Disney movies hold a special place in most of our hearts. They have been delighting and engaging audiences for eighty years now with endearing characters, groundbreaking art work, infectious songs…Most remarkably they have managed to intrinsically capture the spirit and cultural ethos of their respective periods, becoming across the decades something of an ever-evolving time capsule of American culture. However, this means that ingesting them becomes an inevitably more complicated process as time progresses and values change. The feminine ideals projected by the early princesses are not generally the ones that most of us encourage in little girls now, and the plot devices surrounding them can spark no end of conversation about topics like gender roles or sexual ethics. But these stories didn’t spring fully formed from the skull of Walt Disney. Almost every Disney movie is an adaptation of an existing story, most broadly from the fairytale genre, which is famously pretty un-feminist in its own right. As the plots are taken apart and put through the Mouse machine to make an original new product lots of elements change from the inspiration piece to the finished film, including and especially the heroines. So how does Disney stack up when it comes to adapting the ladies and their adventures? Let’s unpack some of the big ones.
The Movie You Know:
An orphaned princess touted as “The Fairest of them All,” is targeted by her murderously jealous stepmother, the Evil Queen (Fun Fact: She does actually have a name, and it is Grimhilde. Kind of understand why she doesn’t use it much). Eventually, Princess Snow White takes refuge deep in the forest keeping house for seven dwarves, until the day that a mysterious old woman stops by to offer her some fruit. Long story short it was actually the queen in disguise, and this ends poorly for our heroine. So, Snow White having been successfully murdered, the heartbroken dwarves interred her in a glass coffin. In the Disney movie they’re there when the prince (who shared a really annoying love song with Snow at the beginning of the movie) shows up, they clue him in on the curse, he kisses it better and then he and his child bride (according to Disney canon she is only fourteen or so) ride happily off into the sunset. The age of our heroine is a bit questionable here, but otherwise everything checks out as standard Happily Ever After fare. Please note that kissing is not ever the appropriate antidote to a poisoning.
In the Original
The dwarves don’t know that Snow White is cursed as opposed to actually poisoned, so they don’t say otherwise when the prince arrives. For his part he just sees a hot girl in a glass box, and is so turned on by her seemingly dead beauty that he orders her coffin carted back to his castle so that he can stare at her whenever he wants (Seriously). En route they hit a rough patch and the poisoned bite of apple jostles free of Snow White’s esophagus, breaking the curse, and allowing her to wake up (this is also not a reliable antidote to poisoning). After presumably covering his disappointment as smoothly as possible, Prince Dahmer proposes to marry the newly enlivened maiden (way to hedge there, buddy), who, for some reason, is not at all creeped out by the circumstances surrounding their meeting. Scene.
Better. Oh SO much better. I mean, an essential central conceit of the story is still that a fairly passive character becomes housekeeper for a group of bachelors, and lord knows she doesn’t do much to affect the direction of her story (besides being soooooooo pretty), but at least she was given a smidge of agency in her love story. She actually met the guy in question and reciprocated his interest in her before all the crazy cursed fruit business, so he had nominal reason to think she would be okay with him kissing her awake. Eliminating the necrophilic undertones was a good move too, because there is absolutely no way to make that seem okay.
The Movie You Know
Jasmine, princess of the fictional sultanate of Agrabah, has exactly one future on her horizon: An arranged royal marriage to occur no later than her sixteenth birthday. Angered by prospect of being forced into a corner, as it were, Jasmine impulsively runs away from home, and out on the mean streets of Agrabah a chance encounter with a handsome young pauper named Aladdin changes both of their lives forever. Aladdin is the hero of this story; his instant love connection with Jasmine will be the impetus that motivates his adventures thereafter, from finding a magic lamp to taking down the evil royal vizier Jafar. Jasmine is at his side to help as he saves the day, and as reward for their valor they are granted royal permission to marry in spite of Aladdin’s lack of genuine princely pedigree. Their magic carpet sails off into the firework-spangled sky, and two movies later they get around to enjoying wedded bliss.
In the Original
Her name is Princess Badroulbadour, daughter to the Sultan of…China. Yeah, I guess that’s a thing. Notably, subsequent versions of the story moved its location to Persia, which makes slightly more sense. Anyway, Aladdin sneaks a peek at her while she’s walking to the baths and falls in love with her beauty. The original story from the 1001 Arabian Nights is pretty similar otherwise. Aladdin meets the genie, wishes to become a prince, marries the princess, fights off an evil Sorcerer. As in the Disney movie the princess helps a bit too at her husband’s behest. In some versions she uses her “feminine wiles” to trip up the baddie, in others she cuts right to the chase and poisons him. It’s nice when your spouse can bring something useful to the table, isn’t it?
So here’s the thing: Jasmine is alone in the ranks of the Disney Princesses in that she is the only one of them who is not a main character of her story; at best she’s second supporting behind Genie. So while she shows some strong independent tendencies, her role in the narrative is still to be a part of the heroic spoils that Aladdin wins as the protagonist of the tale, and she has no sphere beyond that in the story. Ultimately she’s only slightly more developed than her Arabian Nights counterpart, and I can’t really say that Jasmine is better than Badroulbadour. Their plotlines follow most of the same beats, and while both ladies are totally willing to help defeat the villain, they only provide supplementary service to Aladdin’s bigger daring rescue plan, and only after he asks them to. I like Jasmine, she’s all kinds of fabulous, but I think this one falls more or less in the lateral category.
Tiana: The Princess and the Frog
The Movie You Know
In Jazz Age New Orleans a waitress named Tiana works her butt off 24/7 with a dream of buying an old mill and turning it into the best restaurant south of the Mason-Dixon. Meanwhile, (broke) playboy Prince Naveen is in town to find a wealthy heiress when he runs afoul of the creepy Dr. Facilier. One super spooky musical number later Naveen has been transformed into the frog that makes up one half of the titular duo. Desperate to find the kiss that will change him back, he mistakes a costumed Tiana for a princess and convinces her to pucker up. To the surprise and consternation of both the kiss only compounds the curse, amphibianizing Tiana as well, and binding their fates together in the bayous of Louisiana. Now, naturally they dislike each other initially, but as their misadventures progress they learn to see past their differences, as one always does in these kinds of stories. Tolerance turns to fondness, fondness inevitably grows into love. When the moment comes for Naveen to break the curse he chooses not to so that he can spend his life with Tiana, even if it is a life as frogs. Of course this act of true love turns out to be the conduit through which the curse is actually broken, and both Tiana and Naveen are returned to their human forms, joyfully married amidst family and friends, and set on the path to a happily ever after.
