Here we are for our third installment, and as we all know from the comedic rule of three, we need to mix things up for the gag to work. So of instead deciding what is the best between two options, we’re going to argue for what is actually the worst. And, inspired by International Women’s Day, we thought we’d approach this with a feminist slant. Because what’s more feminist than two straight white males mansplaining to women which is the worst of the Disney Princesses?
As always, I am joined by fellow fantasy author and all-round academic extraordinaire Daniel E. Olesen.
Now while my initial impulse was to pick Ariel, this seemed too easy. So I’m going to go with a Stockholm Syndrome tale old as time and pick Belle. Not because of the obvious media tie-in going on as Disney again shamelessly remakes one of their classic films, but because Belle is my wife’s favorite character.
Daniel: I consider that easy to trump, because the worst Disney princess (possibly even the worst Disney character of any significance) is Snow White. She barely deserves to be called a character. The only reason she could not be replaced by a potted plant in all the frames of the movie is that the character needs legs for the dance scene and all the running away.
In fact, running away seems to be the only action Snow White ever takes. Which is also reactive, not proactive. She survives the evil queen’s first plot against her solely because the hunter informs her, so that is not through any effort on her own part. Her only response is to run away and hide. The next thing that happens is she gets outwitted and eats the poisoned apple. I am not sure whether to ridicule Snow White for trusting someone whose appearance screams evil or to commend her for not being prejudiced against old hags, but either way, Snow White as a character plays no actual role in the plot; she is simply present for it to take place. She is no more an actual story character than the carburetor of a car would be.
This brings us to the finale. The evil queen is defeated by the dwarves (and strategic lightning, if I recall), whereas the curse is broken by the prince. The iconic image of Snow White lying lit-de-parade in the glass coffin sums up her character perfectly. Her role in the plot is literally comatose. Can you really argue that Belle is worse than this?
Matt: I think you may have misunderstood the question: I said which is the worst princess, not the first.
Joking aside, I think the issues you point out with Snow White are specifically because she was the first Disney princess. In what may be Disney’s only instance of sticking too closely to the source material, Snow White really is a reflection of princesses in the fairy tales of old. Which is to say, there only to serve the plot rather than an actual character with personality since all the old fairy tales are basically just morality tales. Their purpose is partially to entertain, but also to explain to kids why you don’t trust strangers offering you apples or go off into the woods alone. So it makes sense that her characterization is paper thin.
Which is sort of Belle’s greatest sin: She came from what’s called the “Renaissance Era” (quotations included to signify snark) of Disney princesses, which basically just means she was injected with a modicum of personality and a fair smattering of girl power. And on paper, Belle looks great: She’s a self-assured girl who is more interested in edifying herself and escaping her provincial town than settling down with the handsome jerk. When her father is captured, she offers herself in his stead rather than being bartered to the Beast, as in the original fairy tale.
But that’s what’s so insidious about Belle: All her personality and girl power flair is just for show. Despite her on-paper personality and independence, she still just plays the role of princess of old, which is to be rescued by and fall in love with her prince. I say this because I firmly believe her personality plays no role in the story. She simply comes to the Beast’s castle, is imprisoned by him, and eventually falls in love with him in what has got to be the first example of Stockholm Syndrome on record. Honestly, all the real drama and dilemma falls on Beast as he is cursed for his flaw (something Belle doesn’t have), experiences depression and misanthropy, realizes he can lift his curse so long as he can manipulate Belle into loving him by aping all the things she wants in a man, then fight off invaders to his realm to win her heart. He may get second billing in the title, but Beast is the true protagonist to their story.
While Belle plays the role of reactive waif, just like her progenitor Snow White. But at least Snow White has the decency to be straight up about her role in the story, which is object of affection and nothing more. Belle, well she just puts on airs.
Daniel: I guess it becomes a question whether it is worse that the title character is deceptively terrible or just a blank slate. These accusations we have both made can be leveled at many other Disney characters, though. Cinderella is Snow White 2.0. She has a modicum of personality; she is kind, and that is it, but again, her influence on the story is minimal. Both major obstacles (being able to go to the ball and being discovered as the the wearer of the glass shoe) are solved by other characters, and Cinderella is just present.
Pocahontas might be seen as another “Belle character”; on the surface, she seems great. Independent and courageous, she makes her own choices in spite of danger and difficulties, promoting peace and coexistence both between different tribes of people and between nature and humans. If I am to be honest, however, it seems to me like a propaganda piece glossing over the devastating impact that European colonisation had on the Americas, trying to portray some kind of idealised image of one of the great tragedies of human history. I am European myself, though, and a little out of my depth when speaking on this topic, so that is simply my outsider’s perspective on Pocahontas.
