The evolution of the Disney princess—from dainty damsel to badass

Screenwriter Linda Wolverton, who brought us Maleficent (as well as some of our favorite Disney animated movies of yore like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast,) recently went on record to talk about the exciting evolution of the Disney princess.

“All these Disney heroines, the princesses, they’re a product of their time,” Wolverton told the Associated Press. “The princesses that were created in the 1940s and ’50s, they were the best of what a woman should be then: You’re the good girl. You took abuse . . . and through it all, you sang and were nice. But we’re not like that anymore. We kick ass now.”

With Wolverton’s empowering words as our spirit guide, we thought it would be fun to go through the years and see just how much the Disney princess (and the Disney romance) has changed through the years. Let’s take a trip through the movies, shall we?

Snow White (1937)

The first Disney princess, what what? Snow White is about as passive as a heroine can be. She sits around a wishing well waiting for her prince to come, then after getting tricked into going to the woods to get almost-murdered, she sits around the dwarves’ house cleaning up after them. Then she’s poisoned and lays around in a glass coffin waiting for true love’s kiss. Real talk: That’s a LOT of waiting around.

Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959)

In the ’50s we continue this trend of passive heroines who wait around for magic to change their lives. Even their big songs (Cinderella’s “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and Aurora’s “Once Upon A Dream”) focus on these girls’ main occupation: dreaming, not doing. Whenever anything happens to these girls, it’s because a fairy godmother (or fairy super villain) is pushing the passive princess along the story conveyor belt. At the end of the day, if someone is going to be active, it’s going to be a prince on a shoe search, or hacking through shrubbery fighting off a dragon 20 times his size. The princesses remain passive, so passive, in fact, one of them isn’t even AWAKE during the film’s big climax.

Note: Sleeping Beauty was actually considered a box office failure, which is why it took Disney 30 years to release its next Disney princess film, which was of course . . .

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Well, you got to say this for Ariel: Girl is NOT passive. She’s stubborn and impulsive and passionate and goes after what she wants. All of which is awesome. What’s a little less awesome is the fact that she decides she’s in love with a dude based on seeing him hang out on a ship and play with his dog for two seconds, and risks everything and gambles her whole life on this “love” she never actually SPEAKS WORDS TO until the final few minutes of the film. And then she chooses this dude over her family whom she’s known/loved ALL HER LIFE? I don’t know, you guys . . . Oh yeah, and she loses her voice, like literally.  

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

What’s interesting about both Belle (and her predecessor Ariel) is they build on the Disney princess archetype by being both dreamers and doers. Belle does Ariel one better by making big moves in the narrative not for love, but for family, risking her life and sacrificing her freedom to save her father. Still, there are abusive undercurrents running through Belle and Beast’s relationship, and I still worry that this film may have taught a generation of girls to believe that it’s okay to have an abusive chapter in one’s romantic relationship.

Mulan (1998)

What’s this, what’s this? A girl gets her own Disney animated movie and it’s NOT about falling in love with a dude, it’s about saving her father’s life and oh, also saving ALL OF CHINA and romance is reduced to a subplot? All right, all right! Unfortunately, this is right around the time Disney stops making animated princess movies for like, a decade. DISNEY WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME?

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

We have a new Disney princess, and she’s not waiting around for a prince to come, she’s got CAREER GOALS. I love starting a Disney princess off with a dream that’s NOT a dude. Yeah, she EVENTUALLY gets the guys, but that’s not where her dreaming starts.

Tangled (2010)

What’s great about Tangled is it takes a classic “damsel in distress waiting around for a hero to rescue her” fairy tale (i.e. Rapunzel) and turns this princess into an active heroine in her own action-adventure reboot. Yes, she has a romance with her rescuer, but the two are much more partners in crime than they are classic Disney princess and prince.

Brave (2012)

Disney starts to do VERY interesting things with the idea of the Disney princess in the second decade of the new millennium. I think Brave might be the first Disney princess NOT to have a romance (Disney owns Pixar, so it counts).

Frozen (2013)

Meanwhile Frozen plays with the idea of what “true love” is, and introduces to the Disney canon the idea that one’s true love can be a sister.

Maleficent (2014)

In this year’s Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty’s true love turns out not to be her Prince Philip, but her fairy godmother Maleficent, who plays both heroine and villain in the story. Looks like things are moving right along.

Make no mistake, this is a solid evolution, but there’s still a lot I want from Disney princesses and their love stories. I would love to see a Disney princess have a best friendship with a dude that carries her through the film and doesn’t lead to romance at the end. I want a same-sex love story for two Disney princesses or two Disney princes, let’s get two films! I’m also pretty into the idea of a Disney princess and prince who are exes that have to team up for an adventure, and through the journey become friends again.

There are so many different permutations love and romantic love can take and as we dive further into the 21st century, it would be great for Disney to jump into all kinds of love head first. After all, a dream may be a wish your heart makes but today’s Disney princesses are no longer just subsisting on dreams.

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