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Have Disney Princesses Evolved?

mgz24's picture

Have Disney Princesses Evolved?

I have always been a Disney fan; I grew up watching Disney movies, and still know a range of Disney songs.  Thinking about the influence that these movies had on me growing up, I realized that they are really a symbol of our culture.  After coming to that realization, I moved on to the question of evolution.  I decided to focus on the Disney princess movies, because they have a common thread that could easily be compared.  At first glance I decided that there was definitely an evolutionary pattern in the movies, but the question was whether or not it was a true evolution. 

My next thought was that it was only two years ago that Disney put out a movie that starred a black princess.  When I started looking at more dates I saw that it was only 1992 when the first princess of color appeared.  That first princess was Jasmine in Aladdin.  It was 1995 when the first American princess of color appeared; that princess was Pocahontas.  Then in 1998, the Chinese Mulan was created.  It amazes me that after that 5-year stretch it took another 11 years for a black princess to appear.  Everyone is taught in school about the evolution of African Americans in the U.S. from slavery to segregation to the civil rights movement to equality.  Racial issues in our society have been evolving for years, yet Disney, which can be thought of as an important cultural marker, has been years behind the evolution of the society that it represents.  In her article “A Black Disney Princess: ‘That’s Evolution’” Donna Britt notes that 20 years ago “the human characters in animated features…were overwhelmingly white” (Britt).  The black children of that era didn’t regularly see blacks in movies or television shows that were aimed at kids.  There was no one that they could look up to that looked like them.  As important as it is that Disney now has added a black princess to the iconic list it is important to note that a black princess isn’t as necessary in 2010 as it was in 1980 because there are so many more blacks on screen for kids to look up to (Britt).  Maybe then the importance of Tiana as a princess is that she is just like the other princesses.  “[She] must find true love and be aided by critters…before her dream comes true” (Britt).  This shows that maybe Disney has, at least in one sense, evolved in a timely matter.  Tiana’s role as a Disney princess lies in what she must find and overcome, which is no different than the other princesses, showing the level of equality that our society has evolved to (at least in the theoretical sense). 

The second string of evolution that can be seen in the princesses is in the characterization of them as women.  The list below is the “rescue” of each princess in chronological order. 

·      Snow White-A handsome prince who awakens her from cursed sleep with a love-conquers-all kiss

·      Cinderella-A handsome prince who loves her because she’s really hot

·      Sleeping Beauty-A handsome prince who awakens her from cursed sleep with a love-conquers-all kiss

·      The Little Mermaid-The strong-willed Ariel pretty much rescues herself, at first making a few mistakes and then convincing dad to give her a pair of legs

·      Beauty and the Beast-Belle changes her own lot, falling in love with a large hairy creature and thereby nabbing herself a good-looking bf and a servant-filled mansion in the process

·      Aladdin-Her true love Aladdin, the wily street rat who wins Jasmine’s heart despite his poverty status and near-constant dishonesty

·      Pocahontas-The chief’s daughter does the rescuing. She saves John Smith from getting his head bashed in AND helps prevent war between the natives and the settlers. On top of that, Pocahontas (this Pocahontas, anyway) stays with her tribe rather than going to England with Smith. That’s quite independent of her

·      Mulan-Mulan does ALL the rescuing here. She rescues her father from enlistment, her love interest from an avalanche and even the Emperor of China from the Huns (Mertes)


Here, as with race, you can see that the characterization of the princesses “[has] evolved from demure stunners who dreamed only of love to feisty forces who defy intolerance, teach others to love nature, and don Dad’s armor to save China” (Britt).  The question again comes with the timing of the evolution.  The first princess to start to carve her own way was Ariel in The Little Mermaid, which premiered in 1989.  This means that Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), all featured ideas that were in stark contrast with the feminist movement, which as a benchmark, gained the right to vote in 1920.  Even as the princesses started to evolve there is still one part of their stories that has not changed.  In order for the princesses to live happily ever after, they must fall in love with a handsome prince.  This unrealistic outcome, of even the more recent, “more evolved” princesses, has been noted as can be seen in the attached cartoon.  We can see from this cartoon the emphasis on beauty and status.  It is important to note two things in the cartoon.  Firstly the most recent of these movies was made in 1992, long after our society had evolved to recognize the equality between men and women.  And secondly that this cartoon does not include the later Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana who take charge of their lives and are much more modern women.  Again here we can see that Disney has evolved their princesses, it’s just been behind the times in doing so. 

In thinking of an explanation for this trend I was reminded of the movie Adaptation and how it struggled to adapt a novel to a movie.  The one “excuse” that Disney could use to explain why its princesses did not evolve with the times is that all of the princess movies are based on prior works (or a real person in the case of Pocahontas).  Although it is true that all of the Disney princess movies are adaptations of other works, it would be a cop-out to use this as an excuse for lagging behind the evolution of the society.  This is because all of the previous works have been in existence for years, so for example, Disney could have produced Pocahontas far earlier than 1995.  In essence in evolutionary terms the Disney princesses have in fact evolved in a way that has followed the path of America’s social evolution, but I don’t think we can consider this as a true evolution because the premise was already there.  The real evolution happened in our society.  The Disney princesses were just a way to show the social changes.  If Disney had truly wanted to lead an evolution it should have started to modify its princesses as the society was just starting to change. 



Works Cited

Britt, Donna. “A Black Disney Princess: ‘That’s Evolution.’” Politics Daily. AOL News, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <‌2009/‌05/‌01/‌a-black-disney-princess-thats-evolution/>.

Brunner, Jeff. “Evolution of the Disney Princess.” Cartoon. Sociological Images.  Ed. Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp. The Society Pages, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <‌socimages/‌2009/‌10/‌25/‌disney-princesses-deconstructed/>.

Mertes, Micah. “Disney Princesses through the Years.” Lincoln Journey Star. N.p., 10 Dec. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <‌entertainment/‌article_34967c7c-e50d-11de-a439-001cc4c002e0.html>.