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The Disney Princess Trope, Explained

Over the years, the Disney Princess has become more adventurous and even rebellious, evolving from trapped princesses like Cinderella and Snow White; to outspoken princesses like Ariel, Jasmine, and Mulan; to modern, subversive princesses like Moana, Anna, and Elsa. Yet despite these advancements, some continue to criticize the Disney Princess, questioning whether the very idea is sexist. Is the Disney Princess a harmful fantasy, or does it remain crucial to how many of us shape our imaginations and identities? Here’s our Take on why we can still dream of being a Disney Princess, and the importance of holding onto the happily-ever-after she represents.

TRANSCRIPT

Being a Disney Princess is the ultimate fairy-tale dream. While princesses in the real world simply marry or are born into royal families, in the wonderful world of Disney they come from a more abstract place of magic, wish-fulfillment, and destiny.

Across decades and her many iterations, this figure is united by some common traits. The Disney princess is virtuous and optimistic. A picture of innocence, she has a sunny disposition and a strong sense of right and wrong. It goes without saying that she’s also elegant and beautiful, with big and bright features. She wears opulent dresses to grand ceremonies, but even in rags, she’s effortlessly stunning. Everyone is drawn to her—even animals. Naturally, people fall in love with her—including her handsome Prince Charming. Because of this, she’s seen as too demure and delicate to fend for herself and is frequently underestimated.

Over the years, modern Disney princesses have become more and more outspoken, adventurous, and even rebellious. Yet despite these advancements, our culture has also become increasingly critical of the Disney Princess archetype—and whether or not the very idea is sexist. The term itself has taken on a negative connotation, suggesting helplessness and entitlement.

But is the Disney Princess ultimately a harmful fantasy—or does it remain a crucial part of how many of us shape our imagination and identities? Here’s our Take on why we can still dream of being a Disney Princess, even if the meaning of that changes with the times, and the importance of holding onto the happily-ever-after she represents.

The Power of the Disney Princess

There have been princesses as long as there’s been royalty, but the Disney Princess we’ve come to know and love originated with classic fairy tales. In stories like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, princesses were so delicate and pure, they could sense a single pea beneath twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. Even more importantly, the princess of Andersen’s story appears at first to be an ordinary girl, but there’s no mistaking the princess she is inside.

This is crucial to the appeal of the Disney Princess, who has long played a role in the process of children developing their identities—particularly when it comes to gender expression. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein discusses how important Disney Princesses are for four-year-old girls in their inflexible stage—The precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers.” As Annie Murphy Paul writes in The New York Times, “For a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy, a crinolined bulwark to fortify a still-shaky sense of identity.” But even young boys are drawn to Disney Princesses—and as a 2016 study found, boys who engaged with them were found to be better behaved. What’s more, these boys were found to be more generally androgynous, rejecting hyper-masculinity in a way that proved beneficial in the long run.

The Disney Princess offers a model of femininity that’s useful for all children to explore—although that hasn’t prevented the criticism that she’s reductive, regressive, or even anti-feminist. Much of that criticism stems from the earliest portrayals of the princess trope, which often revolved around princesses who were not just demure—but trapped.

The Trapped Princess

Narrator: “Cinderella was abused, humiliated, and finally forced to become a servant in her own house.” - Cinderella

The “trapped princess” is often cruelly forced into a life of isolation. Whether she’s struck by a dangerous curse, or simply living under an oppressive parent, she longs to be freed, usually by the prince she dreams will come and rescue her. Disney’s first full-length movie princess was 1937’s Snow White, who is forced to work as a scullery maid by an evil stepmother who resents her beauty. The jealous Queen poisons Snow White, who falls into a deep slumber. And she can only be liberated by a kiss from a handsome prince, who then whisks Snow White away to his castle.

This basic formula would play out again in 1950’s Cinderella, whose own evil stepmother also resents her beauty, forces her into a life of servitude, and keeps her locked away. Through more magical intervention, Cinderella’s prince finally comes, and she too leaves her miserable life behind.

In 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, it’s an evil fairy, Maleficent, who curses Aurora. But she too is hidden away before being put into her own deep sleep—again, until a handsome prince can save her.

While all of these princesses thrive under incredible adversity, their stories largely portray them as helpless victims, robbing them of agency over their own lives. Disney itself even poked fun at this in Wreck-It Ralph 2, wryly suggesting that what really makes a “princess” isn’t beauty, magic, or talking to animals—but trauma.

Snow White: “Were you poisoned?”

Vanellope von Schweetz: “No.”

Aurora and Tiana: “Cursed?”

Vanellope von Schweetz: “No.”

Rapunzel and Belle: “Kidnapped or enslaved?”

Vanellope von Schweetz: “No! Are you guys okay? Should I call the police?” - Wreck-It Ralph 2

But while the trapped princess has been the subject of criticism, ridicule, and even contempt over the years, this point of view often overlooks her resilience. What’s more, the harsh conditions these princesses faced, through no fault of their own, reflected the truths of how women have been oppressed. And throughout, the trapped princess remains loving and optimistic, finding her liberation wherever she can. These are qualities that anyone should aspire to.

But beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, we met a new kind of Disney Princess—one who met her circumstances with a bit more daring.

The Princess with Personality

The Little Mermaid’s Ariel has a lot of the same issues as the traditional trapped princess: She’s kept on a tight leash by an oppressive parent. She’s cursed by a jealous witch, who strips away her power. And while she doesn’t fall into a deep sleep, she’s still left unable to speak for herself, waiting for yet another handsome prince to rescue her.

