From Damsels In Distress To Vibrant Viragos: The Evolution Of The Disney Princesses

As a creative and innovative powerhouse that created quality content intended for children — and adults, because who are we kidding, its movies are fantastic — it is the responsibility companies like Disney to spearhead change and progress.Yesterday, news broke that Disney 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 Lietutenant focuses on Delilah, a young adventurer and skilled swordswoman living in the 19th century. The addition of Delilah marks just the latest in a recent string of strong female characters.


Thirty years ago hardly anybody considered 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 hardly qualify 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 between the 1930s to the 1960s. She posits Disney is retiring its old rhetoric in exchange for a level playing field between the genders.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 their 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)

Disney
Disney

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.

Disney

That being said, it’s hard to fault Disney for not being more progressive with their films. Their homogenous storylines and personality traits were comfortable, but not groundbreaking. This the 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, Disney found a way to revert back to their Princess roots, but this time with more dynamic and empowering characters.The Renaissance Era (1989 – 2000)

Disney
Disney

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.

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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 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.

Disney

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, the worlds 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.

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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)

Disney
Disney

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.

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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.

Disney

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 have explored romance, but this one turned our attentions to something experienced by most girls — the changing landscape of the mother-daughter relationship.
Similarly, Frozen primarily focuses on the sisterly bond between Anna and Elsa. Once again, Disney took strides to explore something foreign to its movies prior.By portraying tenacious women and the inter-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

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Disney

Based on the history of Disney Princesses 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:The next female-led Disney movie stars Moana Waialiki, a Polynesian princess and navigator who sails to a fabled island with the demi-god 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.

Disney
Disney

From what we know of the sword-swinging adventure-loving Delilah Dirk thus far, she may 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 on 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 they have. Keep on fighting the good fight, Disney.(Source: The Guardian. Top Image Credit: Etsy/Disneylove417)