Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…
…are there any self-possessed Disney heroines at all? Yes! These leading ladies have come a long way since 1937, when the ideal princess had ‘skin as white as snow’; passively pinned her hopes on a prince who would someday come; and trusted strangers a little too much. Moana showed us that if a young woman wants something now, she’ll jump on a boat, learn to sail and go get it herself. But it’s not insignificant that it’s taken the better part of a century to get this far. Over time these women have evolved into readers, archers, rebels, and leaders with diverse faces, bodies, and dreams. From Entertainment Weekly’s special issue The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and the Beast, on newsstands now, here’s a look at how that transformation happened.
Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937)
Based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Snow White led Disney’s first animated feature film. Known for her beauty and kindness — much to the chagrin of her evil stepmother, the queen — Snow White befriends woodland creatures and men of small stature whose house she cleans, assuming children live there. She’s a little too trusting, and a poisoned apple from the disguised queen puts her to sleep until a prince wakes her up with a kiss. Sure, it’s wonderful to be nice, but are household chores and a surprise coma really worth it?
Cinderella (Cinderella, 1950)
Several cultures have tales of a pitiful stepchild saved by a lost slipper, from China to Indonesia to Italy. Disney’s telling, close to the French Cendrillon, brought more friendly animals, more punishing chores, and more evil steprelatives to the screen. While she may be more passive than Snow White, relying on a fairy godmother’s magic to get her to Prince Charming’s ball, we’ll give her this: Her gowns are stunning, she deserved a night out, and points for the fairy-godmother sisterhood. But in our era it’s tough to watch her let her stepsisters stomp all over her without wishing she’d put up a bit of a fight. Bibbiti bobbiti…Boo.
Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959)
For a heroine who spends a good part of her movie asleep, Princess Aurora (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose) sure has a lot of aliases. Cursed by the evil Maleficent to die on her 16th birthday, Aurora is raised in the woods by three good fairies, who manipulate the curse so Aurora won’t die; she’ll just be doomed to sleep until true love’s kiss wakes her up. Even in 1959 reviewers were bothered by the similarities between Aurora and Snow White, especially in their slumbering passivity. The only consolation is that she fell in love with Prince Phillip before she fell asleep, so there’s a semblance of choice there.
Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989)
Considered the first film of the Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid pulled the studio out of its mid-’80s slump. But while Ariel’s songs might stand the test of time, her story feels a little backward: She starts out as a wide-eyed, curious creature of the sea who longs to know what life would be like as a human on land. But when she trades her voice for legs (a cringe-inducing metaphor if ever there was one), she actually does meet the human prince of her dreams and eventually — voice intact once again — becomes a person herself. Achieving a dream or changing for a man?
Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991)
Belle proves that a heroine can still have that classic Disney kindness but also plenty of self-respect, along with a passion for something other than cleaning. Her looks are important to everyone around except Belle, who’d rather read her favorite book a third time and daydream about something beyond her “provincial life” than take up with the town hunk (who’s a bully). And after she ends up at the Beast’s castle — where he’s initially very, well, beastly — he’s the one who has to change for her. An improvement, even though her story still ends with romance. The original fixer-upper-boyfriend tale?
Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992)
Though not the protagonist of her movie, Jasmine deserves her place in the Disney Princess Pantheon: She boasts a thirst for adventure, an aversion to empty-headed royal suitors, and a shrewd awareness of her own appeal. Based on both the love interest in The Thousand and One Nights and Audrey Hepburn’s princess-on-a-day-pass in Roman Holiday, Jasmine is the first nonwhite Disney princess, showing girls of all races a whole new world. It’s anachronistic but pretty satisfying when Jasmine asserts, “l am not a prize to be won!”
Pocahontas (Pocahontas, 1995)
Her Disneyfied story may not follow the facts, but Pocahontas has other lessons to teach besides history. She’s a Native American woman whose respect for her people runs deep, as does her hope that peace with the British settlers is possible. She also rejects both her father’s plans for her arranged tribal marriage and John Smith’s offer to return with him to England. In truth the real Pocahontas married a Brit and changed her name to Rebecca Rolfe. But, you know, she also didn’t have a raccoon for a friend.
Mulan (Mulan, 1998)
Based on a beloved Chinese legend of a woman warrior, Mulan is a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her elderly father’s place in the army. She struggles at first but soon faces off against the Huns with brawn, brains and bravery. Even after her identity is revealed and she’s discharged from the army, Mulan saves the emperor and the city. The emperor bestows on her a prestigious honor, and she gets the guy in the end — despite having caused him a bit of sexual confusion when they were army buddies.
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009)
Our first African-American princess is also our first career girl: Tiana works as a waitress in New Orleans while dreaming of opening her own restaurant. When she kisses a prince disguised as a frog, she becomes one herself. They fall in love, but the time the two spend in frog form almost negates the whole diversity premise. Eventually they marry, kiss, and become human again, and Tiana gets her restaurant. Congratulations?
Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010)
Like Snow White and Cinderella, Rapunzel has roots in a classic fairy tale. But unlike her foremothers, she’s a spirited, quirky character with a fully formed personality and a knack for painting. She longs to leave the tower where old Mother Gothel locked her, so she strikes a deal with a fugitive thief named Flynn to break her out. Later, Flynn is injured by Gothel, and Rapunzel nearly sacrifices her hard-won freedom for him. She doesn’t — but her story still ends, like the others, with a marriage.
Merida (Brave, 2012)
Merida, Pixar’s first princess and female lead, is a skilled archer. Her parents ask that suitors demonstrate their own talent with a bow and arrow to win her hand in marriage. Merida, though, wants nothing to do with their plan. She beats them all, but her mother says her refusal to marry will cause unrest in the kingdom. Ugh — are we really forcing a 16-year-old to get married? Fortunately, the major issue in Merida’s life is her relationship with her mother (and Merida’s struggle to rescue her after she’s turned into a bear). Her prize at the end is a happy, intact family, not a proposal.
Elsa and Anna (Frozen, 2013)
Frozen‘s sisters are polar opposites: The oldest, Elsa, has ice-making powers, and after an accident she is isolated in the castle and ignores her younger sister Anna, who is perky and lonely and jumps at the first prince who looks her way. He turns out to be a villain, and Anna instead falls for the unassuming good guy. Yet, similar to Brave, the sisters’ bond is far more important than any romance; in Elsa we meet a woman with no love interest, just a boatload of internal conflict.
Moana (Moana, 2016)
Finally, with Moana, Disney introduced a heroine who has no marriage mandate but will nevertheless someday become chief of her Polynesian tribe. In her heart she’d rather spend her days exploring far beyond her home, but she’s also quite adept at the intra-island diplomacy her future title requires. When the Ocean itself chooses Moana to complete an impossible task, she gets a demigod for a sidekick, learns how to navigate a boat using stars and wind and ends up fighting most of their battles herself, refining her sense of self and purpose.
Belle Is Back
Entertainment Weekly’s special issue The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and The Beast, featuring the casts and creators of the new film and the animated classic, is on sale now.