What makes a character a Disney Princess? Do you know? There’s actually a procedure for it, with a set of rules and an official ceremony. There’s a list of official Disney Princesses, with inclusions and exclusions that may surprise you. Because the Princesses are an actual brand as opposed to a concept, there almost has to be some sort of regulatory procedure. This is the VIP club of Disney royalty, and not every princess gets in.
But if we consider the term as a concept, as most people do, the rules become a bit fuzzy. What Disney properties are excluded, that maybe shouldn’t be? What properties tangential to Disney would qualify? Why even stick with Disney properties– other properties have some great female characters. Is the concept that the Disney Princesses represent powerful enough that it surpasses the lines of branding, marketing, and copyright, to encompass something that we as a culture then fill in to fit our own ideas of what royalty, femininity, and heroism mean?
I mean, of course it does, but that’s beside the point.
The Official Princesses
To be an officially recognized Disney Princess, a character has to meet the following criteria:
- She must:
- be born royal
- marry royalty
- be a bad enough dude to rescue the President
- She must be the female lead in a Disney animated film that is not a sequel
- She must be human
Post-Renaissance Princesses (Princesses made after the end of the Disney Renaissance, which ended with the movie Tarzan) have all had special coronation ceremonies at one of the parks to officially pronounce them Disney Princesses. You’ll notice that one of the requirements is a bit odd, the more official language is that she “performs an act of significant heroism”, because the whole “must be actual royalty” requirement kept Mulan out of the line up. There’s also, of course, the fourth requirement that she has to have a significant enough box office that people will immediately recognize her, but that’s more of an unspoken rule. The official line-up is currently as follows:
- Princess Snow White of Germany
- Princess Cinderella of France
- Princess Aurora of Germany
- Queen Ariel of Denmark, Princess of Atlantica
- Princess Belle of France
- Princess Jasmine of Agrabah
- Pocahontas of the Powhatan Nation
- Private First Class Fa Mulan
- Princess Tiana of Maldonia
- Princess Rapunzel of Corona
- Princess Merida of the Castle DunBroch
- Crown Princess Elena Castillo Flores of Avalor (not pictured)
Princess Elena was only just coronated, so she hasn’t made it into any official artwork yet (or even the Disney Wiki Page), and she is technically Regent of Avalor, but has to wait until she is “of age” to be crowned Queen. [EDIT: Apparently, Elena is not an Official Princess yet, she just had a welcoming ceremony at the parks. Oops!] Ariel is only technically a Queen– it’s implied by the stage musical that Eric must marry before he can be crowned King, thus making Ariel Queen Consort. Pocahontas doesn’t have the “Princess” title, because that’s not… that’s not how that works. I guessed at (and Anglicized) Mulan’s rank– she’s definitely enlisted, but I would imagine Shang gave her a field promotion for the battle in the mountains before discharging her. She probably was also given an honorary officer’s rank for literally saving all of China. She might even outrank her father.
If you noticed two sister-shaped holes in the line-up, don’t worry, it’s not a vision problem. Queen Elsa and Princess Anna haven’t been added to the Disney Princess canon just yet, and it’s likely that Moana (whose film is coming out this November) will be brought in before they are officially made Disney Princesses. This actually relates to the only official princess ever taken out of the line-up– Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell and Frozen have their own franchises at the moment, with Tinker Bell headlining the Disney Fairies franchise. I would imagine that once Frozen finally dies, Elsa and Anna will have a joint coronation, becoming official Disney Princesses.
There’s a lot of Disney royalty that’s left out, actually. Queen Kidagakash of Atlantis (Atlantis: The Lost Empire) is nowhere to be found, neither is Princess Eilonwy of Llyr (The Black Cauldron). Queen Nala of the Pride Lands (The Lion King), Faline (Bambi), and Maid Marian (Robin Hood) are out due to not being human. Jane Porter, Megara, and Vanellope von Schweetz meet the qualifications, but aren’t on the list due to “low performance” (and “target demographic”– they’re from boy’s movies). Giselle (Enchanted), Honey Lemon, and GoGo Tomago (both Big Hero 6) all perform great acts of heroism, but probably aren’t getting on for various reasons. If you compare all of the Disney heroines with the official Disney Princess list, you begin to see that it’s a rather restrictive list. They take care to deliberately curate this brand for maximum potential.
