No coronation in the latest Disney-princess movie Moana happens. Still, the future of the titular princess is insinuated by contemplative shots of Moana staring at an elaborate headdress, the tribal equivalent of a crown, with both trepidation and anticipation. The opening music number has Moana’s father laying down his expectations for her future: she won’t always be the chieftain’s daughter, but she will become the chief of her village. Among her first tasks are discovering solutions for her people’s concerns, including the sea voyage that propels her coming-of-age arc.
I dispute that Moana is not a technical princess, but a chief’s daughter. Of course, Disney has stretched out the Princess identity to mold their heroines into marketability. Mulan, although the daughter of a non-royal warrior, is shoehorned as a “Princess.”
Moana even indulges in a hearty wink at perpetuating the trend. When I saw the movie in a crowded theater of children and parents, I heard a collective of knowing chuckles when Moana’s demigod mentor snarked, you’re the daughter of a chief, wear a pretty dress, have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.
In his video editorial “What’s With the Princess Hate?”, internet critic and comedian Doug Walker explored this princess phenomenon and backlash. As noted by Walker, to be “just a Princess” sets an inherently unfair capstone. Why couldn’t the heroines go any higher than the title, even in cases where a Queen and King are absent from the kingdom? Walker speculated that the prevailing princess title was an attempt to sustain a marketable youthfulness to appeal to Disney’s young female audience. A princess has responsibility, but not too much responsibility. Their likeness could be molded into mass-produced dolls with pretty dresses and colorful wardrobes.
Strangely, the connotation of “Queen” has been laden with negativity, dating back to Snow White’s vain stepmother the Evil Queen. Even in the recent My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon, executives vetoed creator Lauren Faust’s desire to have Equestria ruled by a Queen Celestia and insisted on a Princess Celestia, much to Faust’s confusion.
What also goes unnoticed is the regal double standard: the Disney royal heroes, the Princes, had the privilege of contemplating the heft of kinghood. While Princess Jasmine concerned herself with claiming agency over her matrimony, Aladdin frets about becoming Sultan. Simba achieves ascension to Mufasa’s place on Pride Rock after overthrowing his evil uncle Scar, a-la a Hamlet happy ending. Even in the “more forgettable” category of Disney flicks, The Emperor’s New Groove’s conflict is kicked off when the Emperor Kuzco (look, already a king!) boots the advisor from his royal staff when he realizes she’s running his empire behind his back.
Meanwhile, the idea of Disney heroines receiving queenhood had been a long elusive concept.
To counterpoint the timeworn femininity of the past films, later Disney animated pictures crafted a serviceable progressiveness in the later princesses for modern sensibilities. Ariel pursued her love. Jasmine decided she would marry for love. Belle maintained her self-assertion before the Beast. Tiana balanced her sense of hard work with love.
Even with the changing times, Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora - products of outdated feminine ideals - still radiate with significance. We may have evolved to more feminist mindsets found in the bookish, assertive Belle and the hard-working Tiana, but we value the feminine too. Even while acknowledging their limitations, we can still commend Cinderella for her perseverance, Snow White for her compassionate maternity, Aurora for her sweetness. But from Snow White and Cinderella, to the modern Tiana and Rapunzel, the virtues of these princesses fit the category of a genericized morality and are rarely tied explicitly to the royal responsibilities of delegating and guarding the welfare of their citizens. Perhaps these films never provoked worries about their royal responsibilities because the princesses had been so consistently presented as good-hearted that their people and kingdom would find them amiable. Disney prefers they be remembered—and marketed—in the un-aging immortality of the Princess mantle. This does neglect acknowledging the true weight of managing a kingdom.
While I found Pixar’s 2012 Brave to be underwhelming, I give it credit for this milestone: evoking the subject matter of queenhood. Although the Scottish tomboyish Merida would be famed in the line-up of Disney princess dolls, I found Queen Elinor, Merida’s austere but well-intentioned mother, to be a more compelling royal heroine. Although never stated explicitly, Elinor’s strict parenting was her method of molding Merida into queenly duties. Whether or not the viewer agreed with Queen Elinor’s traditionalist convictions, she had firsthand experience with the weight of trying to quell the chaos within her castle.
Arrive to 2013, the year when “Let it Go” became the definitive ear-worm on the music charts, Princess Elsa stares upon the portrait of her kingly late father with a case of legacy-anxiety (said father resembles the late Walt Disney, subtle). With trepidation, she mimes accepting the royal scepter at her impending coronation, imitating her father’s proper monarch poise. Post-coronation, her repressed ice power breaks loose and she flees her kingdom. She has several psychological motives for abandoning her post: she is terrified, she is ashamed, and she believes her absence spares her people and her sister from her hazardous powers. With her sister’s aid, she does ultimately make a homecoming and returns to her duties as Queen. (Her sister
Princess Anna deserves royal commendation too, since her pursuit of her sister isn’t just out of sorority but also a concern for her freezing people back in the kingdom.)
Moana resumes this refreshing consciousness of royal obligations. It recognizes that Moana shoulders a heavy burden and near the climax of the film, she crumbles beneath the weight of her responsibility. But she rises up and becomes strong enough to carry the power of becoming a savior to her people—and by extension, to the Earth as well.
Unlike Queen Elsa, Moana does not undergo a coronation. She does become a wayfinder for her people to teach them to sail toward the horizon. But even without seeing Moana reach the status of chieftain, the audience understands that she heads a mile closer to her ascension. She does not wear the traditional headdress introduced in the opening, but she does wear a flower wreath, her own crown, suggesting that she both cherishes and transcends her traditions.
Moana reminds us that the Disney heroines—some of royal birth, ordinary bookworms, maidens—should be allowed to outgrow the title of Princess and the limitations instilled upon them.
As Moana sailed forward into the horizon with her people toward an understood ascension, I wondered how the older Princess veterans—like Cinderella, Snow White, Aurora, Belle—fared as rulers. I must have accepted that these Princesses surely grew up to be Queens in an epilogue Disney hid from us.