Disney Princesses and the Women Who Made Them

Disney Princesses are many things to many people — icons of animation, models of changing attitudes towards femininity, a scourge on feminism, the source of the one song you’ll have to listen to in the car for the entire summer holidays. But officially, Disney Princesses are a brand, the highest earning line of Disney Consumer Products with billions of dollars in yearly revenue[1]. While Disney’s purchase of Fox (and earlier Lucasfilm and Marvel) inevitably led to articles announcing Ellen Ripley, Princess Leia and Black Widow as new Disney Princesses, the official lineup is only 12 princesses[2] — Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan[3], Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and Moana.

It’s easy to use the Princesses to track changes in Hollywood attitudes towards women, from the demure and domestic Snow White right up to the wayfinding, self assured Moana. But these attitudes didn’t come out of thin air —  they were influenced by the teams working on each animated film, and the presence or absence of women on those films can be keenly felt. Feature length animation is a relatively new medium, having existed for less than 100 years, and the role of women in animated filmmaking has massively changed over that century, often gaining new ground only to lose it frustratingly soon. So here, in chronological order, are the Disney Princesses, and the women who made them.

Before Snow White Lotte Reiniger

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is often described as the first feature length animated film. It was not —  it was the first Hollywood animated film, in sound and technicolour, but Snow White was preceded by several now lost films by Quirino Cristiani, as well as Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 silhouette animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Produced more than ten years before Snow White in Weimar Germany, The Adventures of Prince Achmed has the look and feel of a shadow puppet show, with each character made of black paper cutouts and acting out stories loosely based on 1001 Arabian Nights. Prince Achmed was also technically a colour film since the largely featureless backgrounds were colour tinted, and it had an original musical score composed specifically for the ‘silent’ film. To make the film, Reiniger developed a multiplane camera she referred to as her ‘trick table’ — Ub Iwerks’ multiplane camera, which was such a star of the Disney filmmaking process that it received top billing on Snow White’s promotional material[4], would not be developed for another decade.  

Prince Achmed took three years to make, and an additional year to find a distributor, meaning that when the film was finally released in 1926, avant garde filmmaking had fallen out of fashion and Reiniger’s career stalled during the rise of Nazi Germany. But it’s important to know that, much like science fiction, the structure of DNA, and WiFi technology, feature animation was discovered by a woman who has mostly been written out of history.

Snow White The Ink and Paint Department

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs set the standard for what we now think of as Disney stories — a beautiful heroine in a bright and colourful world takes on evil with kindness and song, ultimately winning the day and a man. Snow White herself was also the lead of the film, setting up a precedent that continues to this day: Disney Animation Studios have produced more animated films with female leads than Dreamworks, Pixar[5], Blue Sky Animation[6], and Sony Pictures Animation combined. The only major animation studio that comes close to Disney’s track record for female leads is Studio Ghibli, which has existed half as long.

Early Disney is now famous for the ‘Nine Old Men’, Walt Disney’s team of core animators and artists who created and directed the studio’s most successful characters and pieces. Men extended to every department of the Disney Studios, especially on Snow White. However, one department on Snow White was almost exclusively female  — Ink and Paint. 

At the time, characters were animated with pencil drawings and in-betweens, the frame by frame motion from one pose to another[7]. These drawings would then be cleaned up and passed on to the Inkers, who would painstakingly trace the animator’s pencil drawings onto transparent celluloid ‘cels’ using Indian ink, which would then go to the Painters to be painted with gouache according to strict, predetermined colour schemes. These cels would later be fed into the multiplane camera along with painted glass backgrounds, to produce the final film. Every frame of the film had to be individually captured on film as a final product, with multiple cell layers and backgrounds all brought together into one frame. It was a laborious process — producing an average of eight to ten cells an hour, the 100 women working in Ink and Paint could turn out less than a minute worth of usable cels a day. 

Women were, for lack of a better term, cheap. After five months of rigorous and unpaid training where a class of 60 would usually yield three employees, they were paid a starting salary of $16 a week, worked 80 hour weeks, and were discouraged from talking. Walt’s hiring practice tended towards young, good looking women who could be called up to the animation department as live models when needed. One cel painter, Marcellite Garner, became the first voice of Minnie Mouse and played the character in more than 40 films. A National Geographic article explaining animation at the Disney Studios, featuring all the Disney favourites working on the film, shows Minnie and Daisy working in the Ink and Paint department, describing them as “pretty little girls”.

