Most of us grew up watching Disney’s animated movies. I can still remember the words to every song in The Little Mermaid, my first remembered Disney movie. Yet, the way the Princesses are portrayed has changed drastically from Snow White to Merida from Brave.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves came out in 1937, and portrayed a perfect 1930’s woman. She was meek, and accomplished at all household tasks. When this girl stumbles upon a cottage in a scary forest, she immediately cleans it and has no concern for who lives there. The dwarves take care of her because she is an innocent female, and have no real romantic or lewd thoughts of her. Even Dopey, who obviously has a crush on her is laughed at and is never improper. She is also waiting for her Prince to come and solve all her problems, and he does.
Cinderella also follows the basic pattern, even with a release date of over ten years later in 1950. She silently suffers, except for the accompanying songs, in her horrible home until a random older woman magically gives her a dress and sends her to meet the man to solve her problems. 1959 brought Sleeping Beauty with a little girl being cursed for no reason, then packed off to live with three older ladies. All their protection is moot after Aurora meets Prince Phillip and she pricks her finger (hint hint,wink wink) and falls asleep only to be rescued and married to her savior. The poor Prince had to do all the work!
Finally, in The Little Mermaid (released in 1989) we get a proactive Princess in Ariel. She wants to change her life and goes about getting it done. Of course there is intrigue and she really has to work to try to get Prince Eric to kiss her to break the spell. He still has to rescue her by killing the nasty older magical woman, and saves the underwater kingdom too, to earn his bride.
Belle from Beauty and the Beast, opened in 1991, was the first “intellectual” Princess. They made sure to point out that even though she was really pretty, she cared only to enrich her mind. So of course she is paired with the ugly Beast, and he feeds her mind with his wonderous library and lets her teach him to be a nice guy. She puts up with his issues and compassionately accepts him the way he is, as a good woman will do. Beast rescues her from the overly manly and narcissistic Gaston, and her love makes him pretty. He has to nearly die for Belle to love him, but once he is handsome she is happy enough to marry him.
Aladdin, 1992, has Jasmine who has been locked away her whole life because she is a female. Her only way to escape her very cloistered life is to marry a prince. Aladdin has the help of a genie to make him a prince so he can get Jasmine, but she rejects him because he is what her father told her she had to want. He eventually convinces her, or she figures out his ruse, and they will be happy. The the scary magic guy, Jafar, gets rid of Aladdin and has control of the Sultan, Jasmine, and the genie. Aladdin has to rescue everyone, but uses wit to make Jafar defeat himself, and gets the girl.
Pocahantas falls in love with a man who wants to rape her land, and loses him but saves her environment in 1995. The Disney franchise then skips ahead to New Orleans and The Princess and the Frog, 2009. We finally have a Princess who can take care of herself in Tiana. She pretty much keeps the useless Prince Navin alive until they make it to someone who can help. The odd, old, and blind voodoo lady in the swamp gives them a solution, kissing a princess. Tiana tells Navin her dreams and she accepts him with all his faults, and he is willing to kiss her best friend to save them both and get Tiana her restaurant. The bad voodoo man is beaten, the imposter revealed, and they are too late for the kiss. So, as frogs, Tiana and Navin marry and she becomes a princess and saves the day with that kiss.
The newest Princess is Merida in Brave. This is the first Disney movie without a male lead. There is no corresponding Prince, and Merida has to save her mother from her own rashness. Merida had gotten a spell from an old magic woman in the forest, maintaining the normal Disney senerio with magic. Her mother is turned into a bear, and Merida gets her out of the castle with ensuing hijinks. They go back to the cottage in the forest and learn they have only another day to fix their prediciment. They learn more about eachother and Merida has to save her mother from her husband. They now have a closer relationship and Merida doesn’t have to get married right away.
All the princesses have something to overcome, but in the earlier years the Prince or man was the solution. Now that women are more independent and more than baby makers and house cleaners, Disney gives girls characters to admire. In the ’30s, one could admire Snow White for being a pure and selfless woman. Now, Merida’s sass and refusal to accept what she is told show that females can have control over their lives.