Little girls love to pretend to be princesses. And the best princesses of all are — of course the Disney princesses. There are 12 (so far) made up of twelve leading princesses from Snow White to Moana. Disney princesses symbolize royalty, girlhood, growing up, complex family arrangements, and marriage. Over time, Disney princesses became more diverse, and provided positive role models for the modern girl, including being independent, adventurous, and mature young women.
One thing many girls dream of being is a princess, especially when they are already mommy or daddy’s little princess. Who would not want to be a princess, being the center of attention, with all the pomp and excitement of a royal life, and having a bunch of adventures?
12 Disney Princesses
Disney clearly thinks so. A princess or becoming a princess is a basic plot point in many Disney films. A Disney executive noticed the girls at a Disney On Ice concert loved dressing up as princesses. This helped to inspire the development of an official “line” of Disney princesses.
The first set officially crowned Disney princesses with staying power were Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. There were no “official rules,” but basically the princesses that took center stage were main characters, popular, and royalty (either by birth or marriage).
Esmeralda and Tinker Bell were short lived princesses:
The reasons … might seem obvious as they weren’t born nor married royal and they weren’t the leads of their movies, but they actually go beyond that.
Everything is a business, and the Disney Princesses world is one. Esmeralda was removed as she wasn’t marketable enough for the franchise’s standards, as the sales of The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s products weren’t good, and because the movie dealt with themes that were not entirely suitable for children.
Tinker Bell joined the fairies. There are now twelve main princesses, new members having special coronations to honor their addition.
There are other Disney princesses, including Elsa from Frozen, but today these twelve (an even dozen) make up the “Princess Line.”
- Snow White – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Cinderella – Cinderella (1950)
- Aurora – Sleeping Beauty (1959)
- Ariel – The Little Mermaid (1989)
- Belle – Beauty and the Beast (1991)
- Jasmine – Aladdin (1992)
- Pocahontas – Pocahontas (1995)
- Mulan – Mulan (1998)
- Tiana – The Princess and the Frog (2009)
- Rapunzel – Tangled (2010)
- Merida – Brave (2012)
- Moana – Moana (2016)
A viewer of Disney films, and here perhaps not being a young girl puts me somewhat at a disadvantage, might notice various similarities among the princesses.
I think so too and will show how various symbolism can be found across the Princess Line and applicable to other princesses not included as well. And, then, we will look at each separately.
“Standard” Princess Type
The traditional Disney princess was a white European princess, but over time, princesses from a variety of cultures around the world also were introduced. Each still retains a traditional idea of beauty, being young, pretty, and having a slim figure.
Let’s back up. The basic symbolism of a princess is royalty. Traditionally, princesses were part of folklore for cultures that were not democracies like our own.
There were inequalities with separate degrees of importance. The top of the line was royalty, often but not always, a king.
The original Disney princesses were largely inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales, traditionally European tales, which were softened over time.
The traditional princess would be a young pretty white girl of vaguely European persuasion. Also, the ideal body type would be thin, wearing elaborate wardrobes, which would not encourage much freedom of movement.
Early Princesses Definitely had “A Look”
Such a look is seen in the first set of Disney princesses, including Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
Girls were encouraged to idealize such princesses even in the United States, where the United States Constitution expressly bans “titles of nobility.”
The United States might not have an actual nobility. Nonetheless, our society still is far from truly equal. Disney princesses matched the traditional ideal image of a comfortable rich elite.
This includes being able to rule over others, not being a member of the working class.
Disney princesses allow girls to imagine a fairy tale “once upon a time,” while also promoting a traditional ideal that is understood to still have meaning in the present.
Princesses Become More Diverse
Fairy tales are told throughout the world. There is a diverse range of princesses to pick from. And, over time, Disney realized that it was a good thing to show this diversity.
The first addition was a mix of the old and new. The Little Mermaid lived under the sea with diverse characters, and had red hair. Belle looks largely the same, but stands out for her intelligence and love of reading. Her being different is noticed early on in the story.
Then, there was around the world arrangement from the Middle East (Jasmine) to China (Mulan) to a Pacific Islander (Moana).
