Four female writers assess the feminist credentials of classic Disney princess films

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Disney’s new heroine Moana has no love interest and the rebooted Beauty And The Beast gives Belle a feminist backstory. Stylist asks: are passive princesses dying out once and for all?

You know those mornings when you just wake up, open the window and allow a tiny bluebird to sit on your shoulder as you merrily sweep the kitchen floor. No? Us neither.

We’re all familiar with fairytale tropes (helpless princess in castle, malevolent old warty woman, and a man – any man! – to the rescue). The problem is, they bear zero similarity to modern existence. And while we all grew up with fairytales, with long-standing accusations of inequality and misogyny (not to mention casual racism), their spell has most definitely been broken in recent years, with widespread criticism about their impact on young girls’ aspirations and place in wider society.

Yet now a new wave of ‘princesses’, spearheaded by Disney, is emerging. A few years ago, much was made of Frozen (sisters, snowmen and singing) and Brave (flame-haired archer carves out her ‘own path in life’), both boasting less romance- driven narratives. But this week sees the release of perhaps the most progressive fairytale yet – Disney’s Moana, about a gutsy Pacific islander and her quest to save her people from an ancient curse (with a noticeable lack of dimple-chinned love interest). Released in America last month, it became the second highest grossing Thanksgiving opening of all time proving that heroines and action adventure definitely do mix. Not only that, but next year a revamped Beauty And The Beast offers Belle a ‘feminist’ backstory at the request of its star Emma Watson (this time she’s the inventor, not her father). It’s a refreshing reinvention of the stories that influence us from childhood and begs the questions: is the feminist fairytale the future?

Traditionally, fairytale films have taken their cue from the works of Charles Perrault, who transcribed and rewrote oral folktales in the 17th century, and later The Brothers Grimm, who ‘changed things up’, let’s just say. “Scholars have shown that the Grimms not only sanitised the more violent and sexual aspects of these stories but actively curtailed representations of female strength, courage and voice,” says feminist film scholar Dr Elinor Cleghorn. “Modern versions evolved from the historical erasure of women’s voices, which has sadly shaped the popular paradigms of Western fairytales.” Indeed, a lot has been said of the influence of fairytale culture on young girls. Many argue we’re encouraging younger generations to be little more than passive ‘princesses’ – dressed in pink, fey and yielding – whose only mark of success is a (heterosexual) marriage proposal.

The first full-length animated fairytale, Disney’s Snow White in 1937, arguably subscribed to these very ideals – a woman whose only saving grace (beyond her beauty) is her ability to clean really well. Other early classics followed suit including 1959’s popular Sleeping Beauty. It was 30 years before another princess film started to shake up the formula. When Disney released The Little Mermaid in 1989, Ariel was seen as a modern heroine: independent, outspoken and rebellious enough to defy her father’s wishes and marry a man without a tail. Yet, much like films such as The Princess Bride (1987) – in which wide-eyed beauty Buttercup must be saved by Westley from a trio of bandits – or 2007’s Stardust (Claire Danes is a magical fallen star, hunted by evil princes and wicked witches – the only one who can save her is the hapless Tristan), the over-arching narratives remain the same: passive women saved by valiant men.

Of course, you can find more dynamic fairytale characters if you trawl back far enough. Think Gretel saving Hansel from the witch, or the young heroine in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen saving her male friend. Even Belle from 1992’s Beauty And The Beast was intended as a feminist role model of sorts (Linda Woolverton was the first woman to script an animated Disney film and modelled Belle on Katharine Hepburn in Little Women: both “strong, active women who loved to read”).

Now, a more progressive fairytale movement is in swing. A rise in ‘rewritten’ fairytale books like Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper And The Spindle and the huge popularity of Frozen, Brave and Pixar’s Inside Out nods to the fact that stories are (gradually) getting more empowering and multidimensional. “It’s a reflection of our time and it’s about time,” says Osnat Shurer, a producer on Moana. “Because of the reach Disney has, we have a responsibility to be current.”

Tellingly, women are at the helm of recent fairytales. Brenda Chapman, who dreamed up Brave’s Merida, has said she was created specifically to turn the regular animated princess on its head.

And the trend looks set to continue. “[Award-winning female director] Ava DuVernay is about to break another glass ceiling with A Wrinkle In Time [out in 2018],” says founder of feminist film festival The Bechdel Test Fest, Corrina Antrobus. “It will star a black family at the centre of the narrative and makes Ava the first black woman to make a $100million Disney movie.”

So the message to filmmakers is this: focus less on a glass slipper and more on the glass ceiling. Then we can all live happily ever after.

