I don’t think it will come as a shock to anyone that I’m a bit of a Disney fangirl. I’m not totally obsessed, but I’m getting closer every day. The release of Frozen has certainly not helped to curb my appetite for all things Disney with its catchy and forever singable songs or beautiful story of two sisters trying to understand each other. Frozen has been getting a lot of media from the idea that it is the “first Disney Princess film to teach women that we don’t need a man to save us.” I respectfully disagree with that statement. While I think the message of Frozen – love for family and friendship over love-at-first-sight – is a great one, I think reducing it to that phrase does an injustice to the film and the films that came before it. Let’s take a look back, shall we?
Okay, I’m not going to try and pretend that Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella had a strong message for females. Yes, those movies played up the damsel in distress needing a man to rescue her from dire circumstances and Frozen pokes fun at the True Love’s Kiss the first two mentioned movies rely on for their climax. But those are just three movies, and given the time they were created and released (1937, 1959, and 1950 respectively), I don’t think anyone is surprised by the lack of feminist message.
Let’s move to the Renaissance of the 1990s and the more modern era.
The Little Mermaid (1989) can arguably be viewed as the first movie of the Renaissance and the first modern Disney Princess. While it is true that Ariel does suffer from love-at-first-sight syndrome, before she meets Eric, her desire to see the world above the water was the strongest motivator in her life. She had dreams and goals outside of the Prince. She gets a little distracted from those goals once the Prince comes along, but I don’t think we can discount them completely. Even Kristen Bell, who voices Anna in Frozen, has said that The Little Mermaid was a huge influence on her as a child because it showed a Princess who wanted more than just the Prince. Ariel does need “rescuing,” but the film also shows viewers important values. Sebastian, Scuttle, and Flounder are all devoted friends willing to help Ariel in whatever way they can. Ariel’s father is willing to sacrifice his own life for hers. These were all male characters, but they certainly weren’t love interests, and you get the distinct feeling that Ariel would do the same for any of them were the roles reversed. In the end, it IS Prince Eric who kills Ursula (in the absolute most horrific villain death to date), but let’s not forget, if Ariel hadn’t rescued Eric from drowning, none of the events that followed would have been possible. No one ever takes the time to mention Ariel’s heroic act. She defied her father and her Community, risking her own life in the process, to save his. That seems like a pretty great message to me.
Our next Princess is Belle, from Beauty and the Beast (1991). Belle is almost the very definition of an independent woman. She is not afraid to stand out from the crowd and she doesn’t let it bother her that she’s seen as different. She refuses to marry the attractive, but cruel, man who first proposes to her (no love-at-first-sight for Ms. Belle). She voluntarily takes her father’s place as the Beast’s hostage, with her eyes open no less. She sees the treatment her father has been subjected to: a damp, cold cell and a captor who literally looks like a monster. If Belle needs saving, she needs saving from the Beast – he certainly can’t DO the saving. Though Belle initially discourages the Beast’s attempts at “friendship,” eventually, she allows him to prove himself a better person than he appears. She doesn’t remain entrenched in her first impression. When the Beast releases her – she wants to save her father’s life – she voluntarily returns to protect him. Throughout the movie, the viewer is reminded that the Beast needs Belle, not the other way around. In the climatic rainy scene, it’s Belle’s love that saves the Beast and transforms him into the Prince. At no point was Belle “saved” by anyone (unless you count Chip breaking into the cellar).
Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) are centered around male protagonists, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time with them (and The Lion King isn’t a Princess movie), but I want to say that while Jasmine does need rescuing from time to time, she’s another smart and strong Princess. She challenges the men around her to not see her as only a “prize to be won” but as a real person with real feelings. Aladdin falls for her at first sight, but it’s his charm, vulnerability, and a common sense of oppression that attracts Jasmine to him. In The Lion King, Nala and Sarabi take on the task of protecting their pride when Mufasa dies and Simba runs away. And we see Nala defeat Simba twice while wrestling. It’s well known that female lions are the hunters and male lions are lazy asses who wait around for food to be brought to them. Just saying.
Pocahontas (1995). The next time someone tells me Frozen is the first movie to tell girls they don’t need a man to rescue them, I’m going to plop them in front of a TV and turn Pocahontas on. Put aside the blatant historical inaccuracies for a minute and look at the movie as a fairy tale. Pocahontas is a free spirited woman. She doesn’t blindly follow her father’s or her tribe’s path for her. She thinks through her decisions. She questions. And when there’s a war going on – she runs through the opposing sides and throws herself between her father’s club and the man she’s grown to love. She literally covers John Smith’s head with her own. Pocahontas saved his ass. But does anyone talk about that? Just because Disney shows women falling in love does not mean those women need men to “save” them.
I can’t speak intelligently about The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), which is the next Renaissance movie, because it has been so long since I’ve seen it. It was never one that I enjoyed – sorry! It’s also not considered a Princess movie. But, if anyone wants to make the case for a strong female influence in it, I’d love to hear it in the comments!
