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Disney Heroines Take a More Pro-Active Role

With Disney’s release this summer of its latest animated effort, Brave — a CGI-animated Pixar production — it solidifies a long-changing trend by the studio in female-centric films. While Disney’s films have always featured female leads, Princess Merida is a far cry from the studio’s landmark princess, Snow White, who made her debut in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Snow White is revived by the prince’s kiss.

The passive Snow White marked the beginning of a string of well-behaved damsels in distress who each patiently awaited her Prince Charming to ride up on his white horse to rescue her from her dire situation with a little help from a fairy godmother. Although based on the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairytale, Disney diverted from the source, making the prince’s kiss what saved Snow White. Thirteen years later, the studio released Cinderella based on an ancient folk tale that was retooled into the story we know today by French author Charles Perrault in 1697 for his Mother Goose Tales collection. When her fairy godmother adorned her in a ballgown and glass slippers befitting of her beauty, Cinderella was able to make the much sought-after prince fall in love with her after only one meeting and whisk her away to the kingdom where she became his princess. Nine years later, Disney adapted another of Charles’ Mother Goose TalesSleeping Beauty. In the 1959 film, the princess was awaken by the prince’s kiss after he defeated the evil fairy — in the form of a fire-breathing dragon — with the aid of the three good fairies.

It is easy to excuse Disney’s depictions of women in these early tales. Although women already had the right to vote in more than a dozen countries, including the United States, by 1920, the first three princess films, which were released between 1937 and 1959, were accurate representations of women — or the ideal of what women “should” be — of the time. But with its fourth princess film, The Little Mermaid 30 years later, the studio had no reason for portraying Ariel as such a helpless character in the 1989 film. Based on an 1837 story by Danish author

Belle standing before the Beast in the dungeon
in which he has imprisoned her.

Hans Christian Andersen, the Disney version strayed far from the original. In Hans’ story, the prince married another princess and the mermaid died, entering a limbo of sorts where her soul was freed. In Disney’s story, Ariel was less well behaved than her predecessors — she disobeyed her father, King Triton and fulfilled her adventurous curiosity collecting human artifacts — but she was no less dependent on the prince to save her tail than the princesses who came before her. She was as naïve as Snow White when she accepted the poison apple from the Evil Queen by trusting the equally evil sea witch Ursula.

The disturbing trend of inept princesses continued into the 1990s. But the trend started with Ariel of defiant ones also continued, showing a shift in attitude toward how girls and women “should” behave. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is notable for being the first film in which the princess helps to save the prince. Turning the tables, it was the prince who was in peril in this story. Bookworm Belle was very independent and uninterested in marriage, which would be nothing of note for any other film released in the ’90s, but for Disney princess films, which seem to be about 30 years behind the times, she was a bona fide a trailblazer for the studio.

Belle soon joined the Beast in a mutual state of woe when he imprisoned her in exchange for her father’s freedom. Despite this treatment, Belle still fell in love with the controlling, violent prince trapped in the body of a beast. Meanwhile, she thawed his cold heart and chipped away at his hard exterior. She was able to free him and the castle’s servants from their curse and restore them to their human forms, but only after the Beast defeated the film’s (other) villain. It was a mixed bag.

Mulan cuts her hair to go
undercover as a soldier.

She was of stronger character than past princesses, but she was weak enough to develop Stockholm Syndrome.

The studio’s sixth princess, Jasmine, was another suffering from an identity crisis. In 1992’s Aladdin,
she turned away her father’s choices for marriage because she did not love any of them. But, she allowed herself to be taken in by Aladdin, who was essentially a conman. He became a prince only after being granted a wish by a genie he unwittingly unleashed from a lamp, and he lied to Jasmine about his past and his true identity, which she ate right up by the spoonful. Like Ariel, Jasmine stood up to her controlling father. Also like Ariel, she was defenseless to save herself from the story’s villain and relied on the prince to save her in the film’s climax.

At that time, another change in trend started to occur with Disney. The Arabic Jasmine was the studio’s first ethnic princess. She was soon followed by the title character of Pocahontas in 1995. The Native American Pocahontas was the first to be a truly good role model for young girls. Like Jasmine, she was unwilling to marry her father’s choice for her. But, she was never saved by her prince. Like Belle, she saved him. Pocahontas had the adventurous spirit of Ariel without the dimwitted, doe-eyed wonderment. It only took going back to pioneer days for Disney to catch up to modern gender roles.

