For those who grew up watching Disney, it’s easy to recall which princess you wanted to be–or be friends with. If you’re anything like me, you wanted to be all of them at some time or another, with your strongest leanings towards the ones with the best soundtracks.
Disney Princesses often provide insight regarding social attitudes about the roles and goals of women. From Snow White to Moana, these larger-than-life figures make vivid statements, intentional or not, about what women want. For years, these representations were notably limiting. But Disney continues to evolve, and so do the main characters.
The evolution of Disney Princesses is typically divided into three eras. For the first wave, it was all about being beautiful and letting a man rescue them. With the second wave, Disney Princesses were seeking freedom of choice but remained fixated on finding “the one.” In the third wave, we’ve been meeting more diverse female leads who are figuring things out for themselves without true love’s kiss as a motive.
Before we look at just how far Disney princesses have come, let’s examine the original era of Disney Princesses.
The Damsels in Distress
The Damsel in Distress period began with Snow White and The Seven Dwarves back in 1938. Right away, the importance of good looks, true love’s kiss, and living happily ever were established as must-haves. The releases of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella followed closely behind in the 1950s and so did the plot points.
Here’s how each story went: A beautiful, fair-skinned, young woman waits to be rescued by a handsome prince. She longs to escape the wrath of an evil authority figure who is a power-hungry, jealous older female. In other words, Disney’s Evil Queens, Secret Witches, and Wicked Stepmothers. Oh my! She relies on the help of supporting characters to protect her. And in the end, a knight in shining armor swoops in and saves her life.
Snow White was the first princess to live happily ever after, but far from the last. So let’s take a close look at the trailblazer for the era of Disney Damsels in Distress.
Snow White’s mother wishes for her to be the fairest. Then, tragically, she dies during childbirth. Her father, the king, remarries a beautiful, but evil woman who may or may not be a witch. For years, the new queen seeks reassurance in her mirror.
The queen’s obsession with youth and beauty drives her to try and destroy young and innocent Snow White. Needless to say, jealousy is not a good look. Nor is the insinuation that good looks are so important.
In Disney’s defense, Snow White was beautiful inside and out. Like all princesses of the first wave, she was naive and gentle, sweet and optimistic. Disguised as an “ugly” old woman, the queen coaxes Snow White into eating a poisoned apple. Snow White falls into a magical deep sleep and is placed in a glass coffin to forever be admired. What’s the only thing that will save her? True love’s kiss. And who is her true love? A handsome prince, of course.
Once again, a young and beautiful girl is treated poorly by a female authority figure. After her father’s death, her “wicked” stepmother and two less attractive stepsisters force Cinderella to be their maid. All Princesses of the first wave were submissive and impeccable housekeepers. Mistreated and lonely, Cinderella cooks, cleans, and befriends mice. She also dreams of a better life.
When an invitation for the royal ball circulates, she thinks her luck might change. Her stepmother and siblings make it clear she won’t be going. Enter: the fairy godmother. Thus far, Disney Princesses had grown up without mothers; this would be a trend that continued well into the next wave. In Cinderella, we were introduced to the trope of supportive, nurturing, female characters. These magical mentors were no-nonsense women who would stop at nothing to help the heroine on her journey.
In the end, true love saves the day. Cinderella and her prince live happily ever after. Cinderella even invites her stepsisters to live in their castle, reinforcing the values of family and forgiveness.
Sleeping Beauty wasn’t exactly a game-changer, but it was my favorite of the three. Princess Aurora was tormented by an older female character who was so envious of her beauty that she tried to snuff it out. She, too, fell into magical sleep where no one could save her except a handsome prince. Like Snow White and Cinderella, Aurora is gentle, a friend to all animals, and dreamy.
Those were the calling cards for Disney Princesses back then. Like her predecessors, she doesn’t get much of a say in how her story plays out. The most freedom Aurora experiences is scampering around the forest when no one notices. If Maleficent isn’t literally controlling her mind, her three fairy aunts are calling the shots. But true love sets her free… sort of.
The Free Spirits
Starting in 1989, we were introduced to a group of rebellious teenage dreamers. We’re talking The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Mulan, Pocahontas, and Beauty and the Beast. These free spirits were curious, tired of asking for permission, and ready to see what the world had to offer. Most of these princesses were hopelessly in love with someone their father wouldn’t allow them to date. And no matter how free-spirited, their father’s approval was still important. In fact, this could also be called the era of forbidden loves.
The premise for each goes as follows: The father says “you can’t do that,” to which the daughter replies (usually in song) “Why not?” or “Maybe I can.” These princesses are beautiful, of course, but they’re starting to have real thoughts in their heads and ask the right questions. They were becoming aware they’d never find out what they wanted out of life if they only lived for the opinions of others.
The Little Mermaid
Ariel is rebellious, vivacious, adventurous, and ready to see the world no matter how her father, King Triton, protests. She’s always sneaking to the surface to see what’s out there. That’s how she spots the object of her affection. But alas, he has legs and she has fins. At first, she wants to be “where the people are,” but soon enough, she just wants Prince Eric to like her.
Ursula the Sea Witch–another power-hungry, jealous older woman–tries to stand in the way of true love and almost succeeds. In a much-needed Disney plot twist, the princess actually does something about it and saves the guy for once.
