For decades, the Disney Princess has been one of the biggest names in all of pop culture. However, if recent film releases are any indication, it seems that the company may be making a concerted effort to shift away from the title. Last November we saw the release of Moana, a film about a young girl who was the daughter of a chief who went on an adventure. Of course, the character of Moana herself bristles at the idea that she is a princess. It turns out she's not the only one. Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Auli'i Cravalho, the voice of Moana, and I asked the actress what it was like getting to be a "Disney Princess." Cravalho was quick to correct me.
I get to be a Disney heroine, yes. It's very exciting.
Auli'i Cravalho was very careful with her words throughout our interview. It was clear she didn't want to overstate or say anything that could be misinterpreted. It was clear from the way she spoke that it was important that she refer to Moana as a "heroine" rather than a "princess." It was also important that I notice this difference.
Now, part of the reason for this differentiation could simply be that, technically, at this moment, Moana isn't a Disney Princess. "Princess" isn't simply a title when it comes to the Disney machine, it's actually a brand. It's an exclusive club that not every royal Disney character gets to be a part of. To become a Disney Princess, you have to qualify under a specific set of rules, and then you have to be officially coronated during an actual ceremony at a Disney theme park. While Moana does qualify under the rules to be an official Disney princess, she has not been coronated yet, and as such is not part of the exclusive club.
This would just be a minor detail, except that in Disney's very next movie, coming out in just over a week, we get another Disney heroine who insists she's not a princess, and this one is a little bit tougher to overlook.
In a brief moment in the new Beauty and the Beast, the Beast's wardrobe tells Belle that she's going to be given an outfit fit for a princess, but Belle rejects the sentiment, in a very similar tone to the way Moana says the same thing. It's a line that was never in the original animated feature and was clearly added for the new, updated, live-action version of the story. Belle absolutely is part of the Disney Princess family of characters, so adding a line where she says she's not a princess would seem to be out of place for a company that makes millions off the fact that she is, in fact, a princess.
Unless, of course, Disney is making a concerted effort to make changes to the Disney Princess brand in some way, potentially going so far as to shift focus away from the word "princess."
As popular as Disney Princesses are, they have also received a great deal of criticism over the years from those who don't view them as strong role models for women. The early generation of princesses, including Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, were much more passive characters who were focused on finding love beyond all else. The plot of their films happens to them rather than them making the story happen. While princesses from the Disney Renaissance, and later, like Ariel or Rapunzel were certainly major improvements, they still fell victim to many of the same tropes that had plagued their predecessors. To many, the Disney Princess is a damsel in distress that needs a hero to save her.
In point of fact, it's been almost four years since a new Disney Princess was officially recognized, Merida from Brave was the last one to receive the distinction. Neither of Disney's recent popular characters, Anna or Elsa from Frozen, have joined the princess ranks either. This has been chalked up to the fact that Frozen is so popular that it overshadows the Princess brand and thus there's no value in adding them, though it's possible that even then, Disney was looking to put some distance between their characters and the title.
So is Disney looking to change the way it handles their princesses going forward? At this point, there has been no announcement of a new line of Disney dolls called "Disney Heroes" to replace the line of Princess dolls. Considering how much time and effort that the Mouse House has put into building the Princess brand it seems unlikely that they would be working toward eliminating the title entirely. However, we may be seeing the beginning of an intentional effort to try and make fans think of Disney's leading ladies as "heroes" first and "princesses" second.