I am a self-published author, anime blogger, and my academic background is in art history and the study of drawing.
Influence of Disney Princess on US Culture
The United States is a country founded on rebellion against the crown of England. So why is it that "princesses" are everywhere you look in American culture? They're on t-shirts, stickers, backpacks, erasers, Halloween costumes, and if you're lucky enough, you can take a picture with one at a theme park. Well, that's all thanks to Disney. But why is the concept so popular that Disney was able to make so much money off of it? It had to do with redefining the concept of 'princess' for an American audience.
Dictionary.com's Definition of a Princess:
- a nonreigning female member of a royal family.
- History/Historical. a female sovereign or monarch; queen.
- the consort of a prince.
- (in Great Britain) a daughter or granddaughter (if the child of a son) of a king or queen.
- a woman considered to have the qualities or characteristics of a princess.
Disney Princess Definition
Disney has many female lead characters. Confusingly, many of their great female characters (even royal ones like Kida and Nala) might not be a "Disney Princess", and also many of their characters without the title of princess in their movies might be considered a "Disney Princess", like Mulan and Pocahontas.
Generally speaking, a Disney Princess (officially designated as such) should:
- Be human. Sorry Nala, Lady, and Perdita.
- Be the star of their movie. So supporting characters like Megara in Hercules are not included, sadly. Sometimes, Esmeralda from Hunchback is included, but is usually not, probably for this reason, and for market concerns mentioned below.
- Be born a princess, obviously. Or:
- Marry a prince. Or:
- Do a heroic deed. And, unofficially:
- Have a successful movie and be highly marketable as a character. This is primarily why Kida is left out of the lineup. Atlantis: The Lost Empire didn't sell well, and execs probably think kids won't buy toys of her.
The definition of who is and is not a Disney Princess makes princesshood seem like a merit-based designation. Each official Disney Princess is associated with a certain virtue, and her princesshood, whether fought for, earned as a birthright, or married to, is either seen as a reward for her virtue or as a sign of it.
This falls right into the Protestant Work Ethic that Americans generally believe in. Good fortune is a sign of virtue in this worldview. Success can be earned by anyone who perseveres and works hard. Being born a princess means you're beautiful and good to begin with by default. Marrying a prince, or being recognized as a princess for your accomplishments, means that you proved your goodness.
Characteristics of a Disney Princess
But, are all the girl characters on the official Disney Princess roster equally saintly? Well, something interesting happens when you break it down by born princesses, those born not royal who marry a prince, and those who are neither.
Born Royal - No Need to Prove Themselves
Basically, if a princess is born into royalty, she is considered ideal from the start. She generally won't have to undergo major character development. Usually conflicts surrounding her involve her against a jealous antagonist. She will be naturally beautiful and virtuous, but rarely will these virtues be tested or her actions scrutinized. The antagonist is often motivated by jealousy. Let's look at the list.
- Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Kind to animals, classically beautiful, very feminine and domestic. Attacked by a jealous queen who is also a sorceress.
- Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. Naturally gifted with beauty and elegance, cursed by a jealous evil fairy because...?
- Jasmine from Aladdin. Naturally beautiful, desired by the protagonist for her beauty, undermined by the scheming royal vizier Jafar. Plot is caused by her initial refusal to choose a husband.
- Merida from Brave. Following the "does not need character development" theme, she doesn't learn a lesson in her movie really. The movie is more about her mom realizing she was right all along, or at least within her rights, to not wanting to choose a husband.
- Rapunzel from Tangeled. I haven't watched this one, but from reading the synopsis, I can see how it fits the pattern. Rapunzel is antagonized by her own adoptive mother, who claims to be looking out for her, but is actually jealously holding on to and trying to steal Rapunzel's power. The classic Disney theme of an older woman antagonizing a younger one out of jealousy for her youth seems to be in full force still.
- Moana from Moana. Yes, I was surprised too that Polynesians have a hereditary monarchy. She goes on a standard hero's journey. The main purpose of which is for her to connect to her culture and past, so that she can take her place as a leader of her people in the future. There's no big antagonist, and instead, the film is mainly about writing past wrongs. Moana encounters various spirits and gods, learning about her culture and history. And it's about the god Maui learning a little lesson in humility.
