I consider myself to be a strong, empowered woman. But one thing that really gets to me is when feminists argue that Disney Princesses are terrible role models and girls shouldn’t be looking up to them or trying to emulate them. There are a lot of great personality traits that the princesses have to offer, but beyond that they are all young girls or young women trying to find their way in the world. It might mean they’re not always perfect, or not always strong. But are any of us?
Of course, I will admit that some of the older princesses are a product of their times. Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora may not be the most empowered women, but they still have positive traits that we can point out to young girls and admire when they watch these films. And we can talk about what those characters might do differently as well, so we can learn from them and their situations. I would like to start by highlighting the Disney Princesses who I feel are the best role models from my perspective, but I still want to touch on all of them and share some of the good things they have to offer to young girls (and young boys, and older girls, and anyone who’s willing to observe).
Here’s my personal list of Disney Princesses as good role models, in order from my favorite to least favorite:
Oh my, do I love Tiana. Right from the beginning she shows that she is a strong, hardworking woman. She has a dream and works hard to achieve that dream, not only believing in it passionately but also putting in the effort needed to get what she wants. In fact, her biggest flaw is that she works a little too hard and has trouble relaxing and having fun. But she is also a good friend to Charlotte, a good daughter, and a good employee. She does all this despite coming from a background and time period that made it even more challenging for a black woman to succeed, and yet she overcomes these odds.
To the naysayers – I’ve heard it argued that Tiana “still needed a man.” No, she didn’t. She chose to be with a man. Strong women can still fall in love and have a partner in life, and there’s nothing wrong with that. She never needed Naveen to achieve her dreams, but like a truly well balanced partnership he helped her relax a little and see the world in a new way. And she affected him for the better as well, so they could both be their best selves. She was able to incorporate him her dream, rather than redesigning her dream because of him.
I can relate to Belle because she’s not afraid to be herself. In a town where everyone else is gossiping and going about their mundane lives, Belle isn’t scared to be different. She reads books and doesn’t drool over Gaston like the other girls (she’s not specifically looking for any man, for that matter). Most of all she craves adventure. And when it comes down to it, she’s beyond brave. Her father goes missing so she immediately goes out to find him. And when she discovers that he’s imprisoned, her instinct is to sacrifice herself for those that she loves. Oh, and did I mention she loves to read? That’s a great thing in any role model.
Even when she’s trapped with the Beast as a prisoner, she doesn’t bow down to him. She stands up for herself and refuses to give in to his demands. When he shows signs of relenting she is also willing to work with him. She doesn’t let the fact that he made a terrible first impression stand in the way of her ability to be kind, and to try and understand his perspective in life.
To the naysayers – I don’t know how you can not like Belle. Her biggest faults are probably that she can be impulsive and a bit too curious for her own good (yeah, she probably should not have gone in the West Wing. Not a good thing to do, kids!). And there are those that cry “Stockholm Syndrome.” I don’t buy into that at all, though the reasons why are probably a whole other blog post that I could write.
The most admirable thing about Rapunzel to me is her constant upbeat and positive attitude, despite everything she’s been through. She wants to pursue her dream in spite of seemingly impossible challenges. I don’t think Rapunzel gets enough credit for being brave, either. She’s known nothing her whole life except one small tower and yet she leaves it for a world she knows nothing about. She doesn’t hesitate to protect herself when necessary. And she has a huge heart. She sees the best in Eugene even when he doesn’t see it in himself.
To the naysayers – I’ve heard people say Rapunzel is “dumb,” but I think we’re confusing intelligence with naivety. Of course she’s going to be naive – she’s literally been locked in a room for 18 years. So while there are mistakes that she makes, it’s usually from just not knowing any better. And she learns from those mistakes.
Have you ever had the feeling that there’s just something different about you, but you don’t know what to do about it? I think that’s how Moana feels when she’s “called” to the ocean. She is expected at a young age to learn how to be a leader, and she is willing and able to take on the role. When her people begin to suffer she decides to find the cause and fix it, despite the danger. She is another princess who is quite brave. She’s also incredibly determined. I think her determination is her most admirable trait. And there is no love interest at all involved in Moana’s story. She’s fiercely independent, determined, strong, but also compassionate and loves her family.
