It’s easy to dismiss Disney films as merely child’s play. But look a little closer and you’ll see that films such as Mulan and Aladdin were actually some of our first glimpses at defying gender roles and fighting for women’s equality. In recent years, female-focused animated flicks are completely turning the idea of Happily Ever After on its head and championing the sisterhood instead, and as Disney + launches in the UK, the films are set to be present in our homes once more.
With that in mind, here are just eight of our favourite films in order of how feminist they really are.
8. Aladdin, 1992
The Storyline: When a poor boy falls for a princess, he uses a genie's magic power to disguise himself as a prince in order to marry her.
The Female Lead: Fiery and outspoken, princess Jasmine is a sassy feminist fighting her way through ‘a man’s world’ in Arabia. And while that can be disheartening, Jasmine really is a shining beacon when she tells the patriarchy 'How dare you — all of you! Standing around deciding my future…I am not a prize to be won!'
The Male Lead: At their first scene, Jasmine tells Aladdin about how her father is forcing her to get married and describes how she’s feeling trapped. He’s genuinely alarmed by this concept before he’s interrupted by pet monkey Abu. Throughout the film, Aladdin is a catalyst for Jasmine’s feminist rebellion and he’s constantly asking for her consent in their relationship. As it should be.
The Other Women: Aladdin is perhaps the only Disney film to not have another female character - not even a supporting role. Which is why it drops on the feminist scale. This was rectified slightly in the live action remake, but we're still annoyed. Even Snow White and Sleeping Beauty had at least two.
The Bottom Line: Not only was Jasmine the first Disney princess to not marry a prince, she was the first to show frustration and rage towards patriarchal values. And for that we have to commend the film.
7. Beauty and the Beast, 1991
The Storyline: A girl from a small town inadvertently saves a prince and his servants from a curse.
The Female Lead: 'There must be more than this provincial life.' Those eight words sang by Belle in her opening scene, armed girls with the sentiment that there has to be a bigger, better, broader-minded world and we want it. It’s surprising, but Belle was the first Disney princess to be explicitly intelligent, progressive and liberating.
The Male Lead: After years of being cursed, the Beast is dominating, controlling and super angry. But when Belle steps into the picture he realizes he’s wrong. He’s drawn to her intelligence and friendship, and at the end wants Belle to choose her happiness over his.
The Other Women: Though they may be crockery and furniture, Mrs Potts and Madame de la Grande Bouche step in as female role models who advise and comfort Belle.
The Bottom Line: 'I deliberately set out to create a Disney heroine who was about more than her looks or how nicely she could behave when terrible things were happening to her,' says screenwriter Linda Woolverton. And while there’s been a lot of talk about Stockholm syndrome with the Beast, she insists it isn’t. 'Belle changes him.'
6. Tangled, 2010
The Storyline: A girl who has spent her entire life trapped in a tower after being kidnapped at birth manages to escape with the help of a runaway thief. As she explores the world, she in turn discovers herself too.
The Female Lead: Rapunzel is nothing more than a shadow of the oppressed literary princess she’s built from. The heroine escapes the tower on her own accord (definitely not rescued by a prince), she embarks on an adventure because she’s curious-minded and she saves the male lead more than once using her incredibly resourceful 70-foot long hair. In a recent TV sequel she also became the first Disney princess to turn down a proposal.
The Male Lead: Eugene 'Flynn Rider' Fitzherbert is perhaps one of the most likeable male characters in Disney history. He quickly drops his macho-man façade, admits to his faults, and he’s the Clyde to Rapunzel’s Bonnie as they take on Mother Gothel and the authorities together as equals.
The Other Women: Rapunzel’s stepmother Mother Gothel is your typical Disney villain, except she’s more complex and nuanced than others before her. She’s passive aggressive, sarcastic and a leading lady in her own right.
The Bottom Line: Rapunzel wasn’t just the first Disney princess with superpowers, she’s the first to start resembling what 21st century feminist women look like.
5. Brave, 2012
The Storyline: It starts with the daughter of a Scottish royal family defying an age-old wedding tradition, and ends with the rekindling a mother-daughter relationship.
The Female Lead: Merida is a rebellious tomboy, skilled archer and brilliantly progressive teenager. When an archery competition is held to find her a suitor, Merida subverts the contest by hitting bullseye and choosing to win her own hand. She also looks more human and realistic than any female leads before her. Director Brenda Chapman says, 'For Merida, when we were designing her, I wanted her to have the mouth that gets really wide, and the grimace. I wanted to let her have an ugly expression or real expression … even beautiful women will have a sour look on their face when they’re upset.'
The Male Lead: There are no romantic leads in Brave and that’s a feminist statement in itself given the genre was built on the notion of Prince Charming. The only adult male we do see is Meredith’s father King Fergus.
The Other Women: Most Disney films are motherless, but in Brave, mum Elinor, takes front and centre stage.
The Bottom Line: Brave was the first film to break the typical princess mould and capture the essence of a strong female bond above all others. It paved the way for a wave of progressive films such as Tangled and Frozen.
