In an age where new blockbusters are being released faster than we can digest that stale movie theater popcorn, there is no bigger presence in the industry than the shade cast by Disney's entertainment umbrella. Between Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, the filmmaking force of nature currently stands at the forefront of all things pop culture.
As a creative and innovative powerhouse that forged quality content intended for children — and adults, because who are we kidding, its movies are fantastic — it is the responsibility of companies like Disney to spearhead change and progress.
Yesterday, news broke that the studio would be adding yet another strong female character to its ranks. Based on the New York Times best-selling action-adventure graphic novels by Tony Cliff, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant focuses on Delilah, a young adventurer and skilled swordswoman living in the 19th century. The addition of this international mistress of swordsmanship marks just the latest in a recent string of strong female leads.
Thirty years ago, hardly anybody considered Walt Disney Studios to be strong advocates for women's rights. The studio's early model for a female protagonist consisted of a beautiful princess who must be rescued from a great evil by their strapping Prince Charmings. While beautiful, they seldom qualified as empowering female role models. Thankfully though, as the times changed, Disney transformed itself to follow suit.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, the founder and editor of the Women and Hollywood initiative Melissa Silverstein spoke at length about Disney and what she calls "the princess-industrial complex" that was created from the 1930s to the 1960s. She posits Disney is retiring its old rhetoric in exchange for a level playing field between the genders.
“They have to be individuals in the world, because that is what girls expect to see. And not only girls – we need boys to see these girls being characters that have backbone, so they understand in real life girls are equal.”
So let's take a look back into the past and a bit into the future to see how Disney is growing and changing its stance on women, and effectively its Disney Princess property:
*SIDE NOTE: Before delving further into this article, I would like to (hopefully) appease any comments regarding the "Princess" title and the women that I refer to using said title.*
Disney has three qualifications for which characters earn the title of a "Disney Princess," which are listed as follows: 1) They must have a primary role in an animated Disney feature, 2) They are human or "mostly" human-like 3) They are not only showcased in a sequel. Whether or not the characters are born or marry into royalty is a secondary factor. So, to all of the Mulan nay-sayers out there, sorry, she makes the cut.*
The Original Three (1937–1959)
Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Cinderella (Cinderella) and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty).
Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora were pillars in Disney's Golden Age and part of what brought the studio such great success in its early years. The soft and warmhearted characters embodied what it meant to be the quintessential Princess.
As a young girl, I remember watching these animated classics, and the ultimate conclusion I landed on was that if I dressed nice, spoke in a high, singsongy voice, and maintained a demure exterior, my prince would arrive on his noble steed to save me from the threats of this world.
That being said, it's difficult to fault Disney for not being more progressive with its films. The homogenous storylines and personality traits were comfortable, but not groundbreaking. This portrayal of an ideal princess was appealing because it taught little girls what society wanted them to learn: Be quiet, polite, pretty and nice, and, in turn, the world will give you what you deserve.
While these three Princesses still offered something to young viewers — their quiet resilience and soft nature are something to be admired — there was certainly something left to be desired for today's audiences. After the Disney Dark Ages, the studio found a way to revert back to its Princess roots, but this time with more dynamic and empowering characters.
The Renaissance Era (1989–2000)
Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin), Pocahontas (Pocahontas) and Mulan (Mulan).
During Disney's Renaissance era, the Princesses quickly became smarter, quirkier and more self-reliant. The cores of their stories focused less on finding true love and more on adventures, self-sacrifice and self-discovery. In retrospect, there's a clear trajectory of our female protagonists taking action and making bolder decisions for themselves, ranging from Ariel to Mulan.
This path starts with Ariel, a young mermaid, who chooses love over duty and risks her fin and family to achieve her ultimate means. Her end goal of marrying a dreamy prince she saw only once keeps her from being a true trailblazer, but it was one of the first instances in which we saw a Princess make a proactive decision as opposed to having her adventures inflicted upon her.
Belle was ostracized by her community for being an avid reader, Jasmine and Pocahontas were chastised for shirking the common marital laws, and Mulan would have been executed under Han regulation — had it not been for the mercy of Li Shang — for disguising herself as a man and taking her father's place in the military.
Although these characters were all feminist pioneers in some form, their worlds were still grounded in the patriarchal ideals of the past (e.g., Ursula's line, "It's she who holds her tongue who gets her man," or Gaston's, "It's not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting *ideas*, and *thinking*..."). But unlike the Golden Age films, these scenarios were included in jest more than anything else.
They highlighted the absolute absurdity of the past in a way that was impossible to ignore and made these misogynistic environments so stifling that it only seems reasonable that the women would rebel in some way.
This led to the the next phase of Disney Princesses, in which we see this trend of strong women with intentions outside of romance continue even further.
The Modern Princesses (2009–Current)
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), Rapunzel (Tangled), Merida (Brave) and unofficially Anna and Elsa (Frozen).
While they still have not officially been inducted into the Princesses lineup, Anna and Elsa from Frozen are currently two of the most popular Disney characters, so I will be including them in this section for argument's sake.
The first thing to note is that none of these characters' — save for poor, naive Anna — main storyline objectives was to fall in love. Tiana worked hard to become a successful business owner, Rapunzel wanted to explore the outside world, Merida hoped to avoid being married off in the name of tradition, and Anna and Elsa were looking to save each other, rebuild their relationship and keep their kingdom from being overtaken by an outside threat.
This era in Disney filmmaking also took the time to highlight relationships between women for the first time. In Brave, the central relationship is between Merida and her mother. There are enough Disney films to have explored romance, but this one turned our attentions to something experienced by most girls — the changing landscape of the mother-daughter dynamic.
Similarly, Frozen primarily focuses on the sisterly bond between Anna and Elsa. Once again, Disney took strides to explore something foreign to its prior movies.
By portraying tenacious women and the inner workings of their relationships, the last few Disney animated movies proved a more accurate reflection of the world we live in.
The Future Of Disney Royalty
Based on the history of Disney Princesses as outlined above, it's clear that we are seeing stronger and stronger role models making their way into children's entertainment. As Melissa Silverstein said:
“We have to interrupt the cycle that starts very young. It’s the power dynamic, that girls have to be saved. We want girls to be the heroes of the stories; they don’t have to be saved. Girl characters need to be as fully fleshed out as male characters; they can’t only be striving for romance."
The next female-led Disney movie stars Moana Waialiki, a Polynesian princess and navigator who sails to a fabled island with the demigod Maui in the hopes of saving her family. Based on the few plot details we have and the recent motifs found in Disney Princess films, it sounds like she'll be a force to be reckoned with.
From what we know of the sword-swinging, adventure-loving Delilah Dirk thus far, she might not qualify to be a Disney Princess, but she will definitely give young audiences a strong role model worth aspiring to.
As a whole, the entertainment industry is always a bit behind the times. But, although it's films are not quite perfect, Disney deserves praise for bringing such important characters and social changes to light on the scale that it has. Keep on fighting the good fight, Disney.