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Did you know out of all the women you’ve probably considered Disney Princesses, only 12 of them are officially so? We’re not even talking about the ladies who are technically under the Disney umbrella now, like General Organa, Anastasia, Shuri and more. Ladies like Kida (Atlantis: The Lost Empire), Giselle (Enchanted), Elena (Elena of Avalor) and even the incomparable Anna of Arendelle (Frozen) — which you can watch now on Disney+ — aren’t technically members of the princess club. Slightly awkward for those of us who keep saying that Anna’s our favorite princess. Oops!
As time has gone on, the hallmarks of a Disney Princess have evolved. Growing up, I remember having a real problem with the Snow Whites, Cinderellas and Auroras of the world. But the thing is, there’s nothing wrong with those characters. I was simply too young to understand that it’s not very reasonable to judge past characters on current cultural standards. Let’s take a look at the defining traits of Disney’s most iconic leading ladies.
While the Fairest of Them All came into play before Disney’s Princesses became their own heroes, Snow White shares an important through line with her younger counterparts: kindness. The film might focus on her beauty, and her desire for true love, but it’s her kind, pure heart that gets Snow White through to the final act. (Watch now on Disney+)
Like Snow White, Cinderella came from simpler times. Also like Snow White, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value to the glass-slippered protagonist. Cinderella’s humility is what helps her shine above the rest. Literally rising from the ashes to become the queen she was always meant to be, she knows what it’s like to feel stomped on in a world out to make you feel small. (Watch now on Disney+)
Briar Rose is the last in the trinity of classic princesses. We really start to see things shift with Ariel, but we’ll get to her in a moment. Honestly, Aurora took some thinking on my part. It’s not that Sleeping Beauty (Watch now on Disney+) isn’t a lovely film. It’s more that she doesn’t do much to forward her own story. After some consideration, I landed on gentleness as Aurora’s defining factor. It’s difficult not to allow a world of darkness and curses to harden you. Briar Rose manages that.
As mentioned, Ariel is where we really start to see a shift in how Disney’s Princesses are portrayed. You’ll also note the 40-year span between Aurora and our favorite sassy little mermaid. Time progressed, and so did the studio’s portrayal of women. In Ariel’s case, it’s as a strong-willed teen who knows exactly what she wants in life.
She might be headstrong, and more than a little obstinate, but Ariel is also trusting. Thirty years removed, that might be seen as a bad thing. But, at the time, that’s just how heroines rolled. Ariel’s trust might have gotten her in big old trouble with a vengeful sea witch, but it also landed her a husband, a whole new world of perspective, and an adorable daughter in later sequels. (Watch now on Disney+)
She wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, and she wants it more than she can tell. Belle has several great traits, but her defining one is her intelligence. That intelligence drives her not only to explore, learn, and create, but to know her own worth. She might be frightened of the Beast, but she starts standing up for herself the moment she finds her footing. Those smarts are also what help her to see beyond what her eyes show her, and into the hearts of both her future beau and their friends. (Watch now on Disney+)
As much as I want to gush about the live action remake of Aladdin and its portrayal of this stellar Disney Princess, we’re going to keep things classic. Here’s the thing about Jasmine: she’s always been an exceptional and bold leader. She’s not here to be married off to some prince, and she doesn’t care what some creepy advisor has to say. She’s seen the streets of Agrabah, she’s been amongst her people, and she knows what they need. Romantic love might play a pivotal part in her story, but it’s Jasmine’s love for her people that makes her stand out among her sisters. (Watch now on Disney+)
Empathy can be hard. It gets even harder when you’re expected to empathize with someone so fundamentally different from you that you see literally an entire world from a different perspective. While there are some understandable criticisms of the film, there’s a lot can be learned from Pocahontas when it’s viewed as intended: as a work of fiction from the mid-nineties. At the end of the day, we could all do better to learn from those who don’t look like us. (Watch now on Disney+)
Tradition can be good. Unfortunately, it can also be outdated. It takes an insurmountable level of bravery to go against your history and culture to stand up for what you know to be right. But that’s exactly what Mulan did to save her friends, family and country. Couple that with the fact that the film goes on to tackle a major issue like gender bias? Yes, please. (Watch now on Disney+)
Princess Tiana might not be the first one of her counterparts to take her future into her own hands, but her determination is a bigger part of her identity than it is for her other strong-willed princess friends. T’s not here for wishing and hoping. She knows exactly what to do to achieve her dream, and she’ll work every moment of every day if that’s what it takes to make it happen. Extreme dedication might come with its pitfalls, but you’ll have to watch the movie to explore that one further. (Watch now on Disney+)
Going out of our comfort zone sucks. It’s hard, and it’s scary, and it doesn’t always work out how we’d hoped. But we can’t live our lives in a box. Or, in Rapunzel’s case, a tower. Despite being told of the endless horrors of the outside world, the girl wrangled her hair, packed her trusty frying pan, and went on a darn adventure. It was the best, worst, scariest, most perfect thing ever. You might notice that as we get into the later princesses, it gets more difficult to describe them with a singular word. That shift is a byproduct of Disney’s leading ladies getting more complex stories, and it’s a great one. (Watch now on Disney+)
If you had the chance to change your fate, would you? It’s totally OK that you read that sentence in Merida’s voice. Merida’s another victim of tradition, but she’s also got some selfishness in her. Her story dives into when that selfishness is appropriate in the face of tradition, and where we should take other folks’ needs into consideration. No spoilers or anything, but there are also some bears. (Watch now on Disney+)
Here we are at the final “official” princess. We’ve already discussed several of the others going against tradition, but Moana takes things a step further. History as she understands it tells her that she will fail if she leaves, her family tells her that the island will fail without her, and all the while her heart is telling her that she’s meant for something more. Turns out you can be there for your island and chase your dreams, if you play your cards in the right order. Moana tells us to never let the fears of generations before stop us from chasing what we know in our hearts to be true.
And there you have it. Eighty-two years of princesses. Eight decades of growth and change and narrative shifts as western culture evolved with the times. Twenty years from now we’ll have a whole new set of women added to this list. Maybe they’ll even put Anna where she belongs. (Watch now on Disney+)
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