In a recent article on Forbes.com entitled 7 Ways You’re Hurting Your Daughter’s Future, the author cited the indoctrination of young girls into the ‘princess cult’ as a danger to the minds of future women. The article states that while real life princesses are often accomplished and well-educated, little girls are often taught that should she attract her prince through her looks or the proper application of a well-placed song and eyelash bat, all of her dreams will come true. It’s hard to miss what this article is pointing towards. The cult of princess is on every toy store in America, presented live in pink boxes everywhere for little girls to embrace. The Disney Princesses are a collection of characters meant to give little girls hours of play-time enjoyment. Yet the message behind many of the Disney princesses does seem to be the same: you may be resourceful, sweet, and kind, but in the end it was all for the sake of a happily ever after with your prince charming.
There are, however, a few wild cards within that Disney pantheon of princess-hood, female heroines that inspire lessons other than just matrimonial bliss. The latest installment in the ranks of what I like to call the Anti-Princesses is no other than Merida, the red-haired hellion from Brave. Yet she comes from a proud tradition of Disney women that bucked their place as just one half of a relationship to provide girls with a different view on feminine power.
The Non-Traditional Princesses
Before Merida rebelled against her mother’s view for her future and spoke up against her arranged marriage, there was Pocahontas. Forgetting what we know about Disney’s rewrite of the Pocahontas story, this animated Native American was the ultimate princess at the cusp of change in her life. Presented with the option to marry a super-serious warrior or keep looking for signs to her future, Pocahontas risked it all to be a bridge between her people and the English settlers, led by her love interest John Smith. This film adaptation of quasi-historical events presented girls with a pro-active heroine willing to turn away tradition to see the big picture for her people. Pocahontas is the focal point of her own story, which revolves around personal bravery and responsibility within one’s community. When she is asked to leave with John Smith for England, Pocahontas chooses to stay with her people and eschew her ‘true love’ as a personal act of sacrifice and mature responsibility. In a culture where stories are often so love-plot centric, this sets Pocahontas apart from the others as a strong, independent role-model for young women.
Another example of this non-traditional princess is Kida from Disney’s Atlantis. Though she is thwarted by becoming the traditional ‘damsel in distress’ towards the end of the film, Kida is a combat ready nigh-immortal Atlantean princess who defies her father to try and rescue her people. She shows the same tenacity, responsibility, strength and wit that are hallmarks of Disney Princesses and yet she, unlike Pocahontas, is cut out of the princess line-up. Maybe the whole spear-wielding fighter thing doesn’t jive with the ‘singing to twittering birds and wearing gowns’ set? Who knows, but Kida proves herself just as much of a princess as she outthinks, outfights and outshines almost every other woman in the lineup. Maybe all she’s missing to make the cut is a pretty gown.
These two princesses are examples of royals making good on their responsibility to their position while still taking charge of their story in a way that informs the forward-thinking Princess Merida. Yet there are non-royal princesses that also stand as part of the Anti-Princess tradition of powerful women, who are included in the Disney Princess Line-Up despite defying conventions.
Royal In Action, Not Title—The Non-Princesses
More often in the Anti-Princess category, we see female characters presented that are not of royal birth. These women are considered under the category of ‘Princesses’ as part of the Disney brand but don’t have a crown on their head. That being said, they’re also often the most interesting of the Disney heroines by virtue of their freedom to act outside of the typical princess story arc.
The most obvious example of this is Mulan. Though considered among the princesses, Mulan is in no way royal. She is the daughter of a venerable soldier who chooses to go to war in her father’s stead so she can save his life by cross-dressing as his son instead. Her act of courage allows her to not only rescue her father, but all of China from the Hun’s as well, while proving herself as an able warrior despite the restrictions put on her by gender roles in society. Of all the Disney films, Mulan most directly challenges the gender stereotypes of the previous fairy tale princess by giving their lead character authorship of her own destiny. While there is a love story involved, Mulan is the take-charge heroine of the twenty-first century. Funny then that, when in advertisements, she is always depicted among the other Disney princesses in the delicate gown she’s forced into at the beginning of the film rather than her armor. Even in her success as an Anti-Princess, Mulan is still forced into the ‘pretty dress/delicate flower’ convention that most of her film stands against.
