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The Student News Site of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy


The Student News Site of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy


The Student News Site of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy


The Evolution of Disney Characters


Everyone knows the little girl who wants to be a princess when she grows up. She wears the costume, sings the songs, and watches all the movies. She wants to live the life of the princess. The question is: what is that life like, and how has it changed over time? The answer: it’s complicated.

Walt Disney Studios has 11 official princesses in the franchise: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida. Elsa and Anna are slated to be the 12th and 13th princesses in the franchise, respectively, but have not yet been officially installed. Kida, Megara, Eilonwy, Esmerelda, Jane, and many more are not official Disney princesses because they do not meet at least one of the following criteria: They have a primary role in a Disney animated feature film, they are human or mostly human, or they appear primarily in a sequel. Additionally, the heroines of movies that were financial flops are not included in the official ranks.  

Walt Disney Animation Studios was founded in 1923 and has been creating films ever since. Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org.

Over the years, Disney movies have changed to include more active, independent, headstrong, bold, and realistic princesses. The first three princesses, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, are astonishingly similar. They are all young girls who were orphaned at a young age (Aurora grew up thinking she was an orphan). Cinderella is reduced to nothing more than a beautiful maid who gets the help of a fairy godmother to achieve her goal. Snow White ends up being a maid to the seven dwarfs, and again, relies on magic to help her. Aurora grows up in the woods, doing nothing but housekeeping, and falls into the clutches of dark magic. They are all passive characters, singing about their dreams, and doing nothing about them. Their stories end when a man comes and falls in love with them. Their princes defeat the bad guys, sweep them off their feet, and the movies end in a picture perfect marriage.

The next two, Ariel and Belle, are not quite as passive as Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. Although she is a dreamer at heart, Ariel seeks out Ursula on her own, making the bold decision to become a human on her own. However, she still chooses a man she has never spoken to over her loving family, and then lets him fight her battles for her. Ariel lets her father take the punishment that she deserved. Belle is a dreamer, wishing she could leave her small town. Her love for her father is what pushed her to stay with the Beast. She falls in love with him at a more respectable speed, waiting until he shows humanity and kindness. Belle loves him for more than his looks, which is a step in the right direction. However, neither of them actually do any fighting themselves, they let their men fight for them. They both  bow to the will of their fathers and get their picture-perfect happily ever after in the end.

After Ariel and Belle come Jasmine and Pocahontas. The most obvious difference between the two of them and all the ones before them is their appearance. Pocahontas is Native American, and Jasmine is Middle Eastern. Disney widened their horizons, making it obvious that Jasmine is Muslim (through hints in the dialogue) and that Pocahontas believes in gods of nature. These two princesses are both far more independent and headstrong than the ones before them. Both defied their fathers by refusing to marry the man given to them. Jasmine asserted her independence and eventually got to choose her own husband at the end. Pocahontas fell in love with a settler and risked her own life to save his. She is the first princess who does not become a damsel in distress. She effectively stopped what would have been a bloody battle between the Natives and the settlers. She is also the first princess to not end up with her prince in the end of the movie.

The next princess, Mulan, breaks most of the set stereotypes that Disney has followed in the past. First of all, her failure to impress the matchmaker shows that she can still be a woman even if she cannot play the part of an obedient “honorable woman”. Second, like Belle, she risks her own safety out of love to her father. Third, she falls in love with Shang over time, because of his personality, not his appearance. Fourth, she does not give up even when Shang and the other men have given up on her, and continues to fight for the sake of the Emperor. The fact that she does the bulk of the fighting distinguishes her from all the rest of the princesses. And fifth, at the end of the movie, she is the hero. She saved her prince, she saved the Emperor, and she saved an entire country. Mulan is basically the first Disney feminist. Additionally, neither Mulan nor Shang were royal in any way.

Tiana and Rapunzel are the next two princesses in line. Tiana brakes the racial barrier even farther. She is from New Orleans and is African American. Her ultimate goal has nothing to do with finding a prince and getting a happily ever after. She is doing the work to earn enough money and open a restaurant by herself. Rapunzel admits that she needs Flynn’s help to see the floating lanterns, but only because she has never seen the real world before. She has no intention of falling for him. In both cases, the love happens by accident. Both of them have a goal they want to achieve, and is both achieved by both in the end. They get love as a nice little bonus on top. These two princesses, like Mulan, play equal parts in saving the day as their princes do.

The last official Disney princess is Merida. When it comes to appearance, she is by far the most realistic looking. She has a normal size waist, which give her the curves that real women have. Additionally, her wild red hair is more realistic than the hair of the older princesses. She repeats Jasmine’s example of refusing to marry a man just because they “won” her hand in an archery competition. Merida is the reason that her mother is turned into a bear, and she is the one to transform her back into a human. The love between a mother and a daughter is what reverses the magic, not the love between a woman and a man. In fact, Merida is the first princess who does not even have a prince at all. She proved that she did not need a man to save the day.

Elsa and Anna are not yet official Disney princesses, and they are different from all of the princesses before them. At first Anna seems like all of the older princesses, looking for nothing but true love. She and Hans have the over-dramatic “love at first sight” song, which we have seen in many of the older movies. Elsa, in response, voiced the thought that many have been holding in for so long: you can’t marry a man you just met. Although Elsa is insecure, she does not try to find a man who can solve her problem for her. She is a strong, independent woman, who can run an entire  kingdom without a the help of a man. Anna, however, only learns that she is strong as she evolves over the course of the movie. She takes her time in falling for Kristoff, and only falls for him because of their shared experiences. She saves his life as many times as he saves her. In addition, the biggest turning point is the idea that the true love that saves Anna’s life is her love for Elsa. Anna is the one who performs the act of true love that saves her own life. This teaches girls everywhere that they do not need a man to save them, that they can do it for themselves. The love between two sisters can be stronger than the love between a woman and a man.

Disney Studios has brought us characters, songs, and movies that will not be forgotten any time soon. However, the title characters may not always be the best role models for young girls. Nowadays the Disney princesses are more like real women. They are inspirational and identifiable. They become more respectable and make choices that are easier to understand and support. What the future for Disney princesses holds is unknown, but based on their evolution so far, it looks like they can only get better.

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