Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The evolution of the Disney princess

Following on from my previous post about Brave, I thought I would explore the Disney princess a little further.  
A whole thesis could be written on the evolution of the Disney princess, so this is just a brief overview.
The Disney Princess is a franchise of Disney, starting with Snow White (1937), through to Cinderella (1950), Aurora (1959), Ariel (1989), Belle (1991), Jasmine (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), Tiana (2009) and Rapunzel (2010) and, of course, Merida (2012).
I will admit that I’m a bit at a loss with Tiana and Rapunzel but I remember the gist of Pocahontas and Mulan.  However, I grew up on Snow White, Cinderelly, Aurora, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine.

Given that the first Disney princess appeared in 1937, you would expect a certain amount of evolution from Disney’s female role models.  Most noteably the trend has changed from princesses who are kind, hard working and work at cleaning houses to princesses who are kind, hard working and stubborn as hell.  The princesses have evolved to stick up for themselves, to question what is happening, to rely on themselves and not just wait for a prince to come and save them.

All of the princesses are teenagers which means that they appeal to little girls as aspirational but also allows for a love story, leading to a happy ever after marriage.  Putting it that way, it feels that it couldn’t be further from reality but think about the girls you went to school with, or maybe the story rings true to you.  People do fall in love as teenagers and marry and it is fair to say that most of these princesses do not marry during the films, in fact some (Jasmine) do not even get married during the first sequel.

Before I start at the beginning, I need to tell you where I am coming from.  I watched Disney princess films as a child and I enjoyed them (I have warm memories of Aurora's dress turning from pink to blue to a blue-pink mess).  I wanted their long, flowing hair and their pretty eyes and smiles.  But then I also wanted the prince’s horse, and the stepmother’s magic.  When I was young, one of my favourite books was the Tractor Princess – about a princess who didn’t like dresses or frills, she liked tractors.  I loved her.

So, first there were Snow White and Cinderella, one a princess born and one not.  Both spent a lot of the film cleaning, both were kind and sweet and hard working, which are excellent values to pass onto small girls.  Then came Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty.  I remember Maleficent (a new film about Maleficent is coming in 2014) and I remember the fairies and the prince, galloping to Aurora’s rescue but it was only when refreshing my memory for this post that I realised Aurora is blonde!  That’s how much you see of her during the film.  To be honest, I think she has the right idea – sleep through it all – but it means that not much is learnt about this particular princess other than she probably doesn’t snore.

Then came Ariel, the beautiful, teenage mermaid with red hair who wanted to live on the land.  From a very young age I have put a lot into the fact that Ariel is a redhead.  I have just found out that her creators originally wanted her to be blonde, her hair was only red because the colour went well with her tail and was easier for animators to use when she moved from beneath the water to the land.  That means that so far, all of the princesses should have been blonde (excluding Snow White, who has to have black hair otherwise she isn’t Snow White).  How depressing.
Anyway, Ariel was the first princess to show any teenage characteristics, that is, she’s stubborn.  She’s rebellious and adventurous and thinks she knows best, mixed together with a lot of naivety and boom!  A princess that teenagers can relate to!

Finally, a brunette princess enters the stage.  Unfortunately Belle is boring and bland, especially after the rebellious redheaded Ariel.  Belle’s creators wanted to keep her as close to possible as the original character, that is kind, generous, sympathetic and soft spoken.  In other words, boring.  Maybe it doesn’t matter, Beauty and the Beast has a much more potent message about beauty, proven by the fact that most children (myself included) wish the Beast never did change back into the prince.

Belle may have been boring, but then came Jasmine.  She joins Ariel in a step in the right direction. Jasmine has been described as self-assured, likeable, cynical and the ‘most full bodied of the Disney Princesses’.  I’m taking this to mean that her character, rather than her chest, was fully developed.  I did like Jasmine as a child, she stuck up for herself, and I also found her whiny and door-slamming which are two key features of a teenager.  What annoyed me about Jasmine is that she fell in love.  She said she wouldn’t, but she did.  Although she gets points for falling in love with a thief rather than a prince.  Oh, and for having a pet tiger.

So, Pocahontas.  The first American princess and what a princess!  I feel Disney cheated a little here by basing her on a historical figure but Pocahontas is ‘noble, free-spirited and highly spiritual’.  She is wise and kind and loves adventure.  She is something all girls should aspire to be, without a mop in sight.  She retains her identity throughout the sequel too, which is also very important for a girl, especially a teenager, to understand.  What makes Pocahontas really stand out is that she has two love interests.  There is no happily ever after for this princess, not in the traditional sense.  She is perhaps the most evolved of all of the stories and characters.

The same can be said for Mulan, the girl who dresses as a boy to save her father from going to war.  Now, it’s been a long time since I saw Mulan, but is she a princess in the traditional way?  If not, then hats off to Disney.  Here is a beautiful, teenage girl who is ‘unmarryable’, who trains as a warrior and fights bravely for the loyalty and love of her family.  She does fall in love, but I think she’s deserved that piece of happiness.  And, have I got this wrong?  But does she fall in love with someone quite a bit older than her? 
Just how old are these Disney princes, anyway?  I know Aurora’s prince is roughly the same age but what about the others? 

After Mulan, comes Tiana.  The second ever American Disney princess and the first African-American princess.  It’s a shame she spends most of the film as a frog.  An aspiring restaurant owner, Tiana meets, falls in love and marries a prince.  So she is similar to Cinderella in that she is not a princess born, but look!  She doesn’t spend her life cleaning.  Ok, so she’s a waitress but she’s a waitress with dreams and those dreams don’t involve a prince charming.  She sends some very important messages to young girls – dream for yourself, love is the most important thing (family, not that of a man) and that you don’t have to be blonde to be a princess.

Unfortunately Tiana is followed by another blonde princess – Rapunzel.  Thankfully Rapunzel is the next evolved step from Tiana – she is well read, artistic, spirited, smart, kind and playful.  She questions her life and her imprisonment in the tower and she refuses to return once she has escaped.  Rapunzel is strong willed and stubborn.  She even ‘does a Jasmine’ and falls in love with a thief.  I’m not sure how many mothers would approve, but perhaps this follows the line that girls just aren’t interested in finding their boring, bland prince charmings anymore.

We finish off with the 2012 Disney princess – Merida.   Redheaded, because she is Scottish, but just as curious and stubborn as Ariel.  Kind and hard working, because all Disney princesses are kind and hard working.  Naïve because she’s a teenager.  She follows Rapunzel in being clever and spirited and playful but she is also the first ever Disney princess tomboy.  Not only that, but Brave is the first ever Disney princess film to not have a love interest.  This is a story about family, like Mulan, about tradition and heritage, like Pocahontas, and about the mother and daughter relationship, which is entirely unique among the Disney princess franchise.  The mother -daughter relationship is also particularly fascinating when you consider that most mothers are not present in the other films.  They may be there, somewhere, but they are never the focus.  Or they are replaced by the evil stepmother and the representation of the matriarch is the antagonist.  Bearing this in mind, it is astounding that Disney have managed to produce so many well rounded princesses.

So there you have it, the evolution of the Disney princess, from the beautiful animation of Snow White to the beautiful characterisation of Brave.  I will introduce my future daughter to all of the princesses, if she so wishes, but it is the likes of Pocahontas, Tiana and Merida that I hope she truly learns from.  The love from a boy/man is not as important as love for yourself and your family, some frogs can turn out to be princes and anyone, I repeat, anyone can be a princess.

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