When it comes to Hollywood, female role models are few and in between. You find the strong, sexy fighter from time to time, but even these characters often fail to embrace womanly qualities and rejects them for manly strength and skill.
However, there has always been a consistent effort put forth by the Disney studio to portray compassionate and loyal characters that young girls can look up to in the form of their Disney princesses. Although these role models regularly come under heavy criticism for craving romance and relying on a man to save them at times, I think what is overlooked is their overly positive impact on cinema. To illustrate my point, let’s examine some of my favorite Disney princesses.
Disney may be cash-hoarders, inconsiderate-racists, and the reason why hand animation fell out of fashion, but they are not out of all things sexist. I’ve already made my arguments for Snow White and Cinderella, princesses a byproduct of their time nonetheless, but I haven’t made one for Ariel. Here it is.
“Ariel trades a woman’s most historically-oppressed and personality-defining trait, her voice, to pursue the most insignificant and stereotypical dream of finding a rich, handsome husband to wed.”
This self-generated statement, often at the hands of feminists, is what I hope to rebuttal. I think this most concisely abbreviates most people’s complaints about Ariel in regards to feminism. I hope I did not at all misconstrue their arguments.
Before I start explicitly stating my rationales, let’s proceed with a thought experiment: what did you want Ariel to do? Did you want her to change her dreams of walking on land? Did you want her to accept that life was good enough as it was? Did you want her to be more obedient to her father? The only thing I wished for was that she didn’t fall in love at first sight, but all Disney princesses do that (okay, I generalize).
There should be a clarification before I continue: I am not saying Ariel is perfect. But why does every female character have to be portrayed as such? In my mind, having flaws makes a protagonist all the more relatable and real, for who has ever met a perfect human being?
Ariel has flaws, but these are not flaws that should offend feminists. Just because she is a girl does not mean she should be banned from committing certain wrong-doings. Yes, it was naïve to take the sea-witch’s offer, but some sixteen-year-old teenage girls are naïve. Some of them are self-centered. Some of them are willing to throw their life away for a cute guy. I’m sorry, it’s the truth.
What separates Ariel from these stereotypical sixteen-year-old teenage girls is that she has been given diamonds. She is a princess, with concerts dedicated in her honor, and blessed with a beautiful voice and gorgeous hair. What would a stereotypical sixteen-year-old teenage girl do? Sing in these concerts, flaunt her body, and get a merman who she finds physically attractive. But no, Ariel does none of these things. Although she is being told that life under the sea is better, Ariel finds this life unsatisfying—she stays true to herself, her wants, and her desires.
People have to realize something about animated films: it’s an art. The way a character looks and sounds actually contributes to the personality that the animators try to give their characters. That is why the villains are so easily distinguishable from the heroines or heroes just from appearance or voice acting. It’s no coincidence. So when analyzing animated characters, we must consider that often the physical encompasses the metaphysical. Why is the prince from Beauty and the Beast turned into a beast? Why is Pinocchio turned into a donkey? Why does Ariel only sing to herself in water?
Think about it. Disney gave Ariel every opportunity to sing to mer-people. She had a concert which she missed and everybody in the kingdom knows about Ariel’s beautiful voice. And yet, she never sings to anyone. Why is that? Why is it that Ariel is willing to give up her voice to the sea-witch? Why is it that Ariel physically loses her voice in this movie? It is because she has no voice in this underwater society.
Her father won’t listen to her, Sebastian won’t listen to her, and everybody in the palace follows Triton’s orders without the slightest hesitation—nobody understands Ariel. Ariel has been given diamonds by the society’s standards, but she isn’t looking for diamonds. For as much as little girls want to be a beautiful mermaid princess living in an underwater palace, that’s not what Ariel wants. She wants to be heard, and she is pushed to the point where maybe being heard means giving up her voice. Maybe someone up there is willing to accept Ariel for who she is.
