Have Disney princesses levelled up?

Harriet Metcalfe explores the evolution of the Disney princess.

Harriet Metcalfe
7th March 2020
Snow White once sang 'Someday My Prince Will Come'. But in 2020 - he doesn't really have to.

I think it’s a safe bet to say that the fair majority of us grew up with some part of Disney in our lives. But the ‘princess’ genre has come a long way since Snow White and Cinderella – and with the new live-action and colour-blind cast remake of The Little Mermaid (1989) due to be released at some point next year, it seems like the right time to step back and see just how far one of the most influential Disney ‘genres’ has come.

Cinderella embodies the qualities of the traditional Disney princess: kindness, beauty and patience.

Disney films are normally split up into about seven ‘eras’ based off of their release years. Most of the ‘classics’ are in the Golden and Silver age; Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Sleeping Beauty (1959)… you get the idea. But the issue with these eras is almost a complete lack of cultural diversity. To put it bluntly, these films are either about animals that can talk, white people, or the mouse himself. It wasn’t until the Renaissance era that Disney started to explore cultures other than its own American one; Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998)– these might have somewhat problematic themes watching them in 2020, but it was unarguably ground-breaking stuff that led to films like The Princess and the Frog (2009) (in the revival era) – notably the first Disney movie to feature an African-American princess. 

Whilst it's taken Disney far too long to represent different cultures and ethnicities in its princesses, 2016’s Moana was a total game-changer. Based on stories from Polynesian mythology – it didn’t see a girl trying to do the ‘right’ thing and end up falling in love (probably the most common plot line; Belle goes to rescue her father, ends up falling in love with the Beast, etc) – but rather a girl doing something almost everyone tells her she can’t, and succeeding at it. Even the soundtrack was a refreshing step away from Disney’s traditional love songs; written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who certainly wouldn’t throw away this shot), Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i, there are lyrics in English, Tokelauaun, Tuvaluan (both Polynesian languages) and Samoan (language of the Samoan Islands). 

Mulan is the only official Disney princess to be awarded the title not because of royalty, but for having "performed an act of heroism".

The next in line for Disney’s live-action remake machine is The Little Mermaid (directed by Rob Marshall) and is probably one of their biggest steps in the evolution and diversity of princesses, with the film having a colour-blind cast. Halle Bailey (A Wrinkle in Time) is taking the role of Ariel, with Jonah Hauer-King (A Dog’s Way Home) as Prince Eric and Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) voicing Sebastian. Some internet trolls, however, decided to complain that she doesn’t look like Disney’s original version of Ariel, who is drawn as white. She’s also a mermaid – but funnily enough the trolls weren’t bothered about that. 

Whilst many people see Disney’s remaking process as another way to get us to dish out more money to the mouse (and last years’ remake of The Lion King was definitely just that), this one is pretty important. As Bailey told Variety, “this role was something bigger than me, and greater, and it’s going to be beautiful and I’m just so excited to be a part of it”. She recognises the importance of this representation on screen, especially for younger audiences, as one of the most popular Disney princesses. I can only hope that it doesn’t go Under the Sea and becomes Part of your World… I’m sorry. 

Disney princesses have definitely evolved for the better. As someone whose grown up with the ‘classic’ storyline of a prince always coming to the rescue – it’s refreshing to see so many strong, independent princesses on the big screen. It’s almost looking like a Whole New World. 

Moana (2016) was praised for breaking the Disney formula in favour of creating a dynamic protagonist.
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AUTHOR: Harriet Metcalfe
English Literature BA student. Loves film, TV, books and coffee. Thinks "Thor: The Dark World" gets too much hate. Twitter: @hattiemetcalfe

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