As Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel) speaks out in defence of The Little Mermaid, we take a look back at Disney’s princesses and rank them in terms of their feminist credentials. Because not everyone thinks a kiss from Prince Charming equals a ‘happy ever after’.
While there’s no denying we have a soft spot for Disney, we can’t help but despair over how many of their princess’ stories revolve around them batting their eyes at a prince, falling in love, and bagging that happily-ever-after. After all, these animated women are some of our earliest female role models and they teach us, for better or worse, unforgettable life lessons about love, independence, and a woman’s place in the world.
Thankfully, over the past few years, we’ve seen a huge shift in Disney’s way of thinking, and they’ve been bringing us increasingly feminist princesses with every new film.
But who does it the best? Which of Disney’s official princess line-up is a beacon of badassery in a world dominated by pretty dresses, housework, and true love’s first kisses?
Wonder no longer, for we’ve ranked them all in terms of their feminist credentials. Apologies to any Sleeping Beauty fans out there in advance...
15) Princess Aurora – Sleeping Beauty
A lot of people cite Aurora – or Briar Rose, to call her by her OTT nickname – as their favourite princess ever, but these people all have terrible opinions and are completely wrong. Aurora is, undoubtedly, the worst Disney character to ever exist. Not that she exists all that much, mind you: she appears on screen for 18 minutes. Her first line is spoken 19 minutes into the film. Her last line is delivered after she learns of her betrothal, 39 minutes in. And the very last sound she makes in the movie is when she arrives at the castle and cries a whole lot about never seeing her ‘true love’ (aka that guy she met for a few minutes in the forest) again.
That’s it. Then she’s asleep, and the whole damn movie is about Prince Phillip bounding off on a horse to battle a dragon, rush into the castle, and kiss an unconscious woman he’s already admitted to being sexually attracted to.
That unconscious woman is Aurora. And, yeah, she wakes up and silently smiles at the creep who’s just been leering over her bed – before submissively taking hold of his arm and entering into an arranged marriage. Not a word is spoken. She doesn’t say ‘hey, what’s up guys?’ when she’s reunited with her parents for the first time in years. She doesn’t say, ‘thanks, ladies’ to the fairies who protected her for her entire life. She doesn’t even say, ‘dude, the craziest effing thing happened to me when I touched a spinning wheel earlier’, which is definitely what we would do.
All in all, terrible.
Feminist ranking: 18 men’s rights banners, being waved slowly in front of a weeping Emily Davison.
14) Snow White
Ah, Snow White. We’re constantly having the fact that she’s “the fairest in the land” being rammed down our throats, sure, but at least she has some modicum of personality. Like, she’s likeable, right? She convinces the Huntsman not to cut out her heart and serve it up to the Evil Queen! She wins over Grumpy! She manages to convince a tortoise to do the washing up for her!
Yeah, people like her. And she has dialogue, too, which is something. But she is still an archetypal Damsel in Distress, waiting to be rescued by her very own Prince Charming and be whisked off into the sunset. She cooks, she cleans, she sews on buttons, she makes men feel good about themselves, and she waits around – again – for some stranger to kiss her while she’s unconscious. Actually, while she’s “dead”. So that’s… that’s necrophilia, isn’t it?
Feminist ranking: 1 grey-haired politician conceding that maybe women do have problems, but men have more
Cinderella is another unfathomably popular princess, considering she doesn’t do or say all that much to help herself in this movie. Sure, she breaks the rules and goes out partying instead of staying in and cleaning up after her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. Sure, she escapes a life of drudgery and servitude. And, sure, she’s a hopeless dreamer… but her dreams all revolve around marrying someone, anyone, so that she can finally move out of her family home and regain some modicum of freedom.
Also, her Prince Charming likes her based solely on… well, her dress, we think. And her shoes. Literally, that’s how he asks his staff to track down his future bride: by giving them a shoe, and wishing them luck.
“But, sir,” we imagine his footman replying, “what about her hair colour? Her eyes? Height? Have you got anything else I can work with here?”
“Well,” replies the prince, staring at some spot in the far distance. “She was fit AF. But I was completely off my face last night, so the deetz are all a little hazy.”
