“A Girl Worth Fighting For: Defending the Disney Princesses” – Ren Cleveland

3rd Place Non-Fiction

As a child, I was brought up on a steady diet of Disney movies. Mulan, Pocahontas, and Ariel were my role models and have, quite frankly, taught me values that I still carry with me to this day. Disney Princess movies have been around since 1937 and have since evolved with the times to become avid cheerleaders for girls and women alike. These Disney Princesses are positive role models for young girls because they encourage children to embrace their individuality, teach the value of internal character, and they inspire young girls to believe in the power of their dreams.

Disney Princess movies encourage young girls to embrace individualism. Many anti-Disney Princess sources target Disney Princesses as ‘anti-feminist’, passively waiting for their Prince Charming to come along on his white steed and sweep them off to Happily Ever After. In Chapter Two of her book, Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film, Sarah Rothschild accuses first-age princesses of depicting passive house-wives. Rothschild uses Snow White as an example, saying that from the start of the movie Snow White openly expresses her longing to be swept away by her Prince Charming (Rothschild 54). However, Rothschild defiles her own argument in the following pages of her book by admitting that her domesticated Snow White was made in 1937, prior to the first notable feminist movement (Rothschild 56-57). Therefore, Snow White depicting the typical 1930’s American housewife of the time period is no crime (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Rothschild continues to shoot holes through her own argument by admitting that Disney Princesses do evolve with the times and show a considerable shift in independence by the 1980’s.

One of the finest examples of Disney Princesses embracing individualism can be found in Pocahontas (Pocahontas). Despite the pressure placed upon her by her village and her father to marry Kocoum, the village’s most noble warrior, Pocahontas choses to honor her true feelings rather than submit to a conventional fate. By following her heart, Pocahontas falls in love with John Smith, a man from the mysterious new colonies. Tension quickly increases between Pocahontas’ tribe and the colonists. Before long, war breaks out, creating a serious divide between Pocahontas and her beloved John Smith. When John is taken prisoner and sentenced to death by Pocahontas’ tribe, Pocahontas boldly displays her willingness to lay down her life along with John’s in protest against the barriers of blind hatred that have arisen between their two worlds. Following Pocahontas’ example of peace, Pocahontas’ tribe and the colonists learn to accept one another’s differences. Pocahontas’ valiant display of courage and desire to follow her own path, puts an end to the war. For as Pocahontas sings earlier in the film in the song, Colors of the Wind, “You think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you, but if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew” (Pocahontas).

Another display of fierce independence can be found in Disney’s Mulan. Trapped in a male dominant culture, Mulan battles between being true to her independent mind and pleasing her family. When war breaks out in China, Mulan’s ailing father is called upon to fight for his country. Fearing for her father’s ability to survive war, Mulan disguises herself as a male and runs away to join the army in her father’s place. Once there, Mulan is forced to conceal her true identity and claims to be her father’s unheard-of-son, Ping. For the punishment for her deception would be death. Throughout her time in battle, Mulan overcomes many obstacles and, by doing so, uncovers an unwavering sense of determination within herself. When Mulan is injured saving her Captain’s life, her identity as a woman is revealed. Instead of condemning her to death, the Captain spares Mulan’s life in return for her act of courage. Finally, without the hindrance of any cover-ups, Mulan courageously takes leadership and saves China. In the end, she not only earns the recognition of China’s Emperor, but more importantly, Mulan is free to return home with a new sense of individualism and feels driven to embrace her true identity. Mulan’s strength directly contradicts the argument that Disney Princesses are ‘anti-feminist’. She proves that women can do anything men can do, if not more.

Not only has the Disney Princess opposition pegged Disney Princesses as being ‘anti-feminist’, but the opposition has also continuously argued that the physical appearances of the Disney Princesses set a bad example for young girls and can lead to body image issues. Stephanie Hanes goes as far as to say in her article, Little Girls or Little Women? The Disney Princess Effect, that these “slender-wasted heroines” are bound to lead young girls down a path of self-objectification and unhealthy body image (Hanes).  However, these fretful opposers are completely missing a clear lesson which is continuously highlighted in the Disney Princess films: internal character is more valuable than physical appearance.

A prime example of Disney Princess movies preaching character over physical appearance can be found in Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and the Beast). As the tale goes, there was once a handsome prince who resided in a luxurious castle. One evening an old beggar woman came to the prince’s door in search of shelter. When the prince refuses to let her in because of her haggard appearance, the beggar woman transforms into a beautiful sorceress and places a curse on the prince as a punishment for his shallow judgment. The prince is to remain a horrible Beast until he can learn to love. Meanwhile in Belle’s village, Gaston, the attractive but morally corrupt antagonist, intends to marry Belle because, in his own words, “Here in town there’s only she, who is as beautiful as me” (Beauty and the Beast). Belle turns down Gaston’s proposals of marriage because she recognizes his lack of internal morality and pays absolutely no mind to Gaston’s physical appearance. Throughout the movie, Belle eventually falls in love with the Beast for his internal character traits and sees straight through his grizzly appearance.

