Honoring the Heroines: About the Disney Princesses

I already had prepared an article about an animated heroine. But then I suddenly, it didn’t feel right. It is Advent after all, so shouldn’t I write about something more fitting? And naturally my mind immediately wandered to Frozen. But, the fact aside that I didn’t knew when I would come around seeing it, I would prefer to review it after I have seen at a couple of times, and not in the excitement or disappointment of the first watch. If there even is a female character worth talking about (well, I am pretty sure there is, but you never know). Or if they will be added to the line-up (again, considering that it is a fairy tale based movie I have next to no doubt, but they are not “official” yet).

But to me, Disney movies and Christmas are two things which belong together. When I was a child, it was tradition to watch the Disney release of the year. My mother, who was pretty much against me owning a Barbie and made sure that I had just as many toys which were traditionally for boys (especially a lot of LEGO – and just the thought that there is nowadays “LEGO for girls” is enough that I start ranting for hours, but let’s move forward) than those which were considered girly, certainly never saw a problem with it. Nowadays there are books about how those characters supposedly ruin children.

Nevertheless I intent to praise most of the Disney Princess movies sooner or later. And I guess, before I do this, I should address the criticism geared towards them at least briefly. The main accusations towards them are that they are anti-feminist, about females fixated on romance, and encourage an unrealistic body image. I say that they are pro-feminist, about young adults finding their place in the word and encourage good morals.

The pro-feminist stance is fast explained. While I never made a statistic, I dare to claim that the percentage of female protagonists in animated movies is way higher than in live-action movies. The female heroine has been a stable of animation since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (btw NOT the first feature length animated movie). And that is certainly not thanks to Pixar, DreamWorks or the occasional Warner Brothers production, since all those studios have an abysmal ratio of female to male protagonists. It is mainly thanks to the Disney Animation Studios and to a lesser degree Studio Ghibli.

Speaking of Snow White: It is more than questionable to take her or any other of the classic Princesses as example for antiquated gender roles because, well, those are very old movies, it was a different time back then. Disney has evolved since then, to the proactive Princesses of the renaissance era and finally to the modern princesses, who are certainly not motivated by love or romance.

Also, you can’t accuse Disney of not treating the genders equal. It is after all not just the females who put great importance in love and romance, the same is true for the male characters. Eric pines after “the girl with the voice” just as much as Ariel pines after Eric. Bernard doesn’t go on a mission to rescue Penny because he likes adventures, he does it because he is in love with Bianca. Tramp changes his whole live-style in order to be with Lady. Aladdin is in all sense and purpose a male Disney Princess, complete with I want song and romance.

Concering body images – they are cartoons. Drawn figures. I would be more worried about young pop-stars, models, beauty queens and all the other real woman in media. While Disney Princesses are usually beautiful (though they are all very different types of beauty), the movies tend to emphasis the inner beauty. Snow White is more beautiful than the Evil Queen because she is innocent while the face of the queen is marred with a constant frown. Belle is considered more beautiful than the Bimbettes because she has character. Ursula might tell Ariel of the worth of “body language”, but the reason why she wins over Eric is not because she is mute, but because she can show him her energy and passion despite of it. Mulan tries to be what the society considers desirable in woman, but not only does she fail the test, even beforehand she gets criticized for not having the perfect body to bear sons. Mother Gothel does her very best to convince Rapunzel how ugly she is. Lottie might be a beauty, but that doesn’t mean that she will actually get her prince.

Disney Princess movies are not perfect. But I for my part am glad that they exist. I think that most people who complain about them confuse the franchise with the movies. I have nothing against a little bit glitter, but those characters are about way more than beautiful dresses, singing, teatime and good manners. There is where the problem is, not in the movies in itself, not even in the glitter, but in showing them just as pretty faces instead of everything else they are. In fact, instead of harping on and on about the characters, one should praise them and condemn what Disney does to them for the sake of making a few additional bucks.

I couldn't bring myself to post a picture of the current line-up.

I wish they had at least stuck to this style instead of making it even worse with the new redesign.

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36 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroines: About the Disney Princesses

  1. Great post as usual. I do agree that they confuse the franchise (which heavily alter their looks) with the movies (which they look at shallowly to prove their point). I have girl cousins younger than 10, and they notice of their nice, classy, and unique personalities a lot more than their looks. I watched Frozen (thanks to our Fanpop buddies), and……. I don’t think you’ll like it a lot. I’ll post a link for you to watch it on right now.

