It’s a tale as old as time – or, at least, as old as patriarchy: a young woman living under her father’s roof meets a dashing young man, gets married as quickly as possible, and leaves her family’s home to become a housewife somewhere else. In some cases, it’s the guy that moves in, but the basic recipe remains the same. It’s a fairly well-known scenario for many women even in this day and age. Throw in some magic, cute animal sidekicks, and make at least one side of the happy couple the heir to a king (or sultan) and the story becomes all the more familiar: you are looking at the basic outline of a kind of media product that pervades childhoods all around the world, the Disney animated feature, especially of the princess variety.
Granted, over the past decade or so, the company has been trying to diversify its princess narratives to make them less romance-centric: Brave’s Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and Moana‘s Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), for instance, don’t even share a flirtatious scene with a male character, let alone get married, while Tangled and Frozen both have falling in love as a secondary element to a plot about family and finding one’s true self. But when we look back on the animated film’s the Walt Disney Studios became known for, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Cinderella to Aladdin, finding a man seems to be the end-all be-all of a woman’s journey. The fact that some of these journeys began with a wish as simple as a night off at a ball never really mattered.
There has been a lot of debate about how these animated films can narrow down young girls’ world vision and how they perpetuate damaging beauty standards, heteronormativity, and white supremacy. And the House of Mouse has listened to the complaints of these most politically aware movie-goers. Well, to some of them. Okay, maybe just a few. Look, let’s not delude ourselves that Disney has become a great champion for intersectional feminism, promoting debates on gender and sexuality that take into consideration the many racial and class disparities that afflict our society. Nor has the company been on any sort of vanguard regarding changes in the way women are portrayed in media. But, at least since it became bankable to do so, the studio has made its protagonists progressively more proactive and outspoken. The bravery and audacity of 1998’s Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is a far-cry from the domesticity and nearly complete silence of 1937’s Snow White, and that was before the turn of the millennium.
Going into the 2000s, the studio briefly lost its touch, and it took some time before theaters saw a new Disney princess film. The Princess and the Frog came out in 2009 to mostly positive reviews and a fair share of controversy due to the movie featuring the first Black Disney princess, but having her spend most of the runtime as a frog. Things went relatively well for the two following princesses, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) and Merida, but it was in 2013 that a certain ice-bending queen and her red-headed sister rekindled the love children and adults alike have for Disney princesses. However, when we take a look at the technicalities – Frozen’s Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) aren’t part of the official Disney Princess line-up -, it is not in the realm of animation that these monarchs-to-be are truly thriving.
Disney Ventures Into the Live-Action Remake
In 2014, during a sudden resurgence of live-action fairy tale movies, Disney released Maleficent. Starring Angelina Jolie as the titular witch, the movie tells the classic story of Sleeping Beauty from a different point of view. It was a hit, and many other Disney animated classics would get a similar live-action treatment in the following years. But, unlike Maleficent, most of the other Disney live-action remakes tell the exact same story as their animated counterparts, except with (mostly) living, breathing people in front of the cameras. Still, they do try to give a somewhat new spin to the original material. In the princesses’ case, the studio tries to recreate its protagonists as more girlboss-y, slightly feminist heroines. It’s not that dissimilar to the changes that took place in the animated princess movies post-Disney Renaissance. But, this time, the Mouse’s attempts at female empowerment are falling flatter than Aladdin’s magic carpet.
Almost all Disney live-action princess remakes have tried to address at least some issue audiences had with the animated feature and course correct to some extent, particularly when it comes to female representation. Certain changes aren’t bad (boy, aren’t we glad that Will Smith doesn’t call any culture barbaric in his rendition of “Arabian Nights”), while others pertain to issues that weren’t even issues in the first place (Belle’s alleged Stockholm Syndrome should not be entertained as a serious argument against the film’s quality). And then there are those that just don’t make a lot of sense.