Another good example of a modernized, take-charge non-princess is Tiana of The Princess and the Frog. Tiana is the perfect case of a normal, working class woman given the chance to step up and make all her dreams come true through the liberal application of hard work, determination and a little magic. Yet her anti-princess status is ruined as Tiana is still part of the usual ‘someday my prince will come’ story arc reserved for most of the princesses in the line-up. The fact that she gets the man of her dreams and her resteraunt at the end of her film is an indication that modern princesses seem to be allowed to achieve their own goals outside of relationships.
In the end, at least Mulan and Tiana still get top billing among the Princess Pantheon. There are other Disney heroines who got left off the roster, who might have been left behind by virtue of their saucy attitude and not-quite-so wholesome appeal.
Morally Questionable Anti-Princesses—Megara, Esmeralda
Two women who were left out of the Disney Princess Pantheon are interesting case studies in how to craft a movie heroine. They present some moral questions in their storylines that can make an audience wonder exactly how child-friendly their stories are. For that reason, I believe, they remained off the Princess List. Those two women are The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s Esmeralda and Hercules‘ Megara. While Mulan and Tiana were added to the Princess Line-Up despite having no royal pedigree, these two women are examples of some creative editing due to where they find their particular power in the films: through blatant uses of sexuality.
Disney’s Hunchback has always rang as a film with a few too many adult themes for the kid-friendly company to handle. When Esmeralda dances across screen to tease and titulate Judge Claude Frodo, she is an independent woman using her sexuality in a comfortable sort of way. She similarly has no problem showing confidence and sass when dealing with her love interest, Phoebus, something most Disney Princess rarely use. Here is a woman with the power in her relationships and, despite her status as eventual damsel in distress once more, Esmeralda is a difficult character to include in a squeaky clean line-up of wide-eyed waifs. Yet when you consider Esmeralda, is she any less concerned with her people and injustice than, say, Pocahontas? It is her blatant sexuality that sets her apart, and also makes her the focus of perhaps the only sexual harrassment plotline done by Disney.
Esmeralda’s in good company when you consider that Hercules‘ love interest, Megara, isn’t anywhere near the Disney Princess line-up either. This snarky redhead lit up the screen in the Greek myth adaptation, providing audiences with a conflicted heroine torn between betraying the man she’s falling in love with and being ripped up by her former boss, Hades. Megara is a complicated woman whose heart and loyalty, though torn throughout the film, are entirely her own. She is sexy and knows it, and that once again makes her a difficult character for the PG brand. Yet in the pantheon of Anti-Princesses, like Esmeralda, she claims her place among the more in command, take-charge Disney women. When she finally does give in to her feelings for Hercules, it is after a lot of soul-searching and character growth, something that could be a good story for young women to learn—if she was given the same air time as the other Disney heroines.
Enter Merida—Inheritor of the Princess Legacy
After years of various princesses and their legacies, now comes Merida of Brave. In Brave, audiences are presented with the ultimate Anti-Princess without the baggage, the evolution of every female role-model perfectly designed to combat the ‘Prince Charming’ trap of the earlier fairy tales. Merida’s story is a clarion call, a post-modern restructuring of the Disney legends, out to present a different option for little girls. She isn’t a princess out to sing to little birdies or worry about her prince coming to rescue her. Merida shoots arrows and takes action to defend herself, makes mistakes and works to change them like a mature young woman. She battles for her independence against what she deems unfair, all while learning important lessons about diplomacy, respect for tradition, and communal responsibility.
Oh, and in case we needed more, she’s also shown doing all the responsible things a daughter should do in her family. She mucks out stalls as part of her job and learns her lessons, answers to her parents and worries about her family, all like any other normal kid. This is no dainty little girl in silks, but someone capable of getting into the thick of things to sort out a problem and willing to press the issue until she gets what she needs out of life. In essence, Merida is the inheritor of the iron will and personal power of the Disney Anti-Princesses before her, presented in a more palatable package, a role model for little girls that can transcend the reliance on marriage as the only good solution once and for all. I’m intrigued to see if Merida will be included in the Disney Princess Line-Up in all her modern glory, or relegated to a category all her own, separated by her non-paired status as a single and content girl of her own.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.