The Evolution of Female Empowerment in Disney Films

Walt Disney Animation Studios have produced countless fables over the past nine decades that have not only been financially lucrative but also highly influential on generations of children. Disney’s female characters and their portrayal has dramatically progressed over time, and this evolution can be seen clearly in comparing the titular Snow White of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) with a more modern protagonist: Merida, the spirited Scottish princess of Brave (2012).


In K. Hollinger’s “Good Girls & Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation (Review),” the author describes how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs birthed the classical period of Disney heroines, who were conventionally “beautiful, but pathetically helpless female characters.” (Hollinger 75). Likewise, in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, author Elizabeth Bell substantiates Hollinger’s claim of a pattern of passive princesses, by saying that the princesses in Sleeping Beauty (1959), Cinderella (1950), and The Little Mermaid (1989) are similar to Snow White in that they all are presented as “helpless ornaments in need of protection” who tend to be “omitted when it comes to the action the film” (Bell 37).


When Disney princesses are written about academically, they are often paired with the words beauty and weakness, as if the traits go hand in hand. In fact, Hollinger says that in Disney films “female goodness is consistently identified with female beauty” (Hollinger 76). In her academic study “Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play” Karen Wohlwend analyzes the archetype of the princess and attests that from “classic books to popular media, the consistent requirement for any princess is that she must be beautiful” (Wohlwend 60). Because princesses are beautiful, they appear to have no need for strength or intelligence, which leads to their weak-willed and two-dimensional nature.

Hollinger also views Disney heroines as weak because they are typically depicted as passive creatures who are “unable to fight against their oppressors” and could do nothing but “wait for their princes to come along and rescue them” (Hollinger 75). Snow White actually sings a song titled “Someday My Prince Will Come,” where she wistfully hopes for her hero to come and save her. Not only is she convinced that a near stranger will come to her aid, but she also describes how they will ride off to his castle and will live “happy forever,” further perpetuating the polished ideas of perfect partners and endless happy endings.


Though she shows admirable strength in her kindness and gentility, Snow White fails to assert any sort of agency in her own film, and when she does take action for her own accord it is often to her own hindrance. Because of her passivity male characters are frequently forced to come to her aid. The Queen’s Huntsman is the first man to save Snow White’s life when he is ordered by royal decree to kill her and instead decides to let her go. She is then further protected by men when she falls under the care of the seven dwarfs.


In exchange for their help, Snow White plays out the role of the dutiful, domesticated woman by cooking and cleaning for the dwarfs. In her article “From Snow To Ice: A Study Of The Progression Of Disney Princesses From 1937 To 2014,” Maegan Davis describes how genuinely content Snow White seems to be with her lifestyle “as she waits for her prince to take her to his castle” (Davis 48). She is safe from danger until the dwarfs leave her alone and she is put in harm’s way due to her own gullibility. Snow White allows the Queen, who disguises herself as an Old Hag to garner pity from the young girl, into the dwarfs’ home and is killed by the apple the Queen entices her to eat. She then lies cold, dead, and helpless, until her Prince comes to rescue her.


Broadly speaking, when there are multiple female characters in a Disney film they are either placed “in competition with each other or, even worse, presented as bitter enemies with one woman out to destroy the other” (Hollinger 76). Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs pits Snow White against her evil Stepmother, who is intent on killing her because her beauty threatens her place on the throne. Bell disparages the way that this plot positions women against each other “in competition for male approval ([represented through] the mirror)” over something as trivial as beauty (Bell 36). These themes of strong male saviors and cruel, evil women reinforce harmful ideas which raise men to a higher standard and paint female characters as either submissive or villainous.


In “The Role of the ‘princess’ in Walt Disney’s Animated Films,” author Alexander Bruce dissects the role of marriage and how prominently it is featured in Disney films. Bruce believes that the films “set up false expectations of womanhood, as each female protagonist takes little action and relies upon her own beauty…in pursuing her primary objective of finding and marrying her ‘Prince Charming’” (Bruce 2). In early Disney films, many of the princesses have no active goal other than “finding the right man to marry” as the socioeconomic luxuries of marriage, combined with the romanticized conceptions of true love, are presented as all the fulfillment they need to be happy (Bruce 3). Bruce notes that even for princesses “in an unpleasant situation,” the desire of marrying their perfect prince is “presented as stronger motivation” than simply fleeing the unpleasant situation itself for their own betterment (3). This applies strongly to Cinderella, who suffers familial abuse for years and is unable to leave on her own accord, only leaving when she is under the protection of her Prince.


