Ok, there are potentially a lot of characters who can qualify as Disney PrincessesTM but for the purposes of this post and to acknowledge the fact that Anna from Frozen was announced as an official member months before her film was released I’m going to focus specifically on those princesses that are members of the Disney PrincessTM media franchise. Those characters are (in chronological order): Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and Anna. Now if you search on Disney PrincessesTM you will find way more information than you would ever want and I wasn’t interested in rehashing old news. What I wanted to do was look at the princesses as positive female role models. I have a friend with a little girl who is quickly coming up on the age when she’s going to start watching the movies and I was thinking about what I would recommend to her. Here are my picks (vetted by my 10 year old daughter) from best to not so great.
Brave (2012) PG
When I first mentioned to Merran that Merida was going to officially become a Disney PrincessTM she couldn’t wrap her head around it. “But she’s not a princess!” and that’s why she’s number one on my list. She doesn’t have a prince, she doesn’t need a prince, she doesn’t want a prince. Furthermore, she drives her mother crazy (like a real child) and the central theme of the film is the reconciliation of the mother/daughter relationship. There has been some controversy around Merida joining the ranks of the princesses because it appears that Disney is engaging in a little princess-washing to make her fit the more traditional mold. We’ll see how that holds up.
Mulan (1998) G
The kids and I recently watched this one again and in the special features we discovered that the filmmakers had originally tried to move away from the ancient Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. They tried to make her more like a traditional princess, she has to get married, she doesn’t want to, and that’s what inspires her setting out into the world. Fortunately they realized that idea sucked and went back to the original legend that she takes her aged father’s place in the army and ends up saving everybody. Yes, she has to disguise herself as a boy but that’s all part of the story and makes her ultimate victory all the more powerful.
Frozen (2013) PG
I’m risking my daughter’s wrath by putting Anna way down at number three. My small progeny is part of the legion of fans who sing “Let it go” (not even Anna’s song!) morning, noon, and night. Anna scores big points because her primary relationship is with her sister as opposed to a prince, but wait, who’s that with the mutton chops acting all nice but really scheming behind her back? That’s right, Prince Hans steals a few points by stealing a kiss, but seriously weren’t all our heads turned by his boyish charm? Or perhaps you fell for the boyish charm of Kristoff, who is a much better non-princely foil for Anna. Ultimately it’s the story of two sisters discovering that they don’t have to be afraid of what’s inside them that puts Anna near the top of the list.
The Princess and the Frog (2009) G
There’s a scene in The Princess and the Frog where there is a great deal of head-slapping frustration at Tiana’s failure to understand that happiness doesn’t come from hard work and ambition. Frankly, the resolution of that moment always confused me. Yes, she needs to learn to lighten up a bit and the wastrel prince Naveen is probably an adequate companion to help with that – but her hard work and ambition is not a bad thing. Regardless, this one mostly gets it right.
Cinderella (1950) G
I’m always conflicted about where to put the Disney version of Cinderella. In the end she is rescued from her life of drudgery by the slipper-wielding Prince Charming but by giving her lots of helpful little anthropomorphic animals Disney created the opportunity to make Cinderella stronger and more independent than she might otherwise appear. Not only does she shoulder the abuse of her step-family but locked in the tower when her moment of liberation is at hand she works through her furry little minions to take control of her destiny.
At this point the list takes a significant turn to traditional princess roles and/or the characters are more easily defined and guided by those around them – specifically their princes.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) G
Promising in her love of reading and her ability to see beyond surface appearance but is constantly sacrificing her freedom for other people. Still an admirable quality, just in a different context.
Pocahontas (1995) G
She is chock full of Native American wisdom and dignity along with powers and abilities that make her the first princess/superhero crossover. Loses points for saving John Smith and opening the door to the genocide of her people.
The Little Mermaid (1989) G
Adventurous, curious, and independent. She makes a deal with the devil to follow a man – as well as to explore having legs, but still.
Tangled (2010) G
For a late entry onto the list you might expect Rapunzel to be a stronger role model but she’s held back by her story, which requires her to be a prisoner. Even though she beats the stuffing out of Flynn she still needs him to gain her independence.
Aladdin (1992) G
There is some lip service to her independence but let’s face it, she’s totally under the thumb of her father. Frankly I’m not happy about the way she gets out of a dangerous situation with Jafar during the climactic confrontation.
Sleeping Beauty (1959) G
A little stronger than Snow White but still too naive from her sheltered upbringing to really own her princessitude.
12. Snow White
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) G
Prized primarily for her beauty and enthusiasm for housekeeping. She spends a lot of time singing about how one day her prince will come. Gets bonus points for the fact that the live action model she was based on is named Marge Champion.
This list generated a heated debate in our family. Some thought I had treated certain princesses too harshly, others that I was breaking my criteria to bump some higher on the list. One thing we all came to agree on, regardless of the specific criteria, Mulan should be at the top of the list for fighting stereotypes, sacrificing herself for duty and family honor, and general strength of character. As an example of the debate, here is my wife’s list with her criteria:
- Self-sacrifice, family first, working to help others: Mulan, Pocahontas, Belle
- Independent, strong idea of self and goals, not prince oriented: Merida, Tiana, Jasmine, Rapunzel
- Survivor, harsh origin or obstacle to overcome, but prince oriented: Cinderella, Snow White
- Strong willed, loses her way due to prince orientation: Ariel
- Pretty: Aurora
Do you agree or disagree with my assessment or have something to add?
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Let me know what you think.