Disney’s 2016 blockbuster Moana, and its namesake heroine, join a rich heritage of celebrated women in the House of Mouse pantheon. Beginning with Snow White, Moana joins the ranks of the Disney princesses; the epitome of what it means to be a woman in the eyes of the young girls who flock to see the films, buy the merchandise, and dream of their own fairytale happily ever after. Although Moana clearly states in the film that she is not a princess but the daughter of the village chief (and his successor), the nomenclature of Disney princesses remains the same as it did in 1937, but what it means to be a Disney princess has vastly changed.
Moana joins Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida as the latest role model. (Fun Fact: Elsa, an actual Queen, and Anna, an actual Princess, are not included in the princesses brand due to the overwhelming success of Frozen as its own entity.) To compare, for example, Mulan with Cinderella is a futile task for many reasons, and each princess does bring their own sense of empowerment to inspire young girls.
A key facet of being a Disney heroine is the interactions she has with the main man in her life: her father. The expectations of the daughter of the king (sultan, chieftain etc.) are placed heavily atop the princess’s head as though it were a Lead tiara. Discounting the earliest of the princesses (conceived in 1937, 1950, and 1959 respectively) who represented the demure grace of the daydreaming damsel in distress, 1989’s The Little Mermaid introduced us to Ariel, the first real princess who knew what she wanted and was determined to go for it.
Ariel, the inaugural character of the Disney Renaissance, was, as the title suggests, a mermaid. Daughter of Triton, King of the Sea, Ariel was the youngest of a line of mermaid princesses, each exhibiting the qualities that Triton deemed worthy of a mermaid princess. But not Ariel. Ariel was obsessed with the world up there (our world) and everything about it. Especially Prince Eric, who she happened to save from dying in a shipwreck. As she sings about joining his world, he comes to, and she flips away, but he does remember her singing voice.
Through trickery and deceit, Ariel makes a pact with the Sea Witch Ursula to trade her voice for a pair of human legs in order to win Eric’s heart. After all, “Human men prefer their women silent.” If she can win him over and get true love’s kiss within three days, she gets her voice back, keeps her legs, and they get their happily ever after.
Keeping with the nautical theme, Moana is the daughter of the village chief of somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. She is given a quest by the ocean to restore the heart of goddess Te Fiti in order to stop the blight that is passing through the nearby islands. Moana, like Ariel with humans, is obsessed with voyaging beyond their reef.
When she learns she is a descendant of voyagers, her obsession reaches fever pitch and she breaks off to find Maui, the demigod who can help her return the heart of Te Fiti. Narratives aside, both films depict a young woman, who is expected to inherit a position from her father, breaking away and venturing into lands unknown on their own whim. But the films differ largely by how the heroines’ fathers treat them.
The motivation for both characters is to travel beyond what they know, to learn more, to become independent and self-sufficient, and to decide what they want their lives to become. An issue as equally important in 2016 as it was 27 years earlier. The thing standing in their way: dear old dad. Triton and Chief Tui are similar in that both are motivated by the fear of something happening to their daughters in these unfamiliar new worlds. Tui experienced a friend’s death while voyaging in the ocean and is therefore scared that something similar will happen to Moana. Triton is just scared of humans and our wicked ways (the film came out the same year as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, so he kind of has a point). Chief Tui explains, firmly, that he doesn’t want Moana to suffer the fate of his friend and he is preventing her from voyaging in order to protect her. Triton demands that his daughter stay put under the sea. The approach the fathers take, nearly three decades apart, are a reflection of women’s values and the growth that they have undertaken since 1989. We understand Tui’s reasoning and he offers Moana the chance to rule her own island. Triton, on the other hand, seems to be throwing his weight about because he is the King of the Sea.
The interaction with their fathers represents the interactions young girls have with first male figure in their lives, and it can have an affect on how they view men and how they view themselves. Disney’s evolution of how its princesses interact with their fathers offers young girls some form of solace in their own troubles (albeit of a much tamer nature). Growing up with Triton, Ariel was determined to see what it was like in the human world. To rebel against her father, she made a hasty deal with her version of the devil. The rebellion, arguably at this point, just to see Eric again and be silent doing it, paints a negative picture. Ariel runs away from the controlling man in her life into the arms of one she barely knows, but a man whom represents the vast expanse of the human world. Conversely, growing up with Tui, Moana believes he is too cautious and she knows best (and is largely spurned on by her mother). She rebels because of her affinity with the ocean and her belief that she is the only one to save their island. How selfless. Tui’s cautiousness is counteracted with Moana’s love of adventure, which is wrapped up in helping her island and her people. Tui led from the island, Moana will lead from the sea.
Overall, every Disney princess is a paragon of womanhood, and a different aspect can be taken from each as a strong positive role model for young girls. But, it has to be noted that each new princess becomes just that bit more rounded and fleshed out as a strong woman, not just in femininity and grace, but in heart and mind.
Belle (Beauty and the Beast) maintains a strong relationship with her father, who is often credited with being the reason she herself has her ‘head in the clouds’. Although… he does wind up getting himself into trouble and, through her having to save him, she is locked away in a castle by a Beast.
Jasmine (Aladdin) and Merida (Brave) are the product of their fathers wanting to have them married off. While Jasmine eventually resigns to the fact that a Sultan’s daughter is a powerful political weapon in foreign policy, Merida refuses to marry anyone, and instead takes her own hand in marriage. Almost 20 years separate the films, reflecting the cultural move away from marrying and staying at home being the norm.
Pocahontas and Mulan are both based on true stories, although it should be noted that Pocahontas is the Chief’s daughter and he is concerned more with her getting married than learning the ropes of running the tribe.
Tiana (Princess and the Frog) and Rapunzel (Tangled) have negligible interactions with their fathers, which in itself shows a move away from being ‘x, the daughter of y’, to being a woman standing on her own.
Written by James Cullen