Really, Cinders – this guy? Just… just move out and don’t get married to some guy who knows nothing about you, how’s that for an idea? Move out, set up a dressmaking business (the mice can get involved), and be your own woman.
All in all, it’s very disappointing. But then again… well, she does pull a lot of seriously sassy facial expressions. So that’s got to be something, right?
Feminist ranking: 12 so-called nice guys responding to feminist complaints with that tired old phrase of “but not all men!”
12) Ariel – The Little Mermaid
Ariel literally gives up her entire identity – and voice – to pursue a man she saw one time at the beach. As such, the 16-year-old (she’s not a child anymore, you guys) is rendered silent for almost the entirety of the movie. And yet…
Well, she’s still more inspiring then anyone else we’ve seen on this list so far.
She’s curious, and yearns for change, and faces her fears in order to get what she wants. She actively pursues a guy she’s crushing on (way to make the first move, Ariel!). She takes control of her destiny, stops Eric’s wedding to Vanessa, and restores her own voice. She marries the guy of her dreams. And, in the sequel, she returns to the ocean in a desperate bid to save her own curious daughter from yet another sea witch. Not bad, eh?
As Jodi Benson, who voiced the mermaid, explains: “We see a lot of wonderful qualities in Ariel in 1989. She’s tenacious, strong-willed, determined, and motivated. She dreams big and lives out of the box.”
She added: “I think we have to take into consideration that we [made the film] in 1989. We have to take into consideration that the previous princess film, Sleeping Beauty, [came out in] 1961. That’s a big leap. Now, we’re leaping to 2019. To expect an ’89 film to leap to 2019 as far as feminism goes, I think it’s asking a lot.”
Feminist ranking: 3 female lifeguards in the original Baywatch TV show, expertly saving lives (whilst being objectified by men the world over)
11) Belle – Beauty & The Beast
Finally, we’re getting to the good stuff: Belle was, without a doubt, one of the least two-dimensional characters in the original Disney Princess line-up. She yearns for adventure in the great wide somewhere, she’d rather die an old spinster than marry misogynist pig, Gaston, she’s an avid bookworm, and she doesn’t give a damn what any of the judgemental idiots in the village think about her.
When her beloved papa finds himself in trouble (trouble meaning, in this instance, a creepy enchanted castle) she rides off to rescue him without a second thought. She doesn’t go crying to Gaston and the other menfolk for help, oh no – Belle knows she’s more than capable of handling the situation herself.
And, when she falls in love, she does it for all the right reasons: she forges a friendship with the Beast, sees his inner beauty, and slowly, gently, falls for him.
Except… well, except some people think this story promotes domestic abuse. Which obviously is not good for the feminist agenda – at all.
“The Beast does not attack Belle but the threat of physical violence is present,” explain critics. “The movie says if a woman is pretty and sweet natured she can change an abusive man into a kind and gentle man.
“In other words, it is the woman’s fault if her man abuses her. And of course, the beast turns into a handsome prince because ugly people cannot be happy.”
Feminist ranking: 27 mixed-feelings about Sex and the City and what it really means for women.
10) Giselle – Enchanted
Enchanted is Disney’s most self-aware movie – and, as such, it makes sense that the princess at the centre of it all is different to your average animated gal. She starts off, of course, like all those other pure royal schmucks: she’s a two-dimensional princess living in a forest, with all her woodland critters at her side, until she gets rescued (and engaged) to Prince Edward.
But, when Giselle (Amy Adams) heads to the palace to tie the knot and get her happy ending, she’s banished to the real human world of New York – and quickly comes to realise that fairytales are just that: fairytales. In the real world, people are mean and uncouth, marriage can end in divorce, you need your own source of income to get by in life, and the only critters that pop up in a city apartment are cockroaches, pigeons, and rats.
Giselle also learns, very quickly, that “love at first sight” doesn’t hold a candle to a relationship forged slowly over time, which causes issues when she’s invited to a ball where both her cartoon-world betrothed, Prince Edward (James Marsden), and her real-world crush, Robert (Patrick Dempsey), will be in attendance, along with her rival for Dempsey’s affections, Nancy (Idina Menzel). What’s a girl – or a feminist princess – to do?