Now, I think feminists are sometimes insensitive to a particular minority group when complaining about Ariel’s voice loss: the deaf. Oftentimes, the deaf do not speak. Instead, they learn to communicate in other ways. By saying you cannot express your personality without having a physical voice is rude to these people. I mean, look at what Ariel is able to communicate to us and Eric without speaking. When she is touring the town, she is super-excited, she is curious, and she is adventurous. Although Eric finds her weird, as she was in the under the sea society, he accepts her for who she is. This could not be made any more obviously when considering who Eric is looking for is a person with a beautiful voice. The fact he gives that girl up for one who is disabled in that regard literally gives Ariel her voice back because for the first time ever, she is heard. The physical encompasses the metaphysical.
The Little Mermaid is not a story about a whiney teenage girl who loses her voice to find a man. No, The Little Mermaid is a story about a passionate, proactive woman who tries to find her voice, as feminists advocated for in history’s past. In my mind, Ariel is representative of the struggles you feminists had to go through. Except in Ariel’s case, she struggles to be heard because she is a mermaid. Like you guys, she does not accept the societal view that humans are inferior to mermaids, just as you believe woman are not inferior to men. So why do you hate her? Why do you hate Disney? Disney has time and time again given us strong, independent-thinking heroines, and I have no idea why you have the tendency to reject the ones who do not act like men. Ariel acts like a woman, and I say that as a sincere compliment. If you won’t listen to Ariel, please hear me out: you feminists should welcome Ariel.
Belle is often not seen to necessarily fit this Disney princess stereotype, but what completely astonishes me is the universal notion that Mulan is the one who most breaks this paradigm. Really? Mulan? In my mind, it is a no-brainer: it’s Belle.
The first Disney princess I would like to talk about is Mulan. Mulan should not be viewed as the most feminist Disney princess because she plays the man-card in order to be portrayed as strong. This goes off of my previous post on Ariel. If the main argument of feminism is that woman are as strong as men, then a feminist Disney princess should act like a woman. While Mulan does keep her feminine touch throughout the entire course of the movie (well-done on Disney’s part), I think it’s the guy stuff she does that most impresses people: short haircut, wear armor, fight battles, ride horses, light cannons, and save all of China. Yeah, I’m not denying Mulan’s strength as a character–I’m just questioning her strength as a female character. Why should a female character have to resort to male characterizations in order to be portrayed as strong? Why can’t a female character be just as strong with fully female characterizations?
Meet Belle, the most feminist Disney princess of them all. She can’t wield a sword like Mulan can, but I think that makes her stronger. Although she is defenseless, she does not let the beast boss her around like he does his servants. Had the beast been truly a beast, Belle would have died trying to escape his wrath rather than living her life out as his prisoner. I think that’s incredibly strong, male or female, which goes beyond physical strength.
In the end, both Mulan and Belle are extremely strong female protagonists, but I think why Mulan is often seen as the stronger is because of two reasons. The first reason… well, I’ll let you try to figure it out.
These princesses are typically depicted as the weaker.
These princesses are typically depicted as the stronger.
Do you guys notice a pattern? The first three are caucasian, and the latter three are not. What is Belle? She is caucasian. I think because the original three are all caucasian, people now associate any white Disney princess as being the damsels in distress. Quite the shame, really.
The second reason why I think Belle gets lumped into the Disney princess stereotype is because she marries a handsome prince by the end of the movie. This happens to Tiana as well, but she also opens up a restaurant. However, it is very important to distinguish Belle from the other caucasian Disney princesses: she never wanted love. Belle wanted adventure; any time someone proposed to her she got pissed off. In fact, she doesn’t even realize she loves the beast until he is literally dying; she leaves the beast after clearly developing feelings for him to rescue her father. The point is, I’m not saying Belle has to be in your opinion the strongest Disney princess. All I’m asking is to consider the journey Belle takes to her destination. With that in mind, I believe Belle is easily the most feminist Disney princess.
Considering how Disney has produced some of my favorite fictional female characters who refuse to be saved by men and are fully fleshed out with lots of vibrance and personality, I don’t see how the princesses that have come out of the Disney studio can be described to have anything but a positive impact on American cinema. These are characters we should largely celebrate in our culture and rightfully so, young girls everywhere have connected with these princesses’ pursuit for happiness beyond societal restrictions. Keep doing ya thing, Disney.