In the Original
A beautiful princess drops her precious golden ball into a pond, or maybe a well, and starts crying. Drawn to the sounds of her sorrow a talking frog hops up beside her to chivalrously offer his aid…in exchange, that is, for her promise that she will take him back to the castle and feed him from her plate. She says, “Deal,” and he duly retrieves her tchotchke, but no sooner is it in her hand then the princess goes sprinting back the castle and slams the door on the frog. He’s not be deterred though. Nope, Froggy takes the whole story straight to His Royal Fatherness, the King. Interestingly nobody, not the king, not the guards, not the courtiers, seems perturbed by a talking frog seeking an official audience. Kind of makes you wonder what kind of crazy stuff people in Fairytale Land are used to seeing. Anyway, the King agrees that his daughter has behaved badly; a princess should always honor her word. He forces her to uphold the bargain, which she does, begrudgingly, in hopes of putting the whole episode behind her. However, the frog is not satisfied. After supper he follows the princess to her room and insists on being allowed to sleep beside her on her pillow. This is a bridge too far for the princess. She hurls him against her wall in (I would say not unjustified) disgust when, to her amazement, she suddenly finds, not a slimy frog sitting slumped there, but a handsome prince. Pretty standard stuff after that: Ticked off a witch, nasty curse, happy kiss, big wedding. No-longer-Froggy doesn’t seem to mind that his hot wife is a total brat, and she likewise forgets about her now dreamy husband’s serious boundary issues.
There is no doubt that Tiana, a hard-working, independent young woman with a dream of business ownership is light years better than a generic spoiled princess. What’s more, she remains strong, proactive, and goal-oriented over the course of her adventures, with a happy ending that is not solely bound up in landing a handsome prince. True, the relationship between Tiana and Prince Naveen (who is also a far better character overall than his be-webbed predecessor) is still the central point of the story, yet the happy ending comes not just from a fairytale wedding, but from the achievement of Tiana’s dreams (which are not abandoned in favor of the proverbial M.R.S), and the implication that their union going forward will be as much a partnership as a romance. Though the overall movie The Princess and the Frog may meander the middle road too much to be really great (it comes SO close, it kills me that it falls short), Tiana is an amazing character and little girls are lucky to have her in the princess lineup.
The Movie You Know
The free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan dreams of adventure while she stands dramatically atop the coastal Virginia cliffs, her silken mane of raven hair billowing behind her. Her tribe may be wary of the pale skinned invaders who have just arrived on their shores, but Pocahontas is curious, defying her father to seek out and learn the truth about them. Enter John Smith, a handsome, if charmingly cynical, career explorer out to conquer the wonders of the New World. Through a handy bit of spirit magic the two are able to communicate perfectly, and as Pocahontas shows him the natural splendor of her home Smith comes to realize that there is so much more than material wealth to be mined from the human experience. However, these two people have the benefit of being attracted to each other to speed along their cultural compromise, which is not an advantage that either of their respective camps share. Fighting breaks out between the two sides, blood is spilled, retaliations are planned, and Smith, a captive of the Powhatan tribe, is slated for execution. At the last possible second Pocahontas valiantly throws herself between Smith’s head and her father’s club, delivering an impassioned speech about how we’re all not so different, we can live together peacefully, how fear and hate only lead to destruction (Yoda would be so proud)…only to be immediately ignored by de facto one-dimensional baddie, Governor Ratcliffe, and his itchy trigger finger. It’s okay, John heroically takes the bullet, everyone realizes that it really IS all fun and games until someone is bleeding out, and they hastily declare a truce so that John can be taken back to England for medical treatment (It’s worth risking the months-long voyage and possible blood poisoning if you can get home to a proper English doctor). Pocahontas professes that, though she loves him, she must stay behind to guide the peace process between their two peoples. She bids a theatrical goodbye from the top of the cliff, as Smith’s ship sails off into the East.
In the Original
As in, in history, because this is definitely no fairytale. And it’s a different story entirely.
On a personal note I just have to start with one thing. My family’s go-to vacation spot for my entire life has been Williamsburg, VA (Not the Busch Gardens theme park mind you, but the Historic Triangle. Yes, I’m from a whole family of nerds). I have been in and out of the area around Jamestown for decades. It’s a coastal plain, which means it looks like this:
Notice something? Like a lack of waterfalls and dramatic cliff faces? That’s because we don’t have them in that part of the state. They didn’t have them in 1607 either; it has pretty much always been a flat, marshy landscape be-treed by low, scrubby pine. From the very first time I saw Disney’s Pocahontas that particular error has annoyed me more than any other. Just had to mention it; getting back on topic now.
There are a lot of errors in this movie, but for the sake of staying on topic, we’ll focus mainly on the heroine. Lets begin with the fact that “Pocahontas” (real name Matoaka, Pocahontas being a nickname) was still a child of roughly eleven years old when the settlers showed up in 1607, while John Smith was a bad-tempered former mercenary at least sixteen years her senior. Whatever their relationship was (and accounts differ, with possibilities ranging from a respectful friendship to an uneasy, sometimes antagonistic, alliance) it was 100% not a romance. However, Smith did recount his first contact with the Powhatan tribe, where he was, seemingly, to be executed until “Pocahontas” threw herself over him in a protective gesture. In the wake of that experience “Pocahontas” then became a frequent presence in Jamestown, bringing in supply parties which staved off starvation in the brutal early years of the colony, and fostering the (initially) peaceful, cooperative relationship between the local tribes and the settlers. Alas, eventually relations soured (white entitlement gets to everyone at some point), “Pocahontas” was kidnapped, pressured to convert to Christianity, married to an Englishman named John Rolfe (who agonized about the moral repercussions of marrying a “heathen”), and brought back to England where she died of smallpox, or pneumonia, or TB, or some other nasty illness that her immune system was not prepared to repel. These latter events are highly fictionalized and very much glossed over in the animated Disney sequel.
