The internet is filled with “feminist rankings” of Disney princesses. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here, or here, or here.) The idea generally is that the original Disney princesses were so desperately anti-feminist that — even though we love them and everything — we need to understand how terrible they really are and say we hate them (for the sake of our children, of course). And we need to recognize and celebrate how “empowered” and “strong” Disney’s newer princesses are so they’ll keep making enlightened princesses and never go back to the dark days of Disney’s Golden Age . . . or something.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to make a feminist ranking of my own. I will stay within the same boundaries of “feminism” that these rankings typically do, looking at how each princess is “empowered” to follow her dreams, how she displays her “strength,” and whether or not she has life goals beyond marriage to a prince. To avoid argument over who qualifies as a princess, I have chosen the 11 “official” Disney princesses to rank.
So, from least to most feminist, here is my feminist ranking of the Disney princesses:
Merida can usually be found in the top three of most feminist rankings, but she’s at the very bottom of mine. Here is a princess who begins the movie yearning for adventure and ends up content to stay home with her family indefinitely. She doesn’t do the one thing a Disney princess must: grow up. For all her going on (and on) about her “fate” and how she needs to change it, all she really does is randomly turn her mom and brothers into bears and nearly get everyone killed. The fact that she’s good at archery tells us nothing about her internal strength, and her unruly hair is nice, but ultimately irrelevant. It’s true that she doesn’t get rescued by a man (because all her suitors are emasculated pompous windbags) but a girl who’s content to remain in mom and dad’s shadow doesn’t need rescuing anyway. Sorry Merida, turns out you’re not very feminist after all.
Here is a princess whose only dream in life is to get with a hot guy. She has no specific goals of her own (except to find out “what’s around the river bend” which really she could accomplish in, like, an afternoon), and her dream of a spinning arrow (which she believes will tell her what she’s meant to be striving for) turns out to be John Smith’s compass. So basically, her whole life was pointing to a dude. When she actually meets the man, she proceeds to lecture him about environmentalism for most of the movie until he gives in and says she’s right so she’ll shut up. Then, when she actually achieves her dream (by risking her life, let’s give her that) she’s like nah, I don’t need to go back to Europe with you “I’m needed here.” Is giving up on your only dream feminist? Um, no.
You’re not going to believe me when I say this, but Mulan is another princess who has no specific life goals of her own. Other than the fact that she feels she doesn’t fit in with the other girls, we have no idea what it is she actually does want to do with her life. Sure, she ends up becoming a warrior, but was that what she always wanted? Or did she just do it out of necessity? Also, Mulan’s main accomplishment is that she’s able to (totally unrealistically) do all the things the men can — including besting a huge warrior three times her size in hand-to-hand combat. The set-up of the movie necessitates that Mulan’s success is measured by masculine standards. A woman being measured by masculine standards? Doesn’t sound very feminist to me!
Aurora is a tricky one to place because her story depends almost solely on symbolism rather than realism even though the characters around her — Prince Philip, Maleficent, the fairies, etc. — are more realistic. Also, she’s only on screen for about eighteen minutes so it’s hard to judge her. The movie is really about the three feisty fairies who save her life (which sounds pretty feminist to me!). In her favor, Aurora isn’t interested in wealth or power — she’d rather stay a peasant and marry the man she loves than become a princess — and she tries to stand up to her fairy godmothers when they tell her she has to go to the palace instead of meet her lover. On the other hand, she doesn’t say much, seems to only want to find a husband, and gives right in to Maleficent’s suggestion that she “touch the spindle.”
Jasmine, at least, is fighting against a specific injustice. She wants to marry for love instead of randomly getting married by her next birthday. Seems legit. She’s kind of bratty about it — stomping around, yelling at people, and letting her tiger bite people’s pants off — but she’s got a point. On the other hand, she’s the most sheltered of all the princesses — having never even left the palace walls — and the minute she goes out into the world she accidentally steals something and needs a man (Aladdin) to come and rescue her. She also seems to have no qualms about seducing and kissing gross snake-like sorcerers to provide a distraction. Seems like a feminist should have a little more respect for her own body.
Tiana also has a very specific goal: to open a restaurant. This is a worthy goal, to be sure, but it isn’t the signature Disney princess goal of figuring out how to be the best version of yourself. But what’s neat about this movie is that — along the way — she actually learns that lesson. She learns that the work and the business mean nothing if she doesn’t feel emotionally fulfilled. So, even though she starts off wanting something external, she learns — through her relationship with Prince Naveen — the importance of internal goals. And Naveen learns the importance of ambition and drive, showing that a partner who helps draw out the best version of yourself is part of a full and emotionally complete life.
