Damsels In Distress? The Lie We All Believe About Disney’s Early Princesses

Between Disney’s third princess film (Sleeping Beauty) and its fourth (The Little Mermaid) there was a gap of thirty years. A lot happened in the world between 1959 and 1989, most notably — as far as the princesses are concerned — the entirety of feminism’s second wave. Creating “feminist” princesses just wasn’t on the minds of Disney filmmakers when Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were being made. But, by the time The Little Mermaid came out, it definitely was. 

In 1989, Ariel was described as “spunky” (The New York Times), “rebellious” (The New York Daily News), and “a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently . . . instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny” (Roger Ebert). As opposed — the implication was — to those earlier princesses who were just so darn passive. 

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Beginning with The Little Mermaid and continuing on into the present, Disney princess films began to try to shake off some of the stereotypes about Disney princess films, crafting stories which pitted “modern” princesses against “traditional” tropes in order to have these new princesses emerge victorious. But the funny thing is, a lot of the issues the newer films are overtly fighting back against never actually appear in the earlier movies. And, for all their fighting back, many of the newer princesses can’t hold a candle to their “traditional” sisters when it comes to strength and empowerment.

The notion that the early Disney princesses were passive damsels in distress is so ingrained in our culture that even people who love the princesses tend to believe it. But if you actually take a look at them — and even compare them to some of the later, “feminist” princesses — it’s hard to actually prove that this is true.

Take Snow White, for example. Upon learning that an evil queen with magical powers wants to have her killed, she shows up at a house full of strangers and makes an entrepreneurial bargain with them to save her own life. She offers her marketable skills — cooking and cleaning — in exchange for shelter and safety, thereby saving herself from imminent death. Sounds pretty feminist to me! 

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Cinderella is another one who doesn’t wait around to be rescued. She negotiates with her stepmother to be allowed to go to the ball and, later, when her stepmother smashes the glass slipper before Cinderella has a chance to put it on, it’s Cinderella who produces the other one, saving the day. She gets herself out of her stepmother’s house, the prince shows up later, after she’s free. 

Aurora, it’s true, doesn’t do much to save herself but, to be fair, she isn’t really the movie’s protagonist. The three feisty fairies tasked to keep her safe are the real heroines of the film, and they do lots to save themselves and Aurora. Prince Philip would have been dragon food without their help.

Compare all this to Princess Jasmine, for example, who needs Aladdin’s help to do pretty much everything. The first time the two meet he rescues her from a fruit merchant who wants to cut her hand off! She then becomes a sex slave and nearly drowns in a giant hourglass before Aladdin gets rid of Jafar and sets her free. (Her feminist credentials seem to come solely from the fact that she stomps around and yells a lot. Yay feminism!) Princess Merida is so “strong” and “empowered” that she gets her mom turned into a bear because she’s such a child that she doesn’t understand that you don’t “change your fate” by changing your mother, you’ve got to change yourself. 

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It isn’t that the newer princesses never save themselves — plenty of them do — it’s only that the traditional princesses orchestrate their own rescues as well. They don’t do it with a sword (like Mulan) or a display of physical self-sacrifice (like Pocahontas) but they have agency and courage just like their “feminist” sisters. The notion that they don’t is a lie. But it’s a lie that’s become so pervasive that it’s now the accepted stance on Disney princesses. What if we stopped believing the lie and looked for ourselves? Might it be time to welcome Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty back into the fold? You decide. 

4 thoughts on “Damsels In Distress? The Lie We All Believe About Disney’s Early Princesses

  1. Eh, regarding Ariel, she was significantly closer to the classical DPs overall than one of the more feminist DPs (in fact, that was one of the reasons why even back then, lots of so-called “critics” basically demonized her, and was also why Katzenberg demanded for a “feminist twist” to BATB that was completely unnecessary and may have hurt the film far more than it actually helped.), while Belle arguably was the start of the more feminist type, as even Linda Woolverton noted (she even implied that Ariel only did her actions for love and marriage, when that’s not even close to the truth. I mean, yeah, sure, she definitely loved Eric and actually did want to marry him, but that wasn’t her sole driving motive, or, heck, even her primary motive. She even implied that Belle “broke that mold” of DPs.).

    And agreed, other than maybe Aurora (which as you pointed out, she wasn’t exactly the main character so much as a set-piece, and besides, she was in a coma for reasons beyond her control anyway. In fact, technically, Prince Phillip was also a set piece as well.), none of the DPs were even remotely passive, certainly not to the degree that people like Linda Woolverton and Hideo Kojima would want you to believe, even in their original films, let alone any extension media they were involved in. Snow White had to have quite a bit of guts to flee into that forest, where carnivorous animals were located and likely eat her alive just to flee the queen’s attempt at murdering her (not to mention enough strength to NOT break under the Queen’s very cruel treatment of her). Even Cinderella had to have nerves of steel to withstand her stepfamily’s horrific treatment of her.

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  2. I don’t think about the older princesses this deeply; its interesting to see the points you make. Maybe because the stories are deeper?

    I tend to think that a lot of the “feminist” characters are just straight-up bratty, and actually cause or complicate a lot of the problems they allegedly save themselves from!

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  3. I enjoy some of the older Princess movies because of the beauty of their artistry. I’m a huge fan of traditional animation. But I can’t say truthfully that I’m a die-hard fan of the original Disney princess movies.

    To be honest, story-wise, some of the newest princess movies really annoy me. But others, such as Moana, have an almost spiritual depth and meaning for me. I think in Moana’s case it’s because she’s not fighting for modern day values stuck in a fantasy world, but her hero’s journey is more archetypical.

    It’s those journeys that endear characters to me, which is why I’m not as huge a fan of many of Disney’s older movies. I appreciate that others enjoy the allegorical aspects. My own personal preference is for characters whose emotional journeys reflect my own (Moana, Mulan, and I know he isn’t a Disney royal lol but Tarzan is one of my most beloved Disney movies and it’s enotional core is so strong yet under appreciated in comparison to movies like The Lion King).

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