How Women Modernized The Disney Princess

When new images emerged of the Polynesian girl at the center of Moana over the summer, many took instant notice of the heroine’s solid-looking, realistic body. “That was a deliberate attempt, partly inspired by wanting her to be different,” co-director John Musker told BuzzFeed in July. “We wanted her to be an action hero.”

Although Musker saw Moana’s muscular body as a mark of her difference, some Disney fans might have heard something familiar in his declaration. “I wanted a real girl,” Brave’s writer-director Brenda Chapman told the New York Times in 2012 of the arrow-slinging Merida. “Not one that very few could live up to with tiny, skinny arms, waist, and legs. I wanted an athletic girl.” Brave, she said, upended fairy-tale tropes.

Fourteen years earlier, Ming-Na Wen, the voice of Mulan, told USA Today that her character was “the antithesis of Cinderella. She doesn’t wear a gown. She wears armor.”

Asserting that a Disney heroine has broken ranks with her predecessors is a tradition that dates back to 1989 with Ariel, the defiant princess in The Little Mermaid. In 1990, Ron Clements — Musker’s co-director on both Moana and The Little Mermaid, along with other Disney movies — told the Scripps Howard News Service that Ariel’s red hair shocked some people. “But we felt it was important,” he explained. “It made her different.” Saying this princess is not like the ones who came before her has become almost as essential to the Disney princess formula as an animal sidekick or a parent who just doesn’t understand.

A very early Moana and Maui by Moana story and development artist Sue Nichols. Courtesy of Sue Nichols; Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection

But Mulan’s masculine aesthetic and Moana’s athletic proportions may not have made it to the screen without the women behind the scenes who, sometimes quite literally, shaped them. “The women involved in the film, our producer and some [others], were … pushing, ‘Let’s not have her be a wasp-thin woman. Let’s have her be a more realistic body shape and feel like she’s not going to be blown over by a strong wind,’” Musker said of Moana in the same July interview with BuzzFeed.

The truth, of course, is that no one princess has completely thrown out the royal playbook, but ever since Ariel, each one has bent the rules. And it’s increasingly been women at Disney who have pushed for change — making the characters smarter, braver, and more independent. While Disney internally debated whether princess movies only appeal to girls, a class of women began to rise at the studio to challenge the very nature of what it means to be a princess, and to remake her in the image of a 21st-century woman.

Between Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and the late 1980s, the animation wing of his company slumped. But as the influential animators hired in the ’20s and ’30s — the Nine Old Men, as they were called — began to retire (and, in some cases, died), a new but still mostly white and male group of artists took their place and brought with them a fresh approach to female characters.

In the 1980s, there were still very few women in animation with enough power to effect major change at Disney. Through most of the decade, Disney had no female story artists to plan out scenes visually before they were sent to animators. There was a pipeline problem: The studio lost seven female artists to a Disney defector’s new company, Don Bluth Productions, in 1979. One woman among the exodus, Lorna Cook, explained that Bluth had been one of the few people at Disney at that time who actively promoted women.

But early on during production of The Little Mermaid in 1987, Disney took a tiny step toward gender balance — one that paid immense dividends at the box office. Chapman was hired to work on the film fresh out of art school, initially as a story trainee. She recalled being dismissively told by the man who hired her that she was getting the job “because you’re a woman”; later, she became a leader in Disney’s story department, head of story on the blockbuster The Lion King, and eventually, the writer and director of Brave.

On The Little Mermaid, she was the only woman out of seven credited storyboard artists. As the newest person in the room, Chapman was assigned to sketch out a section of the “Part of Your World” reprise with Ariel watching Prince Eric on the beach; the artist drew a wave crashing behind the smitten teen, which is now perhaps the most iconic shot in the movie.

“If it was the Nine Old Men, Ariel would have been very different,” said Kathy Zielinski, who animated Ariel’s sea-witch nemesis Ursula. The titular mermaid is a tenacious young woman who leaves the sea to pursue a human prince: In contrast to her uncommonly accommodating predecessors Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, the redhead in the clamshell bikini was defined by curiosity and rebellion, operating in defiance of her father. According to Mermaid story artist Ed Gombert, “It was a different time from Walt’s time, so I think there was a natural instinct to treat her differently.”

