WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Moana. It may also cause you to start singing Disney songs for the rest of the day. Proceed at your own risk.
In 1937, Disney made history when they released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first-ever feature-length animated film. This film also started Disney toward its nearly 80-year legacy of what are commonly referred to as Disney Princess films. Over the intervening decades, Disney has made huge spectacle of these Princess films. But while many may dismiss them as simple children’s stories — or, worse, as frivolous flights of fancy only suitable for young girls — the evolution of these films has charted the evolution not only of animation itself but of society's idea of a female hero and how she stands apart from her male counterparts.
There are 11 official Disney Princess films, with recent additions Frozen and Moana expected to eventually join the canon. For the purposes of this piece, we're going to operate on a wider view of "princess," because this debate is largely arbitrary and a wider sample size gives us a more detailed look at the evolution of these characters.
As Maui said, "You wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess."
One day my prince will come
We begin, of course, at the beginning with Disney's earliest princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. These three women set the tone for the genre and have come under intense scrutiny from feminist critics. These early films suffered largely from the time in which they were created and their strict adherence to their source material, among other concerns.
Snow White, in particular, has become known as the Disney film with the most anti-feminist perspective. Snow White herself spends most of the film pining after a Prince yet to come and serving as housekeeper for seven grown men while they're off at work. This is not surprising, as the film predates the period in America culture that saw women joining the workforce during World War II. As it was also the first feature-length film from the company, Disney has maintained that the focus of the filmmakers was in conquering that feat, not making sure the main character had a fleshed-out and progressive story.
That reasoning doesn't really excuse the next two princesses though, as both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty depicted women who were victims of circumstance and ultimately saved by dashing princes. Aurora is probably the worst offender, as she has very little to do with any part of her story. In fact, she spends a large portion of the film asleep and the rest as an object fought over by the warring worlds of men and fairies. It would be interesting if it weren't so insulting.
None of these three women have a hand in their own rescue; rather, as I've already pointed out, allowing men to do the necessary savior-ing. That rescue is nearly always violent, too, with the exception of Cinderella's stepmother who, instead of being crushed by a boulder or stabbed by a sword while in the form of a mother#$%&ing dragon, is merely humiliated and shunned by the ruling class -- a fate she likely regards as worse than death.
In fact, in all of these films the villain is a far more interesting character. While we don't get much information or backstory surrounding them (not until later re-imaginings of these stories) Snow White's evil Queen, Cinderella's stepmother and Maleficient all represent women hungry for power and willing to go to any lengths to attain or retain it. If they weren't absolutely vile and hell-bent on the destruction of other women for that power they might be feminist heroes.
Things started to change with the advent of the Disney renaissance that began in the late 1980s. After more than 20 years without a princess film in sight, the company returned to its roots with some major upgrades. In 1989, The Little Mermaid swam into theaters, bringing with it a new kind of heroine.
Ariel was the first of the Disney Princesses to focus on her own personal independence. She wanted a life on land and took matters into her own hands to achieve that goal. Unfortunately for Ariel, that initial defiance is largely where her progressivism ends. She spends the rest of the movie unable to speak, having to rely on her appearance and quirky adorableness to get her through. At the end of the film, it is Prince Eric who finally defeats the villain, stabbing Ursula with a boat — as you do.
Ariel was only the first in the new line of Disney Princesses. The ones that followed would make huge strides both in the independence of their heroine and the way they dealt with and defeated their villains.
Belle (of 1991's Beauty and the Beast) and Pocahontas (the title heroine of the 1995 film), for example, were both independent thinkers within their communities, a far cry from the victims of circumstance of the '50s. Both women fought against traditional expectations of their cultures and befriended men whom their people saw as a threat. Belle railed against social and gender norms, reading books and dreaming about adventure where other girls in her village only sought marriage and family. Pocahontas -- for all her historical inaccuracies -- represented a mind and spirit open to new people, experiences and schools of thought.
But while both Belle and Pocahontas were open and ambitious and kind, they also adhered to a strict morality, one that ultimately put them at odds with the majority and led to the main confrontation. In both films, while there is a singular villain in Gaston and Governor Ratcliffe, the actual villain is the conflict between the status quo and the other. By defying that status quo, Belle and Pocahontas both stand with their own moral code over the things they were ostensibly raised to believe. Here, of course, is also where they differ. Belle's defiance of her community's beliefs causes the final -- and violent -- confrontation. Pocahontas', meanwhile, causes both the confrontation between her people and the English settlers and ends it.
