My father never let my sister or I have a Barbie growing up because he didn’t believe the stick thin, yet somehow voluptuous, doll was a very good role model. He wanted us to know that we could grow up to be strong, independent women who could be anything we wanted to be. However, we were allowed to watch Disney princess movies. In fact, my mother likes to remind me that the first movie I ever saw in a movie theatre was Beauty and the Beast. I have seen all of the Disney princess movies and often wonder why my father thought Barbies were bad role models and yet never had a problem with the early Disney princesses.
While many women I know adore the Disney princesses as much as they did when they were children, many feminists cry out over the poor role models those princesses are for young girls. I have taken a middle approach. The earlier princesses are not the best role models for young girls, however starting in the 1990s, Disney took a different approach and created stronger, smarter, and more independent princesses.
In 1937, Disney came out with its first princess, Snow White. She was the fairest of them all, as the mirror said, and she was a caretaker for seven dwarves. In a wishing well, she also wished for the one she loved to find her. In the end of the film, her prince awoke her with a kiss and saved her life. Moral of the story? Wait for your man to save you. Then in 1950, Cinderella came on the scene. Her biggest accomplishment was getting a prince to fall in love with her at a ball and then getting married to him. And coincidentally, that prince saved her from the wretched life she was living with her step mother. Aurora became a princess in 1959 when Disney released Sleeping Beauty. She was locked in a tower waiting for a prince to save her with a kiss. Then in 1989 came, in my opinion, the worst offender, Ariel, from The Little Mermaid. She sold her voice for the opportunity to go on land and convince a prince to fall in love with her. Of course she didn’t need her voice to get a man to fall in love with her because she is pretty and has the perfect smile, and apparently, that is all you need.
However, in 1991, Disney appeared to turn a new leaf. They introduced Belle in Beauty in the Beast. Belle was smart and adventurous. She loved to read, wanted nothing to do with the misogynistic Gaston, and went against societal norms. Quickly following Belle was Jasmine. Her father informed her that she had to get married by her next birthday in order for the kingdom to have a leader. In response to this she ran away because she did not want to be forced into an arranged marriage. Although, she is still a damsel in distress because she needed Aladdin to protect her.
My favorite Disney princess is Mulan, who was introduced in 1998. Not only did she fight in combat, but she also fought against society’s defined gender roles. To top it all off, a man fell in love with her not because she was a damsel in distress, but because she was a strong and independent woman. Then in 2009, Disney came out with Tiana, the first princess to own a business. And following her in 2012, the latest princess was created, Merida. She fought against her mother who wanted men to compete for her hand in marriage.
Disney has evolved its image of a princess. At the beginning, the princesses were damsels in distress, waiting for a man to save them and slowly the princesses have evolved into strong and independent women who fight against what society tells them they have to be. While I would never call any of the earlier princesses great role models, I think their stories can be appreciated considering the eras they were created in. If Disney continues to create princesses like the last few, I can say with certainty, I will be taking my nieces to see them at the movie theatre.