One of the areas that serves as a foundation for gender and race relation discussion is pop culture, and my childhood, like many, involved Disney and Pixar.
Today, I want to revisit my (continued) love of Disney through a feminist lens to see what lessons we might glean from their animated films. I have heard both critiques and support, particularly for the Disney Princess lineup, with respect to feminism, and it felt necessary for me to reconcile my desire for egalitarianism with the content of movies I hold so dear. (Yes – this is me confessing to a Disney bias, so if you find yourself thinking, “You only think that because you support Disney and rationalised your way around this”, yeah, quite possibly. Feel free to respond with your thoughts to expand the thought process!)
Also, before proceeding, check out Vanellope von Schweetz’ interaction with the Disney Princesses in the new Ralph Breaks the Internet trailer: “Are you guys okay? Should I call the police?”
What Does a Feminist Look Like?
Straight away, a word like feminist evokes different images to different people. Those on the actual feminist end of the spectrum will picture any of a diverse range of persons, while those with narrower thinking will picture the boot-clad woman with short hair and massive chip on each shoulder, burning her bra and spewing vitriol at any man within earshot.
If I were to mentioned feminism as it relates to the women of the Disney/Pixar universe (as indeed I am), one’s mind might inevitably run to a few: Mulan is the warrior who saved China, Merida is a rebel who has no need for a fella, Pocahontas and Moana are free spirits of their tribes. Others might immediately strike a person as the antithesis of feminism: do Snow White, Cinderella, or Aurora qualify as feminists? Are they part of a feminist story?
This still reduces feminism to a woman’s-only issue. What of the men in the Disney-verse? Are any of the princes feminists?
Let us stretch the idea even further – are any of the villains feminists? Perhaps they fail to meet the standard of feminism, but does that make the villain sexist or misogynistic be default?
These are some of the ideas that this piece wants to explore, and one must consider it through the lens of feminism as described in the opening.
Also, I hate to step on anyone’s passions. I know other people have done pieces like this and one sees a distinct tendency to rank the characters. That is a very human thing – nice round numbers and and some sort of orderly progression. With empathy for that, ranking people according to how feminist they are is distinctly not feminist. Feminism is all about equality, and that is something to which one is either committed fully or fails entirely.
What follows is not a ranking of the characters. People at one end of the list are not more or less feminist than the other, I merely examine whether they are at all and provide supporting arguments. Jump around if you wish, search for characters you expect to find or glance through for any surprises.
She Won’t Say (She’s in Love) – Megara & Hercules
When Hercules first meets Meg, he has just completed his hero training and is en route to Thebes to prove himself. He discovers Meg in a struggle with the River Guardian and intervenes to save the day and rescue the damsel in distress.
I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day. – Megara
She delivers the lines coolly from the grip of the monstrous River Guardian. Hercules decides to intervene anyway, sending Meg spilling into the water. After collecting herself, she has to suppress the unwanted advances from Phil and wait as Hercules flails in his battle. They then finally get their proper introduction:
Megara. My friends call me Meg; at least they would if I had any friends. So did they give you a name along with all those rippling pectorals?…Herc? Huh. I think I prefer Wonderboy. [How’d I get mixed up with the] Pinhead with hooves? Well, you know how men are. They think “No” means “Yes” and “Get lost” means “Take me. I’m yours.” Don’t worry. Shorty here can explain it to ya later. Well, thanks for everything, Herc. It’s been a real slice… I’ll be all right. I’m a big tough girl. I tie my own sandals and everything.
What we do not know at this point is that Hades literally owns Meg. When a past boyfriend of hers was in trouble, she sold her soul to Hades in exchange for saving him and then the boyfriend ran off with another woman. No surprises that she is a little suspicious around men.
Part of what makes Meg’s arc so refreshing is that she genuinely likes Hercules but fights against those impulses in the interest of self-preservation. No man will hurt her the way the original guy did, and the way Hades is now. Only by proving himself as possessing a strong character does Meg start to yield to her feelings, going so far as to sacrifice herself to save Hercules from the Cyclops, reinstating his physical strength.
That sets the stage for Hercules to save Meg, not in a winner-take-all battle with Hades, but by sacrificing himself. The couple have genuine affection for one another and Hercules, deemed a true hero for the strength of his heart, gives up his immortality to stay on Earth with Meg.
The more natural progression of their courtship and the strength of their characters land them on the list.
Spin Doctor: Three Princes – The Prince, Prince Charming & Prince Phillip
One cannot progress too far into this discussion with addressing some of the elephants in the room, and I do not mean Dumbo or Colonel Hathi. No discussion of feminism and Disney is complete without a couple of staples, the first of which being the role of the princes in the first three Disney Princess films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty.
The Prince and Prince Phillip share similar stories. Both meet their respective princess (Snow White and Aurora) briefly and the audience is meant immediately to infer true love. They share a song with their prospective lover and then separate, not to be seen together again until the princess has fallen in a cursed death sleep. The princess may only awaken from this sleeping death with true love’s kiss.
At which point the respective prince proceeds to assault an unconscious princess.
Now, I do reserve some small judgement here – just a slight hedging. Given the fantastical nature of the story, one could make the argument that “true love’s kiss” functions similar to mouth-to-mouth and acts as a necessary live-saving manoeuvre. That does not work in the real world, so do not try this at home.
The “true love” part of this also makes for some grey area. Yes, in any case the princess is unconscious and unable to consent. If the princes are strangers or familiar to an unacceptable degree, even kissing is inappropriate in this situation. In a familiar relationship, one has more latitude for interpretation as the kiss is a minor transgression that one could reasonably assume was welcome. We err on the side of caution and call foul on this though.
One final, literary note is that the princesses do not feature prominently in these films. Snow White actually serves a role more like that of antagonist in her film (do not confuse antagonist with villain), as Evil Queen Grimhilde is the one compelling the action forward. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora barely functions as a character at all. Mostly she is a plot device for the story of revenge between Maleficent and King Stefan, and Prince Phillip’s battle against the evils associated with the sins of his father. They are not heroines in the traditional sense.