Scroll down to find out what feminist writers make of famous fairytale characters


Robyn Wilder is a feminist writer

Aladdin is my favourite Disney movie, for many reasons. Partly, because once a little girl stopped me in the street and called me Princess Jasmine while I was hungover, and it made my year. And partly because Princess Jasmine spends the entire film not letting any man tell her what her business should be.

For a start, the law states she has to marry. Princess Jasmine dismisses this out of hand, declares that she’s “not a prize to be won” and will marry for love – if at all – then proceeds to SET A TIGER on her “overdressed, self-absorbed” suitors.

Then, despite being told to stay in the castle, she nips off to the marketplace in disguise and runs into Aladdin. But she’s such a modern woman that she gives to the poor and uses her position to try and get Aladdin out of trouble when he’s fingered for shoplifting.

Even when evil genie Jafar almost ends up winning the show, Jasmine gets up in his grill: when the inevitable punch-up occurs between him and Aladdin she gets in on the action instead of cowering in the corner like a ninny.

Aladdin isn’t a perfect feminist film, of course. Aladdin spends a good deal of it feeling angsty about the prospect of becoming Sultan if he marries Jasmine, when he could have been all “hold on, can’t Jasmine just rule?” But at least he’s on board with the whole “You should be allowed to make your own decisions” thing.

Also, I feel Jasmine may have jumped into marriage a little quickly, but then I only knew my husband for a year before we got hitched, and he didn’t even have a magic carpet.

On the whole, though, Aladdin is a pretty feminist movie. Also, I wasn’t even wearing make-up when that little girl thought I was Princess Jasmine. That’s what I took from this film. It’s a movie about a quiet feminist war, and I must be really, really good-looking.

Feminist rating: 4/5


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a freelance writer and co-founder of The Vagenda blog

Cinderella is the tale that birthed a million complexes; instilling in little girls the idea that a happy ending is as simple as being swept off your feet by a handsome prince who will marry you (and therefore look after you) forevermore. Cinderella is the quintessential feminine archetype for which the Fifties became infamous. The perfect housewife-in-waiting – she cooks, cleans and skivvies after her jealous stepmother and stepsisters without complaint. Her angelic looks reflect the sweetness of her personality – in the 1950 Disney film she’s so beautiful that bluebirds help her get dressed in the morning while she exercises her vocal range. Her ugly stepsisters, meanwhile, are mean and envious, and therefore hideous, with feet too big to fit in dainty glass slippers.

Cinderella’s kingdom is a world entirely lacking in female solidarity, in which women loathe and belittle each other in competition for male approval. As such, Cinderella has no female friends and in the Disney version she’s forced to rely on mice for company. The way she protects them from the attentions of Lucifer, the castle’s hell-raising cat (the only character with whom I really identify) hints to us of her potential as a wonderful mother and wife. It’s just that she doesn’t have the husband and children – yet.

Thank heavens for the handsome prince. Cinderella gets a makeover involving uncomfortable looking glass stilettos, goes to the ball, and captures his heart. So fragile is the prince’s masculinity that, when it comes to finding a wife, big feet are a dealbreaker. When his envoy is despatched on a princess-hunt, Cinderella’s evil stepmother hides her away in order to give her gold-digging daughters a fighting chance. Yet in the end, we see Cinderella in her rightful place as a beautiful, boring, bride.

Feminist rating: 1/5


Bridget Minamore is a writer, poet and part of the creative team behind the Brainchild Festival

Pocahontas is a film that, on the surface, is pretty easy to like. It’s visually stunning and has a tight plot. And sure, there are feminist moments. But is that enough?

First, the good: Pocahontas herself is a badass. One of the few women of colour in the fairytale canon, she’s outspoken, headstrong and has a strong commitment to her family and tribe. She makes headway with her father’s expectations of her, all while insisting on being in charge of her own romantic choices. No damsel in distress, it’s Pocahontas who saves her (sort-of) boyfriend’s life for good measure. She also has one of my favourite female relationships in the film; her sweet conversations with Grandmother Willow are the reason this film passes the Bechdel Test.

But for all the good, there’s quite a lot of bad. While she doesn’t prance around in cinched-waist dresses and delicate glass heels, Pocahontas still follows the tiny waist/big hips/big eyes Disney princess checklist. Her decision to fall in love with John Smith – while a symbol of her defiance – plays into icky ideas of white men being more desirable than men of colour. And for a film named after a woman, a lot of it is about men: fathers, love interests, armies. I want to know more about Pocahontas’s relationship with her deceased mother or female friends; instead she runs around trying to save men.