(Source – National Geographic Magazine 1963)

Every department on Snow White was encouraged to bring creativity to their roles — even the women in Ink and Paint, who were tracing and painting the work of other artists. When Walt decided Snow White’s face was too pallid, an unnamed Painter applied cosmetic rouge to her cheeks, which was later added to thousands of other cels — while colour is largely consistent across the film due to the strict rules the Painters worked under, the blush on Snow White’s cheeks moves like a living thing. Snow White’s black hair was another problem, initially looking too dull and flat, so the painters applied subtle highlights that give her hair depth and shape. It lends a sense of depth and reality to Snow White that doesn’t extend to the other characters.

Snow White also kicked off a trend for Disney that continues to this day, where male characters are far more stylised than their female counterparts, who must still be beautiful — this is best seen in the difference between Snow White and the Dwarfs. Each Dwarf’s design captures their key characteristic through exaggeration, while Snow White is drawn as a beautiful young woman. She stands at just five heads tall (an average human is eight) and when asked how old she should look, Walt told animators she needed to look “old enough to marry”[8] (Disney remains silent on the subject, while several unofficial sources suggest the character is meant to be 14). 18-year-old Adriana Caselotti provided the voice of Snow White — but she received no credit for her work, and her contract was prohibitively exclusive. She was forbidden from any other work, did some promotional tours for Snow White, and has a single uncredited line in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

The substantial profits from Snow White were funnelled into a new animation campus in Burbank, where the new Ink and Paint department was redesigned and set aside from other animation departments. It became known as The Nunnery, and male artists were discouraged from “dipping their pen in the company ink”[9]. The Inkers and Painters were still paid well below the average animator, and were later part of a strike to call for better pay and working conditions, since one couldn’t eat the prestige of working for Walt. The few who stayed in animation and made it up to higher positions like Assistant Animation were recruited into high security propaganda production during the Second World War. On the other side of the front line, Lotte Reiniger initially fled Nazi Germany but returned in 1944 to care for her sick mother, and was conscripted into propaganda production too.

Snow White is both an ancestor and a ghost to all future princesses — she is the reason they and Disney itself exists, but her presence as a kind, demure girl waiting for her Prince to come still haunts the Princess brand to this day.

Cinderella Helene Stanley

By the end of World War Two, Walt Disney’s debts were catching up with him. Despite large-scale propaganda production during the war, the studio were still heavily in debt after the underperformance of Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940), and Walt saw feature animation as the best option to turn a profit. Given the studio’s previous success with a fairytale, and particularly a princess story, Disney prioritised production of Cinderella (1950) over Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953).

Cinderella can be read as a story of post-war rejuvenation  — of women who had to work during the war rediscovering femininity and traditional gender roles in society. Cinderella’s mend and make do attitude is rewarded with a classic New Look makeover, and the girlish, “old enough to marry” Snow White was replaced by the taller, slender and more mature Cinderella. 

Part of Cinderella’s look is owed to Helene Stanley, the actress who provided live action references for artists to base Cinderella’s look on. Stanley was rotoscoped, meaning her performance was filmed and traced by animators, although Disney was reluctant to admit it  — rotoscoping was considered cheating. All footage of Helene shows her as a life model for artists to then sketch characters from, as opposed to a direct inspiration — crucially, all promotional material of Stanley performing does not show the film camera which recorded her movements for artists to later rotoscope. 

Source: Disney Publicity

Stanley would later also provide live action references for Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Anita in 101 Dalmatians (1961), before retiring. 

Sleeping Beauty Mary Blair

Disney concept artist and animator Mary Blair did not work on Sleeping Beauty, but she was inadvertently responsible for Aurora’s signature look. Blair was an animator and artist whose bold, impressionistic artwork caught Walt Disney’s eye and was invited on a goodwill trip to South America, where her vibrant sketches of everyday life landed her key roles on several propaganda-adjacent animated short films. She was one of the few artists who would put similar and even clashing colours together; despite her animation background her work was often impressionistic and flat, capturing the idea of movement rather than the reality of it. Blair was promoted to concept artist and did extensive work on Cinderella, doing a full character design with a more stylised angular face, and also turning in concept art for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

(Source: Disney Publicity)

However, Blair’s two-dimensional, highly stylised designs may have worked in small doses, but were deemed too angular and modern for feature animation, and notably hard to animate into the more three-dimensional style that Disney animations strived for. Cinderella’s face was softened and Blair was cursed with the title of Difficult To Work With, not for her attitude but her art style[10]. While some of her work is recognisable in Cinderella, particularly when the pumpkin carriage races to get home, Blair left the studio shortly afterwards.

