Redefining the Disney Princess

by Brielle E. Wyka

Just like every other stereotypical little girl, I too was obsessed with princesses at one point. My mother (I later learned) was not as fond of my obsession as I thought. She bought me the movies and the Halloween costumes, but in more recent years she’s admitted to the fact that she would have rathered I picked different role models. As a child, I saw no problem with constantly searching for a boy to come and sweep me off my feet while I waltz around in a lavish ball gown and fabulous heels, but as I got older things changed. I started to realize the anti-feminist stigma around princesses – the Disney ones specifically – and I started to feel myself tearing apart. A part of me wanted to hold onto the romanticized version of life, the life where I could still grow up to be a princess, but another part of me wanted a more empowering version, the life where I commanded my own fate. For most of my life, I thought Disney princesses shaped who I was, and I thought that my personal values were starting to change because I was just growing up. In reality, they were just as near and dear to my heart as they had been… it’s just that they had also grown up.

The first Disney princess was Snow White, who debuted in the 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Then came Cinderella in 1950, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) in 1959, Ariel (1989), Belle (1991), and Jasmine (1992). It’s understandable why my mom was so opposed to me aspiring to be these princesses – their stories are mostly controlled by the men in their lives. They might have feminist qualities about them here and there, but for the most part, their happily ever afters are still ones where they’ve found their true loves and settle down into marriage. That sends the message to girls that their end goal in life should be just that – happily married in true love. Not only is unrealistic to portray that true love is so easy to find, but it’s doing girls a disservice to show them that they can’t do much else than find a husband.

But something changed for Disney princesses right around the nineties, right around the time Gen Z were taking their first breaths. Disney released Pocahontas in 1995, a film that puts a strong female protagonist at the forefront of the plot, and focuses on her determination to save her people. It was the beginning of a new trend. Next came Mulan. Released in 1998, Mulan is mostly about defying gender roles and social norms to be what you want to be and realize your full potential, simultaneously empowering women and exemplifying gender equality. These princesses didn’t end up happily married in true love at the end of their stories. They had a goal they set out to achieve and they succeeded through their power and determination. This is the message that the little girls looking up to them deserve.

The princesses of Gen Z don’t have the same stigma around them as those of most of the 20th century. Mulan was the first official Disney Gen Z princess whose story was also the second highest grossing family film of 1998 – a testament to its popularity and an indication that Gen Z was going to grow differently than generations of the past. Millenials had to find and develop their feminism, but Gen Z would be raised in it.

The Princess and the Frog, released in 2009, gives voice to a strong independent female entrepreneur and also brought the fourth person of color in a row to be an official Disney Princess. Tiana was also the first American Disney Princess, opening up an area of representation that never occurred to most people. Suddenly, you no longer had to be from a foreign land to become a princess – you could just be your good ol’ American self.

In 2010, Rapunzel rescues her prince at the end of the story, proving that it’s not always the man’s job to save the woman. Merida’s bravery in 2012 puts an emphasis on independence and going against the grain to pursue what you love, and teaches those around her that there’s value to strong, empowered women. Gen Z does not have a Disney princess that allows men to control the plot – the Disney princesses of our generation can handle themselves just fine. Gone are the days of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, where women need to wait around for someone to come and rescue them. Today, we have Mulan and Merida to show us that our destiny is ours to make, that our strength is much more valuable than our complacency, and that men don’t have to be part of our narrative.

Elsa, Ana, and Moana have not yet become official Disney Princesses, and it’s up for debate if they ever will be, but they’ve definitely contributed to the more empowering image that modern Disney princesses assume. With representation on the rise in the industry, many fans are wondering when an LGBTQ+ princess will arrive on the scene. There’s a strong case to make Elsa the face of that change, but we’ll have to wait and see. Thirty years ago, such a push for representation wouldn’t have been heard of, but Gen Z doesn’t have a problem with it. They’ve seen how far Disney Princesses have come and are now offering their voices to what they could be.

Moana, a princess worthy of all the feminist applause she’s receiving, has been praised for her body positive image and the fact that she’s sixteen and without a love interest, unlike most other princesses her age. Most of Gen Z is still very much in their “Disney Princess phase,” and for them, twentieth-century princesses probably won’t be as relevant to them as they are to other generations. The strong female leads they’ve seen on the silver screen look a lot more like them than the classic fairy tale protagonists the rest of the world knows. The message that these new heroes send makes it possible for today’s youth to be inspired to reach their full potential, for them to make limitless goals and be fierce and determined and brave as they achieve their dreams.

At the beginning of my Disney Princess journey, I was ever so attached to the classic princesses, clinging to an image of the past and blind to the possibilities of the future. Without even realizing it, as I was growing into the strong, independent woman I am today, so were the princesses I hold so dear to my heart. Being a princess doesn’t mean the same thing as it did fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago. They’re no longer a symbol of oblivious glamour and true romance. Once upon a time happens when you decide it does. A land far far away may just be a little closer to home than you think. Happily ever after is something you set out to achieve on your own terms. Modern Disney Princesses understand that the story is much better when you’re the one controlling the narrative, and modern princesses in real life are catching on.

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