Like most little girls growing up, I dreamed of being a princess. My favourite princess was Sleeping Beauty. It was my favourite book because of the extravagant, ornate illustrations. Disney’s animated feature length movies were also a staple of my childhood and it’s no wonder I wanted to be a princess, since nearly all the female heroines were either princess or dogs (Lady and the Tramp, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians).
Some of these princess were rendered unconscious (see Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and yet the female characters in these vintage Disney princess movies speak 50% to 70% of the lines. In the second generation of princess films, the female characters speak a lot less. A study by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer revealed that female characters got just 32% of the dialogue in The Little Mermaid. In Mulan, whose heroine saves China, females speak only 23% of the lines. Mushu, her protector dragon, has 50% more words than Mulan.
Disney has a lot to answer for when it comes to the development of female characters, as do other movie producers. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Disney princesses prefer the company of males, as female characters are most often depicted amongst male companions. The Little Mermaid's confidant and protector is a male character, as is Mulan's. They do not seek out advice from fellow females. In fact, nearly all the princesses are motherless (evil step mothers aside) and require a man to rescue them from impending doom. In Snow White and The Little Mermaid, the only other female character of note is the older jealous rival. What does this teach children about female relationships?
Fortunately, Disney's more recent movies provide a happier model for family relationships. Frozen is the most obvious example where the sisters unite rather than compete. My new favourite fairytale however, is Brave. The heroine, Merida, is brave, independent and sassy. More importantly there is no male character acting as her protector. It's a story about mother-daughter relationships and is one of the few examples I can think of where the intergenerational relationship between women is respected and cherished.
I look forward to seeing Disney's upcoming movies. I hope that the next generation of princess heroines are not only supported by a cast of strong and wonderful female characters, but that they also gets the lioness share of speaking lines.
First image: "No Princess" by Leah Mariani 2016