Snow White to Jasmine, a feminist ranking of best Disney princesses: Throwback Thursday
I spent Monday night this week rewatching Frozen with my parents, who were visiting.
A couple of weeks back, we rewatched Moana. Last year around this time, I was in Sydney when the Disney Under The Stars live show was playing at the Sydney Opera House over one weekend; obviously, I bought tickets to the show, stood in queue to get in, spent an hour and a half in the searing Australian summer heat/sun between the time the gates opened to the time the show began, and then spent the next few hours happily singing along all the Disney songs.
I have a warm, snug, and soft Ariel/the little mermaid duvet that I bought a few years back. The Bells of Notre Dame is one of favourite songs ever, period. I’m 32 years old, and an obsessed Disney fan. There, I said it! And - brace yourself - I love some of the Disney princess movies as much, if not more, than non-princess Disney movies like Toy Story and Lion King.
You’re never too old to be a Disney fan, nor even a Disney princess fan. Over the past few years, the conversation around Disney princess movies has finally (and thankfully) moved from their clothes and hair to how strong and kickass they can be.
And with the live action version of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson (26-year old feminist and the pioneer of the #HeForShe campaign) releasing tomorrow, we have (at least in theory) a whole new “feminist Disney princess” to look forward to. As a throwback, let’s look at the best Disney princess movies - from the least to most feminist portrayal of a princess, shall we?
11. Aurora, Sleeping Beauty
She’s on screen for roughly 18 minutes, sleeps through three quarters of the film, is naive enough to fall for Maleficent’s evil trap, wakes up from her slumber (not a hangover from a fun night of drinking or exhaustion from a night of studying, mind you) when she’s kissed by a random stranger, promptly falls in love with said random stranger. Eek! She’s pretty and demure, and, that’s it.
I find it difficult to recall anything else about Aurora, except that she reacted to the fairies revealing her true heritage by, erm, crying. Okay then.
Feminist score - 0/10
10. Snow White, Snow White
You’d be forgiven for saying that Snow White’s story is driven entirely by the actions of those around her. Lisa Kaye Cunningham of Nerdology.org studied Snow White’s reactive choices and this is what they looked like - “She reacts to her stepmother’s abuse by dreaming of a loving prince. She reacts to the huntsman’s orders to run away by doing so. She reacts to finding the dwarves’ cottage by making herself at home. She reacts to the queen’s poisoned-apple trick by falling for it. She reacts to the prince’s kiss by waking up.” Not quite the feminist beacon we were hoping for!
She’s a slightly-more-offbeat beauty (by Disney standards, at least) with her short bobbed-not-overly luscious hair; some people have argued that all Snow White does the whole movie is “almost die, get shade thrown at her by the Queen, and wash dishes,” but you could potentially argue that when she finds herself in a tiny cottage where seven small men live, she doesn’t just turn around and run away scared. She stays her ground. That’s kinda impressive. Also impressive is the fact that she can talk to birds.
Feminist score - 1/10
9. Cinderella, Cinderella
I’ve personally never liked this story, and don’t quite understand why kids (and some adults) like it at all - it’s essentially just one disastrous event after another, and not in the intriguing fascinating way Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events is.
Cinderella doesn’t really get much of a chance to be a feminist because she’s too busy overcoming the godawful oppression. Her evil stepmother and stepsisters are like pettier, nastier, much less intriguing versions of Count Olaf (to continue the Lemony Snicket comparison), but she at least tries to make her shitty life better - garnering her a few feminist points in the process.
Of course, the fact that she has a fairy godmother and some rad glass heels to help her escape the ungainly clutches of poverty/nasty family make it difficult to rank her higher on this list, but to give her credit, at least she doesn’t spend the entirety of the movie singing to her reflection in soap bubbles. Small mercies for the audience, giant steps for Disney princesses.
Feminist score - 1.5/10
8. Ariel, The Little Mermaid
Ah, Ariel. Such a sweet soul. And quite a tough, plucky soul at that - dreaming of being part of the human world and stubbornly refusing to give in to her dad’s patriarchal agenda for her - and all this, while wearing a clamshell bikini.
She does save Prince Eric from drowning and actively pursues him, but goddamit girl - you only saw him for like a few seconds, thought he was hot, and decided to trade her voice (!!!!) for him! Ugh, saying this out loud makes it sound even more ridiculous, and it’s plenty ridiculous to begin with.
In the end, Ariel’s confidence and nerve are all quite cool, but you can jot that down to teenage rebellion more than any feminist agency.
Feminist score - 2/10
7. Jasmine, Aladdin
I’ve been compared to Princess Jasmine a few times in my life (maybe because of my long dark hair, or maybe because I own and have worn a sea green lehenga, or maybe because of my pet tiger; I’m sometimes quite spoilt). Singing A Whole New World while going on a magic carpet ride was a long held childhood fantasy, so I am a little biased towards Jasmine.
