There’s a common misconception that the classic Disney Princesses don’t represent modern, feminist values – and I’m here to debunk that myth.
As a reminder, the Classic Disney Princesses are Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Many people I have spoken to and articles I have read refer to these princesses as “damsels in distress” who “don’t have a personality” and are “just waiting to be rescued by a prince” (or some variation thereof). There’s also the common criticism that beauty is too highly valued in these old films. Whenever I hear this criticism, I can’t help but wonder when the last time these people actually watched these old Disney films. I also think these opinions reveal a bit of underlying sexism in themselves. But I’ll get to that.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching The Take’s video on Cinderella and Blaming the Victim. It talks about how the reason Cinderella doesn’t appear “sassy” or “empowered” is that she’s trapped in an abusive situation, and that like most people in these situations, she’s just trying to survive.
“Cinderella doesn’t stand up to her abusers in a traditionally masculine way. She doesn’t physically fight back, make daring plans of escape, or hold back her tears. So writing off Cinderella is on some level buying into masculine standards of strength and weakness. Saying her traits of kindness and perseverance aren’t good enough devalues femininity and it also presumes unfairly that a victim of abuse should fight back…Cinderella has no power in this dynamic, and she has no choice but to obey.”
(I also want to add that she has the sassiest comment in the entire film: “Maybe I should interrupt the, uh, ‘music lesson'”. ZING.)
Waiting to be rescued
Show White’s only reference to “wanting to be rescued by a prince” comes right at the beginning, where she wishes for true love (“I’m wishing, for the one I love, to find me, today”), and just before she takes a bite of the apple, where she wishes to live happily ever after with the prince she met at the start of the film. Similarly, Sleeping Beauty sings about wanting to find someone (“I wonder, if my heart keeps singing will my song go winging to someone who’ll find me and bring back a love song to me?”).
But wishing for love isn’t traditionalist or old-fashioned – it’s human. Many of the later Disney films, such as Frozen, Brave, and Moana, don’t include a love interest whatsoever, in an attempt to counter this. While there’s nothing wrong with this, there’s nothing wrong with wanting love either. I actually think the message that finding love makes you “weak” can be quite harmful, and can make women feel like they have to choose between a career and a family life. More on that later.
By contrast, Cinderella doesn’t even think about love until she runs into the prince at the castle. Her longing to go to the Royal Ball comes from her desire to escape a situation where she is working as a servant in her own home, abused by a wicked stepmother. It’s got nothing to do with finding a prince. In fact, both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty fall for their respective princes without realising that they are princes at all. So this idea that the Classic Disney Princesses were just waiting to be rescued is a complete myth – two of them want to find love, as we all do, and the third wants to escape from her terrible living conditions, even just for one night.
This one actually makes me a bit sad. So the original 3 don’t have the quirks of some of the Renaissance and Modern Disney princesses – they don’t have Ariel’s rebellious nature, or Jasmine’s determination to break with tradition, or Mulan’s courage and belief in herself. They’re not bookworms like Belle, or free spirits like Pocahontas, or aspiring business-owners like Tiana.
But they all have personality.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s Snow White’s kindness to a baby bird that stops the huntsman from being able to kill her – not her beauty. Snow white may fall into the traditional “speaking with birds” stereotype, but let’s not forget that she was the one to start it. Her ability to communicate with animals could represent a lack of bias and prejudice – she accepts everyone for who they are. She is also a responsible adult, despite being quite young; upon finding a deserted house in the woods, in terrible condition, with massive piles of dishes everywhere, she decides to take it upon herself to fix the situation – the ideal house guest. She also cooks for the dwarves and teaches them that washing your hands after working all day in a coal mine might be a good idea – a.k.a. BASIC HYGIENE. They should know this already. She is willing to take on the role of the “mother” in a household full of adults who never grew up. When faced with blatant misogyny from Grumpy, she not only tries to see the good in him, and look past his facade – she even bakes him a pie in order to befriend him. It’s this trusting naiveté that ends up being her downfall, when she believes the witch, one of the scariest, most dodgy characters in Disney history, to be a kind old lady.
Cinderella is also mostly defined by kindness and acceptance, making friends with the mice that live in her house – an animal many would consider a pest. Like Snow White, she is also responsible, taking care of the farm and making sure Gus gets something to eat when he’s too slow to grab the corn. She’s resourceful, making plans to update the design of an old-fashioned dress in order to go to the ball, and she’s an optimistic, glass-half-full sort of person.
Sleeping Beauty is your basic girl-next-door, a character trope that still appears. She also has arguably the best singing voice of all the princesses, with the voice actress going on to pursue a career in opera. She’s playful, with a sense of humour and an active imagination, and we see a glimpse of her dynamic with the fairies when she becomes suspicious of them asking her to pick berries. She’s also very clear about her desires and wishes. When she finds out she was born a princess, this leads to despair because of the implications of an arranged marriage.
The other thing to remember is that actually, the focus of these films isn’t really the princesses. Sure, they’re the main character of the story, but the films tend to centre on the comic relief. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” is arguably more about the dwarves than about Snow White, the mice take up about 80% of screentime in Cinderella (maybe it should have been called “Cinderella and the Mice”), and Sleeping Beauty mostly focuses on the fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. As such, it’s natural that we don’t see as much personality from the princesses – they’re almost side characters. The later Disney films have focused more on the journeys and personalities of the individual characters, rather than the framing of a fairy tale.
It’s telling that Walt Disney himself didn’t actually want to focus on princesses – he preferred the classic “cartoon-like” characters. It was the audience that loved this trope so much that the princesses have now become synonymous with Disney (see this video for more on that!)
