Moana has been named Disney’s ultimate anti-princess… which was the same title given to Merida from Disney/Pixar’s Brave in 2012, and Judy from Zootopia, who many headlines deemed a feminist icon just last year.
It’s easy to see that Moana is much more developed than the Disney female protagonists of fifty years ago. But in comparison to recent films from the studio, she’s just another great character in a stack of great characters.
Disney has been under close examination for representation of women in their films since way back with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Snow White is dainty, feminine, beautiful, and ends up with a prince she just met who gave her true love's kiss while she was unconscious. You can easily find hundreds of articles on why people believe Disney princesses aren’t good for young girls, regardless of the strength they funnel into many of their much newer characters. On the same note, you’ll find dozens of articles arguing that many of Disney’s newer women are feminist.
The Disney company has faced such backlash over their princesses — and female characters in general — due to their earliest and most well-known characters often being relegated to passive roles, like Snow White. They were almost always in need of a prince to come and save them up until the late-90s when Mulan was introduced and flipped some gender roles.
Whether these princesses took control of their story like Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989) or Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991), they seemed to always have their arc revolve around their relationship with a man. The screenwriter of Beauty and the Beast thought of the character as "Disney’s first feminist princess," though it’s hard to overlook the possible Stockholm syndrome going on, as Belle’s love and friendship with this prince-to-beast holding her captive bloomed during a two-minute song.
Lately we’ve been seeing a much more interesting group of Disney women. In 2012 we met Merida, a Scottish princess-turned-archer who refused to be married. Instead of a gushy romance, Brave told a story about mother and daughter. It was also the first of Disney/Pixar’s films to be written and co-directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman (who was let go halfway through the project for creative differences). With Frozen (2013) we got multiple jabs at Disney’s earliest princesses getting married by the close of their stories when Elsa stated, "You can’t marry a man you just met!" Elsa, the most beloved Disney character of the past few years, doesn’t end up marrying anyone at all. Instead, the love she has for her sister breaks the curse thrown over their kingdom. Even as far back as 2002, we got one of the most genuine depictions of the bond between sisters in Lilo & Stitch, over a decade before Frozen was deemed the go-to for a family-over-romance theme.
In 1998 Mulan became one of Disney’s strongest female characters seen on screen. Granted, her motivation still revolves around a man, her father, who she joins the army to protect. On the other hand, a female character defending a male character still flips traditional roles. Mulan is almost entirely about fighting off gender roles and its protagonist ends up saving all of China pretty much on her own — proving girls can do what guys can, if not better. Though not royalty, the Disney company includes her in their official line of Disney princess dolls, clothes and products. She’s driven, hardworking, and does not marry her male companion by the film's close, unlike many of her princess predecessors. Mulan still stands strong today, and Disney is under a bit of fire from audiences to keep her the same way in their soon-to-be live-action remake.
Those are just a few "anti-princess" protagonists we’ve seen in the past two decades. If we take a look at secondary characters, you might find that Honey Lemon and Gogo Tomago of Big Hero 6 (2014) come to mind. Gogo is the tough and gritty engineer, telling our male protagonist to "Woman up!" when he feels down, and Honey Lemon is the fashion-forward chemist who is adamantly both cute and brainy. Both characters prove a woman can look and act any way she wants while still being brave, strong and smart. Vanellope of Wreck-It Ralph (2012) is a spunky kid with a can-do attitude, wanting nothing more than to fit-in and win a race. At the end when she finds she’s truly a princess, she refuses to wear the pretty poofy dress, stating "This isn’t me! I’m a racer, not a princess!" She even learned to love her disability over the course of the film. The upcoming sequel to Wreck-It Ralph was just recently announced.
The Disney company has even turned to altering the views on their earliest Disney princesses as well. Perhaps the best known of all the Disney princesses, the namesake for Walt Disney World’s castle, is Cinderella. While Disney has given the story several adaptations, the 1950s animated classic is the most well known and the most frequently brought up in debates over Disney princesses affect on young girls, such as in the New York Times best-seller Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Years before Elsa from Frozen existed, Cinderella had been Disney’s go-to for dolls, dress-up costumes, and birthday parties. She even followed many girls into adulthood, like on TLC’s popular reality series Say Yes to the Dress, where you’ll hear time and time again that the bride-to-be is looking for a "Cinderella wedding."
In Cinderella, our heroine escapes to the ball with a dash of magic, meets a prince who she hardly speaks to, falls in love in a snap and then gets married by the credits. It is understandable why this would be seen the way it has been, and Disney made steps to change that. In 2015, the studio released a live-action adaptation of Cinderella which turned the story on its head, all while keeping its enchanted core. Cinderella has time to acquaint herself with the prince long before the ball, referring to him as "a friend" and expressing much more personality than her animated predecessor. Later she and the prince talk at the ball and get to genuinely know one another, falling for each other's personality rather than solely their looks or status. The film also included more people of color, where the previous had been exclusively white.
Disney has been actively changing for the better over the past twenty years. With every new movie their female characters get a little more real, a little more believable and a little more open to the growing world around them. The children who watch Disney today aren’t growing up with the dainty and passive Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, but Merida, Tiana, Elsa and now Moana.
Moana definitely makes waves as Disney’s first Polynesian princess, but whether she’s Disney’s first anti-princess is debatable. She may not be anything incredibly new for Disney at this point in regards to female empowerment, but she is, without a doubt, a great addition to their line of outgoing women. Just a few more strong female protagonists and the studio might not have everyone so surprised each time they add another to their ever-growing lineup.