This is where Cinderella varies somewhat, and we will come to her later. Her prince, on the other hand, performs the dim-witted role of dispatching emissaries to every woman in the kingdom to find his true love. He apparently cannot narrow the search by hair or eye colour, but instead resorts to trying the glass slipper on every maiden. The script flips here and Prince Charming plays the relegated role, but he hardly achieves his title in his brief screen time.
Just Around the Riverbend – Pocahontas
Pocahontas holds a special place on the list as resident eco-feminist. Before discussing her, I believe we need to clarify an important point: we are discussing the animated Disney film. Pocahontas is an actual historical figure whose story is horrible. I realise that some people disapprove of Disney telling this story on that basis alone, but that is beyond the scope of the focus here. This will treat the animated character as a purely fictional construct.
John Smith: We’ve improved the lives of savages all over the world.
John Smith: Uh, not that you’re a savage.
Pocahontas: Just my people!
John Smith: No. Listen. That’s not what I meant. Let me explain.
Pocahontas: Let go!
John Smith: No, I’m not letting you leave.
Pocahontas: [jumps out of her canoe and climbs up into a tree]
John Smith: Look, don’t do this. Savage is just a word, uh, you know. A term for people who are uncivilized.
Pocahontas: Like me.
John Smith: Well, when I say uncivilized, what I mean is, is.
[he grabs a branch, but the branch is not strong enough to hold his weight, and John falls back to the ground. Pocahontas jumps down after him]
Pocahontas: What you mean is, not like you.
Yes, we have the whole story about Pocahontas meeting John Smith, falling in love, and then putting herself in harm’s way between Powhatan’s tribe and Ratcliffe’s army to protect him. It’s all quite romantic.
More importantly, Pocahontas is her own person. She has a sense of obligation to her tribe and to her father, but that expectation will not dictate her life.
“What I love most about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice. The water’s always changing, always flowing. But people, I guess, can’t live like that. We all must pay a price. To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing…/…Should I choose the smoothest course, steady as the beating drum? Should I marry Kocoum? Is all my dreaming at an end?” – Pocahontas
She is a free spirit because that is who she is, not because she feels compelled to rebel and be something other than herself just to “beat” someone else. Most people should be able to identify with the conflict between what one wants and what one feels others expect.
Pocahontas has a hard line though. No matter how curious she finds John Smith, she puts her foot down hard when it comes to environmentalism and tolerance. Not that at no point does Pocahontas take aim against the English settlers for anything other than their superiority complex. She does not counter that her people are superior to them; she is all about equality. Powhatan recognises this in her moment of protecting John Smith, praising the compassion and understanding with which she approached the situation.
Her respect for all life reflects a special brand of intersectional feminism, not relegated just to women like her, to women alone, or even just to humans. She recognises the value in plants, animals – even the non-living rocks for their role in the balance of things (which, of course, in the plot of the film the Virginia Company seek to exploit and destroy). That respect for the equality of life earns her praise here.
Poor Unfortunate Soul – Ursula
You’ll have your looks, your pretty face, and don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha! The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber. They think a girl who gossips is a bore. Yes ,on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word and, after all dear, what is idle prattle for? Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can. But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn. It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man. ~Ursula, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”
Quick refresher: Ariel has a dream to live outside the sea, and upon meeting Eric finds herself motivated to do exactly that (no, her dream was not to live with Eric – he merely serves as the “call to action” on her original dream). Ursula seizes upon this by offering Ariel the means to go on land (legs) in exchange for her voice, knowing the plan will fail and setting her up to then seize power from Triton. All caught up?
Ursula, an octo-person (based on the entertainer Divine) sells Ariel on this plan by promoting the idea that men want a hot little piece who knows to stay quiet. A woman’s worth is in her ability to accomplish those two broad goals.
Worth noting here are two key points. First, this is a perspective on interpersonal relationships promoted by the villain. The film already established Ursula as an insidious character not to be trusted, so one can rather easily dismiss any notion that the filmmakers meant any part of this plan as a healthy worldview. Second, we remember that Ursula’s own plan depends upon Ariel’s failure to have Eric kiss her within the allotted three days. Ursula needs to present Ariel with an argument that is convincing but ultimately untrue to sabotage her.
In fact, one should draw the precise opposite opinion having listened to Ursula’s plan.
Part of Our World – Ariel (& a little Eric)
Ariel is not perfect. She does have that tendency to hoard items, though I stop short of diagnosing her as a compulsive hoarder. She organises that collection, the items have a personal value, and they do not impair her function in a significant way. Yes, I consider it excessive, but also charming in the context of her grotto.
They also speak to the dreams and motivation of her character.
“You mean, to land Eric as a boyfriend?”
No, Eric is not Ariel’s goal. Ariel spells out her dreams all too plainly early in the film with her show-stopping musical number:
Up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun, wanderin’ free, wish I could be, part of that world. What would I give if I could live outta these waters? What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand? Betcha on land they understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters. Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand.
Ariel wants to live out of the sea because what she knows of that life fascinates her. Eric merely serves as the call-to-action for her journey. Up to that point, Ariel daydreams about it and tests her father’s boundaries with trips to the surface, but seeing Eric resolves her to find a way (see the section on Ursula above).
We have no reason to shame Ariel for encountering Eric, developing a crush, and desiring a relationship of some kind with him. The notion that any sense of romance immediately cancels feminism is false and detrimental to the movement. No one forced Eric on her, no one is forcing her on Eric.
“She gives up her voice to grow legs and pursue him, how is that not creepy? If a guy did that to chase a woman, we would not be having this discussion”.
Well, yes we would. See, the thing to which that question refers is irony. We know that Ariel is a mermaid who did all of that pursue a romance with Eric. To Eric, she is some strange woman on the beach. He willingly invites her back to the castle, and she consents to that. Everyone maintains their agency. That is a feminist win.
