. Brave's Merida has finally given us a strong, competent "princess" who little girls can be proud to idolize. And, with Frozen on the horizon, hopes that this trend will continue are high. Could the days of the Disney damsel in distress be over?

When I was a kid, I never wanted to be a princess when I grew up. I played along — the pink dresses, the tiaras, but it was never my life's ambition. While I loved a good princess flick, I was drawn to the stories where the female protagonist was an active part of the plot such as Peter Pan, Dumbo, Robin Hood, and Alice in Wonderland. I'd like to think that was a conscious decision — the early feminist showing in my three-year-old self. More than likely, though, it was my subconscious telling me I require more than a pretty face and swoon-worthy prince from a story. Don't misunderstand, I still love Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty (I was never really a Snow White girl), but they are hardly role models for a young girl.

Disney's woman's issues can be traced to its very first animated feature. Snow White, while  almost universally revered, provided an unfortunate blueprint that Disney would follow for years. The recurring plot engine in Snow White is that a naïve young girl is tricked time and again, and can only be saved by the men surrounding her. Whether it's her prince or the dwarfs, her lot in life is as a damsel in distress (and caretaker of course, because what else would a woman who was almost murdered do but clean up after strangers). Considering Snow was brought to life in the 1930s, there is a certain understanding of her shortcomings. She was a product of her environment — Hays Code Hollywood and pre-feminism America.

Unfortunately, this is the guideline Disney followed even as the business and society changed around them. The title character from Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty's (1959) Aurora were both meek characters in unfortunate situations who were saved by their handsome prince. They did little more than survive while waiting to be rescued. Oddly enough, the villain in all three of these tales was a woman. In the world of Disney, the women were either naïve and malleable or villainous bitches, archetypes that female characters are still fighting. So, looking back on the original Disney princesses, it's not hard to see why there has been harsh criticism of their portrayal of women.

Maybe that's why there was not another official Disney princess until 1989's The Little Mermaid. While some see this film as the pinnacle of all that is wrong with Disney, I think it represents a turning point. The criticism of Ariel — this is the film, after all, where a man falls in love with a girl only after she's silenced (literally) — and the juxtaposition of the older, full-figured villain against the wispy, beautiful heroine is not ideal, but there's more to the film than that.

The film is a marked departure from its predecessors because Ariel is the first truly rounded princess. She has opinions, flaws, and interests. And where some see her giving up her life with her family for a man, I would argue she'd always wanted a different life than what she had. Her encounter with Prince Eric is merely the inciting incident — a call to action for something she would have likely done anyway. Whatever side of the argument you fall on, it's hard to argue against Ariel being a vast improvement over the meek, passive women who came before her (even if she is silent for a good portion of the film).

Courtesy Disney.

Even with these flaws, Ariel paved the way for a new breed of princess. No, not the perfect embodiment of women on screen; but rather a more balanced, active protagonist even in the face of overarching flaws in the films. Belle is a well-read, intelligent character who resists societal expectations. However misguided, she sacrifices herself to save her father. The film has its issues (a twisted portrayal of Stockholm syndrome comes to mind), but Belle is the type of character many would describe as strong, despite her predilection for inter-species romance. Jasmine, who is not even the protagonist in Aladdin, is given more to do than swoon and wretch. She impresses with her intellect and wit. In fact, Aladdin is almost a swap of the gender norms seen in the early films, with the boy transforming in pursuit of love.

Courtesy Disney.

Before anyone gets up in arms, I realize that none of these films are perfect in their portrayal of women (amongst other things). However, Disney clearly began thinking of how woman were viewed as they progressed with their princess brand. How else can we explain their next two "princesses" after Jasmine being Pocahontas and Mulan? While not perfect, these women mark the greatest improvement in the character of princess. Pocahontas is probably the only Disney princess never actually to question her worth as person; rather, her insecurities come from how to protect her people. Mulan needs very little explanation. She subverts all societal expectations to pursue her own course (becoming a feminist).

Since then, the idea of Disney princess has been permanently altered. Tiana in The Princess and the Frog dreams of opening a restaurant; finding a man is not in her plan. And Tangled's Rapunzel not only instigates her own adventure, but also saved Flynn/Eugene multiple times along the way. The era of the helpless damsel seems to be over. And this has only been cemented with the most recent inclusion of Merida. Brave is the first Disney princess story not to feature a romantic plotline, instead choosing to focus on the dynamics of the family. Brave is not so much about overcoming any one thing. It's actually about the choices and sacrifices a young woman must make as she grows and matures (and she just so happens to ride a horse and shoot a bow).

I will never argue that the films featuring Disney princesses are without flaws. However, I think that the evolution of the Disney princess is a continuing process, much like the rest of Hollywood. Criticism of their shortcomings will serve to help improve future characters, but we have to give credit where credit is due. Hopefully Disney's Frozen will continue this trend of improvement, even if the studio heads do not.