Not only do the Disney Princess movies teach the value of internal character over physical appearance, but they also teach the value of character over materialism. For instance, in Disney’s Aladdin, Princess Jasmine is constantly proposed to by a series of wealthy suitors (Aladdin). However, Jasmine refuses the offer of every suitor down. Princess Jasmine falls in love with Aladdin when the two first meet, despite the fact that Aladdin is poor, because Jasmine values his internal character. When Aladdin later disguises himself as a wealthy prince in attempt to win Jasmine’s heart, she refuses him just like her previous suitors because she sees no value in his riches or royal status. Rather Jasmine views Aladdin’s flashy charade as a lack of moral character. Only when Aladdin lets down his disguise and reveals himself as a humble beggar, Aladdin is able to win Jasmine’s heart.

In addition to teaching young girls to value character over materialism, Disney Princess movies inspire young girls to believe in the power of their dreams. In a chapter from their hearty Encyclopedia, entitled Girl Culture, Jacqueline Reid-Walsh and Claudia Mitchell coin the term ‘The Cinderella Fantasy.’ Reid-Walsh and Claudia blamed Cinderella for her ‘day-dreamer ideologies’, claiming that Cinderella’s constant day-dreaming is dangerous to young girls who must begin to understand the realities of life (Reid-Walsh, Mitchell 112). However, where is the danger in encouraging a young girl to dream?

Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful women of the present age, is quoted for saying, “I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who from an early age knew I was responsible for myself and I had to make good” (“Oprah Winfrey Quotes”). Oprah’s story of chasing her dreams from the bottom of the ladder to the top mirrors that of many Disney Princesses.

Take Cinderella for instance. After losing both of her parents, Cinderella is forced to become a slave in her own household to her psychologically abusive step mother and step sisters. However, Cinderella maintains a positive demeanor despite her unfortunate circumstances by holding tight to her dreams of a better future (Cinderella). In what is possibly the most iconic Disney song of all time, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, Cinderella sings the words, “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true” (Cinderella). In the end of the film, Cinderella’s persistent dreaming succeeds in the form of a Happily Ever After. When questioned on the subject of Cinderella, Walt Disney himself even stated, “She believed in dreams, all right, but she also believed in doing something about them. When Prince Charming didn’t come along, she went over to the palace and got him” (Pinsky 55).

Disney Princess movies teach girls that dreams do not come true on their own, but instead encourage the pursuit of dreams by preaching that any dream come true takes a considerable amount of hard work and persistence, often in the face of adversity.

One of the best instances of Disney Princesses actively pursuing dreams can be found in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (The Princess and the Frog). Tiana’s story is a grand picture of The American Dream. Even after the death of her father, Tiana refuses to let go of her dream of owning her own restaurant. Staying true to the diligent work ethic taught to her by her late father, Tiana works multiple jobs and grueling hours in hopes of earning enough money to grow from poverty to business-owner. Even when faced with multiple financial and emotional setbacks, Tiana rejects any means of an easy way out. In a song from the movie, “When We’re Human”, Tiana sings the words, “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got and that’s the way it’s supposed to be… If you do your best each and every day, good things are sure to come your way. What you give is what you get” (The Princess and the Frog). In another song from the film, “Almost There, Tiana sings, “There’ve been trials and tribulations. You know I’ve had my share. But there ain’t nothing gonna stop me now cause I’m almost there” (The Princess and the Frog). After facing many ‘trials and tribulations’, Tiana finally achieves her dreams and opens her own restaurant, thus teaching movie-goers that any dream is achievable with avid determination.

Snow White’s humble fairy tale was brought to the screen by Walt Disney in 1987. Since then, Disney Princess films have not only matured with the ages, but have financially evolved into what is today an empire worth $4 Billion dollars (Hanes). Therefore, no matter how critical Disney Princess opposers become, the success of the Disney Princess movies cannot be denied. Obviously the Disney Princess films have been successful financially and in popularity, but at the root of their success lies valuable morals and life lessons that are meant to inspire young female audiences. By following positive royal role models from Pocahontas to Tiana, young girls will grow to be independent women of tomorrow who have the courage to pursue their Happily Ever After.


Works Cited

Aladdin. Dir. Rob Clements . Perf. Robin Williams, Scott Weinger. Walt Disney Studios, 1992.                Film.

Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale. Perf. Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson. Walt Disney                     Studios, 1991. Film.

Cinderella. Dir. Walt Disney. Perf. Ilene Woods. Walt Disney Studios, 1950. Film.

Hall, Ann C, and Mardia Bishop. Mommy Angst: Motherhood in American Popular Culture.                     Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2009. Print.

Hanes, Stephanie. “Little Girls or Little Women? The Disney Princess Effect.” USA Today                       (2011): Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft. Perf. Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy. Walt Disney Studios, 1998.        Film.

“Oprah Winfrey Quotes.” About. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Pinsky, Mark I. “The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust.” Louisville, KY:             Westminster John Knox, 2004. Print.

Pocahontas. Dir. Eric Goldberg. Perf. Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson. Walt Disney Studios, 1995.                  Film.

Reid-Walsh, Jacqueline, and Claudia Mitchell. Girl Culture : An Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn:              Greenwood Press, 2008. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 25 Oct 2014.

Rothschild, Sarah. Modern American Literature: New Approaches : Princess Story: Modeling       the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film. New York, NY, USA:        Peter Lang Publishing, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 25 October 2014.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Dir. Walt Disney. Perf. Adriana Caselotti. Walt Disney                     Studios, 1938. Film.

The Little Mermaid. Dir. Rob Clements. Perf. Jodi Benson. Walt Disney Studios, 1989. Film.

The Princess and the Frog. Dir. Rob Clements. Perf. Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos. Walt                    Disney Studios, 2009. Film.