Fairy tales – full of wonder, magic, hopes, and dreams – have influenced generations of boys and girls. We have all grown up listening to them, reading them ourselves, and even watching them on screen.
For decades now, Disney has been presenting us glorious adaptations of these fairy tales, making them come alive on our screens and dazzling us with these beautiful characters – from the handsome, charming, brave Princes to the beautiful, kind, yet sometimes helpless Princesses.
It is no wonder then that these princesses – a lead character in almost all fairy tales – have made lasting impressions on young girls and boys, going on to define, in many ways, the role of women versus men.
For what may feel like ages now, the princesses in these fairytales have mostly been damsels in distress, sometimes with a tragic past and waiting to be rescued by a man. It’s a fact that is reiterated in some of the most popular fairy tales – Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959) to Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Ariel in Little Mermaid (1989), and Cinderella in Cinderella (1950).
But not any longer. The modern-day princesses as depicted by Disney no longer need to be rescued. From Elsa and Anna to Moana and Merida, Disney’s princesses are redefining the role of women, breaking age-old notions of the vulnerability and capabilities of girls.
It all started in 1992 when Aladdin was released. When Princess Jasmine proclaimed, “I am not a prize to be won,” you could see the shackles of patriarchy loosening around the narrative of what a Disney princess is.
That was followed by Mulan and Pocahontas in 1995 and 1998, respectively – two other times when Disney showed the world it can make bold, independent female characters.
Then, in 2009, Tiana in The Princess and The Frog broke barriers by being the first Disney princess to actually have a paying job. By opening her own restaurant, something she had always dreamed of, Tiana showed that girls can have dreams and fulfil them too – all by themselves. Sure, she does get married to Prince Naveen, but she remains her own person, an independent character.
To be clear, Disney has come a long way since then.
In fact, the company sneakily made fun of the “damsel in distress” princess troupe in Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018). In a cameo, several Disney princesses are seen asking various questions to the protagonist Princess Vanellope von Schweetz to decide whether she is a real princess. For the last question, Rapunzel of Tangled (2010) asks, “And now for the million-dollar question: do people assume all your problems get solved because a big strong man showed up?”
When Vanellope exclaims, “Yes, what is up with that”, all the princesses unanimously proclaim, “She is a princess”.
Indeed, today’s Disney princesses are no longer the Rapunzels and Snow Whites of the days of yore. The modern-day Disney princesses – who are today shaping the mindsets of the young men and women of tomorrow – are independent, strong, bold, and feisty. With their capabilities and their independence, they are inspiring young girls across the world.
Most importantly, they need no man – a prince or otherwise.
Here are some of the most popular Disney princesses of today.
Moana in Moana (2016) is Disney’s most adventurous princess to date. Despite not knowing what lay ahead, she braves the odds and goes on a voyage that could potentially lead to her death.
Not only does she help the self-obsessed demigod Maui, but she also fights off strange creatures, learns to sail and convinces Maui to help her fight lava monster Te Ka.
In the end, it is she who faces Te Ka, and solves the conflict. She also leads her people back to the sea, something they hadn’t done for generations. And Disney managed to portray all this without a hint of love interest, telling us that women can do it all.
Princess Moana’s story is one of self-discovery and growth – one that teaches young girls that it is okay to choose the road not taken.
The saviour of China, Mulan is the OG feminist princess to come out of Disney. Pretending to be a man, she enlists in the army, trains to be a warrior, fights the Huns, and is dangerously wounded.
But, our warrior princess wins against the primary antagonist in single combat, saving China. In Mulan (1998), Disney takes on every patriarchal bias and smashes them – one by one.
Mulan proves that girls can not only do everything that boys can, but she can also do them better.
Free-willed, loud, stubborn, and self-reliant, Princess Merida portrays modernity and feminism in every act. She is a mistress of archery, sword fighting, and horse racing – things traditionally reserved for princes.
With her unruly curls and freckled face, Merida also has a different physical form than the usual unrealistic standards set for young women by popular culture.
While most Disney princesses either do not have a mother or do not share ample screen time with them, Brave (2012) explores their beautiful and complex relationship, showing its ferocity and vulnerability at the same time.
The ending scene with Merida and the Queen Mother riding into the sunset together is one to remember forever.
Vanellope von Schweetz
At just nine, Princess Vanellope is a racer, knows her mind, is fierce, and sassy. In Wreck-it Ralph (2012) and Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), she is no conventional beauty but rather a hero in her own right.
Even without her memory and as an outcast, Vanellope delights viewers with her wit and willful attitude. At the end of Wreck-it Ralph, when she gains her memory and realises that she is the princess of her kingdom, she decides to be a ‘President’ instead – further breaking stereotypes.
At the same time, the male protagonist Ralph – not a romantic interest – is a tough guy but vulnerable, traits not usually linked to male leads in fairy tales. The friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is also a refreshing aspect of these movies.
Both movies also have other strong female characters challenging gender stereotypes like Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun and Shank.
Anna and Elsa
Frozen (2013) changed the narrative, especially when it came to how a princess should behave. It showed us what women can achieve on their own.
After being told to hide her powers for years, Queen Elsa of Arendelle finally emerges from her seclusion and immediately reveals her powers on accident, she’s had it. The movie shows us how Elsa eventually accepts her powers, leaving everyone who would demonise her for them. But her younger sister, Princess Anna fights the odds to bring her back.
Throughout the story, we see the two girls display their strength, grit, and determination. And the ending is poignant, redefining the notions of ‘true love’ as seen in the fairy tales.
Destroying the trope of what ‘true love’ can be, the movie shows Elsa and Anna’s sisterly bond and love for each other as being the most powerful of all.
The recently released sequel Frozen 2 (2019) also won over the audience by challenging toxic masculinity and showing how boys can be vulnerable too. Anna’s love interest Kristoff was also appreciated for being depicted as a male feminist.
Here’s to more feminist princesses – in Disney and in real life.