*Originally written March of 2014; updated and lightly revised as of September 2017.*
It’s hard to deny the fact that the Disney company and its films have played a huge part in the past fifty-plus years of entertainment and the motion picture industry. Disney movies and their subsequent merchandise are everywhere.
Some of the most recognizable and beloved characters of the Disney company are the princesses. Most people know them, or know of them. Even if you hate Disney and its commercialism (and plenty of people do), there’s still a good chance you’ll know the names of some or all of its pretty, unattainably perfect princesses.
These characters—who hail from fairy tales that may not be as fondly remembered if it weren’t for their Disney makeovers—are loved by millions of people all around the world, and of all different ages, too. Though once intended for young girls, the Disney princesses have caught on with older groups in the years since the first princess film came out. They now have adult fans who go as far as dressing up in replicas of their movie costumes and hairstyles, recreating their entire looks, or seeking them out at one of the many Disney theme parks around the world for an autograph and photo.
Through the decades, the Disney princesses have changed with the times. They were once submissive and pleasant girls, entirely unflawed, but have recently transformed into more relatable heroines. Though they still are (for the most part) unrealistically beautiful, their personalities have grown to be far more spunky and headstrong than their predecessors.
Here’s how the Disney princesses have evolved over the years, in the order of the oldest princesses to the most recent.
Snow White, 1937 -- Snow White was the first princess to be adapted by Disney in the 30s. She graced screens everywhere in what would become the legendary film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The portrayal of Snow White in the film was cheerful, a girl who seems to be—to borrow a phrase from that other Disney movie—“practically perfect in every way.” She cooks, she cleans, and can be viewed as submissive to the point of being boring. For this reason, she can come off as bland, without the humor or adventurous spirit that makes today’s princesses so well-liked. Snow White does not seek out excitement in her life, but rather stumbles upon it. Her motives and hopes and dreams revolve around falling in love, or cooking and cleaning. The result is what can be viewed as a passive and uninteresting character, at least by today’s standards (when first released, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs received rave reviews and went on to win Walt Disney an Academy Honorary Award for innovation in the entertainment field). As Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in 2001, Snow White may be “a bit of a bore, not a character who acts but one whose mere existence inspires others to act.”
That said, despite her reception in modern society, the least that can be said of her is that Snow White and her film paved the way for princesses to come and charmed audiences in an otherwise gloomy period of American history: during the end of the Great Depression. And if it weren’t for the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney company might not be where it is today. Nevertheless, she is a character who is viewed by some as the “weakest [of] the Disney princesses” (Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media, 2005).
Cinderella, 1950 -- Cinderella is one of, if not the, most recognizable Disney princess to date. She can be viewed as the “Leader of the Disney Princesses,” and is featured prominently on Disney merchandise—usually at the very front, ahead of the others.
In her film of the same name, Cinderella is shown as being slightly less passive and arguably less “dull” than Snow White, but at the same time isn’t particularly brave or outspoken. She, like Snow White before her, stumbles into most of her luck. Her animal friends and Fairy Godmother help with the challenges and adversity she faces, which makes her appear more helpless than the princesses of the twenty-first century.
Still, Cinderella has aged much better than Snow White. Critical reception of her, in the years since the release of her debut film, has been mixed, but better than the reviews the character of Snow White has weathered. While Ed Perkis of Cinema Blend said the character would’ve been improved if she had been "a bit more assertive in her own story," TV Guide praised the princess, writing, “[Cinderella] seems timeless in her courage and resourcefulness” and is "a closer cousin to Belle in Beauty and the Beast than to other fairytale protagonists” (possibly implying Snow White).
Aurora/Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty, 1959 -- Nine years after Cinderella’s debut, Sleeping Beauty came along. The charming and beautiful Princess Aurora (who would be the final princess created under Walt Disney’s guidance, after his death in 1966) was shown as being similar in many ways to Cinderella and Snow White, particularly with her submissiveness. She, like the other princesses around this time, was not determined or rebellious but rather sweet, kind and gentle. She is mainly very obedient, despite her longing for something more, and unsurprisingly also desires a husband. She falls for her love interest nearly as soon as she meets him, then requires him to come and rescue her after falling under a spell.
In the years since the release of her debut film, Aurora has become an oft-forgotten princess, despite being featured quite heavily in Disney merchandise. She’s not nearly as recognizable as Cinderella or Snow White, nor as ubiquitously part of pop culture.
Critical reception of her at the time of the film’s release was mostly unfavorable, and modern reviewers haven’t been kinder: she is regarded by some as one of Disney’s worst princesses. John Boone of E! summed her up as "pretty… but so, so boring.”
