Always the Princess, Never a Queen

Curator's Note

It’s not controversial to consider Disney Princesses, both those born royal and those made so by marriage, as vehicles for romantic wish fulfilment more than working royal figures. In Disney, all roads lead to love. Instead of ruling or preparing to do so (on their own or otherwise), these are truly the Princesses Who Don’t Do Anything. This may seem a harsh statement, as these women and girls all achieve some form of goal or complete a journey by the end of their narrative, but consider: do any of them significantly involve ruling? Monarchy? Power? It’s true that princesses do not often exercise autonomous political power as youths, but that didn’t stop Simba’s narrative (The Lion King, 1994) from involving social responsibility along with romance, did it?

With this in mind, which Disney women actually rule? Not the ‘good’ queens, who are mostly either minor characters or D.O.A. Both The Evil Queen (Snow White, 1937) and the Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland, 1951) exercise actual decision-making power, but they do so to enslave the populace and build tyrannical empires. In a world of democracy, they are autocrats. Autocratic power (even in films after the advent of second-wave feminism) is seemingly only acceptable when performed by paternalistic male characters: think Mufasa or Triton. Admittedly, Disney’s most recent queens in Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013) are given more to do, but their narratives still do not centre or even place emphasis on being or becoming a Queen. This is perhaps most egregious in Frozen: Elsa is coronated as Queen Regnant and theoretically has sole decision-making power, and yet this role is almost superfluous to the narrative. In the clip, we can see how Simba’s triumphant coronation is the acceptance of the responsibility of a public role, but Elsa’s is a convenient gathering through which to show her fear and instability.

Power for contemporary Disney Princesses and Queens is internal and individualised: a neoliberal, post-feminist construction revolving around self-belief and confidence as avenues to self-actualisation. That’s not a bad construction in itself, but I wonder what it is about women with socio-political power that is so difficult to show? I do not understand how a princess or queen reveling in or even struggling with her power can be so rare a species. Princesses who don’t do anything? Let it go, Disney.

Comments

Kate Morgan's picture

Well Done.

I can definitely follow your argumentation. I would also like Disney to reconsider its narrative surrounding the princess, and will say more about it Wednesday.

But I often wonder how much the Roman Holiday trope and other “this woman is not an object to be appropriated” tropes have affected the self-actualization narrative. Analyzing it is key to unpacking some of the more pervasive modalities of consumer culture, sure. It’s an important exercise.

But we also certainly can’t call the origin of Trumbo’s “self-and-world discovery” trope entirely “neoliberal.”

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