Somewhat annoyingly, the answer seems, at first, to be “go shopping, get a manicure, visit your local salon, and turn up looking beautiful”.
But, while we’re not on board with the power of femininity-enhancing, wallet-reducing princess clothes, we’re big fans of the fact that Giselle becomes the hero of her own story: when an evil-queen-turned-dragon (Susan Sarandon) grabs hold of Dempsey and drags him off to the top of the Woolworth Building, our princess follows, with a sword in hand, and rescues him from the clutches of evil.
And, when the film gives us a storybook epilogue, we learn that Giselle has 1) turned down a proposal that didn’t sit well with her, 2) entered into a relationship based on mutual respect and equality with Dempsey, 3) vanquished the tired old stereotype of the “evil stepmother” by providing a happy home for Dempsey’s daughter from a previous marriage, and 4) set up a successful business called Andalasia Fashions, which designs candy-coloured frocks for children. So what if the film still puts a smidge of emphasis on looking a certain way? At least Giselle got a happy and undeniably girl power ending, eh?
Feminist ranking: 1 inspiring acceptance speech from Blake Lively
9) Megara – Hercules
Fine, no, she’s not an actual princess per se – but Megara was a revelation to many bright-eyed Disney fans growing up for that very reason.
We first meet our favourite Grecian gal when she’s in the clutches of a monstrous-looking centaur. And, despite Hercules’ concern, she proves to be remarkably calm and in control of the situation.
“I’m a damsel,” she informs him, “I’m in distress, and I can handle it. Have a nice day.”
Of course, Herc, being Herc, has to intervene, and it’s not long before he’s carrying a waterlogged Meg to safety. This would would reduce most other Disney princesses to quivering, simpering wrecks, but, like we say, Meg ain’t most princesses. With a flip of her ponytail, she shoots him a salute and struts off, with nary a look back – because she has an appointment to keep with Hades, the God of the Underworld.
Oh yeah, Megara is basically a villain – again, a big deal for women. Up until this point, all of the princesses have been nice. Honestly, all of them are super-lovely and super-smiley, while non-smiling, non-bubbly women are deemed evil (see: any wicked stepmother), reinforcing the patriarchal idea that good little women should smile on demand.
Meg changed all of that, because, let’s face it, she’s not nice. Or, at the very least, she’s not nice for nice’s sake, and she’s definitely not content to sit back and look pretty.
Instead, she’s manipulative, and sarcastic, and fierce, and wise, and she ain’t about to be knocked off kilter by a killer pair of pecs. “Well, you know how men are,” she says, with a roll of her eyes. “They think ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and ‘get lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours’.”
Eventually, Meg deems Herc worthy of her trust and heart. And she rescues him when he loses his powers, not the other way around: by diving in front of a falling Greek column, she manages to knock the film’s hero to safety and save the goddamned day. If that ain’t feminist, we don’t know what is.
Feminist ranking: 7 episodes of Xena Warrior Princess, watched back-to back
=8) Anna – Frozen
Anna starts off like any Disney princess: locked away in a castle for her entire life, she falls in love with the first prince she meets, and, within moments, she’s betrothed and planning her wedding to the smirking Prince Hans.
But, when her sister freezes the entire kingdom, Anna really comes into her own: she heads off on a quest to bring Elsa back to Arendelle, battling the elements, ice giants, and wolves to do so. She refuses to let Kristoff save her, instead choosing to sacrifice herself to save her big sister’s life. And, of course, she punches Hans in the mother-f**king face after he tries to kill her.
It’s fitting that, while the film more than hints at her future romance with Kristoff (aka the man who respects and loves her for all that she is), it focuses on Anna’s relationship with Elsa in the final scene. Why? Because this film is all about the powerful friendships we share with the women in our lives – and reminds us that there are many different kinds of love to cherish and nurture.
Feminist ranking: 3 rousing speeches from Leslie Knope.