Which brings us to the ugly: what happens in the movie versus real life Pocahontas. In truth, she was shipped off to England where she died a few years later, after marrying a man nearly twice her age. And any sense of feel-good feminist empowerment doesn’t last long, especially when we hear songs like the cringe-worthy, racist Savages. For all that, Pocahontas is still a feminist character – the problem is the film that surrounds her.

Feminist rating: 3/5

Sleeping Beauty

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist. She writes for The Guardian, The New Statesman and The Spectator

Sleeping Beauty is a film about a woman falling asleep, and then waking up, and it is better than it sounds. The title character, Aurora, is cartoonishly beautiful, because she is a cartoon character. She is a princess in a fairytale. At her christening Aurora is given two gifts by fairies: beauty and a sweet nature. I don’t know if the third fairy was planning to give her a brain, or ambition, or just some common sense; we will never know. Because the sorceress Maleficent, the most – the only – interesting character in Sleeping Beauty, arrives to curse Baby Aurora: on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spindle, and die.

To stop this happening Aurora is sent to live in a cottage in a forest, which allows Aurora to wander around the forest singing at things. Gormless Prince Philip arrives. He is all teeth. His horse is smarter than he is. But Aurora still pricks her finger on a spindle because she never got to the final gift at the christening, which was not being an idiot. Why didn’t she ask someone to chain her to a doorpost if she thought she might impale herself on a spindle? Why wasn’t someone keeping an eye on her? It’s not as if they weren’t warned!

But I forgive the plot-holes, due to Maleficent. She is a wonderful – OK magnificent – character. She is clever, powerful and has a very distinctive style aesthetic. She has horns. She has a stick. She does not sing at things. Obviously she is too interesting to be the heroine of a fairytale. Instead, she is punished for her gifts, like the heroines of Scandi Noir, who all have disastrous personal lives as punishment for being good at their jobs. Her partner is a raven. At the end she turns into a dragon and is stabbed by Prince Philip. Then she falls off a cliff. That’ll teach her to do magic.

Feminist rating: 1/5

The Little Mermaid

Daisy Buchanan is a feminist, writer, and author of the forthcoming book How to Be a Grown Up.

Hans Christian Andersen’s short story Den lille havfrue (AKA The Little Mermaid) is the tale of of a mermaid who sacrifices everything for the love of a handsome prince, by making a deal with a Sea Witch. Nothing goes to plan. In the original story every step she takes on her new feet feels ‘like knives’, she’s threatened with death (from a broken heart) and she ends up plunging a knife into herself instead of killing the prince and breaking the curse. The Disney version was always going to be different. The mermaid is named Ariel, and the closest we come to any knife imagery is the site of her combing her hair with a discarded human fork. Most importantly, we never doubt she’s getting her prince.

Ariel’s father, King Trident, is proud, patriarchal and desperate to curtail his youngest daughter’s freedom. Everyone in the kingdom is part of a giant propaganda campaign to distract Ariel from her constant craving for dry land Her crab pal Sebastian sings one of the catchiest tunes in the film in order to persuade her to stay where she belongs, delivering the awkwardly immortal line “Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter!” We assume Disney didn’t sign off on the innuendo, and it’s all from our filthy minds. Still, Ariel escapes the ocean and falls instantly in love with Prince Eric, rescuing him from a sinking ship and singing him back to life. Go Ariel!

Her kickass prowess is undermined by her mopiness - such is her longing to see the Prince, who she barely knows, that she makes a deal with sea witch Ursula, who is so fierce she could turn RuPaul to dust with the flick of a tentacle. Ursula persuades Ariel to swap new legs for her voice, arguing she’s too pretty to need it anyway - “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man!” Ursula’s “baddy” status turns this bad advice into a stealthy feminist message

Eric is intrigued by the silent stranger, but confused by evil Ursula who transforms herself into Vanessa, a brunette version of Ariel, with Ariel’s beautiful singing voice. There’s a matrimonial near miss, a giant storm and a happy ending, with the King waving his daughter off to her new life on land in the arms of the Prince.

Despite shipping Ariel and Eric, it’s disappointing that her opportunities for freedom are so limited. She’s courageous, clever and in possession of an enquiring mind, but the only way she can stop one man from controlling her life is to forge a relationship with another. However, the main message is that nothing good comes from silencing female voices - and it’s refreshing to have a hateable female villain as well as a genuinely heroic heroine.

Feminist rating: 2/5

Words: Lizzie Pook
Photography: Rex