“I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle it. Have a nice day.” – Hercules
Sometimes it’s a mantra to remind myself that I can sort things out on my own; other times it’s an actual reply to a question (painfully often coming from an amused older man smiling condescendingly at me. Every time it’s a piece of wisdom coming from an unexpected source: the love interest of a Disney hero. (The “Have a nice day,” is often redundant, but it adds that hint of sass that a girl can always use.)
I’m not sure how long it’s been since I first saw Hercules (1997), but Megara’s words still resonate with me, just as they do with the countless women and girls who grew up with Disney movies. Does that make me a bad feminist I often wonder. Does having had Disney princesses as a role model (one among many others) make me a hypocrite for now advocating for equality every chance I get?
The answer I give myself is no, and it’s not just something I choose to believe in order to be at peace with myself. The fact is I really do believe Disney princesses and heroines can be seen as feminist characters. What’s more, I also think they show how far we’ve come; through them we can retrace a quick but accurate history of how women have been perceived, and what’s been expected of them over the past few decades.
Sure, it’s hard to see that if we think about Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora; but let’s not forget that those movies are first and foremost fairy-tales transpositions, and as such they follow closely the guidelines of a genre based on rewarding good characters over the evil ones, with little interest in creating an adequate representation of reality. It’s also worth noting that all three princesses date back to respectively 1936, 1950, and 1959. As much as we’d like our media to always be more open-minded and progressive than its contemporaries, that’s very rarely the case. Films are (with a few extraordinary exceptions) a product of the culture behind them: the fact that Snow White’s life on screen revolves around men, or that both Cinderella and Aurora depend on their princes to be saved, is nothing but ordinary—as retrograde as that can appear.
What’s really interesting is how things have evolved since then: both on screen, with the type of characters that have been created and brought to life, and off screen, with the growing demands we make as an audience for a more heterogeneous, inclusive, and accurate representation.
A lot has been said on recent Disney productions and how they mark some progress that has been made, but princesses like Merida (Brave, 2012) or Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010) are simply the latest examples of a trend that started years ago.
The Little Mermaid’s Ariel (1989), albeit questionable in her falling in love at first sight and sacrificing a huge part of her identity to pursue said love interest, is not afraid to defy her father and social norms to follow her dreams, and what she thinks is right for her. Just like Aladdin’s Jasmine (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and then Mulan (1998) do after her, with bigger consequences—and further steps forward for Disney heroines.
The whole plot of Mulan revolves around defying gender-based stereotypes; and while cultural sensitivity may still be a long way ahead, this still constitutes a significant step in the right direction.
The change in direction becomes apparent if we consider that this doesn’t only concern title characters or protagonists. Characters like Tarzan’s Jane (1999) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Esmeralda (1996) are not directly at the centre of the plot, but are still more and more full-fledged and three-dimensional, with a quest of their own and goals beyond a romantic interest in the protagonist. On one side, Esmeralda is not only a kick-ass character who stands up for Quasimodo when nobody else would, but also Disney’s first attempt at portraying a minority. On the other, Jane, while still being a privileged white upper-middle-class girl, sacrifices everything she has for a shot at love.
While this last example especially may seem the epitome of anti-feminism, it is not. It’s a brave choice that Jane makes consciously, and that’s what feminism is ultimately about: having the opportunity to make your own choices, regardless of your gender. For some people, love is a top-priority; for others, it’s a welcome addition to a fulfilling career, like Tiana showed us in The Princess and the Frog (2009). Both ideas are okay, and both stories should be told to little girls and boys everywhere.
If Disney characters help children dream even bigger by showing characters following their heart and fighting for their dreams, whatever they are, then we need more models like those. Instead of worrying about details in the plot that are very likely to go unnoticed by a younger audience, or to be forgotten once the Disney princess phase is outgrown, how about we focus on creating a world where those dreams can become a reality?