And, even Merida had a more ethnic character as well as not following the old-fashioned traditional role of Snow White.
Over time, Disney princesses became more diverse in a variety of ways. They still were generally young, slim, and having a traditional (if more ethnically diverse) “soft” beauty to them.
Are Princesses Good For the Modern Girl?
The diversity of princesses helps answer critics who complain the traditional princess furthered outdated stereotypes.
This would include inappropriate, unreachable idealistic views of what a little girl should be. Can a feminist really support little princessses?
Critics argue Disney princesses set forth somewhat dubious messages for what ideal gender roles should be. Today, it is more likely for it to be accepted that boys like princesses.
And, princesses can also be important for trans girls. Does that just add to the stereotyping?
Still, there was always some support that princesses were positive for the modern day girl too. Disney princesses are brave, challenge authority, are excited to go out on their own, and experience new things.
They go out on adventures, including in military roles traditionally understood to be masculine (Mulan) and challenging old-fashioned norms (Merida).
They are smart and independent characters. Princesses regularly are feminist role models.
Disney princesses are like big sisters to many girls who watch them. The princesses are a symbol of what the girls will grow up to be. The princesses are often basically teenagers.
Disney princesses symbolize family, including different kinds of family, including single parents, stepfamilies, and adopted families. And, they were not models for charms of blended families.
A basic example here is Cinderella, who deals with losing a mother, her father remarrying, a stepfamily, and then losing her father as well.
In fact, until recently, princesses tended to have at least one absent parent. Fractured fairy tales.
As they grow up, princesses also must balance family loyalty with other things, somehow finding a way to retain their own identity in the process.
Belle worries about her father, sacrificing herself to protect him. Tiana tries to keep her promise to her deceased father.
Sometimes, such as Rapunzel in Tangled or Giselle in Enchanted, they are a bit naive, not having experienced the world.
But, the film is about their “coming out party.” Gaining life experiences. Princesses are basically symbols of growing up, probably aged around 16-20 years old.
Love and Marriage
And, of course, it sometimes seems the main focus is marriage. Marriage in the past and today is a standard expected part of a person’s life. A kiss signals the two marry for love.
The “true love kiss,” which is also a familiar trope in many Hallmark films (the films often end with the couple kissing for the first time) is a symbol as well that marriage alone is not involved.
Princesses are chaste; perhaps, teenagers, but innocent enough for little girls to watch.
Snow White and Cinderella follow traditional paths here, falling in love with their princes basically at first sight.
Over time, versions of the stories like Ever After (Drew Barrymore as a form of Cinderella) provided a chance for the girls to fall in love in more “modern ways.”
Today, marriage alone is not enough. A Disney princess must truly love and respect her prince as well. Beauty and the Beast shows us how “appearances can be misleading” here.
And, marriage now is not necessarily a requirement. The latest princesses, Merida and Moana, do not marry.
Merida beats her intended suitors at archery. Moana simply has no love interest. Princess Anna (Frozen) did, but we saw what happened. No wonder Queen Elsa did not!
Twelve Individual Princesses
I now will focus on each individual princess and discuss their individual aspects. Like every princess should, each will have her moment to shine. And, provide their own symbolism.
In fact, when the Disney princesses show up in public together, they are not supposed to look at each other. They are each separate “franchises” (for marketing purposes) and intended to have their own separate stories. Each princess is not merely a generic type; they are individuals.
Snow White is the first Disney princess. Her story is not only a basic version of a Disney tale. Snow White checks all of the basic traditional princess boxes.
Snow White loses her parents at an early age.
This will be a common, if not always present theme. The girls watching might be imagining how it would be to be all alone in the world. A rather scary thing, even if mommy and dad might sometimes seem like meanies.
Snow White is not completely alone in the world. Unfortunately, her “protector” is a wicked stepmother.
The stepmother fears the young, very beautiful Snow White (white and beautiful; ideal beauty) will replace her. Evil tries to destroy the symbol of all that is good. She fails.
The evil stepmother trope is a common symbol, an often older woman who refuses to follow traditional expectations, especially of being a good mother.
Parents often died young in the past; Disney fairy tales are warnings that newcomers not connected by blood were dangerous.
