I've never done this before. And as a new user, I'm pretty sure that I'm dipping into a kind of no-man's land, here.
I primarily judge Disney princesses not by their looks or anything, but by their character, and by their plot-lines. Some of the Disney princesses are less developed than others, in my opinion, and that might be partially due to the story/plot-line itself ( as most of Disney is adaptation-based).
Some of the characteristics of each princess I find admirable, while other traits I just find...for lack of a better term...irritating. Yeah.
I'm going to rate the Disney princesses by how much agency they have ( solely my opinion), and how dynamic they are in facing their obstacles.
Ok. *Gulps down a knot in throat*
A very pretty woman, who knows literally nothing about herself, because she's been raised by a surrogate set of mothers ( fairies thanks to Maleficent). Aurora, while beautiful, has very little agency. On her birthday she bumps into Philip, and wishes to meet him again ( her only active "choice" in the whole movie). I love Aurora's violet eyes, as they are unusual for a Disney princess, but that's about it. She features as mostly the reward for Philip, after his battle of wills with Maleficent. Philip has to claw his way to Aurora. So the prince has more agency in this movie than the princess.
12. Snow White
A lovely pubescent girl, with a charm that is comprised of manners and shyness. She loves housework, which is a trait none of the other princesses share. I give her props for deciding to "choose" to stay with the dwarfs ( smart move), but I do not like her naivety about eating food from strangers. Snow White's naivety works, here, however, because of the source material which Walt Disney adhered to rather strictly. Snow White is just young, and maybe that is why I seem to feel that her own agency is very limited.
A woman with a tender heart for mice as well as people. I'm sure, if one is kept as isolated as Cindy was, she would have to talk to animals, since interfacing with humans ( her stepmother and stepsisters) was purely relegated to the role of servant and master. Cindy has few flaws. She is hardworking, dedicated, winsome, and a dreamer. I'm not upset that she gets a visit from a fairy godmother. Cindy goes through a lot of verbal and physical abuse, before she "chooses" to attend the ball. My hat's off to her, because she is resilient. I do not think Cindy likes housework, though. Cindy has limited agency because of the source material, and Disney stuck by the original story.
A beautiful woman, who is born "gifted with cryokinetic powers," and is just plain terrified of hurting everyone around her. Elsa is ruled by her fears. The only agency she has is the ability to "self-absorb all of her anguish." She suffers from rejection by her parents, and from being ostracized from her sister and everyone else. I feel sorrow for this gal, because of the child abuse she suffered for the sake of the way she was born. However, Elsa shows little agency apart from running away from her problems. (Elsa flees as soon as Anna bates her, and causes her to lose control over herself, and her powers). Elsa remains frightened all the way through the plot-line of Frozen, until the very end of the movie. Save the hug Elsa gives Anna, her only other "active choice" is "running away to protect the people she claims she loves, which ironically has the opposite effect than she intends." Elsa does not inspire me, much. I think it's her inherent cowardice, which is a psychological wound inflicted from child abuse. It certainly did not help Elsa that she had the worst set of parents in all of Disney. I don't like parents who abuse their kids. I didn't like what happened with Cindy's stepmom, King Triton, Mother Gothel, and Queen Elinor, but Elsa's parents are far worse. They injured their daughter psychologically, the whole while thinking they were protecting her. Disgusting.
Anna is energetic, bubbly, and not quite as funny as other princesses. I mean most of her clumsiness and awkwardness is goofy, instead of being fully integrated into her personality. To illustrate this point: in the beginning of the movie, Anna falls into the lap of Hans, blurting out her infatuation with him to his face, and then, in the next couple of minutes, she delivers a very serious, harsh diatribe about the capacity to love, to her sister, Elsa. The difference between these two versions of Anna is quite jarring.
Anna is impetuous. She jumps to conclusions ALL OF THE TIME. She makes assumptions ALL THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE. Anna assumes Elsa won't hurt her. Anna assumes Elsa can be won over and brought back. Anna assumes Hans loves her, until it's decidedly obvious he doesn't. I know that everyone else finds Anna's clumsiness and impetuousness endearing, but personally I find these very unattractive qualities in her. Anna comes across as ditzy. Anna's agency is also curtailed by her preoccupation with romance. The fact that Anna comes to the aid of Elsa, and steps in front of Hans, demonstrates the only moment of clarity in her brain. Saving Elsa is Anna's only "good decision." Anna needs a better brain. She is very lost when it comes to figuring out what constitutes a good decision. That's probably why Anna would be better off with Kristoff. The guy actually may be a commoner, but --hey--he has a brain that he actually uses ALL THE TIME.
