In another post, I talked about how female heroes in science fiction and fantasy stories need to possess their own agency within the worlds they inhabit. This means women in Star Wars need to be able to handle weapons and starships, female warriors in Lord of the Rings need to have the opportunity to stand and fight for the good of Middle Earth, and there needs to be some women Avengers who have power and status equal to Iron Man and Captain America (which still hasn’t happened yet).
But I also mentioned how all the Disney Princesses have agency within their own worlds, and that agency looks a little different from the action-heavy stories mentioned above.
Well, it turns out I lied. I was too hasty saying “all” the Princesses have power in their own stories. Granted, it’s a bit harder to determine what “agency” looks like in movies mostly comprised of singing and travelling to and from castles over and over again. So what does it mean for a princess to have power?
Sure, being a princess means you have power and people have to listen to you, but having a personal power over your own choices means more than just ordering people around. You may not be able to control what happens to you–like being cursed, banished, captured, or magically transformed–but having personal agency means you get to decide how you respond and how you go about taking action.
Sure, what you do may not work right away, probably because those pesky villains are always one step ahead, but the audience should always be able to tell that a princess is still in charge of her own choices. She should be able to decide for herself, not just letting someone always tell her what to do.
Let’s take Snow White, the first Disney Princess (the OG Princess if you will), as an example.
In her movie, her evil stepmother the Queen forces Snow White to work as a maid. Eventually, the Queen finds out Snow White is so fleek and on point that she gets the Huntsman to kill the young girl. Obviously, none of these events are within Snow White’s power, but it should be within her power to choose how to react.
Instead, Snowy decides to just take orders for the rest of the movie, letting other people dictate what she should do and how she should act. The Huntsman tells her to run into the forest, so she does. The woodland critters lead her to the home of the Dwarves (spelled Dwarfs in this movie for some reason), and she stays there. The Queen tells her to eat a poison apple, so she does. Then, Prince Where-were-you-for-all-the-other-important-things-that-happened? comes along and kisses her, and she wordlessly lets him take her away, knowing nothing about how the spell was lifted, or what happened to the Queen, or wait, who is this guy again?
The only action Snow White takes on her own is deciding to clean the Dwarfvfves’ house. Now, a woman cooking and cleaning isn’t inherently sexist (they’re like, essential life skills, man!), but since Snow White is taught (and no one ever corrects her) that this is all she’s good for, she does it almost as a reflex.
So, Snow White’s agency is attached to her ability to be a housewife and not much else. This, of course, is new information to no one, but it illustrates how the plot of the movie can be used to either give or take away a character’s ability to act within their own story.
In the Disney Princess films, the main characters’ agency is tied to a different trait or ability depending on what happens to them and how they are able to respond. A princess may end up playing damsel in distress or needing a man to complete her (both of which are problematic in and of themselves), but the real problem is when she still has no ability to affect or act on her circumstances.
Now, a lot of ink–and whatever the digital equivalent of ink is–has been spilt on how the way Disney princesses are designed, animated, and portrayed propagates harmful stereotypes and unrealistic expectations for women and men. These are all fascinating and important ways to view the Disney princesses, but for this post I’ll just be looking at how much autonomy and agency these female protagonists are given in their movies.
Also, there’s lots of female protagonists in Disney’s animated and live-action movies, but I’m only going to focus on The Official Disney© Princess™ Canon List of Legitimacy and Authenticity®™etc. The powers that be at Disney take who is and isn’t an Official Princess very seriously, as you can see by the pomp and circumstance Disneyland puts up every time a new character enters The Canon:
So there you go. No Princess Leia, Nala the lion, or Miss Piggy. So sorry, #notsosorry.
And I also want to stress although I want to look at these movies critically, that doesn’t mean they still can’t be enjoyed or don’t have redeeming elements. I still love a lot of these movies, including Snow White, but I believe it’s important that we can see all fiction with a critical eye so we can understand why certain things are good and why others are bad and possibly harmful.
All right, let’s get into it! Time to wish upon a dream, or believe a dream your heart makes into a wish, or whatever.
Princess #2: Cinderella from Cinderella (1950)
Traits: A kind and caring woman despite the abuse heaped on her by her stepfamily, she begrudgingly but dutifully works as a maid, hoping one day her dreams will come true. So, she has the power of wishing really hard, I guess?
Does she have power? As much as I like this movie, Cinderella basically just follows orders from both her evil family and her fairy godmother until she is finally swept off her feet by a prince. So no, she doesn’t exercise any agency.
Princess #3: Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Traits: A fairly nice girl raised in secret away from the evil fairy Maleficent, she is mostly known (and described on Wikipedia) by her physical attributes and singing voice. She has exactly 18 lines of dialogue and only appears in the same amount of minutes, part of which she is asleep for.
