The Evolution of the Disney Princess Spirit

by Mary Grace Garis

Disney's first Polynesian princess has made her unofficial debut: Moana is set for a 2016 release and I couldn't be more excited. While from a thumbnail view it seems as though the titular Moana hasn't entirely shed off all of the beauty standards attributed to a Disney princess (that is, she's slender as a Slim Jim) it's also clear that she has a finely honed sense of adventure. To recap, the Disney description of the movie is as follows:

In the ancient South Pacific world of Oceania, Moana, a born navigator, sets sail in search of a fabled island. During her incredible journey, she teams up with her hero, the legendary demi-god Maui, to traverse the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous sea creatures, breathtaking underworlds and ancient folklore.

Let's focus on the positives: This girl is literally and metaphorically making waves. Think of how far we've come since Cinderella. Seriously, Cindy couldn't leave the house without the help of a fairy godmother and an army of mice. A lot of progress has been made, in fact, in terms of having the princesses leave their castles.

Let's revisit a handful of Disney princesses and how their pursuit of adventure has evolved throughout the years.

Golden Era: Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora

Disney's 1937 Snow White is decked out in old-world sexism. Hell, even the way it was manufactured was distinctly anti-women, because women reportedly did not "do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen," according to Open Culture. Although two live-action remakes and Ginnifer Goodwin on Once Upon a Time have worked desperately to re-work her image into a modern setting, let's face it, Snow White is from the '30s. She fearfully runs away from her stepmother, which is nice and all, but then basically becomes a maid for seven short men, and then gets hitched to the first guy to kiss her dead corpse. It's hardly empowering.

Cinderella is just as bad, if not worse. Created at the dawn at 1950, she spent just as much time being trapped and sweeping floors as Snow White, and basically relies on everyone else to get her out of the shitty situation she's been in for, I don't know, the past decade or so. To go to a ball. And she relies on her variation of Prince Charming to be her ticket out of there. It's a lesson that marrying up is a ticket out of a bad situation, and you know, in the 1950s (and definitely before that) sometimes marriage WAS a woman's only saving grace, but still.

As for Princess Aurora, who is probably the hottest Disney princess, she suffers from having very little definable personality and yes, serious Damsel-in-Distress syndrome. There's a literal Maleficent-dragon Prince Philip has to fight before he can rescue her from her beauty rest. Overall, all three seek out marriage as both their endgame and salvation. It's literally their own means of escape, and their only final objective.

Disney Renaissance: Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle

Despite her whole rousing number about being "part of that world" and "wanting more" Ariel is just, put gently, such a dumb person. It's respectable that she wants to challenge the ideas of patriarchy (that is, her literal father) but her mean of doing so is by surrendering her beautiful voice, the very thing that sets her apart, for a vagina. I mean, need I say more?

Jasmine is similar, in that she doesn't believe in the arranged marriage her father is trying to force upon her and has a similar yearn for freedom. She even goes as far as to run away, which is admirable, but then after damsel-in-distressing hardcore she decides to just forfeit said adventure and get married to Aladdin after two more mediocre straight-to-video sequels. Seriously?

Belle, rounding up the trio, is going to get a slightly biased assessment, as Beauty and the Beast was my first favorite movie of all time. The thing is, her genuine love for books and adventure, which is woven into some of the most brilliant songs of all time, makes her highly aspirational, and you definitely see her rebuking the hottest/dumbest guy in town. What ruins it a bit is the fact that she's forced to submit herself to the Beast to become (surprise!) essentially a maid, and though things get better it's a little disappointing that she ends up stuck in that castle with him. I try to chalk that up more to introversion and self-sacrifice versus Stockholm Syndrome, but I'm sure you could definitely argue that.

Though the '90s showed a move toward princesses wanting to buck conventions and free themselves from their fathers (or the town misogynist) the endgame is the still the same. When the movie ends, they're still solidly with a man, their dreams of adventure abandoned. Therefore, the Disney renaissance is characterized more by theoretical want of adventure rather than a genuine pursuit.

Disney Revival: Rapunzel, Merida, and the Ladies of Frozen

By the time we get 3D animation involved, the game has changed, mostly for the better. Now I'll admit, I'm not a huge fan of Tangled. I think it's a lesser Frozen, at best. HOWEVER, Disney gives Rapunzel a lot of creative liberty, considering the original story has her imprisoned in her tower until some dude pulls her hair to freedom. That's a definite start. In fact, the movie is about an adventure that she personally endeavors. Even with her goateed male escort, that's a pretty big deal. They even wait a little longer than, you know, immediately to get married. It's a nice feeling.

Merida in Brave is tenfold more self-sufficient than all of these wide-eyed baby princesses. She basically wins freedom out of marriage by being the best archer in the kingdom, having no desire to end up with a Prince Charming and stifling her own ambitions. Credit where credit is due.

As from the girls of Frozen, what can be said that hasn't been said already? Elsa is a stone cold bitch in the best way possible. And Anna, although she spends the majority of the movie ga-ga over some guy she just met, manages to learn the valuable lesson that maybe falling for that guy you just met is a BAD IDEA. It's so, so important. But more than any of that, her passion for adventure and love for her sister inspires her to pursue adventure and save the day without prompting or help from anyone else, at least initially. So many brownie points.

Essentially, Disney is finally learning to subvert common tropes to give heroines more freedom, and while it's still not entirely void of tradition (as in, we haven't completely ditched marriage as an endgame yet) it's progress. We haven't achieved the perfect feminist princess yet, but we're getting there, and who knows what kind of adventures Moana will pursue? There's hope.

Images: Disney, Giphy