The Little Mermaid became one of the top-grossing movies of 1989 and won two Academy Awards for its music, despite Disney’s top brass worrying it would only appeal to little girls, as James B. Stewart reported in DisneyWar. The film was by and large a triumph, but the New York Times quoted director Musker saying he’d been “given a hard time by some women because Ariel is not complete without a prince.” Likewise, the Los Angeles Times reported that Clements and Musker, who were unavailable to be interviewed for this story, were put on the defensive at a screening at the University of Southern California: An audience member questioned them about the meager opportunities for women behind the scenes.

Disney brought in screenwriter Linda Woolverton for its next princess film, Beauty and the Beast, a lush musical about the romance between a bookworm and the misunderstood prince who holds her hostage in his castle. “There was no mandate from on-high to counteract the finger-pointing,” Woolverton — who’s still a top writer at Disney — told the Los Angeles Times around Beauty and the Beast’s release in 1992. “But I think the studio felt confident that, as a woman, I wouldn’t write a sexist character.”

Woolverton, along with Chapman and lyricist and executive producer Howard Ashman, shaped Belle into a multifaceted female heroine. The screenwriter’s vision demanded a greater sensitivity to gender issues. Zielinski, who was at Disney at the time but didn’t work on Beauty and the Beast, remembered a male story artist requesting input on the scene in which Belle resigns herself to life as a prisoner. “‘Would you cry if you were in this situation?’” she recalled him asking her. (Yes, Zielinski told him. But no blubbering.) Chapman drew storyboards for the scene in which Belle bandages the Beast and challenges his cruelty; the Beast falls silent after she angrily tells him, “You should learn to control your temper!” When Chapman presented the boards depicting this confrontation, the 10 men who were also on the story team heartily approved.

The Beast and Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

But not all the boundary-pushing went so smoothly. “Every single line of [Belle’s] dialogue was a battle,” Woolverton told Entertainment Weekly in May 2016. As opposed to Cinderella, who cheerfully accepts her fate as a servant to her harsh stepmother, Belle shouts in her captor’s face. “You have to understand that the whole idea of the heroine-victim was baked into the cake,” Woolverton said. “I’d been through the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s and I definitely couldn’t buy that this smart, attractive young girl, Belle, would be sitting around and waiting for her prince to come. That she was someone who suffers in silence and only wants a pure rose? That she takes all this abuse but is still good at heart? I had a hard time with that.”

Sue Nichols, who worked in visual development on Beauty and the Beast, wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News that it was her idea to give Belle a female confidante, who eventually took the form of Mrs. Potts; she explained that the young woman needed female support to “eventually feel safe enough to fall in love” with the Beast. Lorna Cook, who returned to Disney after years of working with Don Bluth, shot footage of herself to reference when she was animating Belle’s tender, hesitating caresses of a transformed Beast at the end of the film. As the one woman on the seven-person team that animated Belle, she explained that she was comfortable drawing “the female form.”

“Belle is a feminist,” Woolverton declared to the Los Angeles Times, quite boldly for 1992. She explained that she “wanted a woman of the ’90s.” Belle is a voracious reader who longs for more than her “provincial life.” The villain, Gaston, is a churlish misogynist who pursues Belle romantically over her objections. It’s still a love story, yes, but Belle was a step in the proud spinster direction. And it was women who pushed her there.

The next two Disney heroines — Jasmine and Pocahontas — were somewhat more troubled. Aladdin and its princess, Jasmine, drew reprobation from Arab groups for visually whitewashing the heroes and making the evil characters look and sound more “ethnic,” among other problems. Rebecca Rees, a story artist on the film, recalled no effort to hire Arab women (or men) to work as artists on Aladdin. But still, Jasmine seeks a husband on her own terms and against the wishes of her father, the sultan. (Though Jasmine is in the Disney Princess pantheon despite being the love interest and not the protagonist, not every princess discussed in this story is actual royalty, nor necessarily part of the official Disney Princess brand.)

Even more so than with Ariel, we see Jasmine’s royal father coddling and stifling her; we also see her rail against male entitlement. As Aladdin, her father, and Jafar discuss her marriage prospects, she yells, “How dare you? All of you, standing around deciding my future? I am not a prize to be won.” Rees, one of the two women among the 16 story artists credited on Aladdin, portrayed the conflicting father-daughter impulses visually in a garden scene where the sultan places a dove back into a cage full of birds, and then Jasmine impulsively opens the cage and watches the flock fly off into the wider world. “I had the idea, Maybe we could just show that she wants freedom,” Rees told BuzzFeed News. For all its faults, Aladdin depicts a woman who wants to be self-determining and — like the Genie — “free.”

