Evolving Representation of Women and Girls in the Disney Princess Genre

Female characters in animated and live action films have been portrayed through a narrow and restrictive lens, often crafted to support patriarchal hegemonic images and identities. This can be seen particularly in Disney’s Princess films. However, in recent years, their depictions of prominent female characters have been increasingly influenced by principles founded on diversity and femminist ideals, which can be seen through the changing of character attributes, narrative structures and designs.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

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The difference in feminine characters can most prominently be seen in Disney’s adaptation of the 17th century fairy tale by Charles Perrrault, Sleeping Beauty (1959), which strives to teach and reinforce “values of a patriarchal society”, reflecting the widely regarded gender norms of the times. Disney sought to fill in the traditional tale with the familiar socio-cultural roles of women of the time by building “the image of the perfect woman” and “setting up parameters…for how girls should be in order to grow up to be a princess and to find their dream prince” (Rönquist 3) and cementing the formulaic female-protagonist based narrative in their desired stereotype.  Princess Aurora embodies the term “emphasized femininity” to a proverbial ‘T’, as she demonstrates to viewers that a princess is meant to be beautiful, white, kind, obedient, and most of all, in need of saving by the strong and powerful men. These characteristics are continually reiterated time and again in other ‘princess classics’ such as Snow White (1939), Cinderella (1950) and The Little Mermaid (1989).

Pocahontas (1995)

The 90’s marked a changing time for the media landscape, as things like “multiculturalism” and “cultural diversity” became more important to liberal audiences. This is evident in movies like Aladdin, Hercules (The Muses), and Pocahontas. Pocahontas became Disney’s second princess of color following Jasmine, and also their only Native American protagonist as of yet. In some ways, her character subverts tropes of emphasized femininity which most Disney princess movies up until this point upheld. To begin with, she is not white, but she also refuses to let her father decide who she marries and in the end is the one who has to save John Smith– not the other way around. These aspects frame Pocahontas as having more agency and independence. 

However, Pocahontas’s representation is not without its issues. For one, she is still (as per usual), framed only in relation to a man as her entire goal and purpose in the film is to love and protect John Smith. Moreover, her portrayal is highly eroticized– and exoticized. In her Leigh Edwards’s article, “United Colors of ‘Pocahontas’”, she reveals how Pocahontas’ character designer Glen Keane specifically designed her as a blend of characteristics taken from African, Asian and Caucasian models (152). She is drawn to be generally “ethnic”, and “universally” attractive. From the way she is dressed, to her voluptuous body, Pocahontas is crafted as an exotic and desirable other by the white male gaze. When John Smith first encounters Pocahontas in the mist, he is pointing a gun at her.

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It is only upon seeing how gorgeous she is that he decides to spare her– or else he “might have shot first and asked questions later” (Edwards, 154)– and at this point their relationship almost immediately becomes romantic. Thus, Disney implicitly frames Pocahontas and her culture as only worthy of saving if they can be made desirable and consumable for white men. There is also still much to be said about the way that Disney sugarcoats history in the film to make it seem as if Indigenous peoples and white settlers had a “happily ever after” in the end. 

“Pocahontas” is a perfect example of how Disney’s attempts at diversity can sometimes fall short, as they attempt to depict more people of color in their stories but fail to recognize or acknowledge complex power dynamics, and often misrepresent history in trying to make their movies “safer” for kids and white audiences. 

Mulan (1998)

Following the success of Pocahontas, Disney produced Mulan (1998), their newest film in their tradition of adapting cultural folklore into their conformed viewpoint.  This film is littered with questions about gender roles and Mulan encounters her crisis of identity when she disguises herself as a soldier in order to take her father’s place in an upcoming war.  Mulan disrupts the social norm of gender roles, first by showing that the roles were fragile constructs as her innate abilities allow her to excel and surpass the ‘real men’, and secondly by overcoming her previous forced identity through the revelation of her disguise.  

