“I just don’t see things the way he does” – Ariel
Welcome to part two of The People’s Movie’s evolution of Disney Princesses series. As you may remember, the early era was not a great time for progressive sorts, gifting us three straight, white and entirely passive princesses who achieve little beyond informing the definition of bland whilst waiting around to be saved. Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora still make for a good last minute halloween costume, but the lacklustre reaction to Sleeping Beauty (1959: Dir: Various), featuring the most lacklustre of princesses, was enough for Disney to park the trend for a few decades.
By the late 1980’s, a new era was beckoning. Disney had been somewhat through the ringer, with a run of less critically and commercially successful animal centric entries. An era commonly known as the Disney Renaissance was kickstarted by another entry into the princess pantheon with The Little Mermaid (1989: Dir: Ron Clements, John Musker). 30 years on from Aurora’s 18 minutes of fame and post second wave feminism, it was clear the classic damsel in distress wasn’t going to cut it with contemporary audiences. This facilitated an era of increased diversity and steps towards autonomy in the central female characters of this era, as well as playing fast and loose with the concept of princesses. Whilst definite progress was made in comparison to the early era, as you will see the fight was far from over and there are plenty of problematic areas to ponder over from this period. Without any further ado, let’s explore the highs and lows in more detail…
The Little Mermaid marks the beginning of Disney’s Renaissance and also a return to the princess concept that first reaped global success. The classic tropes endure – a princess character based on an old folk tale ultimately saved by a man she promptly marries. Ariel (Jodi Benson) was lauded as a huge step forward for the studio, largely because at the start of the film she is not seeking love and is instead enamoured with the human world, of which she is exempt from as a mermaid. A promising start perhaps, but the film quickly gives way to the usual gendered crap that defined the early era. Ariel is ruled by men the entire film – first her father King Triton (Kenneth Mars), and then Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), the latter of whom channels Prince Charming and co. by saving the day and getting the girl, leaving Ariel – you guessed it – with little autonomy throughout the film named after her. Yes, she defies her father, but she does so after “falling in love” with a guy she has never spoken to and her arc essentially sees her transferred from Triton’s care to Eric’s.
Sending Aurora to sleep for most of her film was hardly a recipe for success, so you would think Disney had learned a lesson. Alas, not so much, given Ariel spends much of her film unable to speak after literally signing the rights to her voice away to the villain, Ursula (Pat Carroll). Speaking of Ursula, she continues the tradition of the flawed and infinitely more interesting female villain, with the film containing the same undertones regarding “good” and “bad” binaries in regards to women as early era Disney, especially Snow White. Ariel is slim, relatively passive, kind and beautiful. Ursula is disruptive, loud and refuses to adhere to societal norms, thus she is rendered an outsider. It is very telling of the value system being advocated by Disney that Ariel is the “good” character and Ursula the “bad” and that Ariel is ultimately driven by a man – hardly the “huge” step forward many lauded the film as. Modern Ariel is a pink clad sweet sixteener who prefers texting to talking and would literally sign her rights away if it gave her a shot at a hottie – bonus points for pissing off her Dad, with the return of the Disney princess making only the most elementary advancements in terms of progress.
Disney princesses tales generally draw from old folk and fairy tales, with the Renaissance period attempting to update them more for a contemporary audience via modern songs and fun sidekicks. Pocahontas (1995: Dir: Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg) marks the first time a princess was drawn from a historical figure, with Disney taking more than a few creative liberties. The film also marks the first non-white female protagonist, paving the way for the heroics of Mulan a few years later. Pocahontas was a favourite of many growing up, but revisiting in adulthood can prove uncomfortable for anyone with even a basic awareness of American history.
Set in 17th century Virginia, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) is the daughter of a Native American chief who defies the values of her culture by falling in love with an English settler, Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson). The character of Pocahontas is another step forward for princess characters – free spirited, brave and willing to defy her culture and people to live by her own moral code. She is autonomous and wise beyond her years, as well as being an advocate of peace. However, she is limited by the narrative’s insistence on romance – her real life counterpart was 10 years old during the events this film is based on, her ageing up thus a means of shoehorning the central romance.
It is a shame that such a step forward in characterisation – insisted romance aside – has to take place in what is ultimately a highly problematic reimagining of the near genocide of the indigenous Native American population by incoming European settlers. Such a rewriting of history may be explained away as creative license, but given mainstream white America to this day struggles to acknowledge their bloody legacy (a parallel found in attitudes to slavery) it doesn’t sit well that Disney made millions from such clearly false interpretation.
Follow the link at the bottom of this piece for an informative blog post comparing the film to the time period it was based on. Your modern day Pocahontas is a girl incredibly proud of her culture but faced with constant misinterpretation and misunderstanding from those around her who make little effort to understand said culture. Much like Ariel, Disney managed to find a way to make Pocahontas both more autonomous than her predecessors and still ultimately a victim of circumstances with romance as a primary objective.
