The Evolution of the Disney Princess

Where they came from and what they mean 


[My Twitter handle is @ComixClassroom and I welcome emails to michaelrhale1984@gmail.com]

This article is being written because I am a boy who grew up on Disney films. More accurately, I am writing this because other boys who will one day be fathers need to know what their children are being raised on.

My mother and my grandmother loved taking me to the movies to see the re-released Disney films when I was very young (back when Disney would re-release films like 101 Dalmatians and Jungle Book in theaters every so often since VHS had not yet become the de-facto means of enrapturing the wee ones) and I loved it. Since I was born in 1984 the first real Disney ‘Princess’ character I remember seeing in a theater was Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Very soon after I remember soon after seeing Ariel on a VHS bootleg of Little Mermaid and then Jasmine in Aladdin.

I always had trouble identifying with the male hero characters in the films as a) I was too young to be interested in girls and b) because I was in no way physically outstanding. I had asthma as a child and it meant that most of the ‘play outside and romp’ fantasies got stifled by the time I was 13. I also suffered from gender-issues as far as understanding what group I fit into, mentally. I certainly did not relate to men, or rather I should say rough-and-tumble teen boys, and I understood it was not ‘ok’ to outright say I connected to girls more than boys. Disney films because one of my favorite things since, as far as I knew nobody could read my mind, I was able to cheer on the kinds of heroes I thought appropriate. Needless to say, I cheered on Belle and Ariel the most. I couldn't care much for Aladdin and Beast — they were too far removed from anything I could ever be (or, could have hoped to be). I did however think that by understanding what the Princess characters went through, maybe I could understand the girls that I kept thinking I related to better than men.

With some hindsight, looking to Disney films wasn't the first place to go for understanding the opposite sex, but they were always available, if that makes any sense? My family was made up of mainly women and I did not connect well with the men at all. As a boy who did not have the best masculine guidance, I also need to be aware that my fiancee and I want children. We may very well have a little boy or a little girl. They will be shown the movies we saw as children and I hope to guide them when they ask questions, either about themselves or about other kids.

Disney will not raise my children. I will. Still … Disney will be a big influence. They will provide characters to capture my kids imaginations, boy or girl, and as a soon-to-be father one day I need to understand things in the right context. The context of what makes something good or bad for a child is different and everyone will have their own POV on this. I hope what I lay out here gives you, dear reader, a better understanding of one of the most youth icons for any gender — The Disney Princess.

For this data I am going to say straight out that I am applying some ‘technical’ applications to any/all info I give here. First, I am only examining human/humanoid Princess characters. No Lion King, Aristocats, etc… I am also only discussing Princess characters who are either called princesses or who are stated to be from a royal family. Under this guideline I am omitting Mulan (who, while a part of the Disney Princess merchandise line-up, is not a princess either in her film or in the story she is copied from) and Pocahontas. My choice here is for one very important reason — I do not feel comfortable applying a European title to a distinctly non-European culture (her tribe had a chief, not a king, hence she is not a Princess) and as Pocahontas was nothing like the real world Pocahontas I have trouble with the character existing on film anyway. I will however provide Pocahontas data where applicable if you wish to see such data laid out. I am also not admitting data for Brave as it is a Pixar film. Lastly, I am not admitting Black Cauldron, one of my favorite films, but I do not think that will trouble many people.

FIRST — I will occasionally make what I will call an ‘implied lead of logic’ in regards to certain characters stories. I will do my best to bold-code this so it stands out (as with other key points — this is ‘wordy’ and I hope if you skim this thatkey points will pop out) and I will do my best to provide a screen-shot (where possible) to show what I am basing my opinion(s) on. Again … I am making some of these choices myself and I will do my best to alert you to what data has/has not been adjusted in this fashion.

SECOND — I use some terms and make some claims that I will assume others have very likely made before. My intent is not to claim to provide new evidence, simply a new format as to how this evidence is laid out.

