A Different Disney Princess Problem
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Once upon a time...
Classic Disney Princesses have taken a lot of flak over the years for many reasons, ranging from their portrayed body composition, considerable reliance on male counterparts for help, limited number of speaking lines, promotion of monarchy, and low intelligence.
A study conducted by Brigham Young University reported, “...engagement with Disney Princess culture isn’t so harmless—it can influence preschoolers to be more susceptible to potentially damaging stereotypes. These stereotypical behaviors aren’t bad in and of themselves, but past research has shown that they can be limiting in the long term for young women.”
This understanding of child development can be linked to Child Mimicry. According to Markus Paulus of the Jacobs Foundation of Children Research:
“Longitudinal studies have confirmed that imitation plays an important role in a child’s development. They have found correlations between the amount of imitation that takes place during the first two years of a child’s life and subsequent language and social development.” (2019)
One could argue, “If a boy enjoys dressing up as a woman, it’s because he saw this in a Bugs Bunny cartoon”. If such children have difficulty separating fact from fantasy, clearly cartoons are not to blame here and a bigger psychosocial issue may be present, but I digress.
Are concerns about Disney Princesses justified or are the issues suggested merely cherry picked by critics? This review examines the role official Disney Princesses play in their own movies, if they are deserving of the comments levied against them and if correlations can be made regarding the reasons for the accusations.
The definition of Disney Princess requires each damsel meet the following criteria:
Experiences a "near death experience"
Human - Sorry Nala & President Vanellope Von Schweetz. Tinkerbell was part of Disney's Princess line, but was ultimately moved to the fairy side of the castle. Ariel, a mermaid, was given an exception because The Little Mermaid movie grossed over $200M worldwide and won 2 Oscars, according to IMDB.
Born into or marry royalty - Mulan was granted an exception and Tiana’s marriage sparks a point of contention regarding the validity of a wedding ceremony while in frog form. This ceremony could be considered a pretense for undue influence and thus nullify the marriage contract. To resolve this and all other points regarding validity, Tiana and Prince Naveen could remarry as humans.
Shoe horned - Those that are promoted because of undefinable reasons. This part was tricky because Elsa was a queen in her movie, but got downgraded to princess status. Anna and Elsa were planned to be part of the current Princess line, but when the Frozen franchise had such big box office successes there were concerns that the franchise would dwarf the other princesses. Subsequently, Anna and Elsa were moved to their own private section of the castle.
Currently, there are thirteen, official Disney Princesses:
Snow White of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
Cinderella of Cinderella (1950)
Aurora of Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Ariel of The Little Mermaid (1989)
Belle of Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Jasmine of Aladdin (1992)
Pocahontas of Pocahontas (1995)
Mulan of Mulan (1998)
Tiana of The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Rapunzel of Tangled (2010)
Merida of Brave (2012)
Moana of Moana (2016)
Raya of Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Now that the criteria has been set, we can look at something that can be measured: intelligence. Without being able to sit them all down and give our princesses IQ tests, we can only measure intelligence in how they respond to character-developing situations. This can be done by asking:
Does the princess need to be rescued in some way during the movie?
Does the princess save someone else?
Does the princess team-up with someone and do they save the day together?
What came together completely destroyed the hypothesis and forced a reevaluation of the connotation of a Disney Princess. The findings have been categorized into three outcomes. Later, these outcomes are categorized and associated into three groups.
When a princess has two living parents who actively play a role in raising the child, the princess does the majority of the hero's work. If the heroine does the majority of the work, she will not be romantically involved by the end of the movie.
When the princess has at least one parent alive, the hero's work is shared between her and a male counterpart. By the end of the movie the heroine and the hero will be romantically involved.
When the princess has both parents that are not in the picture (indicating Aurora of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel of Tangled) these individuals are portrayed to lack the intelligence to think on their own and are most likely to get hit by a parked car. They are simply present in the movie and make insignificant contributions.
Here is how the Disney Princesses are categorized when the previously mentioned outcomes were applied.
Group A: “The Lone Wolf / Solo Lobo”
Mulan and Merida are the only two that fall in this category. Mulan fooled everyone into thinking she was male, saved China from a Mongol invasion, and saved the Emperor of China. Merida carried the entire movie with only minor support from her three younger brothers. Both storylines ended without the heroine becoming romantically involved. Although romantic inclinations between Fa Mulan and Li Shang were implied in the original animated cinematic film released in 1998, this article does not acknowledge the plot and storyline of Mulan II (2004) because it is not a cinematic-release film. Therefore, for the purposes of this argument, the romantic relationship between Fa Mulan and Li Shang remains “implied”.
Exception: Arguably, Pocahontas is a member of Group A because Disney portrayed her as having two parents - one living and one spiritual. Throughout the movie, Pocahontas required minor support while John Smith was utilized as a plot device. Though the real Pocahontas was an adolescent at the time the movie is set in, Disney animated her with the physique of an adult woman. While on the topic of historical anachronisms, Willow trees were not introduced to the Americas until 1730 from China; making Linda Hunt’s “Grandmother Willow'' character some 150-years ahead of historic events, and possibly a time traveler.
