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The Tangled Evolution of the Disney Princess

By Noelle Buffam · November 29, 2010

During a childhood visit to Disneyland, I remember having to make one of the hardest decisions of my young life: ice cream or a princess hat. The hat was pink, in the shape of a towering cone, and had bedazzled jewels on it.

Ice cream, on the other hand, was (and still is) undoubtedly awesome. And everyone knows Disneyland ice cream tastes more delicious and magical than normal ice cream. After weighing my options in my five-year-old brain, I finally came to a decision.

I would choose the princess hat. Of course.

It’s this kind of true dedication that fuels the multi-million dollar franchise known as The Disney Princesses, and now a new princess has been added to the lineup. So sound the trumpets, because Rapunzel has arrived.

Introduced in Disney’s latest film Tangled, Rapunzel is sure to stir up a bit of controversy. For years, Disney has come under fire for promoting role models for girls that are less than ideal. The “Disney Princess Effect” seems to be a constant debate not only in parenting circles, but in the blogosphere as well. Looking back on my five-year-old self at “The Greatest Place On Earth”, I have to ask, “Did I fall victim to The Princess Effect?” Without psychoanalyzing myself, I conclude that I chose the hat because it was pretty. And it made me feel pretty too. And when it comes to being a girl, being pretty is a pretty big deal.

But we grow up… most of us. And I’d like to say that I have grown out of buying things simply because they are pretty, but that is just not true. As I’m writing this, a box covered in glitter is staring at me with an intense glittery gaze. The truth is that when I saw the box at Target, I knew I didn’t need a box. I especially didn’t need a glitter box. But when the industrial lighting reflected off the box making it sparkle, it entranced me just like Disneyland did years before. The only difference was at Disneyland I went home with one hat, but with the Target glitter box I couldn’t help myself – I bought two.

Although it may concern some parents, I don’t think their daughter’s tendency to want to buy pretty little things is the problem they have with Disney. Instead, it’s the much more unsettling notion of their daughters wanting to be pretty little things.

The classic Disney Princess has the same kind of appeal as the glitter boxes and the princess hat. She is beautiful. She is fragile. She is perfect. I can just imagine the Fairy Godmother transcending from the clouds above asking me, “But Noelle, what could ever be wrong with a girl as fair as Cinderella?”

Well, Fairy Godmother, that’s an easy one.

The main complaints about the Disney Princesses are that they lack personality, knowledge, and skills, and while they do know how to sing, that gets cancelled out (in most cases) by their complete dependency on the men that surround them. But the worst offense of all may be the simplest: beauty. They are quite frankly just TOO beautiful, and that alone is dangerous. A little girl trying to be the impossible is an illusion that can build to tragedy. No doubt, Rapunzel will be put to the test by the “Princess Effect” theorists, but in order to see if she falls in the princess trap or comes out victorious, we first must look at the evolution of the Disney Princess.

In 1937 the first Disney princess was created in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To say the film was a success is an understatement. When it had its public release in 1938, it earned more than four times the amount of money any other film released in that year. The lifetime gross of Snow White totals more than $184 million. As the original (and very successful), Snow White is an example of the classic princess. She is forced to be a scullery maid by her wicked stepmother, the Queen, who is jealous of her beauty. When the mirror tells the Queen that Snow White is the “fairest of them all”, a huntsman is ordered to kill her, but he can’t go through with it. She is just too physically perfect. Snow White flees into the woods where she uses her skills of singing and talking to animals to survive, until eventually, she settles down in a nice home where she cooks, cleans, and takes care of the children dwarfs. Her naivety leads to her death when she eats a poisonous apple given to her from the Queen. The fairytale comes to an end as the Prince brings her back from death with a kiss just before rigor-mortise sets in. Lovely.

It’s not until 1950 that another Disney Princess is introduced to the world. Cinderella is eerily similar to her predecessor. Similarities include and are not limited to: an evil stepmother, banished to do slave work, the ability to talk to animals, unparalleled beauty, talents of singing, cooking, cleaning. She is ultimately saved by Prince Charming who falls in love with her simply because of her beauty. I don’t think “charming” is the word for that.

The same formula is set for Princess Aurora in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. She is blessed with the gift of beauty and song, but is put under a cursed sleep at age 16. Though in this fairytale, the Prince has to do a bit of work in order to win his prize. When the evil Maleficent transforms into a dragon, Prince Phillip slays her so that he can reach Aurora. He kisses her, the spell is broken, and without so much as a conversation, they live happily ever after. Sigh.

I don’t know about you, but I (as well as the princesses) are in a dire need for some change.

Enter, Ariel – albeit 40 years later. Finally, in 1989 a princess comes along that has an attribute other than being just unnaturally kind. As the main character in The Little Mermaid, Ariel is the rebellious daughter of King Triton. She is adventurous, curious, and obsessed with the human world. Sure, she’s drop dead gorgeous. And yes, she sings. And, okay, she also leaves her home and changes species so that she can be with the handsome Prince Eric…but progress is progress. Right?

