What Disney Princess movies say about gender, culture and romance
What would the holidays be without a new Disney feature cartoon? With Frozen, the studio is in full “Disney Princess” mode—the line of femme-centric fairy tale movies designed to market Mattel Co. dolls, outfits and accessories to little girls, especially now, as the holiday buying season ramps up. A marketing ploy made all the more obvious when the movie is animated via CGI, and all the characters already look like plastic dolls, with their smooth, unlined skin and dimensional shading.
Let’s take a moment to consider the history of the brand. At least since the revisionist ’70s, we’ve all been yammering on about the evolution, or lack thereof, of Disney’s cartoon heroines, but I think it’s interesting to see how they’ve reflected their times. Snow White was sort of a neutered ’30s chorus girl (Betty Boop, without sex), with her bobbed hair and baby-doll voice, pining for her prince to come. Cinderella was the obedient drudge, ca. 1950, sublimating her own desires. A decade later, Sleeping Beauty could let her hair down, but she was still the poster girl for passivity; her most dynamic action was to fall asleep for 100 years.
But since the resurgence of fairy tale princess movies that began in 1989 with Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Disney heroines have become more resourceful, spunky (and, oh please, don’t make me write “pro-active”), in taking charge of their lives. And more ethnically diverse—grudgingly—if you count Chinese warrior princess Mulan, and Jasmine, from Aladdin, although it took 72 years for the first black Disney cartoon heroine, Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog in 2009.
Very loosely inspired by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, “The Snow Queen” (although it has only the vaguest nodding acquaintance with the source material), Frozen is one of the whitest of all Disney Princess movies. Not only is it set in a Scandinavian island kingdom perched on a fjord and full of Nordic blondes, but there’s the whole snow thing—a princess with uncontrollable magical powers whose touch turns everything to ice.
After Princess Elsa accidentally freezes the kingdom in perpetual winter, she flees up into the mountains and magics herself a crystal ice palace. The rest of the movie follows her sister, Princess Anna, on a trek across the snowy mountains to find her sister and save the realm. Her unlikely guide is lowly woodworker and ice delivery man, Kristoff, while she leaves the kingdom under the protection of neighbor Prince Hans. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two Disney princesses, one handsome prince, and one roguish commoner.
Which brings us to another topic: the evolution of the Disney cartoon hero. Seriously, does anyone even remember the bland, boring, cookie-cutter “Prince Charmings” of those earlier films? The first one to distinguish himself from the pack was Beauty’s splendid Beast in 1991, and even he morphed back into a (yawn) prince at the end. But finally, the folks at Disney are starting to perceive that their new breed of heroine deserves better, maybe a male counterpart with, you know, a personality. Frog Prince Naveen was a charming wastrel with a line of corny, yet good-natured patter; unfortunately, he spent most of the movie as a green amphibian.
Flynn Rider in Disney’s 2010 Rapunzel movie, Tangled, wasn’t even a prince, but a thief and a rogue, on the lam from the palace guard. Sure, the rascal hero is as old a cliché as the bland prince, and if wisecracking Flynn were a live-action hero, he’d be pretty obnoxious, but as a new Disney hero, he had his points. And in the landmark Brave in 2012, there was no romantic hero at all; Princess Merida was too busy finding herself.
The excess of heroes in Frozen might suggest a regressive step back to the old days, except for the surprisingly clever, even subversive way the love stories play out. And it’s interesting to watch the Disney tale-spinners create more evenly matched romantic figures, characters who grow and endure trials together, and end up together because they deserve each other, not just because they’re the only prince and/or princess in the movie.
But wouldn’t it be refreshing if a Disney heroine wasn’t a princess at all, but an ordinary girl? Now that would be brave.