Ariel/The Little Mermaid, 1989 -- Ariel would be the first Disney princess to break the submissive mold created by her predecessors. Unlike them, she (for the most part) is not depicted as being passive, but rather curious, rebellious, and independent. Although her story does still revolve around her search for true love (and the measures she's willing to take to find it), the air of submissiveness that permeated the previous princess films was not nearly as strong in The Little Mermaid. This could be the reason Ariel has held up better as a character in the years that followed, surpassing the others in popularity.
Despite being beloved by girls everywhere and more strong-willed and brave than other Disney princesses, the character of Ariel has gotten its share of negative reviews. This poor reception seems fair when you take into account the fact that Ariel quite literally gave up her voice in order to pursue romance with a man she merely glimpses, her story—and the happy ending Disney gave her—acting, in many ways, as a staunchly anti-feminist tale. Daphne Lee of The Star echoed this sentiment, saying of the “annoying” Ariel, “[She’s] a silly girl who gives up her voice and her family for a man she knows next to nothing about.”
Ariel is also considered by some to be needlessly eroticized. Reviewer John Puccio opined, "Ariel is perhaps the sexiest-looking animated character the Disney artists have ever drawn.”
Still, Ariel has also received a good deal of popular comments since her debut film. Roger Ebert wrote, "Ariel is a fully-realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.”
Belle/Beauty, 1991 -- If Ariel was the first princess to break the mold of submissiveness, Belle was the first to break nearly every rule set by the previous princesses. She was portrayed in Beauty and the Beast as being very intelligent, extremely courageous, and unapologetically feminist. Throughout a good portion of the film, she’s shown as having no interest in finding a romantic partner or love interest, but rather finding adventure and keeping her father safe. She’s headstrong and fiercely independent, and though very beautiful, she seems unaware of her good looks.
Both Beauty and the Beast and Belle were praised heavily by critics. Belle has become a hugely popular character with girls, and a favorite among many, who can relate to her willfulness and bookish tendencies.
Hal Hinson of The Washington Post called her as a "compelling" character: "more mature, more womanly and less blandly asexual" than previous Disney heroines, "a more worldly girl than Ariel, a bookworm, with gumption and a mind of her own."
Entertainment Weekly's Christian Blauvelt said, "Unlike previous Disney heroines who needed to be rescued by a prince themselves, Belle not only saves the Beast's life, she saves his soul." Critic Don Kaye called both Belle and the Beast "three-dimensional ... complex individuals who defy stereotyping and change over the course of the story.” Reviewer Perry Seibert said of Belle, "[She is a] strong female character" that "sidesteps most of the clichés surrounding Disney heroines ... because she dreams of independence and adventure, not romance." Common Sense Media praised Belle as "one of Disney's smartest, most independent heroines."
Feminists have given mostly positive reviews to the character of Belle, with many comparing her to Ariel, though a more empowered version. Judith Welikala of The Independent wrote, "Like Ariel, Belle has much more personality than early Disney heroines. Articulate and opinionated, she resists the village hunk Gaston, who wants a trophy wife."
Sonia Saraiya of Nerve wrote, "You get the impression Belle's sass doesn't come from teenage rebellion, but rather from intellectual acuity."
Belle has gotten the best critical reception of any of the Disney princesses to date.
Jasmine, 1992 -- Just one year after the release of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin came along, introducing another new princess: the Arabic daughter of a sultan, Jasmine. She was the first non-white Disney princess and, like Ariel and Belle before her, carried on the new tradition of independence, leaving behind earlier films’ preference for passiveness and a longing for a husband.
Shown as being fiery, somewhat cynical, stubborn, charming at times (usually to get what she wants/manipulate those around her), and incredibly independent, Jasmine was hailed by some critics for these same traits and once again helping to break the mold set by the original princesses. Her strong-willed personality was compared to Ariel and Belle, though not always favorably. To some critics, Jasmine came off as spoiled, shallow, bland and even “stiff.” Jasmine's blatantly sexualized appearance (wearing skimpy clothing including a midriff top), and her use of sex appeal to get what she wants in several key scenes of the film, can also be seen as problematic and has been criticized.
Still, others have praised her for being opinionated, with a mind of her own and refusal to back down and give in to the desires of those around her.
Pocahontas, 1995 -- Though whether she can be regarded as an official princess is up for debate (she’s the daughter of a chief, like Moana, who Disney does not consider a princess), Disney has included Pocahontas as part of their official princess line-up. Is that a good thing? Well, it depends on who you ask.
The second princess of color, Pocahontas certainly has an abundance of admirable qualities. Her personality is comprised of positive attributes, an unflawed and wholly sympathetic character who is kind, wise, adventurous, independent, playful, and with a strong sense of right and wrong. Nevertheless, Pocahontas—both the character and the film—have been plagued by controversy.