Focus on Beauty
ALL the Disney princesses are beautiful. Current, Renaissance, and Classic. The main difference is that in the Classic Disney era, it’s more normal for other characters in the story to comment on the princess’ beauty. In Snow White and Cinderella, their beauty is directly contrasted with jealousy from the villains (both “evil stepmothers” in this case), and Sleeping Beauty is explicitly given the “gift of beauty” by one of the fairies. However, not a single Disney Princess isn’t beautiful. There could be many factors for why this is the case; it might be that audiences simply prefer to watch attractive characters in these roles, for example, or that it’s easier for people to identify with a protagonist that has no distinguishing facial features.
The other thing to remember is that all the Disney Princes are beautiful as well (with the notable exception of The Beast from Beauty in the Beast, who later turns back into his human form with luscious golden hair reminiscent of Brad Pitt in Troy). So let’s talk about the Disney Princes.
Are the Princes Any Better?
All of the criticisms above – wanting true love, not having much of a personality, being conventionally attractive – can be applied to the Disney Princes as well (or at the very least, to their fathers, who often seem to push marriage upon them, generally because they want a male heir).
Credited simply as “The Prince”, Snow White’s male protagonist doesn’t even have a name. Similarly, Cinderella’s future husband is referred to as “Prince Charming”. In Sleeping Beauty, the prince is finally given a name (Phillip). He also has a bit more personality than the former two, standing up to his father and refusing to conform to an arranged marriage (much like Princess Jasmine, in fact!)
Even Eric in The Little Mermaid doesn’t seem to contribute much to the film, other than falling in love with Ariel’s voice and then getting confused when a woman who looks nothing like the original singer suddenly has the same voice.
The Power of The Voice
A recurring theme in early Disney films is that the princes seem to fall in love with the heroine’s voice first and foremost. But although singing is a skill and talent, rather than strictly an expression of personality, it could be argued that in Disney’s universe, having a beautiful and expressive voice is a symbolic representation of being good conversation. It could be argued that, in a short space of time, a man liking a woman’s voice is emblematic for him liking what she has to say. Instead of showing us a full conversation pan out, these films might resort to symbolism in order to stick to the “fairytale” mould. As soon as an actual conversation replaces a blanket statement of “Wow, what a beautiful voice! I think I’m in love!”, we as the audience need to hear that conversation, and suddenly we might not be able to relate to the couple as much any more. What makes one person tick might not be as appealing to another, and particularly since these films were among the first ever fully animated motion-pictures, it would make sense not to take too many risks. In Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters’ lack of singing ability also supports this idea, showing us that they’re quite vapid and don’t have much to say.
On a personal note, I fell in love with my husband after one conversation. Sure, it was an extremely long conversation that lasted about 12 hours and took place in 5 different pubs, ranging from politics to history to human psychology, but it was still a single conversation. I therefore firmly believe it’s possible to know, or at least suspect someone is “the one” for you, not long after speaking to them. Imagine that, instead of hearing Aurora singing in the woods, Phillip had heard her give an impassioned speech to the woodland creatures. In today’s culture, we would find it much more believable that he would decide he was in love with her.
I think with these old films, we do need to use our imagination a bit in terms of what these people have said to one another. People don’t actually sing at each other, so the encounter between Phillip and Aurora might have involved more conversation that we see. There are actually quite a few cuts in the scene where they meet – they could easily have spoken about their desires, thoughts, and memories. Similarly for Prince Charming and Cinderella – we see them spending quite a bit of time together, dancing and strolling through the gardens – who’s to say they didn’t have a conversation in that entire time?
Many things aren’t portrayed explicitly in fairy tales – none of the characters take a bathroom break, for example (in fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen a toilet in a Disney film). I think portraying that first, magical conversation in which two people to fall in love because they realise how much they have in common and how interesting they find each other in the form of a song, dance, and wordless stroll, is actually quite poetic.
The Decline of Romance
I believe a big part of why people hate on these old love stories is that our idea of romance has changed. We have become significantly more cynical since these films came out, and modern day love stories are often portrayed with a healthy dose of realism. But we need to remember that films *aren’t* reality. Much like Aesop’s fables, they’re symbolic. I don’t think the love stories in the Classic Disney era are “unrealistic” – they’re simply a representation of love in fairy-tale form.
As someone who is very familiar with the world of opera, I can confirm that most operas stick to this mould of traditional storytelling. Does that stop them from being pieces of art that can be enjoyed? Does it mean that anyone watching need a special warning that “this isn’t real life”? Of course not – when stories have this format, it’s blindingly obvious that they’re not an accurate representation of real life.
Modern Feminist Values
I think this idea of love making you “weak” and stopping you from having “independence”, although positive from the point of view of encouraging women to put themselves first sometimes, can be detrimental to our overall happiness. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s also detrimental to men when their careers take precedence over their relationships. I think the idea that we need to “find ourselves” and “put ourselves first” at all costs, being encouraged by modern media to take a job that would move us far away from our spouses in order to advance our career, is misguided. Relationships take dedication and sacrifice. As much as the argument “your relationship could end and you’d regret not taking that job” holds, so does “you could lose your job or change career paths, and regret not giving that relationship a shot”.
I’m not by any means saying we should prioritise relationships over careers (for the record, I think we should, although I think often this advice applies more to men who become obsessed with their work). What I am saying is, let’s not blame the characters in these films for having different priorities. Caring about your relationships doesn’t mean you can’t have feminist values as well. Wanting to find love and having traditionally “feminine” qualities such as being kind, caring, and patient don’t make you a “damsel in distress with no personality waiting to be rescued” – and to say otherwise is, in itself, a little sexist.
I think it’s fantastic that Disney now has a very wide range of Disney Princesses with individual personalities and with different stories. But I don’t think we should write off the original three – they may not seem as “modern” to us, but their stories and perspectives are equally valid, and equally beautiful.