Rapunzel is a girl with a very specific, non-manhunting dream: she wants to see the floating lights. She makes a plan to accomplish her goal and carries it out even though it involves disobeying her overly controlling (and, let’s face it, evil) “mother,” and going into a world she’s been told is full of danger. The fact that she hits people over the head with frying pans isn’t really as impressive as the way she’s able to use her optimism and sunny attitude to convince people to help her. She also saves a man’s life, but she does it like a girl — by making a sacrifice, rather than using brute force — proving that girls are awesome. But, more than that, she saves Flynn by teaching him that love is more important than money — a signature Disney princess move.
4. Snow White
The story of Snow White is almost completely symbolic, representing a girl’s transition from child to adult through puberty. The story is totally centered around its heroine — Snow White — with The Prince showing up almost as a nameless afterthought (and simply representing Snow White’s new ability to procreate). Snow White has the dual desire of escaping her wicked stepmother and making a life with the man she loves — both admirable goals. She orchestrates her own escape from her stepmother by making a deal with the dwarves to cook and clean in exchange for shelter, showing true entrepreneurial spirit. She eats the apple because it represents sexual awakening, and falls asleep because it represents the transition to adulthood. Education around puberty and sexuality is, I believe, quite feminist.
Cinderella has incredible strength of character. She remains positive even in difficult circumstances, she cares for those less fortunate than herself (the animals), and she stands up to her stepmother and stepsisters (telling them she has a right to attend the ball). Cinderella’s internal fortitude is rewarded by the fairy godmother who gives her the ability to be seen by others the way she truly is — a strong woman, not a lowly servant. Prince Charming, recognizing this, is immediately drawn to her proving that he wants a woman with strength of character, not just a pretty face. The love they share allows Cinderella to accomplish her goal of escaping her stepfamily while reveling in the love of a man who knows her for who she truly is.
Ariel believes she was meant to be a human. Against all odds she finds a way to make that happen. Her goal of becoming human was solidified in her long before she met Eric. Meeting him serves as the catalyst for making her dream a reality. She makes a sacrifice (her voice) and takes a risk (agreeing to Ursula’s terms) and goes for it. Even though Ursula suggests she use her body to snare her man, she has self-respect and uses her personality instead. Eric doesn’t recognize Ariel until she gets her voice back, proving that he’s into her for her personality, not her looks.
Belle is bullied and ostracized for being herself. She loves to read, she wants adventure, and she never conforms. She has a clear, internal, non-husband-hunting goal: to be accepted for who she truly is. She makes a sacrifice to save her father, which means she is courageous. She doesn’t let the Beast’s yelling and stomping around stop her from speaking her mind. She is open-minded and willing to accept that her initial impression of the Beast is no longer accurate. She’s not superficial — she sees that Gaston is the monster and the Beast the hero. She stays true to herself in the face of all kinds of pressure from the men in her life to change and, because of that, ends up with a man who accepts her for who she truly is.
15 thoughts on “Disney Princesses Ranked From Least To Most Feminist (Faith Moore Style)”
Can’t wait to read more
Love this! Great and fun insights. I’m glad you noted that Ariel had the goal of being human long before meeting the prince (but didn’t she save him when he was a boy?) because I usually disliked that she gave up her voice to “get the man.” It made me happy to see Belle & Cinderella in your top three.
Thank you! In the Disney version, Ariel meets Eric as a man (not a boy) long after we’ve discovered her desire to be “where the people are.” 🙂
If Moana were an official Disney princess, where would she rate on this list?
I think I’d place her somewhere in the middle.
I always thought any daughter of mine was going to be a tomboy. Pink & Princesses were not allowed. No matter how much her mom and I tried, she gravitates towards Pink & Princess. =) Luckily I’m pretty easy-going and found this ironically funny and interesting.
Disney doesn’t “MAKE” little girls into princess consumers, any more than I could MAKE a tomboy.
There was something deeper happening. After all, many of these stories are hundreds/thousands of years old and consumerism does not explain their birth and maturity into our canon.
My curiosity on the longevity of these stories led me to Jordan Peterson (Maps of Meaning lectures), Johnathan Pageau (Symbolism in Moana), and Western Canon podcast (Faith Moore interview).
AHA !!! Princess State of Mind is exactly what I wanted. I immediately tossed my reading material aside and I’m currently reading your book.
I really would enjoy a more detailed thought on Moana (and other unofficial Princesses) from your point of view (blog or video).
You are doing great work and I look forward to following your thoughts in the future..
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Thank you so much! This is exactly why I wrote the book! I hope it’s helpful. Please do tell me what you think when you’re done. Will add Moana to my list of things to comment on in the future!
Awesome list Faith! thanks for insight, excited to read more.
Thanks so much!
