A recent trip to Disneyworld with my three-year-old daughter hammered home what a major influence the Disney princesses are on her. Getting to meet the “real” Cinderella was probably the most exciting moment of her life.
The princesses now number eleven: Snow White (from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Cinderella (1950), Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991), Jasmine from Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), Rapunzel from Tangled (2010) and Merida from Brave (2012).
With so many Disney princesses, all very popular, I found myself wondering, like many parents, what values these films were instilling in my daughter, and both during the trip and after, mentally went through the Disney canon and analyzed it, choosing to focus on what the relationships of these princesses with the characters around them, more than any other factor, reveals.
Disney’s princesses have long been criticized as sexist, with too much emphasis on looking pretty and marrying a rich man. The more recent films, starting with Beauty and the Beast, seem to have taken these criticisms to heart, with increasingly strong and independent female protagonists. Brave even ends without the princess finding a man at all. But the films continue to struggle to represent strong relationships between female characters.
The most obvious female relationship for films about adolescent girls is that between mothers and daughters. In six of the first seven films, the mother is completely absent. In the seventh, Sleeping Beauty, the mother puts Aurora in the care of three fairies to keep her safe from the evil Maleficent. In Tangled, Rapunzel is stolen from her mother. In both Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, the princess’s relationship to her father is more significant to the narrative (even where Tiana’s father is dead and her mother still alive). Only Brave, the most recent film, significantly addresses a maternal relationship.
Stepmothers, on the other hand, feature prominently. They are invariably wicked. Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel are all raised by evil women. To be fair to Disney, the wicked stepmother archetype has a long tradition in the fairy tales that are its source material.
Yet Disney is not off the hook for the way in which its female villains differ from the males. In the five films with a female villain, the princess always places misplaced trust in her antagonist (Aurora’s “trust” in Maleficent is caused by a magic spell, but still). The films with male villains do not involve similar acts of betrayal (at least not against a gullible princess). Taken together, the films seem to be telling young girls not to trust older women.
But there are also too few strong relationships for princesses with their peers. Only Ariel has sisters, and they play no significant role. Cinderella has stepsisters, but of course they are of the wicked variety. Pocahontas has a female friend, Nakoma (who plays the role of the Nurse in this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet). The most significant female friendship occurs in The Princess and the Frog, where Tiana and Lottie support one another even when it looks as if Prince Naveen may come between them.
Interestingly, even the nonhuman friends so common in Disney films are almost exclusively male. Seven bearded dwarfs aid Snow White. Of Cinderella’s mouse friends, only Gus and Jaq are named; the female mice get one telling line: “Leave the sewing to the women.” Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel and Merida all get help from exclusively-male animals or more fantastic creatures. Although Disney hasn’t used a “damsel in distress” since Aladdin, the more recent princesses still rely primarily on the help of males to achieve their goals.
Considering these factors, I’ve come to the conclusion that Disney does deserve credit for trying and for using increasingly modern princesses and for highlighting female relationships in The Princess and the Frog and Brave. But it still has a long way to go in showing young girls that they can trust and rely on members of their own sex, as well as get along in the world without the help of males. And that is how I would like my daughter to be able to grow up.