4. Mulan, 1998
The Storyline: A girl disguises herself as a man to take her ailing father's place in the emperor's army. She goes on to save her crew and country.
The Female Lead: If there was ever a female Disney Princess to smash the glass ceiling (or at least come close to it), it’s Mulan. She shows the world she’s just as strong, brave and resilient as her male counterparts in one of world’s most treacherous environments - a war zone. And when at the very end, she’s met with further distrust, she tells them straight: 'You said you trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?'
The Male Lead: At first, the stern and no-nonsense Captain Shang is a poster boy for gender stereotypes. In “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” he nonchalantly sings, “Did they send me daughters, When I asked for sons?” Which makes it all the more momentous when he fights alongside Mulan in their final battle as equals.
The Other Women: The only other female characters are Mulan’s mother and grandmother, who don’t get much camera time. When they do speak, it’s disappointingly about marriage. And there is, of course, The Matchmaker. But that's a whole other think piece.
The Bottom Line: Some critics argue the sexist attitudes portrayed in Mulan shatter its feminist credentials, the film does capture a hard truth: the patriarchy is well and truly alive in many societies. Mulan, the heroine, is a shining example of how women don’t have to follow it one bit. As the Emperor says at the end of the film, 'You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty'.
3. Pocahontas, 1995
The Storyline: As the daughter of an Algonquin chief tries to find her place in her tribe, she meets and falls in love with an English settler, teaching him about acceptance, the wonders of mother nature and the destructive nature of war.
The Female Lead: Pocahontas embodies feminist spirit and soul. She’s independent, has a strong mind and is constantly in search of 'her own path'. Plus, for the first time in Disney history she forgoes romance to carve out her own destiny. At last.
The Male Lead: John Smith first seeks out Pocahontas to learn about her culture and beliefs. He’s interested in her passions a lot more than staring into her eyes. He also respects her wishes even if it goes against his own.
The Other Women: Disney films are typically void of mother figures, but with Pocahontas’ best friend Nakoma and matriarchal Grandmother Willow, the sisterhood is alive. Does a tree count?
The Bottom Line: While the film may not be historically accurate, Pocahontas is one of Disney’s truly feminist characters. As the producer Jim Pentacost says in a 1995 documentary about the making of the film, 'Pocahontas is the strongest heroine we’ve ever had in a Disney film.'
2. Frozen, 2013
The Storyline: When the town of Arendale is stuck in perpetual winter after a young Queen loses control of her magical powers, her sister comes after her. She goes onto save the town and her relationship with Elsa.
The Female Lead: Elsa is the embodiment of a woman who doesn’t want to or need to conform to society’s expectations. Meanwhile, Anna is far from your typical dainty princess. She doesn’t wait for the man to do the ‘saving’ and says (sings) it like it is: 'I don’t know if I’m elated or gassy- but I’m somewhere in that zone.'
The Male Lead: While Kristoff becomes Anna’s love interest, some would say Olaf is a leading hero in Frozen too. It’s not often male characters are introduced in Disney films who aren’t villains, fatherly figures or potential husbands and it’s refreshing to see a male and female friendship – even if he is a snowman.
The Other Women: With two women running the show, we don’t see much from other female figures. However, Anna and Elsa’s mother and a female troll do make an appearance.
The Bottom Line: Frozen turns negative and outdated storytelling clichés on its head. Sure, Anna falls head-over-heels for Hans like Aurora did for Phillip in Sleeping Beauty, but then he breaks her heart and turns into the villain. In the end, the Happily Ever After isn’t marriage; it’s two strong-minded, witty and brilliant sisters finally uniting as one. Frozen director Chris Buck says, 'I was always drawn to the idea of romantic love vs. real love. Romantic love being all the hearts and roses and candy and all that wonderful stuff…But that led to us redefining "true love."'
1. Moana, 2016
The Storyline: A sickness has taken over the Island and driven all the fish away and ruined all sources of food. The only way to save the people is to restore the heart of Te Fiti.
The Female Lead: Moana has loved the ocean since a young age but been forbidden from entering it due to her father's fear of losing her. Moana is one day due to be chief of her people and sets off alone to save everyone she loves, even though it means going against what her father thinks is best.
The Male Lead: The male lead is a demi-god named Maui who wanted to protect his people but lost his fish hook that holds all his power. He tries to treat Moana like a little girl and jokes that she is a princess as she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick. However Moana's determination to save her people no matter how difficult earns Maui's respect and he follows her lead.
The Other Women: The women of the film are supportive. Moana's Grandma tells her granddaughter she must follow her heart and tells her that whatever choice she makes for her future is fine as long as it is the one that she chooses for herself. Moana's mother packs up her things for her quest so that she can sail off before her father can stop her.
The Bottom Line: Moana is to be chief and there's no mention of a love interest or husband in the film. Hard-working, determined and willing to risk her life to save her people. She has help from Maui, but when he gets scared she goes on alone without him, proving this woman does not need a man.
So there we have it. Disney's most feminist princesses. Who are your favourites? You'll have plenty of time to work it out.