I’m going with worse.
True, the Disney version is absent a lot of the indignities (and possible horrors) that the actual Pocahontas suffered, and features a very nineties style kumbaya message of acceptance and tolerance, but I still think that it pays poor tribute to the actual historical figure it depicted.
Again, remember that “Pocahontas” did everything she did, from potentially saving John Smith’s life (it may have just been a tribal ritual in which Smith was in no actual danger) to trying to smooth the path between the natives and the settlers, as a tweenage kid. A child even by the standards of her own people. Somehow this girl decided to throw herself between her own people and the foreign invaders, and broker a peaceful coexistence. That bespeaks a courage, maturity, and wisdom that is so far beyond what most children of that age (in any era) are remotely capable of. It is so much more inspirational than some bland hippie platitudes and a cross-culture love story. Doing things for love is fine and all, but it’s well-worn territory in storytelling to the point of nearing cliché. Such a rehashing is doubly disappointing when the real story is not only more interesting, but infinitely more remarkable. A young girl stood between uneasy factions and tried to help create a world in which they could all flourish together. And for a time she succeeded. How often has that happened in history? If Disney wanted to tell a feminist-leaning story about a strong, brave female leader they would have done so much better sticking closer to the actual historical facts.
Fun Fact: Disney once had big plans for a history-centric theme park in Northern Virginia, not far from where I spent my adolescence. Pocahontas (details of which had leaked out in the development phase) was one of the many examples that the considerable local opposition used to build their case against the venture. Like, literally, Disney has already proven how badly they suck at history, and shows no signs of improving, do we really want to give them a multi-million dollar arena to further miseducate people? Yeah, we take history kind of seriously in the commonwealth. Also our famously horrendous traffic. If we’re being honest it was the traffic more than the history thing that defeated Disney in the end.
The Movie You Know
Despite everyone’s best efforts, Princess Aurora has unwittingly fulfilled the curse made by the overly sensitive Dark Fairy, Maleficient on the day of her christening and stuck herself with the spindle of a spinning wheel. Now trapped in an eternal slumber from which only True Love’s Kiss ™ can awaken her, Aurora lies in state at the top of the highest tower of the castle. Thankfully the humble woodsman she fell in love with five minutes after meeting him just happens to be her betrothed, Prince Phillip, who capably slays Dragon Maleficent, climbs the tower, and plants the Smooch of Salvation, awakening Aurora and saving the birthday/engagement/welcome home party that her dad laid out all that money for. Everybody celebrates, except her fairy guardians who still can’t settle on a color for her ballgown. This debate will go on to live in infamy (It’s blue. Team Pink is entitled to their wrong opinion, but blue in unquestionably superior. Disney only sticks her in pink for so many official appearances because Cinderella wears blue too).
In the Original
Aurora’s curse extends not just to her, but to her entire Kingdom, and so when she pricks her finger everyone within its bounds is thrown into the same enchanted slumber. One hundred years pass, the castle is semi-reclaimed by nature, and everyone pretty much forgets about that one time an entire population and its ruling family just vanished. One day a Prince, or maybe a King (accounts differ) is riding by when he intrepidly decides to explore the creepy dilapidated ruin. There, in the topmost tower of that surely condemned building he discovers the sleeping princess, preserved at the bloom of her sixteenth year for all time and…Well…In gentler tellings of this story he kisses her, the spell is broken and she agrees to marry the total stranger on the spot because knowing anything about your spouse happens AFTER the wedding, silly. However, there are variations of the story in which this guy is so taken by the beauty of a possibly dead, definitely comatose girl that he rapes her and takes off. I mean, what would he stick around for? After you’ve had your way with a corpse the excitement and mystery is just gone; on to the defile the next gravesite! However, he did manage to leave our cursed heroine pregnant so that nine months later it is the pain of childbirth that finally awakens her from her slumber.
Again, SO MUCH better. Like in Snow White, allowing the (passive, one-dimensional) heroine to meet and become attracted to her love interest restores some of the agency that the original fairytale robbed her of. Also like Snow White the horror movie elements, in this case possible necrophilia and definite rape, are wisely erased from the story. Again, there is no way to spin that original ending as a good one.
Ariel: The Little Mermaid
The Movie You Know
Ariel, a mermaid princess obsessed with the human world, falls in love with a handsome prince when she rescues him from drowning. Unable to shake her passionate interspecies feelings for a total stranger, and at odds with her staunchly anti-human father, Ariel accepts an offer of help from Ursula the Sea Witch, agreeing to trade her voice for human legs. However, there’s a catch: If she can’t win Prince Eric’s heart in three days she will return to the sea and be cursed to spend her life as one of Ursula’s…I’m actually not clear on what they are. They look a bit like some kind of sentient seaweed. Not the sort of thing you want to spend life as, though. It’s all moot; even without her voice Ariel wins over Eric (sort of, I mean, there are obstacles, and Ursula gets all wily but, you know, eventually…). After an epic sea battle and a sweet reconciliation with her father Ariel, voice and legs intact, returns to the shore and marries her heart’s desire. Passing over the fact that the wedding night will probably be horrifying to a girl who spent sixteen years with very different below-waist business, it’s all good.
