Last year, Kenneth Brannagh successfully channelled pure Disney magic into a live-action adaptation of Cinderella. Whilst paying homage to the original version, he somehow managed to bring a distinctly period family drama into the 21st Century. The 1956 film was stunning in almost every aspect, although it created distressingly unrealistic expectations of men and left many young girls yearning for their own Prince Charming. Brannagh’s script depicted our heroine’s happiness as being rather more independent of the man she eventually marries; instead the focus was on the values that lend to her strength of character (to “have courage and be kind”).
This change in theme reflected the changing attitudes of modern society. The persona of a classic Disney Princess can be summarised in Daisy Buchanan’s famous words: “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” These archaic Princesses were charming, graceful and (regrettably) quite boring. Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora had little depth to their characters but their superficial beauty was a predominant factor in their appeal. All three also boasted the ability to conduct a range of domestic chores, interact with gentle woodland creatures and conduct themselves with the graces expected of “the fairest maiden in the land”; thus fulfilling the ideal social construct of femininity at the time and fuelling their popularity.
The Disney Renaissance in the 1990s bred somewhat powerful heroines – but still with fundamental flaws. Belle found enjoyment in books and intellectual pursuit but her rationale succumbed to Stockholm syndrome. Ariel was inquisitive and non-conforming, however she sacrificed her voice for the love of a man. A shift (as small but momentous as continental drift) came with the introduction of ethnic princesses – Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas – who, as daughters, exceeded the expectations one might have of a son.
When compared to their predecessors, the Disney heroines of the “noughties” have been considerably more progressive. (Major spoiler alerts, beware.) It was perhaps Pixar’s “Brave” that paved the way. Directed by Brenda Chapman (Pixar’s first female director of a feature-length film), the story centred around a Scottish Princess who defies custom and refuses to marry the man of her parents’ choice. The film explored the relationships and experiences of a young woman, whilst maintaining some distance from fairytale romance, for which Disney films are classically known. It truly was a brave pursuit, as Disney produced the film despite warnings from market research that a female lead may bomb at the box office.
The stupendous success of “Frozen” disproved this theory. Yes, there were romantic subplots but the film was carried by its central theme of sisterhood. “Tangled” almost mocked the notion of “Prince Charming”, as the plot revolved around Rapunzel’s journey of self-discovery and autonomous disposal of a feature that had become synonymous with her beauty. And what does the future of Disney hold? I suspect it is entirely intentional that Belle is to be reinvented by Emma Watson, whose oratory escapade at the United Nations last year quickly went viral. As an international ambassador for women’s rights and figurehead of the UN’s #HeForShe campaign, I’m intrigued to see what the new live-action depiction of “Beauty and The Beast” will offer in 2017.
When you next hear your six year old cousin belting out the lyrics to “Let It Go”, consider it a reminder that Disney have provided her impressionable generation with the role models they deserve. Girls are no longer being raised to be delicate little flowers. Yes, each Disney princess has remained exceptionally beautiful; however it is the leading lady’s tenacity, audacity and dash of theatricality that now leaves a lasting impression with her audience.