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From Snow White to Moana: The Evolution of Disney Princesses

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Most of us remember watching Disney princess movies growing up — it is safe to assume that almost everyone has seen at least one of them. Generations grew up with these fancy, beautiful princesses, sometimes even serving as role models with their kindness and loving personas. The impact of these princess movies, however, is far from benign. Many of them taught kids the stifling bonds of gender roles and emphasized the importance of looks and beauty standards. In recent years, though, Disney has attempted to redefine what it means to be a Disney princess. This move gives hope for young generations, especially girls, to be powerful on their own.

There are two types of Disney Princesses: traditional ones and new ones; and there are three eras: the Classics Era, the Renaissance Era and the New-Age Era.

Classics Era (1937-1959)

The Classics-Era princesses —  Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty — were primarily passive and temperate. They were waiting for someone to come rescue them. These princesses also fit squarely into conventional beauty standards.

Snow White is the typical, beautiful, gentle and innocent princess. The only thing she does in the movie is clean the house for seven guys and get saved by another one. Cinderella is more developed but still struggles to progress beyond the limits of needing someone to save her; she is curious about the world, but ends up with the strong Prince Charming that saves the day. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the fairies give Aurora the gift of beauty — not intelligence or personality — when she is a newborn. As the story continues, we don’t even get a chance to see Aurora’s depth of character —only her beauty and grace. In the Classics Era, these kinds of gender stereotypes and the objectification of submissive female characters were at their peak.

Renaissance Era (1989-1999)

The Renaissance Era of Disney princesses, also called the “rebel children era,” appears to have been in response to a wake-up call for a needed transition from being conventional to being a reformer. While the Renaissance Era improved on the Classics Era by making princesses curious about the world rather than doing the housework for others, Disney still stuck to the motif of princesses needing someone. This era includes Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan.

With Ariel, Disney finally succeeded in creating a complex character. Out of all her sisters, Ariel can sing the best, yet she wonders about life on land. After seeing Prince Eric, she decides to exchange her singing voice for the opportunity to become a human. She develops into a self-sustained princess without reliance on another’s help, even at the cost of going against her family and community.

Another great example of Disney’s development is Belle from “The Beauty and the Beast.” In Belle, we see a woman whose key characteristic is not her beauty, but rather her intelligence and love of books. She doesn’t fit in society, and even sings a whole song about how she wants to break away from it. As the story continues, we see that she is not preoccupied with beauty but instead falls for the “ugly, terrifying” Beast’s kind personality and big heart. Like Belle, Jasmine continues to follow in her footsteps and resists society’s expectations for her to marry someone of political import. There are even a few times that Aladdin points out Jasmine’s intelligence and ambition, a rarity for Disney. Jasmine is also the first Disney princess of color, a revolutionary move at the time.

Though Disney may have taken a step forward with Jasmine, they lose credibility with another princess of color. Pocahontas, also powerful and free-spirited, fears getting married to Kocoum and falls in love with an English settler, John Smith. After all the pain white colonizers caused to Indigenous people (which the movie easily glosses over), it’s not easy to watch an indigenous woman fall for a white colonizer. Pocahontas wants peace between nations and cultures, and she wants to help the other side, although we clearly see from the plot that white colonizers aren’t there for friendly reasons.

Pocahontas is Disney’s first attempt at basing a princess on a real person rather than a fairy tale; I still feel that it failed, though: they twisted the facts about her story, focusing on her romance with John Smith instead of her leadership abilities and brave soul. In reality, Pocahontas was around 11 when she met Smith, who was believed to be in his late twenties or early thirties, and she was captured by white colonizers, held for ransom and encouraged to convert to Christianity. She married tobacco farmer John Rolfe and died of an unspecified illness at around age 21. After all the progress of the preceding films, it is sad to see a regression in “Pocahontas.” Even though Pocahontas still represents a strong and brave role model for young girls, the movie is sexist, racist and problematic.

Mulan is one of the bravest and strongest princesses of all, as she is the best fighter in an all-male army. She fights for her country and her roots, showing that women can do anything they want, even if it defies tradition. Also, for the first time, a princess’s love interest remains in the background, a relief after many years of male dominance in a princess movie.

New-Age Era (2009-present)

The latest era of Disney princesses, the New-Age Era, also known as the “independent woman era,” is the most recent and most equal era of Disney. It includes Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, Anna and more. Tiana definitely embodies the new definition of a princess. She works hard to achieve her dreams and keep her promise to her father, and she doesn’t turn to shortcuts or a man to help her get there. She is straightforward in every situation, even if it’s hard, a virtue making her the best role model out of all the Disney princesses.

Another Disney princess wanted to see life outside of her tower, where she was locked up and spent all of her childhood and young adult life. Rapunzel is free-spirited, artistic and stubborn. Even though Mother Gothel told her that the outside world is full of evil and that she wouldn’t be able to handle it, Rapunzel followed her instincts and pursued her dream. Rapunzel represents a strong, determined personality, defying the stereotype of women as innocent, weak and inadequate by themselves.

Merida is the composition of opposing opinions on being a princess. She lacks a lady-like attitude — she gets in a fight with her mother about her masculine demeanor — refuses to get married and is interested in archery. She is the first Disney princess without a male savior counterpart, making her the first fully independent Disney princess. Being a princess no longer means being feminine, gentle or having a prince charming. Gender roles have changed, and thus the most recent phase claims its name: the independent women era.

In the story of Elsa, a powerful girl is afraid of those powers and is seen as evil. She isolates herself because of her “evil” power, but as the story continues she embraces it with the help of her sister. Instead of romance, Frozen focuses on the undying bond between two sisters, Anna and Elsa. Even though Elsa hurt Anna with her powers unintentionally, Anna forgives Elsa and wants to be there for her, in bad and better times. Anna even rejects her love interest, Kristoff, to help Elsa, who she loves the most and would do anything for her. They represent the importance of independence, women’s unity and doing just fine without a man by their side.

One of Disney’s newest princesses, Moana, continues to carry on the theme of the independent, brave women. She doesn’t have any love interest, and she is determined to save her people no matter how dangerous the journey. She is another inspiration for girls who do not need a man to accomplish their goals.

Disney has come a long way after many years, and is still continuing to make progress over time. I remember not liking iconic Disney princesses when I was a kid because they needed a man or magic to realize their goals. I have since noticed many changes in the meaning of being a princess over the years, and I’m glad that Disney decided to change their stories and let female characters define themselves without a need for someone else.

Disney today and tomorrow will inspire young girls to follow their own path — not the traditional path, but working hard for their dreams, and not waiting for another’s help — that is, becoming their own inspirations. I hope that Disney continues to progress, because we still live in a male-dominated society, and in many facets of life women still aren’t allowed to be what they want. I believe with open-minded and egalitarian princess movies, a new generation will rise to solve these problems for a better society.

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Aslıhan Alp is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.