What makes a Disney princess?
It isn’t the royal title. It isn’t flowing hair or a beautiful dress.
The phrase “Disney princess” evokes memories and meaning for a lot of people. Ever since Snow White became the first princess more than 75 years ago, we have grown up with the archetype. For better or worse, Disney princesses are a cultural gauge, reflecting the perception of women in society.
So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the latest addition to the Disney princess canon: Frozen. The film follows two princess sisters, one of whom has ice powers. The ice princess (Elsa) runs away from the kingdom after her queen coronation, accidentally puts the kingdom in an eternal winter, and her sister (Anna) sets off on a journey with a mountain man (Kristoff) to bring her home.
The film is much easier to swallow from a feminist point of view than many other Disney princess films. In the first 20 minutes, Frozen mocks its predecessors when Anna gets engaged to a prince she has known for only a few hours. Instead of accepting this, Elsa (as the new queen) says Anna is crazy and won’t give her blessing for the rushed proposal.
That’s a real blow to princesses such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora. A few got married to their prince as soon as they were woken up with a kiss.
Next, when Anna journeys to find Elsa, Anna and Kristoff repeatedly save each other from harm. In the days of yore, it would have surely been the man (probably a prince) saving the fair maiden.
All in all, I like how these princess sisters show more independence and drive than many of their predecessors. In many ways, it reminds me of Mulan. The princesses have a mind of their own and are courageous. Mulan and Anna both get a man by the end, but that was never the goal or the point of the films. It’s just something that happened along the way.
Also, neither movie ends with a marriage, which is always nice.
So I ask again: What makes a Disney princess?
Movies like Frozen show a change in that archetype. It used to be that a Disney princess was regal and graceful. It was important that she had a man but she needed little personality. From Snow White to Aurora, this seemed to be true. Their stories sort of just happened around them through little to no action of their own (unless you count wishing).
Then we see a shift during the Disney Renaissance in the 90s. These princesses — Ariel, Belle, Jasmine — have more gumption. They’re more interesting characters, but the ultimate story is still about their relationship with a man. Ariel tries to win Eric over without speaking. Belle attempts to change her Beast of a man. Jasmine falls in love with a thief. It’s still about the man.
Mulan begins the latest shift. Now, the princesses have stories that do not depend on a love interest. Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and yes, the girls of Frozen have their own plot lines and ambitions — and they don’t need a husband/boyfriend to achieve them. Merida, who has no love interest in her movie, is the culmination of all this.
This shift is a deliberate decision on Disney’s part. People would less readily accept a movie like The Little Mermaid today, with its female protagonist chasing a handsome guy like the 16-year-old she is. Now, people want a Disney princess that little girls can look up to.
Perhaps that is the definition of a Disney princess — one that its audience wants to emulate.
Disney princesses reflect the perception of women in society. That’s why I’m happy with this breed of independent, self-possessed princesses we see in Frozen.