In the Original
Firstly, it’s important to remember that Hans Christen Andersen was a depressed man who had immense trouble with personal relationships, was rejected by every woman he ever fell for, and died feeling utterly alone. He often regarded The Little Mermaid as semi-autobiographical. With that in mind…
The mermaid, nameless in the original story, so we’ll call her TLM, does rescue and fall for the human prince, and does solicit help from the sea witch, who does offer to trade legs for a voice. Here’s where we diverge. It’s not just a matter of coaxing a glowing ball of music out of the mermaid’s throat, no, the sea witch straight up cuts out her tongue. The legs that TLM receives in return function perfectly and all (she’s quite the dancer once she’s human), except for the fact that every step she takes on them feels like walking on knives. Oh, and if she doesn’t win the Prince’s love and marry him then she will be turned into seafoam (which is doubly bad, because it means that she will lose her immortal soul, and never ascend to heaven). Not since Shylock traded on a pound of flesh has anyone agreed to a worse deal, but there we are. Still, TLM finally meets the prince, he is attracted to her sans tongue and all (it seems that Disney’s Ursula called that one, “You’ve got your looks, your pretty face…Men up there don’t like a lot of blabber.”), and everything seems to be going well…that is, until he falls head over heels for the princess from the next kingdom over. A Royal Wedding is announced at once. Now forgotten by her only love, TLM is contemplating suicide when her sisters appear, having traded their hair to the sea witch for a solution (what the sea witch is using all this stuff for is never specified, but that’s probably for the best): TLM has only to murder the prince and let his blood splash across her feet and she will be a mermaid again. No muss, no fuss. Of course she ultimately can’t do it, because she loves him too much, so TLM flings herself into the ocean as the sun rising, and dissolves into seafoam. That’s not the end of the story though! No, she ascends into the clouds where she is transformed into an air spirit and is told by her pneumatic comrades that because she strove so hard for an immortal soul that after three hundred years of doing good deeds for humanity as a spirit she will be allowed to enter heaven. So…yaaaaaaay.
You know, I don’t get why Disney bothered to so severely alter this story. What with the mutilation, the masochism, the unrequited love, and the multi-century indentured servitude imposed on a girl who just wanted to be loved, I don’t know how they didn’t see that this story just screams Family Friendly Feel Good Movie of the Year!
Hans Christen Andersen may have had some hang ups…
Yeah, the Disney version is a huge improvement, and, more importantly, represents the studio’s first real overtures to feminism. It’s true, Ariel makes some poor decisions is pursuit of a boy, but she was the first Disney princess to be truly proactive in her own story. She initiates action, she goes after what she wants, and she exhibits an independent streak that would make the Original Trinity clutch their collective pearls. So yeah, it’s all for some guy, but in 1989 Ariel still represented a monumental step forward.
(By the way, for those of you playing the home game, the original story was written in 1837, which means that TLM is only a little more than halfway through her 300 year sentence. Good stuff.)
Anna and Elsa: Frozen
The Movie You Know
You know how it is. Your ice magic gets out of control, you freeze your entire kingdom in an eternal winter, and then you have to flee to the mountains in shame. Elsa, newly crowned queen of the Nordic land of Arendelle, is in just such a fix. Possessed of powerful wintery magic from birth but unable to control it she has lived in fear of it ever being discovered, hiding away from the entire world including her beloved little sister Anna. Anna herself has led a lonely life in a closed up castle with only the servants for company, and is eager to get out into the world and fall in love. However, her own plans are derailed when she must trek into the mountains surrounding her home fjord to retrieve her sister. In the end the two girls save each other. Sacrificing her own life, Anna thwarts the villainous Prince Hans (her would-be-fiance) in his attempt to murder Elsa and seize Arendelle as his own, and through love for her sister Elsa is able to bring Anna back from the brink of death. In the end she finds that self-acceptance is the key to mastering her powers. The kingdom is saved, Summer is restored, and the royal sisters finally find the happiness that they have both so longed for.
Oh, there’s also a supporting cast comprising a ice man raised by trolls, his reindeer sidekick, and a magical snowman, all of whom play a significant role in the above. They are charming.
In the Original
Hans Christen Andersen’s 1844 fairytale (yes, that guy again) The Snow Queen centers on two children, Kai and Gerda who live next door to each other and keep a window box garden in the space between their two roofs. When Kai is enchanted and abducted by the Snow Queen, Gerda undertakes a daring quest to save her friend. Traveling great distances alone, overcoming many obstacles through a mixture of gumption and oddly placed religious messaging, she finds the Snow Queen’s frozen palace (where the Snow Queen is…not in residence, apparently), rescues Kai through the power of her love, and, with the help of some obliging reindeer, brings him home safely. When they arrive they discover that not only has Summer has returned, but that they are now grown up (kind of a strange thing to miss). Kai’s grandmother reads the Bible, and everyone lives…happily ever after? We’re not told otherwise, so I’m going to assume so before Andersen can throw in any depressing twists.
Frozen bears almost no resemblance to the story that inspired it but there is a strong feminist tone present in each. The Snow Queen is unique among fairytales in that it sends a little girl off alone on a heroic quest to save a boy. The boy himself plays an almost entirely passive role. There is no romance in the equation (at least, not initially, it’s kind of hinted at having developed at the end), just a little girl’s courage, conviction, and platonic love for her best friend. I can’t think of another fairytale story that allows a female, particularly a young one, to occupy such a strong role.
Frozen does integrate a love story into its narrative, but the central relationship, the one by which the entire story turns, is the one between the two sisters, and from start to finish it is made clear that no bond can be more important than that one. The movie even has a good time turning old Disney tropes on their heads by openly calling out the nuttiness of being willing to marry a complete (if handsome) stranger. I mean, you don’t know if you’re even compatible, or what kind of guy he really is! He might have terrible taste in music, he also might try to murder your sister and mount a palace coup. Dating is an important step in the process, girls.
Anna and Elsa also prove to be worthy successors to enterprising Gerda. Anna is adventurous, spunky, and big-hearted, while Elsa is all quiet strength,wisdom, and, ultimately, powerhouse confidence. People over the age of six might be a little fed up with the Frozen mania that swept in with the movie, I think it’s a story that’s going to age well, and I am glad to have both this adaptation and its dual heroines in the official Disney canon.
The Movie You Know
Rich girl is reduced to house maid when her father abruptly dies leaving her at the mercy of a classically “Wicked” stepmother. Several years later the local royal family announces a mating ritual in the form of a grand ball and, with the help of a Fairy Godmother, a clutch of rodents, and a shapely gourd Cinderella attends in disguise, instantly capturing the heart of the handsome, if dimwitted, prince. Alas, the stroke of midnight marks the end of the enchantment. Facing the imminent demise of her clothing Cinderella bolts with such haste that she loses one of her distinctive glass slippers. Thought the Prince had not thought to make introductions at any point during the night, he is at least able to surmise that if they can find a foot to fit such a bizarre, eccentrically impractical shoe then the girl attached to it just might be his mystery love. A door to door campaign proves the theory correct; Cinderella is rescued from a life of drudgery (by the Grand Duke, not the Prince, because connecting the dots about the shoe exhausted just about any mental capacity he had, and a complex search operation was beyond him), and wedding bells sound across the kingdom.