Pocahontas is the first Disney Princess movie to end without a wedding, actual or imminent.

Nichols, the second female story artist on Aladdin, boarded the scene where Jasmine seduces Jafar as an act of self-defense. Jafar expects the Genie to force Jasmine’s love through magic, and she plays along to create a distraction, riffing on the “cute little gaps” in the villain’s teeth to keep his eyes on her and off Aladdin’s attempt to save her. “This was a smart lady,” Rees said. “She knew what she needed to do.” Ultimately, the “prince” does rescue her, but he does it with her help.

To an even greater degree than Aladdin, Pocahontas tells the story of a smart, capable young woman who flouts convention: The 17th-century heroine falls in love with a colonist and saves him from execution, staving off an armed conflict along the way. However, the film tells its story through stereotypes and historical distortions. The film’s Powhatan consultant, Shirley Little Dove Custalow McGowan, famously disavowed Pocahontas. “My people are concerned because our story has already been changed so much,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, saying she’d been misled by the production. The credited story artists on the film were all men, and none were Native.

There was also only one woman on a team of 17 that animated the main character, but the unglamorous and yet essential Pocahontas cleanup crew — which takes rough drawings and turns them into animation — was overwhelmingly female. As Emily Jiuliano, a key assistant in cleanup on the film, explained, “We would preserve the best of [the animators’] artwork and make it better.” Cleanup catches a lot of errors. In particular, Jiuliano remembered fixing a scene in which Pocahontas would breathe in, and her ample chest would rise, and then — instead of descending — would just keep rising. The cleanup crew made sure her breasts stayed firmly attached.

Despite its perpetuation of pernicious myths about colonization, Pocahontas is still noteworthy as the first Disney Princess movie to end without a wedding, actual or imminent. Instead, Pocahontas chooses her community over her man. When an injured John Smith asks her to come to Europe with him, she declines, and the film ends with her watching him sail out of her life.

Having learned something from its poor track record on racial representation, Disney made some pointedly different choices for 1998’s Mulan, a movie about a young woman who cross-dresses to serve in the Chinese army in her father’s place. Producer Pam Coats told BuzzFeed News the studio made a push to hire members of the ethnic group they were depicting onscreen. In particular, visionary character designer Chen-Yi Chang and screenwriter Rita Hsiao helped to round out the crew. Nichols, who again worked in visual development, wrote in an email, “By the time we started developing Mulan, we were actually asked to make sure the ethnic races were visible in our designs so as not to offend our audience.”

Caroline Hu, who worked on the visual development team, said it was a struggle to design a character who had to be feminine and pretty and still pass for a male soldier. “She has to wear a man’s armor,” Hu said of Mulan. “She was a girl that had to live in a man’s world. So she was not a feminine character. How do you still keep that girl female while she’s doing these manly things?”

Mulan in her warrior wardrobe. Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

That seeming contradiction, Hu said, would later put the heroine in a difficult position in Disney Princess merchandise: Generally, Mulan dolls are sold wearing feminine attire, rather than the armor in which the character spends much of the film. “She’s not girly, and I think that was the toughest thing for Disney in general,” Hu said. “You look at the products now, she’s not as highlighted as some of the other ‘real’ princesses.”

Much of what coded the other princesses as “real” was romance, but Mulan’s relationship with Shang was intentionally downplayed. A wedding was taken off the table in the early stages of development, Coats said. “To go home and have to put a button on it, that in order to make it be a neat, packaged life she had to get married, was not the way you wanted that movie to end,” she said. “It wasn’t about that.”

“I spent a lot of time in rooms with a lot of men who were talking about how women think and dress and how their bodies are shaped.”

Coats had struggled to find female story artists for the film; after Lorna Cook left the production, the remaining story artists were all men. “I spent a lot of time in rooms with a lot of men who were talking about how women think and dress and how their bodies are shaped,” she told BuzzFeed News. It pointedly struck her during one scene: In the final film, the army first learns that Mulan is a woman offscreen as she’s treated by a doctor; the audience does not witness the moment her naked body gives her away. In a male artist’s earlier sketches, “she was revealed to be a woman in front of the entire [unit] — it just felt so violating,” Coats said. In 1998, she told Newsweek that the earlier version showed a superior officer ripping off Mulan’s clothes in public. “All these men couldn’t see that this was a violation for women,” she said at the time. Because of Coats, the warrior’s unmasking is mostly private in the final version of the film.

