Disney is a brand that I have adored ever since I can remember – films, parks, characters, TV shows, clothing, toys, games – you cannot deny that it is one of the biggest global brands out there. Aside from the nostalgia and care-free escapism that the world of Disney provides, there are 2 main reason why I love the brand so much:

 1 – It was created by one sketch, of one mouse, by one person

2 – Their stories address political events/issues and have evolved with the times

It’s the second one I want to focus on here and the role of female characters within their films. If you take a look back at the films specifically, you can see the evolution of feminism throughout, how a brand has adapted and modernised to recognise changes within society (albeit some of the terminology/storylines are not PC in today’s world).

From Disney Princess to Disney Heroine, let’s start at the beginning…

The 30s & 50s: the damsel in distress

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (release date: 1937) was the first Disney film to be released. The premise of the story is that Snow White is deemed so beautiful she is a threat to the wicked queen. She’s then exiled into a forest before being rescued by seven miners and lives in a cottage with them – by this I mean she cleans and cooks for them. Once the evil queen finds out she is still alive, she hatches a plan to poison her and does so successfully, with the spell only to be broken by a kiss from a prince. Obviously only a prince can save her and this theme continues in two other films that Disney produced during this era – the first of which being Cinderella (release date: 1950). After Cinderella’s father passes away she is mistreated by her wicked step mother and sisters. That is of course, until she meets a handsome stranger in the woods and her sole focus is making it to a ball to find him, her Prince Charming, to rescue her and set her life right again. Some may argue that she was a gold digger – seeking the rich, handsome man to pull her out from her poor living conditions (although not forgetting she was technically born into riches). Perhaps in a positive light, Cinderella shows great strength and resilience through surviving the tough experiences. The final damsel in distress comes in the form of Sleeping Beauty (release date: 1959) a film where the title character has only 18 minutes of dialogue in a 75 minute film. In reality, it is more so about three fairies who try to protect the princess so that she can be saved by her true love’s kiss. Yes, another film where the saviour is a man after an evil queen puts a spell on a princess because she is too beautiful.

These stories are all products of their time. I don’t have anything against them, I loved them growing up and I still do – but they aren’t about strong women that I find myself aspiring to. Each story is centred around a real damsel in distress who needs saving and this reflects the role of women in society during these periods and more so, during the periods the creators grew up in. Snow White was released just twenty years after women had won the right to vote and at the beginning of World War 2 where it was more common for the men to be shipped off to war. Even during and after the war, men were still the main breadwinners of the families and many women were still housewives – leaving the family home to marry a man, take over household duties & raising children. Women with careers would see themselves sacrificing their work to be the primary care giver. Strong, independent female role models were rare – they did exist but they weren’t as widely known or as frequently found – so perhaps for a lot of women, these characters were people to aspire to be like (or at least provide some much needed escape from the realities of the world at that time).

The 80s & 90s: the rise of the female lead

1989-1998 releases saw a shift in the portrayal of lead female characters with more focus around their own actions within the films and less so on the need to be rescued. The Little Mermaid (release date: 1989), which just to caveat is one of my all-time favourite films, is about a young mermaid who is always exploring the ocean beyond where her father wants her to. She rescues the prince after he his knocked overboard, fights for independence and the ability to make her own decisions, albeit she does turn into a human to be with her prince leaving her family behind in the ocean. Even so, it is a definite move away from the prior films and shortly after we were presented with two more princesses Belle & Jasmine from Beauty & the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) respectively. Let’s start with Belle, she actively seeks out her father after he goes missing and is captured by a beast (who is actually a prince under a spell), she volunteers to be held capture by the beast in place of him. Although her character and actions are centred around being with the Beast/Prince, Belle fights for what she believes in – a life more full of adventure than the path that her father expects her to take and is another hint at a stronger female lead. Next we have Jasmine, another strong-willed character who fought the life her family wanted her to follow of marrying a rich Prince. Instead, we follow Jasmine’s journey of finding someone who loves her for who she is and supports her in her adventure. Jasmine has a prominent role in the film despite not being a title character and arguably being the third lead after Aladdin and the genie which is a testament to the strength of personality.

Just a few years later, Disney released Pocahontas (release date: 1995). Pocahontas was the first truly confident lead female character. She was self-assured, strong, independent and fighting for change. This was the first time Disney gave girls everywhere true strength in a character that they could aspire to. Pocahontas didn’t base her happiness on a male companion but on preventing war and defending her culture. Followed shortly by Mulan (release date: 1998), this was the second major female lead that had her own story and happiness independently of love interests. After the Chinese emperor demands that one male from each family goes to war, Mulan disguises herself as a man in order to prevent her father from being sent away. What’s interesting about Mulan is that in order to gain the respect as a heroine within the Disney world she has to pretend to be male, but ultimately it is her bravery and determination that proves her a strong character. Another success for Disney and another positive role model for young girls. The development of these characters across the 1980s and 1990s is reflective of the increase in strong female role models and the shift in women’s roles during these time periods. Feminism as a term was starting to be used more commonly, women were taking control of their careers, to be successful in their own right and start to breakdown the gender imbalances within society.

The 00s onwards: the era of the Heroine

By the 2000s, Disney had redefined what it meant to be a Disney Princess. The evolution from damsel in distress to strong, independent characters had happened and there was a new generation of princesses coming:

  • Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009) – the ambitious waitress who was working hard towards her dream of owning her own restaurant but also wouldn’t compromise her moral values just to achieve her dream.
  • Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010) who despite being trapped in a tower was smart, confident, independent and fearlessly passionate about pursuing her dreams.
  • Merida (Brave, 2012) a courageous young woman with a passion for archery who, when she makes a mistake works tirelessly, to put it right again.
  • Moana (Moana, 2016) a teenager who is seeking her own purpose and identity in life but also manages to be a real heroine, saving her village.

The new era princesses provide girls with ambitious, courageous, confident, educated role models that reflect the ever growing concentration on feminism, equality in the workplace and ensuring that all girls are given opportunities to participate in activities/careers/experiences that may have previously been considered only for boys.

Disney isn’t perfect, but their development of female characters over the years does demonstrate how the world of feminism has evolved.

When I was younger I would always say, “I want to be a Disney Princess but a bit more kick-arse”, now those characters exist and hopefully we’ll see this evolution continue and help young, aspiring girls. 

P.S. I got all the dates from IMBD and their complete list of Disney releases: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls068561553/

P.P.S. Thank you to my colleague and friend Phil for encouraging me to write this again after a discussion in the office.

This blog was first published November 2019, available here.