In the Original
Actually it’s not super different, give or take a couple tiny details in alternate tellings of the tale. It’s nigh impossible to alter this story significantly, just about every culture in the world has some version of it and they’re all eerily similar. Sometimes there are a series of balls instead of just one, sometimes the makeup of Cinderella’s animal squad is a bit different, sometimes the stepsisters…hack off their toes and heels to squeeze their feet into the unrealistically dainty glass slipper…
Really, people shouldn’t have been startled by the French bloodlust displayed during the Reign of Terror, their fairytales provided ample proof that they had lizard brains every bit as gruesome as their German neighbors (Blue Beard, anyone?). Yes, you see in the original Charles Perrault telling of the story Cinderella’s stepsisters, raised their entire lives with the single minded obsessive goal of making a royal match, are so desperate to get into that glass slipper and win the prince that they are willing to brutally mutilate themselves in hopes of achieving the feat (HA! Feat! ‘Cause it sounds like…Never mind). I lay the blame solely on their mother, who has clearly driven her daughters to psychosis after a lifetime of pounding her unrealistic expectations into them. This is why it’s important to raise little girls with personal goals other than finding a guy.
It should be lateral if we’re dealing solely with the heroine- I mean it’s still the story of a girl who slaves away for her stepmother, her sweet nature undiminished by years of abuse, until a Fairy Godmother and a handsome prince rescue her from an endless cycle of laundry, cooking, and housework (the life of most women in any era, actually, so at least we know where the fantasy comes from). However, I’m going to score Disney in the improved column based on the treatment of the much maligned stepsisters- they may SEEM awful, but what chance would you have of being an empathetic, functional human being if you’d been raised by their mother? I mean, self-mutilation stemming from a severe mental illness linked with a desperate fear of inadequacy is a REALLY dark fate. I appreciate Disney’s judgement of this particular story element as just plain unnecessary.
The Movie You Know
Meg, the obligatory love interest to the titular hero, had previously sold her soul to Hades, Lord of the Dead to save the life of a boyfriend, who then turned out to be a cheating μαλάκας (I confess I relied on Google Translate for that epithet, it may be wildly inaccurate, and/or grammatically incorrect). When our wholesome demigod arrives on the scene, thwarting her master’s plans for cosmic domination at every step, it is Meg who is sent to distract him and emotionally sabotage his heroics (you have to admire the sophistication of Hades’ tactics here). Of course it doesn’t work. Herc’s unimpeachable goodness melts Meg’s cold, jaded heart, they fall in love, and it is Meg who provides the motivational oomph as well as the incentive for him to actually save the world (proving to quite heroic in her own right, by the way). When rewarded with immortality, Hercules turns it down on the spot to return to Earth and live out his days with Meg. The muses sing a celebratory song, and everybody goes home happy.
In the Original
Hercules murders her.
Yup, straight up slaughters Meg, and their two children in a frenzy of madness inflicted on him by Hera.
Oh yeah, she’s not his loving mom here. Zeus wasn’t what one would call a slave to fidelity. In mythology he spent a lot of time running around on his wife, siring hundreds of children with his mortal paramours. This, rather understandably, put Hera’s back up, and a number of Zeus’ illicit offspring became a target for her jealousy over the years. Her relationship with Hercules is a particularly extreme case. She spent years messing with him to one extent or another, until she finally cranked it up to eleven and drove him to massacre his family.
Better in every possible way. In Meg Disney gave us one of their greatest heroines ever; she is gutsy, sassy, sexy, and absolutely overflowing with moxie. This as opposed to a myth (from a not particularly lady-friendly ancient culture) where she has no development or role other than “Wife of Hercules,” and exists purely to die tragically. No, there is no question that Meg is one of the biggest improvement over her original counterpart in the Disney canon. Plus, I mean, most of Hercules’ myth doesn’t exactly come across as Family Friendly, and opening a film with the devastating destruction of a family is just not part of the Disney vision.
That’s Pixar’s job.
The Movie You Know
With the Huns threatening China’s borders the Emperor needs every man that can be spared to defend the country. He sends a proclamation across that land that every family must supply one to serve in the Imperial army. Unfortunately for the Fa family, the only man they have to send is their patriarch, an aging war hero who already bears persistent wounds from his previous service. His daughter, Mulan, does the only thing she can think of: Dressed in her father’s armor she assumes a male identity, and rides off to join the army in his place. After a bumpy start Mulan begins to excel in training, showing a talent for both leadership and combat; by the time the Huns are upon her ragtag unit she is ready to do some serious damage. Though the discovery of her true gender is a momentary setback, Mulan, undaunted, takes on the imperial city and the villainous Shan Yu with a daring, improvised plan, ultimately saving both her Emperor and her country. After politely refusing the Emperor’s offers of power and riches, Mulan returns to her home secure in the only thing she ever really wanted: To bring honor to herself and to her family. It also helps that she secured the heart of her hottie hot hot commanding officer, Captain Li Shang. Cue the super nineties 98° /Stevie Wonder collaboration, and roll the credits.
In the Original
Believe it or not, she’s actually MORE badass.
The contours of the story are all the same. China is in danger, every family has to send a man to serve in the army, Mulan’s father is too old and infirm to go, and her brother is a small child (Yeah, she has a little brother in the folktale, I guess to assure ancient Chinese people that Mulan’s mother wasn’t a total failure as a woman). Mulan takes up her father’s armor and, with the full knowledge and support of her family (who let her study martial arts, swordplay, and archery growing up), rides off into battle in his stead. Where she serves for twelve years, acquitting herself as a hero again and again. Also, she never bothers to hide her real identity. She fights openly, and kind of nonchalantly, as a woman, though her comrades in arms are painted as rather dim, since they don’t notice that little detail until after Mulan has retired and started wearing (female) civilian clothes. When they realize that their fierce friend is, in fact, a woman, the conversation goes something like this, “Wait, you’re a chick?” “Yeah. Duh. Now hand me my spear.” “Oh. Cool.” It’s actually kind of incredibly progressive for a folktale originating in an ancient, famously patriarchal society. Now, there is a version that dates from the seventeenth century that backpedals some of that (there’s more tragedy, suicide, and sexual harassment), but we’re going to ignore that one for purposes of smashing the patriarchy and whatnot.
