Everyone loves Disney. Don’t lie. Everyone does. It’s the most magical and beloved name in cinema and pop culture. It’s often the first thing we are introduced to as children. My very first trip to the movie theatre was in 1994 when I was two years old. We saw The Lion King, naturally. I remember nothing about watching the film that day, but I definitely remember buying the ticket. I still have it all these years later, too 🙂
For a brand as revered as this, it’s only fitting that Disney has had its fair share of controversy over the years. Everything from racial sensitivity to plagiarism. But nothing seems to spark debate quite as much as the Disney Princesses.
When you come down to it, with the amount of films made by Disney, the majority actually aren’t necessarily even about the princesses, or fantasy, or faraway castles. Sure, they’re the ones we associate most closely with the brand, but overall they’re not the most common. It’s just the marketing and popularity that makes it seem so wide in the Disney universe. We love them, we sing their songs, we dream of being them.
And now it’s time for me to talk about the best and worst of the Disney women.
Now, if you’re wondering why someone is missing from the list, chances are I haven’t seen the movie. Also, a word of caution. If you came here looking for a feminist rant, you’re going to be sadly disappointed (or maybe not?). What you’re about to read will most definitely NOT be from a feminazi point of view, because that’s simply not how I do things. Besides, there have been plenty of words written from that perspective already. If there is a slightly feminist edge or question to a character, I will address it. But no more. What I’m looking at here is from a writing and character developmental standpoint. Which of the Disney females is well developed? Who is bland and forgettable? Which ones are loved for the right reasons? Who deserves more recognition? And who are the bad role models? Come along with me and find out in Best and Worst of the Disney Women Part 1.
Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991)
Beauty and the Beast was the first ever animated film to be nominated for Best Film at the Oscars, and part of what makes the movie so incredibly good is Belle.
Belle is by far my favourite official Disney princess, and I know I am not alone in this. She’s one of the best animated characters ever. She is a shining example of Disney adapting a character to the point of improvement from the original tale.
Belle is kind, smart, ahead of her time and a total bookworm. She’s the subject of gossip in a small town, but despite the loneliness it causes her, she refuses to change. Gaston pursues Belle relentlessly, and she can’t imagine a more horrible concept than being his wife. Again, Gaston is the town hero. Everyone thinks Belle is insane for rejecting him. But she’s secure enough in herself to make her choices. Belle is looking from something different. She’s not necessarily looking for romance or a prince. She wants something greater than herself. Something bigger. Her love of books made me feel validated. Like Belle, I was a huge bookworm. I was reading fluently at the age of three. My mother didn’t read picture books to me and my older brother. We read novels. I would sit next to her and read along, sounding out words I didn’t know. And that’s how I learned to read. Because of this, people thought I was weird. But seeing Belle and how she was so unashamed in her enthusiasm for books, I felt validated.
The creators of Beauty and the Beast said the biggest update for Belle’s story was having her make the choice to remain at the Beast’s castle. Some say Beauty and the Beast is just Stockholm Syndrome. And I disrespectfully disagree. Belle is initially frightened by the Beast, but still selflessly sacrifices her freedom for her father. She has the air of someone who really has lost everything. The Beast eventually identifies with Belle as a person, and falls in love with her. Belle only falls in love with the Beast when he stops being….well, beastly. Not only that, but she stands up to him and doesn’t take his abuse sitting down.
Oh, and the clincher? When he says she can leave, she flipping leaves.
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009)
Tiana’s biggest claim to fame is that she’s the first black Disney princess. But that’s not why she’s on my list. Tiana is a kickass leading lady. She’s the first Disney princess to be a workaholic. She has a dream of opening her own restaurant, and she works like a Trojan to realise it. Her story arc comes from finding a balance between work and living. She teaches viewers that while following your dreams is of vital importance, you don’t want to get so caught up in the pursuit that you forget to live. But at the same time she’s smart, determined, has a good heart and a willingness to change.
I’m not going to talk about the alleged racial prejudice or historical accuracy of the movie because it’s completely pointless. Tiana is an awesome character regardless of her skin colour and that’s that.
