Here's why it's the end of the Disney princess and the beginning of the Disney queen.
Like a lot of dads, I've been re-watching the last three Disney princess films, Frozen, Brave and Tangled on more or less a constant loop for, oh, my entire parenting career it seems. They're all good flicks that I really do enjoy, and the more I watch them the more I realize that they're way better than the classic or even second wave of princess films because these are really the first movies where the heroines actually, you know, do something.
Let me explain.
In Frozen we have two protagonists, Anna and Elsa.
Anna in some ways fits the typical, romantically-driven character mold of previous films, but for the first time since Sleeping Beauty, the reason actually makes sense. Locked away with absolutely zero emotional warmth, it's only natural, if unfortunate and sad, that she would immediately latch onto the first man who was even a little bit interested in her.
Unlike Aurora, though, Anna is an infinitely more complex young woman who abandons her romantic infatuations the second she gets what she's really in need of — a reconnection with her sister. Sure, her interest in Kristoff steadily builds (as they grow to rely one each other as equals in the adventure I might add), but it's just one facet of her personal growth.
Elsa, by contrast, is on a Hero's (Heroine's) Journey in which she finds self-worth divorced of the opinion of others. She's in many ways seeking the same connection that Anna is, but from a different angle. Anna feels like no one loves her and she doesn't know why, whereas as Elsa feels no one can love her for reasons she's all too aware of. So in a sense it's still a love story, just not a "love story." What's remarkable is that while both of them do eventually succeed with the help of a male sidekick, he's neither the ultimate agent of their victory nor the original catalyst of quest.
Then there's Brave, which a lot of the more conservative commentators didn't enjoy because they saw it as a rejection of marriage entirely.
That's like saying the abolition of slavery was the same thing as denouncing agriculture. There's a difference.
Princess Merida, as the oldest child over toddler triplet brothers, was clearly the first choice of heir to the throne of DunBroch. If you look at it logically she stands to not be a princess at all, but a queen, a trait she shares with both Elsa and Rapunzel. While I'm sure that she felt a typical young person's desire to be with a person of his or her choice and not some sort of parental matchmaker pawn, she also had her future as regent to consider. Allow herself to be wed as part of a Game of Thrones and she limits her own eventual political role as well as upset a delicate triumvirate of her father's feudal lords.
Her response? Shut them all down with a display of physical prowess that none of them could match, circumvent her own mother with sorcery, fight a monster and then ultimately solve the problem with deft diplomatic skills that placated all parties. That's not just riveting cinema, it's valuable job skills for those who hold executive power.
That's the difference in the modern princesses for the most part. Number one, they're all established rulers or in line to be such in their own right and not just as part of a marriage. Second, in all three cases they take steps to cement their own personal worth regardless of romantic context.
Tangled is both the weakest and the strongest example.
Of the three modern princesses, Rapunzel truly needs rescuing, though in her case that "rescue" is accomplished by beating up her hero with a frying pan then blackmailing him into helping her. Still, a rescue is a rescue — and I'll count it.
The important distinction is that she isn't rescued from danger. Rapunzel is arguably physically safer with Mother Gothel than she is at any other point in the movie. Her every whim is catered to except for her freedom, and it's not even the creepy Stockholm Syndrome of Beauty and the Beast. She honestly believes Gothel is her mother, and loves her despite the older woman's crippling behavior.
What Rapunzel wants to be rescued from isn't a dragon or a witch; she wants to be rescued from her unlived life. She's more like a Doctor Who companion than a regular princess (which she doesn't even know she is by the way), and once she's out of the tower she proceeds to guide the journey as much a Flynn does. Even more amazing, the final act of victory is achieved by her because she chooses to do away with the aspect of her appearance that has turned her into an object instead of a person — her hair. That's the message of Tangled, that we are not the playthings of others because of our physical attributes.
And again, as the true heir to the throne who marries a commoner (and judging by her cameo in Frozen, the person chosen for official state visits), it's clear that she can expect to be queen and ruling monarch one day.
It's literally these three characters in Disney princess history, and no one else, that accomplishes this goal.
Don't bring up Jasmine from Aladdin. Later movies make it clear that the Sultan grooms Aladdin for rule over his own daughter, who is relegated to sidekick status. Only in the modern movies do we have not princesses, but queens.
Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle and Ariel were all brave, strong women who faced strange and dangerous odds, and faced them well. I'm not taking anything away from their stories, and I love all their respective films. However, in the end, each one was defined by how acceptable they were to their respective romantic counterparts.
Even more progressive heroines like Pocahontas and Tianna fall short. Pocahontas' contribution to the story is ultimately her willingness to throw herself in front of an executioner's blade for a man. Tianna's entire tale may be about learning that you need love as well as work in your life, with a nice side message of not tying yourself down to your parents' dreams, but upon further watchings it just feels more and more like a lesson out of time.
In a world that still seeks to punish women in industry and beats its breast over the "good old days" when life looked more like an episode of Donna Reed, I don't think reminding girls that they need to still be on the lookout for a husband while pursuing an independent livelihood is all that necessary. In my experience, women that can take care of themselves rarely have trouble finding someone to love and admire them.
It's the ones that can't who often have to settle for second best.