Some might take issue with the infantile way the film presents Ariel on land. Grimsby and Eric watch with confusion as the gorgeous, spirited young woman fumbles with basic etiquette, such as combing her hair with the dinner fork (it’s called a dinglehopper for the uncultured reader). Except here again we see irony – the film does not present Ariel this way, the situation presents her this way to the perspective of the two men. They treat her with the curious suspicion that one would expect rather than salivate over her.
The most shocking moment in the film to watch as a feminist is “Kiss the Girl”. To the viewer, the scene is super romantic and the dream first date of countless girls from my childhood. Once again, the issue is irony. Ariel cannot speak (she can write, but for reasons that would obviously destroy the film she chooses not to use that skill), so Eric cannot know her intentions. The chorus of Sebastian, Flounder, and other animals singing to “kiss the girl” (“It’s possible she wants you, too – there’s one way to ask her”) is encouraging assault.
Is that categorisation excessive? Perhaps. Ariel demonstrates signals that are pretty clear to the audience, even leaning in for a kiss. And based on what we know as the audience, kissing Ariel in this situation would not be assault. I single this scene out to highlight something concealed somewhat by the dramatic irony: Eric must be 100% certain that she consents or he risks assaulting her. Whether or not Eric kissing Ariel is assault is entirely up to Ariel, just as Ariel kissing Eric as assault is entirely up to Eric (it does go both ways). Eric errs on the side of caution and shies away, and in the eyes of this writer earns praise.
Outcast: No Help Required – Esmeralda and Phoebus
Before getting into this, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is utterly underappreciated. Seriously – stop reading this for a bit and go watch the movie again. If you asked me tomorrow what my favourite Disney movies are, I would probably rattle off several other titles before remembering just how amazing his movie is.
Esmeralda kicks ass, both physically and socially:
“You mistreat this poor boy the same way you mistreat my people. You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help!” – Esmeralda
Yes, she does not have time for your crap. She reserves her impatience and intolerance for the impatient and intolerant, praying for assistance for those even worse off than she is rather than focusing on herself.
And then we have Captain Phoebus. Initially, his character seems like a misogynist waiting to happen, ogling Esmeralda as she dances and then following her after he spots her heading into the church. However, a fascinating meet-cute develops from there:
Phoebus: Easy, easy, I just shaved this morning.
Esmeralda: Oh really? You missed a spot.
Phoebus: Alright, alright, just-just-just calm down, just give me a chance to apologize.
Esmeralda: For what?
Phoebus: [kicking her to the floor] That, for example.
Esmeralda: You sneaky, son of a…
Phoebus: Ah-ah-ah! Watch it. We’re in a church.
Esmeralda: Are you always this charming, or am I just lucky?
Phoebus: Ah-ah-ah-ah, candlelight! Privacy! Music… can’t think of a better place for hand to hand combat… You fight almost as well as a man!
Esmeralda: Funny. I was going to say the same thing about *you*!
Phoebus: That’s hitting a little below the belt, don’t you think?
Esmeralda: No. This is.
Phoebus: Touche! [her goat headbutts him] Oof! I didn’t know you had a kid.
Esmeralda: He doesn’t take kindly to strangers.
Phoebus is in Paris at the request of Frollo to stamp out the Court of Miracles, a collection of gypsies who gathered in the city. Phoebus does not see a pest in them, and certainly not in Esmeralda who we treats with respect and equality from the start. As Esmeralda indicates her disdain for the soldiers of Paris, Phoebus introduces himself and then requests, not demands, Esmeralda return the gesture. When Frollo also invades the church, Phoebus claims the protection of sanctuary to allow her to go free.
Later, when Esmeralda needs help, Phoebus is the one who goes to demand Quasimodo get involved, not out of a chauvinistic sense of chivalry but because they identify as friends.
Some may question the decision of Esmeralda to end up with the gorgeous, strong Phoebus at the end rather than Quasimodo. Quasimodo did rescue her, after all – why should she reject him because of his appearance? Because one reason is really as good as any, she does not owe him her body, time, or attention for any reason other than she freely chose it. Quasimodo did not have to help Esmeralda, but Phoebus appealed to their friendship.
Hellfire – Judge Claude Frollo
The counter to that coin is Frollo. I love him as a villain because he represents a particular brand of evil. He presents himself as a moral authority, religious in nature. Of course, the film opens with him murdering a gypsy woman and then turning his sights on her deformed son, saved only by the appearance of the archdeacon. He then begins to lust after Esmeralda while speaking to her as a subordinate (because she is in his eyes).
He feels relevant in the modern world where we have our own “moral authorities” who are guilty of one scandal after another, mostly involving the exact behaviours against which they rail. They claim to want justice, equality, and preservation of family values while oppressing groups and betraying their family’s trust through affairs and other hidden misdeeds.
Frollo manages to contort his lust for Esmeralda into a sense of “rescuing” her from her evil ways, affirming and rationalising his role in perpetrating evil – as many evil men do. Of course, Disney makes sure to send Frollo to the hellfire he rightly feared in the end.
Almost There – Tiana
Tiana’s entire deal is hard work, not out of compulsion from an outside force but because she has a goal and hard work is the means to achieving that goal. She acquired that work ethic from her parents, who were compassionate and loving – not the callous drones that one might imagine when thinking of the nose-to-the-grindstone type. The work ethic is born out of passion and it permeates the whole of her character.
“I remember Daddy told me, ‘Fairy tales can come true. You gotta make ’em happen. It all depends on you’. So I work real hard each and every day, now things for sure are going my way. Just doing what I do. Look out, boys, I’m coming through.” – Tiana
The film plays her opposite Naveen, the fun-loving philanderer (“No, you’re a no-count, philandering, lazy bump on a log” – using Tiana’s words here) who never worked a day in his life.
Naturally, the arc for both characters involves them rounding out this excess in their lives and attempting to find a happy medium, with Facilier’s diabolical plot serving to carry that action forward (he’s classically evil, but a trifle dull in my opinion because we have little reason to care about his motivations).