Then they live happily ever after.
Beauty and The Beast
Two years later, we meet Belle of Beauty and the Beast. The community thinks her a “funny girl” because she’s a pretty daydreamer who likes to read and doesn’t wish to marry Gaston. She suspects “there must be more than this provincial life.”
This princess falls for a guy who isn’t good-looking. They have their ups and downs. He locks her in a cell for a while, but she isn’t afraid of him or anyone else. She confronts “the beast” about his temper and they start to grow as a couple.
In the end, Belle protects her beloved from being killed by the narrow-minded villagers. Love once again prevails. Her reward? It’s all just a curse. Underneath it all, he’s actually a very handsome prince. Go figure.
While Jasmine is not the main character in Aladdin, she’s a princess that must be noted for several key reasons. Like most princesses of the second wave, she’s spunky, she longs for her freedom, and she falls in love with a guy that her father says she can’t be with. The law says she must marry a prince.
Even before she meets Aladdin, she’s not into the idea of being forced to marry someone she doesn’t love. She’s never even been beyond the palace walls. In this way, she’s not all that different from the other princesses on this list.
But unlike all princesses before her, Jasmine is a woman of color. When Jasmine appeared on the screen, a new era commenced. The focus was shifting toward issues surrounding race, class, and culture.
At this point, Disney Princesses are stronger and more focused on their dreams. They’re outspoken, sometimes stubborn, and always rebelling against something. Pocahontas is a Native American princess who wants the freedom to follow her heart. She jumps off waterfalls, she communes with nature, and she doesn’t want to marry the local guy everyone thinks she should.
Like all princesses up to this point, she is without a mother. Thankfully, she has the support of a talking tree named Grandmother Willow who gives very sound advice and, for the first time, a female friend about the same age.
All princesses of this era get in trouble for disobeying their fathers. Pocahontas takes a leap of faith, telling her dad the chief that he can’t kill her boyfriend unless he kills her too. She throws her body over John Smith in protest. “Love makes Disney Princesses do crazy things” was a major theme at this time.
In Mulan, all of the men in the movie hold her back, and she says “if you can’t beat them, join them.” In a time of war, she takes her ailing father’s place in battle by posing as a son. Mulan pretends to be a man, and by doing so, proves women can do anything men can. She’s just as rebellious and headstrong as the other second-wave princesses before her, but Mulan uses Chinese folklore as an inspiration instead of the more usual European fairy tales.
As representation expands, princesses go from wondering what else life offers to wondering who they truly are. When Mulan was released in 1998, “Who is that girl I see?” becomes the defining question of the era.
The Forces to Be Reckoned With
In the final wave, we’re gradually introduced to an era of independent female characters with more diverse backgrounds and plans for their futures. By the 2000s, Disney princesses were becoming self-sufficient. They seemed less focused on finding a man, winning approval, or being saved by anyone but themselves. Best of all, Disney princesses were becoming more and more like real people.
The Princess and the Frog
At the movie’s start, Tiana is a waitress working two jobs in New Orleans. She’s saving up to someday open her own restaurant. Although she isn’t dubbed a princess until the very end when she marries her prince and spends most of the film as a frog, Tiana is Disney’s first Black princess. Still, her character has a beautiful spirit from start to finish. She’s determined, dedicated, and a Disney Princess worth looking up to.
In this era, the moral of the story begins to evolve. By the movie’s end, it’s not all about “living happily ever after” with the one you love, it’s about pursuing your dreams and caring about your career.
For the first time, the love story is not between a man and a woman. In Frozen, the life-changing love story focuses on the bond between sisters, as well as their journey to love themselves.
In the third wave, Disney Princesses are depicted as imperfect people. For Anna and Elsa, imperfections prove to be the most beautiful things about them. They struggle with not only who they are, but how to rise above their unshakable insecurities and darkness. The question of “Who am I?” remains prevalent. For the first time in Disney Princess history, “goodness” does not always prevail. And that’s okay.
In Brave, we meet a feisty redheaded rebel with a cause named Merida. What’s most notable is her stance on men and marriage. She doesn’t want to get married and goes out of her way to make that statement, even “shooting for her own hand” during an archery competition where a suitor was to be selected. People try to set her up again and again, but she won’t stand for it.
This one does have a love story, but as with Frozen, it focuses on family bonds instead of romance. For the first time, we follow a mother-daughter relationship as it evolves for the better.
Moana represented a big step for Disney. For starters, Moana does not have the standard body type of past princesses. She’s also of Polynesian descent. True to form, however, Moana is the tribe leader’s daughter. Her goal? To save her people. Since the second wave shift, Disney princesses are always saving someone, it seems.
Moana is the first Disney Princess film with absolutely no storyline about love whatsoever. The focus on identity is central. Moana is not perfect, which only makes her more relatable. The third wave, in many ways, is about young girls embracing who they are, the road to self-discovery, and saving themselves first and foremost.
Finally, Disney Princesses have been given the reigns to steer their storylines and arrive at a sense of self. What does the next wave of heroines hold? Only time will tell–but it’s sure to reflect the changing values of Disney’s audiences.
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