Once upon a time, in a faraway land (depending on your own geographical location), two recent university graduates decided to write a blog about the representation of women in media. “But where should we begin?” they wondered. Then it struck them: once upon a time...
Very few female characters are more beloved or more derided than Disney princesses. It’s easy to embrace their dreams of love and freedom, but it’s equally easy to spot the flaws in a life plan based entirely on wishes and the hope for some nebulous happily-ever-after. For many of us, Disney princesses are our first guides as we enter the realm of media consumption, first lighting up our screens and then adorning our bedrooms. Their films are our foundational texts, and we want to use them to build another foundation.
In the next few weeks, we’re going to be writing about four distinct groups of princesses, one group of characters who didn’t quite qualify for the coveted title, and one group of Disney mothers, those ever-elusive figures. To kick things off, we’re looking at Disney’s first three princesses, the ones that started a massive franchise that would become a requisite element of many girls’ childhoods.
Debuting in 1937 and thus celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday this year, Snow White is Disney’s first princess. We also think she’s the worst. Due to Snow White’s popularity this year -- the story retold in two major Hollywood films and a television show -- one could say that we’re in the minority. However, in all of those adaptations, including the one set in a Disney-inspired world, Snow White gets an upgrade on the Strong Female Character scale. The princess progenitor Snow White is hardly the same one we see today.
This is for good reason. We are introduced to Snow White as a “lovely little Princess” forced to work and dress as a scullery maid whose “rags cannot hide her gentle grace.” When the queen consults with her magic mirror, only to learn that she has been dethroned as the fairest one of all, she doesn’t even have to hear Snow White’s name to know that it’s her. With “lips red as the rose, hair black as ebony, skin white as snow,” the princess so aesthetically towers over everyone else that she can be identified just by what actually sounds like a slightly terrifying list of physical features. She is beautiful, and this is her defining trait.
There’s not much else to her. She sings two “I Want” songs, which usually function to help the audience to get to know a character through the sung-through revelation of their most profound desires; in this case, however, all we learn is that she wants to meet and marry a handsome prince. After she learns that her stepmother put a hit out on her and understandably has a bit of a breakdown as she runs through the forest, she apologizes for her actions: “But you don’t know what I’ve been through / And all because I was afraid / I’m so ashamed of the fuss I’ve made.” It’s almost as if she’s apologizing for experiencing human emotion. When she then trespasses on the dwarfs’ property, she shames the absent owners as if she were in an episode of How Clean Is Your House?, then cleans the cottage based on the logic that the first thing people will do when they learn that someone has been in their house for hours, rearranging their personal belongings and cleaning everything with the help of woodland creatures, is to invite them to stay. Whereas these personality flaws might be interesting if they were treated as flaws, the film continues to support Snow White’s behaviour. ‘Cause she’s pretty and well-meaning.
The film does not continue to feature Snow White, though. Once the dwarfs arrive on the scene, and for something like ⅝ of the film, they become both our focus and our true protagonists. This is not just a problem with the film, but is actually the most salient problem with Snow White as a character: she’s boring and, ultimately, inactive. The way that we seek to define strength on this blog has a lot to do with the agency that a character exercises, and the most agency Snow White displays is in breaking and entering and bowing to pressure to eat a “magic wishing apple.” She lacks a character arc, something which Grumpy, of all people, achieves. She puts herself to sleep, but she doesn’t wake herself up, and she doesn’t defeat her nemesis; the dwarfs and woodland creatures take care of the latter, while the prince that Snow White met once for less than five minutes accomplishes the former using Love’s First Kiss.
As if all of this weren’t enough, she regularly speaks in verse.
In 1950, Disney took a more successful crack at making a more realistic princess. Cinderella is easily the strongest of these three princesses and, we would argue, the real progenitor of the Disney princess tradition as it exists today.