Bruce writes that by “depicting the marital success of subservient, passive females” Disney is subconsciously teaching its audience that young girls are meant to “fulfill that passive role in society, not acting but instead waiting for a man to give them the perfect life” (Bruce 2). Disney’s Brave, created in collaboration with Pixar, features a princess who fails to fulfill this stereotype by actively and frequently rejecting the institution of marriage. In the beginning of the film, Merida learns that her parents have promised her hand to three viable suitors of nearby clans. She is auctioned off like a prized object to whomever who can pass the test that proves their value. Merida chooses archery for the marital challenge, a skill she personally excels at, and watches in agony as the three bumbling  young men attempt to shoot their arrows at the targets before them. Finally, she approaches the targets, waving the banner of her clan and proudly proclaiming that she is “shooting for [her] own hand.” She proceeds to shoot a bullseye into all three targets, proving herself more capable than her male suitors while also boldly rejecting the marriage contract imposed upon her.


Merida’s frustration with the marital expectations placed upon her instigates the main conflict, but the message of the film goes beyond a surface level critique of marriage. In her article “Feminism, Beyond and Within: A Review of Brave,” author Jessica Mason describes how the creators of Brave “took the heteronormative institution of marriage and used it as the vehicle through which personhood and belonging could be explored.” Elinor represents traditional femininity, which Merida’s progressive values clash against continually. The lesson of the film is not that Merida proves her mother wrong, but that they find common ground together and are each made stronger by it. In this way, Brave challenges “the dualistic notion that in order to fit into a society you have to be one or the other…feminine or masculine” (Mason).

Merida learns that she cannot solve everything with a bow and arrow, and while her reasons for running from an arranged marriage are founded on independence and are well-intentioned, she realizes that she cannot run from her problems without repercussions for herself and her country. By the end of the film, Merida has gained patience, as well as a new understanding of responsibility and the importance of communication. Likewise, Elinor has finally accepted that her daughter will never be a traditional princess, and she may never be married, but Elinor can still guide her on her journey to becoming a capable leader. It is essential that Merida does not compromise her strong personality and divergent passions to please her mother, but instead manages to wield her combative skills alongside her newfound diplomacy, and is better for it. Rather than having these two strong female characters tear each other down, they learn to build each other up in a loving, positive mother-daughter relationship that could not be more different than the one depicted in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.


There is no doubt that as the years have passed Disney has crafted more fully developed, forward thinking heroines. Early on, female characters like Snow White could only go on adventures if it was to accompany their male counterparts, and even then they would be forced to “settle back into their traditional domestic roles by the film’s end” (Hollinger 76). Mulan (1998) was arguably the first Disney film solely centered on the importance of individualism and female ambition, and later stories like Tangled (2010), Brave, Frozen (2013), and Moana (2016) have carried that torch by featuring heroines who strike out to affect their own change in the world around them. Brave ends with Merida speaking directly to the young children (boys and girls alike) who have watched her story unfold, telling them to carve out their own paths in life. “Our fate lives within us,” she says. “You only have to be brave enough to see it.”



Works Cited
Bell, Elizabeth. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.


Bruce, Alexander M.. “The Role of the ‘princess’ in Walt Disney’s Animated Films.” Studies in Popular Culture 30.1 (2007): 1–25. Print.


Davis, Maegan M. “From Snow To Ice: A Study Of The Progression Of Disney Princesses From 1937 To 2014.” Film Matters 5.2 (2015): 48-52. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 May 2016.


Hollinger, K..”Good Girls & Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation (Review).” American Studies 48.2 (2007): 75-76. Project MUSE. Web. 2 May. 2016.


Mason, Jessica. “Feminism, Beyond and Within: A Review of Brave.” Gender Focus. Gender Focus, 2 July 2012. Web. 01 May 2016.

Wohlwend, Karen E.. “Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play”. Reading Research Quarterly 44.1 (2009): 57–83. Print.