Saturday, January 11, 2014

Evolution of Disney Princesses Part 1

     I've been mulling over doing a post on the development of the Disney princess figures and how they've changed over the years ever since I saw Frozen a couple weeks ago. But in order to keep this from becoming a monster post, I'll be breaking it down into a series of three posts, each focusing on a different "era" of princesses (looking at the 11 canonical "Disney Princess" movies and not every Disney movie with a princess):

  • The pre-90's/classic era - Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) 
  • The 90's era - The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998). 
  • The 2000's era (The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012), and Frozen (2013)). 
   In each post, we'll look at the similarities and differences not only among the three eras, but also, among each individual princess/movie. Keep in mind, that most of these observations and statements are being drawn from memory. I didn't sit down and re-watch all of the movies as research for this series.

The Pre-90's Princesses

     In this first post, we'll be looking at the first era of Disney princesses, the pre-90's era. This includes the first three (and arguably most well-known) Disney princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora/Sleeping Beauty. Strictly speaking, The Little Mermaid, which came out in 1989 would fall into this era, but as I'll explain more thoroughly in the next post, Ariel shares more similarities with the 90's princesses than she does with these first three. So for now let's take a look at our first three princesses and how they measure up with each other and with later princesses.

     The pre-90's princesses are the quintessential fairytale damsels. In fact, I would wager that we owe much of our modern perceptions of fairytales and princesses to Disney's portrayal of these three young heroines. They are pretty, petite, polite, gentle, and oh so happy no matter how dire their situation. They are the very image of the domestic housekeeper, even if they occasionally get help from the local wildlife. To a certain degree, they are medievalized versions of the ideal women of the era in which they were animated. Add polka dots to their dresses, and they could easily be the young, medieval equivalents of June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson. And in their iconic attire, they have long, sweeping gowns which they flourish in a way that would make Loretta Young proud. If you have no idea who June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, and Loretta Young are, then you should go familiarize yourself with old black-and-white television programming.

     Pre-90's princesses were also musical ladies (a tradition passed on down the Disney Princess franchise to all but one). There was always just as much chance of their lines being sung as there was of them being spoken. They especially seemed to enjoy singing whilst doing housework. Yet their voices was a source of individualization, for while Snow White had a high, almost shrill singing voice, Cinderella and Aurora's singing voices were much more alto-y and sultry. But regardless of vocal range, our princesses almost always had friendly animals as an audience for their singing. In fact, they seemed to be accompanied by friendly, intelligent wildlife wherever they went. Most times these numerous companions did not speak - the mice in Cinderella being the exception - but they still demonstrated enough intelligence and personality to help with the chores, fetch help, and serve as make-shift dancing partners. This is one trait that later filmmakers have had particular fun parodizing (Shrek and Enchanted).

     Our heroines were also allotted the friendship or aid of mythical creatures. Snow White had the seven dwarfs. Cinderella's hopes of attending the ball were rescued by her fairy godmother. And Aurora was raised by three good fairy women (Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather). Admittedly, the dwarfs didn't play near as fantastic or magical a role as the fairy godmother and the three fairies, but they are mythical creatures nonetheless, and Snow White would've been in a bad spot without their taking her in.

     The pre-90's princesses were also hated and persecuted by a wicked witch, an evil step-mother, or in Snow White's case, both in one. And this was always at no fault of their own. After all, as I said earlier, these were the sweetest, most polite and thoughtful young ladies you could ever hope to meet. Even under cruel persecution, they themselves never exhibit hate or anger at their oppressors...although Cinderella does privately have an almost snarky moment or two.

     Their inherit loveliness, persistent through undeserved cruelty, must also be what somehow wins the hearts of their princes charming without ever uttering a word. I mean it, not a single syllable. I mean sure, Snow White and Aurora both have brief love-at-first-sight duets with their heroes, and Cinderella sings at the ball with her prince and has a brief exchange as she flees home, but other than that, the princes are practically mute throughout the rest of their respective movies. And since we're heckling the princes anyway, allow me to point out that two of the three make almost no real effort to rescue their princess outside of a kiss or pining away. True, there was the hunt for the glass slipper in Cinderella, but even then the king is the one who came up with the idea, and you didn't see the prince accompanying the Grand Duke on the hunt. Philip is the first prince to fight for his love, and also the first prince to have an actual name. Also, Sleeping Beauty is because of Philip, the first Disney princess movie where the villain is killed by a character. The queen/witch in Snow White falls off a cliff whilst trying to fight off either the animals or the dwarves (can't remember which), and Cinderella's stepmother doesn't die at all.

      And lastly, the pre-90's princess movies shared similar stylistic and thematic elements. Although, admittedly the animation did evolve over the years, all of the pre-90's movies had the same basic style, with Cinderella being the most unique of the three. Outlines were in, as were subdued color palettes. Bright colors served mainly as accents and even then brightness was achieved through using lighter shades rather than more vibrant colors. Again, Cinderella is a bit of the exception, as the colors in it were a good deal more saturated/vivid than the other two. Thematically, all three shared the same basic messages of wishes/dreams coming true and true love overcoming even the most ferocious of evils.

     And this concludes part 1. Now you see why I decided to split it into a series. The next part will look at the 90's princesses and how they changed things up while still holding some elements the same. Until then let me know what you think of my analysis of the first three Disney princess movies. Did I miss any similarities? Were there some major differences that I glossed over? Feel free to sound off in the comments.

In Christ,


  1. This is a insightful and engaging analysis--can't wait for part two!

  2. That was very interesting to read, Jordan. :)