=8) Elsa - Frozen
Elsa starts off as a Disney princess, sure. But, right at the beginning of the film, she’s crowned a bonafide queen, and that’s a bloody big deal in itself, because it sets her apart from the other princesses out there.
Yes, she undergoes a makeover and gets a glittering gown – but she doesn’t rely on a fairy godmother to wave her magic wand over her. Instead, she uses her own powers to give herself a brand-new look.
Yes, she sings a powerful ballad – but it’s not about love, in the romantic sense, at least. It’s about self-love, self-esteem, and self-belief. It’s about ignoring societal expectations and embracing your own badass self for who you truly are. It’s about being unafraid to stand out from the crowd. It’s about… well, letting go of the f**king patriarchy and being your best feminist self.
And, yes, she is in need of rescuing come the end of the film, but not by a prince: instead, she has her life saved by her sister. And, when it comes to saving Arendelle from the big freeze… well, Elsa figures that one out all on her own.
This is a woman who treads a fine line between villain and hero, who wisely informs Anna that you should never marry a guy you’ve literally just met, and who falls in love with herself come the end of the film, rather than nameless pair of pecs.
All in all, we’re in awe of Elsa: she’s one seriously cool chick.
Feminist ranking: 17 power-kicks from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
7) Rapunzel - Tangled
What better way to beat down the patriarchy than by using a mother-f**king frying pan as a weapon? Exactly.
The original tale of Rapunzel is very similar to that of Sleeping Beauty: princess gets separated from her family, locked away in a tower, and awaits rescue from a handsome prince. But Disney, learning from past mistakes, completely reinvents the story to give us one of the most badass princesses to date. Rapunzel is an accomplished dancer, acrobat, healer, artist, chess player, dressmaker, baker, and astronomer. She’s an avid bookworm. She plots and executes her own goddamn escape, after striking up the courage to make a deal with a thief. She embraces the world and all it has to offer her. She follows her dreams – and inspires others to do the same. She forges alliances with ruffians, thugs, and apple-chomping horses.
And, yeah, her ‘cute animal sidekick’ is a suspiciously mute chameleon.
Come the end of it all, she finds her “happily ever after” and takes on all the responsibilities of queen – but, as her lover, best friend and equal Flynn Rider wryly notes, she turns down (almost) all of his marriage proposals. Why? Because she’s been trapped in a tower for her entire adult life, obviously, and she doesn’t want to settle down right away. One day, yeah, maybe – in fact, we’d go so far as to say definitely, considering that the Tangled Ever After mini-movie is all about their nuptials. But not right now. And Flynn, being the awesome and supportive partner that he is, is more than okay with Rapunzel’s decision.
No wonder she’s landed her own spin-off TV show, eh?
Feminist ranking: 5 all-female screenings of Wonder Woman
6) Merida - Brave
“If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?”
Merida is a princess with a very Disney problem: her mother has ordered her to enter an arranged marriage with one of the less than desirable idiots from the neighbouring Highland tribes. Why? Because it’s tradition, obviously.
But Merida… well, Merida isn’t like any other princess. Firstly, she takes on all of her suitors in an archery contest – and beats them, hands down, in a battle for her own damned hand in marriage. And, when her mother dismisses this as an option, Merida charges off into the lands surrounding the castle, tracks a will-o-the-wisp, and purchases a spell from a witch. A spell which, the old lady promises, will change her destiny.
What follows is strange, there’s no doubt about it (think bears – lots of them). But the heart of the story is about a daughter’s complex relationship with her mother, all the different ways a person can be brave, and there’s not a single true love’s kiss in sight.
Plus, it gives us a flame-haired hero who utterly defies stereotypes, and teaches us that our fate lives within us – we just have to be brave enough to see it.
Feminist ranking: 12 in-depth articles about the lessons learned in The Handmaid’s Tale
5) Jasmine - Aladdin
Jasmine took the trend of empowered Disney princesses and blasted it into a whole new world (see what we did there?).
Forced to live her life within the confines of the palace of Agrabah, Jasmine ventures out into the unknown… and is almost immediately relegated to the role of secondary love interest. Hey, it should come as no surprise: the movie is literally called Aladdin, not Jasmine.
