Evolution of the Disney Princesses

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When Disney fans think of Valentine's Day, they often think of the stories of the Disney princesses, because those tales are filled with true love, overcoming obstacles to find your soul mate and romantic memorable moments.

Of course, the first Disney princess was Snow White.

For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' 50th birthday celebration in 1987, the Disney Company produced an hour-long television special. Disneyland hosted not only a special parade, but also had a reunion of the cast members who had assisted in the portrayal of the character at the Disney parks since 1955.

Sets of commemorative postage stamps featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were issued by the Kingdom of Redonda and an impressive 60-stamp set from Grenada.

More than 100 official licensees offering commemorative merchandise and memorabilia provided a non-stop cornucopia of treats including a wonderful book by Brian Sibley and Richard Hollis on the making of the film.

The film itself was restored and re-released theatrically. The Disneyland Post Office even had a temporary booth set up outside the park gates where you could purchase a postage stamp and it could be cancelled on anything from postcards and envelopes to posters, books and more. The cancellation was done with a special official Disneyland Station U.S. Postal Rubber Stamp created for the occasion that featured an image of Dopey and read "Celebrating the Golden Anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Snow White even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Perhaps I should write an entire column about that wonderful year-long celebration since I experienced it first-hand in California and still have many of those items in my personal collection.

On December 21, 2012, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney Company did… absolutely nothing.

There was no special meet-and-greet opportunities at the Carthay Circle Theater recreations at Disney California Adventure or Disney Hollywood Studios. There was no birthday celebration at the New Fantasyland expansion in Magic Kingdom, where the little princess gave her official blessing and promoted the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. There was no stage show where the Disney princesses held a surprise birthday party for Snow White. There were no giveaway buttons or birthday cupcakes. here were no special Mouse Ear insignias. The film was not re-released theatrically. There were no contests or special promotions or licensed merchandise. There was no television special. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Disney historian JB Kaufman did write two highly recommended books that Santa (with his helpers Kim and Lorie) put under my Christmas tree just a month or so ago: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney's Classic Animated Film and The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

However, those books were not produced by the Disney Company, but were done under the auspices of the magnificent Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

So, I was a little surprised when I was contacted by The Sun, the largest circulation newspaper in the United Kingdom (and the 10th largest circulation in the world) who wanted to interview me about Snow White.

Since I had some experience writing for newspapers, they gave me the opportunity to write a short article on the evolution of the Disney princesses that all started with Snow White.

The article appeared in the December 21st edition.

Of course, I get so excited when I write about Disney that I never know when to stop and ended up sending three times the amount of material they actually needed after they added pictures and configured the space. I think the newspaper did an outstanding job editing my original article for space, but I thought I would share with MousePlanet readers some of the material that ended up on the cutting room floor, as well as more of my thoughts about the evolution of the Disney princesses.

The animated Disney princesses are a beloved phenomenon that has touched the hearts and imaginations of several different generations.

They are also impressive retail giantesses reigning over an ever-expanding line of consumer products appealing to girls of all ages who dream of being a celebrity princess.

The Disney Princess franchise was the brainchild of then-Disney Consumer Products Chairman Andy Mooney who launched it officially in the year 2000 for girls 2-8. His research showed that little girls didn't want to be just any princess, but a Disney princess whose stories they knew and loved.

"In just three years, the Disney Princess brand has gone from $300 million in global retail sales to $1.3 billion in 2003, making it Disney Consumer Products' fastest growing brand from a revenue perspective," said Mooney a decade ago.

Two years later, in 2005, the brand was producing nearly $3 billion in retail sales alone. Cinderella was the most popular princess with little girls primarily because of all her accessories from a magnificent castle, to gorgeous gowns to royal baubles and generally upscale lifestyle.

No one wanted to be cast as the evil mother figure who denied Cinderella all those expensive accoutrements the young princess deserved, but wanted instead to be the Fairy Godmother who made dreams come true by supplying all those superficial trappings.

Even for adults, the most popular fairytale wedding at the Disney parks remains the one themed to Cinderella with a royal glass coach drawn by four horses at the service of the bride.

However, all this recent emphasis on the material aspects of being a princess has stolen attention from the fact that the Disney princesses are all pretty amazing young ladies who clearly reflected their time periods.

"Starting with Snow White in 1937, the rich storytelling of each of Disney's fairytales has captured the hearts and minds of young girls," Mooney enthused. "The Disney Princess brand is a natural extension of these timeless stories and characters and enables a girl to become a part of the world of her favorite princess."

The Disney Princess empire did indeed begin more than 75 years ago, not with a talking mouse wearing gloves, but a doe-eyed little girl lost in a frightening forest and given shelter by seven kindly but rather filthy dwarfs covered in diamond mine dust.

The innovative feature-length animated film produced by the Disney Studios, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had its world premiere on December 21, 1937, at the now demolished Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood. One radio reporter told his listening audience that legendary Walt Disney claimed it was his Christmas gift to the children of the world.

