Who’s the Most Feminist Disney Princess of Them All?
When the first trailer for the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast was released last November, the two-minute clip set a new record for most views in its first 24 hours alone. Since then, the remake, which sees Emma Watson playing the bookish heroine, has supplied us with plenty of 1991 nostalgia–illustrating, once again, the remarkable staying power of the Disney princess.
But with Beauty and the Beast's entrance into the modern era–and what a tumultuous and monumental era it is–our childhood protagonists are now subject to modern scrutiny. While Belle serves as the poster child for brains-before-beauty, Watson has given the princess a more realistic, feminist makeover for the revamp. “In the animated movie, it’s her father who is the inventor, and we actually co-opted that for Belle,” Watson told Entertainment Weekly. “I was like, ‘Well, there was never very much information or detail at the beginning of the story as to why Belle didn’t fit in, other than she liked books. Also, what is she doing with her time?’ So, we created a backstory for her, which was that she had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read instead. So, yeah, we made Belle an inventor.”
The original set of princesses were created between 1937 and 1998, meaning that the OG fairytale leads lack the advantage of more modern Disney ladies like Tiana, Rapunzel, Ella, and Merida, who lean more heroine than princess simply because of the time they were sketched. But with the imminent arrival of Beauty and the Beast, we found ourselves wondering: How do Disney's original princesses stack up in 2017?
To be respectful of each princess' circumstance–they're all feisty in their own right–we created a matrix that compares their level of defiance to their intentions. Read on for our full analysis of the original eight, their stories, and their fairytale flaws.
The Disney Defiance Matrix
Everett Collection (2); Alamy Stock Photo (7)
Backstory Refresh: When the Huns invade China, the government calls for one man from every family to join the Chinese army. In order to keep her aging father home, Mulan bandages down her breasts, lobs her hair with a literal sword, and goes full male to join the forces. Even though her initial military skills are weak and she needs to endure daily training sessions where in her captain repeatedly sings that he’ll make a man out of her, Mulan becomes a pretty badass warrior. Her true gender is only ever discovered after she is slashed in the chest by the Hun leader. Ultimately, she is the key player in rescuing the Imperial City and Emperor and her super buff captain falls in love with her.
Fairytale Flaw: N/A. At no point her story does Mulan stray from her true feminist ideals and strong family values.
Modern Day Translation: Modern day Mulan would stick to her non-gender conforming standards of style and behavior even when she develops a baby crush on the stereotypical hot jock. She would put her family and friends over herself and throw support behind their causes.
Backstory Refresh: When her father is trapped in the Beast’s castle, bookish Belle sacrifices herself to take his place. When she’s not gossiping with the fine China, she is gradually befriending the Beast, who is a total jerk (albeit his mood has certainly suffered from being shunned from society). When Belle finds out her father is in danger, she returns to the city. Meanwhile, Gaston, the vain village hottie who feels entitled to Belle’s affection, goes after the Beast but ultimately dies because he hates books and you can’t survive in this world without intellect. Belle, apparently chill with body hair, smooches the Beast and he returns to his true chiseled form, Prince Adam.
Fairytale Flaw: Although Belle ultimately falls for a man well outside of society’s traditional standards of attraction, she also falls for a man who is totally domineering and emotionally immature because she believes she can change him.
Modern Day Translation: Belle can spot and take down a misogynist at the drop of a baguette. But her determination to better a man who treats her poorly despite how it may inconvenience her (like being held prisoner in a castle) is a bit naive.
Backstory Refresh: Princess Jasmine spends her days avoiding arranged marriages to high falutin royal suitors and her nights sneaking out of the castle to hobnob with the middle class of Agrabah. Here, she meets man-of-the-street Aladdin who shows her common decency and so she falls for him. Still, he requests that his genie make him into a prince so he can deceive Jasmine into loving him, but she assumes he’s just another royal and is uninterested in his newly gained socioeconomic status. Ultimately, Jasmine is awarded the opportunity to choose who she wants to marry (her father literally changes the law that said she couldn’t) and she chooses “street rat” Aladdin.
Fairytale Flaw: Jasmine pretty much holds her own against the oppressive standards, which pretty much say her marriageability defines her status as a woman. She does, though, at one point, reduce herself to an object of sexual desire in order to seduce Jafar.
Modern Day Translation: Jasmine is a strong, empowered woman who believes you can be equal parts smart and sexy. She chooses a poor boyfriend to financially support, going against the traditional man-saves-a-woman narrative because he emotionally supports her. Unfortunately, sometimes the only power a woman can wield over a man is physical, but Jasmine uses her sexuality for a pretty noble cause.