And yet, while this isn’t her story, Jasmine remains a strong, concrete woman with a fiery personality. She refuses to let people talk about her future as if she isn’t there, she rejects the idea of an arranged marriage, she’s more than willing to call people out on their bulls**t, and she eschews the usual bevy of sweet fluffy forest animals for a mother-f**king tiger called Rajah. That, in itself, is symbolic of her awesomeness: she’s beautiful, sure, but she’s also powerful – and people better have a damn good reason for approaching her, too.
Best of all? This independent woman helps to save the day from the evil Jafar, and she doesn’t even feel the need to get married at the end of the film, striking a blow for womankind everywhere. Oh sure, there’s talk of marriage – but she wins the right to love whomever she chooses. As such, she decides to date Aladdin for a while, get to know him better, and see whether or not he’s husband material. Which she eventually decides that he is (although the pair do not tie the knot until he’s fully earned her trust, in Aladdin 3: Prince of Thieves).
Forget Prince Ali: Princess Jasmine is definitely the fabulous one in this tale.
Feminist ranking: 4 badass tweets from JK Rowling
4) Tiana – The Princess & The Frog
Tiana is an independent woman, who knows exactly what she wants from life (a restaurant of her very own, if you’re wondering). Unlike her fellow princesses, who often sit around wishing on stars, this waitress ain’t afraid to get her hands dirty and work hard on making her own dreams come true.
How? Well, Tiana holds down at least two jobs, she puts in overtime, she saves all her tips, and she ignores the advances of any players desperate to lure her away from the daily grind.
Fine, she kisses a frog (who just so happens to be a handsome prince). And, yeah, they fall in love – but Tiana remains in control of her destiny. She launches rescue missions, cooks up a storm, teaches her marriage-obsessed pal Lottie a thing or two about finding a better dream, and overcomes the evil Dr. Facilier all by herself.
And, yeah, after she and Naveen tie the knot in not just one but two gorgeous wedding ceremonies, they roll up their sleeves and work together to get Tiana her goddamn restaurant, too. Forget almost there – she’s there, women of the world.
Feminist ranking: 32 women singing Beyonce’s Who Run The World at the top of their voices
Pocahontas is, without a doubt, a straight-up feminist hero.
Not only is she strong, noble, free spirited, and fiercely independent, but she is also seriously unwilling to sit back and let anyone mansplain anything to her – least of all John Smith. When this blonde blue-eyed Englishman comes striding into her world and stamping all over her way of life with his steel-capped boots, Pocahontas hooks one eyebrow up at him and fires back at him with one of the best Disney songs ever, Colours of the Wind.
“You think I’m an ignorant savage,” she replies coolly, “and you’ve been so many places, I guess it must be so.
“But still I cannot see, if the savage one is me, how can there be so much that you don’t know? You don’t know…”
She then proceeds to list off all the things that John Smith knows zilch about, calling him out on his racist misogynist bulls**t as she does so – and forces him to acknowledge that he’s wrong. Over time, the pair forge a relationship based on mutual respect, friendship, and passion (did you see them rolling around in the cornfield together? Talk about a sexual awakening!) – and, towards the end of the film, Pocahontas takes on the traditional role of Disney’s Prince Charming and rescues John Smith (the film’s ‘damsel in distress’) from a bloody end.
But, come the end of it all, Pocahontas recognises that her destiny is far bigger than any romance, and she casually waves John Smith off as he sails off on a boat destined for England. Because, yeah, he’s a cool dude and she liked him a lot, but she “has her mother’s spirit [and] goes wherever the wind takes her”. No man can tie her down, no one can take the place of matriarchal spirit Grandmother Willow as her emotional guardian, and absolutely nobody can drag her away from her sacred duty of leading her tribe down the path of feminist enlightenment.
Feminist ranking: 5 inspiring hours with the feminist badasses that are Dames Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench
Mulan has managed to break into Disney’s line-up of official princesses, despite the fact she a) doesn’t have a single drop of regal blood running through her veins, or b) marry a gormless Prince Charming. Why? Because she’s the legendary warrior who saved all of China, of course.