The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, released in 2009 and 2010 respectively, ran into both racial and gender issues, and no women were credited for either screenplay.

The former features Tiana, the first black Disney princess, but she spends much of the movie as a green frog. The Princess and the Frog’s screenwriters, producers, and directors were almost all white men, and none were black women. The film is not particularly progressive in its depiction of race, but as writer-director Musker told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2009, Tiana notably “has a career. … She has these goals that don’t involve just setting her sights on a man.” Her luminous dream sequence set to “Almost There” — the mandatory “I want” song that lays out the heroine’s motivation — was designed by Nichols and shows Tiana’s desire to start her own restaurant, not nab herself a husband. As she sashays through her imagined commercial kitchen, breezily fixing her male employees’ mistakes, she sings, “Fairy tales can come true / You gotta make ’em happen / It all depends on you.” The film does feature a romance, but this was a glimpse of what “happily ever after” might look like for a woman madly in love with her career.

Tiana’s Place ad by story and development artist Sue Nichols. Courtesy of Sue Nichols

Ultimately, The Princess and the Frog grossed $267 million worldwide; Disney considered it a box office disappointment. With the studio afraid of another middling earner, Tangled amped up the role of its male lead, Flynn, and changed the project’s name from Rapunzel so that boys wouldn’t be repelled by an overly girly movie. Calling back to concerns over whether Disney princess movies could appeal to anyone but girls, Disney animation president Ed Catmull told the Chicago Tribune in 2010 that the Tangled rebranding was necessary. “Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not,” he said. “We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.”

Flynn’s voiceover bookends the film, although he is clearly not the protagonist. “This temporary hijacking of a princess’s tale by her square-jawed love interest seems like a crude commercial calculation,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted. “[A] sign to the anxious boys in the audience that things aren’t going to be too girly.”

But in 2012’s Brave, the Disney princess finally ditched the prince. Conceived and executed by Chapman, the film’s protagonist Merida rejects an arranged marriage, much like several of her Disney predecessors. However, her happy ending is not in finding another prospective spouse that her parents ultimately come to accept, as Jasmine and Mulan did; instead, she reconciles with her mother and rejects all suitors.

The film picks apart gendered expectations, beginning with the very first scene, in which the audience learns that Merida’s attraction to archery does not conform to her mother’s idea of a “lady.” Later in the film, Merida enters an archery contest to win her own hand in marriage; she rips the sleeve and back of her silky, constricting dress and outshoots all her would-be husbands.

“I just wanted to break that mold of the girly princess,” Chapman told BuzzFeed News. “I wanted to have a princess that would fight that, that would say no, and be secure enough in herself that she would be able to self-advocate, and fight for who she was, but still be flawed.” Under Chapman’s direction, the technical team at Pixar developed a new way to animate hair — Merida’s red curls are almost as unruly as she is. And unlike almost every other major princess before her, Merida’s closest parental relationship is with her mother; her father is largely comic relief. “I wanted a mother-daughter story,” Chapman said. “Because [for] both Ariel and Belle, there was no mother in the stories. They were dead.”

Chapman prepared the way for Jennifer Lee, the writer-director of Frozen, who became the second woman to direct an animated Disney movie. Her 2013 film about the relationship between two sisters was a global box office sensation. And Elsa and Anna’s love — which outshines any romantic subplot — helped drive it to blockbuster status, despite the fact that Disney at first downplayed the female characters in marketing materials. The emotional climax of the film is the moment Anna sacrifices herself for her estranged sister: She limps away from a “true love’s kiss” she believes will save her life and throws herself between Elsa and the film’s murderous villain, turning herself to ice in the process. But, to Anna’s surprise, the love of a man was never what mattered: As Elsa drapes herself over her frozen sister and weeps, the spell is broken in true sisterly love’s embrace.

