A Little Disney Princess Analysis By Tomi Ogunlewe

Disclosure: This is a highly opinionated piece. Beware!

Disney has a bit of a reputation for its princess movies. However, since some were written in periods with widely different views to our modern mindset, their representations of women can come off as a bit controversial. However, there are some princesses and characters which I feel are given more hate and misjudgement than they deserve.

Modern feminism has definitely provided us with better outlooks but it is important to note that there is not just one demonstration of a strong or badass woman. We as women can show our strength in different ways and some of those ways, like it or not, can be through traditional femininity.

Because of that I will be looking at some Disney princesses but because of space I am limiting it to three primary ones which I feel get a bad rep despite being iconic.

The Case of Cinderella

Cinderella was not perfect

Like said, a popular idea about Cinderella is that she was always kind, generous, gentle, hard-working and obedient. The character is indeed all of these things but she is also so much more. Because the character emanates so much grace and poise we are led to believe that she was this angel who, pure in all ways, could feel no ill-will. But we are wrong.

One of the first scenes that introduces us to Cinderella (well, the grown-up version) is when she refuses to get out of bed. I found this scene interesting when I rewatched it, yes, she gets up in the stereotypical Disney way with the intact hair and the perfect make-up which is an obvious deviation from the truth. But can we just talk about how relatable this scene is? Yes, I said relatable and obviously I don’t mean the part where she gets out of bed almost ready to jump onto the runway. But just the feeling of not wanting to get up, the way the birds have to try on several attempts to get the girl out of bed but she just keeps covering her head with a pillow - trying to block them. Come on, who hasn’t been in that situation?! And when she finally does get up, she signals she is awake by flicking the birds on the tail then proceeds to scold them from waking her up when she was having a good dream. Again, who can’t relate? Moreover, in that scene when the grand clock chimes, Cinderella mocks the device and begins ranting to the birds how it always ruins everything. Now, is it just me or do you get a sense of her humanity in this scene? Yes, no woman starts singing the minute they get out of bed but obviously Cinderella wasn’t exactly an angel in this scene. She portrayed moments of laziness, irritation, cheekiness and even sassiness in all but 10 minutes. This isn't the only time when she conflicts with her popular image of a perfect woman. Despite being thought of as gentle and patient, the character has demonstrated times when her patience has worn out and her friendly demeanour drops. Such times are when she chases the birds who attack Gusgus away or when she demands Lucifer follows her by saying “Lucifer, come here!” going as far as to give a sarcastic apology and shutting the door on his back on purpose. She has also shown she can get angry. When Lucifer dirties the living room she just cleaned; she understandably threatens him and tries to chase him with a broom. People feel disconnected from Cinderella because she was made in the era when women had to be perfect. But Cinderella herself wasn’t perfect. She didn’t completely abide by the virtues of a proper woman, she wasn’t always nice, gentle or productive, these scenes show that she could also be sassy and spunky if bothered or irritated.

The importance of body language

Another thing I noticed when I saw the film is her body language. When I studied media at A-level, they taught me the importance of body language and how it’s used to express what is not said. We think of Cinderella as someone who is always timid towards her step-family but when you study her body language in the 1950s you will understand why this isn’t true.

One thing to note about body language is that there are different connotations of looking down, looking up and looking someone in the eye. Cinderella never looks down in the film; she always tries to look into her step-family’s eyes. This is a significant character detail that demonstrates the strength of the character. When someone looks up and into somebody’s eye, they show their confidence, their courage and their resilience. This is proven in scenes in which although her step-family is taunting her, she doesn’t put her face down in defeat or shame, she holds her head up high and states her case. Like in the scene when they receive an invitation, Cinderella doesn’t just bear their insults, leave the room and never bring up the topic again. She lifts her chin, states her case by repeating what the letter said and affirming how she is just as eligible to go as them. Even if they found ways to prevent her from achieving this, what I admired about the character is she never showed a moment of weakness or defeat. Cinderella never gave her step-family the advantage of seeing her crumbled and defeated. No matter what they said or did, she held her head up high, never wanting them to catch her crying, and responded confidently. You could see this as the idea that women always have to control their emotional states and be quiet. But I saw this as a way to respond to bullies. There was always an expectation for Cinderella to be almost violent with her sisters, to throw a fit if they ever commanded her, to insult them as much as they insult her, to just leave the house. But then what? That will just prove they got to her, they succeeded. They were able to drive the girl over the hedge; they were finally able to get rid of her and have her father’s house all to themselves. I’m not saying you should stay in toxic environments but that Cinderella may have had her reasons for wanting to stay at the time. Again, remember that 18th century France wasn’t a particularly welcoming period for a woman. And as we have gotten older we as an audience can understand that it's not always aggression that wins the war. Sometimes it's just looking them straight in the eye and refusing to bend to their will that does the trick. It’s showing them who the clear better person is, it’s giving yourself the assurance that although they made fun of me, I not only did not give them the privilege of seeing me down but I also did not waste my energy. That’s what Cinderella showed - that she was better than them and they weren’t worth her energy.

