We’ve heard it before. The lamentation for Princesses who actively help themselves rather than just acting as damsels in distress. The joy when a new Disney princess is revealed, who ‘finally’ doesn’t just sit around until a prince comes and saves her.
In fact, there have even been people, such as Keira Knightley, who allegedly refuse to allow their children to watch these older Disney classics because they want their children seeing ‘real’ role models.
But here is the real question: did all of these earlier classic Princesses actually just wait around for their prince to save them? I think not.
Firstly, I want to note that I am going to be largely working off my own memory of these stories, rather than re-watching them now and then writing this post. Also, I will be incorporating aspects of other adaptations of some of these stories, not just the Disney versions.
Most notably of all these Princesses, I thought of Cinderella as an epitome of Princesses who are accused of doing nothing more than waiting for their Prince to save them. However, when I began writing the Cinderella section of this article, I realised that I had far too much to say, so I wrote it into its own post.
First we have Aurora, a teenage Princess who had been cursed from birth and was raised, under protection, in a small cottage. She lived an idyllic life in the forest where she spent the majority of her sixteen years. Here, to protect her from Maleficent, she was named and raised as ‘Briar Rose’. On her sixteenth birthday, the Prince and she met—although neither of them realised that she was the Princess to whom the Prince was betrothed.
Finally back at the castle Aurora is curious and begins exploring the castle. In one of these rooms, there is a light on and a person using a contraption that Aurora had never seen before—she saw Maleficent using the spinning wheel. Interested, Aurora reaches out and pricks her finger, just as the curse prophesised. And, of course, she then falls into a deep sleep. After defeating Maleficent, Prince Phillip sees Aurora sleeping and then he kisses her. It’s not like she was merely twiddling her thumbs in a panic waiting for the Prince to make everything okay. She was curious, she was cursed, she was unconscious, she was kissed. Thus was her story.
Indeed, in other, non-Disney adaptations of Sleeping Beauty, the Prince and the Princess never meet beforehand. Instead, the Prince just cuts through to the castle when the 100 year-long curse is broken, sees the unconscious Princess who he’s never met before, and kisses her. Did Aurora end up safe and married to a Prince in the end? Certainly. But Aurora/Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty never simply waited around for a Prince to save her. She didn’t even know she needed saving.
Snow White discovers that her jealous stepmother is attempting to have her killed, and so she actively runs away to save herself. When she is caught in the forest by a man who was forced by the stepmother to go and kill Snow White, she pleads with him for her life and appeals to his conscience; he then lets her go. At no moment here did a Prince swoop in, sweep her off her feet, and rescue her.
She was fleeing murder and ends up living with some nice little men who take her in—the seven dwarves. One day she is visited by the evil stepmother (disguised as a poor and kindly old lady) who gives her an apple. Out of kindness, Snow White accepts the apple, takes a bite and collapses from the poison.
When the dwarves return home and find her, they assume she is dead. So, what do they do? They put her supposedly dead body into a glass coffin so they can gaze upon her beauty.
Later, the Prince comes by and is also struck by the beauty of this corpse…. er, sorry, this young Princess. The dwarves remove the lid of the coffin. The prince walks up, leans down over her, and kisses her on the lips.
In other adaptations, a prince comes by and sees Snow White for the first time when she is ‘dead’ in the coffin. Enraptured by her beauty, he takes possession of her body in its coffin and rides away with her. In such versions, it is the jostle of his horse that dislodges the apple piece from Snow White’s throat and brings her back to life.
In either version, the Princess doesn’t wait to be saved by a Prince, she doesn’t spend her time longing for marriage. She saves herself initially, then, when she is poisoned, she is stared at and either kissed or stolen by the Prince.
Jasmine definitely doesn’t wait for a man to save her. The men of the film (namely her father, Jafar, and even Aladdin) are standing around and discussing her future. In response to this, Jasmine comes out and tells them off, asserting her right to make decisions for herself. Indeed, due to her persistence and her genuine love for Aladdin, at the end of the film she manages to convince her father to change the rule that a Princess must marry a Prince.
Jasmine even confronts Aladdin when she realises that he has been lying to her. She certainly isn’t just a passive Princess awaiting a saviour.
Though throughout the film Aladdin does save Jasmine (and vice versa), ultimately Aladdin is not the one to save her.
Jasmine further saves herself (and Aladdin) when she is kidnapped by Jafar. Where many other Disney villains are poisoned or cursed, Jasmine subverts this trope and instead uses her own cunning to save herself. Pretending to be under a love spell, she ultimately protects herself from Jafar’s wrath and further violence, while simultaneously distracting Jafar from where Aladdin is hiding. Although Aladdin and the genie are ultimately the ones who defeat Jafar, Jasmine’s contribution to saving the Kingdom from Jafar’s wrath, and her own actions to save herself and Aladdin simply cannot be overlooked.
Tiana (Princess and the Frog)
Tiana is not inherently saved by the Prince and definitely was not waiting around to be saved by him. Indeed, their meeting was a chance encounter and Tiana was actively trying to save him when they met. Of course, when she did this she ultimately fell under the same curse as he was under.
This is lucky for him, because she spends much of the remainder of the movie saving him by keeping him alive. She further refuses to simply act as his maid, instead making him pitch in and contribute to the workload. Through this, she teaches him valuable life skills which would serve to help him in his later life and enables him to return to a more self-sufficient and humble version of himself.
In return, he saves her by enabling her to see that life is more than just work—although she still never loses sight of the value of hard work.
I’d argue that throughout the course of the movie Tiana saved the Prince more than he saved her. Indeed, Tiana certainly never waited for a Prince to save her. She was continually out in the world working hard and making things happen for herself. Indeed, meeting the Prince and being cursed as a frog ultimately hindered her progress towards making her restaurant dreams come true.
Finally, towards the end of the movie, they both ultimately save each other breaking their curse together.
So there you have it. Yes, romantic true love and a happy ending of marriage was a key theme in these early Disney Princess fairytales. However, it is illogical to simply focus on the Princes’ contribution to the Princesses’ salvation. Especially in the stories where the Prince doesn’t even have half of the movie’s screen time. Really, if you watch these movies and read these stories and then turn around and give the Princes all of the credit, you may be part of the problem.