When work on Sleeping Beauty began, artist Eyvind Earle was put in charge of the film’s overall production design, including its colour, styling and backgrounds. Disney reportedly said, upon Earle’s hiring, “for years I have been hiring artists like Mary Blair to design the styling of a feature, and by the time the picture is finished, there is hardly a trace of the original styling left.”[11] Eyvind was not easy to work with — he frequently clashed with other animators, who found his style too modernist and cold for a fairytale, as all other elements had to fit his style. While Aurora had originally been designed to resemble Audrey Hepburn, “Eyvind redesigned her. She became very angular, moving with more fluidity and elegance, but her design had a harder line. The edges of her dress became squarer, pointed even, and the back of her head came almost to a point rather than round and cuddly like the other Disney girls.”[12]

Eyvind’s designs were even described as harder to work with than Mary Blair’s, but by this point, Blair had left Disney, and Walt was determined to defend Eyvind’s designs in the face of criticism, in what Walt saw as part of Blair’s legacy. Mary Blair’s designs never fully made it to feature animation, but the very fact that they didn’t was what allowed Sleeping Beauty to flourish.

Ariel Brenda Chapman

There was a long time between drinks from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty to 1989’s The Little Mermaid, a bold princess film for a new age that would kick of Disney’s Renaissance under Jeffrey Katzenberg. Ariel’s journey to screen also brought one of the most significant women in animation history to Disney — Brenda Chapman, who was the first female story trainee in the Walt Disney Company’s history.

On an animated film, the Story team are responsible for storyboards and finding the narrative of the film, building it out through sequences and editing it into the final film well before it is passed on to animators — up until Beauty and the Beast (1991), no Disney animated film had a dedicated screenwriter, as the script was developed by the Story department. Katzenberg, for all his many, many faults,[13] championed the hiring of women throughout Disney, especially in the story team. In 2012, Chapman recalled on her blog that an executive with “cold blue eyes” hired her because “We need a woman. And you’re the right price.”[14]

Chapman’s hiring addressed a key creative deficiency in Disney’s story department: for decades, they’d been telling stories about women, without any input from them. Chapman says her presence alone made male team members second guess their assumptions and language around women, even though she was the lowest story artist on the ladder. Chapman would later work on Rescuers Down Under (1990) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) before becoming Head of Story on The Lion King (1994).

Ariel would go on to be one of the most popular princesses of a generation, and a change of direction for princesses. She expressed interests beyond simply finding a man — ‘Part of Your World’ is more about longing for the human world rather than for a human man, where previous Princess “I Want” songs (the early film song wherein a protagonist expresses their key desire) had been firmly focused on men. Ariel rescues her own prince in the film’s first act, a plot point that would have been unthinkable in previous princess movies. That’s not to say she’s a flawless princess: Ariel is a dangerous mix between the girlish but ‘old enough to marry’ Snow White, and mature, exaggerated adult woman Aurora, combined into a character who is explicitly aged sixteen with a neck-width waist and seashell bra. Ariel was easily the most sexualised Disney Princess at the time, but she would soon be outdone.

The Little Mermaid also marked the end of another era for Disney — it was the last of their films to use hand painted animation cels. The Inkers had been replaced in the 60s by xerox machines that could easily copy pencil sketches onto cels, and The Little Mermaid became the first film to use the digital Computer Animation Production System (CAPS). CAPS allowed animated frames to be scanned directly into a digital multiple camera, letting animators use more expansive sweeping camera movements and use transparent shading, blended colours and a variety of other camera techniques, which were best showcased in Beauty and the Beast’s ballroom dance. It reduced labour costs and innovated the animated medium, but it also got rid of the department that had once been synonymous with women in animation.

Beauty and the Beast Linda Woolverton

Linda Woolverton was not only the first female screenwriter on an animated Disney film — she was their first screenwriter, period. After multiple previous attempts to adapt Beauty and the Beast had failed, then-CEO Michael Eisner was the one who insisted on the use of a screenwriter to make Beauty and the Beast work. 

Woolverton initially worked with director Richard Purdum, and songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken before the film began storyboarding — then, when Jeffrey Katzenberg told them to scrap everything they’d done so far, she started again with new directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. While many elements of the story were cribbed from previous versions of Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s Belle sat apart from previous versions of the character (and previous versions of the Disney heroine) as a bookworm who rejected male interest and had no royal lineage. Paige O’Hara attributes her hiring as Belle’s voice to the fact that she sounded like a woman, rather than a girl.