Let’s look at the facts though - she’s pretty progressive for a princess who’s locked in a castle and forced to choose between a string of ill-suited suitors. Her feminist streak is strong - she’s skeptical of marriage and in ultimately falling for a commoner like Aladdin, she also totally DGAF about the class system.
I also feel like Jasmine, unlike other Disney princesses, totally owns her sexuality when she seduces Jafar. Unfortunately, the fact that she has to rely on solely her sexuality to save her life is quite meh. I’m torn here - a good attempt though, PJ.
Feminist score - 4/10
6. Belle, Beauty and the Beast
Belle’s bookish ways are so charmingly like Audrey Hepburn from Funny Face, it’s difficult to think of her as anything besides a feminist icon. But then she goes and spoils it for us by voluntarily imprisoning herself and that’s just so many shades of uncool, it’s not “funny” anymore (slight pun intended).
On the plus side, she knows a creepy misogynist when she sees one (ugh, Gaston), her sassiness (unlike Ariel’s) seems to stem from intellectual curiosity and not teenage rebellion, and she was the first Disney princess to be skeptical of marriage. On the downside, by falling in love with a dominating man while being held captive by him, Belle unfortunately falls victim to the Stockholm Syndrome. Nooooo!
Feminist score - 5/10
5. Rapunzel, Tangled
Speaking of the Stockholm Syndrome, Rapunzel manages to overcome it by breaking free of her “mother’s” clutches, using her hair to great advantage, abetting with a kinda-crook on the run, and fashioning a weapon out of her frying pan. All good so far.
There are iffy parts about her though - like her naiveté - which make her a bit less progressive than we’d expect of our feminist Disney princesses. Pretty close though.
Feminist score - 7/10
4. Tiana, The Princess and the Frog
She’s a frog for most of the movie, but she’s also a Disney princess who’s a kickass business owner. A business that’s been her childhood dream - owning a restaurant.
On the flip side, Tiana resorts to a can-we-stop-pulling-this-crap Disney princess stunt (i.e. where she has to sacrifice something she cares about for the man she loves..weep weep). Which is, let’s face it, not very feminist of her. She does get her restaurant though, and also names it after herself (you go, girl!), which is why she ranks this high on our list.
Feminist score - 7.5/10
3. Pocahontas, Pocahontas
The historical inaccuracies in Pocahontas are so many that they deserve an article of their own. She rescues the guy she loves (totally subverting the “damsel in distress who needs a guy to save her” trope), goes against her father’s set notions, convinces her tribe to be more open and accepting, and - wait for it - does not end up with the man she loves. Disney, you sure know how to screw with us sometimes.
A Disney princess whose destiny is larger than a man or romance - that’s straight up kickass feminism for you.
Feminist score - 8/10
2. Mulan, Mulan
Before you get started about Mulan having to pretend to be a man to win a war or about how inappropriate the song “I’ll make a man out of you” is, I’m going to ask you to look up the meaning of “ironic” and then say these five words for you - overtly challenges gender roles.
Mulan rescues pretty much everybody throughout the movie, and repeatedly, This includes her father and the emperor. And she freaking wins a war!
She's also got two positive female role models - especially shocking because we’re so used to mother figures in Disney movies being either evil or dead. As a woman, Mulan is “as swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon.” Just look at that determination and sweat on the perfect bone structure.
Feminist score - 9/10
1. Merida, Brave
“I’ll shoot for my own hand!” - I knew we had a great feminist Disney princess the moment I heard Merida utter this line.
You could argue that the themes of the movie are slightly more archaic than we’d like, but that’s also its beauty - it’s not just a movie centered around arrange marriage; instead, it challenges you to think about everything from tradition, family, your place in history, living a life you want for yourself, independence.
By refusing to be married off to someone that wasn’t her choice, Merida claims her spot as the most assertive and independent “official” Disney princess ever.
How kickass is she as she climbs the cliffs of Scotland or when she hits bulls eye with her bow and arrow. And any movie that explores awesome mother-daughter relationships is a winner, in my eyes.
Feminist score - 10/10
I know I’ve left out Frozen’s Anna and Elsa (although technically, Elsa is a queen) and Moana (who, as she insists to Maui, is not a princess but is the daughter of a chief) because they’re not “official” Disney princesses yet. If they were, my list would look like this (in descending order) -
- Snow White
- Anna (who totally subverted the “true love’s act” Disney trope)
- Moana (the first Disney “princess”/daughter of a chief to not have a love interest, huzzah!)
Until then, I’m sending everyone (especially those who argue that Disney princess movies are crap) this article about how Disney princesses created modern feminism.