Princess Anna (Frozen, 2013)
Look, I agree with everyone that Frozen is WAY too overdone and is everywhere. But hey, I still think it’s an excellent movie. The story is great, has excellent twists and a very likeable cast of characters. And as much as I enjoy Elsa, I’m putting Anna on the list here because she’s the character who does everything. Sure, she makes dumb decisions such as getting engaged to Hans on the day she meets him (and I love how they make fun of it) but she actually learns from them, and the movie shows exactly why she throws herself at him. She’s been shut away her whole life so she would something like that. However, she’s definitely a strong woman. When Elsa runs away, Anna is the one who says ‘this is my problem, and I will go take care of it.’ AND SHE FREAKING DOES IT! I actually wish Anna got a bit more appreciation. I work on weekends for a party company and I regularly play Anna, but it’s mostly appearances alongside Elsa and all the kids want to talk to Elsa. Anna’s the one who gets things done. Let’s give her the limelight.
And for the record, while I do think the film has been marketed to death, I would much prefer children watch Frozen repeatedly than Twilight or anything like that. Frozen may not be the first Disney movie to teach different lessons or that girls don’t need a man to save you, but it’s probably the one that did it most successfully and most creatively.
Megara (Hercules, 1997)
I absolutely love Megara. She’s one of the best women Disney ever brought out, and she’s criminally underrated. I’m always astounded by how many people don’t know who she is.
In 2013 I actually got to play Meg in Hercules Saves Christmas, an original Christmas pantomime based heavily on the Disney flick. Along with Wendla Bergmann in Spring Awakening, Meg is my most favourite role to date.
One of the most common complaints against the Disney princesses is how quickly they fall in love. Enter Megara, who is not only uninterested in romance, she outright rejects it. Having sold her soul to Hades in exchange for saving her lover’s life, Meg was left devastated when she was rejected by him. She’s sassy, sarcastic and tough on the exterior to hide the pain. Her character arc of learning to forgive and trust people again, to the point of being willing to sacrifice her freedom and life for Hercules shows just how far she’s willing to go. Not to mention she has I Won’t Say (I’m in Love), easily one of the best songs in any Disney film.
From a critical point of view, Hercules is not the best Disney movie by a long shot. It’s a flawed film with a ton of recycled characters, a story angle that’s been done to death and a very strange overall tone (I love the muses and the music, but seriously, how does gospel fit into Greek mythology?) but it’s saved by Meg and Hades, good music and some really funny jokes. Meg is a great example of what rejection can do to a person and that it’s possible to overcome the hurt. I think that’s awesome. When I get to Disneyland next year, I hope I get to meet her. And Belle. Oh, and another reason Meg is awesome? She’s voiced by the stunning Susan Egan.
Jane (Tarzan, 1999)
Jane Porter is how a damsel-in-distress SHOULD be portrayed. Yes, she has to be saved a lot, but she’s still an interesting, eccentric character. Your basic fish-out-of-water, and therefore justifying the need to throw her into peril, Jane still contributes to the plot by educating Tarzan and being the catalyst that introduces him to the human world. I find her very enjoyable and engaging, hence her place in the underrated list.
Esmerelda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996)
She’s brave, smart, resourceful, kind, has some serious attitude and fights for justice, even at risk of her own life.
Princess Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992)
Jasmine sees herself as more than she’s treated as. She knows she’s worth more than a creature of porcelain beauty and deserves someone who loves her for who she is, not her title or because it’s her ‘duty’.
Alice (Alice in Wonderland, 1951)Wendy Darling (Peter Pan, 1953)
I’m putting these two in the same basket because a) they’re very similar (two young girls whisked off on a magical adventure) and b) they’re voiced by the same actress (Kathryn Beaumont).
Much of what makes these two characters memorable is due to the voice acting of Kathryn Beaumont. Alice and Wendy could be completely bland and boring but she turns them into something really interesting and fun.
Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010)
Tangled was a Disney movie I kind of avoided for a while, but I’m so glad I finally watched it. Rapunzel is a fun, energetic teenage girl who shows remarkable strength and spirit. In fact, the only thing that really prevents her from being in the best Disney princesses is the less-than-great voice acting. The set up to Tangled is ingenious, the characters are well written and well designed, but the voice acting for Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, to a degree is just distracting enough to take me out of the world. It’s a shame.
Mulan (Mulan, 1998)
I’d dearly love to place Mulan at the top in the ‘Best’ category, but I can’t do it in good conscience. Why? Because as tough as she is, she’s also a character that’s been done a million times. The oppressed free spirit trying to find a place where she belongs. Not a bad message, but one we’ve seen. Her scenes where she’s disguised is what pulls her through, and she’s definitely a strong woman. Sorry Mulan. I love you, but you’re nothing original.