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.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album