so here is the thing about ariel, is that she always dreams of being on land with feet, is explicitly canonically unhappy with her body & choices way before meeting prince eric. ariel wants to read and learn and dance and stand for herself. she has this extensive meticulous collection of all the shit she wants to learn, and king triton destroys it. so she is essentially, i think, moving from a male-dominated space in which her safe personal spaces are negated and her opinions and desires are dismissed to one in which she shares power and is (LITERALLY!!!!) given free reign. like, prince eric is essentially a narrative device allowing ariel to choose her own future & self. if she can make him fall in love with her, she can stay NOT ONLY with him BUT ALSO on land, where she has always wanted to belong, notably away from her father— who ok, is frightened for her safety, but who also terrorizes and belittles her.
and yeah, she exchanges her voice to make that transition, but those are the choices marginalized people are forced to make. this is how identity works in structural oppression— ok, you can have the body you want and live with the lover you choose, but you give up some of your rights. you give up some of your social respect. you give up your voice. (whoops i queered it.)(and ariel still is never without personal expression; on her day out with eric, they do straight up everything she wants and eric is totally cool with her being in charge. JSYK.)
and ariel’s voice is meant to be not only her communication but also her beauty— how many times under the sea did we hear TRITON’S SILVER-VOICED DAUGHTER, like she was corralled and praised explicitly (solely!) because of her singing ability, to the point where her reaction to giving up her voice was not “how will i communicate” but “why would he love me.” wow!!! children’s texts about the social valuation and manipulation of women’s bodies!!!! and the little mermaid is explicitly about the bargains ruthless precious ariel chooses to make in order to get what she has always wanted— feet and freedom. she doesn’t change her body for a man; she changes it for herself.
and while we should mention about how the structural progression of beauty & the beast is deeply fucked up, belle gets the fuck out of the castle until the beast changes his behavior to her and, like ariel, negotiates for authority in a space where her desire for knowledge is celebrated and supported. you’ll remember she was otherized & mocked in the village whereas the beast a) gave her a library and b) did everything she ever said ever. (i also think it’s relevant to talk about classism in beauty & the beast, like belle is all GUYS I READ THIS BOOK and they’re like GIRL WE HAVE SHIT TO DO.) in the village she was relegated to the women’s spaces which consisted of STOP READING, GET MARRIED, REPRODUCE, like you have to be practical and useful and obedient to be a Good Woman
and her choice still entails marriage, but marriage which is not a domestication but rather an avenue to social and personal power. people forget that belle is just as wild and selfish and opinionated as the beast is; she is also an outcast. and yes, the plotline can support a romanticizing of abusive relationships, a social narrative of good women making bad men better, i am not arguing that it’s not thematically fucked up. the story, following the fairytale, focuses on the beast’s ~transformation~, but belle also changes; this is also a story about two people society has deemed monsters recognizing each other’s worth and beauty and learning to be tender to each other and to accept affection themselves. i don’t think it’s very helpful, in analyzing this story, to reduce it to good-woman-makes-bad-man-better without examining the woman as a character herself and what she gets out of it. belle is not your plot device. all of belle’s decisions in this movie are based on what she wants and values. she’s not here to redeem anybody.
jasmine is sort of an outlier in that her movie is not actually about her! this is disney’s first movie aBOUT a BOY?!?!? and so like yes, obviously, in the film ALADDIN, we focus on… aladdin… and the thematic and narrative climaxes are based on aladdin’s character and choices. but that does not inherently mean that jasmine is abused by the narrative. i also think it’s really relevant first to talk about the ways that she’s exotified— jasmine, disney’s first woc princess, has a gendered oppression more linked with her specific culture than any white princess’ gendered oppression of equal or greater value. that’s not okay. and jasmine’s personal sub-arc is primarily about the way that she is valued for her sexuality and the way that she argues for and regains control of herself as sexual being.
jasmine is one of the least passive princesses of the entire disney canon, y’all. the entire plot is set in motion when jasmine runs away because she doesn’t want to marry any of her current options, and she comes back when that goes to shit, but she’s still not willing to obey anyone. this super hotcake prince ali comes into town and she’s like you’ve got the moves, but have you got the touch???, and it turns out he does!, and she’s real into it so she’s like welp get ready to be the sultan and aladdin is like hey to the what, but jasmine’s made up her mind. jafar tries to hypnotize her into loving him and she uses his conception of her sexuality against him. she straight up femme fatales him. she is not some prize to be won.
it is jasmine alone who bestows political power: jasmine may not be able to inherit or rule alone, but she will rule, and she is determined to choose herself with whom. her personal sexual authority and political authority are inextricably linked, of which she and the movie are both cognizant. it’s fucked up, especially within the context of all the white princesses, that her body is so explicitly commodified. but that doesn’t negate her authority over her body and the way she weaponizes it. and there’s a lot of ~feminist criticism~ that’s like JASMINE TEACHES WOMEN THAT THEY’RE ONLY VALUABLE FOR THEIR SEXUALITY, but i think feminist criticism is also examining the ways women find power in their social spaces, the ways they express or attain their own desires by manipulating their contexts. jasmine also teaches women that they are in charge of their sexuality, that their bodies are theirs alone.
which is all to say, there is a lot of feminist criticism to be made of the disney princesses, but that’s not where feminist analysis has to end. these are still children’s movies about women’s choices, y’all. there are not a lot of those these days.