Yet Ariel also has a genuine personality. She’s rebellious, brave, active, and adventurous, full of curiosity and concrete desires. Belle in 1991’s Beauty And The Beast is also trapped—but like with Ariel, this is due to her own choice—a sacrifice she makes for someone she loves. Created by screenwriter Linda Woolverton to be an unmistakable feminist, the headstrong Belle loves reading more than anything…

Gaston: “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking.”

Belle: “Gaston, you are positively primeval” - Beauty and The Beast

...and desires to be much more than just some handsome prince’s wife. In the end, Belle decides to be with the Beast, and only because he sees her for who she is inside.

Disney’s “princess with personality” became even more pronounced with Aladdin’s Jasmine in 1992.

Jasmine: “How dare you? All of you. Standing around deciding my future? I am not a prize to be won.” - Aladdin

Like her earlier predecessors, Jasmine is trapped in her palace, and by the rules of her station. Yet Jasmine is also determined to control her own destiny. Her decision to fall in love with and marry a poor non-royal, Aladdin, marks another symbolic turning point for the Disney princess—one that would forever change the rules.

Significantly, Jasmine was also the first non-white Disney princess, and it’s notable that the princesses who followed were both increasingly diverse and more outwardly independent, refusing to conform to any expectation. Like Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine before her, Pocahontas doesn’t want to be told who to marry, but it’s even more notable that she chooses to stay with her tribe rather than leave with John Smith.

John Smith: “Come with me?”

Pocahontas: “I’m needed here.” - Pocahontas

The Princess and The Frog’s Tiana is hardworking and entirely self-reliant. And even when she gets her happily ever after of marrying a prince, she still pursues her dream of opening her own restaurant.

As the Disney Princess became more free-spirited, her story became even more overtly about how society treats women. The notion that women are powerless or need to be protected is what motivates Mulan to prove herself. These films marked a break with the traditional Disney Princess and the beginning of a more complex version of the trope—one that aimed to subvert everything about it.

The Self-Consciously Feminist Princess

While radically different in their characterizations, Disney’s more modern princess stories contain many motifs we’ve come to expect. But they’re also explicitly about interrogating many of the trope’s more reductive or outdated aspects. Most significantly, the Disney Princess is increasingly the hero of her story, in control of her own fate, answering her own call to adventure. She undertakes dangerous missions to save her people from danger, and in the process, she learns what it means to be a leader.

Because these contemporary princesses are so empowered, they resist some of those more limiting princess stereotypes —and their films openly question them. Romance is often just a subplot to their story—if it’s even there at all. In 2012’s Brave, the central relationship is between the tomboy-ish Merida and Queen Elinor. In the end, Merida’s happily ever after doesn’t arrive with true love’s kiss, but the self-discovery that allows her to reconnect with her mother.

Similarly, Disney’s Frozen hinges on the love between two sisters, Anna and Elsa. Anna’s love-at-first-sight with the handsome Prince Hans evokes those tropes we’ve seen so many times before in Disney movies—only to expose them for the fallacy they are. And as in Brave, the curse is lifted and happiness restored by the two female relatives rediscovering their true love for each other.

Elsa: “You sacrificed yourself for me?”

Anna: “I love you.”

Olaf: “An act of true love will thaw a frozen heart!” - Frozen

While Anna does still get a genuine love interest whose main role in the story is just to support her, notably, Elsa doesn’t show any interest in love at all. Her story is wholly about the personal progress of overcoming crippling fears and learning to embrace her true self.

Today’s Disney Princesses are role models of empowerment, far beyond what the term has traditionally meant. Even the 2019 live-action version of Aladdin updates Jasmine to make her motivated not by love or boredom, but her desire to become Agrabah’s first female Sultan.

Jasmine: “It’s not that I don’t want to marry, it’s just-”

Dalia: “You want to be sultan.”

Jasmine: “I was born to do more than marry some useless prince.” - Aladdin

This self-conscious avoidance of the Disney Princess stereotype has resulted in more complex stories about strong young women discovering their individual identities—not unlike how we use Disney Princesses when we’re first figuring out ourselves.

While the Disney Princess has become stronger and more multifaceted over the years, her archetype is still viewed as fairly two-dimensional. She’s still stereotyped as fragile, out of touch, and privileged: After all, another interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess And The Pea isn’t that princesses are inherently pure but fussy and spoiled.

In our flesh-and-blood world, what we regard as a princess is the rich socialite familiar from so many reality shows, living in a detached fantasy and looking down on everyone else. These negative feelings manifest in what could be seen as the Disney Princess’s evil stepsister trope, the spoiled rich girl, who’s immature and longs only for selfish, hedonistic pleasure. Often we exorcise that animosity toward the princess by putting them in fallen princess stories where they lose their status and fortune, growing into a better person only by rejecting their “princess” tendencies.

But as much as the criticism of the Disney Princess archetype is supposedly feminist, there is an implicit sexism in looking down on a character just for exhibiting girly qualities, and rooting for her only when she abandons them. To compare Cinderella to Moana and reject one over the other is inherently anti-feminist—both have individual strengths that can be equally aspirational.

Moana: “The ocean chose you for a reason.” - Moana

And tempted as we might be to look at the Disney Princess franchise with cynicism, the hope, and empowerment that it provides to children—and even adults—is indispensable. Without the Disney Princess, life would feel noticeably more bleak. She encourages us to approach each other with kindness, to never stop dreaming, and to imagine a better world—even in the darkness.

Rapunzel: “I won’t stop. For every minute of the rest of my life, I will fight.” - Tangled

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