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Early in the film, the dichotomy between the gender roles is highlighted, showing Mulan dressed up and in makeup as she meets with the village matchmaker.  Due to her clumsiness and unruly behavior, both very unprincess-like characteristics, she fails at the matchmakers test, and is told that she “will never bring her family honor”.  This imagery is paired with her transformation into a soldier later, where the made-up hair is cut, and the dainty fan replaced with a sword, a far-cry from the traditional tools of the heroine in previous films.  She then joins the army and trains with them in a montage of masculine tasks.  Musical numbers such as “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” play while Mulan finds ways to learn and adapt to overcome these tasks, proving that she deserves to have a place alongside the men, and they eventually accept her as an equal and praised as a leader within the ranks.  However, when her identity is revealed following the battle due to a sword wound, she is immediately vilified, and branded as a “traitor” for ignoring her patriarchal role.  It is only by saving the emperor in her ‘female form’ that she finally receives the respect she deserves.

Although Mulan returns to her parents to resume her role as daughter, and like most other Disney princesses, is alluded to soon marry a man at the end of the film, she “brings the freedom and fulfillment she experienced in disguise back to her former role” (Brocklebank 9), meaning that the expectations that had previously been imposed on her by her patriarchal role no longer apply.   She ‘establish[es] a permenant continuity between her inner reality and outer state without having to sacrifce her sex or exchange one role for another”  (Brocklebank 9).  Mulan is the closest to feminist ideals that Disney comes, as her character is the savior of the men, and aligns closely with popular feminism ideals that support ‘individual empowerment’ over systemic change, demonstrated by her decision not to return to the emperors side to serve in his council and instead to return to her home.

Enchanted (2007)

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The widely praised Enchanted (2007) exercised a self-aware text that initially presented almost satirical and parodied looks at the tropes and stereotypes built by Disney concerning princesses and femininity, but was unable to stray from the familiar narrative associated with the genre.  The story, a tale of an animated princess named Giselle who finds herself transported to the modern reality of New York and subsequently falls for a recently-divorced lawyer, highlights the bizarre characterizations that reinforce conformity “to a nostalgic view of social and gender relations” (Pershing 18).  The narrative arcs of the two main female characters, Giselle and her modern counterpart Nancy, ultimately reconverge with the accepted storylines for Disney’s perfect deception of female characters, with the pair seeking romantic male partners as their ultimate goal and achieving safety and happiness only after they obtain this goal.

For instance, Nancy is a successful entrepreneur and business woman who ultimately switches places with Giselle, falling in love and returning to the animated fantasy world with the literal Prince Charming who had followed Giselle through the portal.  Her character at the beginning of the film demonstrates many of the components of the stereotypical “post-feminist woman”, possessing the bare miminum of character atttributes to convey to audiences that she values her independence and initiative.  

However, by having Nancy suddenly give up her life of the successful “cosmopolitan businesswoman” upon finding true love, Disney reveals to audiences that these characteristics hide the true reality of what she, and women like her, really desire, which is to be “swept off her feet by Prince Charming” (Pershing 14). Giselle, as she grows toward self-realization through the film, begins to think more and more for herself by initially abandoning the ‘fairytale’ plot points that she sang about while living in the animated world.  She recognizes she loves Robert (the lawyer) rather than Edward (Prince Charming), and even starts her own business at the end of the film.  However, this apparent growth toward independence and broader feminist character concepts is undermined by the narrative simply defining her relationship to a man.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The “Princess and the Frog” is another example of Disney trying their hand at diversifying, specifically within their princess genre. The film in some ways subverts the idea of “emphasized femininity” in how it portrays Tiana, the protagonist, who is also the first black protagonist in a Disney animated movie. She is dedicated and proactive in achieving her goals, taking her father as an inspiration and role model, subverting ideas around expected gender roles. Nonetheless, by the end of the movie she discovers that what she “truly needs” is family– in other words a husband. In this way, Disney perpetuates the typical heteronormative, romantic pairing which is found throughout most of their princess movies.  Granted, the dynamic in their relationship resists a hegemonic representation, as Tiana is sometimes even framed as the more capable member of the relationship, who has to save the prince and help him figure his life out. She actually does a lot of the saving in the movie, having to help the prince return to his human form, saving him from trouble several times throughout the film. She is not passive, helpless, or necessarily sensitive– and obviously, she’s not white. 

