The Evolution of the Disney Princess

Disney - Snow White And Seven Dwarfs Mural

Express Monorail / Flikr / CC BY 2.0

For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when the subject of Walt Disney’s animated movies comes up is probably the studio’s ongoing emphasis on princesses. Since making their debut in 1937 with Snow White, Disney has effectively cornered the market on princesses and their romantically-inclined exploits.

It’s worth noting, however, that the studio has come a long way in terms of their treatment of these characters. Once subservient and overly feminine, today’s princesses are just as independent and strong as anyone else within the animated landscape – with the recent introduction of Disney’s first African-American princess, Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, marking a new chapter in the studio’s legacy.

The Original Princess Trifecta

The various touchstones audiences have come to expect from the princess genre were laid out within Disney’s first stab at a full-length animated feature, as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs contains such instantly-recognizable elements as the wicked stepmother, the comedic sidekicks, and the dashing prince. The rather sexist treatment of the title character – once she’s accepted by Doc, Grumpy, and the rest of the dwarfs, Snow White essentially becomes their housekeeper – is right in line with other releases from that era, and it’s worth noting that Snow White’s ultimate fate is left in the hands of a man.

The incredible success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs paved the way for such animation classics as 1940’s Pinocchio, and 1941’s Dumbo, yet Disney wouldn’t return to the princess genre until 1950 with Cinderella. The movie, which followed the formula established by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs almost down to the letter, features a main character who is either unable or unwilling to stand up to her various oppressors, and, as was the case with Snow White, Cinderella isn’t able to achieve her happy ending until an outside force steps in to help (in this case it’s her fairy godmother).

The pattern of the kind yet helpless princesses continued with 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, with the film’s protagonist, Princess Aurora, falling prey to an evil fairy’s curse on the eve of her 16th birthday. Sleeping Beauty’s lackluster box office performance could be attributed to the familiarity of its storyline, as the film boasts many of the elements contained within both of its predecessors – including the revelation that Princess Aurora can only be awoken from her deep slumber by a kiss from her one true love (which is, of course, right out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

The Lady Vanishes

It’s not surprising to note that princess-themed movies disappeared from Disney’s production slate after that point, with the studio instead focused on such underwhelming efforts as 1970’s The Aristocats, 1977’s The Rescuers, and 1981’s The Fox and the Hound. It wasn’t until the release of 1989’s The Little Mermaid that Disney was once again top of the box-office heap, with the movie’s success undoubtedly due in part to its reliance on the old-fashioned themes that originally defined the studio’s family-friendly brand.

The Little Mermaid, as well as 1991's Beauty and the Beast and 1992’s Aladdin, effectively updated the princess formula for an entirely new generation, with the emphasis on old-school elements offset by the inclusion of distinctly contemporary attributes (including rapid-fire jokes and modern-sounding songs). The three films’ throwback-heavy storyline was especially noticeable in their treatment of the princess characters, as Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine, in the tradition of their royal predecessors, are forced to behave passively as others help them achieve their respective goals.

Warrior Princesses on the Rise

Young girls wouldn’t have to wait much longer for a strong role model, however, as Disney unleashed their most independent and downright fierce princess to date in 1995 with the release of Pocahontas. In addition to fighting side-by-side with her male counterparts, Pocahontas ultimately plays a pivotal role in saving the life of the man she loves – which is quite the turnaround from the princesses of yore, who were usually powerless to affect their own fate and would often wait around to be rescued by others.

Pocahontas was practically a pushover compared to Disney’s next princess, as the title character in 1998’s Mulan goes so far as to disguise herself as a boy in order to join her country’s army. Voiced by Ming-Na Wen, Mulan is an accomplished warrior who manages to come off as tough and independent without sacrificing her feminine qualities. With their most recent release, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, Disney has struck an appropriate balance between the kind-hearted (yet helpless) princesses of yesteryear and the strong, girl-power-oriented heroes that today’s young women have come to expect.