This girl is brash, and just as impetuous as Anna. But the impetuousness in Merida differs from Anna's belligerence and ignorance, which were born out of a narrow-minded pursuit of romantic love. Merida is not interested in finding romantic love. Merida knows full well that if she defies her mother that there will be bad consequences. But she "chooses" her defiance, in spite of the consequences. Merida has more agency than Elsa, because, while Merida does not agree with her mother's way of thinking, she is not a coward. Merida runs away from the castle and returns to face her mother, with a cake that she thinks will “change my mother’s mind about marrying me off.” Merida is horrified when the cake doesn’t change “her mother’s viewpoint,” but literally changes her mother’s physical body. Merida starts off motivated by a selfish reaction to keeping her own life the way she wants it, but then begins broadening her perspective, when she is faced with the enormity of possibly not having a mother… AT ALL. In my opinion, Merida voluntarily faces the consequences of her rash and poor decisions, unlike Elsa, who has to be dragged back to Arendelle in chains by Hans to face the music about her decision to abdicate the throne. Elsa flees and shrinks from the knowledge that she has frozen her kingdom, while Merida walks into a room full of men going at it with insults and weapons, and calmly states that she is willing to accept her mother’s decision-- if it will stop the kingdom from chaos. I think, Merida, bratty as she is…has the edge on Elsa.
I don’t have a lot to say about Jasmine. I think that’s because this girl was not the focus of the movie in which she appeared. I understand that Jasmine’s motivation comes from isolation. This isn’t the same isolation that Anna endured, because Jasmine does not emerge from her father’s palace starved for attention (like Anna is). Jasmine is sick of being a princess. I think that is the only thing that can be said about her definitively. Why else, would Jasmine bother dressing like a commoner, and expressing an interest in another life (which is inferior to the one she already was born into?) Jasmine wants out. Jasmine hates being “a prize to be won,” because that is what she equates the title of “princess” as being. I think Jasmine has less characterization than other Disney princesses. The only reason she is ahead of Merida in this list is because she does not resort to trying to openly change her father’s philosophy about marriage, preferring instead to be patient and respectful. Eventually, Jasmine is rewarded by not being married off to someone she despises.
This girl is the bookish beauty; the one with a penchant for daydreaming her way out of the mediocre life in which she is situated. Belle is a champion of intellect. She is the first Disney woman to be well-read, and not enchanted with good looking men. Belle wants a person who can be her equal, not someone who will turn her into a baby-making machine. I like that about her. I also like the fact that Belle is self-sacrificing, and goes in her father’s stead as the Beast’s prisoner. Not many actual people have the nerve to lay down their lives for others. Anna’s moment of clarity to save her sister seems like a pale comparison to Belle agreeing--- literally--- to live her life in a foreign place, where she will never see her father ever again. Anna didn’t have a chance to feel the consequences of her choice to save her sister before becoming an ice statue. Belle had to endure the daily pain of waking up in the morning without a loved one, and yet she still managed to be kind and gentle toward her captor. Belle teaches her captor about his own arrogance, and thereby saves him from himself.
This girl has brains, spunk, and a future of her own design. Of all of the Disney princesses, this one takes Belle’s non-boy-crazy nature, and infuses it with the potential for self-actualization. I love Tiana for her work-ethic, her steadfastness to her dream, and her no-nonsense demeanor. I think she’s different for Disney because she is the only female to own her own business. That’s a very big accomplishment. Tiana has a head for numbers, and that probably makes her at least a mathematician, which is different than the English suited Belle…. Tiana has the edge on Belle (in my book) if only because managing a business is a lot harder than overseeing a castle already staffed with attendants who already know their duties. Plus, I never saw Aurora, Snow, Cindy, Anna, Jasmine, or Belle attempting to start their own agenda outside of their prince’s wishes. Also, in the end, Tiana comes to the aid of her prince and saves him from being taken by voodoo devils. Props to Ti!!!