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The First Generation Princesses —- 1937 to 1959

Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959)

The first three Princess characters are a part of what I call the ‘First Generation.’ This generation spans a long period of time (certainly, it is only a few years shy of being longer than I have been alive), yet this period is the foundation of the ‘Princess’ genre as a whole. We have Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959). What is important to know about these foundational characters is that, for the most part, they are almost indistinguishable from their Fairy Tale counterparts. Snow and Aurora are born Princesses, where-as Cinderella is promoted to the position of Princess via marriage (although she certainly comes from a wealthy home). Thus, a majority of the female Princesses in the First Generation are royalty by way of birth and not work. Cinderella is the bigger exception as she is possibly the hardest worker of the Princesses until 2009’s Tiana. It is also important to note for a moment that it is not stated if any of these women become Queens after they marry since their husbands are all Princes.

The largest point to illuminate is that a majority of the foundational First Generation princesses end their films either betrothed or married. Prince Phillip was betrothed to Aurora and nothing is stated to contradict the assumption that they will remain engaged. Prince Charming and Cinderella’s story ends on wedding bells. A leap of logic assumes that Snow White and her Prince end their film by marrying or becoming engaged as the ending shows Snow being lead to the Prince’s castle.

This is the final image in Snow White

Still, even if Snow’s ending is not counted as a symbol of her future as a member of the Prince’s family, a majority of these First Generation Princesses still end up married or engaged.

Also, the importance of Love’s True Kiss becomes established as being the most important act of love in the First Generation. The only two Princesses who have genuine screen time with their Princes have the Kiss save their lives. Cinderella does not actually even have real screen time with Prince Charming outside their first dance and their wedding. Again, we can see that a majority of these Princesses are saved by the Kiss of Love and all of them are rescued from home life scenarios that are not natural for the Princess or healthy. Cinderella lives with her abusive family and is saved by Charming. Snow was dead in the woods when her Prince comes by. Aurora was, like Snow, technically-dead-as-a-doornail when Phillip saved her, although at least they had gotten to have a dance together first? A majority of the Princesses are saved from their own villainous female family members (The Queen, Lady Tremaine) and all three were saved from other women (Maleficent, while not ‘human,’ certainly was as feminine as she was evil). All three Princes also defeat the ‘evils’ of the films — Phillip slays Maleficent, Snow’s Charming defeats the curse of the Wicked Witch (after the Dwarves and gravity defeated her physically), and the edicts of Cinderella’s Prince provides her the means of escaping Tremaine. No female Princess confronts their oppressors, imprisoners, or poisoners in any way. In fact, with the exception of Cinderella, Aurora and Snow do not even know the person trying to kill/torment them when they see them.

Finally it should be pointed out that a majority of the First Generation Princesses have no direct parents, only step-mothers. Cinderella’s ‘loving’ family was taken from her before the film starts and Snow’s family is similar. Both are raised by the wicked step-mother and they are inflicted with shame and (in Snow’s case) attempted murder through a hired agent. Aurora fares better as we know both her parents love her dearly, however this still leaves a majority of the Princesses as having no family that are not also the films villains.

In the end, all First Generation Princesses relocate to their new happily-ever-afters.


The Great Princess Dry Spell —- 1960 to 1989

During this period we have absolutely no important Princess Characters come into existence over the span of 29 years! It should be noted that, yes, Princess Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron comes into film history here, however she is so marginally remembered (and is so hard to fit in with her older Princesses) that I am purposefully omitting her. If you decide to include her than the Great Princess Dry Spell lasts 25 years and not 29.

In this period we have the fact that across five decades there are only three important Disney Princess characters. Total!


The Second Generation Princesses —- 1989 to 1992

Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992)

The ‘Second Generation’ of Princess characters would be among the most important in all of Disney animation history (at the time, anyway). The fact that three impossibly iconic Princesses appear in a span of time less than four years is staggering when you set that amount of time against how long it had previously taken Disney to make three Princesses previously. Fifty years as opposed to less than four years and the number of Princesses doubles? These steps were impossibly positive.

It is here I will address that Pocahontas came out in 1995 and Mulan came out in 1998. You can still account this period them from ’89 to ’98 as being an important period since less than ten years passed and five Princess characters came to be.

