Disney is an institution synonymous with princesses. They are the owners of a mammoth marketing and merchandising machine that has seen their heroines make regular (and often overwhelming) appearances at any fancy dress occasion internationally for the past 25 years. In the wake of Disney’s latest princess-based release, a live-action remake of their 1950 telling of the fairytale Cinderella, how has the studio’s representation of their female leads changed throughout their history? Many modern mothers have balked at the traditional character presented by Lily James as Cinderella in 2015, but are Disney truly the pedlars of old-fashioned and anti-feminist stereotypes in gender-segregating stories that the more modern and discerning twenty-first century audience fears?
Walt Disney Studios released their first princess-led fairytale in 1937 with the revolutionary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature. From here, the hallmarks of most princess and fairytale characteristic stem: a quavering soprano, anthropomorphic woodland creatures as the girl’s only friends and an innate goodness and compassion (some read: lack of true personality). There was also the niggle of the bland prince, who Snow White briefly meets but once for a Disney Duet, conveniently happening to be her One True Love™, and upon whom our heroine is entirely reliant to rescue her from the most passive state possible (enchanted sleep, dependent on true love’s kiss) and improve her life no end by riding off with her into the sunset. It is only fair, however, to put both the fairytale and film into context: neither the Brothers Grimm, those responsible for first recording a version of the story on paper, nor 1930s Hollywood were quite the place to find empowered and independent female lead characters.
The next chapter in Disney princesses was not released until 1950, when Cinderella helped Walt Disney Studios out of a $4m debt hole they’d found themselves in post-World War II. As far as Disney was concerned, there could be no simple repetition of their last fairytale and techniques were constantly pushed in all areas. Cinderella the character found herself with a slice of sophistication and knowingness courtesy of animator Marc Davis, which was married together with Eric Larsen’s insistence on a simple sweetness for her too. There were still chatty mice friends for Cinders though, and a fair amount of dreamy, wistful singing for Ilene Woods as our heroine. The official Prince Charming was not much of a development in the male lead department either, and after just a dance (and Disney Duet) it fell upon him to come and rescue Cinderella from her abusive stepfamily. Sigh.
Bookending the fifties with Cinderella, 1959 saw Disney release Sleeping Beauty. This picture certainly demonstrated a departure in design for the studios with medieval inspiration working alongside a modern graphic look to create a ‘moving tapestry’, courtesy of animator Eyvind Earle. There was unfortunately not such a refreshing change for our princess, who was still trilling, dancing (unbeknownst) with her prince (cue Disney Duet) before falling immediately in love and then into a cursed sleep from which only his kiss can awaken her… sounding familiar? And don’t forget the frolicking woodland creatures. It seems our two fifties girls, Cinderella and Aurora, were still rather stuck in the housewife era.
Due to an initially poor performance at the box office from Sleeping Beauty, there was a gap between princess-led films that most usually forget despite the fact it lasted 30 years. During this time, Disney was not the princess factory, but rather focusing on live-action films alongside animation – and struggling to stay afloat. Its next project, however, would spark the beginning of the Disney Renaissance and introduce the first character in its second trio of its wildly popular princesses – Ariel. 1989’s The Little Mermaid was a real test for the studios as it was a story originally picked out by Walt Disney in the 1930s for development. Times had changed though, and animators wanted to breathe life into the genre by creating a princess “more real and identifiable than any heroine we’ve done before” (hooray!). The focus of this picture was to be a teenage girl growing up and the struggle for her father in letting her go. Ariel was allowed to be inquisitive, sulky and real! Then, however, we were tripped up by the source material (or Disney’s version of it), courtesy of Hans Christian Andersen – Ariel falls in love with Prince Eric and it is only his kiss that will allow her to remain human and regain her voice (traded for legs with Ursula), thus living happily ever after together. We were so close.
The colossal success of The Little Mermaid had Disney continuing on the princess trail, and with their next two animated releases, girl-power breakthrough seemed all but complete. Both Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Jasmine in Aladdin may fall in love with their princes, but their lives do not depend on it. It is actually Belle that rescues the Beast through her love, and it is Jasmine who already lives in the royal palace and lifts Aladdin out of obscurity and poverty. Neither princess is perfect either – Belle is snobby about her “poor provincial town” and Jasmine is rather spoiled – but they both have smarts (Belle reads, rejoice!) and value themselves.
The ‘official’ set of six Disney princesses may now be complete, but Walt Disney Studios were not done with their princesses and were ready for diversification and to veer away from customary fairytale adaptations. The mid-to-late nineties brought in females from history (Pocahontas), literature (Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame), mythology (Megara in Hercules) and legend (Mulan). Esmeralda and Meg were not titled leads, but they were similar in that Disney allowed a degree of sex appeal and sass on screen through these characters, and they were allowed to do things ‘wrong’ (Esmeralda doesn’t love Quasimodo back, Meg starts off working for Hades). Pocahontas and Mulan may have their standard male leads, but it is the two of them that do the important rescuing of John Smith and Shang, respectively. They also have strong feelings on the role they must undertake and defy their fathers to do what is right, stopping wars and saving China in the process – as you do.
These ladies then bring us to the twenty-first century and further animated (and live-action) princesses from 2007 onwards (Disney were probably panicking about the F-word until then). Going animated first, Tiana, in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, was Disney’s first black princess and more concerned with her dreams of opening a restaurant than falling in love with the annoying Prince Naveen, who rudely turns her into a frog. Rapunzel, in 2010’s Tangled , does have to have a fair amount of innocence having been stuck in a tower her whole life, but her mission is to find the floating lanterns (not love) and she proves handy with a frying pan and quite immune to Flynn Rider’s ‘smoulder’ at the beginning. Merida is a feminist’s delight in Brave – there is no prince! It’s all about family instead, and she’s handy with a bow and she’s a tomboy… But it’s back to boys being involved for Frozen and Disney’s most successful film ever. It is sisterly love that takes centre stage though, and the ‘Love is an Open Door’ singing montage is certainly a pastiche of the standard Disney Duet.
Disney live-action princesses have also shown the studio is capable of mocking itself – 2007’s Enchanted is all about how completely unrealistic princess lives are in comparison to modern day, and Giselle’s ‘Happy Working Song’, where here her anthropomorphised pals include cockroaches and rats, and ability to feel anger in the real world (and how happy that makes her) are two of the best bits. It seems we’re now entering a stage where Disney wishes to recreate some of its most popular princess films – but not necessarily the characters themselves.
While upcoming new animated heroines for Disney will include adventurer Moana, the newest reincarnations of both Aurora (in Maleficent) and Cinderella have (apparently shockingly) remained the same – but it is crucial to consider context, for both the original story and film. This year’s adaptation (not re-telling) of Cinderella is twee in parts, yes, and she does remain inherently good and capable of falling in love pretty darn quickly (although they do allow the pair a meeting before the ball, and the prince both a name and a dab of personality). ‘Twas ever thus in both the fairytale and the 1950 film though. It’s also set in a 1940s version of the nineteenth century, when girls didn’t work and they did have dowries – it is also a fantasy, and sometimes the audience just needs to stop analysing and allow themselves to be swept along by a film that in no way purports to be a lesson on how girls should be treated, and live their lives, in the twenty-first century.