“Once there was a Princess…” – Snow White
Before Disney became a multi-billion dollar monopoly on the entertainment industry it was nothing more than a plucky little animation studio founded by Walt and Roy Disney, finding fame via a little cartoon mouse. At the core of the Disney to family are it’s princesses – eleven are considered part of the core line, with many others up for debate. Starting in the 1930’s with Snow White and continuing to the present day with the likes of Elsa and Anna (Frozen: 2013: Dir: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck), there is a long tradition from the studio of female fronted animation featuring young women either born as or becoming princesses.
Setting any questions surrounding the morality of monarchy aside, the princesses have provided something of a hotbed for contemporary criticism and debate regarding their promoting of limiting gender-based assumptions. As feminism and other social and cultural justice movements entered into the mainstream, people were increasingly less likely to consume media at face value. This impacted cinema as a whole, with Disney’s beloved princesses proving no exception.
Over the next few days, The People’s Movie’s will be analysing in three parts the evolution of the Disney Princess. Today we cast an eye back to the early era, looking at the three films which came to form the basis of a long tradition – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937: Dir: Various), Cinderella (1950: Dir: Clyde Geronimo, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson) and Sleeping Beauty (1959: Dir: Various). Without further ado, let’s jump in with the one that started it all:
There is huge significance attached to Snow White in terms of Disney and cinematic animation as a whole. Widely regarded as one of the first feature-length animations and certainly a first for Walt Disney’s studio, the film is mostly warmly remembered on this basis as an artistic feat. Based on the 1812 Brothers Grimm tale, Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is a victim of circumstance and her time period, making for an old fashioned and anti-feminist viewing experience. Prior to more widely entering into the workforce during World War II (some) women had gained the right to vote, but still faced huge societal expectations continuing to place them second class to men. Even if educated, women were still expected to remain at home with primary concerns being child-rearing and housework. Thus a faithful cinematic retelling of a male created 19th century fairytale, reproduced primarily by men in a still outwardly oppressive era meant poor Snow White never really had a shot. The tropes embodied by the first Disney Princess also came to define the entire early Disney era in terms of female representation.
As is common across much Disney animation, at least until recently, we are presented with a binary concept of good versus evil largely drawn from the traditional source material and mainstream values of the time. Such a binary leaves no room for the shades of grey that often constitute real life, and they also limit the characters representing each side, with no room for the anti-hero that now dominates onscreen discourse. Snow White is kind and righteous and thus justly rewarded with her happily ever after. The Evil Queen (Lucille La Verne) is limited to being shallow and vain, ultimately punished with death. Neither character can develop outwith such rigid and preconstructed traits.
The Evil Queen, a flawed female villain, ultimately makes for a more interesting character. Her motivations being looks-based is, however, a simplistic limitation drawn from gender-based assumptions. When was the last time you saw an antagonistic King kicking off because a mirror told him he isn’t the most handsome in the land (Dreamworks animation Shrek (2001: Dir: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson) provide a fantastic riff on this idea with Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow)).
Snow White, defined by her looks as “the fairest of them all” barely has a personality to call her own as she sings, cooks and cleans for seven strangers she happens upon in the woods. A victim of circumstance with no personal agency, the plot is instead driven by the actions and intentions of those around her. The archetypal Damsel in Distress, she serves the men around her as she passively waits for her Prince to come to save her. Embodying societal expectations of women at the time – be nice to and look good for men – she is duly saved by The Prince (Harry Stockwell) via a creepy kiss planted upon her (dead) lips.
In terms of female empowerment, Snow White cuts a sorry figure who would likely be spotted nowadays defending sleazy men on Twitter, claiming the #MeToo movement the killer of “good old-fashioned romance”, or perhaps she’d be one of the white women who voted for Trump “because her husband told her too.” Whatever her modern incarnation looks like, this film suggests it wouldn’t be someone fighting for the cause. All in all a disappointed head shake from progressives and a fist pump for the patriarchy – a disappointing start for the Disney Princess journey as viewed through a modern lens.
It wasn’t until 1950 that the studio decided to venture into fairytale Princess territory again with Cinderella (Ilene Woods). The world had recently emerged from the Second World War, which hit the emerging studio as hard as anyone via the loss of their European audience base during combat years. This time drawing from an enduring folktale, we get another female lead limited by circumstance, waiting for Prince Charming (William Phipps/Mike Douglas) to come save her.