  2. Great post, swanpride!

    It’s always a pleasure to see people stand up for the Disney Princesses. I adore them all and I’m not really a big supporter of the feminist movement, but I do agree with feminists that each princess have their faults (Ariel is quite disobedient, in my opinion). But in the end, the princesses are all beloved to me and possess great values and morals such as kindness, inner beauty, being hard-working, getting over obstacles, succeeding after struggling, etc.

    Oh, and extra kudos for mentioning that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was NOT the first animated film ever.

    • I don’t think one should dismiss the feminist movement in its entirely…it was certainly a necessity in the past, is still one in a lot of countries (I am very happy that I got education, but a lot of girls are not so lucky, simply because they are female) and I think there are still some old ideas to overcome. A few generations down we might be where we supposed to be.

      What is problematic though, is the kind of feminism which is more contrary than helpful to the cause. And when I see a woman complaining about what the media does to her child, I want to scream at her “how about raising your child yourself instead of leaving it to the media?” There will always be bad influences. You don’t help your daughter by complaining about them, instead you should talk to her, make her aware of the manipulation and counterbalance it with a good influences.

      I don’t think that female characters in the media have to be perfect – or feminist. What has to be feminist is the whole movie. It is not just about the one character, but about how the other characters react to them.

      To be fair, SWatSD was the first one done in this particular kind of animation. Still, it is unfair to overlook the other two, especially since Prince Achmed still exists. It is one of my favourite animated movies, in fact.

  3. Great post! 🙂 I’m actually working on posts concerning this issue, since I love the films and what the Disney Princesses represent!

  4. What a relief! We are currently co-writing a blog reviewing all of the Disney full-length animated features in the canon, and it is absolutely tiresome when you hear countless complaints about Disney’s, women, or Disney’s ‘Princesses’. Especially when the complaints that are being made are often in relation to virtuous characteristics, e.g. patience, kindness, quiet nature, sweetness, dignity, composure (which certain critics think means ‘dull’ or ‘passive’ or ‘boring’). That is frequently the case when critics complain about the early ladies in the canon, but in terms of the later ladies, they receive complaints too – e.g. confidence, passion, stubbornness, determination, awkwardness (which certain critics think mean ‘annoying’, ‘selfish’, or ‘too quirky’). Hard to win – and yet critics do not give male leads half as hard a time – do critics always question whether Aladdin is a good role model? Regardless of that, audiences need to remember that they are characters – characters are allowed to have flaws and virtues, whatever they may be.

    • I quite agree…I intend to spread out the reviews about the Disney princesses a little bit, which is the main reason I didn’t tackle any of the classic ones yet, but I really look forward to it.
      What puzzles me the most about the whole debate is that the movies which are praised for doing a better kind of Disney Princess (Brave and Frozen) are actually the ones I consider to put it mildly as not so well done when it comes to presented well-rounded female protagonists. But I guess it fits into the tendency to look at the surface of things only.

      • Hey just because we saw frozen as having strong women does not mean we are only looking at surface deep. I’m a deep thinker and have seen the movie many times and I genuinely think they are well rounded interesting female characters. Brave has more problems but I always respond to characters who feel uncomfortable in their own skin and have to work that out and Frozen did such a good job with that. To me it is the Little Mermaid for today’s girls. I really loved it. Honestly the backlash (not that you were doing it but just in general) really bums me out. Let girls have their free spirit. I got mine in Ariel.

      • I don’t dislike Frozen…I just think that Disney did way better with other movies when it comes to gender equality. I have a strange relationship to the movie…on the one hand, I was so glad that Disney set a sign with it, and I had actually predicted it being the best animated feature of the year. On the other hand, though, I just can’t overlook the problems the movie has. It is like it constantly does one thing very well but then combines it with something really, really badly done. In addition, I know the fairy tale it is based on, and you know what? It is FULL of interesting female characters, way more interesting than Elsa and Anna combined. Normally Disney improves the material if work with in terms of feminism, but not in this case.
        I can’t stand Merida, therefore it is unlikely that I’ll ever write about Brave. I just don’t know how to do it in a positive way.

      • I just don’t think those who love it are surface level thinkers. My sister and I are both pretty strongly feminist, especially her and she saw it 3 times in theaters. That’s the only thing that annoyed me. I guess I’m a little sensitive because the backlash from some (not you) has been so strong. Let girls have their movie if they are strengthened by it and like the character arcs than it doesnt mean they haven’t thought it through. They’ve just come to a different conclusion.