Pocahontas remains the first and only Disney princess to be based on a real-life historical figure, but Disney didn’t attempt to stay true to history. As a result of their many creative liberties, they have been accused of white-washing the story of Pocahontas and mitigating or romanticizing the injustices suffered by Native Americans at the hands of white settlers. The romance between Pocahontas and colonialist John Smith—one of many historically inaccurate flourishes added to the story—was viewed as a particular offense. Another complaint had to do with the film’s reliance on stereotypes, portraying the Native people as mystical tree-huggers and Pocahontas as a sexy, barefooted, exotic princess who is wise beyond her years and can communicate with nature. The film and character were both overwhelmingly rejected by Native Americans and remain regarded with disdain by most.
Powhatan Renape Nation said of the film, “[It] distorts history beyond recognition.” They also claimed Disney refused their offers of assistance and guidance during production. (Pocahontas was part of the Powhatan tribe.) Other critics have complimented the character of Pocahontas for her strength, bravery and feminist qualities, as well as the film’s attempt at an anti-racism and pro-environmentalism message.
Fa Mulan, 1998 – Mulan, the third non-white Disney princess, also has another unique distinction: she is the only heroine in the Disney princess line-up who does not come from a royal or quasi-royal background, nor marries into a royal family. In fact, she’s not a princess at all, yet is included in merchandising and remains officially part of the line-up.
Next to Belle, Mulan is arguably the most independent, feminist, tough and clever of the princesses. Unlike her predecessors, Mulan spends much of the movie with an appearance that is not conventionally attractive: she disguises herself as a boy by cutting her hair bluntly short, forgoing makeup, wearing man’s clothes and speaking in a masculine voice. In short, Mulan’s beauty is not front and center or her crowning achievement, as it was for such princesses as Snow White and Aurora. In addition, Mulan was carefully crafted to be incongruous with the stereotypes of Asian women: she is clumsy instead of graceful, independent and outspoken rather than submissive and demure, and incredibly courageous. She is also the princess who achieves the most success: Mulan saves the emperor of China, making her more warrior than princess, and a true hero. Both the character and her namesake film turned stereotypes on their heads and gave audiences a girl worth rooting for.
Critics mostly agreed. Ken Fox of TV Guide called her “intelligent and fiercely independent,” while the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan said of her, "As a vivacious rebel who has to be true to herself no matter what, Mulan is an excellent heroine, perfect for the young female demographic the studio is most anxious to attract.” Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, "Here, it's the girl who does the rescuing, saving not only the prince but the emperor himself from oblivion, and this in a distant culture where women were expected to obey strictly prescribed rules."
Mulan has faced criticism, however. Some believe her relationship with romantic interest Shang is problematic to the point of undoing much of the goodwill the rest of the movie created. Another common complaint is that she was Westernized in order to appeal to American audiences, betraying the story’s source material, the Ballad of Mulan, a poem and popular Chinese legend.
Tiana, 2009 -- It would be eleven years before another Disney princess would come into creation, this time in the form of Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. Tiana was the first African American princess and the fourth to be of non-white ethnicity.
She followed in the footsteps of the previous five princesses with her willful determination and independence, but with the addition of several other interesting and unique traits that many Disney princesses aren’t shown to possess—including being a hard-worker and ambitious, as well as mostly realistic and grounded.
Tiana was received positively by critics. Helen O'Hara of Empire called Tiana "a hard-headed heroine who works hard and displays a focus and drive,” while Catherine Shoard of The Guardian declared her "a heroine who's an actual character; a woman whose three dimensions you don't need to don daft specs to see.”
Overall, the majority of reviews considered Tiana to be a strong character, though some criticism was directed at how her ethnicity was portrayed in the film, primarily the fact that Disney focused on the light-hearted main story and largely left out racial tensions and injustice.
Rapunzel, 2010 -- When Tangled hit theaters in 2010, the Disney princess line—for better or worse—was officially revamped.
Rapunzel was portrayed as a modern girl, spirited and smart, though with occasional moments of almost child-like excitement and glee. She is tough, able to handle herself with whatever weapons she has—most notably, her infamous hair and frying pan (the latter a reoccurring gag used repeatedly throughout her film).
What was most prominent about Rapunzel being different from the other princesses, however, was the fact that her movie was made entirely with CGI (computer graphic imagery) rather than the classic style of animation used in previous films (hand-drawn).
Rapunzel was shown as having some features that can be seen as imperfections, including her bucked teeth and scattering of freckles over her nose. This gave her a distinctly original look, separating her from the flawless princesses of yesteryear.