What is a Disney film without cute woodland creatures? We have them.
Snow White also is forced to be a maid to the Evil Stepmother (boo!), but is willing to housekeep for the seven dwarves. She is later saved by her prince, with a “true love kiss.” And, live happily ever after!
Snow White is a symbol of beauty, femininity, following traditional feminine roles, the danger of women who reject proper roles, and how men will make you happy.
Cinderella has some of the same story aspects and symbolism though Cinderella often is portrayed as blonde while Snow White has black hair.
We have the same loss of parents, evil stepmother (sisters too), cute animals, and a prince that saves the day.
“Cinderella” is actually a nasty name given to our heroine, the stepsisters making a comment on the “cinders” from burnt coal, the fire being the responsibility of their maid.
The Disney movie tells us her real name is Ella. This is a generic name in itself, meaning “she” or “a girl.”
Cinderella, however, has a dream. Not only does she have a dream, but deep down she knows it is what she deserves. Bad fate, not of her making, put Cinderella in her horrible position.
And, fair is fair, magic helps her out of it. Cinderella shows even if it all looks terrible, good might win in the end.
A Cinderella story that replaces magic with religious elements would work too. A fairy godmother also might in real life be someone who provides the means for a girl to have her dreams, including as happened in a character in Little Women.
Either way, true love wins out. This time the couple spends a bit more time together first and there is a glass slipper to symbolize the one special person that “fits” in your life.
Cinderella has a happier ever after ending, Cinderella even forgiving her stepfamily, but deep down it is a bit scary. What if there is no fairy godmother?
Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
An aurora is a brilliant light in the sky. It is named after the Roman goddess of dawn. So, when a king and queen had a wonderful daughter, a bright new dawn, “Aurora” was a fitting name.
Aurora is promised to a prince to help unite two kingdoms, but years later, falls in love with another.
Meanwhile, an evil fairy (with a name like “Maleficent,” sort of expected) feels disrespected, and curses Aurora. At sixteen, Aurora pricks her finger, going into a deep sleep.
Love again conquers all, a true love kiss from her love awakening her. This is somewhat less creepy than the prince kissing Snow White in her glass coffin. And, as long as we are talking about mature things, the symbolism of blood ending childhood does sound like menstruation.
Aurora symbolizes innocence and the inability to truly (the parents try to protect her from the evils of the world) protect your children from bad things.
It suggests some things are fated, but in the end, goodwill still win out. True love, not just love for alliances, is important.
Aurora continues the lack of agency found among early princesses, outside forces controlling things once more. She does have parents though still “loses” them when she is hidden early on.
Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
The next princess is a somewhat more modern one, whose story is told in the 1980s film The Little Mermaid.
We learned about Sebastian, the crab from the West Indies, who served as her protector. The international flavor shows this film is starting to move into the present.
Ariel is a rebellious teenager, who early on is shown to be unhappy with her life as a princess in an underwater kingdom.
A mermaid is a mix between human and fish; they are naturally likely to be somewhat torn between two worlds. Ariel chooses the human world.
Many girls can relate since they have to make their own choices among often conflicting cultures.
Maybe, their parents are immigrants, still looking back to their old traditions. Maybe, religious, political, or other beliefs divide them. Growing up overall means choosing a path.
Sebastian tries to tell her about the charms of the land under the sea. Young Ariel, a free spirit girl with long red hair, seems to have it rather good. She can freely swim quickly and easily under the sea. Why be restrained on land?
Ariel’s dreams here seem restraining given the freedom of the sea. We naturally pine for what we do not have.
Her story does show an ability to make her own path in the world as well as the risk involved. Ariel does show some naivete of what is to come; she still has growing up to do.
The “evil stepmother” character is played by Ursula, a sea witch, who (symbolically enough) promises to make Ariel human in return for Ariel’s beautiful voice.
The usual true love kiss will tell if Ariel is truly in love with a human (Eric). If so, she will become human permanently.
The film symbolizes the sacrifices girls must make, including giving up a major part of themselves (not just their family name here; her very mermaid-ness), for love and marriage.
The film also has her true love being her savior, saving her from the evil Ursula.
