How Walt Disney's women have grown up

Seventy-five years ago, Snow White had to wait for her prince to come... Not any longer

There are a number of things that, until recently, no Disney heroine could be without: a handsome prince, a tiny waist, a pearly white smile and an urgent need to be rescued.

This Friday marks 75 years since Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first feature-length animated film. Since the simpering Snow White, to whose beauty even birds were not immune, a lot has changed.

Disney's latest heroine, Princess Merida, the wild-haired Scottish princess from Brave, marks something of a watershed for cartoon films. Helen Nabarro, head of animation at the National Film and Television School, said: "I think Brave is a departure for the Disney heroine. There is a genuine hardship that Merida has to get out of, and she's a proper heroine rather than a foil for some bloke. Girls have been shown in cartoons as the weaker sex, but she sorts things out for herself. The film shows the cartoon heroine catching up with real-life women."

Jim Korkis, a columnist for the online fanzine Mouse Planet and a Disney historian, said: "Disney animated heroines have always reflected their times. Snow White was the model of the women at that time who felt that their life would only be complete with a prince and waited for him to come along.

"After the Second World War, women had experienced the workplace and were more proactive. Cinderella did not just sit around waiting for the prince to come, she went right out to the palace to get him. With the Eighties, Disney heroines became more headstrong. Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, never needed a prince. She was independent and self-sufficient and rather than a prince rescuing her, she was the one who rescued the prince."

To celebrate 75 years of the Disney heroine, The Independent on Sunday revisits 20 of the animator's leading ladies.

Snow White, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937

Poor girl, forced to clean up after a bunch of dwarf miners, she only keeps her courage up by singing about "some day my prince will come". He does. But not until after "Mum" has all but killed her with a poisoned apple. The film was a technical and commercial triumph for Disney.

Mrs Jumbo, Dumbo, 1941

A tough role for Disney's first working mum: she is one of the stars of the circus and leader of the elephant troupe. She takes no nonsense, doling out a smack to one of the others who mocks her baby's oversized ears. Sadly, she gets locked away, and the mother and child reunion doesn't come until the last scene.

Faline (Bambi's girlfriend), Bambi, 1942

Faline doesn't really develop beyond being Bambi's love interest. But she does make the first move, as women were starting to do during the Second World War, Then again, he does have a punch-up with another deer and gets some dogs to protect her.

Cinderella, Cinderella, 1950

Forced to skivvy for her two evil stepsisters, Cinderella is eventually saved from drudgery by marriage to a handsome prince. Luckily for her, she has a fairy godmother as well as tiny feminine feet. Not exactly a role model for the 'Spare Rib' generation. Cinderella's saving grace is that she pursues the prince initially at the palace ball.

Wendy Darling, Peter Pan, 1953

Unlike her brothers, Wendy arrives in Neverland and is promptly pushed into the role of surrogate parent. The recurring theme of the film is growing up – or not, in Peter's case – and by the end Wendy tells her father that she is ready to move out of the nursery she and her brother share. Odds are she'll be a "mum" again before too long.

Lady, Lady and the Tramp, 1955

Bit of a retrograde step this one, as the refined spaniel doesn't do independent or work. She's pretty much wholly reliant on her owners, then later on her mongrel beau, Tramp. She does a good line in haughty and helpless, while he's smart and charming in a roguish way. Mainly a supporting role till she becomes a mother.

Princess Aurora, Sleeping Beauty, 1959

Aurora is mute for most of the film, cursed with eternal slumber by an evil witch. Her main assets are the power of beauty and song, gifts from her fairy godmothers. She is woken by a kiss from her true love, who does a lot of hedge-trimming and dragon-fighting to reach her.

Cruella de Vil, 101 Dalmations, 1961

It's the Sixties, and Disney's idea of an emancipated woman is mad, bad and dangerous. Cruella does what she wants, and woe betide anyone who gets in her way, until it all goes wrong. Contrast with dutiful Anita, a former classmate and owner of dogs with particularly fine pelts.

Duchess, The Aristocats, 1970

In the year Germaine Greer's 'The Female Eunuch' is published, Duchess is a bit of an anomaly. Primarily a mum to three kittens, she needs saving by alleycat Thomas O'Malley, whom she eventually bags as her "husband". She seems to need saving every two minutes, once even by a mouse. For shame!

Miss Bianca, The Rescuers, 1977

First impressions of Miss Bianca as a feminist are not good: she is late to a meeting because she is obsessing about her looks. Nevertheless, she makes up for it as a leading light in the Rescue Aid Society, and her romance with co-worker Bernard is one of equals.

Ariel, The Little Mermaid, 1989

Ariel breaks the mould of the traditional Disney princess, being adventurous and reckless. Even so, her actions are consistently driven by a man, a human named Eric. And when she is tricked and trapped by the sea-witch Ursula, it is another male, her father, who has to rescue her.

Belle, Beauty and the Beast, 1991

Like Ariel, Belle has much more personality than early Disney heroines. Articulate and opinionated, she resists the village hunk Gaston, who wants a trophy wife. She gets credit for seeing past the beast's appearance, but loses points for melting back into the role of wife when he turns back into a handsome prince.

Jasmine, Aladdin, 1992

It was the "Year of the Woman" in the US, with more female politicians voted in than ever. So whereas Snow White and Cinderella yearn to live in a palace married to their prince, Jasmine dislikes her pampered life as the Sultan's daughter. She disguises herself as a commoner to get beyond the palace walls, rejects any number of princes and instead marries Aladdin for love.

Pocahontas, Pocahontas, 1995

Like Jasmine before her, Pocahontas is reluctant to marry any man she is told to wed: she disobeys her father, Chief Powhatan, and hobnobs with the English settler John Smith. Yet she also refuses to follow Smith to England. Unlike the passivity of the earliest Disney heroines, Pocahontas chooses her way of life over a man.

Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996

While the earliest Disney princesses were pure and innocent, the Gypsy Esmeralda is an object of sexual desire. Claude Frollo, evil Minister of Justice, is both disgusted and obsessed by her. By contrast, she is the only person who shows compassion for the hunchback Quasimodo.

Megara, Hercules, 1997

Unlike the doe-eyed princesses of early Disney, Meg is cynical and articulate, dismissing advances from Hercules. She also shows a more devious side normally confined to villainous females, when it emerges she was working for Hades, Hercules's foe. In the end, Hercules gives up his place in Olympus as a god to remain on Earth with Meg.

Mulan, Mulan, 1998

One of Disney's most proactive heroines, Mulan disguises herself as a boy to prevent her ageing father being drafted to fight the Huns. The plot is a direct gender reversal of earlier Disney films. Central to the defeat of the Huns, she is honoured by the Emperor. Her military skills, rather than her appearance, attract her commanding officer, Li Shang.

Princess Tiana, The Princess and the Frog, 2009

Hard-working Tiana hopes to own her own restaurant, and works two jobs to achieve her aim. She is so career-driven that she makes no time for romance. When she and Prince Naveen are transformed into frogs, it is true love's kiss that transforms them back to humans.

Elastigirl, The Incredibles, 2004

As superhero-turned-housewife, Helen Parr is an extreme representation of the modern woman's dilemma of career vs family. After superpowers are outlawed and she marries Mr Incredible, she is forced to retire her alias, the superhero Elastigirl. In the end it is she who swoops in and rescues her husband.

Princess Merida, Brave, 2012

Scottish Princess Merida is more stroppy teenager than typical Disney princess. She is neither dutiful nor compliant and is totally uninterested in her gawky male suitors, whose skills with a bow and arrow are nothing on hers. Merida is the first Disney princess who does not have a love interest.

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