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Classic Disney princesses aren’t unfeminist — they’re misunderstood

The Disney princesses of our childhood didn't wait around to get saved by a prince. So why do live action Disney remakes feel the need to retcon this?

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“I’m not your Cinderella. I’m bad Cinderella.” The idea of a ‘not like other girls’ Disney princess who spray-paints Broadway posters for some reason was the basis of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella musical, as was Amazon Prime’s 2022 Cinderella remake, which turned the titular character into an ambitious, career-hungry dressmaker. But turning all our Disney princesses into girlbosses isn’t the win for women’s rights that everyone seems to think it is.

When it comes to live action Disney remakes, or indeed, any new movie that uses fairytales as a basis, there seems to be this innate belief that the source material is fundamentally unfeminist, and that the princesses we hold so dear are something that need to be retconned, improved upon, and replaced.

During the promotion circuit for pretty much every remade Disney movie — including Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Snow White — actors and directors all said the same thing about their leading ladies: “She’s not waiting around for a prince to save her!” they insist. She has agency this time.

That’s all well and good. But the original Disney princesses never did that, either. And suggesting otherwise isn’t just reductive but actually the opposite of feminist.

First of all, when did these princesses ever wait around to be rescued in the animated movies? Each and every one of them went out of their way to make their own destiny, and go after what they really wanted — no matter what the cost and what society expected of them.

Cinderella was steadfastly determined to go to the ball. Jasmine in Aladdin refused to marry for anything other than love. Ariel was driven by a hunger for knowledge, Snow White survived a whole assassination attempt, and Belle’s town literally did a whole song and dance about how unconventional she is.

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Sure, in the process, they end up meeting their princes and fall in love. But these romances have always been secondary to their desire for agency, knowledge, and most importantly, independence. These animated princesses all share a yearning for more than their ‘lot’ in life — a ‘lot’ usually dictated by misogynistic values — and the best part is, they go one step further than yearning.

They take risks and make sacrifices in order to forge their own destiny, and refuse to be held back by rules and constraints dictated by evil stepparents and, more broadly, a patriarchal society. If Cinderella played by the rules, and remained subservient to her family, she’d have never gone to the ball. If it weren’t for her determination for something more, the glass slipper that was the key to her happy ending would’ve never existed.

Still, people overlook Cinderella’s spirit and determination in the classic cartoon because she isn’t outspoken. But being quiet doesn’t mean you’re not powerful, and softness doesn’t always have to be associated with subservience. It might not seem trailblazing in the world we live in now, but we need to consider the context. Back in the 1950s, when the movie was actually released, Cinderella would’ve been groundbreaking. And the same goes for Snow White in 1937.

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She might not have been throttling her stepmother, but Snow White managed to escape her circumstances, strike out on her own, and survive because of her enduring compassion. It’s her kindness that inspires the dwarves to befriend her, and shows us all that remaining kind even when the world is cruel is the most powerful thing you can do. And I certainly don’t think that’s a bad message to put out there in 1937, or even 2023.

Snow White, Cinderella, and the Disney Princess brand as a whole have become associated with softness and hyperfemininity, but those qualities don’t have to be at odds with feminism and independence. And in the cold light of day, if you’re pitting different iterations of fictional women against each other, that’s the most unfeminist thing of all.

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For more Disney magic, check out our guides to the best Disney villains, best Disney songs, best Pixar movies, and The Little Mermaid live-action cast. You can also learn more about upcoming Disney and Pixar releases with our guides to the Toy Story 5 release date and Zootopia 2 release date.

You can also check out our guide to everything new on Disney Plus to find out more about all the new Disney Plus movies and Disney Plus shows the House of Mouse-owned streaming service has to offer.