The first category, the Bystanders, is the role most often associated with the Disney Princess franchise as a whole. This is not an entirely fair association since only the first three princesses from Walt Disney’s films truly belong to this category, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. These princesses that I've defined as Bystanders are always the protagonists to the story, they are all even the namesake for their film. However they never actually take part in the action surrounding them. In many ways, this is the most cliché role for a princess character to take on.
All three of these characters passively dream about a prince finding and saving them from their current deplorable situation. They are able to recognize exactly what is wrong with their lives, and yet they do nothing to change it themselves. Instead they are entirely dependant on their respective Prince Charming characters to rescue them. The theme of dreaming or wishing rather than actively doing is prevalent in all three princesses’ objective-songs. For Snow White it occurs twice in two separate songs in the film. It occurs first in the film’s opening song, a song sung by Snow White called “I’m Wishing”. The title alone illustrates the theme’s significance within the song. This is farther exemplified in the lyrics of the song. Particularly in the opening lines which state,
“I’m wishingFor the one I loveTo find meToday” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves).
Here she is not wishing for the knowledge or power to get herself out of her problems but rather for someone else to find her and do the fighting for her. This concept is farther developed during a second song she sings later in the film entitled “Someday My Prince will Come”.
“Someday my prince will come.Some day we’ll meet againAnd away to his castle we’ll goAnd be happy forever I know” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves).
Once again Snow White is passively dreaming about the prince she has fallen in love with finding her and taking her off to a place far far away from her troubles. She never once considers going out on her own to find him herself. Instead she holds onto a blind conviction that he will eventually find her and while she waits for this day to come Snow White is content to stay at home and care for the seven men who have taken her in.
Cinderella and Aurora continue this theme of passivity through their own songs that focus on the idea of dreaming as a form of escapism. Cinderella is perhaps best known for the oppression force upon her by her stepmother and stepsisters. However, instead of standing up to them she is satisfied to simply dream about a better life while continuing to do the work forced upon her. In her song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, she exemplifies this passive attitude by singing,
“No matter how your heart is grievingIf you keep on believingThe dreams that you wish will come true” (Cinderella).
This song creates the impression that by simply sitting back and dreaming, one’s wishes will come to fruition, regardless of the amount of actual hard work one puts towards it. It is exceedingly clear in her story exactly what Cinderella’s biggest obstacle is, her imprisonment by her stepfamily. Yet, like Snow White, she shows no signs of taking the initiative and solving her problems for herself.
While Aurora’s situation is not nearly as desperate as either Snow White’s or Cinderella’s, she still requires the assistance of a prince to return her to her rightful place as princess. Yet in the mean time, she too is content to rely on her dreams and imagination to help her escape from her mundane life. While singing her objective song, “Once Upon A Dream”, she sings of how she has dreamed of the perfect prince she’s been waiting for. And while she clearly desires this dream to come to fruition she appears to be content by simply fantasizing about him.
Over the near seventy years that have passed since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 there were a number of incredibly significant developments in women rights and feminism in general. The princess characters outlined above reflect this development and embody many traits of what a women of the 1930s-1950s were expected to strive towards. Some of these traits may be difficult for modern women to appreciate since modern expectations of women have changed so dramatically over time. But it is important to remember, “A film reflects the society which produces it” (Davis 116). Even though women today may take a critical view of these early films in the Princess Franchise, it is important to remember that at the time they would not have felt nearly as oppressive. They may have event appeared to be liberating in some ways. As the role of the middle-class woman changed over the twentieth century they found themselves with more time they could devote to their own personal development. This encouraged attention to be paid to a woman’s accomplishments such as singing, dancing, and appearance, in short “their acceptable goals became those which reinforced their status as ornaments” (Davis 116-117). Today we may look at a situation such as this and feel pity for the women who were made to be ornamental first and foremost. Yet at the time it was likely a sign of power and skill to be able to show off the accomplishments one had worked so hard at. It is important to keep this in mind when considering all the various princesses outlined in this paper, since they were each created during a different point in North American history and therefore promote different outlooks on what it means to be feminine.
I think Snow White here pretty much sums it up.
Check out all the Disney Princess Songs mentioned here on this page.