Lessons Of Feminism From Disney Princesses

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


Today, I suddenly heard a Brandy's song named Starting Now. It was the theme song of Disney Ultimate Princess Celebration, which was one of the 4 Disney Princess Anthem songs. I was immediately attracted by the pure lyrics of this song. "Starting now" is Disney's fourth song about its princesses.

The beauty of Starting now is that a lot of the song's lyrics are remixed from familiar lyrics of movies such as "How Far I'll Go," "A Whole New World," "Reflections," and "I See the Lights”. I felt like I'm recalling my childhood through slow-motion movies. I grew up with Disney movies, inspired by kindness and bravery. Then the chorus of the song “Starting-now!” like a strong motivation, and the song itself urged me to rewrite the things I learned from the Disney princesses.

1.The maturity of a Disney princess image

The change of the Disney princess image is associated with the development of the feminist movement (Feminism). The wave of feminism can be summarized with 4 main stages:

  • First wave: Beginning in the 1850s, women fought for social rights such as the right to vote, to participate and politically, to own property.
  • The second wave: Starting from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, in the context of World War II, women fought for comprehensive gender equality, women should receive social, political and legal rights. and economically as men.
  • The 3rd wave started in the 1990s, in the context of globalization, freedom of information and global politics, focusing on individual, more broadly gender issues.
  • The 4th wave from 2010s up to now goes deeply into the viewpoint and thinking of equality.

Following the wave of the feminist movement and social progress, the Disney princess image also gradually changed, matured and became more and more individual and strong. Initially, Disney only remade fairy tales such as "Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty" with a "classic" plot that has been ingrained in every girl's subconscious that "the beautiful princess was always waiting for the appearance of a prince riding a white horse. After that, Disney gradually developed its own storylines and scripts, bringing the princess out of the old silhouette, so that the girls were independent and powerful in line with the modern thought of the times. At the same time, Disney also continued to remake Live Action versions (live-action movies) of old animated sessions and partially edited the content to include ideas that keep up with the times but the movies still remain the original plot.

The maturity and change of the Disney princess image are divided into 3 stages.

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


Stage 1: The princess in a fairy tale (1937-1967)

The typical representative character of this period is Snow White in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) - the first animated movie of Disney Kingdom with a magnificent castle in the night sky and twinkling stars. “As white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame” has become an iconic symbol. And the princess waiting for a prince to put a passionate kiss on her lips. Another princess with a similar motif was “Sleeping Princess” (1959). In addition, "Cinderella" (1950) was also released during this period.

The content of the film in this period was based entirely on ancient stories written in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the concept of women was still quite "traditional". Characteristic of the concept was that women would stay at home, obey and follow the rules and respect the paramount principles of chastity and purity. The princesses were satisfied and happy with simple things in daily life and they also did not have big dreams. Like Snow White, she stayed in the castle. But she could still happily sing while cleaning the house while the seven dwarves were  away. Cinderella sang while cleaning the house. Besides, one thing that was ingrained in the ideology of the whole era was that a woman's happiness would depend on the protection of a man (father and then husband). The story only ended when the princess married a prince even though she didn't even know his face before.

When considering these princesses strictly, they were quite "useless". Snow White did not even know how to protect herself when strangers entered the house, Cinderella lived in her father's house but submitted to 3 "strangers" for years without a single resistance. And Aurora - the sleeping princess in the forest, slept from beginning to end. In the end, their lives were freed by a prince who was a symbol of romance. And of course they live happily ever after. It could be seen that the movies emphasized men and specifically princes rather than princesses.

The highlight of these Princesses was that they were beautiful, pure, and holy, depicted through the ingenious drawings of talented artists. Reasonably considered, if she wasn't "extremely beautiful", the prince wouldn't have loved them and could not have "put a kiss on her lips" so that she would wake up and have a happy ending.

Many social researchers commented quite harshly on the princesses of this period and said that Disney movies would affect the thoughts of girls. Authors Sam Higgs in Screen Education and Stephanie X. Hu in Inquiries Journal wrote that beautiful, flower-red lips were their only strength to marry before those are gone. The beautiful but passive beauty in every episode sent a message that the most important thing for women was to be beautiful, and the absence of beauty reduced the value of princesses, leading to stifle success of getting marry a prince. Therefore, the beautiful appearance has destroyed all inner motives and ambitions to leave only the shell of a character. These influences made girls care only about appearance, dream about the white horse prince coming to rescue them and live in a lavish palace for the rest of their lives.

