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When I was young, I obsessed over Disney stories having magnificent castles, magical creatures, singing animals, dreamy lands, and beautiful princesses with exotic dresses. These fairy tales comprised the best part of he childhood of the previous generation of girls where the closing ‘Happily Ever After’ seemed too real to be questioned.
The historic tales comprises of quintessential Disney princesses, each embodying the culturally desirable feminine traits of her time, in one way or another, stood out as a role model for young girls. Their distinct setting and stories marked the epitome of Disney enterprise and produced the century’s worth of fan following from the first movie Snow White (1937) to Zootopia (2016), for all ages and cultures.
The diversity of these princesses from Cinderella to Belle and Mullan shows Disney has been keeping up with the changing times and the expectation of its audiences worldwide.
The formula of Disney princesses movies and plot was almost the same for eight out of ten of these iconic stories. Today, however, we are witnessing shifts in the classical narrative as the remakes of the old tales focus on the retelling of the tale as old as time in a manner befitting of modern historical context without altering the underlying myths.
While early princesses like Snow White, Aurora and Cinderella were more soft-spoken, kind and compromising, the contemporary princesses are adventurous, intelligent, and headstrong. These are only the basic traits whereas in the past decade all kinds of Disney princesses have been introduced from slightly quirky to rebellious. Also, the ending of most the stories have been changed to heroine-centric i.e. most princesses save their princess at the end of the movie, with no wedding scenes whatsoever.
The three main princesses that subverted the scale are Merida (from Brave, 2012), Elsa (from Frozen, 2013) and Judy (from Zootopia, 2016). Set in different places and time-frames, the three stories contain strongest female lead in all of Disney history. These unusual women forever change the face of Disney’s universe where the break away from traditional social constrictions as well as the smashing of gender stereotypes is mind blowing:
Merida is the rebellious, red-headed young girl who shows the passion for horse-riding and archery; a very innovative skill for a princess to acquire; which makes her the first princess with a weapon.
The responsibilities of being an actual ‘princess’ set her off, and she defies the ‘’lady code’’ enforced by her mother by being spontaneous and quirky. Merida is self-reliant and unapologetic about her unconventionally unique talents.
There is no traditional romance in the plot; the whole movie is devoid of any shadowy presence of any male prince, or counterpart to Merida. None of her eligible suitors match her skills in archery, thus Merida refuses to marry. Unlike the classical Disney story, Merida is not rescued by any male character, she rescues her mother, and almost the whole of the story is Merida trying to reverse the curse brought upon her mother by her own faulty judgment of over-trusting a witch. Somewhat whimsical Merida is brave enough to right her own wrong independently. The true love pays off in the form of her mother becoming a woman again.
Elsa in the Frozen is not so much a protagonist but her character is crucial as she embodies all the attributes of Disney princess but subverting the old formula. Unlike previous princesses, such as Tiana, Elsa does not meet any overwhelmingly traumatic event in childhood. She is the source of her own trauma, and she spends almost the entire movie battling her own demons.
Where there is Disney, there is the magic of one form or another. Most of the magical powers possessed by her previous princes’ sisters were either harmless or beneficial like talking to animals, Rapunzel’s healing tears and magical age-renewing hair, Elsa’s power is of darker nature. During the most part in the movie, Elsa tries to hide her dark destructive power and hurts her sister Ana twice as well as freezes her kingdom.
She is cold-hearted and fearful enough to run away and shuts herself down in an ice castle. Only until the end of the movie do we see Elsa using her power for the good of the people. Elsa does not fall in love with any boy nor is she rescued by any boy in the movie. This movie redefines true love as that between the two sisters Elsa and Ana who is her foil and who has her strength from being vulnerable and sacrifices herself for her sister.
Last but not the least comes Judy Hopps; a small female bunny rabbit; the protagonist of the movie Zootopia(2016). She is the first Disney badass bunny who is brave enough to leave her comfort zone and voluntarily goes in pursuit of her unreasonable dream: to become a cop in the animal city of Zootopia. This alone is too bigger a leap for Disney but after the success of Frozen (2013), Disney is willing to take such risks.
She is a dutiful police officer and her only passion is her job. Despite the warnings of everyone else including her parents, Judy is head strong and diligently works hard to prove herself worthy of the system that doubts her because of her race and gender. The two lead characters Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde together flip racial and gender stereotypes and forever subvert the older myths surrounding bunnies and foxing in classic Disney stories.
The anti –princess heroine have been warmly received by the audience as Frozen was the highest grossing animated movie of all times making 1.2 billion dollars at the box office whereas Zootopia is considered the highest grossing movie of the year 2016. We are witnessing the new era of Disney fairy-tales as this shows the fans of these movies are looking forward to any surprise Disney throws their way.