Points to Disney for their great movie, but, improbably, the ancient Chinese actually smoked you here.
It’s hella impressive that there’s an ancient story that is MORE feminist and kickass than the very feminist, kickass Disney movie that was adapted from it.
The Movie You Know
When a girl is possessed with a mane of hair that has magical healing powers, she just can’t be too careful. Alas, raised in total seclusion at the top of a tower by an overprotective “mother,” Rapunzel only wants one day of freedom to find the source of the floating lights that appear in the sky every year on her birthday. Flynn Ryder only wants to steal a fortune and retire to a private island. When he breaks into Rapunzel’s tower she and her handy frying pan press gang the smoldering thief into service as tour guide, and with her reluctant new friend in tow she finally sets off on the adventure she has always dreamed of. There are emotionally complex ruffians, chase sequences, lively street festivals, and, of course, eventually there is the bloom of young love, but it can’t all be sunshine and daisies. Rapunzel’s “mother,” actually a centuries old witch who kidnapped the infant (Spoiler: Princess) Rapunzel for her magic hair, pulls out every nefarious trick in the book to regain control of her human fountain of youth, even attempting to murder Flynn Ryder. It all works out okay though, the witch is foiled, falls out of the tower and explodes into dust, Flynn is saved by Rapunzel’s Fawkes the Phoenix healing abilities (Further Spoiler: Even though her hair loses its power after its been cut, there’s a handy deus ex flora revealing that her tears will still do the trick), and the heroine is reunited with her birth parents to the jubilation of all. Happily Ever After.
In the Original
If Rapunzel had any strong desire to get out of that tower it doesn’t really come up. She kind of just passively accepts that she lives hidden away from the rest of the world, with her only human contact coming from the witch that she hoists up once a day using her obscenely long hair.
This isn’t because of any magic powers, or special defining features of Rapunzel’s, by the way. It’s solely and entirely because the witch caught Rapunzel’s dad stealing cabbages from her garden (for his pregnant wife) and decided to take his child as payback. I understand that people get very protective of their gardens and all, but…I mean…wow. How does one make the jump from “Get off my lawn,” to child abduction? It’s a big jump, is all I’m saying.
So there’s Rapunzel, hanging out in a tower, singing to herself, not bothering to develop any personality or interests, when a passing prince is entranced by her voice, and convinces her to pull him up. Being the first man she’s ever met, it doesn’t take long for the hormones to take over, and soon Rapunzel is in love (and in bed) with this total stranger. They’re planning to elope when the witch discovers them. Not pleased is an understatement. She defenestrates the prince, shears off Rapunzel’s hair, and casts the girl that she has raised for 16-18 years into the wilderness. Because, as established earlier, the witch has exactly two modes of operation: Regular and ballistic. It’s not so bad though, the prince didn’t die. He broke his fall with a thorn bush. And his face. So he’s just blind. He wanders around as a sightless beggar until he stumbles upon Rapunzel and the TWO CHILDREN HE KNOCKED HER UP WITH living out in the wastelands, and the couple is joyfully reunited. Luckily, Fairytale Rapunzel ALSO has Fawkes-like powers; her happy tears restore his sight allowing the prince to take his poorly-socialized young love and their twins back to his kingdom to live out their days in uncloistered happiness.
Disney wins by virtue of taking a story full of simple-minded idiots (or lunatics in the case of the witch), and making them into fully fleshed people with personalities and motivations. That’s always going to make for a better story, but it took Disney a little bit to really figure that out when it came to their classic fairytale love stories (Beauty and the Beast, notably, is not a part of the same canon). Glad they finally made it, though. Their Rapunzel is a sweet, caring, brave girl who definitely has eyes bigger than her narrow world. She is utterly charming, and serves as a nice bridge character between the traditional princess model and the wonder women of some other movies, providing another shade in the ever broadening spectrum of female types represented by the Disney animated features.
Belle: Beauty and the Beast
The Movie You Know
Belle is a beautiful, brainy girl with big dreams who is trapped in a provincial town when her father’s sudden disappearance leads her to a mysterious enchanted castle. The master of the house is a towering man-beast with a volcanic temper, who is keeping dear dad in a tower prison as a punishment for home invasion. At the young woman’s insistence he agrees to take Belle as a hostage in exchange for her father’s freedom, which hardly seems like the basis for any kind of positive future association. However, after saving each other’s respective lives, relations between Belle and the Beast begin to warm, each lonely individual finding in the other an acceptance that they have never known from anyone else. Despair fades, hope flourishes, the Beast’s temper and selfishness melt away to reveal his better nature, and against the odds the pair gradually fall in love. Though the Beast is nearly murdered by a Belle’s no-doesn’t-really-mean-no suitor, Gaston (and the village mob he has riled for good measure) her last second confession of her feelings saves his life, and breaks his curse. A shimmering rain pours down on the castle revealing the Beast to be the handsome Prince Adam, the castle and its occupants are freed from their enchantment, and the pacified villagers (feeling very silly, I’m sure) flood into the ballroom for a grand wedding.
In the Original
The basic plot is similar while the specifics differ; some parts of Beauty’s narrative arc are oblique, most are not. Her courage at least is very much in evidence. In the original version her father, a formerly-wealthy merchant fallen on hard times, runs afoul of the Beast trying to cut a rose in the garden of his enchanted castle as a gift for Beauty. The Beast goes ballistic for reasons that the fairytale never makes clear, and tells the merchant that he will keep him as prisoner unless he agrees to bring one of his daughters back to the castle in his place (the merchant has a few in the original version). To the merchant’s credit, he doesn’t initially plan to actually follow through on his agreement with the Beast, but Beauty, worried about what might happen to her father, insists on returning to the castle to fulfill the bargain.