To the naysayers – Yes, Moana is disobedient to her father’s wishes. Some might argue that disobeying your parents isn’t necessarily something you’d want your children to learn. But she doesn’t make the decision willy-nilly, and she has the support of her grandmother and mother to make this choice. She ultimately discovers it is what she has to do and her father is not infallible. Not an easy lesson for a 16 year old to learn.
Anna is clearly fueled by love, and in my opinion there’s no better thing. My life philosophy is always that we should love and act according to love and the world would be a better place. She is selfless and always trying to help others. Anna will do whatever it takes to make sure things are right with her sister, even though Elsa hasn’t really even talked to her in years. She’s brave, fights for her family, and is passionate.
To the naysayers – Of course Anna has a flaw, which is that she is perhaps too trusting, too naive. She immediately falls for Hans and decides to get married to him, which turns out to be a terrible choice. But this flaw just makes her more realistic, and her experience has been very limited being locked up in the castle for so long.
Elsa has clearly been through a lot. She’s spent her whole life trying to control the power that she has, which she believes is only a negative thing. Her motto is “conceal, don’t feel.” What would it be like to live 20 years trying to force yourself not to feel anything? But the Frozen movie is in large part about the changes in Elsa and her journey. I adore seeing what she goes through – Let it Go is an empowering song because she is finally willing to accept herself for who she is. So many children (and people) seem to want to deny who they are, to be just like everyone else, and this is a powerful message to say that you can be comfortable with yourself even when you’re different. “I don’t care what they’re going to say” – to not care what people say about you is perhaps the greatest struggle of my life, and many others, I think. But to at least start that journey towards loving yourself despite others is a huge, amazing thing that I admire.
To the naysayers – I’ve heard people argue that Elsa goes too far in the “embracing who she is” thing. That “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” isn’t the lesson we want to be teaching kids. And of course we don’t want to say “don’t follow the rules.” But Let it Go is that first moment when Elsa is truly ready to embrace who she is. Throughout the movie, and by the end of it, she finds the balance of accepting herself, caring about others, and finding her true place as a Queen and leader.
Sometimes it feels more difficult to “argue” for the older princesses, because they aren’t as independent as some of the more modern ones. And that’s no surprise because times certainly do change. But I see a lot of great qualities in Cinderella. She has a strong sense of perseverance and despite everything she’s been through, she manages to stay kind, caring, and compassionate. I thought the live action version of Cinderella did a really good job showing this side of her, especially with her motto to “have courage and be kind.” In my opinion, those are great words to live by.
To the naysayers – I’ve heard people say that Cinderella should have had MORE courage, to fight back more against her stepmother who is basically holding her captive. But if you really think about it, there are a couple of reasons why that may not work. Remember that this is set a long time ago, and women weren’t raised to believe they had the power to do that. She also doesn’t have a lot of options. Even if she ran away, where would she go? And she is basically in an abusive household. It is very difficult for victims to leave their abusers sometimes, and I think Cinderella is no exception – we shouldn’t be “victim blaming” her here for not getting up and leaving.
“I am not a prize to be won.” This is a pretty iconic Jasmine line, and it sums up how she feels about herself and her life. She is unfortunately in a society where men are in charge, but she’s not content to sit around and let them make all of the decisions for her. Jasmine fights back. She tries to make those in charge listen to her, and when they don’t she takes matters into her own hands and runs away to experience life outside of the palace. Doing this allows her to see her city how it truly is for many, not just the privileged, and she is able to enlighten herself and expand her horizons.
To the naysayers – Often the complaint about the princesses about role models is that they don’t do enough – but I think these people don’t take into account the situation and the time period in which the princesses are existing. Jasmine is fighting authority almost every step of the way. I’ve also seen the criticism that she is too “sexualized” of a princess due to her outfit, and that makes me more mad than anything. Stop victim shaming, saying that women are “asking for it” because of what they wear. Jasmine is gorgeous, her outfit is gorgeous, and I’m glad she rocks it.
Mulan is touted by many to be one of the most role models and good symbol for feminism, and I can see why. She literally breaks out of the mold of what is expected of her as a woman and does things her society doesn’t think she can or should do. She is brave, determined, clever, strong, and works hard. Mulan does all of this because of the love she has for her father. She’s every bit as good as man, if not better. And she proves it.