The film was something of a saving grace for the studio. Films such as Bambi (1942: Dir: David Hand) and Pinocchio (1940: Dir: Various) would go on to be successful in later years but underperformed at the time, leaving the studio on the verge of bankruptcy. Cinderella went on to become their biggest hit since Snow White, indicative of audience appetite for fairytales and raising the “chicken and egg” concept of audience taste shaping content (or vice versa) whilst also proving indicative of the era’s mainstream views toward women.
13 years on and the good versus evil binary remains intact, with Cinderella taking up the mantle as the kind and beautiful embodiment of the light side, whilst her Evil Stepmother (Eleanor Audley) and Ugly Stepsisters (Lucille Bliss, Rhoda Williams) represent the dark. Our princess in waiting is again defined in terms of her beauty, although she does arguably at least embody a smidge more personality than Snow White and has a band of anthropomorphic animal friends who assist her in her sorry existence of forced domestic servitude. There is yet more equating superficial beauty with kindness of the soul, with the Evil Stepmother and her daughters mirroring the Evil Queen with unsightly jealousy. As pleasing as it may be on a surface level to see Cinderella achieve her happily ever after, for the extent of her dream to be saviour via a Prince is yet another example of the limits early Disney placed on its Princess leads.
If you screw up your eyes and look really hard, there is an argument for an iota of progress in that Cinderella at least attempts to do something in trying to go the ball. This is undermined by the lack of irony surrounding the fact that her dream is to escape her domesticated life by getting married. As with Snow White, the plot moves along on account of luck and the actions of others such as the Fairy Godmother (Verna Felton). Had the all-magical being not appeared to swish her wand and put everything into place, Cinderella would likely just have continued on in chore based woe. It is also another case improbable true love borne from hardly knowing one another – surely Prince Charming either has a bad memory or a foot fetish if the only way he can recognise his so-called one and only is by a left behind glass slipper?
We all have days where we wish someone would come along to fix everything with the flick of a wand, but to combine such pipe dreams with archaic gender roles does not a feminist film make. Your modern day Cinders is the kind of girl who shares “feminist” inspired motivational quotes on social media without irony whilst simultaneously living solely to attract and please men. She’s perfectly lovely, but that doesn’t mean her outlook isn’t so last century – be nice, be pretty.
Nine years and three further animations under their belt, come 1959 the time was ripe for Disney to dip into fairytales once more with Sleeping Beauty, this time drawing on a 17th century yarn from Charles Perrault. A clear continuation of what came before, it should come as little surprise that Aurora (Mary Costa) – who in the mildest of deviations is a Princess through birth rather than marriage – forms the final part of the gender norm trifecta that is early Disney Princess cinema. Aurora, as the title suggests, demurely takes passive to a whole new level by being asleep for the majority of a film supposedly about her. Undisputed victor in any “who’s the blandest of them all” competition, she features for a grand total of 18 minutes and fails to utter a single word after 40 minutes in what is surely the idealistic scenario of any anti-woman activist worth his salt.
The usual suspects are all here and are arguably amplified. Our Prince (Bill Shirly) not only immediately falls in mutual love with Aurora,, but also has her hand in arranged marriage thanks to her regal parents (Taylor Holmes, Verna Felton). The flawed female (and thus more interesting) villain is Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), who in all her evilness exacts terror against what is good and pure for the flimsiest of reasons – not being invited to a party. Looks based envy may have been out, but social exclusion was in. There is even the return of the creepy non-consensual spell-breaking kiss, because apparently live-action that was what was missing from the passive adventuring of Cinderella years before.
No agency, defined and limited by her looks and circumstances respectively, we have seen it all before so it should come as no surprise that Aurora doesn’t bring much to the table. In fact, a table could likely bring forth more personality than this particular princess. The good/evil binary is as strong as ever – evil is personified by a witch, a transformation of the female villains who came before that moves her further away from her humanity. This literal embodiment of evil (and demonised view of femininity) is conquered by the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue, again highlighting the more literal aspects of the story compared to either Snow White or Cinderella. True love prevails and happily ever after is achieved with marriage, an outcome about as predictable as the realisation that Brexit isn’t actually straightforward.
Whilst the content entrenched itself even further in traditionalist and limiting gender assumptions than before, it was the reaction Sleeping Beauty garnered that made it truly stand out from its predecessors. Whilst Cinderella was lauded as a revival for Disney, still loved around the world to this day and often touted as one of the finest ever animated films of all time, the same cannot be said for Aurora’s outing. The film faced mixed critical reception, underperforming at the Box Office to the extent that the studio backed away from fairytale content until the late 1980s.