However, I still see a good message of honesty and optimism through these films. It must also be said that the Disney's filmmaking attitude at that time was to simply make the fairy tales told by mother every night become more vivid when the audience was children,. But of course, times change, society develops, the princess must also grow up and not be as passive as in fairy tales anymore. Disney has to change its movies.

Stage 2: The modern princess (1989-1999)

Researchers say that the period 1989-1999 was the Disney Renaissance period, but I don't know how to properly translate it, so I use modern words. Princesses of this period include Mermaid Arieal (1989), Bella in "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), Arab Princess Jasmine in "Aladin and the Magic Lamp" (1992), Princess Pocahontas Indians (1995), representative from China Mulan - Mulan (1998).

The characters of this period began to get rid of the passive beauty of the previous period and were enhanced with intellectual beauty, will and unyielding strength.


Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


Also based on fairy tales like the 3 works of the previous period, but in "The Little Mermaid", not only inspiring the appearance of funny supporting characters, Disney let the little princess "drive their story" to create a more personal, stronger, more determined Ariel and change her destiny. Of course, Disney brought a lot more humanity than the original story. I watched "The Little Mermaid". And I didn't even know the original until I was in high school during literature class, the teacher said. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, Ariel was beautiful, but she had a dream to explore the world beyond her kingdom and she dared to trade what she had for what she wanted. Moreover, she had maturity in her mind.

We can also see that desire in Adriel's poignant lyrics

When's it my turn?

Wouldn't I love, love to explore that shore up above?

Out of the sea

Wish I could be

Part of that world

Part of the world_ Adriel

If in the story, the mermaid painfully melted into sea foam when she saw the prince marry someone else. Then here, instead of waiting, she knew how to use strength with her friends to go forward to save her life. By the way, it must be said here that the prince of The Little Mermaid was also the prince that I found the most "impressive appearance" when fighting with Ariel to protect their love. However, my favorite male protagonist was the cat in the lower part, not this guy. The love in "The Little Mermaid" also developed more slowly and logically than the previous 3 works, and Ariel took the initiative to take the love, instead of sitting and waiting for the prince to save her.

Similar to "The Little Mermaid", the content of Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "Aladin and the Magic Lamp" (1992) was also rewritten, which was based on the original plot so that the main character had worthy personalities.

In addition, Disney also diversified the caste and ethnic backgrounds of the characters. Although still standing in the ranks of "Disney Princesses", Belle and Mulan were commoners. Along with that, the images of Pocahontas, Jasmin, and Mulan and the colored princess Tiana, showed ethnic diversity. This showed a humane message to every girl that "No matter what family you are born in, where you are, what color of your skin, what hair you have, you can still become a princess".

The princesses of this period also had the beauty of wisdom, perseverance, courage, overcoming all difficulties and strongly following what they believed in. The intellectual beauty here was not only Belle when she was reading books, but also thinking for the family, for the community and demonstrating the ability and strength to shoulder great things like Mulan and Jasmine.

Along with the princess, their spouse also had a change that was no longer a white horse prince, but even a thief like Aladdin. Aladdin was my favorite Disney male leads character. Just like Ariel, Princess Jasmine who lived to the fullest had always dreamed of exploring the world beyond the palace. And in contrast to her, Aladdin had the freedom and he could satisfy her thirst for discovery.

A whole new world

A new fantastic point of view

No one to tell us, “No”

Or where to go

Or say we're only dreaming

A whole new world

A dazzling place I never knew

But when I'm way up here

It's crystal clear

That now I'm in a whole new world with you

A whole new world – Aladdin

The male character here was no longer portrayed with a glossy, rich and powerful appearance, but also he was developed to have spiritual and intellectual beauty. This showed that the princesses who chose husbands were also "thoughtful". Moreover, for the first time, stepping out of the "submitted and obeyed" mentality of the last century, the princesses knew what they wanted by bluntly rejecting the marriage she did not want like Pocahontas who rejected  Kocoum , Belle who refused Gaston, Jasmine who rejected Jafar.

However, the happy ending still could not get out of the old thought "The story only has a happy ending when the princess marries a boy". People are still crucified with the idea that women just need to have a good marriage. I remember the lines in Little Women (2019).

If the main character is female then make sure she gets married by the end of the story. Or die.

Little Women – 2019

And Jo expressed her frustration that

I just thought, women, they have brains, they have souls instead of hearts. They have ambition and they have a whole soul instead of a beauty. I hate people who think love is all a woman wants. I loathe that. But I still feel so lonely.