Does she have power? Since she mostly spends the movie being cursed, protected, moved, put to sleep, and awakened by other people . . . no. She doesn’t have any power in her own movie other than singing to make a man fall in love with her who was already betrothed to her anyway.
Princess #4: Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989)
Traits: Unhappy with her life under the . . . ocean (whew, almost got that song stuck in my head), Ariel spies on the humans and collecting their trash like a creepy stalker. She is crafty, determined, and full of spirit.
Does she have power? Well, on the one hand, Ariel literally gives up her voice and body to be with a man, which doesn’t send a positive message to young women. But on the other hand, Ariel is able to make a lot of her own decisions, including ones that take away her own agency. This one is tough, but I have to honestly say Ariel has little to no agency. While she is able to make her own choices near the beginning of the movie (as well as resist the pull of people trying to convince her not to make them), she eventually chooses to let both Ursula and Eric dictate what she should do.
I mean, if all Ariel wants is to be with Eric, why doesn’t her dad make him a merman? Seriously, why would you want to live on land anyway? We have to work all day, out in the sun we slave away, while the fish devotin’ fun time to floatin’ under the sea! Under the sea! Under the seaaaaaaaaawwww crap!
Princess #5: Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Traits: Belle is the learned daughter of a local inventor who yearns for a life of adventure. She is intelligent, witty, and full of unbridled compassion. Plus, she doesn’t conform to be like the rest of those plebs in her town. Ugh, so basic.
Does she have power? Yup! Belle is able to use her intelligence, wit, and sympathy to win the heart of the Beast and save the rest of the servants from having to spend the rest of their days as inanimate objects (which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, really. The characters in Toy Story and Brave Little Toaster don’t seem to mind). She’s able to stand up to both Gaston and the Beast when they try to impose their will on her while staying true to who she really is underneath it all: French.
Princess #6: Jasmine from Aladdin (1992)
Traits: Spending most of her time hanging out with a vicious, man-eating tiger and rejecting the numerous overdressed, self-absorbed princes trying to win her favour, Jasmine is independent, assertive, and can see past the facade of the phonies of this world. Plus, she can pole vault like nobody’s business.
Does she have power? Seeing as she able to convince the most powerful man in Baghdad, er, I mean Agrabah to change a centuries-old law just for her, then yeah, I’m gonna say she does. Jasmine is able to choose whom, if anyone, she marries based on their personality rather than if they show up on a horse or a camel one time. She is even willing to throw away her princess title, knowing it’s more important to have friends than be in power.
Now you may be thinking, “Oh, well of course the first few princesses were kind of sexist, so now the later ones are all empowered, right?” Haha, WRONG!
Princess #7: Pocahontas from Pocahontas (1995)
Traits: A free-spirited young Powhatan woman who doesn’t want to marry her tribe’s greatest warrior due to his overly serious nature. Pocahontas is curious, perceptive, and deeply tied to her family’s heritage and history.
Does she have power? Within the context of this movie, the character of Pocahontas does get to use her own personal traits and abilities to affect the world around her, convincing John Smith to care about her world and people rather than just trying to use them for personal gain. However, it’s improper to talk about Disney’s version of Pocahontas without talking about her real-life counterpart, Matoaka.
Unlike the previous Princess movies, Pocahontas is the first one to be based off an historical event, albeit an event of dubious legitimacy which is still the subject of debate to this day. Matoaka met the real-life John Smith when she was only 10 or 11 and never had a romantic relationship with him. Even though the movie version of Pocahontas decides she doesn’t need a man to be complete, the fact that the movie added in a romantic subplot to the story does take away from the agency the fictional character has in the movie. Plus, Matoaka’s life, both socially and romantically, was far from happily ever after.
I said I wasn’t going to get into issues like how so many princesses seem to need a man to complete them, but I think it’s important to note when a male romantic interest is added into a story that never had one to begin with. All the stories of the previous princesses–who come from fairy tales and ancient stories–revolve around their romantic interests in some way, but Matoaka’s history doesn’t necessitate any romance at all. I still believe the character of Pocahontas has a fair amount of influence and autonomy, but that agency is ultimately undercut by what this interpretation did to her character.
Princess #8: Mulan from Mulan (1998)
Traits: Putting herself in danger by going to war instead of her father, Mulan is strong-willed but has a low opinion of herself. Mulan is fiercely dedicated to becoming a strong warrior but also to do right by her family and her fellow soldiers.
Does she have power? Unfortunately, this movie suffers from the same problem as Pocahontas. The original story, The Ballad of Mulan, contains no romantic elements, as Zhu, Wei, or Hua Mulan goes to battle to protect her father and younger brother and then returns home, taking nothing back with her, spoils, reward, or husband. And Disney didn’t portray the social structure of China very well, either.
