Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Frozen and the Evolution of the Disney Princess

I love Disney princess movies, especially the ones that came after The Little Mermaid.  Belle and Rapunzel are by far my favorite.  We own every one of the Disney princess movies, but my two girls hardly ever watch them.   Those movies have never had that shining moment of being watched over and over again for a week.  I have long since accepted that my girls just aren’t princess girls, and there is nothing wrong with that. 

But then came Brave and now Frozen.

Now I’ve realized that there is a different type of princess story that speaks to my girls, which seems to be the latest stage in the Disney Princess evolution.  So today, I'm decided to share my view of the evolution of Disney Princesses.

Warning:  Spoilers!!  Don't read a section if you haven't seen all of the movies in it.

Stage One:  Damsel in Distress

Princesses:  Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)

What do they want?  To be saved (from the evil queen, domestic servitude, or a sleeping curse).

What do they do to get what they want?  Essentially wait and hope for someone to help them.

These princesses are powerless, but they are not passive.  Cinderella tries to get her own dress ready for the ball.  Snow White runs and does her best to escape.  Aurora can’t do anything once she falls into the sleeping curse.  The story locks them into situations where they are powerless to save themselves.  They have to rely on fairy godmothers, princes, etc. to save them.  

There are moments in real life when we are powerless, when we have to rely on others for help.  I don’t know about you, but I hate those moments.  I don’t want to feel that I’m not in control of what happens to me, so stories where the main character is powerless to help herself do not speak to me.  These are my least favorite princess movies.

Stage Two:  Active Princess

Princesses:   Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine.

What do they want?  To be human (Ariel), to save her father (Belle), to have a choice in who she marries (Jasmine).

What do they do to get what they want?  They take active steps to achieve their goals.  Ariel makes a deal with Ursula.  Belle vows to take her father’s place as prisoner, and Jasmine runs away from home.  These may not be the smartest choices (except for Belle of course, but that’s why Belle is so awesome), but they are actively trying to achieve their goals.

I love these princess movies. The choices these princesses make, good or bad, actually further the plot.  They are in control of their own stories.  But what they don’t do, that the next stage of princesses do, is go through a character arc. 

At the beginning, Ariel wants to be human and marry Eric, and at the end she still wants the same thing, and her happy ending is getting to be human and marrying Eric.  Belle starts out as an overall awesome person and ends as an overall awesome person.  Of course at first she doesn’t like the Beast and wants nothing to do with him, but for a good reason.  He is mean to her.  It is not her shallowness or her inability to see past his beast-likeness.   HE IS MEAN.  After the Beast saves her from the wolves, she does decide to give him a chance, but only because he’s done something selfless in saving her.  There is never any indication that she struggles to see the man behind the Beast, so Belle goes through little if any change.  She starts out a brave, intelligent, self-sacrificing character, and she ends as a brave, intelligent, self-sacrificing character without a real measurable character arc.  The Beast is the one who has the character arc.  And finally, the movie Aladdin isn’t Princess Jasmine’s story.  She really is just a “prize to be won” story-wise even though she says she’s not.  I love irony.  Aladdin has the character arc, but then again, it is his story.  So while these princesses are active (which is much better than the damsal in distress princesses in my opinion), they do not grow as characters.

Stage Three:  Active Princess with a Character Arc

Princesses:  Tiana and Rapunzel

What do they want?  This is where we see the difference in these princesses versus stage two princesses because what these princesses want (or think they want) changes in the story.  Tiana wants to fulfill her father’s dream of opening a restaurant in the beginning, but at the end she realizes what is really important is sharing her life with people she loves, and she sacrifices the chance of having her restaurant to be with Naveen.  Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights in the beginning, but she goes on a journey of self-discovery and learns who she really is and how she is being exploited by her “mother.”  At the end, she wants to be free.  When a character wants something different at the beginning than at the end, it usually is a good indication that the character has gone through a character arc, and these princesses definitely have.  At the end of the story, hey have learned something about themselves, and they have grown as characters.

What do they do to get what they want?  These princesses are very active in achieving their goals.  They are tenacious and keep looking for ways to achieve their goals.  In the beginning, Tiana helps (kisses) Naveen for the chance to buy her restaurant, and Rapunzel hides the crown to force Flynn to help her and tricks her mother into leaving.  They remain active in reaching their goals throughout the movie.  Like the active princesses, they are very much in control of their own stories.

Romance is still a major part of these stories.  Prince Naveen and Flynn Rider also go through their own character arcs, and while there is slightly more emphasis on the princesses, in a way, the princes are almost co-protagonists with the princesses, and the boys play a big role in the story.

Stage four:  Stage Three Princesses, but with a Focus on Female Relationships


Princesses:  Merida (Brave), Anna (Frozen), and Elsa (Frozen)

What do they want? Once again this changes because these princesses go through a character arc.  Merida wants her mother to see her point of view, and in the end, she is able to see her mother’s point of view.  She changes her fate like she wanted to, but she changes herself as well.  She grows up and is willing to take more responsibility.  Eventually, she will marry one of those princes, but she and the princes will get to choose.  Anna wants companionship.  She is so lonely that she just wants someone to be with.  In the end, she is willing to sacrifice being with her true love to save her sister who rejected her over and over again.  Elsa wants to protect her sister and her people from her power, so she isolates herself from everyone.  In the end, she realizes that letting herself love the people in her life is the way to control her power.   So while she still wants to protect everyone from herself, she has to grow and change in order to do so.

