Over the years, cultural critics have taken aim at the values Disney movies, particularly the princess ilk, have tacitly endorsed through the implications of their characters and stories. A great summary of these criticisms can be found in the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly.
Thinking about it, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Disney princesses have a spotty track record for not being the best role models. Some of the most enduring princess films come to us from the 1950s or earlier, and those with any creative control at Disney would have been mostly, if not exclusively, men. The kind of men who wouldn’t think anything of a female protagonist spending the entire movie waiting for a man to solve all her problems.
To their credit, a lot of the newer Disney movies suggest that its studios have taken these criticisms into account. From Mulan to The Princess and the Frog to Frozen, we’re not only seeing Disney heroines with actual agency, but we’re also seeing them come from more diverse and interesting backgrounds.
Still, as long as the classics endure, we need to keep reminding ourselves to have this conversation so the more toxic elements of the past don’t enter our children’s heads unchallenged.
That’s why we’re going to look at eight Disney princesses that we can learn from, but not necessarily as role models.
1. Ariel, The Little Mermaid (1989).
We begin with a pretty popular choice. There’s the issue of Ariel changing herself to please Prince Eric, but the real devil is in what she sacrificed. She gave away her voice, the main thing she would need to communicate with Eric when she did meet him. Since communication is the most important part of any relationship, this isn’t exactly a recipe for true love.
And so, by the end of the movie, Ariel marries a man she knows absolutely nothing about, despite having irreversibly changed herself for him. Yeah, not exactly behavior you want to imitate.
2. Aurora, Sleeping Beauty (1959).
To be fair to Aurora, it’s not like she had a lot of room to act as a role model. She’s in the movie for all of 18 minutes and her last line is about 40 minutes in.
But in that time, her entire personality seems to revolve around falling in love with a prince and that’s about it. She’s a bad role model by way of being a total non-entity.
It’s too bad the writers didn’t bother to come up with a character for the person who’s supposed to be the star of the show.
3. Cinderella, Cinderella (1950).
It’s hard to get too worked up about Cinderella because she was mostly trying to make the best of a bad situation. As cool as it would be if she booted her stepmother and stepsisters out the door while singing “The Internationale,” it would also be wildly out of character. So what’s the problem then?
Well, aside from the early Disney staple of marrying someone you barely know, Cinderella really doesn’t take an active role in her own story. Whether it’s the Fairy Godmother or her mice buddies, it’s always the other characters who put everything into motion for her while she just kind of waits for good things to happen.
At least Aurora had the excuse of being unconscious for most of her movie.
4. Jasmine, Aladdin (1992).
Honestly, this one kind of hurts to do because Jasmine is a pretty awesome character. She sees Agrabah’s succession law for the garbage it is and declares loudly and proudly that she is not a prize to be won. She even decides to abandon her royal life and make her own way when it looks like the law isn’t going to change.
But the problem is her follow-through.
When she runs away, she gets hit with the harsh reality that she really doesn’t know anything about how life outside the palace works. And then, she kind of stops trying. A role model would have been motivated by her lack of knowledge and started reading up and tried again until she got it right.
It’s that kind of hustle that would have changed the movie’s title from Aladdin to Jasmine.