      • I don’t mind people loving it. I have an issue with the claim that THIS is the feminist movie Disney never made before. See, with Brave, everyone was all “yeah, Merida is the first princess who doesn’t want to marry (What about Jasmine?), doesn’t end up with a partner (What about Pocahontas?) and has a princess which fights (What about Mulan?)” That already annoyed me, but I mostly can’t get over the fact that Merida poisoned her own mother and needs a whole damn movie do admit that she did something wrong.
        With Frozen, they made this big deal that it is about a sister relationship and has two female leads. But Else and Anna share less scenes together than Lilo and Nani (who are both way layered characters) and beside them, the entire cast of the movie is male (compare this to sleeping beauty, in which nearly all the important characters are female). They made this big point about marrying someone you just meet is a bad thing as if this had been a recurring theme in DP movies, when this isn’t true at all. I don’t think that Frozen is “bad”…I just think that the movie has a ton of problems (the plotting, the way the characters are drawn, the way the music is used) and doesn’t life up to the idea that it is somehow an empowering movie.

      • Fair enough. I disagree but I just don’t think that makes me surface level. That’s what annoys me. I feel like the songs are really strong and almost Sondheimish. I feel like the characters show growth which to me is the strongest form of feminism. They don’t really need rescue but find a way to rescue themselves through letting go of the instructions given them by their parents. That’s what is holding Elsa down.
        The surprise with Hans genuinely surprised me which is tough to do in a fairytale and I thought the animation was some of Disney’s finest.
        I don’t know if it is the feminist movie but I do think it tells its story in a new way which was fun. It’s getting to the point where writers are scared to include female characters because they are so picked apart. I know Christians who think Elsa is really gay and the film is about letting go of her gayness. So stupid.
        It’s just a story about a girl who is told things by her parents and told her being and oneness is wrong. That who she is should be held in. Same with Ana. That’s what makes them so foolish at the beginning. Then they realize who they are as the story goes and what matters to them. And it makes me laugh along the way.
        Anyway, I just get tired of people picking it apart and saying those who love it are surface level thinkers. I loved it.

      • I dont mind vigorously discussing choices of any film as adults but what bums me out is people criticizing little girls for loving it. Not you but the backlash has been sad to me. People criticize The Little Mermaid but it was very empowering for me and I love that young girls have that in tangled and frozen. That’s all. 🙂

      • This writer describes my thoughts on Frozen and feminism much better than I could. That’s for sure. http://chezapocalypse.com/thefrozenthing/
        Movies are stories and if they work for you that is great but liking or not liking a movie does not mean you are stupid or not stupid. It just means you heard a story and had a response.

      • Can’t access the link.

        I never used the word stupid. I just remarked that on the question of the feminist debate concerning the movie, I fall mostly on the side of this article: https://medium.com/@directordanic/the-problem-with-false-feminism-7c0bbc7252ef

        Which voiced more or less exactly why I have so much trouble with the movie. As a result, I consider it unwise to make an article about Frozen for this blog, at least not currently. I am not “positive” enough about the movie.

      • Not accessible…most likely there is something about the website which tips off my firewall.

        Just let’s agree to disagree. The feminism question aside, Frozen is a mixed back for me. The songs (safe for Fixer upper) are good, Let it go easily the best Disney had on start since the 1990s, but they are not particularly well used during the movie (which is a topic I WILL discuss at one point in my Movies and Lyrics blog) and sound like they belong to three different soundtracks, the twist is at the same time badly built up and utterly predictable, and the whole plot is kind of a mess, especially considering that nothing in this movie would have happened if the trolls had not encouraged Elsa’s parents to look her up despite knowing that this was the wrong path. The animation is beautiful, and there is a lot of potential in it, but it is far from Disney’s best.

        But then, I am used to it. In the 1990s, Aladdin and Lion King were hailed by the audience. I think to this day that The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are the superior movies by far.

