It's hard to be liberated in a clamshell bikini.
I just saw Brave, and it got me thinking about the grand tradition of Disney princesses. Brave is a Pixar movie, and its heroine, Merida, is a fairy-tale feminist. Disney princesses for the most part, are not. Most need to be rescued by their male love interests; almost all the Disney Princess movies end in marriage or engagement. But that doesn't mean they're all equally regressive. There's actually a wide range, from appalling to not half bad.
Now, I know ranking anything by perceived feminism is problematic, as your professor might put it, but go with me for the sake of discussion. And lest we get carried away, rules: no sequels, prequels, or "midsequels" will be assessed, and all contestants must be officially part of the Disney Princesses franchise, a marketing juggernaut that's being sold to a five-year-old girl you know even as we speak. From least to most feminist, your Disney Princesses:
10. Aurora, Sleeping Beauty
The early Disney films were all strange fables with beautiful scenery and women who made no choices for themselves; Sleeping Beauty is the apex of these. Aurora has no interesting qualities; she's pretty, demure, and generally kind, in the way princesses are (i.e., "to animals). Aurora's naivete leads her straight into a trap laid by Maleficent, and she promptly falls asleep for the rest of the film, until a man shows up to wake her up (and not in a "raised consciousness" kind of way).
9. Snow White, Snow White
Yeah, about all that sleeping… well, Snow White also conveniently falls asleep for much of this film, and waits to be rescued by a Charming (but otherwise featureless) prince. Snow White is a weirder movie than Sleeping Beauty, but though Snow herself is a kind of quirky beauty, with the bobbed black hair and all, she doesn't demonstrate a lot of agency or courage. Still, she outranks Aurora, because when she runs sobbing to the tiny cottage and finds that it's populated with seven small men, she doesn't turn tail and flee. She puts some steel into her spine and makes do, which is pretty impressive for a woman who talks to birds.
8. Cinderella, Cinderella
Cinderella can't catch a break. I've never understood why kids enjoy this movie, because it's just one disaster after another — not only is this poor girl kind of enslaved, but then pretty much everything she tries to do to make her life better blows up in her face. Anyway, Cinderella doesn't get much of a chance to be feminist; realistically speaking, she's too oppressed for a reasonable assessment. But for what it's worth, she does try to make her shitty life work for her — she finds her mother's dress and makes it on time to the ball, despite monumental odds to the contrary. Of course, she still needs to be rescued by outside forces, so it's hard to place her too highly.
7. Ariel, The Little Mermaid
In my humble opinion, The Little Mermaid is the best Disney movie, but Ariel is shaky as a feminist icon. Yes, she's plucky, impetuous, and passionate, willing to risk all for something she loves. But on the other hand, the thing she loves is a boy she saw playing a flute on a boat for twenty seconds. And more damningly, Ariel disempowers herself for the patriarchy, actually trading her voice — her voice — for a chance with a cute boy. She's either mute or unable to walk until the very end, when her father has to bestow freedom upon her. Oh yeah, and the whole time, she's wearing a clamshell bikini. She's the first Disney princess not to wilt at the first sign of danger, and she's got a lot of nerve, but her overall message isn't terribly progressive.
6. Belle, Beauty and the Beast
Belle is often held up as the standard of the "feminist" Disney princess, but it's never been clear to me why she gets off easier than Ariel. Her major feat might be that instead of giving up her voice, she voluntarily makes herself a prisoner, but that's not much of a step for womankind. At least she's empowered enough to resent her imprisonment, though. She's got some great comebacks, and unlike Ariel, you get the impression Belle's sass doesn't come from teenage rebellion, but rather from intellectual acuity. She resists her village's expectations of what her life should look like; she's the first princess to express some skepticism about married life. But ultimately, Belle falls for a domineering man, because she thinks she can change him. Sure, you can believe it's love, but it could also be Stockholm syndrome.
5. Jasmine, Aladdin
I've dressed up as Jasmine for Halloween twice, so I'm a little biased. But Jasmine is actually pretty progressive, for, you know, a princess locked in a castle. Like Belle, she's skeptical of marriage, and demonstrates the same nerve and curiosity. Jasmine is also pretty brave in matters of the heart, falling for a completely inadequate "street rat" and whisking him out of poverty, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, Jasmine's only power lies in her sexuality. At the end of the movie, she's reduced to seducing Jafar to save her life. And though that's sometimes the only power women have in the real world, it's sad to think of little girls walking away with that message. On the other hand, major points for at least verbally refusing to be objectified. "I am not a prize to be won" — indeed.
4. Rapunzel, Tangled
A spunky princess in the Ariel/Jasmine mold, Rapunzel's been locked in a (Freudian) tower for ages, and so her naivete sometimes gets in the way of her progressivism. But she's still pretty badass. She's one of the few Disney princesses to wield a weapon (admittedly, it's a frying pan, but still) and she's surprisingly resourceful with her hair. She also recognizes the unfairness of her plight and finds a way out of it, outwitting her "mother," who is in fact her kidnapper, to venture to the outside world.
3. Tiana, The Princess and the Frog
Tiana spends most of this film as a frog, but she's the only princess who starts a business, which I think is pretty damn sweet. Not only that, but that's what she wants from the opening shot — a chance to fulfill her dreams of running her own restaurant. I'm also fond of Tiana because she falls for a penniless loser (albeit one who's actually a prince), subverting the whole idea that girls need to be saved. But then Tiana pulls a by-this-point-fairly-typical Disney princess stunt, where she has to sacrifice something she really cares about for the man she loves. Still, she eventually opens that business and name it after herself. For that alone, she has to rank pretty high.
2. Pocahontas, Pocahontas
Pocahontas, the movie, is pretty lousy history, but Pocahontas, the character, is maybe the first princess we can comfortably call a feminist. Pocahontas doesn't need saving by anybody. Actually, she rescues the guy she loves, because she isn't interested in marrying the guy her dad wants her to marry or in following a set path. She has another calling in life that she wants to pursue. Interestingly, she's the only princess who doesn't end up with the man she's in love with; her destiny is larger than a man, and she even breaks up with the guy with a whole "it's not you, it's my path" speech. Pocahontas loves bravely, even when that makes her weird, vulnerable, and alone. She isn't afraid to be exposed, and she stands up for what she believes in. I'd feel pretty good about letting a little girl watch this movie, although we'd probably have to read some Howard Zinn for historical balance.
1. Mulan, Mulan
Pocahontas is great, but nobody holds a candle to Mulan. She's the only one to overtly challenge the gender roles of her society — and inch by inch, she carves out a place for herself. Mulan rescues pretty much everybody, repeatedly, including several men — her father, the emperor, and the toughest guy in the army. She's also got two positive female role models — shocking in a franchise where most of the mother figures are either evil or dead. The movie's feminist bent is seen best in its most famous song, "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" — a clever line, because of course, Mulan is not ever going to be a man. But she still makes it. Message: you can be a woman, and still be as swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon. Sweet.