By Melissa Brooks
Disney princesses, princes, and villains have evolved over time because of our changing culture. These cultural changes can be seen in the way Disney characters have evolved over time, a change demonstrated through the characteristics of the princesses, princes, and villains in Disney movies.
The first three princesses created by Disney were Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959). These princesses were characterized by beauty, passiveness, and submissiveness. Their beauty caused the princes to fall in love with them immediately. Snow White and Aurora exhibited passiveness; they waited to be awakened by true love’s kiss. Cinderella exhibited submissiveness to her stepmother and stepsisters; she did not go against them until her fairy godmother convinced her to go to the ball.
The princes of these movies were characterized as being active, brave, and adventurous. They were the rescuers who fought the villain and saved the princess. They were adventurous and traveled, which is how the princes met Aurora and Snow White in the woods.
The villains of these movies were women who were characterized as being assertive, ambitious, prideful, powerful, and independent of men. Which means that, at that time, these qualities were undesirable in women, so women with these qualities were evil.
As a result, the characteristics attributed to the different types of characters gave children, especially girls, the message that good women were submissive and let men take care of them, whereas women that were ambitious and independent were bad. This mentality worked with the culture of the time.
Another point worth making is the importance beauty played in these movies. Girls were being taught that their physical beauty was their most prized possession and crucial quality, so that they could eventually get married.. The movies also taught girls that marriage depended on beauty and that marriage would always come at the end, which reinforced the belief that girls should get married. In the movies, the princesses were chosen by the princes, which took away from the woman’s freedom of choice. Girls were taught to be passive and dependent on a man. And the importance given to beauty, eventually caused anxiety, especially if other girls were perceived as being more beautiful than others, which in turn created feelings of jealousy and self-consciousness. Competition between girls rose; girls were constantly trying to outdo other girls in terms of physical appeal and attractiveness, and marriage became every girl’s desire.
Disney’s Renaissance of the 90’s showed progress in the characterization of the princesses, however.
The princesses of Disney’s Renaissance were Ariel (Little Mermaid, 1989), Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998). By the time these princesses came around, the country had gone through the Civil Rights Movement, seen the rise of feminism, and had gone through the Reagan Era. These events led to the princesses of this time period being more active and independent. However, the conservatism of the Reagan Era caused the princesses to still follow gender norms. There continued to be a prince or hero that needed to rescue and save the princess, except in Mulan and Pocahontas; they saved the male characters at times.
New characters and events created more diversity, which led to the inclusion of Mulan, Pocahontas, and Jasmine. In 1997, a live-action Cinderella was made that included Asian and Black actors, with Cinderella being Black and the prince being Asian. The princes and heroes were of less importance in these movies. They didn’t need to take care of the princesses, however the movies still ended with the marriage of the prince and princess.
In these movies, most of the villains were male. The female villains were in The Little Mermaid and the live-action Cinderella. A new message was being sent to young girls; women no longer had to rely on men and could be independent and ambitious.
However, girls were now being given conflicting and contradictory messages. They could be smart, independent, and assertive but not too much or they would not find a husband, and they still had to get married because men were the ones responsible for taking care of the women. And the concept of beauty and appearance was still the most important thing about them.
The modern Disney princesses are much different from the first Disney princesses. The modern princesses are Tiana (Princess and the Frog, 2009), Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010), Merida (Brave, 2012), and Elsa and Anna (Frozen, 2013). These princesses are characterized by independence and self-reliance, instead of needing a prince. Diversity continued with Tiana being the first animated African American princess, and Merida being Scottish. They also continued following feministic ideals by making the princesses stronger, more active, as they traveled where ever they needed to go or be, and more independent.
The modern princesses are not looking to fall in love and get married; they have other dreams instead. They are also able to take care of themselves and others, instead of relying on a prince.
The characteristics of the modern prince or hero are that they are either more passive or less heroic. Instead, the princesses are the ones taking charge, either on their own or as they lead the prince. Two examples are Tiana and Anna. Tiana takes charge of getting herself and Prince Naveen turned back into humans, and Anna convinces Kristoff to help her find Elsa.
The villains in these movies are all male, except for Tangled, where the villain is Mother Gothel. And the princesses and the villains in both those movies are strong and assertive individuals.
These movies completely reverse the trend of found in early Disney movies.
These movies ignited more independence and empowered girls, just as the female characters in the movies demonstrate. Women are still being taught that they have to wait to get married and these movies will likely continue influencing girls to wait to get married.
But because our society is changing and now women are choosing to have careers, especially in fields that used to be strictly for men, like police officers and scientists. Perhaps this will start influencing the types of movies created.
The movies have also taken an interesting approach when it comes to physical beauty. There is less of a focus on the princesses’ beauty and more on their skills. This will lead girls to focus more on bettering themselves and their abilities, rather than focusing on just their appearance.
At the end of the day, these characters influence us, however our culture also influences them. In the beginning, these movies supported a patriarchal society but, with the rise of feminism, the characterization of the princesses has evolved according to society. Hopefully, the constant evolution of the princesses will continue in future movies, such as the new movie Moana.
Bruce, Alexander M. “The Role of the “Princess” in Walt Disney’s Animated Films: Reactions
of College Students.” Studies in Popular Culture 30.1 (2007): 1–25. Jstor. Web. 7 Feb.
England, Dawn, Lara Descartes, and Melissa Collier-Meek. “Gender Role Portrayal and the
Disney Princesses.” Sex Roles 64.7/8 (2011): 555-567. Academic Search Premier. Web.
7 Feb. 2016
Lieberman, Marcia R. “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” College English, Vol. 34, No. 3
(1972): 383-395. Print.
Stephens, Jena. "Disney's Darlings: An Analysis of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave
and The Changing Characterization of the Princess Archetype." Interdisciplinary Humanities 31.3 (2014): 95-107. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.
Stone, Kay. “Things Walt Disney Never Told Us.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 88,
No. 347 (1975): 42-50. Print.