Modern princesses for a modern age
Pocahontas' peaceful resolution to her film's conflict was the first of its kind, but certainly not the last. In fact, with the notable exception of Mulan (1998), the trend toward Disney Princesses seeking to rescue or redeem their villain -- or otherwise peacefully rescue another important character -- has become a common theme among this particular brand of film. It’s a theme that stands in stark contrast to the violent means of the earlier films and their princess-saving heroes.
The modern age of Disney films began in 2009 with the release of The Princess and the Frog. While, again, there is a technically singular villain, the real conflict and goal of the story has more to do with Tiana rescuing Naveen from his amphibious fate.
Tangled (2010), too, featured a traditional villain in Mother Gothel, but a non-traditional resolution. At the climax of the film Rapunzel chooses to sacrifice her freedom to save the life of Flynn Rider after he is mortally wounded. Flynn, in turn, chooses to cut Rapunzel's hair, sacrificing his own life in exchange for her freedom. But the moment that sets the film apart from its predecessors is just after this, when Flynn trips Mother Gothel, sending her flying out the window. Rather than sitting idly by while her abusive adopted parent falls to her death, Rapunzel moves to save Gothel, marking the first time a Disney Princess has actually tried to rescue her villain.
The real push forward, though, began in 2013 with the release of Frozen (I know, this film has been talked about endlessly, but bear with me here, because this is important). Frozen has been lauded, and rightly so, for its focus on the bond between two sisters. While there is a romantic subplot, it is not the axis on which the plot turns.
In the same way the film subverts the usual Disney romance, it also manages to subvert the traditional Disney villain. Hans is the personification of the threat to Anna and Elsa, but his villainy is ultimately not much of an issue. He serves more as the instigator of various conflicts and as the tangible threat to the kingdom and our heroines. Much like Gaston or Ratcliffe or the Huns, he's the tangible threat, the thing our heroes can actually hit when in reality they’re fighting bigotry or colonialism or the patriarchy.
In reality, Anna and Elsa aren't really fighting Hans. They're fighting personal fears and the secrets that have damaged their relationship. They're also fighting a society that sees Elsa's powers as a threat, with Anna standing in defiance of those beliefs. These abstract ideas, as I've previously discussed, are not at all new to Disney Princess films, but the way they handle them are.
In the climax of the film, there is no massive battle, no fisticuffs or battle or wits. There is a race against the clock to save Anna's life, not from Hans, but from what Elsa accidentally did to her sister. And how is the conflict resolved? Through love. It's cheesy as hell, but it is also a massive step away from traditional Disney storytelling. So what's missing from this story? The 'villain' is never actually defeated because ultimately Hans was inconsequential. Once Elsa learns to control her power, Hans no longer has his. The heroines win because they refuse to stoop to his level.
Moana and the future
Which brings us to Moana, the latest Disney Princess (dress, animal sidekick) and the culmination of nearly 80 years of Disney evolution. Moana tells the story of a young girl who defies her father and the greatest rule of her village in an effort to save everyone. She ventures out beyond the reef to seek out the demigod Maui and return the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of creation. Moana builds upon the example set by her predecessors in interesting ways. First, she has no Prince. Maui certainly plays the male side of the dichotomy, but his role is more one of reluctant guide and personality foil than anything. He is not a love interest.
Much like some of her more recent predecessors, Moana also sets out with a mission to rescue. She is there to save her people and her island, not to fight, though she is willing to face down the terrifying volcano god Te Ka to reach her goal. Maui, meanwhile, is entirely about confrontation. He’s a demigod. Like the Disney Princes who came before him, battle and conquest are how he made his name. This dichotomy is what makes the third act “twist” of the film so interesting.
In the climax of the film, Moana, with Maui’s help, manages to make it past Te Ka to Te Fiti’s island, but when she gets there she discovers that Te Fiti is not there. Instead, she looks more closely at Te Ka and discovers that the destructive force they are fighting is what has become of the creation goddess when her heart is ripped from her. In what is likely the bravest move any Disney Princess has made up to this point, Moana reaches out to the terrifying lava god, expressing love and understanding, returning the heart and Te Fiti's true self.
We have been led to believe, through the traditions of Disney storytelling, that there is always an obvious villain, a bad guy who will be defeated in the end. Moana, however, challenges its hero and its audience to look beyond the obvious, to look critically at 'the bad guy' and understand them, rather than participate in blind confrontation. This story could only really be told now, when we as a society are looking critically at the stories we tell our children — specifically at the ones we tell young girls — and trying to understand not only what resonates with them but the lessons we want to teach them about handling conflict.
When these stories began they taught us to wait for our princes to slay the dragons at our doors. Now they're teaching our children to open the door, face the dragon and kill them with kindness.