The evolution of Disney princesses
After years of telling stories about talking cars, talking toys and other talking inanimate objects, Pixar have taken a leaf out of Disney's book and made an old-fashioned fairytale. Set in the highlands of 19th Century Scotland, Brave tells the story of Princess Merida; a flame-haired, free-spirited teenager who's nifty with a bow and refuses to be married off. Stunning visuals, a wild mane and Scottish accents aside, Brave's heroine has more than a few things in common with the princesses of Disney's past, but how have the female characters of those classics changed over the years?
Before the Disney Princess became a billion-dollar franchise it was just a group of female protagonists who shared personality traits along with waists smaller than their wrists. 1937's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs is a film of many firsts (first full-length cel-animated feature, first animated film to be produced in America, first Walt Disney production) but it also featured the first of many Disney princesses who'd be idolised for eternity, thanks to costumes worn by little girls and partygoers alike.
Derived from the Brothers Grimm fairytale, Snow White became the template for female characters – a kind romantic who possesses an otherworldly singing voice and is mistreated by jealous women older and uglier than she – until the Disney renaissance in 1989. Their popularity made them animated icons, but their lack of diversity and character made them a target for those unimpressed with a flurry of helpless women who require saving (and usually, kissing) from a prince to escape a sticky situation.
Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty's Aurora captured the same magic as Snow White, but after the deaths of Walt and Roy Disney the company entered a dark period where all releases failed to light up the box office. The beginning of Disney's new era started with 1989's The Little Mermaid; a film in development since the 30s with a slightly different princess as the lead. Ariel, like Merida, stood out amongst the carbon-copy princesses thanks to a head of red hair and a feisty attitude, but unlike her predecessors she went after a prince instead of waiting for him to save her. She became an instant favourite but also received mixed reviews from critics who noted that, although she's an explorer keen to escape the kingdom run by her strict father, she also gives up her family and home for a man.
Ariel aka The Little Mermaid wasn't going to wait for her man.
No such criticisms were thrown at Belle, the brunette bookworm who sacrifices herself for her father. Hailed as more womanly, mature and compelling, Belle's popularity and faux-feminist character helped make 1991's Beauty And The Beast a critical and commercial smash – many still regard as the best animated film of all time. Belle proved that audiences could fall in love with a brown-haired intellectual as well as a helpless blonde scullery maid. However, Disney were still yet to explore race in the same way they had developed the characters – something that changed with their next four leading ladies.
Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998) and The Princess And The Frog (2009) had female protagonists of Arabic, East Asian, Native American and African-American descent respectively, and thus changed the Caucasian, big-eyed ideal of beauty they created themselves. The move was welcomed by Disney cynics, even if the multi-cultural princesses were still ultimately cut from the same cloth.
After The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen and Kristen Stewart's Snow White, Brave's Princess Merida is the third warrior princess of 2012 whose beauty belies her ability to look after herself and her loved ones. She may fall prey to a witch and an evil spell, but her main concern is the fractured relationship with her mother instead of a blossoming love with a pretty but dead-eyed prince. So, where next? Disney have pretty much exhausted the possibilities of character and race, so how their next princess will continue to evolve will, for now, remain a mystery.
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