But they always have, right?
The Early Princesses and Cultural Diffusion
To go back to the beginnings of the Disney Princess franchise we have to go way back to the very early year of 2001.
No, seriously. The Disney Princess brand got its start in the early 2000’s, when Disney was putting out movies like Fantasia 2000, Brother Bear, and Dinosaur. The anecdotal origins, because there’s always a story with Disney, is that a Disney employee from their consumer products division went to a Disney on Ice show and saw that a number of girls were wearing princess costumes, but “They weren’t even Disney products. They were generic princess products.” The Disney Princess concept as a brand started as just that– a marketing idea to sell toys. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, after all, who didn’t love dressing up as a kid? Now Disney was throwing their Mickey ears in that corner of the market. The early line up also included Tinker Bell, as stated earlier, and Esmeralda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Five guesses why Esmeralda was taken off first, and all of them are right.
But Disney princesses (that is, princesses that are in Disney films) have been around since 1937, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted. How was it any different than before, besides a simple consolidation of the brand?
Well, not exactly: take a look at this chart, showing the usage of “Disney Princess” verses other variations of the term. Aside from a brief blip in the early Sixties (right after the release of Sleeping Beauty), the Disney princess concept really got started in the mid-90’s at the height of the Disney Renaissance. The first spike is in 1995, the year Pocahontas was released. Of the six films made at that point, four of them starred princesses. One of them was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Disney (or, more importantly, Disney fans) characterizes the Renaissance as a “going back to basics”. So, apparently, Disney’s basics are Princess movies.
(Just a tangent, but the most successful Renaissance movie at the box office, The Lion King, was the “B” movie for the studio– everyone thought Pocahontas was going to be the big hit. Oops.)
But that makes sense, right? As a girl growing up while the Disney Princess brand made its debut, that made sense. I mean these girls were everywhere. Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Anastasia– wait…
Cultural diffusion is an anthropological concept dealing with how culture spreads from one group of people to another. It why you don’t get a Quarter-Pounder in France, it’s a “Royale with cheese”, but it still tastes the same. America has been doing this with everything from movies to music ever since the end of WWI, just about. One hypothesis behind this concept is that everything started from a cultural ground zero, and worked its way to every corner of the globe. Said hypothesis is fairly relevant to this article; like it or not, animated feature films begin and end with Disney, at least in America. What you have here is one studio so dominating a genre that everything else is drawn towards it like a cultural center of gravity. TV Tropes has a whole article on it. Yes, Anastasia was a Don Bluth film, but it was Don Bluth at his most Disney-esque (apart from the time where he, you know, actually worked at Disney) so many people mistake it for a Disney film. Because of this cultural diffusion, we start to move away from Disney as the carefully curated brand that you see in the parks and in the studio system, and start moving towards Disney as a concept– even if that concept is simply “animated films”.
Because what Disney stand for, what Disney has always stood for, is quality family entertainment. Be that through animated films, like the Princess movies, or live-action, like Pirates of the Carribean, or even through television and theme parks. Sure, we joke about how Disney owns our childhoods, or about their legal department, or their marketing department, but what we get out of Disney is far more than I think even Disney realizes. Not that they haven’t tried.
What Makes a Princess?
It’s not just being royal– Mulan is evidence to that. The Princesses are supposed to be role models, with each having particular traits and lessons learned that young girls can identify with.
- Snow White: Outer beauty is nowhere near as important as kindness and generosity.
- Cinderella: When facing adversity, have courage, be kind, and keep dreaming.
- Aurora: Give respect to everyone, even your enemies.
- Ariel: Follow your passion, no matter where it takes you.
- Belle: Intelligence and bravery are great on their own, but it takes both to see someone’s inner beauty.
- Jasmine: Know your worth, and do not let anyone compromise it.
