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Growth of Disney Women from 'Pocahontas' to 'Frozen'

More Than Just Pretty Faces; Pretty Brilliant, Smart, and Independent

By Idalis WoodPublished 5 years ago 11 min read
More than just pretty faces; pretty smart, strong, independent, and brilliant

More varieties to how Disney women (princess or not) are portrayed, drawn, and interpreted.

Growth of Disney Women from Pocahontas to Frozen

Disney heroines have evolved from the 1950s standards from docile creatures oppressed by external forces and achieving happiness through being rescued by a prince to independent females taking charge of their own destiny. Starting from the mid-1990s, Disney females from Pocahontas to Merida have taken more active roles in pursuing their dreams and aspirations and finding their own “happily ever after,” without marriage. However, some argue that the “Disney myth” (Meyers 123), happily ever after’s achieved through rescue and a marrying the prince, are still present in contemporary Disney films, despite diversity of the Disney heroines, who and when she falls in love with, and the dreams she hopes to achieve. Currently, Disney films are adding diversity to what it means to achieve a happily ever after. At times, there is an implied marriage, but the central focus is of the women bettering themselves on a more personal level.

In 1995, Pocahontas introduces not only the first Native American princess, but a strong young woman who actively stands for what she believes in by going as far as risking her own life. She also served as the first Disney Princess to achieve a happily ever after without marriage. Libe Garcia Zarranz states how the movie Pocahontas served as the first Disney movie, which widens the female community Pocahontas lives in through her friendship with Naomi and her relationship with Grandmother Willow. Both allow Pocahontas to have a position as leader of her tribe, and to reconsider entering an expected marriage to her tribe’s hero, Kocoum: the “handsome sturdy husband/ who builds handsome sturdy walls/ who never dreams that something might be coming just around the river bend.” (qtd. in Atenea) In addition to Pocahontas’s influential position in the movie, she serves as one of the first athletic Disney heroines demonstrated by her running, jumping off waterfalls, climbing trees, and river-rafting along dangerous waters and thus, breaking the mold as to how Disney physically portrayed its female protagonists. According to Lacroix, it is Pocahontas’s body, emphasized through her attire, which is her most notable feature: tall and slender body with thick, “untamed” hair and a more developed bust, make her more physically exotic and sexual than the heroines before her (qtd. in A Whole New World?). However, S. Elizabeth Bird brings to light how Pocahontas does persuade her father, the chief of her tribe, to make peace with the settlers, without stating why it is in her best interest to do so (Meyers 196). This would imply her desire of peace being fueled by her love for John Smith, the “enemy” to her tribe. Yet when John Smith asks Pocahontas if she would return to England with him, she clearly states, “I’m needed have to go back.”

Continuing the trend of a more sexual, dynamic Disney heroine is that of Esmeralda of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Esmeralda, the beautiful Gypsy, is seen in more colorful attire than the heroines before her. This caused a shift in the representation of sexuality (qtd. in Atenea). The neckline of her dress displays her cleavage as she dances in the streets for money and later during the Feast of Fools to a crowd of men who cheer for her. Yet underneath Esmeralda’s beauty, there is a dangerous and compassionate side of her. This is evidenced when she pulls out a knife from under her skirt to free Quasimodo from being tied up during the Feast of Fools after proclaiming to Frollo how “he mistreats [Quasimodo] the same way he mistreats [Gypsies].” (Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996) Before she escapes Frollo’s guards, she briefly mocks femininity as there are ten guards and only her asking, “What’s a poor girl to do?” while weeping before using magic, a guard’s helmet, and her athletic ability to escape Frollo and the law. Esmeralda serves as being a more complex, well-rounded Disney heroine. She embraces her sexuality, yet is devoted to God and stands as a defender of justice, refuses to be silenced, and can fight as well as a man (qtd. in Atenea). There comes into question Esmeralda being the object of desire for three men in the film —Quasimodo, Frollo, and Phoebus — yet it isn’t Esmeralda who changes; it is the men of the film who evolve because of her. Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda condemns her to burn at the stake as a witch to save his soul from damnation, after she refuses to “choose [Frollo]” in exchange for her life (Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996). Phoebus disobeys Frollo’s orders to punish a family harboring Gypsies, costing him his rank as a soldier. Ultimately, he teams up with Quasimodo to warn the Gypsies about Frollo in the Court of Miracles, thereby winning Esmeralda’s heart. Quasimodo escapes confinement and rescues Esmeralda, lifting her above his head proclaiming “Sanctuary,” urging the townspeople to fight against Frollo and the law. This makes Esmeralda a symbol of change and justice.