Unlike the First Generation of Princesses, the Second Generation had far, far more personality. When you take any one Princess (Ariel, Jasmine, or Belle) and set them against any First Generation Princess (Snow, Cinderella, Aurora) you can tell the writers found personality extremely important. Also, Jasmine was the first non-Caucasian Princess in Disney’s history. Further, the new Princesses spend a greater amount of time getting to know their ‘Princes.’ Still, some lingering remnants of the fact that these Princesses (like their First Generation predecessors) came from books and thus certain story elements are retained.

Jasmine and Ariel are all born into nobility while Belle earns hers through marriage. Again, a majority of the important 90s Princess characters are royals by hereditary status. This is also true if you count Pocahontas who was born to a Chief and you still discount Mulan who was and is not royalty of any sort when the film ends. Also, no Princess becomes Queen during the movie or when the movie ends. A case can be made for the technicality that Belle should be a Queen as Beast (surprisingly?) has no family, however given the people totally march and destroy Beast’s castle we might infer that the Monarchy of the country went away when the Curse hit?

All three Second Generation Princesses directly confront their capturers/abusers, however none of them defeat them. Jasmine shows immense cunning when she tricks Jaffar with her sexuality, Belle shoves off Gaston and ignores his advances, and Ariel goes through great pains to save Eric (literally). Still — Jasmine is trapped in an Hour Glass, Ariel becomes target practice, and Belle chills out on a balcony while Beast fights off Gaston. One positive comes from this Second Generation of Princesses — women are not wholly fighting women in these films. Ursula is the only female Disney villain in this Generation, with or without Mulan and Pochohontas. Also, interestingly, fathers become the biggest obstacle/plot driver to the Princess characters. Jasmine and Belle have … interesting … fathers. Belle and Jasmine are obviously far smarter than they are, however the complex relations between the two women and their fathers drives their plots in the film. Ariel and Triton engage in something I hesitate to call parental abuse (Seriously: if a father came into a daughters room and did what Triton did to all her things, would that be considered healthy or insane?), but the movie’s ending restores their relationship. Mulan and Pochohontas also have complex relationships with their fathers.

All the plots with women and fathers in this generation start with a negative moment or issue — Ariel gets into trouble with Triton by abandoning her recital, Jasmine rebuffs a suitor (again) her father arranged, Belle’s father’s reputation has cast her as a social pariah (sort’a), etc…

None of these women have mothers with the exception of Mulan.

Also, the films end of notes that imply weddings. Belle and her new husband are shown in a stained glass window with her having been crowned.

Jasmine and Aladdin end having changed into suspiciously wedding-esque attire set to fireworks …

and we do see Eric and Ariel’s wedding at the end of Little Mermaid.

Belle + Beast = married

Jasmine + Aladdin = married

Ariel + Eric = married

Mulan + Shang = not married

Pochohontas + Smith = not married

If you view all three movies with Princess characters in them than all three have married endings. If you view all five a majority still have them still have weddings. Also, amusingly, Belle and Ariel relocate to their husbands homes, but Aladdin is the reverse. And, if you include Mulan and Pocahontas, no weddings occur and both women remain in their family homes. The trend to end Princess films on weddings has started to shift at this point, but the ratio of WEDDINGS to NON-WEDDINGS still weights in the favor of Wedding Endings. While some of this is undeniably because that is how the book ends, Little Mermaid should not have had a happy ending but marriage was put in anyway. You might say revising the ending to that story is a time honored tradition. In the story of Beauty and the Beast Belle and Beast marry and this is the same in Disney. Aladdin and Jasmine’s whole relationship differs from the original story, however while it is in some ways better (in the story Aladdin totally marries Princess Badroulbadour half-way through), a wedding is still the ending Disney ends on*

*I know, in the Aladdin sequels and the TV series he and Jasmine are not married, but I am only examining the major films, not post-film content.

Finally, Love’s True Kiss here comes into play again … but it has some differences. The Kiss is an important plot point in Little Mermaid, however it is subverted as a trope (yet one that can still totally work!). The Kiss is used also in Beauty and the Beast, again, in a unique way. While it is Belle’s love for Beast that saves him, Belle’s kiss with him is what restores the whole Kingdom (literally!) and saves the servants. If we only examine the three Princess films as laid out by my requirements, a majority still have the True Kiss as a viable, magically potent device. This is shifted to be a minority if you include Five Films and not Three.

