At first glance, many advocates for gender equality view Disney princesses as terrible role models for females, young and old. Their sexist, “damsel in distress” roles only serve as a barrier for furthering the equality of women, and young girls should not grow up idolizing them for they will only find themselves drowning under the weight of oppression. However, if these critics of the beloved princesses were to look closer, perhaps they would discover that despite some of the oppressive qualities they hold, these women have the capability to serve as strong, positive role models for the time in which they were created. The roles of Snow White, Pocahontas, Mulan and Tiana will be highlighted, as they show diversity in race, and in production time.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first Disney princess movie made, and follows the tale of an evil queen who orders the murder of her step daughter Snow White because she is jealous of her beauty. When she discovers that Snow White has run to the forest and is living with seven dwarfs, she disguises herself as a hag and feeds her poison through an apple, who then falls into a coma-like sleep that can only be broken by true loves kiss. By looking at the plot of the movie, it is obvious why Snow White fits into the “damsel in distress” persona. Because of this, Snow White is one of the hardest princesses for many to see as a positive role model. If you were to examine the film more closely and consider the historical context, it is easy to pick out aspects of her that would serve as role model material for the late 30’s early 40’s chick. In the article “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, The Function of the Disney Princess”, Snow White is described as “Under the peasant costume, Snow White is a 1920’s/30’s starlet with a flapper haircut, rosebud mouth, and high-pitched warble.” In this, Snow is compared to the progressive and empowered flappers of her time, who embodied the role of a strong woman. (Do Rozario, 34-59) In this and along with her cheery attitude despite her situations, Snow served as a role model for girls in the late 30’s and 40’s.Pocahontas is the tale of a Native American woman Pocahontas and her relationship with a white settler John Smith who journeyed to the New World with fellow Englishmen in attempts to collect the Native Americans gold. The relationship between the two is obviously unorthodox, and they are both criticized for their choices. In the article “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films”, Tanner writes that Pocahontas follows an oppressive role throughout the film. This is shown through her relationship with her family, and largely her father who disapproves of her relationship with John Smith. In the film, she does not follow her love John Smith, rather she stays behind to care for her family and continue her work, and in this Tanner views Pocahontas as being oppressed. However, I would argue that Pocahontas is actually showing signs of empowerment by abandoning her love and focusing on where she is needed and loved.
Pocahontas also shows signs of empowerment in the scenes in which she stands up for herself against the masculine figures. At one point, John Smith calls her people savages and just like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas stands up for herself when the male protagonist insults her. She defends her people, and swiftly turns the tables on John Smith by pointing out how his people could also be considered savages because of their lack of knowledge and care for the land. She also stands up against the men of her own tribe when they are attempting to kill John Smith. She throws herself in front of John just as her father is about to kill him, she tells her father that if he wants to kill John Smith, then he must also kill her. In this scene, she advocates for peace between people, and fights for her right to follow her own path. This results in her father viewing Pocahontas as an individual who holds great wisdom. (Pocahontas, 1995) Here, young girls can find empowerment and strength within the princess, rather than oppression and sexism that may be seen at first glance.
Mulan serves as one of the most obvious form of feminism present in Disney movies. Mulan is the story of a girl living in patriarchal China when it is attacked by the Huns. When her ailing father is drafted into war, Mulan enters in his place dressed as a man, and eventually leads China to victory despite her sex being discovered. Lisa Brocklebank’s article “Disney’s ‘Mulan’—The ‘True’ Deconstructed Heroine?” argues what cross dressing may say about Mulan’s character. Mulan, who is aware of the restraints of the culture she lives in, takes advantage of her situation to help her family by taking the place of her father in the Chinese emperors army. In the scene when Mulan is training with the other soldiers, she spends the whole night practicing climbing to the top of a pole after she repeatedly fails, along with all the others. After she spend the night practicing, the rest of the men awake in the morning to find her atop the pole, and the commander looks onto her with pride. (Mulan, 1998) Mulan serves as a strong and powerful woman in this scene. Despite being surrounded by men, she prevails and proves herself to be stronger even though she is a female.
Within the last few years, Disney has produced their most progressive princesses. Brave, produced in 2012, is one of the most recent Disney princess films, and Merida does not conform to the princess role whatsoever. Merida refuses to conform to the expected role of a princess, and would much rather spend her time outside practicing archery than following the rules her mother puts in place for her. Merida becomes tired of her mother pressuring her and asks a witch to help change her. This then leads the mother to eat a poisoned tart that turns her into a bear. (Brave, 2012) The movie is focused around their journey to break the spell, and Merida’s relationship with her mother, rather than a prince like expected. There is no point in the movie where Merida meets her prince, and she actually ends the movie with rejecting the idea of marriage all together. Many women in the 21st century are not opposed to the idea of never getting married or waiting for love. Through Merida’s rejection of marriage, she is rejecting the expectations that are put on women and making it known that girls are good at other things besides “being a lady.”
I argue that the princesses in Disney films serve as positive role models, as they are women who have challenged gender boundaries and advocated for the equality of the sexes. Snow White exemplifies the flapper, who was a powerful woman who challenged social norms, Pocahontas focuses on her role in her family rather than the man she loves, Mulan is a hardworking woman who rejects the patriarchal society she lives in, and Merida goes against traditional expectations by not wanting marriage. Despite their initial view as sexist and oppressive roles, if one were to examine Disney princesses further, it is easily apparent that they serve as progressive women of their times. I am sure that Disney will continue provide strong and healthy role models for viewers throughout the future.