Their journey takes them to Mama Odie, deep in the bayou, who they believe can reverse the spell and restore their status. Instead, she imparts some wisdom on the pair:
“Miss Froggy, might I have a word? You’s a hard one, that’s what I heard. Your daddy was a loving man, family through and through. You your daddy’s daughter, what he had in him, you got in you. You gotta dig a little deeper, for you it’s gonna be tough. You gotta dig a little deeper. You ain’t dug this far enough”. ~ Mama Odie
Mama Odie never discourages Tiana’s work ethic, but she refocuses her on the underlying passion. Her parents worked the way they did out of love, and her love, particularly for her father, is what was driving her goals. By bringing the love and positivity back into focus, Mama Odie helps Tiana to rediscover the joy part of her dream.
A Lost Boy – Peter Pan (and a little bit Tinker Bell)
Plenty of boys fail to grow up, and that is precisely the problem with dismissing misogynistic behaviour with “boys will be boys”. Look, I love this story and I love Sir James M. Barrie – it’s right there with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” near the top of my all-time list (and special shout out to Kathryn Beaumont as the voice of both Wendy and Alice). We all need to acknowledge that Peter is a bad egg though. That “Once Upon a Time” flipped the script on Peter and Captain Hook makes complete sense.
Peter is an alpha male as much as he is the irrepressible spirit of youth, he’s simply many years behind the active misogyny of a sexually mature male. Everything is a competition, and he will take that to the extent that it harms or potentially kills those involved. For example, the Disney version omits the actual travel from the nursery to Never Land. The trip takes ages and the Darlings become exhausted, often dropping from the sky. Peter makes a game of waiting until the last moment to catch them.
Let us back up a moment. That is the flight to Never Land. Back in the nursery, Peter abducts Wendy and her brothers. Okay, that is a slight stretch as the Darlings are all enthusiastic about going, but Wendy pauses to consider what her mother would think and Peter will not have any of it. He even drags her to the window. The brothers come as an afterthought because Wendy suggests it.
Wait, wait – we should back up more to the actual meeting.
Wendy: Although Father says…
Peter: Girls talk too much.
Wendy: Yes, girls talk too…Hmm? Oh.
Peter: Well, get on with it, girl.
Wendy: Uh, my name is Wendy. Uh, Wendy Moira Angela Darl…
Peter: Wendy’s enough.
Wendy: Oh, uh, but how did Nana get your shadow, Peter?
Peter: Chomped at me the other night at the window.
Wendy: Well, what were you doing there?
Peter: I came to listen to the stories.
Wendy: My stories? But they’re all about you.
Peter: Of course. That’s why I like ’em.
To recap: he insults her, dismisses her, and then brags about himself after revealing that he spies at the window. Note that while Wendy is aware of Peter Pan, she was decidedly unaware of his presence there. This is creeper behaviour, Peter. Peter is of course a young boy, but without intervention, and I do not expect much of that from the alpha who hates all grown-ups, it likely gets worse should he age.
This seems pretty consistent with Peter’s dismissive/inattentive/ignorant attitude towards women altogether. In the Disney version, he shows interest in response to Tiger Lily’s nose kiss, but he remains oblivious to the Wendy’s affection, the attention of the mermaids (who want to drown Wendy in jealousy), and Tinker Bell (who also tries to have Wendy killed). No, Peter does not owe his affections to anyone, but he at least shows the Lost Boys a degree of fraternal respect. His complete lack of regard for women is troublesome.
We cannot leave the discussion without a brief look at Tinker Bell. I do not have a problem with her outfit or vanity – we have no need for “slut shaming”. I do not have a problem with her having an affinity for Peter Pan despite his treatment of her and other women. That is how Tinker Bell feels, that is her prerogative. I do, however, have an issue with her calling Wendy “a big, ugly girl” (for the record, Wendy calls her “lovely”, without sarcasm, in return), pulling Wendy’s hair to prevent a kiss, and definitely with conscripting the Lost Boys to kill her.
“Feminism is a not a stick with which to beat other women”. – Emma Watson
Change Yer Fate – Merida & Queen Elinor
If I said, “name a feminist Disney character”, I expect Merida would be a common answer. After all,
“I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” – Merida
she literally has no time for anyone’s nonsense. Certainly not any of the tools that the other clans present for her hand in marriage. You go girl! Everyone knows it, too, including her awesome father:
[Impersonating Merida] “I don’t want to get married! I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen, firing arrows into the sunset!” – King Fergus
The film’s early action involves the notion of that marriage. With Merida coming of age, the clans expect her to choose a husband and continue to royal lineage, but Merida wants none of it. Her father presents casual indifference, but her mother, Queen Elinor, has strict expectations of the young princess. They might represent the expectations of any mother for her daughter regarding how she ought to behave though.
“You were never there for me! This whole marriage is what you want! Do you ever bother to ask what I want? No! You walk around telling me what to do, what not to do! Trying to make me be like you! Well, I’m not going to be like you!” – Merida
Yada yada yada – Merida takes a sword to the tapestry depicting the pair and tears a gash between them. That paired with a witch’s spell lead to Queen Elinor’s transformation into a bear, and the members of the respective clans have an issue with that (Mor’du). Merida flees with her mother to avoid the violence of the subjects and find a cure for the spell.
The relationship between Merida and her mother that unfolds on that journey is what drives the story, creates the emotional weight, and gives the film a depth of feminism. The story focuses on two women, mother and daughter, and there efforts to reconnect and repair a fraught relationship. Queen Elinor comes to respect her daughter’s courage and resourcefulness; Merida grows to understand her mother’s concern and compassion, rounding the story out into an excellent heroine’s journey.
Not a Prize to Be Won – Jasmine
I feel slightly conflicted with respect to Jasmine. Her dream was for life outside the palace walls, or at least to experience life outside it. After nearly losing a hand in the marketplace, she never makes it outside again. In fact, she winds up married and potentially contained to the palace for life (although as sultan’s wife and with her rebellious ways, perhaps they worked around that). More than any other princess, I feel that Jasmine is the one never granted her dream in the end.