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The film still pushes a very popular feminist narrative, however– and an ahistorical one, at that. One of the main “lessons” the film emphasizes is that if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you put your heart to. It is this idea that women, and specifically black women in this case, can and should empower themselves individually, rather than acknowledging that there are larger systemic issues limiting their opportunities which still need to be addressed. This is especially problematic in light of the setting: Jazz Age New Orleans. Jim Crow laws were in full swing at this time, and segregation was still very present. To then frame it as this place where everyone can get along and hard work is all it takes to be successful, is simply untrue. Sandlin and Snaza, citing Turner, argue that in representing Tiana and her setting in this way, Disney effectively “sanitize and romanticize the past and forward ideologies of colorblind racism” (6). Much like with “Pocahontas”, it is a dangerous misrepresentation of history and reality which negates any attempt at “good” representation.

Frozen (2013)

The first and only film in the Disney Princess genre to have two princesses, Frozen made a lot of changes to the traditional Princess formula of Disney’s past. It presents two vastly different protagonists, which allows for a very interesting contrast in their personalities. The character of Anna, who is quirky and adventurous, is presented as proactive and capable of finding her way back to her sister, and brave enough to even throw herself in front of her to protect her. Elsa struggles with depression and anxiety, partly due to her traumatic, troubled childhood, and self-perceived “monstrosity.” But she is also powerful, compassionate, and a benevolent and strong leader when she is up to it. 

The film does not portray these characters as perfect. Anna is naive at first, and trusts Prince Hans too easily. Elsa battles with mental illness and cannot always control her power. However, the characters grow throughout the movie and learn from their mistakes, ending up more mature and self-confident by the end of the film. This is a trait which we see more in recent Disney films, where before, characters were often stagnant and had goals which stayed the same throughout most of the film. For example, Ariel in The Little Mermaid essentially only wants to be with her prince throughout the whole movie. She “conforms to patriarchal values by shaping her life around gaining the love, and hand in marriage, of Prince Eric.” (Patel 12) In Frozen, this is not the case. Elsa, for example, first seeks to escape the responsibilities and pressures of Arendelle to form her own lonely castle of ice, but in the end she is able to find trust in herself and her people to take her place on the throne. Anna at first only seeks to marry herself to Prince Hans, innocently believing that she is truly in love with him after having barely met him. In a way, this is quite similar to Ariel, but the film subverts this trope by revealing Hans to be, in fact, the real villain. In the end, while Anna still ends up romantically partnered with Kristoff, her partnership with him is not central to the film. Rather, it is her relationship with her sister which is most important, the “true love” that saves her from dying. 

https://www.glamour.com/story/frozen-original-ending

Frozen thus presents a more complex and nuanced vision of its female protagonists and their relationships. Characters aren’t always as they initially seem and can also change, each character has their own distinct goals, their different worldviews and internal struggles, and not everything revolves around romantic interests. Sometimes it is enough to love our family, our friends. There are still things which could be improved. As Junper Patel puts it, “Despite advances in overall characterization, the princesses of Frozen still depict a definition of beauty unattainable in reality.” (15) The film still upholds beauty standards of emphasized femininity, including thinness, delicate features, and physically ability (as well as whiteness, obviously). The characters are also all seemingly heterosexual and any queerness is repressed, unaddressed. Still, the film is much more responsible than most previous Princess films in its representation of mental illness, relationships, and women in general. 

Moana (2016)

https://www.insider.com/moana-cast-disney-2016-11

Set in a fantastical Polynesian-inspired world, Moana is a story about a teenage girl (Moana) from the fictional island of Motunui, who is set to inherit her father’s position as chieftain of their island. Her island is struck with a terrible blight, and fearing her peoples’ starvation, she is set on going beyond the island’s reef to find more food and figure out what is happening. However, her protective father refuses to let her go, so she transgresses his wishes and escapes in secret, after learning that she must return to the goddess Te Fiti her heart, in order to set things straight. 

