In recent years, Disney has made quite the attempt at making their princesses more as heroine rather than damsels in distress. Per our viewing pleasures in the 21st century, of course. Many parents today believe the older Disney princesses aren't good role models for their little ones simply because the princesses fall victim to whatever trouble they may be in, and they usually are in need of a man to save them. However, this is not Disney being anti-feminist - or anything of the sort really. Let's take a look at Disney's most iconic characters, and why the original princesses are just strong as today's.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White was Disney's first princess, dating all the way back to 1937. Snow is first seen waiting around a wishing well, waiting for a handsome prince to come steal her away. Yet when a magic mirror tells the Queen that Snow White is the fairest of them all, and not her, Snow attempts to escape from the Queen - who is now after her heart. She ends up in a house full of dwarfs, seven to be exact, and spends her days with them, tending to the housework as they offer her a place to stay out of sight. However, the Queen transforms herself into an old woman, finds her, and offers Snow an apple. She eats the apple, falls into a coma, and again waits around for the prince to kiss her awake.
Now... this doesn't sound like something you want your daughter to dream as her perfect fairy tale. But the reality is, in 1937, it was how women hoped their daughters would become. Snow White was actually a very compassionate and caring young girl, she was beautiful, and she was very good at housework. And that was all you needed back then to be 'perfect'. A good woman was supposed to be able to take whatever trouble they got into, which is similar to today. The difference then, however, is that they were just supposed to take it - and be happy about it. Therefore, if you were nice and you were pretty, if you could take the troubles in your life and still find time to sing beautiful tunes through it all, then you were a strong and brave individual.
So I mean, if in 1937 the Queen was set on ripping out your heart, and you still got the house cleaned and looked good while doing it, then you were on top of the world. These were the heroines of their time.
Cinderella, who is similar in passiveness to Snow White, came to us in 1950. Cinderella was left to her stepmother when her father died, and from then on out, spent her life in servitude to the stepmother and her two stepsisters. Solution? A fairy godmother comes to her, gives her a stunning ball gown and a carriage and lets her go to a ball in which she is to have a magical night with the prince. In other words, she is to have the prince fall in love with her and have him take her away from her terrible life. Similar to Snow White again, the prince falls for her because she is stunning and kind.
Not everyone can have a fairy godmother to take them away, but the message Disney intending on sending in 1950, was that the right man will rescue you if you are good and kind - and pretty. Thus making her a heroine of her time for surviving within her circumstances.
Unfortunately, I can't say much for Princess Aurora. Although the film at face value is magical and just as amazing as the first two, the story falls short with a lack of personality from the princess herself, other than some precognitive dreams and an A+ singing voice. But the message is clear still in 1959. Princess Aurora is taken from her home as a baby by her guardian fairies when Maleficent, an evil witch, curses her so that on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger and die. The fairies take her deep into the forest, protect her under the name of Briar Rose, and do everything they can to protect her. It doesn't work, of course, and she does prick her finger, but only falls into a sleep-like coma. Not before she meets her prince, however, who fell in love with her as Briar Rose. That message I mentioned? You don't need to be a princess for the prince to fall in love with you.
The Little Mermaid
In 1989, however, Disney started their improvements, the first being Princess Ariel, who has quite a bit more personality than our first three princesses. The rebellious teen mermaid is fascinated with life on land, and soon becomes even more fascinated with a human prince. Her father forbids her seeing him ever again, which then leads Ariel to make a nasty deal with the sea witch, turning her into a human without a voice to meet her prince. If he kisses her, she lives happily ever after, if not, she stays with the sea witch forever, never seeing the prince or her family again. Once the witch realizes the prince is falling for Ariel, she steps in and bewitches him, but Ariel and her friends are able to break the spell on them. There's a nice action scene to fight the witch, and the prince and princess live happily ever after on land. The problem with The Little Mermaid, however, is that Ariel is almost too rebellious for some younger viewers, going behind her father's back to see a boy, constantly sneaking around to places she shouldn't be, basically running away from home to be with a guy she barely had an interaction with.
While the film does have the flaws of impulsiveness and infatuation, there is a bigger picture that is easy to over look. Ariel is a realistic adolescent of her time. She is impulsive and inquisitive, and is not about to be stuck behind castle walls her whole life. She wants to explore and see what the world has to offer her. Ariel is much more rounded and real than previous princesses, and Disney made quite an attempt to say you don't have to be this passive little girl anymore.
So... points for effort?
Beauty and the Beast
From 1991 onwards, Disney is no longer set in the ways of the passive female lead, but neither is the rest of the world. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is definitely not as interested in love as she is in books, and is highly intelligent. When her father is lost, she goes out on her own in search of him, and when she finds him in captivity of a beast, she trades herself to save her father. She does fall in love with the beast, transforming him into the loving and caring prince he once was. This theme of strong and independent women becomes more apparent in the coming years of Disney's Princesses. Princess Jasmine also refuses to be pawned off to be married.
Mulan was seen as the biggest shift in the portrayal of Disney's princesses. Disgusing herself as a man to enlist in the military so her elderly father wouldn't have to, Mulan sets to make something of herself, fight for her country, protect her family, and challenge gender roles in 1998.
The most recent Disney princesses are Anna and Elsa, who came to us in 2013. When Elsa becomes upset with herself and throws the kingdom into a perpetual winter, fearless Anna teams up with a mountaineer named Kristoff and his reindeer side kick to find her sister. In the end, the one saving Elsa wasn't a handsome prince, or even a man at all. When only love can break the spell, it came in the form of her sister, Anna.
There is no doubt that many of the face value representations made by Disney's earlier princesses are not fates you would wish upon your own little prince or princess, but they are definitely something to considering when realizing the roles women played during those times.
“All these Disney heroines, the princesses, they’re a product of their time. The princesses that were created in the 1940s and ’50s, they were the best of what a woman should be then: You’re the good girl. You took abuse . . . and through it all, you sang and were nice. But we’re not like that anymore. We kick ass now.” -Screenwriter Linda Wolverton
Every one of the Disney princesses were heroines in their own way. These traits they possess pre-1991 are not necessarily good traits by any means, but "heroine" meant something a little different back then. If you take into consideration the circumstances they went through, and women's roles in these time periods, you will see that through any type of trouble, Disney proves that they have always been on our side, believing that women, no matter what, have always been able to conquer.