Mulan actively hates corseted dresses, make-up, and the concept of arranged marriage. She despises outdated gender stereotypes, refusing to sit home and pour the tea for any self-entitled man that wanders into her home. And, when the Emperor of China demands that every single family send a man to the army, she chops off her hair, grabs a sword, and heads off in place of her ageing father – much to her family’s despair.
Accompanied by her very un-princess-like companion (yup, she has a bonafide dragon on her side), Mulan – using her male identity, Ping – trains tirelessly alongside her fellow soldiers, eventually besting each and every one of them in the art of warfare. Not only is she dextrous, physically fit, incredibly strong, and adept with all kinds of weaponry, but she’s also a skilled strategist: come the end of the film, it is she who designs the plan to overcome the barbaric Huns.
No surprise, she’s awarded the highest honour in China, earns the respect of men and women everywhere, and rides home to proudly hang her sword and medal above the mantle-piece. After a few moments spent basking in her own personal glory, Mulan comes face-to-face with a besotted Captain Shang, the very same man who fell hard for her when she was Ping (possibly making him Disney’s first bisexual character): he’s followed her home from war. And, although Mulan wrinkles her nose at her grandmother’s suggestion that she marry the warrior and settle down immediately, she does like him a whole lot. So, she smilingly invites him to stay for dinner (a dinner which, we hasten to add, she absolutely won’t be cooking herself), giving the pair a chance to get to know each other properly. And guess what? Their friendship blossoms into something more, they fall deeply, madly in love, and they wind up tying the knot in Mulan II (after working though all the little bumps in their relationship first, of course).
Feminist ranking: An entire library dedicated to the works of Margaret Atwood, Emmeline Pankhurst, Maya Angelou, and all of their impossibly awesome feminist contemporaries
Make way for the feminist force of nature that is Moana, y’all: she may be new to the party, but she’s instilled some serious #girlpower feelings across an entire new generation – and for good reason.
Disney’s first ever Polynesian princess, this brave teenager is in firm command of her own story as she navigates the open ocean, defeats a fuming lava god, rescues a legendary warrior from the clutches of a monstrous murderous crab, and uncovers a hidden power within herself in the process.
She’s also the most body-positive princess out there: animators purposefully steered clear of the impossibly teeny waists seen on the likes of Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, Beauty & The Beast’s Belle, and Cinderella, instead opting for a stronger and sturdier build. One which would believably allow her to, in the director’s own words, “hold her own in the demands of this physical environment.”
He added that animators were actively encouraged to put Moana’s form to the test, to ensure things were as realistic as possible, making sure that her musculature “lent itself to a girl who could credibly, single-handedly, survive the perils of the open sea”.
Better than all of that, Moana bucks some of the most old-fashioned tropes sported by Disney princesses of old as she does it: not only does she head off on an adventure with both of her parents alive and well (her father may disapprove of her wanderlust, but her mum and grandma basically pack her bags for her and shove her onto the boat), but the 16-year-old also does it without a love interest, or any threat of a love interest, whatsoever. Which is important because a) she’s far too young to be worrying about settling down, and b) she reminds little girls that their stories are well worth telling, even if they don’t feature a Prince Charming come the end of it all.
“I am the daughter of the village chief,” she tells us, “I am descended from voyagers, who found their way across the world.
“I’ve delivered us to where we are… I am everything I’ve learned and more… I am Moana.”
Her battle cry is a powerful one in the face of the patriarchy: with just one power ballad, this 16-year-old girl teaches us that our identities are not dependent on anyone, that our destinies are well and truly our own, and that there really is no telling how far a young woman can go if she can ignore the naysayers and mansplainers around her. We can be athletes, or explorers, or heroes, or leaders, or anything our hearts desire: all we need to do is face our fears, acknowledge our awesomeness, and strive forwards towards our goal with an unwavering sense of self-belief.
All hail Moana, the feminist princess we all deserve.
Feminist ranking: Thousands upon thousands of women marching together and campaigning for equality and women’s rights, like absolute badass queens
Please note: this article was originally published in July 2017.