Jasmin strikes me as another female character that has little agency, but at least she is not supposed to be the protagonist either; considering how the male characters of Snow White and Cinderella are little more than moving dolls, creating the love interest as a cardboard cutout just seems to have been Disney’s modus operandi for a long time. With notable exception to Beauty and the Beast, as you pointed out.
Disney gets more complicated, perhaps even better, as we move past this. Try as I might, I can’t readily think of anything wrong with Mulan. Megara from Hercules is a love interest who is fully fleshed out as a character, has her own arc, choices, and influence on the plot; she does not overshadow the title character’s arc, but ties her own story neatly into his. So for the sake of our argument, I will claim that Disney started at the absolute bottom with Snow White and has slowly been improving ever since, thus proving that my choice of the worst character was right. Unless you want to argue that the whole debacle with Pocahontas and genocide is worse, because I honestly can’t contest that.
Matt: I fear I may be out of my depth now that we’ve gotten to Mulan, Megara and Pocahontas. While I do believe I’ve seen the first two films, I don’t remember them well enough to say anything other than Eddie Murphy was trying to out do Robin Williams in terms of obnoxious sidekick. Yet we have stumbled upon something interesting in Pocahontas in how it whitewashed (pun intended) the genocide inflicted on Native Americans. But let’s also not forget that the character this movie was based upon was kidnapped by the English during their war with her father and held captive for over a year, at which point she decided she would rather stay with the English (Stockholm Syndrome yet again?!). She later converted to Christianity, was married off, then paraded around London to prove the savages could be civilized, before dying at 21.
Wow, after I outline her story, recasting her as a feminist role model sort of seems like a cruel joke. Yet we like to stick to the myth of her rescuing John Smith rather than the reality, which totally makes sense because stories are always more entertaining than actual history. But many of the myths Disney draws its inspiration from have equally horrific origins: Cinderella’s tiny feet came from foot binding, Hercules was conceived by Zeus raping his mother while disguised as her husband. And don’t even get me started on the darkness of your own Danish Little Mermaid.
Disney has wisely turned away from the morality tales of the early iteration with an intent to simply entertain children, so much so that (if memory serves), they specifically hired writers for The Jungle Book that had not read it so they would be unencumbered by the source material. And while the author in me bristles at the original story being tossed aside, it has certainly produced better modern messages for kids. Although I was not blown away by Frozen, it’s certainly the direction I would steer my daughters if I had any. Wreck It Ralph was also great (same writer I believe), as was Enchanted, Tangled, Zootopia and Moana; all six featuring prominent females that either eskew or subvert the classical concept of a princess.
Also, only two of those examples were based on any pre-existing material, which I think demonstrates that when Disney actually sits down and hammers out an original story rather than just rehashing someone else’s work, they’re capable of something special.
You know, like Pixar’s been doing for years. Until they started spitting out sequels, that is.
Daniel: You write that Disney moved away from morality tales in order to simply entertain children, which I think is true enough; the better the entertainment, the better it sells. However, given our discussion here, it is clear that we (you and I as part of the general public) want our children’s entertainment to be morality tales. Otherwise we would not care what kind of example these female characters set for the (child) viewer.
I think this explains why Disney’s characters get progressively more progressive. This is not some internal move on Disney’s part to push an agenda. They are simply responding to how society has changed, growing more inclusive, tolerant, feminist etc. The demands of the public changes. Of course, this effect works the other way, with Disney movies promoting the new standards in society and helping to normalise them.
I still believe Disney is a soulless corporation that should be kept on the tightest leash possible, and as a Dane, I will never forgive them for how they adapted The Little Mermaid or Frozen, but I acknowledge the positive impact they can have; it is just important to remember that this positive impact only happens in response to what we demand. Which is why it is necessary to point out the sins of the past, the Snow Whites and the Belles, and continuously demand that Disney and others do better.
Starting by demanding an end to all sequels.
Matt: Hmmm… what you’ve described is basically market forces organically creating a more progressive message through a very conservative institution, which is probably the best thing in the world in my opinion. Or maybe just us constantly appropriating stories with a timeless message and then reworking them into a modern context.
Which would explain why the context from just a generation ago (Beauty and the Beast is 25 years old?!) seem so obviously dated to us now. I’m sure at the time Belle’s lip service to feminism and independence was new and welcome. Mulan and Pocahontas were also both non-white female protagonists, which I’m sure was a really out-there concept in the mid 90s, but seem par for the course today (though it was still 2009 before Disney gave us a black leading lady, and 2017 before the first openly gay character in Beauty and the Beast 2.0).
So I guess the takeaway is that all Disney princesses over 20 years old are terrible, just in different ways. Just as the ones we believe are good now will eventually age out and become antiquated. So really, we just agree that everything that’s not currently terrible will eventually become so in time.
Oh, and that we both hate sequels.