Lastly, something is at least started here that is unique: Aladdin moves in with Jasmine. What, was he going to ask the King’s daughter to live with him in the gutter? Still, again, a majority of the films end with women re-locating to the men’s castles.

This period is important as changes to plot and story-telling begin to shift the Princess genre away from some of the older story telling tropes. While many still remain, changes are made. Unfortunately this period is when the work of Andy Moony come into play. The ‘Disney Princess’ officially becomes a merchandising vehicle that was primarily aimed at reaching the young. This effort began the massively successful/controversial attachment of Disney to their Princess characters, however it should be noted that the machinations of Moony came into existence after the foundation of the Second Generation Princess characters. Unfortunately Disney’s practices would go on to impact the Princess genre in various, negative ways.

With so many diverse changes to the ‘Princess’ type of character, many more traditional aspects remained. Oddly, 1992 (or, 1998) would be the final year with an iconic Princess character until 2009. Among this rather long break, only one exception emerges.


‘The Princess Break’ and Princess Kida —- 1993 to 2001

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Between 1993 and 2009 there would be no new iconic human Disney Princess characters, barring one important exception — Kida from Atlantis the Lost Empire. Some very important plot elements exist in Atlantis the Lost Empire for Kida and they are as follows:

1. Kida and Milo do not marry nor is marriage even hinted.

2. Kida has scenes with her mother and father and it is her mother who serves as an important focal point for Kida’s journey. Her father dies but he is an important character to the film.

3. Kida is the first martial Princess (excluding Mulan) in the Disney Princess line-up, joining her people on the raid of Milo’s crew and being very agile/powerful.

4. She is the most physically revealing of the Princess characters (to date, actually) and she is also the most active. She drives the plot of the Atlantis film despite her not being in the title (unlike Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Mulan and Pocahontas)

5. Kida is an original character with no roots in characters that exist in any text. Atlantis is mentioned as a hypothetical island by Plato but the story of the island does not include any characters.

6. Milo stays in Atlantis to remain with Kida. Kida does not leave with Milo.

7. Kida and her power saves the day. The down-side is that she does this after she became a McGuffin object at the film’s final act.

8. Kida is the second non-Caucasian Princess at this time in Disney history (there are four at this time if you count Pocahontas and Mulan)

Atlantis the Lost Empire can be seen as, in a sense, a type of prototype for the ‘Third Generation’ of Disney Princess characters and represents an important step in the development of the Princess genre. For whatever reason, Kida remains nowhere near as iconic as other Princesses and that is a shame.


The Third Generation Princesses —- 2009 to 2013

Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Wreck-It Ralph* (2012), Frozen (2013)

*I know, I know. I can see some questioning my including Wreck-It Ralph on this list but technically Venellope is a Queen with a kingdom.

Starting with Princess and the Frog we now see the Princess genre under the direction of Bob Iger. Even if we do not include the film Brave we can see drastic changes to the Princess model that has been in use for the past 72 years. Emerging from a long Princess dry spell (a minor one, however. Nothing compared to The Great Princess Dry Spell) of over a decade, Iger’s direction of Disney resulted in at least four Princess characters (five including Brave) in less than 4 years total time. This is a veritable explosion of Princess characters, each possessing dynamic changes to the standard mold. While on their own each Princess character does not break every troupe, they do strive to invert or disregard the tropes of the past.

Unlike previous Princess Generations, titles and birth and far, far more changeable and in-flux than before. Where previous Princesses mainly married into their titles or stayed Princesses at the end of their films, the Third Generation is wholly different. Tiana works her way to become a Princess after having saved Naveen (and the city of New Orleans). She is also the first Princess character to have genuinely worked hard in life since Cinderella in 1950. Rapunzel directly confronts Mother Gothel and while she does not defeat her directly, she saves Flynn’s life. Venellope learns she was a Queen the whole time and then rejects the title to be President! Elsa starts as a Princess but quickly becomes a Queen within the first 20 minutes of Frozen.