Little Women – 2019

But anyway, at Disney of 2008 and earlier, there were also strong strides in favor of feminism, and made princesses with noble qualities an encouragement and inspiration for many girls. Since 2009, Disney has continued to take the princess to another level

Disney Princesses.Credit : Disney


Stage 3: The modern princess (2009 to present)

This is called the Revival Era. In addition to adapting some ancient series, making Live action versions of old cartoons such as Cinderella (2015), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Mulan (2020), Disney has built the plots themselves. New story with full of surprises was introduced. Characters from this period include Tiana in "The Princess and the Frog Prince" (2009), Rapunzel in "Cloud-Haired Beauty" (2010), Merida in "Brave" (2012), Anna and Elsa in Frozen (2015), Moana (2016), most recently Raya in "Raya and the Last Dragon" (2021). This is the period when "cool" princesses appear with full of power. Not only they have dreams, courage, they also have power, mastery and even dominion.

The princesses still have dreams of being freed from their restraints. If in Rapunzel, Rapunzel was still a little princess locked in a high tower, dreaming of a free life, then Merida picked up her bow and boldly declared "I decide my own destiny". In Elsa's time, no one could hold back, because she was the queen at the top of the kingdom and had the power to kill people.

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


Perhaps because it was the newest character, I think Raya was also a new and "representative" character for feminist power (Girls Power). Not only was she a princess, she was also a true warrior. A representative from Southeast Asia - a region with a strong tradition but rarely mentioned in the Hollywood, Raya and Namaaria were inspired by the image of Hai Ba Trung of Vietnam. The images of a beautiful princess with gorgeous clothes, golden hair, and big sparkling eyes were replaced by healthy and beautiful dark-skinned girls. Raya and Namaaria also carried a great responsibility to protect the kingdom.

However, princesses were not perfect, they also had flaws. For example, Anna also naively believed in Hans, Elsa was also scared to run away from her responsibility to rule her kingdom, Tiana also lacked compassion at the beginning of the film, or Repunzel also started as an innocent princess who was also being bullied, and locked in the castle. From the beginning to the end of the film, it was a journey to find the ego, find the inner strength to be able to overcome fear, control their own strength.

In this period, the prince also gradually disappeared, since even though the girls were alone, they were still princesses. Instead, the film emphasized family affection, friendship and national love, or men with more roles and personalities. Frozen also brought social reality, removing the romantic image of the "white horse prince" when building the villainous prince Hans character. And although the film had a very traditional plot that was "love saved Ana's frozen heart", that love was not just the love between couples that had been emphasized in the movies in stage 1, as sibling love, family love.

In short, the image of Disney princesses was built and matured in accordance with the ideology of the times. Beyond the outer beauty, purity, innocence, purity, peace of mind, romance, the princesses also represented for intellectual beauty, resilience, self-control and take on great responsibilities.

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


The positive messages that Disney sent to girls

Disney always let music to bring the voice and dream of the characters to the hearts of the audience. With a methodical investment, Disney also popularizes musical art into the daily lives of audiences, especially girls. If you listen, you will see that each movie theme song or the official song of the character has a very personal mind in it. For examples, in the song of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, it shows Cinderella's belief that every pure dream will come true. Or in the song of “A part of the world”, it expresses Adriel's desire to have legs and blend into the human world. In addition, in the song of “A whole new world”, it is Jasmine's dream to explore the vast world beyond the palatial palace and then in the song of Speechless in the Live Action (2019), it is a powerful explosion, breaking the captivity placed on her for a long time; Reflection expresses Mulan's desire to be himself…

 Although each work has a different meaning and message over the years, Disney princesses have subtly "supported feminism" and imparted profound lessons to girls. And at the same time, it  brought Disney animation to the world. Fairytale movies are not only for children but for everyone.

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


2.1. Overcoming patriarchal expectations and societal prejudices

 A girl who is different and rebellious, dares to think things that society and her community do not think about, do things that people have never done and does not succumb to the prejudices that weigh on women all the time centuries. And then, with faith, perseverance, effort, holiness always towards the good of humanity, with the help of everyone, she finally finds what she wants.

In Moana's story, her Father, the owner of Tui island, insisted that the island still provided everything the villagers needed when fish became scarce, coconuts began being spoiled, and the flora on the island began dead, Moana offered to her father to go beyond the reef to find more fish.  Her father angrily denied her request, as sailing beyond the reef was forbidden. But in the end Moana still went to the ocean, looking for a new life for her islanders.

“I wish I can be the perfect daughter,

but I come back to the water no matter how hard I try .

 the voice inside sings a different song.”


In the Merida's story in Brave, even though her parents could not accept a girl who loved archery, and her mother forced her wear a fancy princess dress, and prevented her from arching when she stood up to control of her life.