There is a different emphasis in this movie, entirely. Here, calling Pocahontas a princess doesn’t really make sense, given that the title of Chieftain’s daughter is more accurate. But the Disney princess line is not really literal—it’s not identified synonymously with royalty. The Disney title of “Princess” is more loosely defined as “the heroine who makes her mark in a Disney movie outside of, or alongside of, any other characters.” Pocahontas is a naturalist, and is fueled by her own curiosity. She finds the new “people” intriguing, but sees that they have a tendency to be biased and ignorant of how her own people appreciate the land. Pocahontas disapproves of being labeled a “savage.” She is willing to understand a different culture than her own, though. Perhaps, this trait distinguishes her in my mind from some of the other Disney princesses. Pocahontas also has the self-sacrificial nature of Belle, in protecting Smith from getting his brains smashed out. I find that her love-life is a bit confusing, and see it for being a shoe-horn for the different-culture-appreciation theme in the movie. However, Pocahontas is slightly better than Tiana, since she is more aware of how to socially relate to others. Tiana starts off flatly refusing to relate to, or even engage with Naveen. Tiana only minimally engages with Charlotte and Charlotte’s dad, preferring only to talk to her mom after her dad’s early death. Pocahontas “chooses” to try to understand a total stranger, and his people, even if she feels that they are misguided.
This girl has some of the same bubbly qualities that Anna has, but this characterization isn’t firmly established as her major trait. Rapunzel’s overall characteristic is an optimism that cannot be denied. Rapunzel’s optimism in the face of her isolation can be contrasted with the bull-headedness and impetuous tendencies that Anna displays after being locked up. Rapunzel finds all kinds of activities to while away the time while she is locked away. Outside of begging Elsa to come out of her room, Anna does little but complain about her own boredom. This makes Rapunzel different from Anna. Rapunzel has an inventive brain to think up a new dream, just like Tiana. She wants to see the floating lights up close. She wants out of the tower to experience what life is like for people on the ground. Rapunzel also has the non-guy-crazy element started by Belle, and sustained by Tiana. She isn’t initially interested in Flynn Ryder/ Eugene Fitzherbert in any romantic way. She thinks of him as a potential means to get her out of the tower to see the lights. Like Cindy and Elsa, Rapunzel deals with the abuse of a controlling parent (even if it is a pseudo-parent). The differences are that Rapunzel is more impatient than Cindy, and Rapunzel is braver than Elsa, because she questions Mother Gothel about why she has to stay in the tower. I never saw Elsa question her parents’ mantra of “conceal, don’t feel.” But Rapunzel comes right out and asks Gothel why she can’t leave the tower. I think Rapunzel has the edge over Elsa, because, while made into a recluse, Rapunzel is not insecure about herself and her capabilities. Rapunzel wants her freedom, just like Merida, but doesn’t stoop to screwing over someone to attain it. Rapunzel is likeable, and I ended up rooting for her to find her way back to her true home.
Without this girl who started the “independence trait” in Disney females, we might still be stuck with the likes of Aurora, Cindy, and Snow. People hem and haw about whether Ariel is just a moony-eyed loony for falling for Eric, a rebel for breaking the suffocating rules of a controlling father, or a misunderstood beauty who simply does not “fit” with life “under the sea.” I have a new viewpoint to posit. Yes, we know Ariel is all about “independence.” She thinks for herself, and asks questions, even when it is sure to ruffle a lot of feathers. She does not obey the status-quo. Ariel’s defiance precedes Merida’s by 23 years. It’s notable that if Ariel had not first defied her father, PIXAR screenwriters might not have felt comfortable letting Merida openly defy her mother.
Ariel is a springboard for so many of the other Disney princesses. In my book, Ariel’s sweetness in protecting Sebastian from getting eaten for dinner ( even if he annoys her to death), is just as affecting as watching Belle tolerate Adam in his beastly form, teaching him how to eat porridge and feed birds. Ariel has a collection, and a drive to keep adding to it-- which predates Tiana’s business venture, and Rapunzel’s tower activities. Ariel – before Belle, Tiana, and Rapunzel showed up-- did a great deal to keep herself mentally stimulated.
Ariel is lonely in the sea, because no one thinks about humans the way she does. Ariel is openly curious about the human world. This predates Pocahontas’s curiosity about the settlers. Ariel already covered appreciating a different culture even before Pocahontas did. Sure, Ariel was not locked up for three years behind closed doors in Arendelle, nor was she locked up for 18 years in a tower, but if you had a viewpoint that was despised and not shared by anyone save yourself-- then that works out to be every bit as isolating. True, Ariel had no literal bars surrounding her, and wasn’t put in a back room like Elsa, but there was a set of metaphorical bars on her life. Ariel wasn’t free. She lived “a caged-in, stifling existence,” with no one who could/would relate to her.