Sorry, I’d have to disagree with your ranking of Mulan. I’ll admit I’m biased because I’m Chinese-American, but hear me out. First of all, the reason why Mulan is successful is because she relies on her wits and problem-solving abilities instead of just charging at challenges head-on like the men in the movie. She was able to defeat Shan-Yu by evading his attacks and relying on Mushu to finish the job with a rocket – what so “unrealistic” about that? Certain kinds of Chinese martial arts like Wing Chun were developed by women. Secondly, while it’s true that Mulan starts out with no clear life goals, and it’s true that she became a warrior “out of necessity”, but she did it in order to save her father’s life (something you didn’t even mention at all). Lastly, i would contend that the strongest message of the movie is not about doing what men do, only better – it’s about a family’s unconditional love. At the beginning of the movie, Mulan attempts to bring honor to her family in a traditional way but fails miserably. At the end of the movie, she thinks that her war exploits have erased her past mistakes and finally brought honor to her family, handing her trophies over to her father as a gift. Instead, her father sets those things aside and embraces her. It took a prolonged absence for this typically stoic Asian father to admit out loud that his daughter is his greatest gift.
Overall, I agree with the general gist of what you are doing on your website, just wanted to add my two cents.
You’re not alone! Lots of people take issue with my reading of Mulan. And I get where you’re coming from, I just disagree. For me, it’s not as much about how Mulan operates within the constraints of the movie, as it is about the constraints themselves. The movie sets up a situation in which the only way for a girl to succeed is to act like a man, and then her success is measured accordingly.
I agree with some of these but have to wonder how clouded they are by your personal preference for the movie. Looking at this I could make a list of positives or negatives for any disney character.
You completely glossed over the fact that Mulan has a heart for her family. She steps out of her comfort zone to save her father. When she is found out and discharged, she chooses to do what is right and try to save the emperor even when everyone thinks she’s lying.
Also, Snow White eats an apple as a symbolism of sexuality? That’s pretty silly. She eats the apple because she’s dumb enough to take food from a stranger.
I agree with your assessment of Merida, she only causes problems with her selfishness.
Honestly though it’s good to remember that women come in all different types of personalities, each are feminine in their own way!
Hi Rachael, thanks for reading! You’re certainly not alone in your love for Mulan. Please see my comment above for more info on why I feel it’s not a feminist movie. If you’re interested in reading more about the symbolism of Snow White (and other princess fairy tales) I recommend Spinning Straw Into Gold by Joan Gould, or The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. I don’t agree with everything either author says, but it’s a good intro to the inherent symbolism of fairy tales and what it represents. You’ll find more about Snow White’s apple there.
In my humble opinion you get it wrong about Mulan.
She didn’t want to be a warrior because she ia brought up in a culture where women follows specific set of rules (that’s why she attended the matchmaking event).
When drafting started due to threats from the villains, Mulan sees her aging Father must go (because there’s no other male in their household). And so, because she hasn’t the heart to see him go with his bad health and all, she decided she will take his place instead.
In my opinion, she DESERVES to be on the number 1 spot instead.
Feminism to me, is not always having to know what you want and relentlessly pursuing it to the point of sometimes being silly about it. In my book feminism can be expressed in wide varieties. Here, even if she never willingly wanted to become a warrior, when she decided to take up that role she proves herself to be as good as any men, if not better. Yes, she started without her own personal goals at the beginning of the story, but the newfound goal(s) become clear as her adventure progressed, to protect her village/ country. And she proves also to not only be able to lead even as a woman, but also be a good team player.
She can demonstrate successfully that she can take orders, but is also an equal to Shen or whatever his name, the Captain of her squad.
In the process of running away from home to replace her Father, she was also aware that she is defying orders and how a woman in her society should behave. So she demonstrated feminist points and also bravery.
And last, during their missions, I recall her not having fluttery heart or bat her eyelashes to the Captain. And even the slightest budding romantic feelings there is, she pushed it down and keep it professional in the name of completing her duties. And only AFTER, that she received the Captain at her home as a real woman. In contrast, Ariel kinda chases the prince. Even sacrificing herself just to be together with him. In my book THAT isn’t very feminist. Even in the HC. Andersen’s original adaptation, she is portrayed as shallow and pining. And her end state is to perish as seafoam. I never like her at all, and only accomodate this princess because of the character designs and Disney songs. Also, the endings of some Disney Princesses fate are heavily altered to fit the happily ever after. Its only Mulan and a few other titles that sticks to the real tale from history.
So iff she isn’t the most realistic feminist of all, I don’t know which Disney princess is. Just sayin’. Being a feminist isn’t just running around on adventures and knowing your “truths” to be the be all end all of things. Its simply unrealistic. Sorry to say. Compared to Ariel (again) for instance. Sure, she wants to be human. But why? Just out of curiosity? At least Mulan became a warrior (even not by her choice at first, because in HER Chinese society, warriors MUST BE MEN. So it is never her faults) with a much grander mission in mind. To safe her ailing Father, and to protect her country. And the Captain consider her in the end was also not only because of her looks (as he already saw her in her ugliest state, no showers too perhaps), but for her personality and prowess in the battlefield as well.
So its rather strange to put her so low.