Group B: “Royal and Loyal”
These princesses needed assistance at some point in the movie but performed heroic acts throughout: Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Moana, Tiana (her father was portrayed, but passed early in her childhood while fighting in World War One), and Rapunzel. Elsa the (Downgraded) and Anna of the Frozen franchise would be members of this group if they were included in the Disney Princess line. This 50/50 relationship stresses the importance of teamwork and cooperation. Belle, after being saved from a pack of wild wolves, later saves the Beast from a Gaston attack. Jasmine helps distract Jafar long enough to give Aladdin a chance to come up with a plan. Elsa and Anna save each other lives. Rapunzel does not discover the truth about her past until she receives help from Flynn Rider to push the plot forward. In the end, the long-lost princess Rapunzel and Flynn Rider work together in order to discover her true identity and the reality of her past.
Exception: In the original ending, Moana was supposed to have a love interest but Disney later changed plans after negative responses from test audiences.
Group C: “Princess, Please”
These princesses rarely receive good guidance, or are portrayed as gullible, throughout the movie. A woodsman instructs Snow White to run away, then, without considering any other options, she runs away. Later in the movie, she falls in love with the first man she sees after waking up from a coma without asking who he is and why is he kissing her.
One point of contention in this storyline is the degree by which Snow White is familiar with the Prince. Although the Prince and Snow White may have met prior to her disappearance, does this first meeting make appropriate the Prince kissing Snow White the second time they meet? Arguably, Snow White is a victim of circumstance. The evil queen is an oblivious matriarch too preoccupied with soliciting beauty advice from a disembodied face in a mirror to be a positive role model and offer Snow White an education in the nuances of politics.
Another point of contention is Disney’s portrayal of the Evil Queen (little known as Grimhilde). When did “evil” become synonymous with “incompetent”, Disney? The queen’s failures are amplified when some random guy wanders into her castle without proper introduction. No guards, security walls, or even magic can prevent uninvited guests from strolling into this palace. The Prince easily jumps over the wall with a smile on his face to court Snow White. A peasant armed with a pointy stick could have threatened and toppled the monarchy. With such a poor mentor at her “disposal”, Snow White never had a chance, and would only be of use if installed as a puppet monarch for a shadow government. Disney’s unintentional lesson: “Having a competent mentor who cares about your well-being is important.”
Aurora, of Sleeping Beauty, can blame her parents for her lack of education. The king and queen were both alive, but failed as parents. Instead of enlightening her on the danger of cursed, spinning wheels and educating her in the affairs of statecraft, they give up their only heir to a trio of random fairies. The king doesn’t even vet, interview, or investigate the trio to determine if they are capable of raising a child. One would think that having three educated, magic users would have helped Aurora in some way. Teaching her Machiavellian-style politics or how to survive an attempted coup was not on their priority list.
Another point of contention for this storyline is Disney’s portrayal of the fairies themselves as incompetent - is this depiction based on their gender, age or use of magic?
“We will watch over her!” the fairy protectors loudly proclaimed.
You three fairies had one job, and since Aurora touched a cursed, magical spinning wheel and later runs off with the first guy she sees, they did not even get that right. No one bothered to check if Aurora was related to Prince Phillip. Maleficent could have easily enchanted Prince Phillip and Game of Thrones her head off. In her defense, Aurora knew how to operate a broom without assistance from animals - unlike Snow White.
Cinderella’s portrayal fared little better in the intelligence department. Despite lacking guidance from her biological parents to help her, she relied on a dog, mice and birds to meet her social needs for contact. She is able to clean, cook and sew, on occasion with animal assistance. She is the only princess in this group who would not die of starvation if locked inside a grocery store. If it were not for the intervention of her Fairy Godmother, animal assistants, and Prince Charming, the movie would not have progressed. Cinderella, who has little to no agency or personal initiative in the movie, would still be cleaning chimneys and sweeping floors for Lady Tremaine and her “wicked” stepsisters. Cinderella takes a reactive role and only responds to what happens to her instead of proactively seeking to change her circumstances.
According to the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey:
“All of these external forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power–you have the freedom to choose your response. One of the most important things you choose is what you say. Your language is a good indicator of how you see yourself. A proactive person uses proactive language–I can, I will, I prefer, etc. A reactive person uses reactive language–I can’t, I have to, if only. A reactive person believes they are not responsible for what they say or do, and therefore have no choice.”
The conclusion drawn from all of this: Two parents will grant a character success in the Disney universe, but the character will remain forever alone. An adult raised in a two-parent home is more proactive and better prepared to handle life’s turmoil. Coming from a single-parent household will not only make you happy, but make it easy to find a partner, and you will form lasting bonds in a life filled with music, singing and possibly a cute animal assistant to provide comic relief. With no parents to offer guidance in the Disney-verse, you are more likely to strangle yourself with a cordless phone. In such a case, this princess can be considered “lucky” if she participates in a CIA or a Russian SVR backed coup in her future.
About the Author
A Texan at heart, Dr. C. Katze is a recipient of several Copy Boy awards and has written for The Grey Point of View since 2021. After experiencing life-changing travel with the US military, Dr. C. Katze now enjoys a sip of wine on his balcony overlooking the Bavarian sunset. Alternatively, when he is not serving as a Combat Medic for the US military, Dr. C. Katze can be found on an Italian beach - pouring Limoncello over his ice cream - with his life-partner and their black cat.
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