Society's Inner Disney Princess, and a Few Other Reasons We Kind of Suck
You hear it all the time, people asking with a little huff and a swing of their heads: "Why has Disney not given us a princess who does such-and-such, or who is this-and-that?" And to absolutely every one of those questions, my answer is "Maybe you'd be happier if you didn't make upper-class girl archetypes the only characters you care about."
Seriously, what is this fixation our society has on Disney's princesses? We don't do this with any other type of character; you don't see people saying "Why are all of Disney's horse characters bad-tempered?" or "When is Disney going to give us a bear who has his master's degree?" The comparison may seem glib at first, but all things considered, there's no reason that a princess character should be any more relatable to modern middle-class children than any of the more talkative cartoon animals.
More appropriately, perhaps, you don't see anyone saying "I demand that Disney produces a prince character who runs his own business or whatever", because nobody cares about the Disney princes as a group. The general public might be able to name three of them, and only because "Prince Charming" could very well count for two points. Even Belle herself addressed Prince Adam as "Beast" (Yeah, his name's "Adam"; ain't that nuts?). We have the good sense not to shove them down the throats of Disney's boy audience; we let them indulge in Buzz Lightyear, Lightning McQueen, or Iron Man instead of insisting that Disney shows them that a prince can be a space man, a superhero, or a car.
I suspect that one of the biggest lies people tell themselves is that the Disney Princess issue is a feminist one, instead of a vain attempt to reconcile our reluctance to grow with our desire to have grown. To illustrate this concept, I want to explore for a minute Disney's Sleeping Beauty; the title character of this movie is widely regarded to be the least feminist of all the Disney princess, and it's not difficult to see why. She has very little agency, and her main function is to fall asleep and be kissed awake for her arranged marriage. So yes, she's not exactly what you want to see in a main character.
But she is also, quite frankly, not the main character of this movie. It's easy to miss this fact, seeing as how her name is on the piece, but she's no more the hero than the Goblet of Fire or the Prisoner of Azkaban were in their respective books. She's a MacGuffin being shepherded through her destiny by the real heroes: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, those three fairies that nobody remembers. If you don't believe me, watch it for yourself: They're the ones who receive the call to action, they're the ones who struggle through trials and tribulations, they rescue Prince Phillip from his prison cell and even guide his sword in the final battle. This is a trio of powerful, proactive female Disney characters written back in the stupid ages, and nobody gives a fuck about them.
And let's be honest about why nobody gives a fuck: They're not princesses. They're stout, matronly, and dressed like nuns, and as much as folk purport that they want to see more of that in their Disney heroines, folk are liars.
But what is a "princess", exactly? A cursory glance at the Disney line-up shows us that the traditional definition has no bearing; fully three of them are neither daughters of a king nor brides to a prince, but we cram them into the mold because they embody qualities that charge audiences' princess-batteries.
And even then we consistently suffer from something I call "Disney Princess Amnesia". This is a phenomenon I first identified back when Frozen was just starting to irritate the world, and a whole bunch've people online were celebrating that "finally" there was a Disney Princess who was strong, feminist, sexless, or whatever. Let's be frank: Whenever someone said something like that, the Disney princess who won a friggin' war cries a little bit.
(People did the same thing when they celebrated Wonder Woman as the first female superhero movie, but I'll forgive them for not remembering Electra, Catwoman, or half of the X-Men movies.)
A few years later, Moana comes out, and the process started again. I recall reading an article, wherein one of the creators remarks on how Moana is not like the "other" princesses, and is more like the male protagonists in that she's not motivated by trying to get married. I wanted to reach through the article and strangle someone, because going all the way back to 1990, the only protagonist in a Disney-princess-related title whose motivation and happily-ever-after were both marriage is, and you can check this out for yourself, Aladdin.
So, what causes Disney Princess Amnesia? My theory is that audiences' desire for a Disney princess is a desire for a manifestation of everything inside of us that needs to be coddled and validated. It's an insecure inner child and, as much as we want to see it portrayed as a mighty, invincible force of nature, it ceases to function as a surrogate for our frailties the moment it shows strength. Society's inner princess can be built up as "strong" so long as this strength manifests as unpredictable ice-magic that serves as an allegory for a mental or emotional disability, but it can't be permitted to save China through raw grit and ingenuity, because that's something that the grown-ups do. Nor can it be a trio of frumpy but phenomenally powerful eldritch beings from beyond.
When people insist on tying the Disney Princess issue with feminism, I am reminded of a story told to me by a friend of mine. She was involved in a fantasy role-playing game, where she chose to create for herself a male character. This confused other players in the game, despite the fact that many of them were male players who created female characters for themselves. Out of some bizarre sense of feminism, a cast of fantasy women (played by men) ended up shunning a fantasy man (played by a woman) for what they claimed was brash and misogynistic behavior, none of which was informed by her actual roleplay.
Though I can't claim to have personally witnessed what happened in this game, I'm inclined to see this story as a prime example of how one's fixation for her (or indeed his) inner Disney princess can easily eclipse the concern for actual women's issues they may be purporting. It's a wider problem that probably taints more of our culture than we care to admit. Until such a time as we can be more aware of it and better come to grips with what our inner Disney princess means, perhaps it's a good idea to relax a bit about the actual Disney princesses up on the big screen; they were created for an audience of fragile, frightened children, after all, and these children need fragile, frightened protagonists they can relate to in order to help them grow up to be more well-adjusted than some of us apparently turned out to be.