A Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses

I just saw Brave, and it got me thinking about the grand tradition of Disney princesses. Brave is a Pixar movie, and its heroine, Merida, is a fairy-tale feminist. Disney princesses for the most part, are not. Most need to be rescued by their male love interests; almost all the Disney Princess movies end in marriage or engagement. But that doesn't mean they're all equally regressive. There's actually a wide range, from appalling to not half bad.

Now, I know ranking anything by perceived feminism is problematic, as your professor might put it, but go with me for the sake of discussion. And lest we get carried away, rules: no sequels, prequels, or "midsequels" will be assessed, and all contestants must be officially part of the Disney Princesses franchise, a marketing juggernaut that's being sold to a five-year-old girl you know even as we speak. From least to most feminist, your Disney Princesses.

A Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses

10. Aurora, Sleeping Beauty

The early Disney films were all strange fables with beautiful scenery and women who made no choices for themselves; Sleeping Beauty is the apex of these. Aurora has no interesting qualities; she's pretty, demure, and generally kind, in the way princesses are (i.e., to animals). Aurora's naivete leads her straight into a trap laid by Maleficent, and she promptly falls asleep for the rest of the film, until a man shows up to wake her up (and not in a "raised consciousness" kind of way).

A Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses

9. Snow White, Snow White

Yeah, about all that sleeping... well, Snow White also conveniently falls asleep for much of this film, and waits to be rescued by a Charming (but otherwise featureless) prince. Snow White is a weirder movie than Sleeping Beauty, but though Snow herself is a kind of quirky beauty, with the bobbed black hair and all, she doesn't demonstrate a lot of agency or courage. Still, she outranks Aurora, because when she runs sobbing to the tiny cottage and finds that it's populated with seven small men, she doesn't turn tail and flee. She puts some steel into her spine and makes do, which is pretty impressive for a woman who talks to birds.

A Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses

8. Cinderella, Cinderella

Cinderella can't catch a break. I've never understood why kids enjoy this movie, because it's just one disaster after another — not only is this poor girl kind of enslaved, but then pretty much everything she tries to do to make her life better blows up in her face. Anyway, Cinderella doesn't get much of a chance to be feminist; realistically speaking, she's too oppressed for a reasonable assessment. But for what it's worth, she does try to make her shitty life work for her — she finds her mother's dress and makes it on time to the ball, despite monumental odds to the contrary. Of course, she still needs to be rescued by outside forces, so it's hard to place her too highly.

A Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses

7. Ariel, The Little Mermaid

In my humble opinion, The Little Mermaid is the best Disney movie, but Ariel is shaky as a feminist icon. Yes, she's plucky, impetuous, and passionate, willing to risk all for something she loves. But on the other hand, the thing she loves is a boy she saw playing a flute on a boat for twenty seconds. And more damningly, Ariel disempowers herself for the patriarchy, actually trading her voice — her voice — for a chance with a cute boy. She's either mute or unable to walk until the very end, when her father has to bestow freedom upon her. Oh yeah, and the whole time, she's wearing a clamshell bikini. She's the first Disney princess not to wilt at the first sign of danger, and she's got a lot of nerve, but her overall message isn't terribly progressive.

A Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses

6. Belle, Beauty and the Beast

Belle is often held up as the standard of the "feminist" Disney princess, but it's never been clear to me why she gets off easier than Ariel. Her major feat might be that instead of giving up her voice, she voluntarily makes herself a prisoner, but that's not much of a step for womankind. At least she's empowered enough to resent her imprisonment, though. She's got some great comebacks, and unlike Ariel, you get the impression Belle's sass doesn't come from teenage rebellion, but rather from intellectual acuity. She resists her village's expectations of what her life should look like; she's the first princess to express some skepticism about married life. But ultimately, Belle falls for a domineering man, because she thinks she can change him. Sure, you can believe it's love, but it could also be Stockholm syndrome.

Want to know which scrappy and industrious ladies have fought their way through the cartoon patriarchy to be ranked in the top 5? Head on over to Nerve to read the rest!


This post originally appeared on Nerve. Republished with permission.

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