It’s not exactly new or fresh to say that many Disney movies are not a paragon of feminism or progressive thought. Yet, every time a new movie surfaces, the discussion is opened again; people need to point out what was wrong with the older movies, and some avid fans will try to defend them. I feel like these two parties don’t even disagree that much, they just value other aspects of the movies more. So today, I’d like to examine the different layers of Disney Princess movies to see where both sides of the argument may come from.
First off, let me explain my own feelings towards these movies and their heroines. Most of them have a huge nostalgia factor for me, and I like the newer ones for the fun and colorful entertainment with a heart they represent. I can watch them without ever feeling offended, even though I know there are some things I shouldn’t fully accept. I’m happy whenever a new, more feminist character is introduced, but I don’t like seeing the older ones being seen as nothing more than an empty shell for conservative attitudes- these are still the characters I cared about when I was little, and they do have personalities of their own. So, with that out of the way, let’s start the analysis.
1. The characters; the main outline of the franchise
In this time, where people are asking for more female leads, we have an entire franchise built around female leads. Even if they’re not perfect feminist role models, they exist, and they are diverse enough for people to have a favourite princess based on her character traits. Little girls (and boys too!) can look up to them. One of my best friends loved Belle because she loved reading, and another friend loved Ariel for being so inquisitive. The movies also often have a supporting cast with many women; a lot of princess movies pass the Bechdel test. I feel like this is somewhat comparable to Barbie dolls: yes, she has an unattainable physique, but she’s also an astronaut, a president and an A-student, which is not entirely uninspiring.
2. The message
These movies might be famous for their romantic plots and their princes, but they often start out with the princess singing about how she wants to live her own life, or how she wants to discover what she’s meant to do. I even feel like they make good, albeit slightly unrealistic, coming of age stories. If you ever feel like you don’t know what to do with your life, think about Pocahontas’ riverbend, or Mulan’s flower that blooms in adversity. These girls all have some kind of a dream, and by the end they achieve their goals by virtue of their kindness, perseverance and creativity (and a bunch of animal friends, of course.). They have their own talents that they use, and are usually compassionate towards others. That’s not such a bad message, is it?
3. The *other* message
But, that prince does usually come along, and boy does he help our heroine out. Cinderella didn’t necessarily want a prince to make her life better, but marrying a prince was definitely the easiest way out. Tiana worked hard for her restaurant, but by marrying a prince she had enough money. Pocahontas let John Smith go in the end, but her true destiny remains vague (except for making sure total war doesn’t break out, so let’s say she became a succesful diplomat) (also the sequel doesn’t count, whatever that was). The list goes on. And yeah, they also tend to fall in love and marry way too easily in these movies. I don’t think that this has to have a bad effect on children, but I have a hard time taking the Little Mermaid seriously.
4. The agency
Related to the previous point, but still deserves its own piece. Most complaints about the princesses are centered around their lack of agency. I feel like their are two ways to look at this: the specific situation, and the entire movie. When you look at specific situations, you can’t really blame the princesses for not having a lot of agency. Take Aurora for example: being cursed to sleep through the finale of your movie does not make you anti-feminist. But when you look at the entire movie, it’s kinda sad that the girl this movie is about doesn’t really do much to further the plot. Or Snow White, which is kind of the same thing in this respect. However, these girls do have some kind of agency, as in, they live their own lives and occasionally make decisions. I haven’t seen SW in forever so I’m not going to discuss that one any further, but it’s not like Aurora gets told what to do all the time and obediently does it. She’s just naturally not a very rebellious or outspoken person, which is not a problem- we just like our protagonists with a bit more attitude, and naturally enjoying housework is not something that’s associated with feminism. Same with Cinderella, who is seen as being way too soft, even though her kindness helps her stay strong in a situation where she couldn’t do much. But, to be fair, these movies do tend to glorify being nice to everyone and accepting your situation, even when you might not expect someone to do the same in real life, so I understand people taking issue with that. Mostly, though, this ‘agency’ thing is why I don’t like seeing princesses being criticized too harsly- we’re criticizing fictional characters for not being progressive enough for our own standards, instead of criticizing the filmmakers for not giving their main character more to do. I also feel like this criticism is most applicable to the three oldest princesses, as the newer ones keep getting more to do. They do usually receive help from a man at some point, but that too is not in itself a bad thing. Overall, they get to make their own choices, even if they might not be the choices we’d want them to make from a feminist viewpoint.
5. The character design
Yes, these characters are all unrealistically pretty. Some improvements have been made (applause for Moana’s more realistic looking body!), but they’re still prettier than most regular people. Now, I don’t know if that affects anyones self esteem, to be honest. I don’t recall feeling like I had to look like them, so maybe you just kinda take the art style as a given factor that you know can’t be realistic. Mostly everyone just wanted to have their hair. But still, the princesses’ beauty often forms a sharp contrast with the villains, or even random other people on screen. That may give off the impression that goodness is always pretty, and that ugly things are bad.
5. The cool feminist messages/moments
You’d almost forget that this is also a thing, in all the hassle: seriously awesome and inspiring moments from Disney movies. Let’s start out with one of my favourite things from cinematic history: Mulan. She saves China!! She explicitly goes against gender roles and smashes them!! She learns how to fight ‘like a man’ while staying true to herself and discovering her inner value!! And then we also have many other examples; Belle who
basically sacrifices herself for her father, Jasmine who refuses to be a prize to be won, Pocahontas who wants to choose her own life, Rapunzel with her hardcore hair athletics and frying pan moves, Elsa and Anna with their love for each other, Merida (not a Disney movie, but a Disney princess nonetheless) who is a kickass archer and also wants to choose her own life… It’s a pretty good list, really. Oh, and Sleeping Beauty has its moments too: check out this essay for a detailed explanation, but the main thing is that this is a movie about three women helping one man defeat a super powerful woman to save a girl. Prince Philip kills Maleficent, but where would he be without the three fairies?
I’m probably leaving out a lot of things here, but to me these are the main issues. Some issues may also come from specific movies, so maybe that’s for another time.
So, where does this leave us? This leaves us with a collection of female protagonists that share a bunch of characteristics, but are also diverse, that have their own values and goals but often need or receive help from a man at some point, that have their good feminist moments but will also make decisions or be forced into situations where feminism can be hard to find, that can inspire our children but also contain some questionable messages. Ultimately, you have to decide what you think is most important in these movies. I think that growing up I took away more of the good stuff than the bad, and I still do; I see them mainly as cute, uplifting, often also inspiring stories. And I’m looking forward to see what they have in store for us next.