Is Cinderella a damsel

Because of the character’s passivity it is often felt that she doesn’t drive the events of her own story. I disagree with this because Cinderella is a driving force in her own story but not in the traditional ways.

Cinderella decided to go to the ball, this was her decision, not anybody else's, and she was determined to make it happen. If she told the Fairy Godmother that she didn’t want to go because she was upset that would have been the end of the story. Some modern versions feature Cinderella having to be encouraged by the people around her to try to attend the ball. This version of Cinderella didn’t need encouragement, she wanted to go and she was going to go. Yes she had a setback but as soon as that was resolved she jumped into the carriage and went to the ball.

Another reason why her agency is questioned is because of its subtleness. The character’s agency was her kindness. Didn’t anyone think it poetic that it was the mouse she freed from her Grandmother’s trap in the beginning of the film that freed her from her Grandma’s imprisonment in the end? It’s because she always helped the animals that they decided to help. Also let's not forget it was Cinderella's idea to get Bruno to chase away the cat. Rather than staying in the room, crying and accepting her fate, she wanted to get out, she made a contribution because she was determined not to miss this chance.

Yes, the domesticity and lack of aggression from Cinderella makes people feel like the character was a sexist depiction of what women were expected to be. And although I don't completely know the intentions of Walt, I know that Cinderella's character is more complex than they make her out to seem. Just because she chooses a non-aggressive part doesn’t make her any less helpless or useless and just because she is presented as kind and graceful doesn’t mean she doesn’t lose her temper at times.

Ariel didn’t do it for a man

Ariel is another debatably controversial Disney film because of the idea that she did it all for a man (not true). One thing I noticed about Ariel is that she was the first Disney princess to have hobbies. At least non-domestic ones. Like Belle from Beauty and the beast, Rapunzel from Tangled and Merida from Brave, she actually had strong interests. Ones that are frequently ignored. In my opinion, I believe Ariel to be an example of a female geek, she went out to find things, she made collections, she tried to learn about those things as much as possible. The hyper-focus on this girl was real. It was established from the beginning of the film that she adored human culture and that she wanted to be a human. So why do people think she did it all for Eric? The man may have been a bonus factor but he definitely wasn’t the main reason why she wanted to go up.

What I find particularly interesting in my views about The Little Mermaid is my views on King Triton. I’ve gone from hating, to understanding him, to criticising him again. Although I do understand why some people empathise with him as a father figure, there are some decisions he makes that I don't agree with.

A battle between father and daughter

Another misconception about The Little Mermaid was that her love for Eric was what pushed her to become human. It wasn’t, it was this scene:

Nobody (at least from what I've seen) has talked about the emotional importance of this scene. It’s easy to say that Ariel is a bad daughter and she should listen to her father because he’s just trying to protect but this scene was a foul move on his part. Because he feels like her obsession with humans reached a limit, he proceeds to destroy something that she took years to build and ages to collect. Can you even imagine how distressing that must have been for her? Let's put ourselves in her shoes (or flippers), her father finds out about a crush that he doesn’t approve of, finds her secret special place that gave her solace and comfort and he destroys literally everything that’s in it. The sense of betrayal that must have been felt in that scene especially when she begged Sebastian not to tell her father about her hidden joy and then he proceeds to tell and allows it to be destroyed. Imagine if those were your game saves, your Pokemon card collection, your LEGO sets, something that took you so long to work for; obliterated in only 2 minutes. It wasn’t Eric that drove her to make the decision, it was the way that Triton isolated her. Why do you think Ursula only made herself known then, because Ariel was at her lowest point and she knew that. Triton had repeatedly called off her interests and passions deeming them dangerous. Although his concern is warranted, it still doesn’t make it right what he did. He disconnected himself from her by proving he would never try to understand why she was so passionate about these things and he never tried to effectively communicate with her. My proof of this argument is in the third film, The Little Mermaid: Ariel's beginnings when again he refuses to communicate with his daughter and makes rash decisions. Instead of exploring safer ways for her to pursue her interests and possibly steering her head away from the prince, he chooses destruction, yelling and spies.

The Little Mermaid is as much about Ariel’s relationship with her father as the prince. Ursula knew that the prince was just a ploy, remember how she was the one that gave her the terms of the agreement, not Ariel. Ariel just wanted to have legs to finally be able to embrace the world that she felt gave her more freedom. Even when she’s on land, she takes full advantage of being able to have legs, she makes Eric dance with her at the market and nearly drives him over a cliff in a fit of advantage. In all honesty, Sebastian was more concerned about the kiss than she was. Ariel was just happy to have fun.