Cinderella is imbued with a human quality which Snow White lacks. This is partially a result of the film’s explicit acknowledgement of the horror of her abuse. Snow White enjoys the domestic chores she is forced to do in her guise of a scullery maid, whistling while she works. Cinderella, by contrast, clearly performs a number of physically demanding chores from which singing offers only temporary respite. Whereas Snow White only subtextually resents her isolation, suggested by her desire to be taken away from it by that handsome prince, Cinderella openly complains about the unfairness of her situation. Although she displays the same unflagging optimism as her predecessor, she also expresses real annoyance at her treatment.
What further intrigued us in re-watching Cinderella was her maturity and genuine gratefulness. Even though her stated life philosophy suggests that her fairy godmother would one day come along and fix everything for her, Cinderella is happy with what she receives, midnight curfew and all.
Still, she lacks real agency. Although her own “I Wish” song -- “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” -- does not revolve around a man saving her from her plight, it continues to perpetuate an ultimately disempowering outlook:
A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you're fast asleep
In dreams you lose your heartaches
Whatever you wish for, you keep
Have faith in your dreams and someday
Your rainbow will come smiling through
No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
The dream that you wish will come true.
It’s about hoping for something to change without one’s own involvement, promoting escapism over action. The film obviously believes its character’s words, because Cinderella takes almost no action at all. The talking mice make her the dress which would have enabled her to attend the ball, and when it is destroyed, her fairy godmother appears with a well-placed “Bibbidi bobbidi boo.” When she is imprisoned in her own home, her animal friends steal the key and release her. The only thing Cinderella actually does is produce the second glass slipper after the first shatters, ensuring her own happy ending after everyone else has done the heavy lifting.
While technically a Disney princess film, Sleeping Beauty (1959) is not Aurora’s story; rather, it is the story of the three fairies who protect her.
Aurora, renamed Briar Rose when she goes underground to avoid Maleficent’s ire, is a generic Disney princess only two films after the trope was created. Like her predecessors, she communicates with animals and falls for her “true love” after a single meeting. And she falls hard. When Briar Rose learns her true identity as the Princess Aurora, she weeps not upon discovering the years of lying masterminded by her “aunts,” but when she is told that she can’t date the stranger from the woods whose name she obviously didn’t even ask.
With Aurora/Briar Rose, Disney brings back the idea that a woman’s greatest dream would be for a man to marry her. Aurora dreams of a dance partner and, as she states, “They say if you dream a thing more than once, it’s sure to come true. And I’ve seen him so many times.” This is right in line with Cinderella’s idea that hope inevitably produces that which is hoped for. However, the problem with a worldview which holds that wishing on a star produces tangible results is not only the crushing disappointment when these results don’t actually result, but the inactivity which it promotes. If wishes always come true regardless of what you do, why do anything?
What is interesting about this film is that it has slipped in some stronger female characters in the form of the good fairies. They do all the work, yet they get only a small fraction of the publicity and merchandise. Not only do they drive the plot by saving Aurora from her future untimely death and by taking on the task of raising her, they also become the real heroes in the climactic scene. They break Philip out of the dungeon, give him magical hardware, turn projectiles into harmless bubbles and flowers and, in one memorable instance, transform hot oil or tar into a rainbow. In fact, they even aim his sword and thereby defeat Maleficent. Because we like to pretend that we’re above making jokes about phallic symbolism, we’ll let the readers interpret that one.
We do concede that these three characters were unmistakably produced by the attitudes of their respective times. However, we think that, while these films may warrant discussion as historical documents, the princesses themselves are affecting the worldviews of children to this day, as role models and figures for identification. These three films are frequently re-released and few Disney princess products are without the image of at least one of these characters. A quick Google Image search for “Disney princesses” produces pages upon pages of images containing Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty together with newer Princesses, and the central position in the group often goes to one of these “First Three”. The first thing one sees at the official Disney Princess website is a lineup of the Princesses, with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty flanking Rapunzel and Tiana (the group’s two newest official members) in the centre of the image. The central focus these three occupy in marketing is especially ironic when you consider that, while these princesses are the title characters of their respective films, they’re not really the main characters. In a very real way, these characters never play more than a supporting role in their own stories.
Our verdict: they all play supporting roles.
Our verdict: they all play supporting roles.