No More Damsel in Distress: Representation in Films as told by a Former Disney Cast Member

“You can’t marry a man you just met,” Queen Elsa says to her sister, Anna, in the hit Disney film “Frozen.” This was the first time in forever that a Disney character has not only acknowledged, but called out, the often criticized trend of Disney princesses getting married to their Prince Charming after nothing but a few brief interactions. 

This short line from a film that ended up becoming one of Disney’s most popular is just one in a new wave of thinking in Disney films. From Merida in “Brave,” Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog,” Elsa, and Moana, young girls and boys are seeing a break from the tales of damsels in distress, instead watching stories of young princesses taking control of their lives and not waiting for anyone else to save them. But, just because now we’re seeing better representation in Disney films, does this mean we have to abandon the classic Disney films that might not send the same message? 

As a self-proclaimed Disney fanatic and a former cast member (Disney’s term for employees), the films and characters will always have a special place in my heart. Ever since I first saw “Beauty and the Beast” when I was just a few years old, Belle has been my favorite Disney princess. One of the main reasons was because with brown hair and brown eyes, she looked the most like me.

Except for when I went blonde…

If you were to ask most young girls which princess is their favorite, they will likely choose the one that they resemble the most, and thanks to new movies and TV shows produced by Walt Disney Studios and the Disney Channel, there are more races and ethnicities than ever being represented. 

But still, many parents of today are hesitant to let their young daughters watch the classic tales of “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid” because of the messages that these movies can send to their young, impressionable children. Actresses such as Kristen Bell and Keira Knightly have both gone public with their decisions to not let their daughters watch many of the Disney movies that I grew up with. 

Many of these films recently criticized by parents, however, have much deeper messages than to be beautiful and wait for a prince, and can be a great excuse to have an important discussion with your daughter about what it means to be a princess. While I loved Belle because she looked like me, I also admired her voracious reading as well as her loyalty, bravery, and kindness. When my 2 year-old niece (whose favorite princess changes every day) says “please” and “thank you,” because “that’s what princesses do,” I remind her that princes must be polite, too. 

“The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work.”

Princess Tiana, “The Princess and the Frog”

Though many of the movies produced during Disney’s Golden Age (from 1937-1967) offer what are now seen as antiquated values, it is important to remember that many of these stories were adapted from classic fairy tales written by The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, and that these messages were much more accepted at that time. That, of course, doesn’t make it right, but you can’t change the past — you learn from it. 

While it might not be the best message for a 3 year-old to see princesses like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty being kissed without their consent, it is also an opportunity for parents to teach how to protect themselves from strangers. Sheltering children will not help them as much as exposing them to real world situations and having conversations about them will, and Disney films can be an excellent tool to initiate many of these important discussions.

The Disney Renaissance (1989-1999) films introduced more progressive female characters, like Mulan and Megara from “Hercules,” though some of the tales are still seen as problematic for some. Yet, these films include several important values and messages for young girls besides forcing femininity and submission to men. For example, though Jasmine is beautiful and kind, she also fights back against the patriarchal society and her forced marriage. The princesses of this era begin to convey the idea that being feminine does not mean that you have to give up your strength.

It is a legitimate concern that Disney princess stereotypes are teaching girls to be “passive and caring more about personal appearance,” as journalist Christian Gollayan writes, and with parents wanting to raise their daughters with more modern values, some Disney movies might not be what they’re looking for. It’s understandable to want to raise your daughter to be strong on her own, and that isn’t a belief I’m going to fault. 

As a former cast member, my opinion is probably a bit biased, but that’s because I’ve seen first-hand the joy of a girl meeting her favorite princess. I’ve seen them completely done up in hair, makeup, and sparkly dresses after visiting the Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutique. And when I do, I think maybe she, like me, doesn’t admire that princess because of her looks and her ability to be rescued by a big, strong, man, but because of her character, heart, and knowledge. 

“Frozen” and “Moana,” both films featuring strong female characters on a journey to save their families and community, are excellent films that are helping to change the narrative of what it means to be a princess, but appreciating them doesn’t mean we have to forget the classic films many of us know and love. Instead of banning these older films, using them to open up discussions with daughters can expose her to several other important themes that will help her grow into a strong woman. 

Besides, many of the Disney princesses and heroines, like Megara (who faces her troubled past to help Hercules defeat Hades) have proven that even if you are a damsel, and you are in distress, you can (and will) handle it. 

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