Woolverton described the creative process as being an opportunity to use the existing audience, and Disney’s reputation as safe, family friendly entertainment, to spread a more progressive, feminist agenda. “For me, the blessing that I’ve had working for the Disney Company and creating for them is that I feel like I have had these ideas that I got to spread in the world through this huge megaphone. It has an automatic built-in audience with automatic acceptance and desire. And so, wow, I get to sneak my ideas in. So I got to sneak in my feminist agenda, or whatever that is, so I feel really blessed and lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to do that.”[15]

Beauty and the Beast became a watershed moment for Disney animation — it was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture[16]. The rest of the Disney Renaissance chased the highs of Beauty and the Beast, the production team for Pocahontas (1995) actively seeking out an Oscar win instead of just a nomination.The film earned $425 million on a $25 million budget and was re-released multiple times. Linda Woolverton would later begin the trend of remaking Disney animated classics as CGI heavy ‘live-action’ film by writing an older, grown up version of Alice in Wonderland — the film went on to be directed by Tim Burton, and made Woolverton the only solo female writer in history to write a billion-dollar film. She then took on Maleficent (2014) as a reinvention of the Sleeping Beauty story, creating a sympathetic protagonist out of one of Disney’s most iconic villains.

In 2017, Beauty and the Beast became the latest Disney animated film to get the live-action treatment — Bill Condon’s almost shot-for-shot remake had an estimated $225 million budget, making it one of the most expensive films ever made, and went on to earn more than $1 billion at the box office. Due to a quirk in the Writers Guild of America bylaws, where animated film scripts are not covered by remake regulations, Linda Woolverton received no royalties or credit for the remake.

Jasmine & Pocahontas motherless children

There are more than several surface level similarities between Jasmine and Pocahontas. Both characters ushered in an era of non-white Disney Princesses that lasted until 2010’s Tangled, but they also continued a trend of white male writers and directors taking on these characters in ways which perpetuated dangerous stereotypes. Female story artists and writers became more common — Linda Woolverton did some early story development on Aladdin (1992), and Susannah Grant was one of three credited screenwriters on Pocahontas — but the leaps and strides promised by earlier Disney Renaissance films were not replicated. 

Pocahontas also suffered from Disney’s lofty aspirations for the film, actively seeking Oscars and acclaim for the film which sent more ambitious, less traditional artists and writers onto The Lion King, seen at the time as the lesser of the two films. Among those more risky artists were Brenda Chapman and Linda Woolverton, who both worked on The Lion King.

While the characters took huge steps forward as the first princesses of colour, the lack of representation behind the scenes resulted in a number of damaging stereotypes being repeated. Jasmine and Pocahontas are the most sexualised of all Disney Princesses, along with Hunchback of Notre Dame’s (1996) Esmerelda, another non-white female character from the era. While Jasmine and Pocahontas are still explicitly aged as teenagers (Pocahontas was aged up from a historical pre-teen), both are shown being pressured into marriage with men they openly revile[17] and instead escape through other men. Jasmine is the only current Princess who is not the protagonist of her film, and despite her declaration that she is “not a prize to be won,” she also uses herself as bait and a distraction in the film’s third act. Anecdotally, actresses portraying the characters at Disney Parks are the most consistently harassed — Jasmine’s character costume was recently redesigned with full body coverage, speculated to be for the sake of the actresses playing her — and they are also frequently portrayed in the Disney Parks by actresses of different ethnicities to the characters.

Mulan Rita Hsiao

To this day, Mulan remains the only member of the Disney Princess lineup who was neither born into royalty or married into it. An anomaly when the film was first released, Mulan formed the basis of all future princesses — a self-determined young woman whose narrative is motivated by a selfless, universal need as opposed to a romance (although they normally managed to fit in a romance anyway, usually with an initially antagonistic male lead who comes to respect the female lead after she ‘proves’ herself). Mulan was also the first Disney movie with an Asian-American screenwriter, Rita Hsaio, and openly queer creative team members. 