Born from the tail end of a decade where traditional values still ruled supreme in the mainstream, Aurora joins her early-era sisters as a victim of her time period and circumstances. A decade of social transformation was just around the corner and the mood for change was felt in the reaction to the archaic tale – were people getting sick of being spoon fed the same morality tale in different dresses? Three stories over 22 years saw the early Disney Princess era come to an end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Modern day Aurora would likely be no stranger to being called “basic”, spending her time shopping her way through her trust fund and sleeping away her weekends whilst lamenting why the elusive “Mr Right” hasn’t yet knocked on her (father’s mansion’s) door. The patriarchy fist pumps spell-breaking way into the new decade and it’s disappointed sighs all around.
Remember the chicken and egg analogy? In our capitalist, market driven society, mainstream entertainment is at least partially shaped by audience demand. Whilst society tends to move at the pace of its slowest member, this has led to evolution in storytelling across the industry, including Disney. This – as well as the other age-old capitalist mantra of bleeding dry whatever is still making money – has led to modern retellings of classic Disney Princess tales. The recent trend of live-action remakes of their animated classics continues with a new Snow White and the Seven Dwarves currently in the works, as well as a Prince Charming tale which will presumably attempt to provide blandest male character until the dawn of the Ken doll with some semblance of a personality. Time will tell how faithful such adaptations will be, with Cinderella (2015: Dir: Kenneth Branagh) and Sleeping Beauty having already received the treatment. Indicative of the critical reaction to their animated counterparts, Cinderella (Lily James) emerges relatively unchanged whilst Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning) is rightfully cast into a supporting role to make way for the far more interesting Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) (2014: Dir: Robert Stromberg).
The retelling of Cinderella, whilst faithful to the animation, at least attempts to provide an explanation for some of the plot points and for the princess-to-be’s personality, which is much more animated (pun intended) than her 1950 counterpart. This incarnation of the character promises her dying mother that she will always have courage and be kind and extra scenes try add at least slightly more credence to the concept of falling in love with the prince at first sight. The happily ever after is also updated, with the couple not only married but becoming the most beloved joint rulers ever known to the the kingdom. The beloved nature of the original tale clearly lessened the scope for contemporary commentary, but Disney deserve an appreciative (if small) nod for at least trying to mix some personal agency and empowerment into this thin broth of a fairytale.
The lack of contemporary love for the eternally boring animated version of Aurora means that there is much more space for shades of grey in the retelling of her story. This film is a blessing even if only because it does away with the idea that Maleficent was pissed off enough to curse a literal baby just because she wasn’t invited to a party. Instead, the former fairy (a definitive step away from the witch caricature) was once in love with and betrayed by Aurora’s father (Sharlto Copey), leading to the unfortunate cursing incident some years later. Everything is turned on its head – the “good” pixies are inept and Aurora comes to instead view moors dweller Maleficent as a mother figure. This leads to the most fist-pumping moment of the entire film, and this time it isn’t the patriarchy that is doing the celebrating, when Prince Philip’s creepy kiss fails to wake up the fair maiden. It is instead the loving forehead kiss and the true maternal love of the woman who cast the curse that leads to the best happily ever after of them all – Queen Aurora, who don’t need no prince to rule over not one, but two kingdoms.
“I’m so ashamed of the fuss I’ve made” – Snow White
The early era of Disney Princesses provided us with three stock characters so similar and lacking in any real personality that it is arguably a wonder they are remembered today at all. Their endurance in popular culture says a lot about how traditional gender roles and the good versus evil binary continue to slink their way into mainstream discourse, though the contemporary retellings of each story show how far we have come since these films were first made. Here is a handy bullet point guide of their shared attributes:
• Little or no personal agency despite being the title character
• Victims of circumstance who escapes said circumstance through luck/the actions of others
• Defined by looks and denied the right to any human flaws as the embodiment of all that is good
• Flawed female villains denied any human compassion as the embodiment of all that is bad
• Damsels in Distress, saved by a Prince to achieve the happily ever after “ideal” that is marriage
• Be nice, be pretty, be quiet.
Do you agree with this analysis of the early years? Can you think of a film where a Prince has to put up with such nonsense? Stay tuned for the next article, which will focus on the Princesses of the Disney Renaissance period of the 1990s. In the meantime, share your views in the comments section below!