That said, it amounts to a deficiency in storytelling and not character. Jasmine as a person remains very worthy of the feminist title. When we meet her, experiencing life outside the palace is a secondary concern to her father’s attempts to get her married because he will not be around forever. One stuffed shirt after another visits the palace with all of the trappings of wealth to charm the princess, including Aladdin (er, Prince Ali).
“I am not a prize to be won!” – Jasmine
Precisely. Thank you, Jasmine. She is not an object for a man to possess. She is a woman with her own thoughts, feelings, and passions, and the man she marries needs to be worthy of that. Jasmine is not protesting the idea of marriage, she is protesting the idea of being forced to marry on a schedule and to a strict pool of suitors.
In that respect, she succeeds – and has empowered women with her cries of autonomy ever since.
Friend Like Me – Aladdin
We could discuss Jasmine further, but as the movie focuses on the titular Aladdin we will not get far without him entering the mix and he deserves his own attention. Unfortunately for Al, that attention will not be flattering.
We can empathise with Aladdin at the start of the film. He steals only what he needs to survive (of course, that’s everything) and shows a willingness to look out for others, such as sharing bread with the orphan children. He meets Jasmine when he intervenes to protect her from the guards in the marketplace, and they share a moment after their escape. The guards find the pair because they are looking for Jasmine anyway and toss Aladdin into the dungeon…he meets Jafar…Cave of Wonders…Genie…Friend Like Me…all caught up now.
Aladdin has developed an infatuation with Jasmine, so as one of his wishes he requests that Genie make him a prince (after cheating a free wish out of Genie to escape the Cave of Wonders). Aladdin, in disguise, assaults the palace without welcome and proceeds to enter a verbal argument about “winning” Princess Jasmine’s hand in marriage.
When this infuriates the princess, Aladdin heads home to regroup.
Just kidding – he takes Carpet and flies up to her balcony, ignores her request for him to leave (and Rajah’s request), before the familiarity of “Do you trust me?” (a repeated line from the marketplace) convinces Jasmine to go for a ride. That Aladdin pushes through multiple rejections to get to that point is itself a red flag. Because Aladdin is the hero and Jasmine is the princess and Al has a heart of gold under that conniving exterior, the film lampshades his behaviour as romantic.
They then proceed to take the magic carpet ride. Ah, one of the most iconic, romantic moments in Disney history. Though…here we have an impostor singing “I can show you the world” as he escorts this princess, whose personal goal was to experience life outside the palace, around the Middle East. See the opening paragraph about Jasmine – I do not have a hard objection to this scene (I actually love the scene and the music), but from a feminist perspective I do find myself questioning a scenario in which Jasmine’s goal is only attainable through a male character.
Aladdin’s deceit does not stop there. Jasmine exposes him as the boy from the marketplace at the end of their ride, but Al decides to double down and lie more (Disney trivia – the plume feather on Aladdin’s hat falls in his face each time he lies). Jasmine accepts his lie and they part of good terms.
The next time Jasmine meets Aladdin, Jafar ousts him completely and sends him somewhere cold. This is the trick to lampshading – however bad Aladdin might be, we have the presence of Jafar to redeem him by comparison. Nothing I write about Al here lets Jafar off the hook for anything he does.
When Aladdin returns, Jasmine uses her femininity to distract Jafar so he can approach and take the staff, but when Jasmine must kiss Jafar to keep his attention, Aladdin and Abu manage to blow their cover. The resulting battle results in Jasmine nearly dying and the overpowered Aladdin finally uses his street smarts to outwit the ego maniac and trap him in a lamp of his own.
So, yes – Aladdin saves the day. That does not seem like enough to forgive all of his transgressions immediately and earn the consent of Princess Jasmine though. Unlike Mulan who committed several crimes en route to saving her kingdom, Aladdin’s transgressions are all personal and against Jasmine. The film overlooks all of that for the sake of the happy ending and Al never does the penance he ought.
Prince of Thieves – Rapunzel & Flynn Rider
That is the life of a thief though – in the trenches, doing whatever is necessary to survive. Right, Flynn? We go from one Disney thief turned prince to another, but with decidedly different results.
Flynn, er, Eugene is chock full of witticisms that parody the traditional Disney prince, like his refusal to join in the musical number until the ruffians threaten him with harm. And he has that charming introduction to Rapunzel:
Rapunzel: Something brought you here, Flynn Rider. Call it what you will, fate, destiny…
Flynn Rider: A horse.
Rapunzel: …so I have made the decision to trust you.
Flynn Rider: A horrible decision really.
Flynn does attempt “the smoulder” when he first meets her, but to gain his freedom through charm rather than to seduce her (spoiler – it results in her rendering him unconscious with a frying pan). While Flynn does play on her insecurities a bit to dissuade her from leaving the castle, he never does actual wrong by her. While his goal was to recover his satchel and be on his way, he honours his agreement with Rapunzel and they gradually build trust and love between them.
The boat ride under the lanterns – now there is a first date!
Rapunzel holds her own throughout the film as well. First off, thanks to her time in the tower she became a renaissance woman of sorts with artistic abilities across the spectrum. She is naive in the ways of the world, thanks largely to Mother Gothel, but has courage to spare and the compassion to see her through. The Ruffians at the Ugly Duckling find her charming immediately and support her quest, quite literally in the end.
The healing power of her hair aids an injured Eugene, and she prepares to do it again at the climax of the film in exchange for her life – only to have Eugene cut her hair short to free her of Gothel’s control instead. They save each other, they support each other – they love each other. Eugene maintains his roguish charm, Rapunzel her compassion – they stay true to themselves.
All in all, Eugene and Rapunzel are probably my favourite Disney romance.
The OG Princess – Snow White, Cinderella & Aurora
Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora – they wake up pretty, act all domestic, and wait for the prince to come give them a better life of cooking while barefoot and pregnant. These three are a feminist nightmare.