However, that brave integrity is the only one of Belle’s admirable film qualities that’s in evidence in the original story. She’s definitely not the feisty bookworm that she was in the Disney movie, and her life at the castle is fairly passive. She lives in enormous luxury (which the fairytale makes clear that she is unimpressed with), and sees the Beast once each day at dinner, when he proposes to her. Every. Day. Starting from day one. Now, the Beast comes off better in this one than the Disney film, because, the original conniption over the rose aside, he is never anything less than a perfect gentleman, but Beauty still doesn’t particularly want to marry him. Each time he proposes she refuses, only to dream each night about a handsome prince. Her days are spent searching the castle for him because she is convinced that the Beast is hiding him somewhere. Still, we the reader are told that she is happy with her life in the Beast’s household, despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much to it. Eventually though Beauty gets homesick and begs the Beast to let her go visit her family, which he allows in exchange for her promise that it will only be for a week. He gives her a magic mirror and sends her on her way. At home Beauty’s sisters are jealous of her exquisite clothes and the luxurious life she leads, and pretend to be devastated by her upcoming departure so that she will break her promise to the Beast and he will retaliate by eating her alive (And you thought your siblings were petty). Alas, Beauty does overstay the agreed upon week, but, riddled with guilt, she uses the mirror to check in on the Beast and finds him lying in the garden dying of a broken heart. She immediately returns to him, tearfully tells him that she loves him, and *poof* it turns out that he was the handsome prince in her dreams all along. Her sisters are turned into statues, and birds eat their eyes.
I’m actually torn between whether or not the Disney adaptation is a lateral or positive move. The LePrince de Beaumont version certainly leans pretty feminist for the time that it was written; as in the movie it inspired it allows its heroine to be the savior of several characters. Both versions also give ample time for the titular couple to become acquainted and to fall in love organically, which is almost unheard of in classical fairytales. (Though yes, we must acknowledge that both versions feature a dubious beginning to the romance with Beauty/Belle choosing to join the Beast’s household under coercion.*)
However, as mentioned above it is impossible not to prefer Belle’s personality to Beauty’s. While Beauty is brave, and honest, and gracious, Belle is all that with a feisty independence, and voracious intelligence on top. She spends her days in the Beast’s castle cultivating friendships with everyone from the master of the house to the sentient footstool, and tearing gleefully through the INCREDIBLE library (that scene is nothing short of bookworm porn; I get the tingles just thinking about it). While LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty does spend some time teaching the Beast to read, it comes with a bizarre commentary about book learning not mattering as much as, like, purity of heart or something (shouldn’t we teach children that ideally one should be both educated AND good?), and her main pastime at the castle is hunting for her dream prince who may or may not actually exist. Of the two Belle is definitely who I’d want to spend time with.
I kind of want to class this movie as latero-positive. The Disney heroine is ultimately better, stronger, and more feminist in the modern sense, but the story structures supporting her, while different, are comparable. So…latero-positive? Can I do that? Can I just make that up? Of course I can, this is my post, and I’m Queen here.
* Okay, it has become popular to glibly refer to the relationship that develops between Belle/Beauty and Beast as Stockholm Syndrome, but I think that that ignores the context of the original, and the complexity of the adaptation.
As to the former: Remember, most fairytales were supposed to teach lessons to children (Don’t accept food from strangers is a big one in the genre), Beauty and the Beast, written in the eighteenth century, was very much targeted at girls who would likely face an arranged marriage in an attempt to help lessen their potential anxiety. It tells them to go into this situation that they have little or no control over with an open mind and a sense of their filial duty; given time love and happiness can follow. It’s quite depressing to the modern mind, where we tend to see the ideal marriage as a romantic love match between soul mates (a trope that can be damaging in its own right, by the way) but in a world where most upper class girls had their spouses chosen for them, and eventually left their families to move in with a man who who was essentially a total stranger, it’s not the worst message to give them.
Regarding the latter: The Stockholm Syndrome identifier disregards the fact the Belle and the Beast are developed in that movie as opposite sides of the same coin. They have both lived life as lonely, misunderstood outcasts, desperate to be a part of a wider world in some sense. Their love develops from the realization that at heart they are far more similar than they are different; two odd puzzle pieces finding an improbable match. And yes, the Beast’s temper in their initial encounters is a bit of a sticky point, but if we’re being fair we have to take into account that this is a guy beset by a terrible fate (which he may not have actually deserved given some eyebrow-raising revelations in the later prequel),who has been living in heavy isolation with only the furniture for company for a very long time. Ten years for his despair, his anger, his guilt to gnaw away at him relentlessly. By the time Maurice and Belle show up the window for salvation is closing rapidly, and he has reverted almost entirely to a bestial internal state that mirrors his appearance. It really is remarkable that he has ANY socialization left, or that it takes so little (comparatively) to bring him back from the brink. Notice that after the near-disastrous consequences of his untamed rage in the West Wing he is able to pull a total 180, and become a much more measured, moderated individual practically overnight. To look at the Beast’s actions in isolation, yes his behavior is inexcusable, but when put in the context of the backstory and experiences that put him where he was at the top of the movie a much more nuanced picture of depression emerges. When put in concert with his nearly instantaneous commitment to changing for the better I think it becomes grossly unfair to examine the story and character in such black and white terms.
Full Disclosure: Beauty and the Beast is, to this day, my absolute favorite Disney Princess movie, and in my all time top five Disney films. I allow for the possibility that I may have a blind spot where it is concerned, but I have also spent A LOT of time thinking about the complexities of the story. I try to be fair in my assessments.
Also: I gave Disney kudos for treating Cinderella’s stepsisters better in their movie than Perrault did in his fairytale, but I’m not doing the same for saving Beauty’s sisters by virtue of omission. Nope, Beauty’s sisters had no reason whatsoever to be the jealous bitches that they were. They tried to get their sister murdered for having better clothes than them; let those birds eat their eyes.
