Since its inception, Disney has defined millions of childhoods across the world. Just hearing the classic 2000s DVD intro brings childhood memories of adventure and wonder flooding back: it’s a powerful legacy to boast.


But the world we live in today is vastly different from that which the House of Mouse first entered in 1923.

For Disney’s centennial, we spoke to Dr Robyn Muir, author of feminist analysis The Disney Princess Phenomenon, about the legacy of the princess franchise and how well it has aged into today’s enlightened world.

Disney’s princess franchise refers to Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Moana and Raya.

Surprisingly, Frozen’s Anna and Elsa remain separate from the official canon. It’s a shame, given Muir’s observation that Anna and Elsa are Disney’s best examples of "women who encompass the princess image but also have autonomy and agency".

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From their beautiful ball gowns, glittering tiaras, magical palaces, romantic endeavours and strong sense of sisterhood, they "do a great job of packaging traditional feminine princess culture with the image of empowered women who are assertive, supportive leaders".

Is it significant, then, that they’re excluded from the princess franchise?

While some suggest it implies autonomous women can’t blend with the traditional princess image Disney has cultivated, Muir disagrees. She suggests that, since Anna and Elsa are still marketed and framed as princesses, young viewers won’t pay attention to this minor technicality: "Children will see the princesses and the castle and make their own meaning from that."

As two of the most modern princesses, Anna and Elsa are a far cry from the traditional princesses of old whose stories are nostalgic, but certainly in keeping with the values of the era they were written in. After all, we no longer live in a time in which distressed damsels require saving, especially not from a kiss delivered whilst unconscious.

To the Snow Whites and Cinderellas of the canon, the empowered 21st century princesses would be practically inconceivable: Moana the fearless voyager, for whom love isn’t even remotely a concern as she fights for her people. Or Merida, so intent on rejecting tradition she literally turns her mother into a bear.

But how well have the princesses of the '90s who sit somewhere between these two extremes aged? As a '90s kid myself, I considered my era of princesses completely badass, but hindsight proves they suffer from the contradictory '90s feminism in which they were created.

Muir explains this era of princesses had choices to make, but they couldn’t have it all: "You can see this immediately with the likes of Mulan and Pocahontas, who had to choose between leadership or love."

Mulan. Disney

Similarly, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine are "assertive women who have dreams, then men are introduced and their dreams are sidelined".

"A relationship is implied and that’s it, it’s over. Does Belle ever get her adventure in the great wide somewhere? And the princesses which followed are even more complex. Tiana and Rapunzel sacrificed their dreams for their companions and were then rewarded for that choice, which has some questionable wider implications."

Recent live-action remakes are making efforts to rectify these classic '90s narratives, but Muir still feels they leave a lot to be desired. She explains the only one which has really nailed it is The Little Mermaid, offering a much more empowered version of Ariel than her animated counterpart.

"Ariel is tricked into giving up her voice rather than willingly sacrificing it, and given an internal monologue so we still hear her perspective. She becomes 'Part of That World' by immersing herself in the culture. She and Eric bond over shared interests rather than a vague romantic connection. But my favourite aspect is how Eric isn’t doing the saving, it’s all Ariel. The remake really gives her agency and leadership."

Still, it’s notable that the princesses with the most agency are also the ones who don’t encapsulate the classic princess image. The idea that women can’t adopt a traditional image of femininity and determine their own fates is an outdated one, and we’re only seeing mainstream films like Barbie combating this narrative very recently.

Moana and Maui standing on the beach looking into camera
Moana. SEAC

Muir notes that Pocahontas, Mulan, Merida and Moana "don’t have the traditional princess gowns" and are "often the least merchandised too, which is frustrating because they’re the ones with the most agency".

But there may be a cultural element contributing to this: "Formal dress looks different across different cultures, so making sure the princesses' looks are culturally appropriate is really important, too."

This touches on the historic issues of intersectionality within the feminist movement, which Muir explains "remains an issue within the princess franchise".

"When little girls who weren’t white finally got to see a princess who looked like them, it was in Pocahontas which, though great from a feminist perspective, is a deeply problematic film that rewrote history and romanticised colonialism.

"Mulan rewrote Chinese culture in various ways; there was major historical revisionism in Tiana’s story. It’s even a problem in recent stories such as Moana, which had issues in its representation of Polynesian culture."

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More recently, Disney has worked to rectify these issues of intersectionality with characters like Encanto’s Mirabel and Turning Red’s Mei, though their stories remain separate from the princess franchise.

In fact, Muir highlights that the best representations of autonomous women have often sat outside of the princesses: "Mirabel, Mei, Megara, Jane Porter, Kida, Esmeralda. We need more Esmeraldas in this world, where people are asking us to be silent, and she is demanding justice."

Muir suggests the need for a "core franchise which prioritises and celebrates the women who aren’t princesses, but also hold these really valuable characteristics. The Disney Heroines, perhaps".

As Disney turns 100, it’s exciting to see the brand finally championing powerful examples of everything women can be, even if it did take them 90 years to get there. As newer princesses are introduced, they undoubtedly make efforts to rectify the problematic narratives of princesses gone by.

But if Disney’s best examples of autonomous women sit outside of the princess franchise, does that mean the franchise itself is outdated? And will it be held back from further advancement by the problems core to its own legacy? Ultimately, only time will tell. We’ll just have to report back in another 100 years!

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