No, they are not. Feminism is about freedom, choice, and equality. The only way one can strip the title of feminist from these three ladies is to argue against those points, and I am not sure one can raise that argument.
Cinderella’s case seems pretty clear cut. What the story speaks about in volumes is that Cinderella had a dream – to attend the ball – and she did something about it. I tend to disagree with Walt’s quote that “When Prince Charming didn’t come along, she went over to the palace and got him”, because it seems to overlook that Cinderella’s interest was never in meeting a prince. Relegated to her life of slavery, Cinderella overheard about the ball and resolved that she should enjoy herself for once.
Yes, Cinderella had help in this endeavour. First, in the form of her mice friends who assisted with the dress while Cinderella attended to the more-unreasonable-than-usual list of chores Lady Tremaine assigned to prevent her full completion, and second, in the supernatural form of the Fairy Godmother. This assistance does not diminish the work that Cinderella put forth to accomplish her dream. No one succeeds in a vacuum (except Kylie Jenner, apparently).
Cinderella was a “good person” who wanted something honest and worked for it, despite ridiculous levels of injustice. In her journey against that theme, the supernatural aid reflects a common fantasy trope, an opening created by the universe through which one might overcome the obstacle. The Fairy Godmother did not rescue Cinderella from her situation (in fact, Cinderella winds up right back in that situation the next day), but provided a window through which she might, and indeed does, escape of her own character.
Snow White and Aurora offer more of an analytical challenge, not because of some deficiency in their character but because they do not feature much in their respective films. Neither is the hero, with that duty falling to the men (seven dwarfs and Prince Phillip) up against the female villain (Evil Queen Grimhilde and Maleficent, respectively).
Both princesses meet their prince briefly, fall in love quickly, and then drop into a death sleep. At least Snow White gets some interaction with the dwarfs prior to her curse – Aurora registers minimal screen time in her own film (to such a degree that one could argue it is not her film, she is a plot device to explore Maleficent, King Stefan, and Prince Phillip).
Desiring a romantic relationship as Snow White and Aurora do is a perfectly normal thing though. The film does not depict a realistic courtship resulting in love, but faulting the two women for wanting that is distinctly non-feminist.
The Flower Bloomed in Adversity – Mulan
I think when some people think of feminism, Mulan is exactly the sort of character they imagine. She dresses like a boy, trains in combat, and kicks ass. There is this sort of androgynous view of feminism where women want to emasculate men to make them more feminine and the women need to behave in a more masculine way that essentially mutes all concept of gender, sex, or sexual orientation.
Mulan dresses and acts like a man because she lives in a misogynistic culture that will not allow her to act otherwise. She wants to bring honour to her family and, more directly, protect her ageing father from military conscription in the fight against the Huns. What she does not want is to doll up for the Matchmaker and be placed with a man.
She does what she needs to do, but never loses who she is. The conflict of her character is in this – Mulan knows who she is but feels compelled to mask it for her society:
“I am now in a world where I have to hide my heart and what I believe in, but somehow I will show the world what’s inside my heart and be loved for who I am. Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don’t know? Must I pretend that I’m someone else for all time? When will my reflection show who I am inside?” – Mulan
She breaks every social rule pertaining to her womanhood in order to stay true to herself, and in the process saves the entire empire.
“I’ve heard a great deal about you, Fa Mulan. You stole your father’s armour, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonoured the Chinese Army, destroyed my palace, and… you have saved us all.” – Emperor of China
In order to best continue this discussion of Mulan, we need to move on to the next item.
Make a Man Out of Them – Pretty much the rest of the Mulan cast
Stopping short of saving all of China, Mulan would have faced punishment for her actions rather than earn the respect of her fellow citizens. See, ladies? Save the entire country and people will come around to show you some respect.
The film opens with Mulan preparing for her meeting with the Matchmaker, dolling her up and teaching her all of the necessary etiquette required to meet a good man who will take care of her. Her mother and grandmother focus on this point for the entirety of the film – even after Mulan saves the empire the movie concludes with them fawning over Li Shang. There is nothing wrong with a woman expressing physical attraction or sexual interest, but when the characters’ entire through line is about landing a top fella to enable their ability to live comfortably, it becomes problematic.
Then we have Mulan’s comrades-in-arms:
Yao: [standing naked on a rock] And I am Yao, king of the rock! And there’s nuttin’ you girls can do about it.
Ling: Oh, yeah? Well, I think Ping and I can take you.
Mulan: I really don’t want to take him anywhere.
Ling: Ping, we have to fight.
Mulan: No, we don’t. We could just… close our eyes… and – swim around…
Ling: [pulling on Mulan’s arm] Come on, don’t be such a gir… Ouch! Something bit me!
This has nothing to do with Mulan (remember, they think she is ‘Ping’, a fellow man). Instead, we see the infamous “locker room talk” and gender expectations for men. They “have to fight”. Everyone who is weak or unwilling to subject to these tests of masculinity is a girl.
They do like women. They even think some women are worth fighting for:
“How about a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?”
Okay, they seem to prefer a specific type of woman; namely, the sort of woman everyone is trying to turn Mulan into at the start of the film. The woman with a brain and thoughts of her own is undesirable.
And there is of course the entire “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” sequence. Yes, the scene is ironic because Mulan is a woman and the one who first steps up to meet Li Shang’s demanding requirements by scaling the post to retrieve the arrow. Irony. This is where empathy is so important in reviewing art – as the audience, we know what is happening. As characters within the story, all of the soldiers present are “girls” who need to be moulded into men through rigorous physical training, alternately implying that women are not capable of such.
The film is interesting in this respect, because it deliberately shows misogyny as an obstacle to the heroine. The film itself still qualifies as feminist because of the irony – while they espouse all of these ideas, we see Mulan overcoming all of them to prove the precise opposite. The overall film is a beacon to feminist thinking, just like Mulan herself.