Mulan (1998: Dir: Barry Cook, Tony Bancroft) was something of a game changer – if still a problematic one – with Disney finally delivering the badass heroine young girls sorely deserved. Based around the universal concept of staying true to yourself, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is a young woman who does not fit into the mold expected of her by society, in this case Han Dynasty-era China. Drawing again on a real historical figure, she runs away to join the army in her father’s place with the intention of bringing honour to her family, becoming in the process the most autonomous and outwardly brave female heroine to grace Disney studios up to that point. Such progress is not without sticking points – mainly that she has to masquerade as a man for much of the film, as well as yet another ridiculously shoehorned romance with Captain Li Shang (BD Wong) which only serves to reinforce the idea that god forbid any of our heroines end their film unmarried or uninvolved with a man.
One of the film’s directors, Tony Bancroft, was reportedly a driving force behind the reworking of Mulan, with Disney originally envisioning the tale much more in line with traditional princess tropes. Had Bancroft not acted with his own daughters in mind to reroute the plot, we would have had a tale of a miserable Chinese girl eloping to Europe with a British prince, think Sleeping Beauty meets Pocahontas in terms of oppressive undertones. Whilst thankfully never coming to fruition, the original intentions speak volumes of the type of stories told in the west in terms of cultures outside our own and the final film has faced criticism for an intense westernisation of Asian culture which may not sit particularly well with “woke” audiences of today, partly undermining the step forward in diversity that came with having an Asian character. Your modern day Mulan is a badass independent who will point blank refuse to let any man define her but also can’t help but integrate endless Americanisms into her everyday life – a huge step ahead from Aurora, but still a way to go.
Beauty and the Beast (1991: Dir: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise) and Aladdin (1992: Dir: Ron Clements, John Musker) both also feature princesses in Belle (Paige O’Hara) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin) respectively. Belle bears similarities to Ariel in that they both start the film set aside from their peers – Ariel wants to live amongst humans, whilst Belle dreams of adventure and is more interested in books than marriage – yet both end their respective films deeply in love. Belle has all the makings of an interesting character, making it even more of a shame to see her caught up in what we can only assume is Stockholm Syndrome as she falls in love with her captor, the cursed Beast (Robbie Benson). Clearly the message is intended to be about going beyond appearances, but in doing so we have yet another female character in a position where she “success” (marriage to a rich guy) is achieved via kindness and grace, robbing her of any other elements to her character that make her human. Belle is an example of a Disney Renaissance princess who, whilst more progressive than her early era counterparts, is still largely shackled by the tropes of 30-50 years earlier – your contemporary version is the girl who is all about female empowerment until that guy looks her way, at which point her values become a scarf in the wind.
Jasmine is the love interest to Aladdin (Scott Weinger), central character in the film of the same name most beloved for featuring Robin Williams’ timeless turn as the Genie. Set in the fictional city of Agrabah near the river Jordan, Jasmine is the daughter of the Sultan (Douglas Seale) who defies her father regarding arranged marriage. The insistence on love interests endure, but the fact that Jasmine defies the expectations of her father and marries for love is at least a more positive romantic message. Partly due to not being the main character, Jasmine’s entire arc exists in relation to Aladdin – she is seen to dream of travelling the world, but can only ultimately do so with the help of her man. As with both Pocahontas and Mulan there are steps towards diversity, but the new settings come with distinctive Westernisation that may still prove alienating. Contemporary Jasmine is the rich girl living on her father’s dollar before running away with the local pizza delivery boy rather than marry into “new money”. The inclusion of a non-white princess was a first, with Disney then mking a non-white princess the main character with Pocahontas in a further move towards representation.
“When will my reflection show who I am inside?” – Mulan
The good? More women of colour, more autonomy and more personality. In many ways, Renaissance Disney princesses were a stride in the right direction compared to the early era. That said there were still many issues, such as the insistence on each character having a love interest and the westernising of characters such as Jasmine or Mulan, not to mention the ignorance and/or disregard for history we see in Pocahontas. Mulan constitutes something of a breakthrough as arguably the first heroine to take full control of destiny, with the romance relegated to a subplot rather than driving the entire narrative as is commonplace with Disney princesses until this point. Looking at the bigger picture, this film was the moment Disney Princesses truly began entering the modern age, with those that came after the millenium taking a more nuanced look at romance and also showcasing more personal autonomy, doing away with the most elementary form of the damsel in distress trope.
What are your thoughts on the princesses of the Disney Renaissance? Make sure to look out for the final part of this series, which will explore the modern era in more detail, but in the meantime, make sure to share your views in the comments section below!
Read more about the real-life Pocahontas compared to the Disney version here: https://dettoldisney.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/pocahontas-vs-the-story-of-pocahontas/