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Pretty powerful princesses: Disney’s progression towards female empowerment


The feisty pair of sisters in Frozen did a lot of barrier breaking, barriers that had been weakened by the princesses before them. While you’re reading this, I encourage you to imagine princesses kicking down a brick wall, petticoats, ribbons, heels, and all.

Memory lane will serve us well today as we start with the oldest princesses (by release date, not by actual age) and ending with the most recent princesses. For transparency’s sake, I’ll also say that I’m not making all of this up. I’m pulling a bulk of my information from this Disney Princess Wikia page. While I know this isn’t a “real source,” so many people have edited this and continue to, so it’s almost like an up to date mass analysis of the Disney ladies. Feel free to check this page out yourself and consider your own analysis. 

The Disney Princesses will be split up into three time categories: The Classics (Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora), The Disney Decade (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Fa Mulan), and The Fierce Five (Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, and Anna), and then analyze the groups as a whole. By doing this, we can see clear shifts in not only who the princesses are but how much they drive the plots of their own movies.

I’ll just throw this in here now: I’m fully aware that Disney is not the epitome of good decision making (lest we forget Song of the South). However, since the Disney Princesses are such a staple in our culture, I think it’s appropriate to look at them critically for the messages that they have sent in the past and that they are currently sending.

Let’s start at the beginning (it’s a very good place to start):

The Classics

Common characteristics: kind, good, shy, sweet.

Honorable mention characteristics: innocent, motherly, flirty, obedient.

Goal themes: All three of these ladies’ goals center on finding a husband and living happily ever after.

My views: Now I love these three movies and I maintain that being able to take an extended nap and wake up with all your problems solved would be incredibly refreshing. However, we see that these demure damsels aren’t really driving the plot: they don’t really impact what happens at all. They are acted upon by other forces and while they verbally stand up for themselves (sometimes) they don’t take any actions to correct the wrongs that are done to them or their kingdoms.

I think that if you look at the time period during which these movies were produced, their feminine qualities match the feminine ideals of that time. We think back to many women who were homemakers during a time of societal and political oppression. So, I think it’s great that during the Disney Renaissance (or Disney Decade), the writers and other creators behind the princesses of our generation’s childhood made some serious changes.

The Disney Decade

Common characteristics: brave, curious, spirited, adventurous, intelligent.

Honorable mention characteristics: headstrong, stubborn.

Goal themes: Protecting their families while fighting for justice.

My views: After the Disney Renaissance, the leading ladies made a lot of changes to not only their characteristics but also their strengths. We see young women fighting fiercely to protect their loved ones, who aren’t afraid to venture out on their own, and who speak their mind. What’s interesting here is that while there has been a lot of growth towards independence; all of these women end up just happening to find love along their way. But I think it’s important to note that it becomes a main point in all of their stories. However, unlike their predecessors, none of their goals were aimed towards finding and keeping a husband. These are the princesses that we grew up with, and I think that they were fine fictional role models for the most part. But I have been especially impressed over the last ten years and I’m so excited that my little cousins have these next ladies as role models.

The Fierce Five

Common characteristics: courageous, feisty, caring.

Honorable mention characteristics: confident, powerful, motivated.

Goal themes: Saving kingdoms and chasing their own personal goals and dreams.

My views: There has been a lot of talk about Frozen and how many barriers its broken, but I think that it was only natural for this to happen. The Fierce Five owe a lot to the princesses before them who paved the way for strong women to have leading roles. What I personally love is that as the Disney timeline has progressed, we see princesses doing a lot of things without princes. Now I’m not throwing shade at the men in these movies, it’s just refreshing that in the last 10 years of Disney movies only two of the last five princesses got married. I think that these animated darlings are sending an overall positive message about female empowerment.

Does that mean that Disney is done progressing and has achieved feminist perfection? No. Absolutely not. There is still a long way to go, but I think that in the last 30 years (particularly the last 10) there have been steps taken to show little girls and guys everywhere that you can do what you want to if you put your mind to it. More importantly, I think that the last couple of Disney ladies have shown the little princesses in our lives that you can do all of this by yourself, through hard work and your own power, and that you don’t need to be defined by a man.

I think this is an important conversation to have, and not just in regards to Disney and how various characters are portrayed. When you’re watching TV shows or taking your young family members to see movies, remember the power that media and entertainment has on how we all view each other. Check out the Bechdel test for films if you want to know a little bit more.

What I’m really interested in knowing is how this article vibes with all of you. Do you think that I’ve hit the nail on the head or do you vehemently disagree? 

About the Author

F. Lee

F is a graduate student who enjoys knitting, baking, theatre, The Boston Red Sox, being sassy, and roller derby. She is pursuing a career in mental healthcare and hopes to help and advocate for the LGBT community.