Yet it’s women who are the titular characters in these three films [Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty]. The leading ladies get the memorable songs, the iconic costumes, and the emotional journeys, while their male love interests are generic—often unnamed—supporting characters. The princes may do the physical rescuing, but they are very much presented as “prizes” for our heroines to win (albeit through conventional means of being beautiful and suffering silently). While contemporary blockbusters struggle to populate their worlds with more than one token woman, these early Disney films offer a wide range of female characters. Snow White’s Evil Queen, Cinderella’s Stepmother, andSleeping Beauty’s Maleficent remain three of Hollywood’s most memorable female villains. And long before Frozen celebrated female friendships, Cinderella and Aurora relied on female fairies for help, guidance, and encouragement. These films troublingly imply that only beautiful women can be heroes, but it’s still a fairly progressive step to depict women as romantic leads, villains, and supporting characters all in one film.
–Caroline Siede on Disney Princesses.
Interesting article looking at the idea of Disney Princesses as “feminist role models”, while still recognising the flaws of their medium.
The thing about the male heroic leads in particularly the old princess films is interesting, because it’s something I remember thinking myself when I re-watched Sleeping Beauty recently. Not only was Prince Guy (I legit don’t remember his name) basically a personality-free cut-out, but every single thing he accomplishes in the film he manages because of the help of the three faeries, i.e. the three older women, who are really the film’s protagonists in screen time and narrative presence.1
Nor is this “forgetting” of the Princes confined to Disney’s early days; human!Beast doesn’t even have a name. The production crew admitted later that they just flat-out forgot to give him one. (“Adam” was assigned when they realised this after the film’s release, for use in merchandising et al.)
So… yeah. We talk a lot about Bechdel and so forth but it seems a lot of people still discount test-shattering films like the old Disney princess classics, largely because they don’t conform to modern ideas about what a “strong female character” should be. Because, sure, Mulan is tough and a badass who saves China… but she also achieves all of that through a specific rejection of her identity as a woman. Ditto with Merida, in some respects, although Brave at least centralises the importance of female relationships: in Mulan, even the cricket is male.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Brave and Mulan and I like them more than, say, Sleeping Beauty, which I find kind of weird and tedious nowadays (it’s a really, really fucking old film… and it shows). But I also think that, if we’re going to criticise the gender roles in the older films (which we would), then it’s also worth examining them in the newer films, as well.
The point is that traditional femininity, romance, love-at-first-sight, and happily ever afters aren’t the problem. The problem is the assignment of restrictive gender roles, no matter if those roles are of the “Disney princess” or “strong female character” variety.
Aurora and Mulan aren’t in opposition, and both are problematic in their own ways. It’s time to stop lauding one at the expense of the other, and celebrate the strengths of both.2
- More recently, Maleficent did a bang-up job of replicating this; again, pretty much the only defining trait of Prince Guy there is that he’s really hesitant to kiss the sleeping Aurora because he thinks it seems a bit rapey. For all that he’s a total non-entity, I kinda like Prince Guy; he basically seems like an all-round nice bloke. ^
- Incidentally, I think Maleficent does a damn fine job of reclaiming Aurora in exactly this way. She’s presented as very traditionally “feminine”, and yet it’s her femininity–specifically her love, compassion, and forgiveness–which ultimately save the day when she finds and returns Maleficent’s wings. In other words, it’s the combination of Aurora’s “traditional femininity” and Maleficent’s more modern “strong female character” working together that triumph over the toxic masculinity of the film’s villain. ^