The days of knights in shining armor are over at Disney. However, so is the short-lived renaissance of strong female leads who can save themselves. Disney now has an adorable, dorky princess problem. So, let’s talk about it!
No disrespect to the lasting and innovative impact that The Walt Disney Company has had on animation, but the current state of Disney princesses portrayed through animated projects is a problem for some, and it’s time someone spoke up.
Although the days of helpless, young female leads like Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty needing to be saved by brave, handsome princes are gone at Disney, we’ve once again seen a shift from the entertainment company in how they portray their princesses. Despite a short span of independent warrior-esque female leads, Disney has opted out of the helpless damsel in distress and solid and independent archetypes for their princesses.
Now, it seems that although they’ve come a long way since the days of Cinderella and Snow White, Disney has created a new prototype female character, one who’s adorable yet dorky, and some women are having a hard time deciding whether this is the appropriate representation for their gender.
The Disney Princess Who Needed Saving
We’re all very much aware that the portrayal of women in media has changed drastically since the 1930s when Disney released its first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, although progression, suffrage movements have gained a lot of ground for females in general, Disney has seemingly always had an on-again, off-again relationship with how they represent females within their product.
As fairytales surrounding the oldest of Disney Princesses typically present their female leads as troubled, love-struck youths awaiting a handsome prince to lead them to their happily ever after, Disney remained faithful to the themes when adapting many stories by creators such as Hans Christian Anderson to their earliest animated films. However, as the world, specifically women and their place in society, outgrew Disney, it took a while for the studios of Walt Disney Pictures to catch up.
Even until the late 90s, Disney Princesses such as Ariel from The Little Mermaid or Jasmine from Aladdin were portrayed as missing something from their lives, sometimes even sexualized. That something missing was a man. Disney heroines often awaited their “Prince Charming” to come and save the day, filling the gaping hole in their identities, causing some even to abandon those closest to them.
Even early Disney film roles like that of Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins, who loudly spoke up for women’s rights, were portrayed as ditzy and comical, needing a man to oversee them. Some more recent and stronger characters, such as Jane Porter from Disney’s Tarzan, still depended on a male counterpart to complete their arch. This was the female role for a Disney Princess or women-led character for decades. Often depicted as dim-witted, weak, illogical, and helpless, the world’s view of women influenced a long-standing slew of Disney Princesses who would become idols for young girls for years and years.
The Evolution of the Strong Disney Princess
As time changed, so did how women were perceived by the world in Western culture. Although work still isn’t complete today, women are afforded more opportunities and advancements compared to their counterparts from decades ago. Disney, not to be left entirely behind, soon learned that they, too, must begin presenting their Disney Princesses in a matter agreeable to the changing landscape of feminism.
The ordinary fairy tale Disney Princess would eventually fade away, although still primarily representing the company as a whole, ushering in a new era of warlike, hard-nosed, independent versions such as Mulan and Merida. For a brand whose entire presence relied heavily on its female characters as its backbone, the shift to new, progressive roles for new princess additions was refreshing.
The modern Disney Princess, much like the time period in which it was created, no longer depended on their proverbial “Prince Charming” to come galloping in to save the day. Instead, they would do the saving themselves, all while learning valuable lessons about love, friendship, and family along the way. Strong female characters such as Merida from Pixar’s Brave is a shining example of what a Disney Princess could be in the newest century.
As noted by YouTube creator ModernGurlz, Disney had left behind the forgone portrayals of their helpless princesses from the “Silver Era” and “Wartime Eras” of animation. In addition, they had also abandoned many of the sexualized and objectifying tropes related to their renaissance in the 90s. Although the “Post-Renaissance Era” of Disney animation would see the likes of Mulan and other Disney Princesses show that they are just as capable of doing what a man can do, at times, they were still problematic. Despite the evolution of the strong Disney princess, audiences weren’t as interested, as the company’s reputation and past success hendered progressive growth for its female leads.
The Current State of Disney Princesses
As Disney moved into its “Revival era”, the princess continued their evolution into what we know today. Citing the need to find balance in what worked in bringing Walt Disney Animation to the forefront of entertainment and what the world demands in terms of female representation, Disney eventually landed a term coined by ModernGurlz as “Adorkable.”
Despite the still successful use of typical classic princesses like Cinderella and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, Disney’s newest additions to their catalog, this time in computer-generated imaging, would take on a different persona, one that some consider damaging to the female identity.
Unlike the long-lost spunky days of Tinkerbell, modern heroines of Disney now possess dorky yet adorable personality traits. Rapunzel from Tangled, Princess Anna from Frozen, and Moana all fit into the category of “adorkable.” Don’t believe us, watch this!
Although they no longer wait in their castles for the day their prince will come, this presentation of clumsy, nerdy, and inefficient princesses does little to close the gender gap between male and female representation in film. Whether or not Disney wants that responsibility doesn’t matter. As a leading representative of culture, pushing narratives from other socio-economic hot-button points, Disney has staked their claim as an opinion-biased organization.
Therefore, presenting each and every character with a quirky awkwardness, although probably relatable for teenagers, isn’t an accurate representation of what women should be in society, even if we’re talking about make-believe. In other words, if you’re going to have your cake, you better eat it too. If Disney wants to stand up for social issues in one arena, they’d best ensure they’re equally representative in another, lest they alienate an entire demographic from their fanbase.
The Future of Disney is Female
Let’s be honest: even as a male writing this article, I can attest that women, even in today’s culture, still have a lot of ground to gain in public perception. Statistics, whether they be wages or sexual assault, sadly still favor men. Although I disagree with some extreme aspects of feminism, I can attest to the need to visualize and demand change for the current culture surrounding women. Many men have never had to worry about walking to their cars in the dark.
As for Disney’s representation, quirky “adorkable” princesses aren’t necessarily the empowering voice needed to motivate our female counterparts and show an accurate representation of their worth and contributions to society. They also don’t do much to change the perceptions of male dominated worldviews. However, despite the still-existing shortcomings, change is coming, and it’s female.
Behind voices like Emma Watson and a current shift to more female-dominated portrayals, as seen in recent Disney productions like Encanto, women can hold their heads high as the company still figures out a balance between accuracy and demand from audiences regarding their female portrayals.
Interestingly enough, Disney still needs to be more connected with its audience in this regard. Although they’ve done a lot of work to correct past mistakes regarding racist depictions within their movies, which most don’t have an issue with unless they close something as cherished as Splash Mountain, many have clamored at their newest approach to classic Disney Princess characters such as Snow White.
It would seem that Disney is in a tough place, as changing characters to be more representative of today’s female culture is needed; however, it is not wanted by audiences who will fiercely defend classic Disney productions, even going as far as to boycott. Still, Disney is making strides to bring reliable, strong female leads to the screen, with many expecting their newest princess, Asha, to find the balance. If that doesn’t work, they can always rely on other properties such as Marvel and Star Wars to continue their newest traditions of bringing independent, capable, and un-adorkable heroes to the screen.