I hear it all the time — “Disney Princesses are terrible role models! They fall in love with the first man they meet! They’re weak! Little girls should look up to someone else!”
And y’know what?
I’m sick of it.
I was raised on Disney. I was raised on animation in general, from impeccable artistry like The Iron Giant, to the 90’s outpouring of animated ventures featuring princesses, mice and even dinosaurs. I absorbed it, whether it was a space epic like Titan AE, or a lesser known Disney movie like Basil The Great Mouse Detective. If it was animated, I was there.
The interest wasn’t short lived. I continued to absorb animation with such a passionate fervour, that I even studied it at a college level. Its safe to say that its sculpted a large portion of my life, from childhood through to adulthood. Even now, the feelings I get watched animated films far outweigh those provoked by movies — and I’m a big movie buff, too! Animation just holds a special place in my heart.
With that in mind, along with my feelings towards young women’s role models, I find myself having to defend my beloved Disney princesses.
The ‘Disney Princess’ line up is a tricky one. It often excludes the likes of Pocahontas, Mulan, Alice (Alice In Wonderland,) Meg (Hercules,) Kida (Atlantis,) Jane (Tarzan,) and Esmerelda (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.) Arguably, Pocahontas, Mulan and Kida are, in certain terms, princesses. It also doesn’t include any of Disney’s beloved female animal characters, despite the fact a small handful fall into the ‘princess’ identity – Nala (The Lion King,) Maid Marian (Robin Hood), and Duchess and Marie (Aristocats — perhaps not ‘princesses’, given their ownership by a retired opera diva, but certainly wealthy.) It also means we exclude a handful of Disney’s strongest females.
Cinderella, Snow White and Aurora are often pointed out as most completely fulfilling the ‘princess’ trope. They’re waif-like, classically beautiful women, who’s stories revolve around being rescued by a dashing and handsome prince. Both Snow White and Aurora are saved by a kiss, while Cinderella’s abysmal life is improved tenfold by her wealthy boyfriend. Simply put, they’re love stories, and they’re very of their time — Snow White – 1937, Cinderella – 1950 and Sleeping Beauty – 1959 — Sleeping Beauty, does, however, gain an honourable mention for it’s inclusion of a handful of excellent characters, specifically the three fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, and villainess supreme, Maleficent.
Regardless, love stories have their place in the Disneyverse, and in fiction in general. There’s nothing wrong with the ‘handsome prince rescues beautiful princess’ story, provided other stories are also available… Which they are!!
1973 saw the release of Disney’s Robin Hood. Not only one of their highpoints in terms of filmography, but a benchmark for awesome princesses. Maid Marian, whilst allowing herself to fall head over heels for the remarkably, (and somewhat worryingly,) handsome Robin, also holds her own. She thumps her fair share of bad guys, and certainly doesn’t take any of Prince John’s nonsense. She’s backed up by the wonderful Lady Kluck. (1977 also bought us The Rescuers, featuring the marvellous Miss Bianca, alongside Bernard.)
However, 1989 bought us our first human(!?) princess with a bit of bite. The Little Mermaid is a film that often draws criticism for Ariel’s choice to leave her life under the sea, for the sake of marrying the dashing land-dweller, Eric. Her fiery personality is often forgotten, along with the exceptional on-screen relationship between herself and her father, King Triton — it’s rare, especially in a Disney movie, that a character still retains a parent, and Ariel’s relationship with hers is utterly perfect. The argumentative attitude of a teenager attempting to rebel, works perfectly alongside Triton’s loving, but short-fused personality. You know he wants the best for his daughter, but my, doesn’t she make it difficult!? She’s a whole person, developed, with flaws and intricacies often overlooked in a Disney feature. Her ultimate choice to leave the sea, (one that leaves me in tears, every damn time!) is a choice for love, but one that she is utterly set on. There’s no regret when she finally leaves to marry Eric, and Triton’s ultimate acceptance of his daughters growing up is heartfelt and genuine.
Beauty And The Beast, whilst not a favourite of mine, presented us with book-smart Belle. Whilst perhaps not as feisty as Ariel, she’s intelligent and polite, no doubt a fine role model for young girls. Her love for Beast is one that grows steadily, and although the Stockholm Syndrome comparisons are rife, it is a relationship that develops over time. She teaches him, and is gentle with a creature who has otherwise faced a lifetime of solitude and cruelty.
1992’s Aladdin brings us another of our best. Jasmine, another character with an existing father figure, is rebellious, strong and has a no-nonsense approach to absolutely everything. She wants her own way, won’t settle for outdated rules and regulations, and stands up to those she perceives to be wrong. She even uses her womanly wiles to distract Jafar, ultimately aiding Aladdin in saving the day. She certainly ends up in trouble, and she falls in love, but again, neither of these are bad things — a strong woman is allowed to love a strong man, it does not lessen her strength.