What do they do to get what they want?  Once again these are very active princesses.  They work hard to achieve their goals.  Merida buys a spell from the witch to change her mother.  Once the gate is open, Anna actively seeks out companionship and immediately falls in love. And once Anna understands why Elsa has kept her distance, Anna actively tries to reconnect with Elsa and bring her back.  Elsa keeps herself isolated as much as possible and runs away from her kingdom as soon as she loses control of her power.  Like stage three princesses, they remain active through the story always trying to reach their various goals.

The main difference between stage four and stage three princesses is who they share their story with.  In stage three, the story was shared between the princesses and their love interests, but in stage four, the story is shared with other female characters (Merida’s mother in Brave and the sisters, Anna and Elsa, in Frozen).  Kristoff plays the role that female characters usually play in stories centered around male characters, the love interest on the side line, the prize to be won, the Princess Jasmine.  There really isn’t a huge difference between stage four and stage three except that these stories no longer rely at all on male characters to help carry the story.

And I want to make it clear that I do not think that any of these stages are superior to the others (I think all of these stories have value), but I think this evolution in princesses shows us an evolution in the views of women in general by society.  Princesses started out as being made powerless by their stories.  I do not fault the princesses.  The stories themselves were designed to force them to be reliant on male characters.  One powerless princess story alone doesn’t indicate anything.  A powerless princess story can be interesting, but three powerless princess stories in a row suggest a belief in society that women are powerless. 

But in the later princess stories we see a progression where the princesses become more and more active in their stories and less reliant on the men, until in age four, only female characters are at the center of the story.  Not only are these princesses powerful (Elsa is the most powerful character in her story and is only defeated by the crushing realization that she killed her sister) and not reliant on men saving them, but their stories are focused on mainly female characters.  So we go from princesses needing men to save them to princess stories where men aren’t needed at all. 

And while I will always love a good romance, I like the idea that princesses can carry their own stories and still be wildly successful at the box office.  I think that is progress.



  1. Love it. This line, "When a character wants something different at the beginning than at the end, it usually is a good indication that the character has gone through a character arc, " just entered itself into my writer's toolbox. Helpful, truthful, interesting stuff here.

    I loved Frozen and Brave so much, and you just explained why.

    I also loved Frozen because what it teaches about princes. Cinderella and Aurora, and Ariel even, know nothing about their princes, except that they are handsome rich, and willing to marry them. I love how Frozen takes the handsome rich willing to marry prince and show that that isn't enough, and that handsome does not equal goodness. It's kind of the opposite message of Beauty and the Beast, where ugly does not equal evil.
    I really loved the Sven Anna love story arch. And I loved the way it balanced itself out.
    Just SO well done.

    1. I agree, I love what frozen did with princes too, and the Kristoff (Sven was the reindeer) Anna romance was awesome. But my favorite part was how the act of true love was between the sisters and not the guy. This movie did a lot of reversals of the typical princess movie, and that is what made it so awesome, IMO.

    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yJrytUyagY

  2. When I read this post I said to my kids, "MaryAnn is way too smart to be writing on the same blog as me." Your powers of interpretation astound me. Great post! I haven't seen Frozen yet, and I can't wait.

    1. Okay, first of all. Thanks Melanie you are so sweet.

      Second of all, whatever Melanie. You've got a ton of posts that are pure brilliance. I love blogging with you. :)

    2. Thanks, MaryAnn. I love blogging with you too. But I stand by what I said. You are brilliant.

  3. Interesting Maryann now I am wondering why I am not evolved enough to like Brave more. I watching it and wished the whole time for a romance. I wanted the daughter to fall in love with the bear. Oh well maybe someday I will have more own character arch and stop wanting romances with all the princess movies.

    1. I like watching princess romances too. I don't think that has anything to do with being more evolved. But I do like that Princesses can carry their own movies without romance being front and center. These stories are marketed to little girls (boys too, but to a lesser extent), and little girls aren't always interested in romance (mine aren't). I think it is good for little girls to know that princesses can have their own adventures too, and not everything in girls lives has to revolve around princes and falling in love.

      But personally, I'm with you. I prefer at least some romance.

  4. Even though I'm a male, I've been looking at female characters with great interest for a while. One reason: a lot of them are done wrong and I don't want to repeat those mistakes. Examples of female characters done bad: Padme in Star Wars and Trinity in the Matrix. Why? Because they start off strong and independent but later turn into 'the hero's girlfriend' and they become a side show.

    The Disney princess I prefer from the others is Mulan. Her story is inspiring; she flees home not because she wanted adventure but to protect her father. And there's nothing funnier than a bunch of guys dressing up as women and singing "Be a Man!" while they're doing it. :D

    P.S.: a name like Aurora should belong to a strong and active character. Ever since I watched the Stargate series, when I hear the name Aurora, I think of a battleship. :D

    1. I love Muan too, and so do my girls. I totally forgot about her because I honestly don't think of her as a princess. She's in a category all on her own, and I think she deserves a whole post to herself.

      I totally agree with you about Padme and Trinity. They start out pretty awesome, but turn into weaklings once they fall in love (especially Padme). I've always thought the TV show Battlestar Galactica (new version) had awesome women characters. If look at all of them, they are so different. You can't fit them all into one or two categories like you can in a lot of fantasy/sci fi movies and books (Princess/warrior, shrew/meek, etc.).

      I like the name Aurora too. It should belong to a character who does more than just dance and sleep. :)


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