      • I think that’s fair. Sorry if it touched a nerve. Haven’t been sleeping well. If you can read it I think you might find it interesting. It is a very well thought out rebuttal.
        But agree to disagree is fine. Sorry if it touched a nerve. I guess we don’t need to hash this all out again when I post my review. No point. It’s only movies after all. 🙂

      • Or to quote from the article: “Whether you loved or hated Frozen, it should be impossible to deny that it is preceded by a rich history of animated films that champion bravery, intelligence, strength and agency in their heroines far more effectively than it does. Yet denying it we are, in droves, and sometime since Frozen’s release the praise heaped upon it reached such a critical mass that it somehow has made us forget that Belle left both home and the Beast’s castle to save her father’s life; that Mulan risked death on the battlefield and execution for treason to protect her family; that Esmeralda chose immolation rather than give herself to a man she despised; that the archetypal Prince Charming hasn’t been seen in a Disney film since The Little Mermaid; and that no Disney heroine except Anna — even Ariel — has begun her story with love as her goal since 1959: all in favour of vapid, brainless, impulsive and flighty characters whose agency is stolen from them for the sake of comedy and wafer-thin plot contrivances. This is Disney’s good enough.”

        We might not agree on Frozen, but I think we can both agree that there were be a lot of movies which deserved praise for pushing forward female characters before Frozen.

      • You know, you kind of missed the point of the frozen article (even though I even quoted the most important part to you). The question was not if Frozen was Anti-feminist or not. The question was if Frozen is really the feminist beacon of hope it supposedly is. Saying that Disney only does the minimum which should be standard in a Disney movie nowadays and has, in fact, be standard for years does not mean that Frozen is Anti-Feminist.
        You seem to think that the article was written by some of those “Disney Princesses are bad for little girls and we just have to prove it” people. That is not the case. I happen to know that it was written by a long standing Disney Princess movie, who used to put a lot of work into the Disney Princess community over at Fanpop and even worked for the Disney park as part of their student program. That is someone who LOVES Disney Princess movies, and feels (just like me) das Disney does with their “see, our new princess is better than the stuff you have beforehand” stance more harm than good.
        It is doubly frustrating that movies which really do have a strong feminist message, like Mulan and Tangled, are overlooked, while movies like Brave and Frozen who only cover the very basics are hailed undeservedly for their supposed forward steps in Feminism. They are no steps forward. If anything, they are half a step back.

      • I don’t think any of the things you say I think. I love Frozen and Tangled and Mulan and do not think any of them are false feminism. I think they are movies who have different versions of womanhood and that is great. They tell stories about girls and none of them are steps back or necessarily forward but just new stories that girls relate to. I thought the rebuttal does a good job showing that Frozen isn’t the step back or forward for feminism and refuting each of her very weak claims. But to each her own. I just don’t like it when it is assumed people are more thoughtful or digging beyond a surface level just because they came up with a different conclusion. One of great things about art is it inspires all kinds of reactions.

      • But I don’t want a vigorous debate to spoil our internet interactions so it’s all good. It’s all in the end entertainment.

      • But again, sorry for being defensive. I guess I’m sensitive because I have thought it through and still think it is a great movie for girls and a strong feminist movie, along with many others. The backlash has been tough for me to see but I suppose that is immature. People can like whatever they want or kind of like it not like it. And you can be equally thoughtful and wise and come to different conclusions. That’s art for you! 🙂

      • I have problems with the movie which has nothing to do with feminism but with pacing, but that’s another topic. In my case, it is not hype backlash, because I more or less watched it immediately when I could, and was not really enthralled by it from the get go. Like I said, it is not a bad movie, and some moments in it really impressed me. But it is to me a mixed bag. Certainly not a top ten candidate.

      • You didn’t say stupid but you said ‘But I guess it fits into the tendency to look at the surface of things only”. That implies we haven’t thought it through which I believe I have.
        Anyway, I really did like the original post. I guess I’m just tired. Long day. Didn’t mean to turn negative. Just touches a button because I was really moved by it and know girls who were too and the backlash has made me very sad.

  5. Great post! You read my thoughts on the topic so you know I agree. A princess is no more an inherently bad influence than an alien, athlete, human, wizard, king. It’s what they do that makes them a good or bad influence.

    I actually found your blog researching mulan (I was trying to find out what Chinese people thought of it) but I found a ton of feminist blogs and they all were so negative. It seemed every movie but Hunger Games got 0 to 1 stat (seriously Mulan 1 star!).

    It’s not like everyone has to like Mulan. It just doesn’t do the movement favors when they are so negative and nitpicking.

    Your blog was breath of fresh air. Thanks!

    • That was exactly my thought too. I get the impression that all the negativity only makes it more difficult to push the notion that female leads are a good forward. And while I share the anger concerning the marketing of the Disney Princesses, without them there were barely any female protagonists at all in animated features.

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