Mulan is notably less sexualised than Jasmine or Pocahontas, even though Mulan’s gender and consequent physical attributes are a large part of the film’s plot. It even became the first Disney film to use the word ‘cross-dresser’, and almost got a PG rating for that alone. In terms of representation, Mulan is a frustrating combination of steps forward and back. Rita Hsiao became the first Asian American screenwriter at Disney, and character designer Chen Yi Chang was instrumental to the development of the film’s aesthetic and some of its key sequences, but the film started life as a straight-to-video short film called China Doll about an oppressed Chinese girl being whisked away by a British Prince Charming. When children’s author Robert D. San Souci suggested Disney adapt his adaption of the legend of Fa Mu Lan, the two projects were combined into what became Mulan.

Concept art for Mulan from iamag.com

The art style of the film is a mix of Asian art styles rather than specifically Chinese, and while multiple voice actors on the film were Asian-American, many of them were also white. Director Tony Bancroft deliberately avoided depicting Buddhism in the film because he was a Christian and “made a pact that we wouldn’t go too deep into Buddhism but would stay true to our own beliefs. The ancestors are supposed to be fun, light, so that we didn’t give too much attention to Buddhist beliefs and history.”[18]

In spite of that, Mulan became one of the most iconic Disney Princesses almost despite the fact that she was part of the brand. She was the go-to choice of young feminists, as well as the first major Asian female character that an entire generation encountered. Mulan was smart, but in a cunning rather than bookish way, and she was selfless, dedicated to her family and her country instead of herself.

A live-action version of Mulan is due in 2020, directed by New Zealander Niki Caro, with no Asian writers. The spec script that Disney bought from writers Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek, loosely based on the Hua Mulan legend, reportedly starred a white love interest who fell in love with Mulan and became involved in the war to protect her, ultimately saving China. 

Tiana Oprah

The Princess and the Frog (2009) was the last 2D animated film made by the Walt Disney Company. A throwback to old animation styles and structures, The Princess and the Frog struggled in a new, more culturally aware media landscape — directed by Ron Clemens and John Musker (of Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules [1997] and Treasure Planet [2002] fame), the world was less prepared to accept a white male version of life as a black woman in 1920s New Orleans. The film underwent several highly publicised changes, such as renaming the main character Tiana when her original name, Maddy, was a little close to Mammy for comfort, especially combined with her original job as a chambermaid. 

After these changes Oprah Winfrey was hired as a technical consultant and voice actor on the film. It’s easy to see her influence on Tiana, particularly in her hard working attitude. Tiana is a woman who doesn’t wait for someone else to make her dreams come true, but she’s also simultaneously able to accept help when it’s offered. Tiana is also a relatively flawless character — she has no major character issues, and most of her problems are caused by others rather than internal conflict. The final version of The Princess and the Frog is far from flawless — racism is depicted as a trivialised, few-bad-apples problem rather than a systemic issue, the music which is intended as a celebration of New Orleans jazz is all written by Randy Newman, and Tiana spends more time as a frog than a human.

Recent criticism has focused particularly on the trend towards black animated characters spending a majority of their film as animals or non-human beings, particularly with the upcoming release of Spies in Disguise (2019) and Soul (2020), but the trend extends as far back as Eddie Murphy’s roles as Mushu and Donkey. Song of the South (1946), Disney’s skeleton in the closet, told watered down versions of black folk tales through the animated characters. Even Dumbo (1941) features the black-coded crows, some of whom were voiced by black actors.[19] 

If anything, Princess and the Frog was proof that the age of under-researched representation was over. Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office for a variety of reasons (James Cameron’s Avatar [2009] was released a week later), but Tiana became the first new princess in the official Disney Princess lineup.

In 2018, Wreck It Ralph 2 drew heavy criticism for its depiction of Tiana in a scene with all the Disney Princesses, initially animated with a slimmer nose, lighter skin and loosely curled hair. After public outcry, she was redesigned for the final film to look more like her original appearance.

Rapunzel Claire Keane

Glen Keane is animation royalty — the character animator behind Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Tarzan, and dozens of other characters, he first pitched the idea of adapting the Rapunzel fairytale in the late 90s, and the idea was approved on the condition that the film be computer animated. Keane was reluctant, due to the early difficulties of working with computer animation, and the film underwent several iterations[20] before being released as Tangled in 2010, a late-in-the-game title change from ‘Rapunzel’ after the underperformance of The Princess and the Frog and the perceived need for a gender neutral title. Keane stepped down as director after a heart attack in 2008, but still played an important role in both animating Rapunzel and finding a space between CGI and traditional hand drawn animation. 