- Pocahontas: (…Do I have to?) When dealing with a culture different to your own, listen with your heart.
- Mulan: Respect those placed above you, but don’t be afraid to innovate and question them.
- Tiana: Dreams are great, and hard work will get them, but what you want and what you need are not always the same.
- Rapunzel: Don’t be afraid to have faith in humanity, even if some don’t deserve it.
- Merida: Sometimes a change is needed to imagine others complexly and understand them better.
- Elena: No matter where you are in life, there is always more to learn.
These are simply my interpretations, you can argue with me in the comments, but that’s what these characters say to me. Some are more obvious than others (Brave kind of hit you over the head with its message), but they’re all good takeaways. Currently, the brand’s tagline is “Dream big, princess”, referring to the child that is reading the tagline. Most of the Princesses have some sort of dream (Ariel wants to study human culture, Tiana wants her restaurant, Rapunzel wants to see the glowing lights) or at the very least, talk about having dreams. Disney often gets crap about their “keep dreaming” messages, but let’s put it this way– without dreams we wouldn’t have Disney. Creative types use dreams and their imaginations to create. You can’t fault them for wanting to perpetuate themselves.
As a concept, the Disney Princesses are role models for young girls. Since “All Animation is Disney”, every female role model in every animated movie is a Disney princess.
See where I’m going with this?
The Unofficial Princesses
There are a couple of categories that I would describe to sort the unofficial princesses. There’s the Disney Animated Canon, Disney-tangential (Disney-owned properties/live action Disney films), Non-Disney Animated, Non-Disney Live Action. For these lists, we throw out rules 2 and 3 (and the unspoken fourth) and focus simply on the “royal” or “heroic” qualifications. They don’t even have to be human now. I’ll also talk a little about the message of each movie, explaining why these girls and women could be considered role models. I’ve already stated many candidates from the Disney Animated Canon, so let’s focus on the latter three categories.
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. If there’s someone I do not mention, feel free to leave a comment.
Disney-Tangential (Animated and Live Action)
These princesses are from properties that Disney owns, but aren’t 100% controlled by Disney themselves. Of course I’ll talk about PIXAR, but also Marvel, Star Wars, and some of their live action films outside the animated canon.
Elastigirl and Violet Parr
Qualification: Great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: Embrace what makes you different.
The Incredibles is as close to a perfect movie as you can get, and the fact that neither of these women are part of the Disney Princess line up is a real shame. Especially now that Merida is a part of the brand. Elastigirl would also be the first princess over 20 (To contrast, Tiana and Cinderella are tied for the oldest at 19). I can see how they don’t really fit the brand– it’s not exactly practical to fight crime in a ballgown– but the message of their movie is something that everyone, but especially young girls, needs to hear, to celebrate the differences we all have.
Qualification: Great act of heroism
Lesson learned: Your emotions, even the “bad” ones, are important and should be listened to.
I did pick Sadness and not Joy for a very particular reason: while the movie has no antagonist, Joy is the biggest obstacle to overcome in the movie. She’s not the bad guy, she wants to do right by Riley, but letting Sadness take the controls is not as big of an act as Sadness getting Riley home. Sadness is also the first of Riley’s emotions to discover complex feelings, specifically melancholy. While these things might not seem big on the outside, it is a huge deal for Riley, and is what saves her from whatever would have happened if she’d stayed on the bus. There’s also an officially licensed anthology called Driven By Emotions, and it tells the story of the movie from each emotion’s perspective. Sadness’ story is last, but by far the most interesting. The memories of Minnesota are calling out to her. They want her to touch them. It’s not explicitly stated, but this pull Sadness feels could possibly be nostalgia. It’s a really good read, check it out if you have the time.
Princess Leia Organa Solo
Qualifications: Adopted royalty, great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: Never be afraid to take charge of a situation.
