How Fourth-Wave Feminism is Changing Disney’s Princesses

Melinda Parks


Disney’s multi-billion-dollar empire rests largely in the hands of 11 fairytale princesses. We all know their stories. We all have a favorite. For nearly eight decades, these young royals have maintained an important place in our cultural history. Children all over the world watch and re-watch their movies, sing along with them, prance around in miniature versions of their gowns, and bring notebooks and backpacks plastered with their images to school.


But the significance of Disney princesses extends far beyond their entertainment value. As stories created for children, and often intended to teach a lesson or impart specific morals, these films serve as mirrors that reflect our culture’s shifting values. Specifically, they demonstrate women’s perceived importance and purpose in society at specific periods in time. When analyzed parallel to the feminist movements of the 20th and early 21st centuries, they highlight intriguing – and sometimes disturbing – truths about the world in which we live.


Historians generally divide feminism into three “waves” that overlap and build on each other. The first wave, which sprouted up alongside abolitionism, from the end of the 19th century through the early 20th century, dealt mostly with women’s suffrage and political rights. Influenced by the spiritual equality promoted by Quakerism, early feminists like Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked to secure equal rights for women, although many of them still considered women the weaker sex and believed that they belonged in the home. This first wave ended with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.


Disney’s first three princess movies, thus, reflected a culture in which women had received political rights but still lacked the social equality and sexual autonomy that would come years later. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) all share the same basic plot formula: a beautiful woman suffers because of circumstances out of her control and ultimately finds salvation in the love of a powerful man. With their flat, one-dimensional personalities, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora embody all the characteristics of a traditionally feminine woman. They are kind and gentle and always pleasant, as demonstrated by their friendships with woodland creatures and fairies, they are obedient and submissive to overbearing superiors (Snow White and Cinderella are uncomplaining scullery maids for their stepmothers), and, most importantly, they are beautiful. In fact, for these original Disney princesses, their beauty is their most defining characteristic. In all three films, the prince falls in love with and saves the princess based solely on her appearance.



However, the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963, which challenged the concept that women could only find fulfillment as wives and mothers, set off a second wave of feminism that lasted until the late 1980s and radically altered society’s treatment of women. This second wave, which grew alongside the civil rights movement, focused on women’s legal and social equality and called for the end of sexism and misogyny. Feminists denounced the sexist power structures of a patriarchal society that oppressed women by enslaving them to traditionally feminine constructs like homemaking and childrearing. Women fought for the opportunities naturally afforded to men, such as a successful career or control over one’s own sexual freedom (they rallied over issues of rape, abortion, and birth control).


By the 1990s, a third wave of feminism, which dealt specifically with feminine sexuality, had arisen in response to failures of the second wave. For instance, third-wave feminists denounced the second wave for over-emphasizing the problems of straight, white, upper- and middle-class women while ignoring issues specific to different races, classes, and orientations. The third wave began destabilizing former constructs of body, gender, and sexuality and encouraged every woman to define femininity, beauty, and orientation for herself, apart from the expectations of the patriarchy.


Enter the next generation of princesses, featured in “Disney Renaissance” films like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998). These newer princesses reflected society’s drastically altered beliefs about who women are and how they should act, as each princess has a distinct personality. These women are nuanced and flawed: Ariel is fiery and headstrong, Belle is intellectual and fiercely independent, Pocahontas is wise and strong, and Mulan is awkward but incredibly brave.



Moreover, just as feminists of the second wave resisted oppression from their patriarchal society, these princesses challenge the status quo in pursuit of their true desires. Dissatisfied with the sea, Ariel collects human artifacts and dreams of living on land. Belle fantasizes about a more exciting life, far from her dull, provincial town, and persists in reading and learning despite the disapproval of her neighbors. Pocahontas resists marrying a man selected by her father, and Mulan joins the army in her father’s place (and fights better than many of her fellow soldiers). And, significantly, the stories of non-white princesses like Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan reinforce the third wave’s emphasis on the empowerment of racially- and culturally-diverse women (even if those films do contain several historical inaccuracies and some stereotyping – but that’s a different article).


Yet, for all the progress made by Disney princesses of the 1990s, one glaring vestige of pre-feminist society remains: every story centers around or ends with a happily-ever-after-style relationship between the princess and her true love. In the most extreme case, Ariel sacrifices her voice – her very means of personal expression – to be with a man, and she must seduce him with only her beauty in order to be saved. True, the other films of this era offer a more feminist attitude toward romance, as the princes and princesses of those stories love each other sincerely for their personalities, but the implication remains that a woman will only find complete happiness with a man. Her other accomplishments fade in comparison to the ultimate goal of getting married.


Following the release of Mulan, Disney didn’t make another princess movie until The Princess and the Frog in 2009. During that 11-year stretch of time, modern social media facilitated the global discussion of issues faced by contemporary women, leading to what some have dubbed the fourth wave of feminism. In this newest movement, women who were raised in a supposedly post-feminist culture, a culture that claimed to have reached social equality of the sexes, have come to recognize that the world is still not safe or fair for all women. Discussions about workplace discrimination, sexual assault, street harassment, and body- and slut-shaming crop up on forums all over the internet. While the third wave, eschewing concrete constructs and categorization, often resisted the “feminist” label, these new feminists have reclaimed the term. Celebrities like Lena Dunham, Beyoncé, and Emma Watson proudly describe themselves as feminists, speaking out against misogyny in our culture and encouraging women to support each other.


Out of this latest cultural phenomenon, Disney most recently released Brave (2012) and the overwhelmingly popular Frozen (2014), two movies that completely cast off the patriarchal clichés of their predecessors by focusing heavily on the relationships between women and treating romance as a secondary consideration. In Brave, the princess Merida flat-out refuses to marry a prince from another clan, claiming she will vie “for [her] own hand” in marriage. Instead, the plot concentrates on Merida’s broken relationship with her mother, as she learns the importance of respecting and appreciating her even when she doesn’t agree with her. In the end, Merida saves her mother’s life by apologizing for her part in their rift. Similarly, Frozen tells the story of how a magical curse comes between two sisters, and how they work to repair their relationship; Anna sacrifices her life to save Elsa, and through that act of “true love,” she breaks the curse and reconciles with her sister.


Of course, Merida eventually agrees to marry a prince in order to please her mother and carry on a long tradition, and Anna falls in love with her friend Kristoff – after all, men aren’t so bad, and romantic love is a meaningful part of a rich life – but these details play second fiddle to the other relationships and adventures featured in these two movies. Finally, female characters are saving themselves and each other without help from a man.


Feminism will continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of women in society, and the stories we tell our daughters will reflect those changes. We may soon see a lesbian princess, or a plus-sized princess. While films like Snow White and Cinderella will forever remain classic pieces of cinematic history, the success of movies like Frozen suggests that girls today (and their mothers and aunts) appreciate the strength and independence of modern Disney princesses.



Author Bio:

Melinda Parks is the pen name of a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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