Pocahontas, Mulan, Nala, Meg, Jane — often overlooked, but fiercely strong in their own movies. Jessie (Toy Story 2) and Tiana (The Princess And The Frog) are also worth mentioning. Disney’s animated features are full of strong, excellent role models — the attitude that ‘falling in love’ makes one weak is both outdated, and abundantly foolish. It is possible to be both strong, and brave, while emotionally open to other human beings, be they fictional or not.
Going forward, Disney is showing plenty of promise. Brave’s Merida is a fine example, and one that also includes both parents(!). It’s particularly pleasant to see a strong mother-daughter relationship, something often omitted from movies in favour of a hearty dose of angst.
Wreck-It Ralph heavily revolved around Vanellope, a young girl overcoming a little bullying, a new friendship and a whole heap of tasks and troubles. She appeals to the more masculine aspects of young girls, in her voice, (thanks to the excellent Sarah Silverman,) her penchant for racing and her feistiness, whilst also displaying more feminine aspects in her appearance and occasional gentleness. She’s the perfect middle ground for young moviegoers.
Frozen is a questionable one. Although its popularity is apparently unwavering, the relationship between the sisters is strained at best. Elsa is an isolated, troubled character, whilst Anna largely comes across as irritating and overbearing. Her insistence on ‘saving’ her sister seems to be the entire basis for an already weak plot, and although saving a character can absolutely drive a film, it doesn’t work for Frozen. Our sympathies tend to lie with Elsa, especially given her questionable upbringing, and Anna never fully seems to reach a developed stage. Her ‘romance’ with Hans is an obvious dig at the ‘falling in love immediately’ trope, but his motivation also makes little sense — why not take the seemingly undefended town by force? His betrayal is seen coming a mile away, and neither sister triumphs over any great evil. Anna’s relationship with Kristoff is strained at best, and the belief that they’re apparently ‘in love’ by the movie’s end is certainly a stretch. There’s no villain to the piece, and the only turmoil is solved in a matter of minutes, by a relationship (Anna/Elsa,) which we already knew existed. While it’s an average example of sisterhood, it could have been executed vastly better — instead of two strong female characters, we’re presented with two half-baked ideas of childish girls, seemingly unable to accept any responsibility between them, let alone overcome adversity without falling to pieces completely.
However, Disney’s saving grace lies in Big Hero 6. I’ve written before (link) about how utterly excellent Honey Lemon and GoGo Tomago are, and it’s a damn shame it didn’t gain Frozen levels of fame. While it’s still one of Disney’s biggest hitters, (it was the third highest-grossing non-Pixar animated film, the highest grossing film of 2014 and the 16th highest grossing animated film of all time,) it certainly hasn’t infiltrated the collective zeitgeist in the way Frozen has. It’s unfortunate, because Honey Lemon and GoGo are, quite possibly, our best Disney-ladies to date. They’re intelligent and driven, but also differing in personalities and tastes — Honey Lemon is a tall, gangly blonde, with a preference for pink and yellow. GoGo is a shorter, chunkier black-and-purple-haired ball of attitude, sarcastic and tough — yet both are endearing and likeable. Both reveal soft sides in regards to Hiro’s plight, and both fight on an equal playing ground to the other characters. They’re flawed and unique and they cover most of the bases for young girls — you’ll undoubtedly identify with one of them.
Disney’s characters, male or female, princess or not, are wonderful. Disney excel, not only in animation and storytelling, but in creating whole characters — they make characters with motivations, flaws and perks, differing in personalities and the way they drive their stories. Women who fall in love shouldn’t be perceived as any ‘weaker’ than women who don’t — Merida should stand beside Jasmine, Honey Lemon and Gogo beside Meg and Jane, Vanellope beside Ariel, as strong, excellent role models for our young women. When they’re bolstered by equally developed male characters, that’s even better. Simba, Aladdin, Wreck-It Ralph, Robin Hood, Hercules, Tarzan — these men bolster the strong women they stand alongside, and vice versa. Animated films are more than just ‘kids movies.’ They’re the things we learn from, our earliest lessons in friendship, manners, adventure, family. They’re invaluable, and should be treated as such, with all the care and compassion gone into storytelling, characters and the beauty with which they’re executed. The team’s who’ve made, and continue to make, these timeless stories fill each one to bursting with skill and heart… So shouldn’t we treat them with the respect and love they deserve?
Look at me. I grew up glued to Disney movies, and I turned out just fine. 😉
Originally posted on Need To Consume in August 2015