I mean, of course Princess Leia would make this list. She’s one of my favorite characters. But beyond that, she would be the first Princess adopted into royalty (her mother was a senator, and her father a Sith Lord, so neither are technically royal), and people already want her to be a Disney Princess. Hell, I’ll put Padmé and Rey right up there with her. Even if they aren’t royalty, they have helped save the Galaxy countless times between them, and will continue to do so in the EU and Legends verses. But Leia in particular, mostly because of iconism– the Disney Princesses are also meant to be icons, and many are. Few people can think of Cinderella without picturing Disney’s version of her. Princess Leia is one of the most iconic women of Science Fiction (whether she belongs there or not), and to acknowledge her as being in the same caliber as the other Princesses would actually raise the Princess brand more than anything else.
Agent Margaret Elizabeth “Peggy” Carter, Founder of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Qualification: Great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: “Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, you move’.”
Of all the Marvel women, there is none more deserving of becoming a Disney Princess than Peggy Carter. The quote I pulled was from Sharon Carter’s eulogy at her funeral, and supposedly a quote from Peggy herself. It’s actual origin is from the book that Captain America: Civil War is based on, and was said by Captain America himself. Peggy is treated as the inspiration of everything that MCU!Cap stands for. Erksine made him a superhero, but Peggy made him Captain America. And Peggy is pretty awesome in her own right– her series was beloved by fans, and there was a lot of disappointment when it was cancelled. Introducing her to this brand would not only mean a ton of new Marvel merch (that wouldn’t be able to remove the female characters), but it might also help with cross-branding, and getting more girls into comics and comic book movies.
Pirate King Elizabeth Swann-Turner
Qualifications: Elected royalty, Great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: Become the hero of your own story.
I mean, she’s already King, so making her a Disney Princess would be a demotion, but I digress. In any case, what we have here is another cross-branding opportunity. Pirates of the Carribean is a wildly successful franchise, partnering it with the Disney Princess franchise would open both to their respective demographics. As for Elizabeth herself, she totally fits. She’s not just a major character, she’s the lead– the first and last person you see in the three movies. While Jack starts and ends pretty much in the same place, and Will goes from suppressing his pirate-y nature to becoming a Death God..? Elizabeth goes from a proper young British lady to becoming the King of the Pirate Court, in the most massive transformation any Disney female lead has gone through. And yes, I am including Tiana. Plus, the Disney Fairies have a pirate, why can’t the Princesses?
Qualifications: Princess of the forest, Great act of heroism
Lesson learned: We don’t just live on this planet, we live with this planet.
Princess Mononoke is a film about the human race’s relationship with the environment. It is not Ferngully. San is the female lead of the film, a girl raised by wolves who wants to protect the forest she lives in. And it’s Studio Ghibli, so you know its good. Studio Ghibli films have a lot of female leads that would qualify, actually. Nausicaä, Chihiro, Ponyo, Sophie, and Kiki would all make great princesses as well. I chose San specifically because it goes back to the brand’s iconosism– she is more easily recognized as a princess than many of the other girls.
These are characters that will definitely not become Disney Princesses, because they are not owned by Disney. There’ll be some Dreamworks and some Don Bluth for sure, as well as someone that might be a surprise…
Princess Fiona of Far Far Away
Qualification: Born royal
Lesson learned: You deserve love, and to be loved.
Princess Fiona was made to be the anti-Disney princess. So much of what Shrek is is anti-Disney. Fiona is interesting because she throughout the movies has to balance the femininity that’s expected of her as a princess, as well as her actual ogre personality. While she is certainly more modern than the classic princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Belle), she has many similarities with the Renaissance princesses. Her story is a “beauty and beast” tale, she is a well-trained fighter, she wants “more” than the story she was supposed to be in. The biggest subversion of the formula was that she stayed an ogre in the end. Her inclusion would fit right in with many of the more action-oriented princesses.
Mrs. Elizabeth Brisby
Qualification: Great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: You can do great things, even when you are scared.
It is very rare that a single mother is the protagonist in an animated film. Mrs. Brisby shows immense courage and strength beyond what could ever be expected of her. She learned how to read despite never being anywhere near the vicinity of NIMH, she is determined to move her family to save them from the farmer’s till, she does everything to save her children. She is terribly frightened. She is frightened beyond imagination, and she keeps going. There is no Princess movie that is anywhere close to her story. If you get one takeaway from this long article– watch The Secret of NIMH, if you haven’t already. It is a masterpiece of animation.
