Disney’s signature princesses remain the lynchpin of the animation studios’ success. Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs catapulted Walt Disney to global acclaim over 80 years ago, the world’s love for adventurous, beautiful, musical heroines hasn’t waned. With the new version of Mulan finally hitting (albeit small) screens this week via Disney+, there’s never been a better time to appreciate the huge cultural impact of Disney’s leading ladies. But who is the most important princess of them all?
Before drawing back the royal curtain, we’d like to point out that every Disney princess has admirable, teachable qualities, be it bravery, compassion, intelligence, resourcefulness, or – more likely – a combination of them all. 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet perfectly illustrates how each princess has unique skills to offer, which can be harnessed — and strengthened through teamwork, reminding us that sisterhood is everything — to triumph against almost all challenges.
In order for us to determine which princess is the most important, we’re going to explore the personal qualities that constitute the perfect Disney heroine, as well as their popularity and cultural impact. Oh, and by Royal Decree, we’re sticking to the official Disney Princess list – Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and Moana – plus Anna and Elsa. If you think someone’s missing, take it up with Mickey.
The current Disney Princess lineup features a range of personalities, looks, cultures, and backstories. Young viewers have more chance of finding a Disney heroine to identify with than ever. That said, we need to recognise the princesses who broke significant barriers for the first time to make this possible.
Firstly, the 14-year-old who started it all – Snow White. While she might be seen as meek and mild by today’s standards, she set the world alight with her elegant big-screen debut. The main protagonist of the first ever feature-length animated film, Snow White was the star of not only the highest-grossing flick of 1938 but the most successful of all time – until Gone With the Wind came along a couple of years later. She proved that the Disney Princess formula worked, and set the standard for more female-centric fairytale retellings at the studio.
While Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, and Belle each brought new dimensions to the princess role, Jasmine was the next in the lineup to break significant new ground. The first character of colour to join the canon, Jasmine opened up the possibility of non-white cultures being represented in Disney Princess films. She may not be the main protagonist of Aladdin, but Jasmine’s shrewdness, beauty, and natural leadership pave the way for Disney Princesses of colour to be taken seriously.
Disney took another progressive step forward – perhaps later than expected – in 2010, with the first Black Princess, Tiana. This was particularly important for the studio’s domestic US audience, where almost a sixth of the population is Black. Many parents were thankful that finally there was a Disney Princess their daughters could see themselves reflected in, and it was about time. The fact that The Princess and the Frog is set in 1930s New Orleans, and not a fictional African land like The Lion King, makes Tiana’s story all the more vital for an American audience.
Pixar’s only princess, Merida, is a different kind of pioneer – she’s the first Disney Princess who doesn’t fall in love with a man. It took 75 years, a trip to ancient Scotland, and a different studio, but Brave finally took us to a place where a Disney Princess can fight for herself, and doesn’t need a prince to deliver her Happily Ever After. But did they ever really need that in the first place?
Princesses Are Doing It For Themselves
Disney Princesses are often painted with the ‘damsel in distress’ brush, and scorned for needing a man to rescue them, thus setting a bad example to kids. However, examine the evidence and all of the Disney Princesses are actually surprisingly self-sufficient. Even in the early films, contrived plot devices are the only way to take them down.
Think of Snow White, for example: when left in the forest to die, she finds herself a cosy cottage, installs herself in her new home, and manages quite capably to look after herself AND seven grumpy men. It’s not her fault that she’s given LITERAL POISON and only a gallant prince can save her. She was doing just fine until then. Fortunately, however, Disney soon dropped the ‘poison motif’ in favour of princesses who don’t need true love’s kiss to save their souls.
Beauty and the Beast’s Belle is surprisingly feminist, given that she stars in one of the most romantic fairytales of all. Dreaming of more than a ‘provincial life’ as a housewife, she steadfastly rejects the most handsome – if brutish – man in town, knowing that she deserves more. She craves knowledge and adventure, not a man to subdue her. Although she begins as the Beast’s prisoner, it soon becomes clear that only she has the power to break his curse, and only when she has the chance to fall in love with him of her own free will does she set him free. For once, the prince is at the mercy of the princess.
Pocahontas takes this new trope to the next level, by saving hundreds of men’s lives with her independent thought and strong will. Her romance with John Smith is on her terms, and she quickly asserts herself as the wiser of the two. By being willing to sacrifice her own life to save Smith, she schools two entire armies and stops the bloodshed. Even after all that, she still lets her man drift away overseas to get his wounds healed, knowing that her people need her strong spirit to guide them.
Mulan is one of the most independent princesses of them all – if you can even call her a princess. She’s a warrior, first and foremost. Selflessly taking her father’s place to fight for her country, she defies her submissive upbringing and endures blood, sweat, and tears to earn the respect of her comrades-in-arms. Her romance with Li Shang is just a footnote on her grand achievement of saving China from ruin — it’s even missing in the live-action remake.
Tiana is another princess who shows that finding romance doesn’t have to be the default dream of a Disney heroine. Already self-sufficient, she puts in the work to open her own restaurant, and nearly fulfils this dream completely by herself. Her unintentional amphibian adventure with Prince Naveen only serves to show that she can enjoy a loving relationship as well as achieving her professional goals. When Tiana and Naveen work together to earn the money to fund and build her dream restaurant, Disney shows a princess who goes after her independent ambitions, whose prince’s role is to cheer her on.
All of these princesses pave the way for a new generation who don’t need a love interest at all to make their stories soar. Merida’s whole motivation is to prove that she is perfectly capable of ruling a kingdom alone, and focuses on the bond with her mother instead. Moana bravely sets sail on her own to save her people without so much as a mention of a man – no matter how hard Maui might try to own the story. Elsa’s priority is to learn to love herself and accept the love of her family – while looking fabulous at the same time.
