The group referred to as The Princesses doesn't refer to the group of 10 heroines we know on this site. This group refers to the women who were literally born into royalty, and in some studies, Kida from "Atlantis" is in this group as well, since she is technically royalty. In order to keep the flow of things pretty even, I have relegated her to the "Tough Girls" group, which will have their own article later on. For now, we'll focus on The Princesses: Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Rapunzel.
There may be no Disney character more polarizing than Ariel among feminist scholars (as well as Fans, as we've seen recently with the Best Role Model Countdown.) Ariel is a complicated character who has parted scholars and fans up the middle as far as her worth as a character.
On the one hand, Ariel's predecessor was Aurora. (For more on her, refer to my article on The Classics.) So any personality Ariel showed was a significant improvement, and boy, did she have personality. Like it or hate it, Ariel is the first princess with a personality of flaws, insecurities, interests, and personal triumphs. While the Classics were often almost ethereally good, Ariel had flaws, not the least of which being her impulsiveness, her seeming inability to decipher good advice from bad advice, and her willingness to give up her life and family for a complete stranger and a whole different life.
With that said, Ariel is also the first princess to aspire to a life outside of what she was born into. In fact, she's the first princess whose opening scene shows her adventuring outside her home. She is determined to make her own choices and be the master of her own fate. She is a princess a relateable teenage identity crisis; in the human world, she sees a place where she can be not only accepted, but valued, qualities that she can't seem to find in her own home. Also, once Ariel ventures onto land, she has to overcome pretty big obstacles: adapting to a new culture, learning to walk, having no voice, and having a pressing amount of time to win Eric's love and save her own life. Take whatever side you will on the Ariel debate, but I believe she was still a pretty significant step forward for women in Disney.
Jasmine and Ariel are remarkably similar in their situations, but not their personalities. For Ariel, being a princess isn't the problem, it's being a mermaid. For Jasmine, the princess life is a problem in itself. Despite being pampered, sheltered, and catered to her whole life, Jasmine has grown cagey and disillusioned with her life. Intelligent, fiery, and an extraordinary judge of character, Jasmine feels trapped and bored in the palace and refuses to marry any of the suitors who are only after her money and beauty to appease a law.
I was quite surprised to find Jasmine so low on the Best Role Model countdown, because feminist scholars find her to be, more or less, a significantly important character in the Disney canon. She is the first princess to actively impress a man with her intellect and quick-thinking. (Yes, we're meant to assume that the Beast likes Belle because she's smart, but he never actually admits it.) Also, Jasmine is the first princess to have a man describe her PERSONALITY before he describes her beauty or some other physical attribute.
Moreover, Jasmine's boredom with her stilted life proves that getting the "idealized" life doesn't always make you happy. Being a princess can be boring, or even miserable. When we idealize women, we take away their freedom, and Jasmine is a prime example of that.
Pocahontas is cited by feminist scholars as the first truly great Disney role model, but one of Disney's first truly weak lead heroines. The greatest difference between Pocahontas and the heroines listed previously is her age: she isn't a teenager dreaming of a better world. She's a grown woman simply trying to find the path in life that suits her most. She doesn't question where she is meant to be, but what she is meant to do, making her a very proactive heroine who wants a purpose in life, as opposed to just better surroundings, like Ariel and Jasmine. Also, Pocahontas is the first princess to believe in something or someone higher than herself, or "true love." Deeply thoughtful, wise, and rooted in her own destiny, Pocahontas is a far cry from the angsty teenagers before her. As far as distinction, Pocahontas is the first princess to choose duty over true love. While Ariel and Jasmine eventually found that their need for a better life could eventually be solved by a man in their lives, Pocahontas rejects this notion. She obviously loves John and will miss him terribly, but there is something more important at stake: her own destiny and her own home. This self-sacrificing sense of dignity truly sets her apart in the Princess pantheon, and causes her great recognition among scholars.
Admittedly, the research on Rapunzel is very limited, since the film is so new, but I did discover a few things. While Rapunzel is often criticized for being too dainty and naive (especcially compared to the others on this list), she does contribute something to Disney's portrayal of women: she is the first woman to begin an adventure of her own accord, that isn't driven by wanting a man. While earlier princesses met a man and then were driven to seek adventure, or others went because of family duty, Rapunzel simply decides that she's had enough. Much like Cinderella, when being obedient and asking permission didn't work, Rapunzel took her destiny into her own hands and left the tower of her own accord. You may be saying, "But she only left because of Flynn!" That's not entirely true. Since she left the tower with her hair, she didn't really need him to get out. Flynn just inspired her to finally take the risk. Speaking of Flynn, Rapunzel is also the first princess to establish power over a man. She's basically using him to get her way, something unheard of before in Disney films. Further study is needed on Rapunzel, but she may have contributed at least one crucial step forward, despite her fairly weak personality.
Watch for Part 3: The Good Daughters, soon!