What is a Disney Princess?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A Disney princess is one of the many female heroines of Disney animated films. While not always princesses by birth, these women are usually praised for their determination, skills and strong wills. Disney has long used princesses as main characters, from the virtuous Snow White to the modern and feisty Mulan.

"Cinderella" is a classic Disney princess story.
"Cinderella" is a classic Disney princess story.

In the early films, the princess was often the heroine of a traditional fairy tale. She met the standards of early-20th century American ideals for beauty, obedience and sweetness. Frequently, the early films feature a damsel-in-distress theme, where the heroine needs rescuing by a handsome nearby prince. Cinderella, for instance, is doomed to stay in her enforced servitude until she can escape by marriage. While these tales did draw on traditional legends, they quickly lost favor as the rights of women became a serious issue in America.

Modern Disney princesses, like the feisty Mulan, can do most anything.
Modern Disney princesses, like the feisty Mulan, can do most anything.

In the rise of feminism, this type of Disney princess became a thorn in the side of women’s rights activists. Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty seem incapable of helping themselves out of their own troubles. They are all forced to rely on men for their escape, even trading themselves in marriage in order to get out of their unpleasant situation. Disney did attempt to soften the anti-strong female image by suggesting that the Disney princess always happened to be the true love of their rescuer, yet the woman in jeopardy plot began to wear thin in the wake of the 1960s.

In the 1980s the Disney princess was reinvented with the release of The Little Mermaid. While Ariel the mermaid does still marry her true love at the end of the movie, she is written as a rebellious and ambitious girl who plays a serious role in her own success. The enormous success of The Little Mermaid led to a tremendous revival, both for the Disney princess and the Disney animation department.

Soon, Disney princesses could do just about anything they wanted. Pocahontas bravely put her own life at risk to save an innocent stranger, while the wily Mulan fought off an entire invading Hun army and saves China from total destruction. Girls of the 1980s and 1990s were given a new set of role-models in these fiery princesses, which did little to diminish the enjoyment of the earlier princesses as well. Today, girls and boys can choose identity figures from the Disney canon that match their own preferences or ambitions, with Cinderella and Jasmine holding equal popularity among Disney princess fans.

The Disney princess is an important figure for more reasons that simply its influence on young girls. Disney films in general tend to feature female heroines more frequently than male heroes, for a variety of reasons. Some experts, like writer and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon believe that it is easier even for men to identify with a female power figure than a male one. Cultural gender stereotyping allows powerful females to remain more in contact with their weaknesses and insecurities, where typical male heroes are often portrayed as hard and consistently strong. Some suggest that the Disney princess provides a universal role model for viewers of both sexes, whereas a Disney prince may be more difficult to make accessible to a wide audience.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@clintflint - Lilo is a very rare exception though. I mean, even Merida, who was billed as being a tom boy who hated wearing pretty dresses and acting like a princess, was made to join the Disney princess party and given a slinky dress and a tighter waist when all her products hit the shelves.

I just think it's a bit dangerous to give little kids that kind of image as something to look up to, because it can influence them. But I actually think it's got more to do with the marketing department than with the story writers and animators who actually come up with the princesses in the first place.


@pleonasm - I always thought they did that basically because the protagonist is almost always a woman. Since they are on the screen almost all the time, they have to make most of the other characters male in order to balance it out.

And I don't think that they will necessarily always stick with the traditional Disney princess image. I mean, Lilo and Stitch was a big success and Lilo isn't exactly the same shape as a Disney princess like Jasmine.

I know that's just a rare exception, but I do think that they are gradually becoming more inclusive.


Disney has come a long way in terms of feminism, but they've still got a way to go. They are getting better at developing capable, active female protagonists (the two main characters in Frozen are wonderful examples, particularly as the film explores the relationship between them more thoroughly than it does their relationships with husbands-to-be) but the protagonists are often the only female characters in the film. All the side-kicks and many of the background characters end up being men.

Which is a shame, particularly because they will probably never get away from the typical Disney princess character being slim, with big eyes, young, beloved by all, and so forth. They want their Disney princess dolls to look a certain way.

But they could be more inclusive of different kinds of women if they would only include them more often among the secondary characters.

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