Kindness Conquers All
Princesses can – and should – be strong, independent, and badass, as proven by warriors like Mulan and Merida. However, another quality inherent in Disney Princesses is the ability to overcome adversity with kindness and compassion. Every princess demonstrates this in some form, and it’s what makes them so easy to love.
Cinderella has one of the hardest starts in life of all the princesses. With no parents, she’s forced to serve her ungrateful, vindictive stepmother and stepsisters, with no signs of escape. However, her kind and optimistic spirit shines through the dirt, keeping her motivated every day, and attracting both the Fairy Godmother and the Prince. By not displaying the inner ugliness of her ‘family,’ she is the only one allowed to have her dreams come true.
Belle has every right to hate the Beast, after he literally imprisons her in his castle after terrorising her beloved father. However, her perceptive nature soon makes her realize that the cursed Prince is projecting anger to cover his fear and shame. When she chooses to be compassionate towards him, he reflects the same kindness back, allowing them both to find true happiness in their deep connection with each other.
Similarly to Cinderella, Rapunzel is raised by a mother figure who is determined to take away her self-confidence and joy. However, she never takes this incessant criticism fully to heart, and channels her loneliness into creativity and resourcefulness. While being trapped in her tower, she builds up all the skills she needs to take on the world. Her wide-eyed optimism and compassion are contagious, leading to Flynn Rider – and a whole pub full of drunken thugs – becoming wrapped around her little finger.
Frozen’s Anna is driven solely by compassion for her elder sister. Her determination to find Elsa and reassure her with love and kindness gives Anna the strength she needs to journey across an unforgiving landscape and withstand serious injuries. Her unwavering love for Elsa is the only thing that overcomes the ice queen’s paralysing fear, and literally thaws the kingdom of Arendelle. That’s some strong love.
The People’s Princess
Just take a quick glance at Buzzfeed to see how much Disney princesses have become a daily part of our lives (did you figure out which princess you are based on your favourite cheese?). Most people would be able to name every Disney Princess without a second thought – they’re embedded in our collective pop-culture memory. Even so, a few leading ladies have done more than the rest to remain at the forefront of our minds.
Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora became Walt Disney’s poster princess during his lifetime, due to the film’s influence on the hugely popular Disney parks. Sleeping Beauty’s castle at the original Disneyland in California has been the centrepiece for magical memories for decades, and Aurora’s story has become synonymous with the romance of classic Disney films.
Belle has been a popular princess since her Oscar-winning big-screen debut in 1991. Now she’s found a new generation of fans after feminist icon Emma Watson took on the role in Disney’s highly successful live-action version of Beauty and the Beast in 2017 – the highest-grossing of their live-action remakes unless you count 2019’s CGI-heavy The Lion King. She is the fifth most popular Disney princess according to Fandom’s social audience, with many citing Emma Watson’s updated performance. According to online marketplace eBay, from 2013-2020, she is the third most popular princess in terms of merchandise sold, just behind Cinderella and Snow White.
Rapunzel was the second most popular princess in our social poll, with many fans finding her curious spirit and resilience admirable. However, a big reason for her elevated popularity is due to the 2D-animated Tangled TV series, which has been running since 2017. Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure, which follows Rapunzel’s life after she is reunited with her kingdom at the end of Tangled, is a runaway success, consistently making it into the top 10 searches on Fandom’s Disney community.
Elsa and Moana are also favoured by Fandom’s followers, and their cultural significance can’t be ignored. Following the release of the Frozen in late 2013, over 800,000 pieces of Anna and Elsa merchandise were sold on eBay in 2014, making them the most popular princesses on eBay that year. In 2017, following her rise to fame, Moana merch sales propelled her to the top spot.
Frozen’s mighty success was largely due to an entire generation of kids falling in love with Elsa – particularly her rendition of the anthem “Let It Go.” Similarly, with Moana, there was hardly a family household that didn’t have the soundtrack on repeat for at least three months after her film was released. Happily, these princesses both hold strong values of female power and independence, making them timeless and easy to champion.
However, the most popular princess according to our fans – by quite a margin – was Mulan. Dozens of testimonials praise the warrior princess for her sheer badassery, selflessness in taking her father’s place to fight, and the fact she has to put in the work to earn her own glory. It would seem that Disney’s live-action remake couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
Mulan without question ! She was the first Disney Princess to break stereotypes, proving that women are strong and can be on the same level as men, and she is selfless – risking her life in order to save her farther's.
— Francesco Marsala (@FMars10) August 30, 2020
Mulan, whose nobility in being willing to sacrifice herself to save her father was inspiring
— Sorin (@raindancerzero) August 29, 2020
The Most Important Disney Princess Is…
It’s virtually impossible to compare Disney princesses directly, as they each have their own obstacles, virtues, historical contexts, and dreams. However, after weighing up all of the considerations above, we can reveal that the most important Disney Princess is…
PLOT TWIST — It’s a tie between Mulan and Belle!
Mulan displays the power, strength, independent spirit, and compassion to be an exemplary Disney Princess. She’s a fierce role-model, well ahead of her time, and is proven to be just as relevant and popular today as when she became a legend thousands of years ago.
As for Belle, she’s a truly timeless princess. Even in the romantic, traditional setting of her fairytale, her self-worth, intelligence, and bravery shines through. She won’t settle for anything less than what she’s worth, and finds love on her own terms – qualities that are highlighted even further in her 2017 retelling.
And there you have it. We’d love to say that they all lived happily ever after… but this is one debate that we’re sure won’t be settled any time soon.
Mulan is available on Disney+ from September 4.
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