Princess Jasmine also gradually affirmed to her father that she was worthy to become a Sultan although the position was never reserved for women.

In short, Disney has built princesses with aspirations, goals, high dreams for the community, will, perseverance, courage to achieve what they want. From there, it encourages young people, especially girls, to overcome patriarchal expectations and prejudices that "should be" to stand up for autonomy and achieve what they want.

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


 2.2. Break the boundaries, the inhibitions to explore the big world and be yourself

Disney depicts domestication, acceptance, limitation of any kind as well as imprisonment and lack of freedom. The desire to explore the vast world beyond where you live, to get out of the comfort zone to find yourself is seen in many princesses, including Moana, Relunzel, Adriel, Jasmine.

There is a scene in the movie where Repunzel has finished her daily routine and she said to herself “[I’ll] just wonder, when will my life begin? – I just wonder when my life will begin. Repunzel was locked in the tower, she thought that Gothel still loved her. But she did not know that she's been taken advantage of.  Repunzel had a dream to be called by name even though it was simply going out to watch the lantern drop, so she asked a thief for help. That was also the first step for her to continue her journey to free herself, to find where she wanted to belong.

Jasmine's strong affirmation in the movie version 2019

Written in stone

Every rule, every word

Centuries old and unbending

Stay in your place

Better seen and not heard

But now that story is ending

Speechless – Aladdin (2019)

Or to Mulan's sobbing and tearful songs, as she looked in the mirror at a different face, not herself.

“Who is that girl I see

Staring straight back at me?

When will my reflection show

Who I am inside?”



Those longing lyrics gradually entered the subconscious of girls, encouraging them to pursue experiences beyond boundaries and limits. Going further, outside of the big world, they not only found themselves, but the girls also became strong, knew how to fight, lived hard for what they believed in, and then became heroines.

2.3. Eliminate gender stereotypes and affirm your ability and strength

Mulan joined the army instead of his father, Raya went to find life for the whole nation, Merida was an excellent archer that made the neighboring princes fear. The ability and strength of these princesses here were not only shown through physical strength, martial arts but also Tiana's efforts to open a restaurant.

The stereotype of an arranged marriage and that a daughter only needed to be happy was imposed on Mulan and Merida. Family and Chinese society expected her to be "gentle, sweet, dignified, graceful, polite, delicate, poise", as the woman of the family. Mulan struggled with tension between her family's expectations and her own. While Mulan she did not dare to speak her mind and just sang to herself, and then waited for the whole family to go to bed and wear her father's armor to join the army, Merida showed her resistance from the beginning as a strong affirmation. The strength and talent that she had.

At first, the characters felt uncomfortable, overwhelmed with stereotypes and prejudices but they did not deny their femininity. During their adult journey through difficulties and challenges, they found their inner potential and their inner femininity was transformed into strength, eliminating gender stereotypes and social norms imposed on women. A girl with a strong will, and the girls who were not afraid of difficulties and dangers could do great things.

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


2.4. Redefining the power of love

When it comes to love, people often think of couple love. True lover who rescues Snow White and the sleeping princess is a prince. Thought that would happen to Anna in Frozen again, but in the end it was a sisterhood. Disney has extended the concept of "love" beyond romantic love, focusing on family affection, friendship, and, above all, patriotism.

However, it is not because of that the, role of couple's love is downgraded and obscured, but it is also raised more clearly and purely. While in stage 1, the new prince brings happiness to the princess, then later on, the male protagonist is more diverse, showing more personality, and affirms why he deserves her princess that God even though he was a commoner (Aladin). On the other hand, the prince in Snow White, Cinderella, and the sleeping princess in the forest is built with the only motif, Pocahontas, Merida, Jasmine, Bella had the right to choose, to refuse the arranged person, to ignore the glamor of class, status, power, property, they are willing to accept difficulties to be with the guy they really love. And in terms of romance, that's true love.

Disney Princesses

Credit : Disney


2.5. Dream Big, Princess!

Although the characters are not perfect, whoever they are, everywhere the girls have a dream direction and towards holy things. “Let’s Dream!” Perhaps the most transparent, clear, and powerful message that Disney sends in all the movies, through each song in the movie and Disney Princess Anthem songs like “Live your live”, “If you can Dream” , "Hall of Fame", and "Starting Now". That dream guides the princesses to find the true happiness of their lives, and gives us the premonition of a happy ending, as beautiful as a fairy tale.

“Have faith in your dreams and someday

Your rainbow will come smiling through

No matter how your heart is grieving

If you keep on believing

The dream that you wish will come true”

A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes _ Cinderella

And you, which princess do you like the most?


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