- Ariel from The Little Mermaid. She falls in love with a human prince at first sight. She makes a dangerous Faustian bargain to try to become human so she can be with him. She succeeds, after fighting off the witch with Prince Eric's boating skills and a little help from daddy's magical trident. It's good to have rich, powerful, and magical parents to shelter you from your own mistakes.
So we can see that most "born this way" princesses don't change much throughout their stories. Learning major life lessons or struggling hard is the exception rather than the rule. Maybe she is born with it.
Earn Your Happy Ending
Other princesses are not so lucky. They either have to marry a prince, or pull off feats of heroism. In both cases, being a Disney Princess is a reward for their heroism.
- Cinderella, from Cinderella. Has to persevere in a living situation where her step-sisters and step-mother abuse her, treating her like a servant in a house that should be hers. Her reward, I guess for doing chores, believing in her dreams, and somehow not strangling her step-sisters, is marriage to a prince (who is the blankest of slates, but a prince nonetheless). She does not have character development, but her heroic virtues are rewarded in the end, because she sticks to them in a bad situation.
- Tiana, from Princess and the Frog. Perseveres and works hard, similarly to Cinderella, saving up to own her own restaurant. Her hard-working attitude is the important counter-balance to Prince Naveen's carefree attitude and laziness. But he also teaches her to lighten up and have more fun, so she has character development, because they both change for each other.
- Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. Has many virtues from the start. She is kind and empathetic, but also strong, brave, intelligent, and takes no crap. She tosses Gaston out when he proposes to her. She offers to be imprisoned by the Beast in place of her father, out of love for him and because she can't stand to see him suffer. She challenges the Beast to become a better person. Even as a prisoner, she refuses to bend to his will. He comes to love her out of respect for her strong will, and she comes to love him because she sees the good in him, underneath his beastly behavior.
- Mulan, from Mulan. A non-princess who earns her place on the lineup because of her heroic deeds. Like Belle, she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness to save her father. Also like Belle, she doesn't quite fit in with society's expectations for her based on her gender.
- Pocahontas from Pocahontas. A daughter of a chief, but not really a princess in the sense that she would have inherited a kingdom. She helps act as a bridge between natives and English colonists, acting out of love for John Smith. Her heroic deed, in the movie and historically, is saving John Smith from being executed by her father.
So, in the world of princesses who weren't born into it, we see that they all had to do more to earn it. All princesses are of course challenged by the conflict in their story. That's obvious, you can't have a story without conflict. But it seems that princesses who weren't born into royalty are challenged more, have to work harder, and are more likely to see their virtues tested. They're also less likely to naturally fit into the mold of traditional femininity. This might be because more "classic" era Disney princesses were born into it, and more "renaissance" era princesses were not. The Disney renaissance period in the 90s and early 00s emphasized things Disney had been previously criticized for overlooking before. This meant more strong female leads, whose virtues, especially intelligence and hard work, were considered more important than their embodiment of traditional feminine ideals. And yet, we still see a pattern that a born princess' story is less about her hard work, and more about her overcoming the jealousy and evil of others.
Frozen: A Different Kind of Princess Movie
Frozen is an interesting special case. Because the movie did so well in merchandising, Elsa and Anna are kind of their own thing, and not really "Disney Princesses". They can sell merchandise on their own, without needing to unionize with the other gals. Frozen is a special movie. It has not one but two princesses, who are sisters. Their sisterhood is the central theme of the story, and their personalities and personal flaws are brought out through their contrast with each other. Anna is extroverted and desperate for human interaction. Elsa hides from others to protect them from her magic. Elsa is more logical, distrusting her emotions because an emotional impulse caused her to hurt Anna when they were little. In contrast, Anna is emotionally driven, causing her to be impulsive. Anna sometimes makes rash decisions, most notably suddenly deciding to marry Prince Hans, believing that to be some sort of fairy tale "love at first sight" thing.
