Princess to Prince-less: How Disney has Reshaped its Animated Female Leads (Post 3)

May 25

For the second round of screenings, I viewed Pocahontas and Moana.  While examining these films, I not only kept a feminist perspective in mind, I also paid attention to ethnographic aspects of the films.  As I had first screened Beauty and the Beast and Frozen, I had a mental template of how caucasian princesses are depicted against with I could compare the portrayal of non-caucasian princesses.

In stark contrast to the two previous films, the character Pocahontas is frequently shown crawling and extending her bare legs, a way of movement that is completely absent from the comportment of Belle, Anna, and Elsa.  Pocahontas is linked with nature and animal-like movements, whereas the caucasian princesses walk upright, their lower bodies completely covered by long skirts. While the film seems eager to renounce the historic European association of Native Americans with savagery (as seen in the lyrics to “Colors of the Wind”), the problematic association of Pocahontas’ body with animals weakens the attempt.  Equally frustrating was the way Pocahontas is characterized by her romantic relationship.  She is able to communicate with John Smith because of her heart and love, as opposed to her mind and intelligence.  Her dream about a spinning arrow is realized by a compass, whose arrow points to her destiny: Smith.  Thus, through Pocahontas, women are ascribed with emotion, and the compass, a scientific instrument, becomes a magical trinket that decides for her who will be her romantic partner.

Moana opened, like Frozen, with the sound of female voices, and subsequently follows with a female voice (the grandmother) narrating, a decision I find particularly intriguing.  I have noticed that female narration in films, as well soundtracks with groups of women singing (with no male voices included), is rare, and I believe the usage of female voices when there are no women shown on screen sets a specific tone.  I will have to research female narration in the future.  The grandmother is further featured; Moana is repeatedly guided by her, seen especially in the moment when Moana gives up on her quest and her grandmother’s spirit comes to encourage her.  That scene presents strong female relationships while simultaneously combatting a long history of fictional women characterized as flawless (and consequentially too perfect, flat, inhuman, other) in stories.  Moana messes up, because in real life people mess up, so, the film seems to say, Moana being a woman does not make her less of a person.

Out of the four films, Moana struck me as the most socially conscious.  The character Moana explicitly denies that she is a princess, and references are deliberately made to the stereotypes of past Disney princess (e.g., their animal companions, of which Pocahontas has two).  While the plot of Pocahontas is critically centered on love, no romantic relationship is featured in Moana, other than the insignificant background relationship between Moana’s parents.  Moana and Maui are never more than friends.  However, there was a major similarity between Pocahontas and Moana that stood out to me: the idealization of the bodies and society of the Native Americans and the Pacific Islanders.  While there are no overweight caucasian people depicted in Moana as there were in Pocahontas, compared to the the depiction of a European society in Frozen, the island society in Moana is idyllic, with no conflict occurring among the islanders.  The Duke of Weselton in Frozen is an example of both physical and societal flaws, but no similar characters in either aspect are presented on Moana’s home island, which evokes the ideas of the noble savage and the island paradise.

Next steps: My interest in the role of song and lyrics as a form of script in Disney princess films was sparked by Beauty and the Beast and grew when I screened each succeeding film.  For the princesses, song seems to consistently create musical soliloquies, moments of solitude where they express their inner feelings.  Yet song’s function for the films’ male characters appears to be not as defined.  In the coming weeks I will finalize and implement my plan to analyze the lyrics of the main songs from each film in order to contrast the main female characters’ lines with those of the main male characters.


  1. Hello!

    This research is absolutely fascinating. Disney has become so ingrained in the social, artistic, and economic zeitgeist worldwide. Because of this, the deconstruction of some of their most revered works and suggest that the fairy tales do not end up “happily ever after” is a breath of fresh air compared to the expected critical and monetary success.

    I was especially struck by your exploration of Pocahontas, notably your observations of her animal-like depiction and stereotypical closeness to nature in relation to other European princesses. From a postcolonial perspective, the presentation of indigenous figures as beastly stems from a metropolitan desire to subjugate these figures for their own benefit; it’s easier to oppress someone if you view them as an animal rather than a human. You observe this excellently and reinforce this observation with your note about the compass pointing to Smith. The compass is not only an emphatic representation of European imperialism but a symbol for the European worship of science and rationality. So, on top of presenting Pocahontas as an irrational savage, the film suggests that the only remedy for her supposed savagery is the domination of European thought, a conclusion which you note.

    The closeness to nature, animalistic movement, and domination of male European imperialism reminds me of The Little Mermaid. Ariel’s problems emerge from a curse placed on her by a witch who is a native to the undersea kingdom. The only solution the movie puts forward to this curse is the killing of the witch by a European man with a ship, about as heavy-handed a symbol for imperial domination of native figures as it comes. The “happy ending” to the story (when her father uses his male magic to transform her fish tail into legs so she can marry the charming prince) only seems to underscore the imperialist superiority; two legged humans are superior to the animal-like merpeople and the sole escape for Ariel from her fishy savagery is the union to a European man.

    I’m excited for the rest of your research into Disney songs. On top of your feminist analysis of the music, I’m especially curious as to what observations you’ll make regarding any imperialist biases (or lack thereof) in these songs. Thanks again for your insightful research.

  2. That’s really fascinating! I do appreciate that Disney has made some changes to the outward appearance of princesses to break the pale, helpless, and dependent stereotypes of years past. Female leads are no longer being swept off their feet by knights in shinning amour, engaged off to strangers, or unable to confront their oppressors. I did notice that original princesses’ did not have loving families and eventually leave with their prospective princes to pursue a better life. Your research was very interesting, and I can’t wait to hear about more of it!

  3. cehorrigan says:

    I love this line of research! I am especially intrigued by the pairings in which you are watching these Disney films – Frozen and Moana are, as you mentioned, both the most recent and the most female empowering of Disney’s animated films. I completely agree with your analysis of the disparity between the way Pocahontas and the Caucasian princesses are portrayed, and I would go even further to say that despite the fact that the white princesses like Belle and Cinderella are shown as being civil and beautiful, they are still not being positively portrayed. As a sophomore in high school I did a research project comparing Belle to Jane Eyre, the titular character from Charlotte Brontë’s book. Belle’s situation parallels the one Jane finds herself in; although they both exhibit some degree of power, they are still subservient to a powerful and intimidating masculine figure for the majority of the story. Although Disney was following a general script for the fairytale, they are still idealizing the 19th century practices that believed woman were unequal to men. I love how Disney’s animated movies have matured with the times so that the women have become the ones who are royal or powerful, thereby changing the power dynamic. Finally, in regards to what you mentioned about Pocahontas’ unfair characterization, I have read criticisms about Disney’s portrayal of their female leads, mainly that all of their princesses, despite the color of their skin, have the same facial structure: the huge eyes and tiny nose and mouth. If you look at a comparison of all of Disney’s princesses, they all look practically identical, except for slight variations in skin tone here and there. Not only is this culturally insensitive, as they’re making all people look like the idealized white beauty standards, but it’s damaging to the little children watching this and thinking that there’s only one way to be beautiful.
    I’d love to hear thoughts!

  4. lhcampopiano says:

    Your comparison between two different generations of Disney princesses has led to some fascinating conclusions about the new directions Disney has taken with regard to feminism. Although it is a bit outside the purview of this project, I would be interested in the reactions of the target audiences of these films (ie young girls) and their perceptions or lack thereof of changes between the two sets of films. To what extent do feminism and film produce a subconscious socialization of gender norms? Are young girls aware to some extent of the efforts being made to reduce overt gender norms in film?