How Far She’ll Go – Moana
[I swear I drew Moana, but I cannot find it]
We have much to celebrate about Moana. From the start, Disney made a conscious decision to move away from the “hot girl caricature” of past princesses to depict a more realistic figure for their heroine without sacrificing that distinct Disney aesthetic (sure, some people complained about Maui, but he’s 1) based on The Rock and 2) actually reflective of someone with incredible muscle mass).
Her story echoes themes of the women before her. She is the chieftan’s daughter (Pocahontas/Merida) caught between social expectation of her and what her heart desires (Pocahontas/Merida/Jasmine/Mulan):
“I’ve been staring at the edge of the water ‘long as I can remember, never really knowing why. I wish I could be the perfect daughter, but I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try. Every turn I take, every trail I track, every path I make, every road leads back to the place I know, where I can not go, where I long to be.” – Moana
She knows she has a responsibility to her people, and their current regent, her father, decreed that no one should venture out into the sea. Their people are from the sea, and Moana suspects the cure for the ails of the island are found at sea, which is where she feels at home anyway. Still, he rejects her requests to explore.
Gramma Tala is the one who imparts the wisdom and guidance on Moana to start her journey to Te Fiti – an older generation of feminine wisdom imparted on the new, a statement of strength. Moana decides on her own to undertake the journey, and gets multiple opportunities to abandon it along the way. In a vision of Gramma Tala later in the film, she even actively supports Moana’s decision to come home.
Everything Moana does, whether it be standing up to Maui (the egocentric who caused the problems with Te Fiti in the first place), battling Tamatoa and the kakamora, or braving Te Ka, she does of her own accord.
All of that to restore the heart of Te Fiti, who has become Te Ka in her rage and to whom Moana directs her loving message in the climax:
“I have crossed the horizon to find you. / I know your name. / They have stolen the heart from inside you. / But this does not define you. / This is not who you are. / You know who you are… who you truly are.” – Moana
Now who cannot get behind that message?
No One Espouses Misogyny Like Gaston – Gaston
No one shoots like Gaston, makes those beauts like Gaston, then goes tromping around wearing boots like Gaston. “I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Say it again, “Who’s a man among men”, and then say it once more, “Who’s the hero next door? Who’s a super success? Don’t you know? Can’t you guess? – Gaston
I will use a term like “toxic masculinity” and people will oppose it.
“James, what exactly do you mean by ‘toxic masculinity’? Masculinity is not toxic”.
Indeed, masculinity is not toxic, and I will come to that in more detail later. With respect to toxic masculinity, I might say simply to see Gaston. In short, he’s the type to fight and f*** his way through life. He takes everything that is traditionally masculine and dials it up to twelve – because if success means masculinity, then more masculinity means more success.
Nothing about who he is has toxicity by itself. One can be strong, one can be endearing and attractive to the opposite sex – we even have biological imperatives for that. The trouble with Gaston is taking all of this to excess.
Is Belle his dream woman? No, she’s “the most beautiful girl in town. That makes her the best”, and doesn’t Gaston deserve the best? He does not believe Belle, or anyone woman, should read because they then start thinking and getting ideas. Women are not partners to Gaston, they are property to possess and control. He even shows up at her house (itself a problem as he is not welcome) expecting to marry her a few moments later.
When learning of the Beast, Gaston’s immediate reaction is to raise a posse and kill it despite Belle’s repeated pleas that Beast poses no threat. Beast does pose a threat to Gaston – only an existential one rather than a physical one. Slow to think, quick to violence and anger describes Gaston in a nutshell. He may be the greatest anti-feminist villain in the canon.
Worth Melting For – Anna, Elsa & Kristoff
“You can’t marry a man you just met.” – Elsa
We already discussed the royalty of the original Disney Princess films. They have necessarily brief courtships (in that they fall in love the moment they see one another) and everything about the romance proceeds on that assumption. Disney trolled itself hard with newer titles like “Enchanted” and “Frozen”.
The message to Elsa at the start of the film is literally, “Conceal, don’t feel”. Her arc involves overcoming the belief that she has to repress anything about herself. She does this first by rejecting her anxieties in bold, Let It Go style, but that is what leads to the curse on Arendelle and a fateful discussion with Anna. Elsa then completes her heroine’s journey by learning to balance the masculine (the embrace of her physical power) with the feminine (compassion and love) to wield her powers well. (Masculine and feminine here are used in the context of Maureen Murdock’s heroine’s journey.)
Anna, meanwhile, is busy off on her own journey. The trip to recover Elsa requires help, which she finds in the form of Kristoff. Right away, Anna awkwardly asserts herself (but asserts herself nonetheless) in demanding that they leave immediately.
The journey up to the mountain sets off a chain of events worth separate discussion: she beats up a wolf with a lute, bends a tree in half to take out Marshmallow (the abominable snowman), and literally dents Hans’ face with a punch. #HiddenSuperpowers (In addition to her ice deal, Elsa can also create sentient life, so these women are pretty hardcore.)
As with Brave, the heart of the story is the relationship between Anna and Elsa (for those unfamiliar, Elsa is the villain of the source material, so this represents a most deliberate decision by the filmmakers). The playfulness of their youth, the divide created by Elsa’s condition and attempting to cope with the loss of their parents (the film speaks well to mental health issues, too), and the complicated sisterhood that exists for much of the film is beautiful, culminating in Anna’s sacrifice of love and Elsa’s realisation that love conquers fear.
We cannot leave without addressing Kristoff. I will stand by my earlier statement that Eugene and Rapunzel are my favourite couple, but Kristoff is probably my favourite prince. From the moment he meets Anna in Oaken’s shop, he treats her like an equal and not like “the beautiful princess she is”. He assists her voluntarily (in exchange for items, but he is not pursuing her against her will or coerced into helping Anna), and makes sure never to overstep his bounds.
Their courtship is gradual and natural – Kristoff’s “love expert” friends identify it before either of them, and even then they fail to see the feelings that have developed until later in the film. When the time finally comes for our prince to share a kiss with his lady, we see something truly magical:
Anna: [after explaining the features of the new sled] Do you like it?
