What It Means To Be a Disney Princess in the 2020s

The first post I wrote in this blog was called "How the Disney Princesses Stayed Modern for 80 Years." The answer was a combination of creating new princesses to match the times along with branded promotional videos, events, and merchandise that combine the old with the new. The latest example is this year's Ultimate Princess Celebration, which is an attempt to celebrate all of the Disney Princesses, including ones that may feel outdated by today's standards, by releasing imagery that makes it look like they're all friends. This is a wonderful method of keeping some of my favorite childhood characters relevant, but it is also a shield used to cover up a darker truth that many of these characters would not be deemed acceptable by today's standards. We have reached a point in Hollywood in which traditional feminine traits are considered weak or problematic. As such, characters like Raya are considered the only acceptable way to portray a woman in the media, princess or otherwise. Just as I did for Mulan, I intend to use this post as a breakdown of what traits would be most likely to qualify a character as Disney Princess for the remainder of this new decade.

Group shot of the Disney Princesses hanging out together with the caption "Royal Friendships"

She is a leader.

Much like Elena of Avalor, modern princesses are in a hurry to take on their roles as queen and would gladly skip over the "princess" phase if their society allowed them to. Raya demonstrated this by recruiting and leading a team of warriors on a quest to restore her kingdom. Being a leader is certainly a good skill to teach children. It encourages cooperation, collaboration, and builds the groundwork for a strong career as a manager or CEO. The downside of this is that it forces children to grow up too quickly and doesn't allow them time to be creative or come up with their own hopes and dreams for the future like how Cinderella took the time to learn how to sew, befriend the mice in her house, and dream of living in a castle. Princess stories are supposed to be "coming of age" tales, but there is little growth left when the heroine already feels she is of age at the beginning of her story.

She is a warrior.

Every female character in the current decade without fail is a full-on warrior. Not only is she able to defend herself in a dangerous situation, but she also is a master of her preferred martial art, the best of the best, and can defeat any man who would dare stand against her. Raya fits these qualifications as she is able to easily take on Namaari singlehandedly without needing any assistance from her companions.  Disney introduced this tradition to their princess line with Merida, who was a master archer in 2012's Brave. One might argue that Mulan paved the way before her in 1998, but in the animated film, Mulan had little knowledge of how to fight until she trained with Shang. The discrepancy between princesses using brawn over wits to solve their problems in modern film was made particularly apparent by the differences between the original Mulan and the 2020 remake.

Raya fighting Namaari

She has no love interest.

The purge of romance in modern media is something that has hit Disney the hardest because so many of their classic films were traditional love stories at their finest. Beginning with Frozen in 2013, Disney began to debunk their own tropes about romance by teaching girls that they shouldn't marry the first man they meet, something that many Disney Princesses had done in the past. As obvious a message as this should have been to any girl who grew up with Disney Princess movies and became old enough to start dating, Frozen's immense popularity made Disney realize that people were digging this anti-romance trend and proceeded to give the following princesses no love interest at all. Even the Tangled series downplayed Rapunzel's love story with Eugene in favor of the LGBT undertones of her friendship with Cassandra.

She is the hero of her own story.

This is an absolute requirement for any modern movie with a female protagonist. To understand this trope, we must first understand the difference between a "hero" and a "protagonist." A protagonist is the main character in a story, which applies to every official Disney Princess with the sole exception of Jasmine. A hero is someone whose actions determine whether or not the story will have a happy ending. This could refer to Prince Phillip throwing his sword at Maleficent to save Aurora, Snow White's prince saving her life with a kiss, or Prince Eric driving his ship into an overpowered Ursula. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when princesses became their own heroes because it was a gradual process that lasted throughout the '90s, whereas today's movies make it clear from the very beginning that the princess will be the one to save her kingdom. Moana is tasked very early in her film to return the heart of Te Fiti and restore her people's destiny as voyagers. Raya was trained to protect her village's magical relic from childhood. Even The Nutcracker and the Four Realms changed the narrative from Clara saving the Nutcracker and going on an adventure with him to her saving the entire kingdom almost singlehandedly. Gone are the days of princesses waiting to be rescued. Now, they are the ones who do the rescuing.

Anna tries to free Elsa from her ice palace in Frozen

She rejects traditional feminine values.

This is a tough one to get behind because it is the exact opposite of what made princesses so appealing to me in my youth. The attempt to mix this new trope with the more traditionally Disney Princesses through the Ultimate Princess Celebration is likely to cause some scandal. It seems to be a requirement in modern mainstream films to make the female characters act as masculine as possible. Though not a Disney movie, this trend was first made obvious in 2018's Charming, an independent princess parody film, in which all of the princess characters acted like vapid lovesick puppies, while the actual love interest disguised herself as a man in order to be accepted by society and hide her true feelings from the film's hero. Since then, Disney Princesses have followed in this film's footsteps, most notably leading to last year's Secret Society of Second-Born Royals in which Peyton Elizabeth Lee stars as Sam, a rebel princess who would rather play rock'n'roll on an electric guitar than sing ballads to birds and wear jeans and tank tops emblazoned with the word "feminist" than a ballgown. Unfortunately, this does not only applies to original female characters but is also being used to retcon characters in nostalgic remakes and reboots and alter their personalities. The most recent victim of this treatment is Teela from the Masters of the Universe: Revelation series on Netflix.

Princess Sam and her royal crew from Secret Society of Second-Born Royals

These are the new traditions that have been established over time to pave the way for the coming decade, and I don't foresee them changing any time soon. Therefore, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that I find myself looking forward less and less to new princess movies. That is one of the reasons I have been posting so uch about Time Princess lately since the dress-up and romance aspects of that game are more relatable to me than modern princess movies have become. The past few years of Hollywood and Disney in general have pushed such a massive shift of what it means to be a fairy tale princess or heroine that it is no longer something that I feel I can enjoy or relate to. The postfeminist era of the '80s and '90s that gave us balanced male and female characters who complement each other and have equal but different roles in their stories has ended. Disney does not want to admit that traditional princesses are becoming obsolete, so I believe that they are using the Ultimate Princess Celebration to cover it up. This is only my opinion, of course. Do you find modern princesses relatable compared to the ones from previous eras? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Lady Culturina said…
I d like to say modern princesses are relatable too, but less and less, the least I relate to was Elsa. At first I found it cool that the princesses had no love interest because they seemed aroace, like me. But I must admit that royal couples of movies in the beginning of 90's are still my OTP. Certainely, it was a source of interest. I miss beautiful gowns and the coming of age stories too. In fact, I couldn't relate at all to Raya, and I've found the movie very "meh".
Lisa Dawn said…
Totally agree! I'm asexual as well, and I think that Disney Princess couples are the ultimate goal for romantic aces because they are pure romance without any of the sexual stuff.

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