Unlike many of Disney’s past movies, Moana resists framing its protagonist as a “princess”. Though it can be seen as a spiritual descendant of the Disney princess movie, the main character explicitly rejects being labelled as such. Lidia Castillo observes that “Moana’s society is egalitarian and there seems not to be a difference in, for instance, the tasks the members have to carry out or the clothes they wear.” (6) This places her position as daughter of the chief in contrast with the traditional representation of Disney princesses, living in luxurious castles, refraining from physical labor, and wearing elaborate dresses; she is not royalty, and is equally responsible in maintaining and contributing to her community. This frames Moana as more active and involved in her community, with her end goal being to save her people, rather than simply seeking a Prince Charming with whom to have a “happily-ever-after”– a theme which is present in far too many Disney films, even more recent ones like The Princess and the Frog. Although there is still a male partner in the film in the form of Maui, their relationship is framed as “a female-male relationship based on friendship and support” (Castillo, 12) which further subverts hegemonic gender stereotypes present in earlier Disney films, where male-female relationships exist almost exclusive for romance. This provides audiences with a much needed example that supportive, caring, and mutually beneficial relationships can exist between men and women that aren’t necessarily based on sex or romantic love. 

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

The most modern example, while not necessarily an animated film (unless you count CGI), is a relevant re-telling of the first example on this list, Sleeping Beauty.  This adaptation focuses on the original villain, Maleficent, and demonstrates an updated individuality that was not present in the original telling.  In the 1959 animation, Maleficent was presented as a dangerous, angry and violent woman, who the Prince was justified to use violence against.  Disney utilized the representation of Maleficent in the form of a dragon to help conform fairytale tropes to their version of femininity by clearly defining the characteristics in the villainous woman and the hegemonic one, and further aiding in the audience associated these qualities with negative connotations.

Now, Maleficent’s character is presented beyond her relationship to Stefan, her love interest who betrays her to cut her wings off in return for a reward by the King.  She overcomes this violent act and rises up to protect her home and the creatures in it from the armies who come to seize it. 

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 It is for this resilience and love that audiences identify and appreciate her character, not the patriarchal power that she derives from any of her relationships with other characters.  It becomes a “rhetoric of female identity” that separates itself from the previous hegemonic narrative norm of a “man giving a female her identity instead of defining it for herself” (Lorenzo).  This is a change from the earlier portrayals of the same character and signifies a step towards greater diversity within the hegemonic norm for what stories about or with female characters can be.

Works Cited:

Castillo Rebollo, Lidia. (2019). Changing Gender Representations in Cinema: Femininity and Masculinity in Disney’s “Moana” [BA Dissertation, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona]. https://ddd.uab.cat/pub/tfg/2019/210809/TFG_Lidia_Castillo.pdf

Patel, Juniper. (2015). The quirky princess and the ice-olated queen: an analysis of Disney’s “Frozen” [Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville]. Scholarworks@UARK.

Edwards, L. (1999). The United Colors of “Pocahontas”: Synthetic Miscegenation and Disney’s Multiculturalism. Narrative, 7(2), 147-168. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20107179

Sandlin, Jennifer & Snaza, Nathan. (2018). “It’s Called a Hustle, Sweetheart”: Black Lives Matter, the Police State, and the Politics of Colonizing Anger in Zootopia. The Journal of Popular Culture, 51(2). doi: 10.1111/jpcu.12714.

Brocklebank, L. (2000). Disney’s “Mulan”—the “True” Deconstructed Heroine? Marvels & Tales, 14(2), 268-283. Retrieved July 1, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41388562

Pershing, L., & Gablehouse, L. (2010). Disney’s Enchanted: Patriarchal Backlash and Nostalgia in a Fairy Tale Film. In Zipes J. (Author) & Greenhill P. & Matrix S. (Eds.), Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity (pp. 137-156). University Press of Colorado. doi:10.2307/j.ctt4cgn37.12

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