So, once again we have the problem of a major female figure, this time in folk legend, who is given a romantic interest when the original source material never had one to begin with. The movie version once again still possess a high level of independence, as Disney’s Mulan is able to use both her soldier and bridal training to defeat her enemies. But the power her character possesses is overcast with the deviations Disney added to her story which makes it seem like Mulan absolutely needs to be in love with a man for her story to have any weight.
Princess #9: Tiana from The Princess and the Frog
Traits: Tiana aspires to be a a great chef and has a hardworking attitude to get the job done. Tiana is confident, self-assured, and full of pride without being boastful.
Does she have power? Tiana’s story has the same problem as The Little Mermaid: the main character starts out as an independent woman who slowly loses her influence and agency over the course of the movie. Tiana’s dedication to working hard to make her dreams come true is criticized by the movie’s wise matron. Instead, she is redirected to falling in love with Naveen, the male lead. Her original dreams do come true, but only after she stops trying to achieve them and settles for just being in love instead.
Now, falling in love with a man doesn’t necessarily rob a female character of agency, but when Tiana is constantly told that being in love should take priority over her other desires, then the movie is deliberately removing what makes her special and replacing it with a rote trope. Tiana doesn’t even want to find a man at the movie’s beginning. She has to be coaxed by several characters into loving Naveen, which removes all the power she demonstrated as a competent and hardworking woman.
Princess #10: Rapunzel from Tangled (2010)
Traits: A young girl with superpowered hair follicles, she is quite gullible and naïve, but kind-hearted and clever. In addition to using her glowing hair to restore youth and raise people from the dead, Rapunzel is able to use the power of persuasion in both conversation and song. And there’s that running gag with the frying pan.
Does she have power? Yup, although not a lot. Like I said above, Rapunzel isn’t exactly hard to fool, partially owed to being
homeschooled locked up in a tower. She is able to make decisions for herself, like leaving said tower, but is also still manipulated by Flynn and her “mother.” So it’s kinda hard to say how much agency she has when someone else is manipulating her decisions.
Princess #11: Merida from Brave (2012)
Traits: Bold, brash, and brave (Hah, I get it!), Merida is unafraid of anything the wild woods can throw at her, although the courtly life is another story. Merida is able to use her skill with a bow, her knowledge of the woods, and a growing sense of humility to save her father’s kingdom and her mother’s life.
Does she have power? Most of the movie involves Merida disobeying her parents in order to take control of her own destiny, but unlike The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog, Merida doesn’t have to compromise her individual personality as she learns a valuable life lesson. She and her mother are able to come to an agreement about the importance of taking responsibility for your actions but still being able to choose your own fate rather than what others prescribe for you.
So yes, she has power of her own. And she can kill you from 100 paces.
Princess-in-waiting #1: Elsa from Frozen (2013)
Traits: So there’s apparently a waiting list for Disney Princesses who haven’t had their official coronation at Disneyland. They take this stuff seriously.
Anyway, I’ve already covered Elsa before, but here’s the gist: Elsa is imaginative, empathetic, calculating, and self-sacrificing.
Does she have power? She has superpowers which she uses escape her old life, create a new one, cover the world in a freezing winter, and reverse the process handily again. She is both the cause and solution to the plot conflict of this movie, so yeah, I’m gonna say she has some power there.
Princess-in-waiting #2: Anna from Frozen (2013)
Traits: Impulsive and excitable, Anna still loves her sister unconditionally despite their differences and disagreements. Anna is unwilling to give up no matter the obstacle.
Does she have power? Ummm, kinda? Although Anna is the first to volunteer to find her MIA sister, she is almost immediately forced to rely on the guidance and know-how of the man Sven. Wait, that was the reindeer. Kristoff (there we go) has to take the reins on the adventure until they both return to the castle, where she is promptly duped by another man then wanders into a frozen wasteland where her sister has to save her dumb butt.
Sure, Anna does get to choose what action she takes for the first half of the movie, but it’s not too long before she becomes another damsel to be saved. Granted, she is ultimately saved by her sister rather than some man, but that’s more a compliment to Elsa’s agency than Anna’s.
So there you have it. As it turns out, measuring the power and independence of these princesses is not very cut a dry. With the exception of the first three, most of the princesses have some sort of agency in their own movies. But, there’s only four princesses that seem to possess complete autonomy without any plot or character changes interfering: Elsa, Merida, Jasmine, and Belle.
Of course, this is only one person’s opinion. I’d love to hear your thoughts on which of the Disney Princesses has real agency and influence and which female Disney protagonist I should have included. You can comment here or tweet to me at @clayandres. Or just talk out loud to your screen. I’m sure I’ll get the gist of what you’re saying.