Ariel sacrifices her voice, and that is a great part of her agency. To this day, I find that that part of the movie is painful to watch, not just because Ariel loses part of her self-identity, but because she fits into NEITHER WORLD when she makes that sacrifice. Think about it. Ariel no longer belongs in the sea, and she’s not really a complete human without her voice. She belongs in neither location. She has to be brave enough to try to establish contact with Eric-- who could just blow her off, as many humans typically do. Ariel has no way of knowing if her sacrifice to go someplace new will pay off. She just takes a humongous leap of faith. If that isn’t raw courage and nerve, then perhaps I’m missing something.
Romantic love didn’t do much to save Ariel, I think. The romance was more of a throwaway. Ariel saved herself from being eternally isolated and marginalized in the sea, by making a very risky choice that took some serious courage.
This road-trip down princess memory lane ends with this girl. Of all of the princesses, this one, like Pocahontas, does not really fit with being called a princess. Mulan turns out to be more of a diplomat, than a princess.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s analyze this girl’s traits. She starts off clumsy, and this predates both Rapunzel’s clumsiness, and Anna’s clumsiness by several years. This clumsiness is seen as a natural trait in Mulan, and some of us in the audience forgive her for rushing around trying to remember “her matchmaker mantra sayings” that sound empty, and dropping a teacup because of balancing issues. We find that Mulan, above everything else, wants to make her family proud of her. This is a decent quality. But Mulan’s clumsiness and physical timing are in direct conflict with “the dogma of the society, which is training its young women to be brides for the domestic service.” Mulan is unable to fit this picture because she is 1) outspoken, 2) has physical balancing issues, and 3) is naturally clever about analyzing her surroundings
Mulan saves her father, by chopping off her hair, donning his uniform, and going off to join the Chinese army. It seems far-fetched, but Mulan makes this believable to me…because she actually cares about her father; there is a deep connection she shares with him, and there is a shame in her that she cannot seem to shake unless she proves herself. Mulan reminds me of Belle, in this regard.
Mulan spends an inordinate amount of time being chastised in the army for her physical balance/coordination issues, and her lack of physical strength. She has to hide she’s a girl for most of the movie, which some people have found irritating, but I found amusing because of the contrasting of gender norms. Mulan finally uses her head. She uses her brain to surmount the obstacles she faces. Being outspoken clearly doesn’t work; she has to build up her physical strength; she has to practice to get prowess with weapons. However, Mulan already has a critical mind at her disposal. It’s when Mulan taps into that brilliant mind of hers…that the movie stops being just a campy joy ride…and starts being a transformative watch.
Mulan is not as regal and beautiful to look at as Elsa, or as bubbly and relatable as Anna and Rapunzel. She isn’t much of a peacemaker, like Pocahontas, though she does try to reason with her father and mother for why Fa Zhou should not go to war. Mulan made a lot of strategic decisions during her movie, though, so she has a ton of agency. She is able to “think her way” to retrieving “the arrow.” Mulan sees that men, just as women, have a narrow view of the opposite sex. Mulan notices that women in her culture believe that men should only protect and defend, while men believe women should only adore them and feed them. She questions this by asking, “How about a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?”
Mulan gets rid of Shan Yu’s army by using her brain. Mulan saves Shang’s life, not once, but twice. She uses her brain to save the emperor, and fights with a fan when everything is down to the wire, and all is thought to be lost. This girl has the most tenacity, ingenuity, cunning, and bravery of all Disney princesses rolled into one.
While I am at it, I need to point out that Mulan drives the movie from the first scenes in which she appears, until the credits roll. While the agency of females in other Disney movies might be debatable, it's undeniable that Mulan is very active in her own movie. Mulan being shocked and dumbfounded at saving a nation, and the triumph of her father telling her that, “the greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter,” are very emotionally charged sequences.
So, these are my rankings. I’ve seen the entire collection of Disney princess movies, and I have organized the princesses by how much agency they had in their movies, based on their own choices, and their respective traits. I’ve tried to explain why I feel the way I do. Many thanks for reading, if you got through all of this. ;)