Zero to Hero: The Evolution of Disney Princesses

By Neha Ayyer


For the longest time, Disney princesses had one goal: Prince Charming. A furor of balls, slippers, and tiaras just to end in a happily-ever-after with a kiss that would last through lifetimes. Romantic, isn’t it? Finding love was what it meant to be a princess. However, this idea implies that girls should expect a man to save them, and if they don’t have a romantic relationship, they are not a princess. But little by little, the definition of what it means to be a princess is changing Princesses have gone from being submissive and the “damsel-in-distress” to being the “hero”— not waiting for someone else to save them.


Here’s the Disney Princess evolution:


Near the beginning of the Disney princess era, many princesses waited for a man to rescue them rather than saving themselves. Snow White, fallen after taking a bite out of a poison apple, would only awaken by a true love’s kiss. This scene promotes the subtext that Snow White couldn’t get anywhere with her life if not for a man. In fact, throughout most of the story, Snow White cooks and cleans for seven male dwarves who can’t seem to take care of themselves. Gender roles run rampant in this film, a few more examples including Cinderella (from “Cinderella”) and Aurora (from “Sleeping Beauty”). Both of these princesses lack character depth, and these stories continue to imply that beauty is a woman’s best trait. In all three of these movies, a man is what “saves” the princesses from their sorrow and misery.


As the Disney princess brand evolved, a new era started with the princess Belle (from “Beauty and the Beast”). Belle is an intelligent young woman who has opinions of her own. Her nose is always in a book. However, her community alienates her for being this way. This bias implies that women do not “fit-in” if they think for themselves. Also, the townspeople only tolerate Belle because she is beautiful, again implying that beauty is what makes a woman attractive rather than character. And, once again, the entire story is mainly about finding love too.


With the Disney princesses continuing evolution, we start to see more princesses turning into the “hero” of their own story. Two instances of this include Tiana (from “Princess and the Frog”) and Mulan (from “Mulan”). Tiana is ambitious and driven; her wish is to create a popular restaurant, and she is willing to do anything to achieve that dream. When Prince Naveen first appears, she doesn’t swoon or fall in love with him. Tiana demonstrates to everyone that women are capable of running their businesses and don’t need a man to help them achieve their dreams. Likewise, Mulan is strong, brave, and arguably the best fighter in an all-male army. She defies expectations by dressing up as a guy and enlists in the war instead of her father. Mulan is the story that shows everyone that women don’t have to be prim and classy and that they are capable of running an army. While it is true that these princesses did find love, in the end, it was more of a subplot and was not the main aspiration for them.


In recent years, we have seen even further growth of Disney princesses. We start to see more princesses taking the initiative to make their own story, with no love interests. Merida (from “Brave”) is a great archer and the first princess to not have a male counterpart. The central conflict of this story is Merida feuding with her mother on not being “lady-like” and refusing to get married, which signifies the future of strong, single princesses and the changing roles of women in the world. Furthermore, Moana (from “Moana”) is a princess that takes her life into her own hands and is the main protagonist of the story, as she teaches herself how to sail so that she can restore the heart of Te Fiti. Moana is the one that saves her people from a curse, leads them to explore new lands, and go on exciting adventures. This story illustrates how women can save themselves and be the “hero” of their life, while also saving those surrounding them.


Disney princesses have evolved significantly from the stereotypical housewife personality to being a strong, brave, and independent woman. Women are gaining respect and esteem for their work. They have left being submissive and entered a world where they fight for themselves. As their roles have changed, so have society’s views on females.


The diversity of personality, race, and body shapes show the shift in how society perceives beauty. At first, beauty was based on looks and how fair her skin tone is. But now, beauty is starting to be measured on the heart and mind, not on appearance. The transition of princesses becoming capable and dominant is especially important to younger viewers—children can now look up to powerful females as their role models and understand that no matter your color, body shape, or size, you are beautiful, and finding love is not what it means to be a princess.



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Sources:

Bucksbaum, Sydney. “The Evolution of Disney Princesses, from 'Snow White' to 'Frozen 2'.” EW.com, 21 Nov. 2019, ew.com/movies/disney-princesses-evolution/.

Patel, Ria, et al. “The Evolution of Disney Princesses.” Conant Crier, 4 Mar. 2020, conantcrier.com/entertainment/movies/the-evolution-of-disney-princesses/.

Wbur. “The Evolution Of The Disney Princess.” The Evolution Of The Disney Princess | On Point, WBUR, 8 Dec. 2016, www.wbur.org/onpoint/2016/12/08/evolution-of-the-disney-princess.

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