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia
Qualification: Born royal
Lesson learned: I’m actually not sure, it’s been forever since I’ve seen this movie all the way through. Don’t hire evil sorcerer priests?
Much like Pocahontas, this is another movie based off of real people that probably shouldn’t be? Unlike Pocahontas, it’s not immediately uncomfortable. I mean, it’s uncomfortable, but just not immediately. What helps is that it’s completely divorced from historical accuracy– Rasputin might have been “Russia’s greatest love machine”, but he wasn’t a sorcerer bent on the destruction of the Romanovs. And while he was a factor that lead to the Russian Revolution, he was hardly the sole cause. But really, the reason she’s on this list is because people already think she’s a Disney Princess– and with good reason. She is from a Don Bluth movie (Don Bluth used to work at Disney before he left to pursue his own work), she is a princess, she is traditionally animated, has a lot of outfits, a love interest, a magical opponent, the only thing she’s missing is the brand name. Though being a Grand Duchess, she technically outranks the princesses.
Katara of the Southern Water Tribe
Qualifications: Born the daughter of a Water Tribe Chieftain, Great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: Compassion is not weakness, violence is not strength.
A video for Katara because stills don’t do the waterbending justice. Katara hails from the Southern Water Tribe, and is the last waterbender (hydrokenetic) from her tribe. In this clip, she confronts the man who killed her mother. Katara is one of the greatest waterbenders to ever live (excluding some Avatars), and the greatest healer to ever live. She’s basically a Nurse Chapel/Tasha Yar mash-up. The thing about Katara that I think shocked a lot of people was that she was also a Cincinnatus archetype. After the war, she went home. She married Aang, had a lovely family with several grandchildren, and became a healer and cultural cornerstone for her tribe. There are many fans that argued that she had the chance to rule the world. But that was never what she wanted, and this scene (and the episode it comes from) shows that more than anything.
Barbara Millicent “Barbie” Rodgers
Qualifications: Depending on the source material, born royal, married royal, great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: “Be who you want to be.”
Yes, Barbie. Yes, that Barbie. Hear me out. Actually, no, hear her out. Watch the video and she explains exactly what being a princess means to her. I apologize for the animation, and the moment of sadness at the end. Beyond all of the controversy that surrounds the Barbie brand, the thing that sticks out is the tagline: “Be who you want to be.” And Barbie has been, well, everything. A couple of months ago, Barbie launched a new ad campaign where they had young girls replacing professionals in various situations. One girl gave a lecture about the brain at a college or medical school, one was a professional soccer coach, one was a veterinarian, and so on. It then turns out that the girls were playing with their Barbies– which allowed them to explore whatever they wanted to do. I won’t say that the Barbie brand is 100% unproblematic (news flash, neither is the Disney Princess brand), but give a girl the freedom to be whatever she wants, and she will be so much more than just a princess. (Also, that astronaut? Was also on Star Trek.)
Non-Disney Live Action
Here we break even further away from the Disney Princess brand– these girls and women aren’t even animated.
Qualifications: Great act of heroism (depending on who you believe), Made royalty by Princess Ozma
Lesson learned: “There’s no place like home.”
Disney so wants to make a proper Wizard of Oz movie. This movie is so classic and iconic that it almost completely overshadows the book series it was based on. Despite being released in 1939, she has more in common with the Renaissance Princesses than the Classic Princesses. She wants that vaguely defined “more” that they do, which for her is somewhere over the rainbow. She is thrown into a difficult situation, that she must face with as much courage as she can. She’s also fairly outspoken, admonishing the Cowardly Lion for picking on Toto and arguing for her companions in front of the Wizard. She’s quick thinking, immediately acting to put out the Scarecrow’s fire, which lead to the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. And she is royalty– in The Emerald City of Oz, Queen Ozma, the regent of Oz, makes her a Princess of Oz as well.
Qualification: Great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery.”