The Little Mermaid turns out to have some new flavor, but many traditional lessons.
Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
There have been many versions of Beauty and the Beast, but the animated film was released in 1991.
It is one of my favorites, the heroine’s love of books adding to its charms along with some good songs. Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, later played Belle in the live-action version.
A charming musical version of Cinderella, The Slipper and the Rose, put a lot of emphasis on the royal side of the story.
The basic plot in Beauty and the Beast is driven by the need of a prince to mature and prove his true worth, not merely as a pretty face.
This suggests a basic “modern” aspect of the overall storyline. Belle is a true heroine though as usual having two parents is apparently a problem, shades of Peanuts cartoons where parents are a bunch of garbled voices.
Here, she has a kindly older father, if an absent-minded one.
Belle rejects a gauche blowhard suitor (who later lashes back in revenge) and actually falls in love with “The Beast” by learning about his true nature. She sacrifices her well-being to protect her father. This being a fairy tale, she is rewarded with true love.
She is a reader, loving books, using them to look past “this provincial life.” So, she is also a dreamer.
Yes, she is a traditional beauty. Like the absence of a traditional nuclear family, the usual beauty rules apply here. Belle shows how you can be beautiful inside and out.
Belle is truly the first modern princess, even if the story takes place in a medieval town. Some traditional aspects and symbolism still remain. The heroine does fall in love with a prince.
Belle is much more a master of her own fate. Note the qualifier: limits still apply, including the arbitrary demands of the powerful beast (symbolizing power) that requires her to stay with him in the first place. Beauty and the Beast symbolizes the dangers of masculinity.
Belle is a good feminist role model. One warning sign is the idea that you can “tame the beast,” when sometimes he is just a bad idea. This can lead to tragedy, including domestic violence.
Aladdin is based on a tale from One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of tales that took place in the Middle East during the Golden Age of the Islamic Empire.
One thing that stands out about Princess Jasmine is that she is not the focus of the basic story.
The film is named after and largely about the charming street urchin Aladdin while the bombastic genie (voiced by Robin Williams in the animated film) also gets a lot of the best lines.
Jasmine (Persian for “gift of God” as well as the name of a nice smelling plant) did provide the first true “ethnic” flavor among Disney princesses. The desert setting is symbolized by her being seen near water, a precious oasis in her land, and wearing blue (symbolizing water).
Jasmine resists traditions that say she must marry a prince instead of for true love. An independent teenager, she sneaks out of her sheltered life at the palace, and meets Aladdin at the marketplace.
He’s a pretty young man, which helps, but she also sees his inner goodness.
Jasmine is a good role model for the modern girl, including being assertive and able to handle herself outside of her comfort zone.
She stays true to herself, sees good in others past appearances, and is able to convince authority figures that they are being unfair.
All the same, the focus of the tale is on Aladdin, and Jasmine must rely on her father, the Sultan’s, good judgment to change the law allowing her to marry Aladdin.
The real life Pocahontas was the daughter of an important Native American leader in the early 17th Century. “Pocahontas” was a childhood nickname, meaning “playful one” or “ill-behaved child.”
Years later, the English John Smith wrote an account of her “saving him” though she was around twelve at the time. This is an early example of the myths growing up around her.
Pocahontas married John Rolfe, an older English tobacco grower, and died from an illness when she was around twenty-one.
Before doing so, she traveled to England, becoming a bit of a celebrity. Nonetheless, the truth does not make that great of a plot of a Disney kid’s movie.
The film makes her older (around 18) when she meets up with John Smith. John Smith is much more pleasant than his real-life counterpart.
The age differences of both her possible love interests are narrowed, making things child safe. She has some cute animal sidekicks.
Pocahontas is a symbol of the Native Americans, free spirited and comfortable with the land.
Many Native Americans were much less enamored with the historical figure, but the movie version is seen as a much more positive role model for many young Native Americans today.
She serves as a guide to John Smith and the English and the two fall in love. But, Pocahontas stays loyal to her tribe, and stays behind.
Her father, however, welcomes John Smith to return at any time. In the sequel, some more fictionalized happenings go on, and she falls in love with John Rolfe.
Rolfe is a diplomat and in the end chooses to stay with her.
The movie Pocahontas is a symbol of Native Americans, an idealized path, a bridge between Native Americans and the English, and a possibility of peace and unity between two worlds.
Pocahontas has various positive qualities, but a pall is over the film given actual history, known to many viewers.
The film is like the other Disney fare, a fictional idealized world with Pocahontas even here clearly at the end of an era. The film has its admirers, but a bit too real.
Mulan is about breaking the rules.
The story is inspired by an ancient Chinese ballad from fifteen hundred years ago. Mulan joins the army to protect her father.
She fights as a man for over a decade and then goes home to her family. Mulan reveals herself as a woman to the men she fought with, who are surprised, but it isn’t that big of a deal.
And, then the tale ends.
The animated film (less so a recent live action version) made the story more children and Disney-friendly. Mulan might be Chinese, but like Belle, she seems like someone you might also meet in modern day America.
We learn more about Mulan’s personal story, including the fact she is a tomboy. This, not pure familial loyalty and honor, also motivates her wish to go into battle.
Mulan has the necessary animal sidekick. Her female empowerment is emphasized more, including by raising the stakes (breaking the rules is a capital crime).
In the ballad, it was a special exception, in promotion of basic traditional values.
The film emphasizes the rule-breaking by breaking Disney princess rules. Both of her parents are alive.
She only married in the (somewhat unofficial) sequel, and in the end is not an actual princess. Mulan is more like Xena; Mulan: Warrior Princess. Mulan (spoiler) also killed the villain; usually, the villain’s own mistakes or someone else did the deed.
Mulan is a heroine princess for millenial and Generation Z girls. She is Asian, not so obviously feminine that pretending to be a male is silly, earns her princess role by her actions, while also needing to make hard choices about family loyalty and honor.
An ancient princess for a new age.
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
Tiana is a gifted cook who lives in Jazz Age New Orleans. She is nineteen years old (so a bit older than some princesses) is African-American.
Her dad died during World War I; her mother is still alive and is her confidant. Tiana is a hard worker and dreams of being a chef.
(The dad dies in the war, but single moms are particularly well-known parts of the lives of many African Americans. The importance of retaining family honor also has special relevance here.)
Meanwhile, shades of Beauty and the Beast, a prince needs to learn some lessons.
Prince Naveen is immature and shallow, but becomes a frog more as a victim of a con scheme, then because (like the Beast) he mistreated someone.
Still, he needs a kiss from a princess to be a man again.
Rules are rules, so when Tiana (not a princess) kisses him, she turns into a frog too! The two then go on a series of adventures, they fall in love, and Tiana sacrifices her well-being to retain integrity and avoid dishonoring her father.
The prince also matures and acts honorably.
After it seems like all is lost, the two frogs (thought to be permanently so) marry, and a frog princess kiss counts.
They become human again, opening a restaurant together. The movie provides the “princess” a strong equal role in the story.
Also, though literally a princess, the royal aspect of the title is now more symbolic. At one point, the “king” of the celebration of Mardi Gras was deemed enough to meet “kiss rules.”
The meaning of “princesses” is now expanding in scope, as “true love” will in the movie Frozen.
Rapunzel types are in a current advertising campaign where the women discover they can do things on their own without male assistance.
The fictional Rapunzel is best known for her very long hair, the title of the 2010 movie (Tangled) an obvious pun, since not only does she have long hair, but her life is a tangle of trouble.
The film is a version of a Grimm’s fairy tale from the early 19th Century.
A special flower was used to relieve the pregnant queen, her mother, but unfortunately, it was actually the magical plant of a witch.
The witch steals the baby and raises her as her own child, “protecting” her by locking and isolating Rapunzel in a tower. “Mother” is very passive-aggressive, guilting Rapunzel whenever she questions her authority.
(“Rapunzel” is named after the plant itself. The original story told of a very hungry pregnant queen eating the plant, again not intentionally stealing anything known to be precious. But, as with Maleficent, some hints exist that the witch is not totally at fault. Not simply a monster.)
Meanwhile, showing this story has various overlaps with Sleeping Beauty, each year lanterns are released by the king and queen, hopeful somehow their lost daughter will return.
(Aurora means “light” and she too was locked away). A thief eventually helps Rapunzel return home.
Rapunzel has various symbolism that makes it stand out. The attempt to protect girls from outside dangers sometimes is taken much too far. The dangers of twisted parental love.
The confines some girls must suffer, including inappropriate dress and body demands (here very long hair), which are deemed “magical.”
The need to escape restraints and have an adventure. And, the ability — even confined and isolated — to retain an inner self-confidence and conscience.
The movie, mixing in various standard tropes such as a pretty bad boy and cute animals (including his horse), has a serious edge. Along with Beauty and the Beast, it is my favorite.
Princess Merida of DunBroch is sixteen, has long red hair, but she is much more Mulan than Ariel of The Little Mermaid.
She is the daughter of medieval Scottish royalty, who expect her to follow the traditional path of marriage.
(“Merida” is a name of Latin origin meaning “one who achieved a high honor.” A fitting name for a princess and adventurer. The name might not be Scottish, but fairy tales suspend belief.)
But, Merida is skilled in archery and has no desire to marry. Merida’s red hair symbolizes her fiery disposition.
Not only is she skilled in archery, but still is good at swordplay as well. As the official summary says (the control her own destiny part by now is standard):
Merida is a princess by birth and an adventurer by a spirit. She spends her days practicing archery, riding her horse Angus, and exploring the world around her.
She loves her family, but she wants to control her own destiny.
Brave also allows her to have both her parents though her tomboy ways disappoint them. Merida is an impulsive teenager while also having a caring side.
Her father respects Merida enough that she is given a bow and arrow as a present when she is a young girl.
Her mother pushes her to be more traditional. At sixteen, much to Merida’s disgust, she is betrothed to be married to form an alliance with another tribe.
A quite usual thing for the time. Merida, however, beats all her suitors in an archery contest. Very Title IX!
The story then shifts. Merida’s reckless side is shown to endanger her and her family, earlier her dad and now her mom.
But, the daughter and mom are able to join together, and win in the end. And, in the process, the mom accepts Merida’s right to make her own decisions.
Merida and Tiana are notable princesses because they have a special relationship with their mother. Mothers are often absent in these films.
Merida symbolizes the path to maturity, where you stand up for yourself, but also realize when you have to be careful.
And, though marriage is part of the story, Merida herself never gets married. A first.
Polynesia is a group of over one thousand islands (among them Hawaii) in the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of years ago, people settled on the islands.
They practiced a polytheistic religion, believing in many gods. At some point, the island people took a “long pause” from their ocean traveling.
Polytheistic religions often personalize natural forces such as oceans as gods. Moana concerns the destiny of its main character, chosen by the ocean to save her people.
Her father is an island chieftain, and with Moana’s mother, resists this destiny. They want Moana to be the next chief.
So, not only does Moana have two parents, but is destined to be queen! Gods over mortals, however, and Moana bravely goes out on a quest to make a god whole.
Moana accomplishes this by doing what her people have not done for over a thousand years: going out into the ocean.
She has the lost “wayfaring” skills of her ancestors. Moana is a symbol of the return of her people’s travels in the oceans. What will girls do for us?
Moana shows that a princess can be a leader of her people, especially having the ability to guide them through difficulties.
The film symbolizes certain things fated to be, no matter how much we resist. We have certain responsibilities, including to our family and community.
And, Moana is the first Disney princess that simply has no romantic story. Moana is helped in her quest by a demigod (male), but there is no romance there.
Royalty remains a major fascination in the United States, even if our nation began with a rebellion against monarchy. So many Hallmark films are about falling in love with princes.
Since the 1940s, we have been particularly fascinated by English princesses and queens. Queen Elizabeth has now been a monarch for over seventy years (wow).
Princess Diana was a tragic tale. And, now we have Duchess Meghan, an American princess of sorts.
Girls love princesses and Disney darn well knows it. The Disney Princesses, however, are not just a cynical marketing campaign. They are full of symbolism, each new film telling old tales in novel ways.
Something to think about when your child watches one for the 50th time?