Backstory Refresh: After her father dies, Cinderella lives and works for her evil stepmother and stepsisters. She is literally enslaved and used as the family servant. With the help of a fairy godmother, though, she is able to attend the royal ball where she encounters a prince who becomes immediately smitten with her. She only has until midnight and flees the ball, leaving behind her trendy, but definitely uncomfortable, glass slipper. The obsessed prince uses his privilege to force every eligible maiden to try it on until he finds Cinderella and marries her.
Fairytale Flaw: TBH, Cinderella doesn’t have too much opportunity to stand her ground as a captive in her own home. But she does defiantly make it to the ball, even if she only wanted to go to find a man.
Modern Day Translation: It might not push the most progressive narrative, but you can’t knock a girl for wanting a night on the town to manhunt with her friends.
Backstory Refresh: Pocahontas is the original free spirit. She is a walking flower crown full of beauty and good vibes, which is exactly why she doesn’t want to marry stern warrior Kocoum. When the white English settlers come and set up shop on Native American land, Pocahontas encounters the very Aryan John Smith, whom she quickly becomes enamored with. They kiss and basically set off a war between the settlers and the tribe. Smith is sentenced to death, but Pocahontas stops her father (the tribe’s chief!) just as he is about to kill him. When Smith asks Pocahontas to return to England with him, she declines, choosing instead to stay with her tribe.
Fairytale Flaw: Although regarded and remembered as one of the fiercer Disney princesses, Pocahontas endangers her entire tribe and actually gets a couple people killed to be with a guy.
Modern Day Translation: There’s no denying Pocahontas is a true badass female. But a man is rarely worth losing your connection to your family and friends. She makes the right decision to ultimately put her romance to the side and stay with them, but she sort of owed it to them after all the drama.
Backstory Refresh: In order to avoid having her heart cut from her chest (upsetting!) by for her evil, super vain stepmother, Snow White flees into the forest. There, she encounters seven dwarves whom she befriends. She works in their cottage, cooking and cleaning, while they mine diamonds during the day. She’s poisoned by the queen, though, and falls asleep. The dwarves think she’s dead and build a rather stunning glass coffin to lay her to rest above ground. A year later (!!!), she is visited by a prince she met prior to her escape into the forest who smooches her and wakes her from her slumber. They live happily ever after even though Snow White was essentially decaying for an entire year.
Fairytale Flaw: Snow White is the most passive of all Disney’s leading ladies. She never tries to escape her servitude to her nasty stepmother and her first instinct upon arriving at a cottage full of little men is to cook and clean for them.
Modern Day Translation: She might be the most passive, but she’s also Disney’s oldest (Snow White and Seven Dwarves was released in 1937) so we’ll give her a pass on the lack of progression.
Aurora, "Sleeping Beauty"
Backstory Refresh: After Maleficent basically condemns Aurora to die on her 16th birthday (by a sewing wheel of all things), another fairy alters the curse to have her fall into a deep sleep instead, only to be awoken by true love’s first kiss. Aurora is then raised by that fairy and her two fairy sisters and essentially exists to aimlessly walk about a beautiful scenic forest while singing, which she genuinely seems okay with. She meets and immediately falls in love with a charming man with an impressive tenor. After the fairies tell her she can’t see him again, Aurora runs off and is, of course, manipulated and led to the spinning wheel where she pricks her finger and falls asleep until prince man wakes her up with his mouth.
Fairytale Flaw: Sleeping Beauty shows absolutely no real drive or need to create or find a purpose for herself. She only displays any level of passion when she, as a teenager, is told she can’t date the random singing boy she met in the wilderness.
Modern Day Translation: Sleeping Beauty aimlessly wanders through life until she falls victim to her own naivete and needs to be saved by a man.
Backstory Refresh: Fiery red-headed mermaid Ariel is fiercely curious and interested in a world beyond her own. In fact, she hates her own neighborhood so much and wants to be human so badly that she’ll do anything to be “part of that world,” even if it means disobeying her king dad and regularly spending time at the surface of the ocean gazing at humans. Without any contact at all, Ariel falls in love with human man Eric, who has two legs and well-coiffed hair. She visits sea witch Ursula and trades her magical singing voice for a pair of legs to woo him with. After a ton of drama and her father being turned into a polyp on the floor of the ocean, Ariel is actually saved by Eric. Her excessively forgiving father turns her fin into permanent legs so she can marry him.
Fairytale Flaw: Although inspiring in her rebellious nature, Ariel misdirects her defiance, risking her and her father’s life for a dreamy land-boy. She trades her voice and her home to be with a stranger she saw playing flute for a few minutes from a distance.
Modern Day Translation: Impetuous and passionate as she may be, Ariel committed the most disempowering sin when she gave up her voice for a man. And then, after all that trouble, her father still has to grant her freedom.