The introduction of Disney’s Mulan brought a character playing an active role throughout the film. Mulan serves as a character who can “do anything boys can, and can even do it better…without wearing a sexy outfit.” (Meyers 125) When Mulan makes the decision to take her father’s place in fighting against the Huns, she is risking dishonor from her society, as well as death for impersonating a soldier. Jill Birnie Henke, Ph.D., assistant professor of English and American Literature at University of Wisconsin, states how Mulan carries the “traditional” thoughts of wanting to fit into her society, but knows she doesn’t, evidenced in her song “Reflection.” She sees herself as an outcast, due to her not being seen as a desirable bride; an act which brings dishonor to her family. Upon entering military training, Mulan enters a world of men doing “manly” habits such as punching each other in the shoulder and fantasizing about their versions of the ideal woman. What solidifies her position of staying in the military is her ability to retrieve an arrow shot upon a wooden pole when none of the other men are able to, proving she is suited to defend against the Huns. When Mulan is expelled from the military and spared death, she comes to terms with her motivation of joining the military, bringing dishonor to her family, and her mistakes: “Maybe I didn’t do it to save my father. I wanted to prove I could do things right...but I was wrong.” Mulan’s insight about her reasons of breaking tradition reveals herself to be an intelligent young woman, as she reflects on her actions. She is someone who follows her heart, ignores her gender, and becomes a “man,” and proves she can “out-man” the other soldiers with her bravery and intellect (Henke 130-131). Some argue Mulan fighting in her father’s place is due to the patriarchal society she lives in. Yet, Rebecca-Ann Do Rozario, professor of English Literature and theater at Monash University and fairy tale enthusiast, brings to light Mulan’s significant role in the film when she comes back home to her father after defeating the Huns and bearing gifts of honor from the emperor. Her father ignores the gifts and embraces Mulan and states, “The greatest gift in honor is having you for a daughter.” With this, Mulan represents the disruption of patriarchy and links the choices she made to the concepts of strength, determination, and being the master of one’s destiny. (qtd. in A Whole New World?)

A notable trend emerging from more recent Disney animated films involves the heroine’s races/nationalities. Pocahontas was the first Disney Princess of Native American descent, while Mulan was Chinese-American (qtd. in A Whole New World?). In 2009, Disney introduced the first African-American Princess: Tiana. When introduced, she is not a princess at birth and is content with spending time with her family and wishing on a star, not for a prince, but to own a restaurant. Richard M. Breaux, author of "To the Uplift and Protection of Young Womanhood" and professor of African-American History at University of Iowa, states how Tiana’s role in the film shows she can take care of herself, and reveals Tiana as one of the few Disney heroines who doesn’t fall in love with the prince right away. Like Mulan, Tiana plays an active role in obtaining her dreams and defeating the villain. Tiana has spent her life working two jobs to earn enough money for her restaurant and values hard work. Her dream surpasses any desire of going on dates, getting married, and being with her friends (qtd. in After 75 Years of Disney Magic). After turning into a frog and her dream coming to a halt, voodoo master Dr. Facilier offers her the chance to get to have her dream come true and to become human in exchange for a voodoo charm. Tiana refuses, stating how she didn’t get what she wanted, but she had what she needed and breaks the charm causing Dr. Facilier to be dragged to hell by angry voodoo spirits. Another notable element in the film is Prince Naveen falling in love with Tiana, not as a human, but as a frog. He sees beyond her physical beauty and loves the way “she lights up when [Tiana] talks about her dreams.” (The Princess and the Frog, 2009). Tiana learns not to focus her life on dreaming and waiting for a prince, but working to achieve her dreams — a lesson she learned from her father that clashes with her mother’s ideals of Tiana marrying and giving her grandchildren. Although she becomes a princess through marrying Naveen, Tiana’s dreams, voice, and culture are not sacrificed as she remains in New Orleans with her mother, Naveen, and friends (qtd. in After 75 Years of Disney Magic).