Hermione was the female role model when I was growing up. By the time my year was beginning to engage with popular culture, the Disney Renaissance was over and Harry Potter mania had gripped the world. The first year that I dressed up as a Hogwarts student for Halloween, I remember the Lands End people being very confused as to why everyone was buying red and gold ties. It’s actually been interesting to watch the change from everyone wanting to be in Gryffindor to everyone accepting and loving their houses no matter what. Hermione herself is intellectual, a perfectionist, a bit bossy, passionate about justice, and a lot of things that a lot of girls around my age are, and so a lot of people my age really connected with her.
Princess Éowyn Húrin, White Lady of Rohan, Shieldmaiden of Rohan, Lady of the Shield-arm, Lady of Ithilien, Lady of Emyn Arnen
Qualifications: Born royal, Great act of heroism
Lesson learned: Fate will lead you to where you need to be, so long as you seize the opportunities you are granted.
Never let it be said that Tolkien shirked on his character names. Éowyn gets the most character development out of any of the women in Lord of the Rings— Galadriel’s development all relies on knowledge of The Simarillion, and Arwen is just kind-of there (then again, so is Princess Aurora). Personally, I just find Éowyn’s story the most compelling, but that’s a more modern view of the story. Tolkien studied Medieval Literature and Norse Legends and Old English. The only reason Éowyn is in the story is because he thought that Shakespeare could have handled the fifth act of The Scottish Play a lot better (that’s also the reason for the Ents). But I like Éowyn.
Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer
Qualification: Great acts of heroism
Lesson learned: So many.
Buffy is the Disney Princess that everyone wants, but people forget that we already have. She’s both strong and feminine, she’s actually very smart despite her grades, she has a great group of friends– she even gets turned into a Classic Princess-esque character in one of the Halloween episodes. Plus, none of the Princesses have a very defined “Chosen One” arc. Mulan, Belle, and Merida all have shades of it yes, but it’s not explicit like Buffy’s is. An outright Hero’s Journey princess would be amazing– and introduce the concept to people in a new way.
Beyond the Brand
The Disney Princess brand has been undergoing a transformation and integration of sorts. Ever since the Disney Revival began, starting with The Princess and the Frog and continuing to this day, there has been a drastic difference in stories for the Disney characters. Part of it is Disney recognizing their own stereotype (which is perfectly parodied in Enchanted), and it didn’t entirely come out of nowhere. With an increasing demand for more diverse female characters and female-lead stories, understanding the stories that have been told will help us understand the stories we want to tell in the future. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where both films and audiences demand more from each other, and create even greater works.
Our idea of what a Disney Princess is expands with every entry to the Disney Animated Canon. There are tons of women and girls who would totally qualify for this list (feel free to tell me about them in the comments), and I only talked about movies and TV. But these characters are important and stay with us because ultimately, we learn from them. We learn who and what we want to be. With more characters, and more diverse characters, we open up possibilities to the infinite degree.
Because they are more than just princesses.
09/26/2016 @ 12:28 pm
This is a very interesting and thoughtful post. I’m with you — Hermione is the character I identified with most while growing up. The Harry Potter books and movies were such a huge part of my childhood.
I didn’t have much Disney when I grew up, so the classic Disney princesses never held much appeal for me. Now as an adult, I’m skeptical about Disney’s marketing power and their use of language and accents to underpin racial stereotypes. In February, I wrote quite a critical post about Disney, looking at the movies from a linguistic point of view: https://culturallife.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/disneys-loss-of-innocence-language-race-and-gender-in-childrens-animated-movies/
09/26/2016 @ 9:03 pm
This is such an insightful post. I did not realize there was such a criteria for the Disney princesses. Thanks for teaching me something new!
04/04/2020 @ 3:32 pm
Very insightful article. I just had one question, in the last picture posted, in the “Beyond the Brand” section, I recognize every girl in that picture except the 2 blondes closest to Mulan. The ladies to her left and below her. Who are they?
04/04/2020 @ 3:39 pm
The one to her left is Giselle from Enchanted (portrayed in live action by Amy Adams), and the one below her is Princess Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron.