Blue Filter: Disney Princesses


In our Blue Filter series, we are inviting our writers to reflect on the films that they have connected with through challenging or upsetting times, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. In the latest entry of the series, Orla McAndrew discusses how she has come to view the Disney princess films differently as an adult compared to when she was a child, and how they have helped her to grow in confidence.

It’s pretty safe to say Disney plays a huge role in the majority of our childhoods. Lockdown transformed me from a productive adult to a 9-year-old child again. A child who was a pretty big (okay huge) fan of Disney – particularly the princesses. With the help of Disney+ and a lot of free time, I revisited the films of my childhood. 

Like many young girls, Cinderella (or “umbarella” as I called her) was my first love. She was everything I wanted to be; kind, patient, humble, and of course extremely pretty. Then at the end of her film, she gets her prince and lives happily ever after. As a glasses-wearing, slightly chubby brunette who could not hold a tune to save her life, Cinderella made me want to strive for that perfection. Looking in the mirror I didn’t look like her at all and it stung. 

Watching it again now is a completely different experience. At what point does her kindness and patience turn her into a wet lettuce who lets herself be treated horribly? Her lack of agency surprised me, and trying to find the elements of her that had inspired me as a child was difficult. To be fair to Cinders, she comes across far better than my second favourite Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) who is asleep for most of the film and only rises from her slumber following a non-consensual snog from a charming prince. 

Back in 2018, Keira Knightley made headlines by saying she doesn’t let her daughters watch some of the Disney classics such as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. The first time I read that article it was comical. Viewing the films with rose-tinted glasses, I thought she was being ridiculous. Now though, I too would be cautious of letting children watch those films before they can understand some of their flaws. 

My disappointment in the classic films caused a lot of self-doubt. If I had misremembered these ones so much, what about the others? Thankfully, Tangled helped to reassure me that this is not the case. Back in the day I saw Tangled in the cinema and loved it. Yes, it still has the traditional aspects of a princess film, the charming male hunk (Flynn Rider is the best Disney love interest), an animal sidekick, and Rapunzel’s personality is very similar to that of the classic princesses. However, she is much more the author of her own story. Instead of Flynn saving her you could argue that they save each other. Rapunzel helps him stop a life of crime and he helps her find her family. I was nine when the film was released and it helped to shift my perspective of what being a young girl means; you don’t have to give up huge parts of yourself to get the guy, and you can still be a badass with a frying pan. 

Tangled takes us out of the era of waiting for a man to rescue you but still retains the key parts of a classic Disney princess film. For me, it mirrored a transition in my world. I was growing out of a lot of the toys and television shows from when I was really young, and figuring out the next steps in my life – puberty, high school, all that fun stuff. In leaving the comfort of my small village primary school to move up to high school, I felt a bit like Rapunzel leaving her tower. When she takes her first steps into the world she reacts with both extreme joy and sadness. During her adventure she grows in confidence and believes in herself and her abilities more and more. For me this mirrors my journey through both high school and college, which makes me love the film even more!

Then comes Moana, the first Disney film without a love interest. The film solely focuses on Moana’s journey to save her home and her family, and it’s beautiful. It is refreshing to see a princess (daughter of the chief) get the whole film to herself. The determination that Moana has to be successful is something that everyone needs to see. But when you have grown up seeing happiness in films defined by finding a life partner, it holds a deeper significance. It is telling you that it’s okay to have different dreams, priorities, and to grow at your own pace. 

That trajectory continues with Raya and The Last Dragon, with three very different leads. Raya, who is determined and fearless, Sisu, whois  slightly wacky and insecure but a great friend, and Namaari, Raya’s rival who, like her, is a warrior and will do anything for her home. These characters can resonate with both young and old women.

As someone who has struggled with what it means to be a girl, and with what it means to be a feminist, the Disney films have followed my journey. Watching the more recent films as a proud feminist, I am happy for the new generation of girls who have them as role models. However, I can’t help but wonder what I would have been like had I had the modern princesses guiding me right from the beginning of my childhood. I would like to think that I would have felt a lot more confident more quickly, and trusted my instincts more.

It took me a long time to find that confident “bad bitch” energy, and in truth it’s still a bit of a work in progress. However, Rapunzel, Moana, and Raya are helping me on that journey.

Words by Orla McAndrew

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