Jasmine Was Always an Odd-one Out Among the Other Princesses
First and foremost, she isn’t the protagonist of her story. I mean, the movie is called Aladdin for a reason: it’s Aladdin’s (Scott Weinger) journey from diamond in the rough to prince-consort that we follow throughout the film’s 90 minutes of runtime. Still, 1992’s Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin) was so fiery, brave, and outspoken that she became many a girl’s favorite princess. Alas, her strong personality wasn’t strong enough for director Guy Ritchie and the studio execs behind 2019’s Aladdin. To make her more of a feminist mouthpiece, they gave actress Naomi Scott a pretty unmemorable musical number about not going speechless that doesn’t add that much to the plot. They also changed Jasmine’s motivation from wanting to marry out of love to wanting to become sultan, which undermines Aladdin’s (Mena Massoud) protagonism and character arc. His story is no longer that of a street rat that becomes king by finding out the true value of honesty and loyalty, but that of a clueless young man that must learn to treat his woman as a queen, to paraphrase Smith’s Genie. Not to mention the fact that Jasmine believes she is worthy of becoming sultan because she knows the plight of her people, and, girl, I’m sorry, but I think Aladdin can beat you at this game…
None of These Changes Alter the Patriarchal Core Narrative
But the worst part is that none of these changes serve to alter the patriarchal core of the narrative. Jasmine’s story is still that of a girl that becomes independent from her father by finding herself a good man to settle with, and she still needs Aladdin to rescue her from Jaffar (Marwan Kenzari). Likewise, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is still about a woman transforming a man through the power of love and being rewarded for it with marriage, no matter how many girls Emma Watson’s Belle teaches how to read, and meeting the prince before the ball doesn’t change the fact that only a royal proposal could save Cinderella (Lily James) from perpetual servitude. To actually change the core messages of these stories, Disney would have to make drastic changes to their plots – changes that could very well damage the recognizability of their IP.
Back in the 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm first registered the various folk tales that made the rounds in their corner of Europe, they altered a lot of elements to make the stories more palatable to the readers of the time. Since the Brothers Grimm practically became synonymous with fairy tale, the now crystallized versions of these stories are not the same that were told to little German kids in the 1800s. About a century or so later, Walt Disney began doing the same thing through the art of motion pictures. Nowadays, the versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and even Rapunzel that many of us know are the ones told by Disney. This immediate association between Disney and fairy tale does wonders for the company’s pockets, but it also hinders efforts to reinterpret these stories under a new light. That is, of course, when these attempts come from the inside. To actually make a change in how its princesses communicate with little girls, Disney would have to make a tough choice to put creativity ahead of certain profit.
Disney’s Newer Animated Projects Are More Successful
This is precisely the reason why Disney’s attempts at feminism are a lot more successful in the studio’s more recently produced original animated movies. No one’s saying that the company wasn’t expecting to make money off of Frozen, but the fact that the movie’s writers were working on brand-new approaches to previously un-Disney-ifed source material instead of reimagining a pre-existing Disney approach to IP meant that they had more room to play with plots, characters, and motivations. And, so, even though romance plays a part in Anna’s storyline, she is not defined by her love for a man, and neither is Elsa. The movie is about two sisters separated by prejudice trying to reconnect with one another, just like Tangled is about a girl getting over her abusive upbringing, and Moana centers the search for the true roots of an entire people. More than just having one throwaway empowering line or a quick scene that makes no difference to the overarching narrative, these princesses have stories that actually go beyond their attachment to a man.
There’s nothing wrong with a little romance, even if it’s a tiny bit problematic. Sometimes, that’s precisely what makes it fun. However, if Disney is interested in telling stories such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin with warts and all, they already did it better in the 90s. Or in the 50s. Or in the 30s. Still, the studio’s remake fever isn’t dying down any time soon. In 2023, The Little Mermaid is set to come out on Disney+ with Halle Bailey in the leading role, while Snow White’s live-action version is predicted for 2024. Who knows? Maybe Disney will get the feminist discourse right this time. But if that’s what you’re looking for in your princess movies, the studio’s original films are a safer bet.