Rapunzel is a vibrant, enthusiastic and artistic princess  — she spends her days locked in a tower working on a number of different art forms, especially painting. Her bright visual style recalls Mary Blair and was developed by Claire Keane, Glen’s daughter. As a visual development artist, Claire Keane’s work influenced the style and look of Tangled, and also became the art style of Rapunzel herself  — Claire Keane’s murals and artwork appear in the film as Rapunzel’s work. While working on the development of the character, Keane says, “I wanted to better understand the character of Rapunzel and what she did all day so I kept a journal of the things I did at home and translated it into Rapunzel’s world.”[21] Keane later became a visual developer and consultant on ‘Tangled: The Animated Series’, a 2D animated television spin-off which is closer to Keane’s artistic style.

Merida Brenda Chapman

Shortly after The Lion King, Brenda Chapman became the first woman to direct a studio animated feature in 1998, with Dreamworks Animation’s Prince of Egypt. As one of three directors, Chapman was originally brought on as a writer before being asked by Jeffrey Katzenberg, now head of Dreamworks Animation, to take on directorial duties. While she was initially brought on as the sole director, Dreamworks absorbed Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation arm and Steve Hickner and Simon Wells were also brought onto the film. They worked collaboratively on story and animation before splitting up other more technical duties according to each director’s strengths. The film was a chance to make a more mature animated movie at a studio which didn’t have a set house style yet — and when Chapman went on maternity leave and returned to find the studio had settled into the more commercialised house style that it would come to be known for, Chapman took an offer to move to Pixar, initially to help rewrite female characters on Cars (2006).

Chapman was announced as the director of The Bear and the Bow (later renamed to Brave [2012]), in 2008 — it was Pixar’s first fairytale, and also first female led and female directed film. The film was inspired by Chapman’s often antagonistic relationship with her daughter, generational differences, and headstrong young women. And while Chapman was Pixar’s first solo female director, she wasn’t the industry’s — in the time between Prince of Egypt and Brave, Jennifer Yuh Nelson had directed Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), making her the first female solo director on an animated film, and at the time the highest grossing female director ever, with over $600 million at the box office. Nelson credits Chapman with encouraging her to pursue directing in the first place. 

Concept art for Brave from Collider

While Pixar had never hired a female director before, it had a long history of female producers — their first film Toy Story was produced by Bonnie Arnold, who is now president of Dreamworks Animation and part of the Academy’s Board of Governors. But as a director, Chapman had a chance to create a female-centric narrative about mothers and daughters. She encountered early issues with character designs, particularly with regards to the shape and body structure of Merida and her mother, Elinor. Attempts to make Elinor look older with wrinkles, wider hips, or grey hair were met with resistance and led to “a compromise that leaned in the men’s favor”[22]. In 2015, Chapman reflected that “although both Merida and Elinor have ‘thicker’ proportions for a less anorexic look, I didn’t get to go quite to the level I wanted to with them. I’m still very proud of the steps we did take, but it could have gone much further if ‘men’ had ‘allowed’ it.”[23] 

In 2010, Chapman was fired as director of Brave due to creative differences.

She was replaced as director by Mark Andrews, and despite getting calls from every major studio in the week after her removal, Chapman was contractually obligated to see out the final 16 months of Brave’s production at Pixar. She watched as the new creative team attempted and failed to retool the film as a father-daughter story, before settling back into a mother-daughter story being creatively led once again by men. When the final film was released, Chapman received a director credit alongside Mark Andrews. The film went on to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture, making Chapman the first female director to receive the honour — one that she shared with Andrews.

Anna & Elsa Jennifer Lee

Technically speaking, Anna and Elsa are not Disney Princesses. 2013’s Frozen was so successful that Disney decided it was easier to market them under their own branded lineup, Disney’s Frozen, rather than as part of the Disney Princesses brand. However, they appear in the Wreck it Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) Princess scene, and any discussion of modern Disney Princesses without the sisters would be severely lacking, especially considering the impact of screenwriter Jennifer Lee on not only Frozen, but the entire Disney company.

Much like Linda Woolverton, Jennifer Lee did not come from an animation background. She attended Colombia’s prestigious writing program, and when fellow Colombia alum Phil Johnston asked for her help on Wreck It Ralph, Lee was originally brought on for eight weeks, and later became the film’s credited co-writer. Off the strength of Wreck It Ralph, Lee was then moved onto Frozen, once again as a writer and later promoted to co-director. The film had already been through several treatments as an adaption of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, but Lee approached the film by first working with songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez, moving the film away from an action adventure story like Wreck It Ralph to more of a musical comedy. At this early stage of development, the team were more interested in creating a classic Disney Villain with Elsa, but when the song ‘Let It Go’ was written, it was Lee’s job to retool the entire film around the now sympathetic antagonist.