In 1998, Disney featured its strongest female character yet. The title character of Mulan refused to take a passive role in her life. She went undercover as a male soldier to prevent her elderly father from having to serve in the Chinese army, and she ultimately defeated the villain. The gender-bending tale was not what the original script called for, though. The story

Rapunzel interrogating Flynn.

originally saw Mulan being rescued from her unhappy life by a British prince. However, at the recommendation of consultant and children’s book author Robert D. San Souci, the studio changed the character to reflect more modern sensibilities.

Disney’s next princess film came 11 years later and continued the studio’s progressive treatment of its female protagonists. In The Princess and the Frog loosely based on the Brothers Grimm’s The Frog Prince story, the film set in 1920s – era New Orleans — making it the first princess film set in the 20th century — featured an eventual princess who found a prince trapped in the body of a frog and attempted to free him with a kiss. Tiana did most of the heavy lifting throughout the 2009 film and was to credit for restoring herself and the prince back to their human forms. Additionally, she achieved her entrepreneurial goal of opening a restauran — something unheard of for Disney princesses. Frog was also a milestone for Disney because it centered on the studio’s first black princess, something equality groups had long criticized Disney for being behind the times on.

Although Disney broke its four-movie streak featuring ethnic princesses the following year with the release of Tangled the 2010 film’s princess was more Mulan than Cinderella. Rapunzel was not rescued from her tower by a charming prince as in the original Brothers Grimm tale, but rather she joined forces with a thief to gain freedom from her restrictive dwelling and called all the shots in their travels. Rapunzel ultimately saved Flynn’s life and made him a prince by marrying him — not to mention, she chopped off her trademark long, golden locks for a shorter brunette hairstyle.

Within the past few years, the trend in both film and TV has shifted toward female-centric productions with strong female leads.

Jennifer Lawrence as the bow and arrow-slinging
Katniss in “The Hunger Games.”

In the 2011-2012 TV season, an overwhelming percentage of new series revolved around women — tough ones at that, from the sharp-tongued women of CBS’ 2 Broke Girls NBC’s Whitney and ABC’s Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 to the undercover bad-asses that are Emily VanCamp’s character on ABC’s Revenge
and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s dual roles on CW’s The Ringer the endearingly quirky ladies of HBO’s Girls and Zooey Deschanel as the lead of FOX’s New Girl. Additionally, most of them are also created by females, signaling a change behind the scenes in Hollywood, too.

Media is being satiated with empowering female characters. The 2011 Academy Award winner for best actress, Natalie Portman, was part of an almost exclusively female cast in Black Swan while fellow nominee Annette Bening was one half of a lesbian couple that lead the cast of The Kids Are All Right and nominee for The Winter’s Bone Jennifer Lawrence was one of two actresses in the roles of teenage girls who carried their films (Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit being the other). Jennifer went on to star as the hero in this year’s second-highest-grossing release, The Hunger Games. Some of the most successful and most awarded films of the past year were lead by strong female characters, such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Iron Lady and others featured almost entirely female casts, such as The Help and Bridesmaids.

In a remake that reflected the times, Disney saw its original princess tale re-imagined this year with the Snow White character updated to the point that she hardly resembled the feeble princess Disney developed in 1937.

Universal’s modern envisioning of Snow White. 

In the live action Snow White and the Huntsman by Universal Pictures, Snow White teamed up with the huntsman to defeat the Evil Queen, Ravenna, instead of sitting idly by and letting others fight her battles.

Now, two years after Tangled Disney is welcoming its newest princess to its pantheon of tiara-wearing female protagonists. The unconventional Princess Merida, a 10th-century Scottish girl with an affinity for archery, inadvertently causes her family to be cursed and sets out to rectify the situation. She proves that being strong—of will, character and physical strength — beats merely being pretty and sitting around for a prince to come along. She is a role model parents can be happy with their little girls aspiring to be like.

It took long enough for Disney to jump onto the female-empowerment bandwagon and even once it did, it was barely holding on by the tips of its fingers for a while (I’m looking at you, Belle and Jasmine) — but 75 years after introducing its first princess to audiences, it has finally emerged from the dark ages and caught up to the times. While it won’t be winning any feminism awards any time soon, the studio is on a much more promising course than ever before.

All Disney princess images via Disney Enterprises / Snow White and the Huntsman image via Universal Pictures / The Hunger Games image via Lionsgate

You can read more from on LaGina Phillips on her blog.

Featured image via Disney Enterprises.