The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana is notable as Disney’s first African-American princess. She’s also a timely heroine, a role model for a generation of children growing up during a global financial crisis.
Hard-working, independent and carefully saving to realize an honorable dream – owning her own restaurant – she contrasts with the film’s villain, a tricky witchdoctor willing to rack up huge debts in an attempt to accrue money and power. She also teaches a charming prince – Naveen, a spoiled playboy – that the best things in life can’t be bought, a worthy if cliched message.
Since 1937, with its first full-length feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney company has presented a succession of “princesses”, some actual royalty such as Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora, others simply admirable such as Mulan.
These princesses remain highly popular today: Disney’s official “Princess” merchandise line which encompasses nine characters – Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana – is one of the largest girls’ franchises on the planet, raking in billions of dollars annually.
Opinion remains divided over this enduring princess mania – some see it as disturbingly anti-feminist, others appreciate the wholesome contrast to their precociously sexy counterparts like the Bratz dolls.
What is conclusive, though, is that all Disney’s leading ladies are a product of their times. Here, we take a light-hearted look at Tiana’s princess predecessors, charting their evolution from passive sleeping beauties to resourceful champions.
1937: Snow White
Like The Princess and the Frog, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted amid a worldwide economic depression – The Great Depression, in fact. For the heinous crime of being beautiful, Snow White’s jealous stepmother attempts to murder her – luckily, the exquisite 14-year-old is saved repeatedly by men: a sympathetic woodsman, the seven dwarfs, a prince with apparently smelling-salts-like breath.
Inherently maternal and fond of housework, she wins over the prince in a passive fashion, first with her singing (what would prove to be a typical Disney man-catching move) and then by sleeping so beautifully. Hardly a proto-feminist, but no doubt her tale provided romantic relief from trying reality.
Cinderella was also a victim of a wicked stepmother, with the unhappy addition of two ugly stepsisters. She’s a slave in her own home, responsible for countless chores – something 1950s American housewives could no doubt relate to – but still finds time to construct a lovely ballgown, albeit with the assistance of her little animal friends. She’s somewhat braver than Snow White – piping up to convince her stepmother that she too deserves to go to the ball – but ultimately, she’s reliant on her Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming to make her dreams come true – and she wins love with a pretty face and tiny feet.
With her looks based on Audrey Hepburn, Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora is just as naive as some of the Hollywood legend’s most iconic characters. Raised in the woods by not one, but three fairy godmothers – who hope to prevent the dreadful fate a more malicious fairy assigned her – she longs for independence but remains obedient to her caretakers’ instructions, even fleeing the delicious Prince Phillip when she realizes he’s a stranger (and she mustn’t talk to those, nor take candy from them). Sadly their over-protection can’t prevent her from pricking her finger on a poisoned spindle; fortunately Phillip is more than willing to cut a swath through a thorny forest and give her the kiss of life. Then they instantly become engaged, fulfilling their royal parents’ long-time intentions for them to marry – it seems Aurora can’t dictate her own fate after all!
Thirty years after Sleeping Beauty awoke, Disney princesses finally became more proactive, reflecting more empowered times. Ariel, aside from being The Little Mermaid, is a typical teenager – rebellious and curious about the wider world. She’s willing to disobey her father, flirt with danger and make great sacrifices for a cute boy, in her case her singing voice for a pair of legs. Interestingly, she doesn’t succeed in winning over Prince Eric properly until she regains her voice, a sign that you need more than looks to get your man. Less interestingly, in her quest for independence, she simply trades one man for another – a father for a husband.
Like Ariel, The Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle is a square peg in a round hole: a nonconformist and free thinker. She may be the most beautiful girl in the village, but she cares not one whit for looks, preferring books.
Her lack of superficiality is put to the test when she’s forced to cohabit with the Beast – to save her father – falling in love with him despite his fearsome exterior. The beauty and the Beast’s relationship is given more time to mature than in previous Disney films, with the latter having to win her over. Belle’s intelligence and willingness to fight for those she cares about make her a heroine worth emulating.
Aladdin‘s Jasmine, a doe-eyed Arabian princess, was Disney’s first princess “of color”, and continues the free-spirited trend. She refuses to marry any of the shallow suitors on offer, running away from the palace to escape her fate and find adventure. Being unavoidably sheltered, she soon runs into problems, and is saved by the quick-thinking Aladdin, to whom she is drawn despite his poverty. In the end, she gains her longed-for volition, and naturally selects her magical-carpet-commanding “diamond in the rough”. This time, it’s the princess who whisks her lover to a better life.
Another ethnic leading lady, Pocahontas is the first American princess, based on the historical figure. More mature than previous heroines, Pocahontas is highly independent and attuned to nature, educating the initially arrogant John Smith about its value. If forced to engage in a fight with her fellow Disney leading ladies, she’d no doubt win hands down, displaying immense athleticism and magical, shamanic powers. Echoing Ariel and Belle, she saves her prince, at risk to herself. And in a break with tradition, there’s no happily ever after for Pocahontas and John Smith; instead of leaving with him to experience a whole new world (like Ariel would), she stays in her own, placing her people before her heart.
Pocahontas’ fiercest physical competition would be Mulan, who proves herself as a warrior, ultimately saving the whole of China through bravery and ingenuity, although she does have to resort to cross-dressing in the process. Disney’s first Asian princess promotes self-reliance, determination and is uninterested in marriage or romance.
Her attractiveness is almost a non-factor – refreshingly – and she is highly relatable for adolescent girls in her initial awkwardness and self-doubt. While she demonstrates considerable chemistry with the hunky Captain Li Shang, the film ends on her saving her country, rather than a romantic resolution.