Portrayals of women in Disney animated films have grown since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). The heroines are no longer prepubescent girls wishing on stars to be rescued by princes, but strong women taking fate into their own hands, while breaking traditions as to how previous Disney females have been depicted. Merida, from 2012’s Brave, hotly declares she doesn’t wish to be betrothed and competes in an archery tournament for her own hand, appealing to a large audience of teenage girls. Her free spirit, symbolized with her wild red hair, is further evidenced as she marches into her palace, is an expert in weaponry, and realizes “Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it.” (Brave, 2012)

More recently, Anna from 2013’s Frozen is seen more like a typical teenager as she wakes up with bedhead, awkwardly converses with Prince Hans and her sister Elsa, and attempts to be prim and proper, while eating large amounts of chocolate. Elsa, meanwhile, states how Anna can’t marry someone she’s known for only a day, a plot device commonly used in the older Disney films, and then undergoes a personal transformation of her own as her powers are accidently revealed. Exiled, Elsa embraces her powers and rejects being “the good girl…concealing…not feeling,” letting her hair out from her bun, creating a magical, somewhat revealing, dress as she struts along her castle, embracing her freedom alone. The movie also reveals how the power of love, not from a prince, but from family, can save someone. Anna sacrifices herself to save Elsa, not only breaking Anna’s curse but also for releasing her kingdom from an eternal winter. As a result, Elsa comes to realize how shutting Anna out of her life nearly destroyed her. Additionally, Elsa breathed new life into Disney dynamics by becoming queen without marriage, while Anna falls in love with iceman Kristoff and proves to be a strong female character on her own when confronting Hans for his evil actions going as far as punching him for trying to kill Elsa.

Today’s females in media are becoming more powerful, taking charge of their fate, and rejecting “traditional” feminine values. Women can still be women, without falling in love and marrying their rescuer, and without being “beautiful and silent,” as their choices are made without them playing an active role in deciding and influencing them (qtd. in A Whole New World?). If the Disney myth is still present, it’s appearing more sporadically or is slowly dying out.


Breaux, Richard. "After 75 Years of Magic: Disney Answers Its Critics, Rewrites African American History, and Cashes In on Its Racist Past." Journal of African American Studies 14.4 (2010): 398-416. SpringerLink. Springer Science Business Media. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.

Meyers, Marian. "Climbing the Great Wall of Feminism: Disney's Mulan, The Burden of History: Representations of American Indian Women in Popular Media." Women in Popular Culture: Representation and Meaning. 1st ed. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton, 2008. 123-135, 185-186, 195-197. Print.

Yzaguirre, Christine M. "A Whole New World? The Evolution of Disney Animated Heroines from Snow White to Mulan." Seton Hall University Dissertations and These (2006): 22, 35-37, 50, 54. Seton Hall University. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. PDF

Zarranz, Libe Garcia. "Diswomen Strike Back? The Evolution of Disney Femmes in the 1990s." Atenea: Bilingual Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities 27.2 (2007): 58-63. Atenea Arts and Sciences. University of Puerto Rico. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Let us continue to evolve our heroes.


About the Creator

Idalis Wood

I'm a college graduate passionate about writing. I'm so many things-- a geek, foodie, a shopper, somewhat tech savvy, etc. And I love it.

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