"They didn't want her to look like a princess, really," lead animator Grim Natwick told Disney historian John Canmaker. "They wanted her to look like a cute little girl who could be a princess…Snow White was a sweet and graceful little girl and we just tried not to clown her up…Nobody had ever done a [human] character like this. It was a new problem for all of us."

Snow White's head was twice as large as a human head and her waist was reduced in size. Instead of the normal human proportion of being eight heads high, she was only five heads tall. While she does demonstrate some strength and courage, her main trait seems to be a passivity that charms the timid forest animals and the small little men.

Adorable Snow White, the first Disney princess, was simply a reflection of many of the subservient women of the 1930s, dreaming of a handsome prince to come and rescue her so that she could spend the rest of her life cleaning his house, cooking his meals, having his children and being eternally pretty in gorgeous gowns.

By the time, the next Disney animated princess, Cinderella, appeared in 1950, the world had changed significantly with women having become more independent after their experiences in the work place and the military during World War II.

"Cinderella carries the story," stated animator Marc Davis who worked on the character. "If you don't believe in her, it doesn't matter how good or funny or interesting the rest of the characters are—the picture just doesn't work. With Cinderella, you could see the hurt and see the feeling. But even though she had her sad moments, she still stood rather strong all the way through. The audience had to believe she was worth their concern."

While also threatened by a more powerful older woman like Snow White, Cinderella revealed a strength and resourcefulness that would become an important part of the Disney princess personality.

When he compared Cinderella to Snow White, Walt Disney stated, "She [Cinderella] believed in dreams, all right, but she also believed in doing something about them. When Prince Charming didn't come along, she went right over to the palace and got him."

Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, was similar to the first two princesses in that she was beautiful, graceful, friendly, playful and exhibited a maturity beyond their chronological years. Yet, just like Snow White and Cinderella, she felt her life was incomplete without marrying a handsome prince to live happily ever after.

But after the Sleeping Beauty was awakened by that magical kiss of true love in 1959, the popular princess franchise itself went to sleep for nearly three decades.

When Ariel, the Little Mermaid, leapt out of the sea in 1989, she still longed for a prince but, unlike her predecessors, she openly defied her father, was sometimes awkward and took a more aggressive role in her own fate. She was also willing to sacrifice anything to make her dreams come true whether it was family, her voice or the ability to glide through the ocean.

She was reflective of the growing empowerment of women of that time period, trying to break out of stereotypes of how a woman was expected to behave and not blindly deferring to the dictates of male authority.

With the arrival of bookish Belle in 1991, the princess character had become even more self-sufficient and well educated. Rather than having a prince rescue her, she rescued the prince. She achieved many women's dream of actually changing a man, both physically and emotionally.

Significantly, the film Beauty and the Beast featured the first Disney princess written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who went on to even more writing achievements like the script for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

Disney princesses became stronger and stronger over the decades, developing into warriors like Pocahontas, Mulan and Rapunzel. These princesses were no longer content to take a somewhat passive role. In addition to fighting side-by-side with their male counterparts, they were instrumental in saving the lives of the men they loved against attacks by ferocious armies.

The princesses had also become more ethnic. No longer was it the typical beautiful white girl with perfect complexion, silky hair and sparkling teeth who wore the sought-after crown, but the darker skinned Jasmine and Tiana joined the ranks as well with sharply featured Pocahontas and Chinese Mulan. The characters were still attractive, independent young women.

Recently, Pixar introduced the unconventional Scottish Princess Merida in the film Brave, who emphasized that being a princess comes with responsibilities not just benefits. The Disney Company has chosen to include her with the Disney princesses (even though they leave out so many others, including Giselle from Enchanted and Tiger Lily from Peter Pan who is, in fact, an actual Indian princess unlike Pocahontas). More importantly, Merida is a brave reminder that a happy ending doesn't always mean marriage these days.

"Merida is not upset about being a princess or being a girl. She knows what her role is. She just wants to do it her way, and not her mother's way," said Brenda Chapman, co-director of the film who also developed the original story.

Today, while all the Disney princesses share the same qualities of beauty, strength, humor and kindness, they each have their own distinct differences that seem to communicate to a wide audience that the chance to live happily ever after is still an achievable dream for almost anyone.

This past holiday season as potential princesses of all ages around the world rushed to watch their favorite Disney films once more, or to put on a sparkly dress and shiny tiara, or purchase yet another expensive doll or accessory, it's nice to stop and remember that this wonderful fantasy started 75 years ago with a passive and sweet little girl who had no idea she was starting a dynasty of fairy-tale feminists.

More importantly, it would be nice to remember that what truly makes the Disney princesses so wonderful is not all the "stuff," but their inner character that has grown richer and stronger over the decades.



  1. By carolinakid

    Great article. The princesses are my favorite Disney characters/films. Such a shame that the company chose to totally ignore Snow White's 75th Anniversary last year.

  2. By DannyeF

    I loved this article, because I never outgrew my princess phase! :-) Thank you so much!

  3. Discuss this article on MousePad.