Is the Daughter of the Village Chief a Princess?

Being a princess can mean different things to different people. Being a Disney Princess gets a little more complicated. There's a joke from Disney's 2016 Moana about what makes a Disney Princess when Moana tries to tell Maui that she isn't a princess, and he claims that if she wears a dress and has an animal friend, she is, which is pretty much on par for Disney standards. Even though Moana isn't listed on the official Disney Princess page due to her movie being recent enough to market off its own name instead of the Disney Princess name, she was still included in the Wreck-It Ralph 2 trailer. Moana is pretty clear about how she sees herself is in the song "I am Moana" in which she states "I am the daughter of the village chief." The lovely Auli'i Cravalho who lends her voice to the spirited protagonist is also rather vocal vocal about how she considers Moana more of a heroine than a princess. Of course, with the way princess culture has evolved over the past decade or two, being a strong heroine is often all it takes to be seen as a storybook princess.

Moana isn't the first daughter of a tribal chief to be featured in a Disney movie. Pocahontas is portrayed as an official Disney Princess on their website and a lot of their licensed merchandise. Some would argue that she is a secondary Disney Princess like Mulan because she fulfills the popularity, power, and personality requirements of being a Disney Princess even if she is not actually royalty. Others might say that she is royalty because she the daughter of Chief Powhatan. What makes a person royal can be somewhat subjective. Polynesian and Native American tribes divide their power more equally than medieval and Renaissance European cultures, so some might say that the village chief helps make decisions but isn't royal because he doesn't get the benefit of castles, fancy clothing, or servants. At the same time, being in a leadership position does give the chief and his family more importance than the other members of the tribe because he would have the final say in most of their decisions. If the chief's daughter wishes to live up to that level of responsibility, she could be seen as a type of royalty.

Tribal royalty doesn't fit the standard image that people envision when they think of royalty, but that doesn't mean they can't do great things or have interesting stories. Liliuokalani, for instance, had an intriguing yet tragic reign as the queen of Hawaii when she was overthrown by the much bigger and more powerful government of the United States of America. The real-life Powhatan tribe suffered the same fate many years earlier. Yet, we still enjoy hearing stories about these women and how their lives were affected by the shift in power. The fates they suffered at the end does not make their struggles any less intriguing. Perhaps people just have trouble seeing leaders of small tribes as royalty when there are so many larger government systems run by people who are more powerful and therefore appear more important in comparison.

Pocahontas wasn't Disney's first Indian princess. Many people tend to forget about Tiger Lily, the daughter of Neverland's Indian tribe from Peter Pan in 1953. That might be because she was a pretty forgettable character. Tiger Lily took a definite backseat to the other female characters in the movie with more screen time including Wendy and Tinker Bell. Yet, she was the closest thing it had to an actual princess. Tiger Lily will never be added to the official Disney Princess roster because she doesn't have the same instant recognizability as the other "questionable" Disney Princesses like Mulan or Moana. Her character also enforces some sexist standards that older princesses like Cinderella and Snow White had already transcended, like only being in the movie to feed the male lead's ego. Still, Tiger Lily made an impact on the studio in her own way by giving people an idea of what an animated Indian Princess might look like.

So, is the daughter of the village chief really a princess? If you were to ask her, she would probably tell you no, just like Moana told Maui. Still, having such a position places a girl in a unique position in a tribe, giving her the ability to learn about how the tribe is run, what role everyone else plays and possibly one day using what she learned to lead her people. If that doesn't sound like a princess, then I don't know what does. It all comes down to whether you interpret things more literally or figuratively. For instance, I thought it was very clever that Fredo, the "prince" from Dyesebel, was the son of a powerful CEO because it took place in modern times. We don't necessarily have kings or queens everywhere anymore, so in a capitalist society, the offspring of a CEO could easily be seen as royalty. Even though not everyone may agree about Moana and Pocahontas being princesses, we can all agree that they are both terrific role models and heroines.


Jeffrey Lehmann said…
Congratulations on this very well thought out discussion of "princess" nomenclature. I am writing a script for a real life tribal daughter who succeeded in defeating the largest civilization of her time that was trying to annihilate her tribe. People keep calling her a princess and I have always pushed back against this characterization. Today, I decided that I will not and will not let anyone else refer to her as a princess moving forward. I was searching for more appropriate terms for her when I came across your post. Well done!

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