There were, of course, things that Lee wanted to do with the film that didn’t end up on screen. Scenes of teenaged Anna and Elsa interacting were lost to plot necessities. Reading between the lines, Anna’s rom-com heroine clumsiness and her co-adventurer and eventual love interest Kristoff was not Lee’s idea either  — “I wanted a girl whose only journey was sort of coming-of-age, where she goes from having a naive view of life and love — because she’s lonely — to the most sophisticated and mature view of love, where she’s capable of the ultimate love, which is sacrifice. And that was all I wanted for her. But people really went into more of the dysfunctionality — make her more co-dependent, they wanted to make her a little bit more like Vanellope in Wreck-It Ralph. And I didn’t have a reason why not to do that, I just couldn’t articulate it yet.”[24]

After Frozen’s meteoric success, a sequel was quickly greenlit and Oscars were collected  — since the Oscar for Best Animated Film goes to the director rather than producer, Lee and Chapman’s wins meant that more female animation directors have won Academy Awards in less than 20 years than female directors in the history of the Academy. 

In June 2018, Pixar co-founder John Lasseter stepped down from his role as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios following allegations of unwanted physical contact and harassment of younger female employees. He was one of the highest ranked Hollywood executives to be taken down by the #MeToo movement, and Disney’s family friendly reputation likely played a part in his ultimate fall from grace, although it took more than six months for him to be removed after the initial reporting of allegations. Lasseter had long steered the Pixar ship to incredible financial and critical success, and in doing so, created “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice,” according to Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, the original writers of Toy Story 4 (2019) who left the project over issues with Pixar. 

Lasseter was replaced as CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studio by Pixar veteran Pete Doctor, and Jennifer Lee. She is now arguably the most powerful female creative in animation history.

Moana The Oceanic Trust

Moana is the most recent addition to the Disney Princess line-up, and notably the first without any romantic attachments whatsoever. Physically, Moana looks different to any other Disney Princess  — her appearance is practical but unapologetically feminine, without being sexualised. When designing Moana, directors Ron Clemens and John Musker (these guys, again) cited a need to build an “action adventure heroine. We really did want her to feel like she had legs that could really swim and scale a tree and jump off a cliff. She could really believably carry all that stuff, and it wouldn’t look like she’d be overpowered by her own environment but that she could physically take charge and command a boat across the ocean. That she wouldn’t be knocked over in those mighty oceanic breezes.”[25] As a result, Moana has the most realistic shape and build of any Disney Princess.

While an early draft of the film, written by Taika Waititi, featured a number of brothers and focused much more on gender issues, the final film largely forgoes the matter of gender. Instead of being tough for a girl or trying to prove a sexist society wrong, Moana is struggling against larger cultural issues and her own identity. But while it might be refreshing to see a character who doesn’t encounter gender discrimination in her world, Moana’s (2016) plot could also be considered an easy way out  — by avoiding discussion of gender discrimination, particularly in Polynesian cultures, Musker and Clemens don’t have to deal with something they have no real grasp on. 

Like many filmmakers before them, Musker and Clemens took part in a research trip while developing the film, originally focused on Maui as a central character. During these trips, Musker and Clemens decided to instead create a young female lead based on the women they had met. In an attempt to address previous criticisms of their films, particularly Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog, Musker and Clemens formed the Oceanic Trust, a group of Polynesian consultants who worked with the filmmakers to create a more authentic version of the film. The result is definitely a less clumsy take on Pacific Island cultures, but it also homogenises a number of distinct cultural groups into one fictionalised culture of which Moana is heir apparent. It’s a similar take to that of gender discrimination — without being specific about the issues, the filmmakers can get away with not really addressing them.

Moana bears a stronger resemblance to Jim Hawkins from Treasure Planet than any other Musker and Clemens character. By completely removing any romantic subplots, Moana is allowed to have a more complete personal journey, with room for familial relationships with both male and female role models. Moana is able to be sixteen and rebellious without leaving her home for a man she’s met once, and she’s able to defeat evil with empathy rather than violence. Moana isn’t just the sum of lessons learned from princesses past, she’s the result of a massive cultural shift over the decades. For future princesses, she’s a good place to start.

