Don't Call Me A (Disney) Princess

Like most of my friends, I'm a tried-and-true product of the 90s. The stereotypically millennial things overcome me with joy; Lisa Frank, N'SYNC, and Disney. Disney was probably more than 50% of my childhood. I had the toys, the bed sheets, and, of course, the VHS tapes.

Although Disney cranked out live action films like Swiss Family Robinson and classic shorts with Mickey and Minnie, it was the full length features that set my soul afire. Yes, I loved Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora, but as an young African American girl it wasn't until Princess Jasmine that I saw someone brown represented in the female Disney space.

Over the years, Disney has added more women of color to their full length feature animated films. But as I got older, I began to notice how in the unescapable millennial conversation of Disney, princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, and Belle were highlighted more than Jasmine, Tiana, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Why? Apart from Belle, it's the Disney heroines of color that make the strongest role models for young girls.

Since Belle, Disney stepped it up with the heroines' personality, opinions, and values. But as time has gone on, these voices from heroines of color are slowly being lost on the younger generation. There's a 13 year gap between Esmerelda and Tiana and a seven year gap between Tiana and Moana.

It's important for all girls to see these heroines for the strong women they are. And it's very important for young girls of color to see themselves represented in the media they consume. 

The Rebel: Jasmine
(Aladdin, 1992)

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Princess Jasmine was Disney's first heroine of color and she was a firecracker. And although she was born privileged, she could care less. The fact that she hadn't yet done anything on her own or ventured beyond the palace gates annoyed her. She wasn't going to accept the role that was laid out for her; Jasmine was all about going against the grain. From rejecting every suitor that came to call, running away from her posh lifestyle, and falling in love with someone for who they are and not what they are, Jasmine broke the classic rescue-me-I'm-a-princess mold.

The Diplomat: Pocahontas
( Pocahontas, 1995)

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Technically, as the daughter of a chief, Pocahontas is a “princess†but she was so much more. She was voice for her people, a diplomat for Native Americans in England, and promoted peace within her community among the natives and settlers. When both sides acted out and against each other because of fear, she spoke out for understanding. While "listening with her heart" she was able to see the settlers not as a threat, but people who just didn't understand. And she had no problem calling out ignorance. She stopped a war, saved a life, and pushed for the true representation of her people. 

The War Hero: Mulan
(Mulan, 1998)

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Disney likes to lump Mulan with the princesses but let's be clear: Mulan is NOT a princess. She is not a royal, and I think that helps her be something so much greater; a war hero. From the beginning of the film we know Mulan isn't meant to fit in, but we also see the overwhelming love and pressure to honor her family. That love pushed her to step up, break the law, pose as a man, and go to war in her father's place. She worked hard, she had courage, and she wasn't going to let societal standards stand in the way of saving her family. With all that tenacity and vigor she ended up saving all of China. Like, what? 

The Revolutionary: Esmeralda
(The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996)

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As the most radical and least talked about, Esmeralda was nothing to play with. A Gypsy, she danced and played her tambourine to earn her coin. But she never lost sight of what was important; speaking out against the persecution of her people by the French government and the mistreatment of outcasts. Wanted by the evil Judge Frollo (in more ways than one) she publicly protested his practices and the injustice that she saw throughout Paris. As strong as her political views, she was also kind and gentle to those who needed the respect they deserved. Can we say she was one of the wokest Disney heroines? I'd vote yes.

The Entrepreneur: Tiana
(The Princess and The Frog, 2009)   

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When you think about a Disney princess, work ethic isn't something that's often highlighted. But Tiana, an African American woman from Louisiana in the roaring 20s, teaches young girls about working hard in the face of adversity. Her dreams spanned beyond finding a guy to fall in love with. That wasn't even on her radar. She wanted to own a restaurant and had goals to make it happen. Opening a business is hard. Being a woman in the 1920s was hard. Now try putting those two together. But from her first song, you know she is going to make it happen and run that place like a boss.

The Explorer: Moana
(Moana 2016)

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Moana is the new girl on the block, but she comes with old wisdom. Her personality and values are reminiscent of many Disney heroines that have come before her; breaking the mold of tradition, wanting to help her people, and trying to save her family. Plus, she has the heart of an explorer. She leaves the only place she's ever known, sails across the ocean (without really knowing how to sail), and restores the heart of an Island Goddess all to save her island and others. Major props. New obstacles came all along the way, but she adapts and persists; even when Maui (a demigod, duh) abandoned ship. Moana is giving that kind of fearless female representation to a whole new generation of young girls, which gives me hope.

Art by Meagan Guild