Esmeralda: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Movie You Know
The gypsy Esmeralda is one impressive lady. She can dance, she can sing, she can handle herself in a fight, and when the misshaped bell ringer Quasimodo is attacked and tortured by a drunken mob she leaps to his defense without a second thought. As a gypsy she is familiar with injustice, and she will fight it wherever she finds it. Unfortunately this particularly stand sends some trouble her way. Namely, trouble takes the form of Judge Claude Frollo, a gypsy-hating racist in a position of enormous power who develops a psycho-sexual obsession with Esmeralda thereafter, and tries to burn Paris to the ground to get to her (the implication being that he either wants to rape her or execute her, possibly both…Disney went dark on this one). However, with a little help from her friend Quasi and from her strapping love interest, the heroic Captain of the Guards, Phoebus, Esmeralda helps ensure that Frollo gets his just desserts (plummeting from the top of the cathedral into a river of flaming oil, which is absolutely the way to handle sexual predators of his ilk). The three heroes burst triumphantly from the cathedral of Notre Dame to where the city population is waiting, ready to embrace a new era of acceptance and tolerance in Medieval Paris.
In the Original
It takes a lot of mental effort to deal with this character in her original form. Okay. Deep breath. Here we go.
To begin with, much is made of the fact that Esmeralda may LIVE with the gypsies, but she is not HERSELF a gypsy. No, she’s a beautiful white girl originally named Agnes, who, as an infant, was tragically stolen from her mother (a fallen woman seduced to sin by a philandering nobleman) BY the gypsies. So. No worries about sympathizing with some dirty brown-skinned heathen or anything, book readers, the heroine of this piece is a lily-like victim of circumstance through and through, so sympathize away.
It’s not that she hasn’t got some proactive traits, mostly motivated by a compassionate nature. Though she is deeply disgusted by him, Esmeralda does approach the pilloried Quasimodo to offer him a drink of water and ease his suffering. When a lost poet mistakenly wanders into the Court of Miracles (gypsy underground) Esmeralda agrees to marry him on the spot to save him from execution. So. Yeah, nice girl. And I do mean girl; she is fifteen years old in the novel.
However, I would argue that her true purpose in the book is purely to show just how twisted everyone around her really is. Did I mention that when Quasimodo was in the pillory it was as a punishment for attempted kidnapping? Of Esmeralda? Yup. Frollo sent the bell ringer to snatch her off the street for him. It wasn’t TOTALLY traumatic though. Esmeralda DID get to meet hunky Captain Phoebus during that particular misadventure. What girl wouldn’t want to meet a babe in shining armor like that? Phoebus, like his boss, was not blind to the physical appeal of the dancing girl. He might have been engaged and not looking for anything “serious,” but that’s no reason to pass up such a hot little piece. Far less gallant than his film counterpart, Phoebus seduces the girl (through a galling dose of emotional manipulation that is textbook Fuck Boi), and he’s just about to get up her skirt when…Frollo bursts in from where he’s been watching behind the door. Seriously. Now he does Esmeralda the favor of stabbing douchebag Phoebus to death, but then he frames her for the murder, so…
Oh, and as if she weren’t already dealing with a lot, at this point Esmeralda has also been accused of witchcraft by the late Phoebus’ pissed off fiancée, and has all kinds of trouble looking for her. Sounds like a girl could use some sanctuary right now. If only there was a giant church nearby.
Indeed, like the Disney movie, Esmeralda does seek refuge in Notre Dame, where, moved by the kindness of her former would-be kidnapper, she finally overcomes her revulsion of Quasimodo and forms a friendship with him. It’s actually kind of a nice, quiet life the two have got going for a little bit…until Frollo tries to rape her. Yeah, he didn’t take the church’s stance on sanctuary as a deterrent so much as a challenge. Quasi is there to save the day, but things really do go downhill after this (because they were going so well before). Esmeralda’s sweetly naïve husband, Gringoire is manipulated (by Frollo) into storming the Cathedral with a crew of gypsies in a bid to liberate his embattled wife, and Quasimodo, believing that they are coming to hurt his only friend, turns all his attention to fighting them off. In the confusion Gringoire is able to spirit Esmeralda to a waiting boat, where she passes out, only to wake and find that her husband has vanished and that she is alone with the boatman, who is actually…Frollo in disguise, because DUDE, ENOUGH ALREADY! Under these circumstances it is 100% understandable that, when offered the choice by Frollo to stay with him or to be handed to the mob and executed, Esmeralda asks to be hung. Frankly, that’s the first truly rational decision that a main character has made in this book.
Hey it’s not a TOTALLY depressing ending though. Once Quasimodo learns what Frollo has done he throws him from the top of Notre Dame, which is nice. Of course then the heartbroken bell ringer tracks down Esmeralda’s corpse whereupon he lies in the street clutching it until he dies of starvation. Centuries later their intertwined skeletons are discovered, and Quasi’s bones crumble to dust when they are separated.
Victor Hugo is another one who may have had some issues.
Oh God, is this even a question? Better. Better, better, better, better. A thousand times better.
Don’t get me wrong, book Esmeralda is particularly relevant to our modern world. She’s a poignant avatar for the very extremes of the #MeToo movement; a young girl, just living her life until she is destroyed by the men who were filled with an obsessed desire to possess and control her. A victim of violence, intimidation, and injustice at every turn. Even in death she is not accorded the dignity of her own personhood; she is quite literally in the possession of one of those men until he turns to dust, which he feels justified in doing simply because he desired her so much in her life. No thought is ever given to Esmeralda’s feeling in return, either by the characters themselves or by the author who created all of them. It’s just REALLY depressing the more you think about it, but, as I said, deeply relevant.
The feisty, fiery, independent woman who is able to fight for and define her own fate is a far more inspiring character. So, good job there, Disney.
Yes, it’s undeniably true that some of Disney’s heroines and the stories they occupy raise a feminist eyebrow, as well as plenty of debate and new exploration (which I think is fantastic; society can and should constantly reexamine itself through the lens of both past and present culture). However, I feel confident is saying that the overall trend of their work is very positive. Each film has represented a step forward for female representation in the genre, and nearly all have taken an existing heroine and improved her depiction in degrees small (Snow White) and great (Esmeralda). These days the studio gives us its boldest ladies yet, characters like the newest princess, Moana, a strong, driven young women whose story features hefty heroics and exactly zero romantic subplot, and there is no reason to believe that equally inspiring young heroines won’t follow her. Because the undeniable truth that is evident at the heart of the Disney creative vision is an impulse for progress, for reinvention, for uncharted territory. Also for world domination. Strong women help their cause on both accounts.