Also, funny enough? A majority of these Princess characters defeat their enemies or at least face them in a meaningful way. Tiana defeats Dr. Facilier and rejects his lies. Rapunzel confronts and directly challenges Gothel, even dictating terms to save Flynn’s life. Venellope bests King Candy in the race for the throne* (technicalities, again). Anna punches out Hans and is then saved by Elsa. These Princess characters are remarkably more prone to saving the men than being saved by them.

Another inversion/trope mix-up is True Love’s Kiss. The only film where it actually works is in The Princess and the Frog. While the Second Generation had Belle’s totally-magical-building-restoring kiss scene and the plot logic that Ariel and Eric’s kiss will break Ursula’s spell, this Generation of Princess characters only has Tiana and Naveen’s kiss. A kiss which they made having totally acepted the idea that nothing would change when they kissed. We now have the smallest minority of films in a Generation yet with a True Kiss not saving the day or being done to only to save the day/the Princess. This generation of Disney Princesses also has the least amount of heroic Princes with Naveen being the only one as Haans is an antagonist and Flynn is a criminal. I even hesitate to count Naveen as his a philandering bum. Previously Aladdin was the odd man out but now the notion of ‘Heroic’ Princes is going right out the window.

Being a Prince is starting to become a matter of personality, not birth.

These Third Generation Princess characters also have different families than either Second or Third Generation Princesses. Tiana (and Naveen) have both their parents, and at least Tiana’s father is removed from the picture through genuine heroism and service. Tiana’s mother, while not the most important character, has screen time. She is important however as showing Tiana came from a family where her mother owned her own (successful!) business and it inspired Tiana to do the same. In Tangled the notion of what is/isn’t a good mother is contrasted by the grieving true mother of Rapunzel (who along with her husband) release lanterns to find their child vs. Gothel who is literally draining the ‘Light of Life’ out of her. In Frozen the parents of Elsa and Anna are on screen at least for enough time to show they want their children protected, but they are removed from the film on screen. Anna and Elsa then become important as family members and as dominant characters. Venellope does not have parents so her film exists in an odd state here, parents-wise.

[also, I love the character of ‘Princess’ Charlotte but as she is only a Princess by technicality and not by noble blood. Alas, she is not counted here but deserves a mention]

Also, not since The Little Mermaid has physical change and body image issues been more prevalent in Disney films. Tiana changes shape and learns to accept what has happened so long as she and Naveen are happy. Tangled has a young woman dealing with some extraordinary psychological abuse issues, perhaps the most extreme since those faced by Cindrella and her family (‘the dress scene’ comes to mind). Venellope suffers some rather terrible abuses at the hands of her own ‘friends’ who were literally brainwashed into hating her. Like Cinderella, Venellope suffers physical and public abuse at the hands of her brainwashed friends. Why? Because she is physically different thanks to a physical glitch. Unlike with Cinderella which had an evil step-mother, Venellope’s friends/agency destroyers are brainwashed girls serving an egotistical King who, with all the control of the game, deigns to let them race as his whims dictate (biting criticism of Patriarchy? Perhaps!). Still, Tiana, Venellope, and Elsa from Frozen all learn to be accepted for their physical differences.

Marriages are also subverted as endings more clearly than in previous Generations. Tiana and Naveen’s marriage exists as a plot point to validate their loving acceptance of the other and of their condition. It has a plot purpose. Tangled mentioned a wedding in the future but does not show it. Wreck-It Ralph has a wedding but it is not of the main characters and it might also be the first time a widow re-marries in Disney animation history?

As can be observed through direct evidence of the films themselves, the shift in the Princess genre has advances more and more rapidly over less than five years. Between the lull in Princess creation between ’59 and ’89 and then the lull between 2001 and 2009, the past five years have resulted in more changes than the past seven decades of Disney Animated Features. While the present incarnations of Disney Princesses have made enormous strides, they each have elements that could be improved upon, however such is the nature of story-telling. No story will ever be perfect but at least evidence points to the dynamic evolution of the Princess character. Between the creation of original characters, the use of the Queen title vs the Princess title, the act of females saving males, and the inversion/change of the Love’s True Kiss use — all these add up to the Third Generation of Disney Princess being the most modern to date, as well as the best indicator of how further the genre/troupe will evolve in the future.