The Evolution of the Disney Princess
'The values that Disney are teaching have changed.
The Princesses have love but do not need love.'
The classic Disney princess is a figure that filled all our screens whilst growing up. Be it Snow White or Aurora, Ariel, or Cinderella we all had a favourite damsel in distress. Romance and magic ruled our screens and each princess had a dashing handsome prince in tow. There are exceptions of course to every rule like brave and bold Mulan. Then again, there are some questionable song choices in that film; ‘Make a man out of you’ is not a motto to pass onto the next generation.
Times are changing! Isn’t that true. For the wider world and for Disney. The princess we want to see on our screen, she does not need a man. The last thing anyone wants to see is the dashing prince riding to the rescue. How antiquated. The modern princess is fiercely independent. Her spirit is tenacious. She is passionate and kind.
Nowadays, our prince is the one being saved, or they save each other. The prince climbs the tower only there is no princess waiting for him. Family comes first and romance is secondary. Sometimes, there is no prince! It is all changing! I have taken some of the key themes that have made the modern Disney princess films so popular.
The Lack of the Prince
There is no sign of a prince in Moana (2016). Instead, we have Maui (Breathe it in)!! Played by Dwayne Johnson, Maui the demigod is in no way there to save Moana! In fact, his first act in the film is to try and get rid of her which of course does not work. He does help Moana out of the odd sticky situation, but she is not a lady who needs saving. Moana is brave, a quick thinker and she can fight, she will fight for what she knows and what she believes in! Moana loves her people, her family, and her island. The drive of this film lies in this love and her need to save them.
Moana is our princess and there is a horrible curse, but this time it is not on her. It is on her people. There is no cursed sleep, or true love’s kiss. Instead a feisty princess who will do anything to save her home. Moana constantly astounds Maui the shapeshifting demigod proving that this princess just does not need a prince. Moana is a heroine and a saviour. This princess needs nobody.
Family over romance
Frozen (2013) and Frozen II (2019) have a common theme at their core. The relationship between sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) is at the heart of these films. The romance between Anna and Hans and Anna and Kristoff, is secondary. The fact that Hans is a parody of the saviour prince just highlights that these two films are so much more about the powerful women within them.
In Frozen II the importance of family is made abundantly clear. The plot of Kristoff’s many attempts to propose to Anna is played for laughs instead of being central to the story. Instead Anna and Elsa journey into their pasts and toward self-discovery. Each time Kristoff tries to propose it is used as light relief accumulating in his big song ‘Lost in the Woods’ which is simply brilliant. The fact Kristoff is emotionally and physically lost and alone highlights how important Elsa and Anna are to each other. Kristoff is left to fend for himself. This ‘sisters before misters’ love feels a little on the nose at times, but it is refreshing to see genuine sisterly connections built into Disney’s tentpole productions.
The Self-Made Woman
In the classic world of Disney there is a prince and a princess. They never seem to have to work for a living. The Princess and the Frog (2009) spins this classic tale and destroys the normal tropes. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a self-made woman who has worked hard her entire life. This woman is not a princess in anything but spirit. All her work is for her and her father’s dream of owning a restaurant. When we meet her, she is ‘almost there’ and with no help from anyone, least of all a dashing prince. This refreshing angle does not confine Tiana but shows how with a dream and a lot of hard work anyone can make their own mark on the world. In fact, the actual princess in this story is a little naïve and her dream for a fairy-tale love in real life is seen similarly. The classic Disney princess has no place here anymore.
The prince and Tiana do fall in love in this story. It has conditions though, he understands her dream and for Tiana, she could never give up that restaurant. A normal girl marries the prince becoming a princess, but she never loses the values and principles her daddy instilled in her. Tiana runs her restaurant and the prince plays for her in it, and the best bit is she is technically his boss.
Tiana has it all by the end of Princess and the Frog. This princess gets it through hard work, she deserves for her dreams to come true and the prince does not make them happen, he just makes them that bit more magical for her through love.
Does she even need saving?
The story of Rapunzel is another classic. Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair. We all know this one, a girl locked in an impossibly tall tower with long hair and a dashing prince who climbs up and saves her. Disney’s Tangled (2010) flips this fairy-tale upside down and inside out. Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) is a thief who escapes the palace guards by hiding in the tower. He is not a prince and he is not there to save Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), not that she needs it. After some impressive frying pan action there is no doubt that this princess can fend for herself. Even in their ‘escape’ from the tower, with Flynn climbing carefully and Rapunzel gracefully swinging down behind him unaided, the focus is on her. The film depicts Rapunzel taking on the world and saving both herself and Flynn time and time again.
This Rapunzel clearly did not need saving, she just needed a reason to save herself. She does fall in love with the troublesome Flynn but in anything but the classic Disney fashion. If anything, Flynn falls for Rapunzel first (much like The Princess and the Frog.) Her dream is to see the lanterns that fly on her birthday and that is her driving motivation for much of this film. It is refreshing to see that while there is love in the new Disney princess tale it is not a central or driving force in the first two acts of the film.
The values that Disney are teaching have changed. Our Princess have love but they do not need it. These women are fighters who stand up for what they believe in and work hard for their dreams. Family is a core theme throughout these film when it used to be love. It plays a part in the dreams of all of our Princesses. Disney Princesses have evolved and in line with modern ideas help enforce the importance of hard work, courage and love. These are what we need to achieve our dreams and find our place in life.