It’s time to look deeply into something that most would rather just take at face value: Disney princesses. From having your palm get more acquainted with your face when Snow White eats the poisoned apple to wishing that your overly hairy boyfriend would sprout light from his toes and become sexy, people have crossed the vast expanse of emotions while watching Disney movies and wishing that they could be a part of the story. One of the most interesting points to be made about these movies, and notably their heroines, is how the role of important female characters has evolved through the 20th and early 21st centuries alongside the societal role of the American woman.
From Walt Disney’s first animated feature in 1937, Snow White was the first Disney princess. There is nothing overtly wrong with her character, but there is nothing outside of her ability to summon animals to help clean a house that is incredibly good about her either. For the character after whom the movie is named, she doesn’t do a great deal of important tasks. She cooks, cleans, and kisses the men—all seven of them—as they go on their way to the office, or the diamond mine in this case.
While this would cause many to roll their eyes today, it wasn’t a scandal when the movie first came to theaters. For all of Walt Disney’s qualities, he wasn’t noticeably progressive. He didn’t portray women in his movies in a way that differed radically from what 1930s America expected. This isn’t calling Disney a sexist; he wasn’t an anti-women’s rights advocate by any stretch of the imagination. He was just a product of his time.
Snow White is one example of a general trend of the behavior of her fellow Disney Princesses of this time. In general, these women were not incredibly active. They primarily have stuff done to them, whether it involves being given a magical dress and pumpkin carriage or put to sleep until the handsome prince comes to give true love’s kiss. The Disney Princesses may be the main characters, but they ultimately are not the ones accomplishing heroic feats in their stories.
Advancing a few decades to the late 1980’s and beyond, audiences saw a new generation of Disney princesses like Ariel, Belle and Jasmine. One easily noticeable difference between this lineup and those who followed them compared to the older movies is the ethnic and racial diversity. Thankfully, our society can have a black or Arab heroine without making a fuss about it.
One of the most crucial differences in the story, however, is the nature of the heroines. Their characters are more complex and they have interests that, in past times, would have been deemed unfit for women. In fact, these differences were sometimes highlighted. From Beauty and the Beast, the first Disney movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, Belle takes an interest in reading and finding a new life for herself outside her local community. This is in stark opposition to the insensitive and significantly dim-witted Gaston, who would have her be his housewife and validation of his popularity in the town.
The later Disney Princesses have a far more active role in their stories and are often the most important characters in those stories. From Enchanted, released in 2007, one character openly remarks how it is not the prince, but the princess who is coming to the rescue.
Ultimately, these are just movies and not vehicles of social policy, whether for traditional or progressive values. They are fantastical worlds for children and those who have retained parts of their inner child. That being said, art in the form of cinema has evolved as we have evolved as a culture. The movies that we release are in part a statement of who we are and what we value. With that in mind, it is comforting to think that we have kept the magic but can see how dreams are dreams whether they’re in a little boy or girl’s head. That’s a world that I think we should all want to be a part of.