To the naysayers – To be honest, I haven’t heard a ton of criticism of Mulan as a role model. If anything people seem a little annoyed that there still needs to be a romance plotline. And to that I say, let people have their love, darn it! Romance and love shouldn’t be necessary for a strong woman or good movie, but we should be discouraging it or looking down on it either.
I think Pocahontas has a lot of traits to admire. She cares very much for the earth and nature, which isn’t something we necessarily focus on a lot with princesses. She also wants peace between the Native Americans and Europeans. I love what she has to say in “Colors of the Wind,” which is about both accepting nature and accepting people. One of my favorite lyrics of any Disney song is “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.”
To the naysayers – One criticism of Pocahontas isn’t so much of the character herself, but rather how the story (based on a real historical figure) has been told. In the movie Pocahontas makes an independent decision not to leave with John Smith. In reality she was captured and forced to go to England to marry someone there. This is again a whole separate topic (for another blog post perhaps), but I will just say that as she is portrayed in the Disney film, I think Pocahontas has a lot of things to admire about her.
I remember when Brave came out and Merida made some waves because she was the first real Disney Princess without a love interest. Although the plot revolved around the attempt to marry her off, Merida fought against it. The previews showed the boys trying to compete at archery to win her, and Merida showing up with the line “I’ll be shooting for me own hand!” There’s certainly something admirable about a woman who is not ready to be married and makes that known. Merida is independent and of course brave.
To the naysayers – I’ve heard some people say that Merida is immature and foolish – after all, she does find a witch in the woods and attempts to change her fate. And sure, this is true. But we need to remember how young many of these princesses are. We all make mistakes, and the more important thing is to learn from them and grow. I believe Merida does that.
If there’s one thing Ariel is good at doing, it’s following her heart. Perhaps too much, but she is true to herself and that is certainly a good thing. Unlike princesses who came before her, Ariel stands up for what she believes is right. Ariel has spent a lot of time being different from her sisters and others under the sea, and throughout the movie she embraces who she truly is and what she wants out of life, even if others don’t approve.
To the naysayers – One of the biggest criticisms of Ariel is that she does all of these things to “win a man.” She falls in love at first sight and marries him after spending all of three days with him – 3 days in which she can’t even talk. And while I definitely don’t think that’s the best idea, I think it’s important to remember that the true reason why she does this is because of her desire to be human and experience the human world. Her whole life she has dreamed of this, Eric is just the catalyst that gets her started on actually pursuing these dreams. If you think of it as her desire to be “Part of Your World” (with the your just being humans in general) rather than “Part of His World,” it’s a better moral.
Despite everything she’s been through, Snow White remains positive with a good attitude. She takes a really terrible situation and finds a way to survive. She has the strength to run away and the skills to find a way to live. While she might take care of the dwarfs they are providing her with a place to stay so in many ways it’s a pretty savvy trade. She keeps singing and keeps pushing on, which is a pretty impressive attitude.
To the naysayers – There is a lot of criticism around Snow White involving her rather submissive attitude, the fact that she spends so much time cleaning, and the issue of falling in love at first sight. To these things I would say – she was pretty brave for her time, running away and finding a way to survive outside of the castle. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning (some people actually enjoy it, though I’m not one of them!). And I’m not even sure if she fell in love with the Prince at first sight. We don’t know much about their relationship or its history, but it’s certainly possible they had met before the wishing well scene.
Aurora is a tough one because she spends much of her movie sleeping. But she has a lot of basic good traits. She is kind to animals, hopeful, and sweet. And she is surprisingly strong and mature for her age. When the fairies tell her what her true life is, she doesn’t lash out or get rebellious like most teenagers might. Instead she accepts her situation even though she is not particularly happy about it. There is a great sense of maturity and dignity to Aurora that often gets overlooked.
To the naysayers – it can certainly seem like Aurora is literally just lying around waiting for a man to rescue her. And, well – that is true. It’s hard for me to argue against that, but that’s just how the fairy tale goes. Aurora would not be at the top of my list for that reason. She doesn’t do anything huge or amazing. Nevertheless, she is a good person and there are things to admire about her.
Do you think the Disney princesses are good role models? Which Disney princess do you think is the best role model?