Now, just like a breath of fresh air, the 1990s usher in a new breed of princesses. First up is Belle from 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Although she has no job, she’s smart. She’s a free-thinker, not afraid to be different, and she reads books (Yes! It’s true!). AND she learns to love the hideous Beast despite his appearances. An added bonus? She doesn’t talk to animals (okay, she talks to a plethora of inanimate objects…but, still…credit where credit it due). Belle gets the red stamp of approval.

Next up is Jasmine from Disney’s 1992 Aladdin. She is spirited, headstrong, impetuous, adventurous, and brave. She refuses to marry the self-centered princes her father suggests, and instead falls in love with a disguised Aladdin. Eventually, Jasmine is rescued by Aladdin. Her personality and spunk is one step forward. The red, skin-tight slave-girl outfit she wears for Jafar? Two steps back.

In 1995 Pocahontas is introduced. As the wise and free-spirited Native American, she shares her culture and respect of the earth with the English settlers. After sharing a passionate kiss with John Smith, they wave good-bye and DO NOT live happily ever after. Finally, a story where success is not dependent on a romantic relationship… how Un-Disney.

Though Pocahontas cracked the “happily ever after” mold, three years later Mulan came along and shattered it. Mulan refuses to fit the expectations of a young Chinese girl of the time: graceful, demure, obedient, and silent. Instead, Mulan shows her courage, intelligence, determination, and ingenuity when she disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the war. Ultimately, she honors her family and her country and lives happily ever after. No kiss. No prince. It’s a victory for women everywhere! Now, the world waits with bated breath for the next kick-ass princess…

And then… a decade passes. No new princesses. No new improvements. Some even fearing the princess evolution is complete. But then in 2009, Tiana hits the scene in The Princess and the Frog. Though she isn’t responsible for defeating the Huns, she at least has a job. The waitress/chef is motivated, determined, and independent. She is self employed and professional. She follows suit of the last three princesses (Persian, Native American, Chinese) and represents a new ethnicity: African American. She does end up in a “happily ever after” situation with the prince, though he is obviously not her intellectual equal. It seems the only reason Tiana falls for him is because of his toothy smile. He comes off as an arrogant smooth-talker. Honestly, despite the smile, his personality makes me wish he stayed a frog forever. Two points for creating an independent, self-empowered, strong, professional woman, but an air-ball for falling for “The Frog”.

And finally, Rapunzel. Though she is completely naive and talks to animals (what else is there to do when you’re stuck in a tower for eighteen years), there is something refreshing about Rapunzel and the whole Tangled story. The story doesn’t revolve around Rapunzel being saved. In fact, she actually saves herself and her “prince” on multiple occasions. She has no knowledge of the outside world, yet handles herself exceptionally well… even defending herself with a frying pan on more than one occasion. Who knew? And Rapunzel has more than the classic skill sets of cooking, cleaning, and talking to animals. She’s an accomplished artist  – could even give Michelangelo a run for his money. But it was the montage that shows her in an internal war with herself that seals her as maybe the most believable princess: flawed, confused, guilty, yet brave, fearless, and undoubtably lovable. In all, Rapunzel’s classic fairytale story is saved from the claws of princess doom by her unique and quirky personality.

Through this evolution, it’s clear that Disney has made an effort to make a more complex princess. The age of the weak princess has been flushed out through time and societal change. But never fear “princess-effect” theorists; there is still a disturbing, underlying message in these stories:

Being pretty is really really important.

In fact, most of the princess’ lives depend on it. Could you imagine if Prince Charming hadn't fallen in love with Cinderella just by looking at her? She would still be scrubbing floors for her evil stepmother. What if Prince Phillip didn’t like blonds? Aurora would still be snoozing away? The sad truth is that without beauty, Ariel would still be a mermaid, Jasmine would be married to a snob, and Snow White would be dead.

It’s easy to blame Disney for this; they perpetuate this notion of beauty. I would say that a homely princess added to the lineup is about as likely as Mickey Mouse turning into a rat. But in truth, the reality is that the problem is way bigger than the Mouse. It’s true that the importance of beauty permeates girls not only when they watch television, movies, and advertisements, but in almost every aspect of life. For girls, whether it’s a fifth-grade crush, a school picture, or a job interview, the need to be beautiful is everywhere.

And it gets so much worse as they get older. While many parents are worried about the effects of princesses named Ariel and Aurora, they should actually be worrying about the Disney Princesses named Miley and Selena. One day your little girl’s idea of beauty is transitioned from an animated character into a celebrity… and that’s just a little sad.

But at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure I’ll let my future daughter(s) watch The Disney Channel and princess movies. Thanks to some great parents who taught me what was really important in life, these types of programming did no permanent damage to me (give or take a few glitter boxes). All we can do it try to be a positive guides for our own children and help them to love who they are, cautioning against the colossal illusion of princess perfection.