Archival images of (left to right) Brenda Chapman, Emily Jiuliano, and Kathy Zielinski at work. Courtesy of the artists

Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who wrote the original songs for Frozen with her husband and songwriting partner Robert Lopez, told the New York Times that the movie’s massive hit, “Let It Go,” was “an anthem that said, ‘Screw fear and shame, be yourself, be powerful.’” Hearing the song inspired Lee to take the script in a new direction. It was all very far from its roots: As Stewart reported in DisneyWar, Frozen was about “a terrible bitch” (as a female executive put it) in its early development days in 2003. Then titled The Snow Queen after the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, its lead character would freeze her suitors. Elsa was to be a literally cold-hearted shrew; after “Let It Go,” Lee rewrote her as a formidable, imperfect woman grappling with immense magical powers. “There was a day where I stood up with a little sheet of paper and I [said], ‘This is Anna, this is what Anna’s journey is. No more than that. No less than that. This is Elsa. This is what her journey is,’” Lee recalled in an interview with Scriptnotes. “‘This is what the movie is about and why I want to make this movie.’”

Now, after back-to-back white princesses, Disney has unveiled Moana. Once again taking greater care with representation, Disney hired Maori writer-director Taika Waititi to take a pass at the script (although he doesn’t have a writing credit in the final film). Having Clements and Musker direct seemed like a risk after the representational issues of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog. However, they made a greater effort to reach out to and hire Polynesians early in the production. (Still, some people have critiqued the way the film haphazardly borrows from different indigenous traditions, along with the colonialist implications of making movies about Native peoples.)

Significantly, Moana features no hint of a love story — she’s just a smart, powerful young woman with a realistic, non-sexualized body type on an adventure to save her island. These were all concepts that were championed in other princess films by women at Disney — Belle and Tiana’s intelligence and ambition, Mulan and Merida’s more human bodies, Pocahontas’s devotion to her community, and Brave and Frozen’s varying rejections of romance. Moana producer Osnat Shurer told BuzzFeed News that there was never a love story in the movie at any stage of development. “There wasn’t really room,” she said in a phone interview.

When Moana longs for adventure on the open sea, her parents freak out because it’s simply dangerous, not because it’s dangerous for a girl.

And Moana’s gender is almost incidental. Her status as a future leader goes unquestioned; when she longs for adventure on the open sea, her parents freak out because it’s simply dangerous, not because it’s dangerous for a girl. Shurer said an early version of the script had Moana facing gender-related obstacles, but “pretty quickly, we thought that wasn’t what we wanted the story to be about.”

Resisting physical expectations for the character, Amy Lawson Smeed, the first female co-head of animation on a film at Disney, zeroed in on Moana’s athleticism. Smeed was not available for an interview with BuzzFeed News, but she told the Detroit Free Press that she directed her animators to make the character’s running style in particular “more athletic” and “more confident.” At one point, when Moana grabs the enormous demigod Maui by the ear and hisses “you are not my hero,” her strong bicep flexes.

Coming out of a studio that, as recently as 2013’s Frozen, couldn’t conceive of a princess heroine without some kind of marriage plot and a tiny waist, Moana is monumental.

And yet, Clements still had the impulse to define Moana against past Disney heroines. “We saw this as a hero’s journey, a coming-of-age story, in a different tradition than the princess stories,” he told Time. It’s not only cliché but, at this point, reductive. In 2013, Kristen Bell said Anna, her clumsy character in Frozen, was “the anti-princess princess.” She went on to describe Anna as “the girl who talks too fast and speaks before she thinks, and who is not graceful but is really adventurous and eternally optimistic.” Female characters have been so thoroughly pigeonholed that klutziness has been equated with subversion.

Moana commanding Maui to board her boat in Moana. Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection

What has actually changed over time is not that each princess has rejected everything that constrained the princesses who came before her, but rather that, starting with Ariel, the princesses all seem more human, in part because there were greater numbers of real women creating them. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna, Elsa, and Moana are each distinct; there is no anti-princess because there is no one way to be a princess, and there hasn’t been for nearly 30 years. Each imperfect character gained a deeper humanity because of women’s work behind the scenes.

It was the women behind Moana, Shurer said, who immediately understood how she would carry herself. When the filmmakers were starting to plan the way Moana moves, “there were a couple of times when all the people in the room — but first the women — would stand up and show the pose and go, ‘Here is a warrior.’”

Moana is strong and smart and brave and single not in spite of her princess peers, but because of them — and the women who demanded more. ●

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