Kristoff: Like it? I love it! I could kiss you! I could. I mean, I’d like to. I. May I? We me? I mean, may we? Wait, what?
Anna: [kisses him on the cheek] We may.
Yes, for all intents and purposes we know that Anna would welcome a kiss from Kristoff. The film has been guiding us to that conclusion for some time at this point. Still, Kristoff does not act on his desire until he is sure that Anna consents to it. Anything less than that certainty of consent risks assaulting her (whether it is assault is up to Anna and no one else). That is why Kristoff tops my list of Disney beaus.
The Last Petal Falls – Beast
Speaking of beaus – we have a slight surprise for you here near the end of the list. This is brief, but necessary.
Belle offers to replace her father (who should not have been imprisoned for life himself), and Beast decides to accept, throwing Maurice out of the castle without letting her say goodbye. He then proceeds to hold Belle captive. This is significant because the courtship is based on this abduction, and Beast really faces little consequence for this action.
He yells at Belle, threatens violence, and threatens to withhold food from his prisoner to make her do as he wishes. Again, we see this as the “misunderstood beast” that only the right woman can cure and we dismiss his behaviour through the framing devices of the story.
By the time we reach the part of the film where he says,
“I release you, you’re no longer my prisoner”. – Beast
How sweet, and it was only however many days of imprisonment before that he granted her the freedom to go anywhere in the castle she wanted (except the West Wing!!!). In the context of the film, this is a moment for the audience to go, “Wow, he really does love her”. Sigh. He stopped holding a woman hostage. Yes, he did it because he loved her, but that is an insultingly low bar for “he reformed his ways!” – and not to mention that if he did not love her, she might have remained his prisoner.
Look, I do not have a problem with Beast overall. By the end of the film we do conclude that he reformed and we get the happily ever after we want as an audience. Belle deserves happiness at any rate and the real villain got what was coming to him, so we kind of let the rest slide.
Still, we need to be conscious of the fact that Beast behaved awfully and never achieved the contrition necessary to overcome the vileness of the abduction.
Belle of the Ball – Belle
I want to close on the highest of notes. I adore Belle. In fact, I love Belle – have ever since my 5-year-old self saw that film for the first time. She loved reading, she was thoughtful, she was intelligent, she was kind, she was compassionate, she had grace, and she had strength. I wanted to marry Belle when I was old enough (and figured out how to transcend my human form for an animated one, I guess). Then Disney went back and re-imagined it in live action with Emma Watson (who I also adore), the actress who brought Hermione to life (who I also adore). Feel free to disregard this entire section as bias.
First of all, Belle does not have Stockholm Syndrome, and I do not mean that just because the medical community disputes the condition itself. Assuming it does exist, the hostage and captor must have no prior relationship (check) and the hostage must develop positive feelings towards the captor (hold on a moment).
Belle has zero problem putting Beast in his place. When the captor says, “If you don’t eat with me, you don’t eat”, and the hostage’s response is, “Then I guess I don’t eat” – that is not Stockholm Syndrome. When the hostage screams at the captor for constantly losing control of his temper in the immediate aftermath of the captor saving the hostage’s life, that is not Stockholm Syndrome. You know what, I’ll let Belle explain it:
“It’s such a good question and it’s something I really grappled with at the beginning; the kind of Stockholm Syndrome question about this story. That’s where a prisoner will take on the characteristics of and fall in love with the captor. Belle actively argues and disagrees with [Beast] constantly. She has none of the characteristics of someone with Stockholm Syndrome because she keeps her independence, she keeps that freedom of thought.” – Emma Watson
She takes care of business with Gaston, too. Belle calls him on his “primeval” attitudes and politely refuses his arrogant advances (women do not have an obligation to respond to harassment with civility, but the fact that Belle manages it is part of what I found so charming) right up to the moment she dumps him out the door and into the mud. The moment Gaston is out of her face, we get to see her vent the frustration of dealing with his crap (and indirectly take it out on some chickens).
Belle is a genuinely good human being. She shows compassion, whether in the form of not throwing books at the ignorant town citizens or helping to treat Beast’s wounds after the wolf attack. She is intelligent, well read, and well spoken. Belle is all of these things because that is who she is, not because she feels compelled to act a certain way. In a town of provincial, set behaviour, Belle is not afraid to reject the norms and be her own person.
And then in the remake she adopts the inventor skills from her father’s character, making her even more compelling.
Belle is just the best.
Unrelated Fandom Stuff
The Disney Princess Lineup includes: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan (the original lineup), Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida
Anna, Elsa, and Moana are not officially members yet. There’s a whole coronation deal. I expect they will be eventually and we all treat them as such, but they are not part of the lineup yet.
Anastasia, who for years infuriated me as an answer to “Who is your favourite Disney Princess?” may actually join the lineup as well now that Disney acquires FOX, who owns the rights to her film.
Tinker Bell was a member of the original lineup and then spun off to develop a separate Fairies lineup.
The “lineup” has somewhat fluid rules:
- be a human (Ariel kind of plays with that boundary; also why someone like Nala does not appear)
- be royal, marry into royalty, or perform some act of heroism
- appear in a canon movie (so no one from the sequels – also, the movie requires a degree of commercial success it would seem, as Eilonwy and Kida did not qualify)
Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Wendy (Peter Pan), Jane Porter (Tarzan), Megara (Hercules), Kida (Atlantis), Eilonwy (The Black Cauldron), Esmeralda (Hunchback of Notre Dame), Giselle (Enchanted) Jessie (Toy Story 2 and 3), Vanellop von Schweetz (Wreck-It Ralph and sequel), Mary Poppins, Princess Leia, and Rey (Star Wars) are other “non-princesses” in the Disney-verse worth your time and consideration.
All of the images in this piece were hand-drawn and coloured by the author, but the basis for those images is the artwort of Chihiro Howe, aka Sakura-Joker. Please check out the gallery on deviantart! Without those pieces, I would not have been able to do these because I need a reference from which to work.
Here are others completed based on paused scenes from the films or promotional works from years ago. I’m still a far better writer.