Hercules (1997) is another one centered around a male protagonist and Megara isn’t considered a Princess, but it’s worth mentioning that she was the first female character (in my opinion) to show that sass that has become so beloved in animated movies since. She only needed rescuing at the end because she put herself in harm’s way to protect Hercules. He’s seen as the hero because his rescuing comes last. And again – Hercules was enamored with her at first sight, but she needed more convincing. I’m seeing a pattern of men being just as foolish, if not more so than women, and yet, it’s the women who are treated as vapid and incapable of taking care of themselves.
The crown jewel in my argument, though, that Frozen is NOT the first Princess movie to show women that they don’t need a man to rescue them is (1998)’s Mulan. Mulan is a freaking BAD ASS. Mulan dresses like a man, takes her father’s place in the army, is the first to figure out how to climb the tall-ass wooden pole to collect the arrow, and then she freaking single-handedly destroys 99% of the Hun army. After that, she uses her brains to defeat Shan Yu when the Emperor’s life is in danger. She has a little crush on her commanding officer (and who doesn’t? Shang is dreamy), but their romance is not the point of the story and they don’t even kiss. Shang is the one who must come to terms with the fact that his first impressions were incorrect. Mulan is a warrior. Does anyone actually believe she needs a man to save her? Why are people forgetting this movie?
Still don’t believe me? Let’s skip ahead to The Princess and the Frog (2009), the next official Princess movie. I’ve only seen this movie twice, so please contradict me if I’m wrong, but again, the viewer is not subjected to love-at-first-sight. Neither Tiana nor Prince Naveen particularly like each other when they meet. Tiana agrees to kiss the Prince because he offers her assistance with her restaurant dreams. That may not be a particularly healthy message, but it’s a far cry to say she’s being “rescued.” She worked her butt off almost her entire life to save the money she needed for the restaurant and she was swindled by the gentlemen supposed to sell it to her when they received a more lucrative offer. This could have happened to her just as easily if she was male. Then, when she becomes a frog, she and the Prince have to work together to transform back to their human bodies. At the end, they make the decision to stay frogs and stay together. To me, that’s a beautiful message. As a couple, they realize compromise is important, they realize being united is important. Not every woman needs to remain single to prove she doesn’t need a man. And, it’s Tiana’s kiss that transforms Naveen back into a Prince, which in turn turns her back into a human, as well. Tiana rescues him as much as he rescues her.
Last, but not least, let’s talk Tangled (2010). (I haven’t seen Brave yet, though I have a sneaking suspicion that Merida would fit very nicely into my argument.) One of the things I love about Rapunzel is that she is a very complex character. She strives to do right by Mother Gothel while desiring her own freedom. She’s afraid of “ruffians and thugs” but brave enough to stand up to them. She feels very deeply. She’s passionate. She’s a little crazy at times. She’s feminine. She needs Flynn to escort her to the kingdom because she has no idea how to get there, but I wouldn’t call that needing to be rescued. When Flynn is about to get beaten up in the Tavern – who stops it? Rapunzel. When they are about to drown in the cave, whose hair gives them the light needed to find a way out? Rapunzel’s. Flynn ultimately comes to rescue her at the end when Mother Gothel is attempting to drag her away from the tower and the outside world forever, but it is Rapunzel’s love and compassion that causes her to give up her own happiness for Flynn. They both make sacrifices – she sacrifices her freedom in an attempt to save him from dying, he sacrifices his life to save her from Mother Gothel. They save each other. And it is demeaning to reduce that down to the simple idea that Rapunzel needs Flynn to rescue her.
It isn’t necessary for women to choose between love and independence. They can have both IF they want it. And I feel like Disney has done an amazing job in the last two and a half decades showing us that. So, please, can we stop acting like Frozen is some feminist masterpiece? I love the movie, but I love the ones that came before it, too. Anna choosing her sister over Kristoff in those crucial moments SHOULD be celebrated, but it shouldn’t lessen the progress of the other Princesses before her. That is all.
5 thoughts on “In Defense of Disney Princesses”
Great article! I saw Hunchback ages ago, but I know Esmerelda is made of some strong stuff. She helps keep Phoebus safe, from what I remember. She’s also one of the only people who is nice to Quasimodo through most of the movie. What about Enchanted though? Do you think Giselle was a damsel in distress or self-sufficient?
Thanks, Melissa! I feel very strongly about all things Disney 🙂
I’ve only seen Enchanted once and I have to admit, I wasn’t a huge fan. Amy Adams singing voice really grates my nerves. From what I remember, I think Giselle was probably a little of both – like Ariel or Jasmine. I’ll have to watch again and get back to you!
Great article! I agree for the most part, but there is one inaccuracy in Belle. I agree she’s independent (she’s also my favorite princess) however she is also saved by the Beast, both metaphorically from the life she was living and literally from the pack of wolves when the Beast scares her away. Basically unlike just being saved by s prince, they actually save each other.
Great points, Meredith! I didn’t think about it like that (the Beast saving her from her mundane and oppressed life in the village) and I think you are completely right. I totally forgot about the wolves while I was righting this. You are spot on!