To put it simply, Ariel loved Eric but she also loved the human culture he was part of. Her story is one of being able to embrace your interests and deal with parental turmoil. Even if her actions in the end caused her more harm than good. They were more the result of a dissonance between father and child than a romantic venture. And it led him to finally opening her eyes and seeing her for what she is.

Wendy didn’t take nonsense

Another figure that I feel is underrated or misinterpreted is the character of Wendy in Peter Pan. I am aware she isn’t a princess but I can ignore her underrated characterisation. The 2021 version titled Peter Pan And Wendy tries to give the character more of a spotlight. Although in my opinion the character had more spotlight in the story than we are made to believe.

A strong-willed damsel

Wendy is another example of a traditional feminine character. She is soft-spoken, gentle and kind. But like Cinderella, don’t let that demeanour trick you into thinking she’s a doormat.

This is proven on some occasions during the film. When the mermaids are trying to pull her into the water, Wendy picks up a seashell ready to stone them and when the Native American woman (who we will not talk about) demands she goes to pick firewood, she drops it to the floor and declares she's going home. In this version, the film is as much Wendy’s story as it is Peter’s. We see her become fascinated and quickly disillusioned about the idea of Neverland. She realises that unlike the boys on the island, there are things she simply just can’t ignore. Although some would argue this is because of her jealousy to how popular Peter Pan is with girls, I disagree. It’s because unlike him there are things that she doesn’t think should be taken lightly anymore, such as the way they behave around people they are attracted to. Neverland becomes a story of Peter Pan not learning to grow up but Wendy. She talks about mothers because she wanted the lost boys to realise that there are people they just can’t forget, people that care about them, people they need.

As tempting as the idea of Neverland was, it couldn't distract Wendy from feelings and people she couldn’t overlook. One would say that it was because she was a girl that she couldn’t enjoy Neverland. But let me ask you something. Do you think the other boys truly enjoyed Neverland or were they just too scared to tell Peter Pan? Having read the original, I have reason to believe this is true as Peter Pan did prohibit the mere mention of mothers, and how they all broke down begging for their mothers at the end of the film. Out of all them, she was the only one to tell her true thoughts to Peter. She demonstrates this courage again when, unlike the other boys who agreed to become pirates out of fear, she chooses to walk the plank instead. Not a very smart move but notice how she is the only character that actually tries to voice her opinions and show any real objection. When they took her to the plank (again the importance of body language comes), she has her head up high determined not to show any hesitation just like Cinderella and jumps out of her own free will. Yes, she is saved by Peter but she didn’t expect to be saved by him, she expected to die sticking up for what she believed was wrong and what she didn’t want a part of. Wendy was one of the first instances of a strong-willed female character in Disney. She stood by her points and was not easily swayed.

Concluding opinions

I understand why people still have reservations about the representation of women in these films. I will not say they are perfect and I’ll not say they don’t have problems. But what I will say is just because they were saved by a man once or twice, got married and didn’t fight doesn’t mean they aren’t strong or impressionable. A woman's identity shouldn’t be stripped away because there is a man by her side. As a modern audience we know this, so why is it that that’s how we identify these characters? Whether we like it or not, these women had personalities, they had interests, they had opinions. It’s more sexist to deny them that because a man was also part of the narrative. We shouldn’t only pay attention to romance and the patriarchal overview of the films, we should also see these characters as individuals because that was what they (debatably) were written to be. Like I said, I’m not going to deny the sexist undertones of some of these films and their views on girls. But I also can’t deny that is what some girls are like. Some girls abide by this version of traditional femininity. It isn’t imposed on them. They just want to do it. As far as we’ve come, we can't ignore how some women still want to be domestic, to get married and build a happy home. That is their goal. And there isn’t anything wrong with that either.

I admire some of the range that the Disney princesses give us and I definitely encourage more narratives with kick-butt women with no love interests and strong leadership skills. But just because I like the new ones doesn’t mean I have to diminish the old ones. In the beginning I said there is not just one way to be feminist, that's because the idea of feminism is so that it allows women to be anything they want. Whether that is engineers, travellers, doctors, poets or sometimes even if they just want to remain mothers. We should try not to shame them for those decisions in their life, for the ways they choose to act and deal with their problems (as long as it's in a healthy way that they completely agree with). Remember, not all of us (although some of us would like to) can be Rayas, Mulans or Elsas. And some of us don’t want to. Failure to understand that will just bring about sexism again.

Happy International Women's Month!