Rapunzel was mostly accepted with enthusiasm by audiences and critics. The Austin Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten wrote, "Rapunzel is a spunky gal [who is] capable of defending herself.” Sandie Angulo Chen of Common Sense Media said that Rapunzel is a "guileless, strong, and beautiful" character, who’s "so breathtakingly good that you can't help but weep with her when she thinks all hope is lost."
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Cathy Jakicic described Rapunzel as being "scrappy [and] self-reliant,” a brave heroine who "can rescue herself.” The Scotsman said, "the film doesn't ... turn [Rapunzel] into a simpering damsel in distress." Calling the character "innocent but inevitably feisty,” Empire’s Helen O'Hara praised both Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Flynn’s, character development while "bas[ing] their growing love story on more than a single longing glance."
Despite her success and undeniably likable independence, creativeness and bubbly energy, Rapunzel has also received some negative reviews. Multiple critics have called her bland, comparing her to a Barbie doll.
Merida, 2012 -- Merida is one of the most unique and fearless Disney princesses to date. She is also the second Disney princess to be animated in CGI, and the first to not have a love interest or a signature song.
The Scottish beauty with wild red curls is portrayed in her aptly-titled film Brave as being fiercely independent, though loving, particularly toward her family. She’s unrelentingly rueful, determined to follow her heart and not let pesky responsibility or tradition get in her way. She’s courageous, spunky, yet relatable in the fact that she’s flawed, making mistakes or poor choices at times in order to get what she wants and prone to moments of recklessness.
Athletic and talented, Merida is a skillful horse rider and archer. In fact, she’s better at archery than her male counterparts. In addition to being Pixar’s first princess included in Disney’s official line-up, she’s also the first female character to lead a Pixar film. Additionally, she’s the first Disney princess to be slightly more curvy or full-figured, with a notably plumper face, rounder cheeks, and a figure that’s less defined or “hour-glass” than her predecessors. Groundbreaking in so many ways, Merida’s a far cry from the princesses of yore. She’s truly deserving of her film’s title.
A look at this evolution clearly shows how the princesses have changed. The differences between the first princess, Snow White, and the latest princess, Merida, are quite jarring. Like any company, Disney is changing with the times, meeting the standards set by previous movies while moving forward and keeping their princesses edgy and modern, engaging viewers of the twenty-first century.
So, what’s next for Disney? In ten or so years, can we expect an “ugly” princess, too?
(for those girls who aren’t officially part of the princess line-up):
Anna & Elsa, 2013 -- Though not yet “coronated” (the introduction into the line-up that has become standard in recent years), these two royal characters of Frozen fame have become iconic in a short time and may eventually be accepted into the official Disney princess pedigree. Unique, bold, and somewhat troublesome, they both, in their own ways, have radically helped change—and revitalize—the Disney princess brand, even if they’re not officially a part of it. While Anna’s clumsy, quirky, humorously awkward personality showed audiences everywhere that not all princesses are perfect, Elsa’s complex and pained character was raw with emotion and did something entirely fresh: showed everyone that not all fairy tales and Disney movies are black and white. Some characters are very, very gray—not villains nor heroes. Further, their respective story arcs underscore the film’s theme of acceptance, sisterly love (rather than romantic), and working together to overcome adversity.
Elena, 2016 – Disney’s first Latina princess, Elena is the lead character of the Disney Channel TV series Elena of Avalor. She also has the distinction of being the fifth Disney princess of color, and the first to have originated from a TV show rather than movie. Continuing the trend of recent, well-developed characters, Elena is a determined, open-minded girl, full of compassion and devotion to the people of her kingdom. However, she’s not an unrealistically perfect character: she is also prone to being reckless, impatient, and overly confident. While perhaps a step in the right direction, Elena has been the subject of some controversy, with critics debating whether or not she could truly be called Latina.
Moana, 2016 – The headstrong and crafty Polynesian girl at the center of the 2016 film of the same name, Moana resists the title of “princess” explicitly in the movie, so perhaps it’s fitting she isn’t included in the official line-up (if a bit perplexing). Unlike her predecessor Pocahontas, Moana, a fellow daughter of a chief and Disney’s sixth princess of color, was, for the most part, critically acclaimed and sensitively portrayed. A brave, outspoken girl, determined to save the day and rescue her people, “descended from voyagers” as one lyric puts it and with the voyaging talents to match, Moana’s the latest and greatest addition to the princess arsenal, effectively proving there’s still room for innovative heroines to break the mold. With her sea-faring adventurousness and Mulan-esque heroics, plus her lack of a romantic interest, Moana is truly a character that girls of the twenty-first century can admire without causing their parents concern.