Elsa is like the classic "born princess", but she has to learn to overcome her own fears. She learns how to open up to loving her sister and embracing society as a whole, instead of running from it. Anna is more in the driver's seat, and thus has a more "renaissance" or "heroic deeds" princess story; she has to save the kingdom, without killing her sister, but by convincing her to change. She also has to make up for the consequences of her own impulsivity.
Frozen is a meta-narrative about Disney princess tropes, ushering in an era where Disney is now constantly talking about itself in its own movies. You also see this in Moana, when Maui comments on Moana's princessly characteristics. And it seems like the whole point of Brave, a rather dull movie, was just that Disney wanted an exception to its usual "married ever after" trope. Frozen is also critical of this trope, showing that Disney had a real desire to tell a different kind of princess story, less obsessed with notions of romance. The new Disney is all about familial relationships instead.
Zootopia, though not a princess movie, also has a female protagonist, and she has a male love interest, but it doesn't end with a wedding. Disney has declared the age-old marriage = blissful ending a dead trope. You might think it's less romantic, but it's also more realistic. But then again, do we really want reality to insert itself into worlds full of singing mermaids and sewing mice?
Disney's monumental cultural impact, both in the United States and globally, cannot be understated. Disney princesses clearly exist as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for young girls and some adult women, of glory, riches, a castle, and a hot trophy boyfriend. The people who like these stories want to be powerful and beautiful, so much so that other people's jealousy is their main obstacle in life.
But since they represent an ideal aspirational model of girlhood, many adults have criticized the Disney Princesses as such. Let's face it, there are diversity issues. There was some begrudging inclusion of minority characters, mostly in the 90s and onward. But they all conform to an ideal of beauty, are overwhelmingly skinny and white, and look flawless. And there still could stand to be more representation of minorities, and especially more inclusion of diverse body types, as well as sexuality and gender expression. Disney princesses are still presumed heterosexual, even if the "wedding ever after" has been dialed back a bit. And I'd love a Disney movie, princess-themed or not, that has a non-binary or transgender character. Remember that many children are themselves gay, lesbian, bisexual, non-binary, questioning, or transgender. Such children should get to see movies about people like themselves, instead of every movie assuming everyone is cisgender and straight. It is not an "adult" topic! How can showing a male and female kissing on-screen be any less "adult" than showing two men or two women kissing?
Since in the real world, princess is a hereditary title, it still implies not only that beauty (according to Eurocentric beauty standards) equals goodness, but that both beauty and goodness are inherited, rather than earned. That's why more recent Disney Princess films have been trying to reform or change the standards, making it seem that being a princess is more of a reward for hard work than a sign of inherent superiority.
So what do you think? Are you happy with the newer princesses, or do you prefer the classics? Do you think Disney has done a good job of changing its messages in its main movies for girls, or are there changes you're still hoping to see?
Do Disney Princesses really send bad messages to little girls? Or is all the "princess hate" hype overblown? Don't you think it's weird that a democratic society should be so obsessed with monarchy in the first place?
Let me know what you think!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rachael Lefler
Jacqueline G Rozell on September 19, 2019:
Cheryl, I agree with you.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 17, 2019:
Interesting notions, especially during these times of transition in public opinion. I wonder if adjusting to fit a 3% or the marketing audience makes sense though. Perhaps offend 85% to reach 15%?
Very strange about the skinny. Why are people skinny anyway? Very interesting about the inheritance rather than earning, maybe good so parents can talk to their kids about it.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on September 16, 2019:
I loved the first princesses growing up in the 60’s but now it’s a mess.
Jacqueline G Rozell on September 16, 2019:
The women's movements should leave the princesses and fantasy world alone. They are just entertainment, for Heaven's sake! Any child regardless of how young they are should be grounded enough to realize it is not real. I don't think it's the children that are disappointed in the characters and their stories; it's the mothers who have grown up, looked back, and realized THEY didn't get their fantasies. And that's on them. If they didn't mature enough to separate fantasy from reality when choosing life mates and making life choices, I'm sorry.