The Future of Princesses

With Frozen II (2019) on the horizon, Disney Princesses show no sign of stopping. They’ve matured over time, but the studio that started with anthropomorphic animals and princesses is unlikely to abandon either of those money makers any time soon. Fortunately, it looks like the trend of hiring women, and crucially, intersectional women, to create these characters is continuing. 

The upcoming Raya and The Last Dragon (2020), written by Crazy Rich Asians (2018) screenwriter Adele Lim and produced by Osnat Shurer, will star Cassie Steele and Awkwafina, and Domee Shi, the Academy Award winning director of Bao (2018) (and first woman to ever direct a short for Pixar) is developing a feature film. Across their enormous media empire, Disney has announced seven upcoming films with a female lead (Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, Eternals, Jungle Cruise, Black Widow, Mulan, Cruella, Raya and the Last Dragon), three of which even have female directors. 

It’s been a long time coming, from painstakingly tracing the work of male artists onto transparent cels to leading animated empires, but hopefully the second century of animation will be one where women can tell their own stories, without interference. 

Frozen II is showing in Australian cinemas from 28 November.


Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. She is one half of hypothetical film and music podcast Pitch Shift, and offers an endless barrage of unwanted opinions on Twitter as @tansyclipboard.


[1]  Often out-earning Star Wars

[2]  The original branded lineup also included Tinkerbell, who was later moved into a seperate DCP category, Disney Fairies, and now has several direct to DVD films. 

[3] Mulan is the only member of the official Princess brand who is not born or married into royalty.

[4]  This billing, of course, referred to it as Walt Disney’s multiplane camera 

[5]  Which Disney also owns 

[6]  Which, thanks to the Fox merger, Disney now owns. 

[7]  In-betweens were often done by assistants rather than animators 

[8]  https://www.nrm.org/snowwhite/selected_works.html 

[9]  A saying attributed to a memo sent out by Walt & Roy Disney —http://www.disneyhistoryinstitute.com/2013/09/walts-field-day-1938.html 

[10]  https://ohmy.disney.com/insider/2016/06/11/mary-blair-history/ 

[11]  Walt Disney, to Sleeping Beauty sequence director Eric Larson, https://d23.com/sleeping-beauty-stunning-art/ 

[12]  Ron Dias in Arts and Living Magazine, 2008 https://web.archive.org/web/20090119145246/http://www.artsandlivingmag.com/wordpress/?p=52 

[13]  Katzenberg was fond of, among other things, scrapping all work done on a film and making the filmmakers start over again, a move he pulled on Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. He also tried to cut ‘Part of Your World’ from The Little Mermaid after one poor test screening, and ignored Robin William’s request that his voice not be used to sell toys. He would later leave Disney to start Dreamworks Animation, whose biggest success Shrek (2001) lampooned the Disney house style. Lord Farquaad (less charitably pronounced “Lord Fuckwad”) bears a striking resemblance to Michael Eisner.  

[14]  https://web.archive.org/web/20181017220539/http://brenda-chapman.com/blog/i-was-hired-because-i-was-a-woman/ 

[15]  Linda Woolverton on It Happened In Hollywood, 2018 (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/linda-woolverton-lion-king-remake-beauty-beast-1165869) 

[16]  The Best Animated Feature category did not exist until 2002 

[17]  Unlike Belle, who had agency in rejecting Gaston, and Aurora, who was unknowingly engaged to the same man she had fallen in love with. 

[18]  Bancroft in the Christian Post, 2013  https://www.christianpost.com/news/tony-bancroft-on-mulan-i-want-to-bring-christian-based-values-to-all-my-work-90987/ 

[19]  The lead crow, named (I regret to inform you) Jim Crow,  was voiced by a white actor Cliff Edwards. 

[20]  Including a clear knock-off of Shrek 

[21]  http://www.claireonacloud.com/new-page 

[22]  https://fourthreefilm.com/2015/09/looking-from-the-outside-in-gender-representation-in-animation/ 

[23]  Chapman, interview with the author (2015) for https://fourthreefilm.com/2015/09/looking-from-the-outside-in-gender-representation-in-animation/ 

[24]  https://web.archive.org/web/20140314091751/http://www.fastcompany.com/3027019/most-creative-people/how-frozen-director-jennifer-lee-reinvented-the-story-of-the-snow-queen 

[25]  https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/moana-oceanic-trust-disney-controversy-pacific-islanders-polynesia 

Tansy Gardam

Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard.