The reason why I used Disney Princesses as a case study in my article on writing strong women in film is BOTH because they explored an interesting development in the way women were seen or portrayed at the time, and also because most of them were well-written and strong female characters. To get things out of the way, I LOVE Disney Princesses.
The Disney Princess franchise has sold from toys, dolls, sing-along videos, a variety of girls’ products (just copying this from Wikipedia). Successful, yet followed with criticisms. With this franchise, people tend to conclude that these female characters fit into the pretty-feminine-princess-stereotype; that these princesses only exist to sell toys and products to little girls, and to promote a female stereotype. Some people rarely acknowledge these princesses as real characters. Tamara Weston from Time magazine, for example, criticised the franchise and referred to the women as negative role models for girls and “damsels in distress.”
For starters, the term Disney Princess actually existed before they had the idea to turn it into a brand in 1999. I’m upset that the franchise led to all these characters being automatically lumped into the category of the “pink and sparkly princess-y group of girls”, because I think that most of these characters are well-written, likeable, strong and memorable. During the Disney Renaissance especially, the creators for these films were much more focused on making real and relatable characters, who just so happened to be princesses.
So I’m going to look at each Princess individually, from Snow White to Merida, dedicating one article to each one, and end with one more article giving my overall thoughts on them. As my defence of the Disney Princesses, this is my Disney Princess Retrospective! YAAAAY!!!! 😀
What other way to start the retrospective than the one who started it all: Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Snow White is a beautiful 14-year old princess (14-years old? I didn’t know that. No wonder she’s flat chested), who has lips red as a rose, skin white as snow (actually it’s ivory skin, but I’ll go with that) and hair black as ebony. She’s forced to run away from her jealous step-mother, the evil Queen, after a huntsman is sent out to kill her. After the huntsman tells her to escape instead, she hides in the home of the seven dwarfs and becomes their mother figure. But that won’t stop the Queen from killing the Princess with a poisoned apple.
Snow White was modelled after famous movie stars such as Claudette Colbert and Marlene Dietrich, two famous movie actresses during the 1930s, making Snow White very indicative of the period she was created in. Snow White was voiced by Adriana Caselotti, who was made a Disney Legend in 1994, and Marjorie Champion, the live action model for Snow White, was also made a Disney Legend in 2007. Snow White is also the only Disney Princess to have her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the first fictional female character with that honour.
When people think of the archetype of the Disney Princess, Snow White and Aurora are usually the first ones to pop into their mind: in the forest or woods singing with animals and birdies, and wearing a pretty dress and all that. And when people think of Snow White now, people think of this film. Snow White is extremely iconic by this point. A lot of criticisms often came from the idea that Snow White was “a bore”, that her only motivation was waiting for her Prince to come, and that she’s a damsel in distress, which were the same criticisms following Aurora. What do I have to say about these comments? I’ll get to Aurora in her article, but for the moment let’s look at Snow White.
About the “damsel in distress” comment, she may be one at the very end of the film when the prince ends up saving her life, but does that make her truly weak? It annoys me when women can ONLY be regarded as strong if they carried a weapon or acted like a man. Having superpowers like Bionic Woman also applies to that rule. Don’t get me wrong: you can still have a great female character like Buffy or Sarah Connor who just so happens to have superpowers and/or fights, but their powers should not overshadow their personality or the character under the surface. I am heavily against the idea that “this girl is SPECIAL because she fights/has superpowers/has magical abilities”. Physically strong does NOT equal better character.
The least the majority can ever say about Snow White as a compliment was that “she’s nice,” but ultimately there’s nothing else. Well, first of all, she does become a mother figure for the dwarfs treating the dwarves with kindness, love and responsibility. I really think being that dominant and hardworking figure in the house is an enormous strength. Don’t believe me? You don’t think being a hard working and responsible mother is a strength? Then it’s one of three things: you were never a mother, you never had a mother, or you took your mother for granted… or your mother sucked as a parent, but that’s way too depressing. Secondly… being kind… well… isn’t that enough? Isn’t giving love and kindness a strength? What about being generous? Selfless? Honest? Friendly? Loyal? Respectful? She may not show her strength physically, and she may not be as intelligent as Belle or as determined as Ariel or Mulan, but she is one of the sweetest Princesses, and all those attributes I mentioned before are a great part of who she is. Sure, she did present a stereotype of a woman at the time, a domestic lady, and she did have mostly a prince in her head (which I’ll get to in a second). But putting all that aside for a moment, at least they gave her something appealing. At least the film focused on showing this character’s virtues and emotions, and we got to see a naive and innocent, yet kind and sincere girl.
The reason why most Snow White adaptations work is because the main theme of the story is of beauty as a representation of life. Snow White may be physically beautiful to others, but what makes her the fairest of them all is that she’s the embodiment of all that is good, all that is pure, and everything living. Snow White is beauty itself. She has a pure soul and a heart of gold. She may be young and naive as a weakness, and she may not be physically strong, but it was her innocence and pleasant nature that prevented the huntsman from killing her. It was her charm that made the animals went out to help her find a place to hide and help her clean the house. Her motherly influence to the dwarfs is what made them connect to her. Her exterior and interior beauty was what made the prince fall in love with her, and eventually was who saved her in the end. At one point in the film, the Queen disguises herself as a crone, but Snow White is willing to help her despite her ugly appearance. She even treats Grumpy with compassion and love, despite his temper and tough attitude, and tries to do the best she can to prove that she’s a true friend, to the point that she makes a pie specially made for him. Grumpy later realises how much he truly cares for her. In other words, she respects everything that is living, no matter the appearance. Now consider this for a sec: if Snow White were physically attractive, but had an unbearable personality, NO ONE would like her and NO ONE would want to support her. She wouldn’t have a prince to save her life, no animals willing to cooperate with her, and no dwarfs who’d offer her shelter. Grumpy would have a reason to dislike her, and the huntsman wouldn’t have hesitated to kill her. That’s not who Snow White is. That’s who the Queen is: the ugliness in the inside represented by jealousy and hatred.
So if you put it this way, Snow White indirectly saved her own life!
… WOW! I NEVER saw it like that until I began writing this retrospective!
Just being able to make true friends, respect others and offer generosity and love to even strangers is enough for you to earn and achieve things in life. Snow White may not be the most “complex” character ever, or a fantastically written character, but she’s a good character who fits in with the theme of the story, and offers an interesting an important perspective in ourselves. If we’re able to offer the kind of beauty and life that Snow White can offer, then we can achieve almost anything. That’s something we need to learn more from ourselves: kindness is a strength, and a very important one as well.
What about the whole “waiting for the prince to come”? Well, it is another product of the time, but it does bother me when a woman’s only motivation is to get the guy. It does concern me here that Snow White just wanted a guy and not much else. In the story itself, she was waiting for the prince to come, although it’s not like she did “absolutely nothing”. She was taking care of the dwarfs like a mother figure while she was hiding. That’s TECHNICALLY something, and it showed-off a great strength in this character. And she was also thinking about Grumpy and trying to show compassion to the other dwarves too. She may not be extremely proactive, but she does sorta drive the story forward when you consider her encountering the woodland creatures and cleaning up the house. Although the romance is not the main focus of the story, even if you’re going to have a character who fulfils an important role and appears for about 5 minutes entirely, at least give the prince SOME character! This prince is just paper thin! Still, this section fits in ok with the narrative and the theme of the story. The prince fell in love with a girl full of life and beauty, and that’s what ultimately saved her life. So yeah, her motivations for me are problematic, but I don’t think Snow White is a bad character.
Overall, Snow White is an iconic character who brings charm and life to the classic animated film. She brought a new perspective on the table, and something we should all consider when writing a character and when thinking about our own attitudes in life.
Next time we’ll look at the next female lead in the line-up: Cinderella.